This, I believe, is the 50th blog in this series, so I thought I would review, to the best of my memory, some of books I have read over my lifetime.  I have always had books at home.  Being I was a history major in undergraduate and graduate school (not counting MSLS degree) and history is a reading intensive subject, my education brought me in contact with even more books.
Like me, Emily Dickinson loved books and even wrote a poem about them:

There is no Frigate like a Book

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –
                                        EMILY DICKINSON
 I do not recall what my parents read to me before I could read.  Babar is the first character in book I can remember.  Enid Blyton, who was a famous author of children’s adventure stories in Great Britain, had published six of the “Famous Five” series by the time I left Scotland in 1948. I think I had read them all.
When we moved to Memphis in 1949, one the first things my mother did was to visit the old Cossitt Library downtown to get us both a library card.     There I discovered Joseph Altsheler, who wrote a number of series of historical novels for what we now call middle school boys. (I was delighted to discover Altsheler’s books are still available in either paperback or Kindle editions from Amazon.)  As a sixth grader and on into junior high I read his books and a series of biographies of famous baseball players and managers and other sports figures.   In fiction my choice was also sports including John Tunis, who wrote about all sports, not  just basketball, baseball, and football.
In high school and college I had little time for pleasure reading, but when I did, I read Leon Uris, James Jones, and James Michener each of whom wrote historical novels, some based on their experiences in World War II.  Meantime, in classes, I was introduced to a number books I still have in my personal library:  The Tennessee: the Old River by Donald Davidson, which I had to read for class in Tennessee History;  and  Mont Saint Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams, which was required reading for Medieval History.  A graduate reading course in Southern history made me familiar with William Faulkner’s  Absalom, Absalom!, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, and Eugene Genovese’s powerful study of the world slaves lived in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made.    For other classes I read Nixon Agonistes by Gary Wills and The Quiet American by Graham Greene.
In the mid-1970s a colleague introduced me to a genre of fiction that has given me pleasure ever since:  the mystery.  In this vein, I just learned that one of favourite mystery writers, Ruth Rendell, died last May.   She was equally at home with psychological mysteries or police procedural  novels.  In fact, her Inspector Wexford series was adapted for television.   Anne PerryTess Gerritsen, Rhys  Bowen, Jacqueline Winspear, and, of course Agatha Christie, are a just a few of my favourite mystery authors.
Mysteries are my habitual fiction reading tastes.  In non-fiction I tend to read military (mainly Civil War, WWI and WWII) history and biography.  Such interests have seeped through onto this blog.  See, for example, previous  blogs on Shelby Foote, Winston Churchill, and John Keegan.  During the last few years, when I’ve evidently have had more time,  I have read and am reading multi-volume works such as Foote’s The Civil War, Douglas Southall Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants: a Study in Command, Rick Atkinson’s The Liberation Trilogy,  about the American army in North Africa and Europe, Volumes 1 and 2 of Ian W, Toll’s in progress Pacific War Trilogyand Carl Sandburg’s massive biography of Abraham Lincoln, The Prairie Years and The War Years.
About fifteen years ago, I decided to keep a log showing what I had read and the date I finished the book.   Beginning in 2002, I have, on my computer, a complete list of books I have read each year.  I also keep a record of the number of pages in each volume so I can see how many pages I have read.  (BWT: I don’t tell my wife because she thinks I read too much already!)  That came in handy a few years ago when a friend accused me of reading nothing but boring history books, I could tell that person that over the past few years I had read fiction and non-fiction equally.   And I plan on doing that as long I can read!

15 Movies With People Maybe You Didn’t Know Were In Star Wars

A cameo in a movie is when someone of note has a short appearance in the film. This might be a well known actor, or a real life celebrity playing themselves, or perhaps the art director of the movie. I mention this because I see the term misused a lot these days. For example, several actors from the Game of Thrones series had parts in the newest Star Wars film, but these were not cameos. They were parts they were cast for.

I’m not going to talk about cameos here, but about actors that you may not have realized appeared in one of the Star Wars films. These were usually early roles for them, before they gained any fame of their own. Heck, most of the main cast were far from famous at the time. Plus I’ll give you some recommendations for later movies they were more prominently featured in.

Wrong kind of cameo.
Wrong kind of cameo.

Richard Armitage (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace)

This was his first movie role, playing a Naboo fighter pilot. He would go on to find a lot of success on British television before making his way back into movies.

He starred as Thorin Oakenshield in the recent Hobbit films.

Rose Byrne (Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones)

Now here is someone who has been in a wide range of movies! One of her early roles was that of Dormé, one of Senator Amidala’s handmaidens.

It is hard to pick just one, but hey, I like zombies, so 28 Weeks Later. And if don’t think that is a zombie movie, we need to talk.

Sofia Coppola (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace)

The daughter of esteemed director Francis For Coppola is an esteemed director herself, being the third woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for directing. She appears as Saché, one of Queen Amidala’s handmaidens. (Her brother Roman also appears as a security officer.) Sure, she was a known commodity before Star Wars, but not as an actress.

She wrote and directed Lost in Translation, winning an Oscar for the screenplay.

Young Anakin

Tony Cox (Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi)

At 3’6″ it is no surprise that he played an Ewok. He also appeared in the made-for-tv follow up Caravan of Courage, and had a bit part in the spoof Spaceballs.

I liked him in Oz the Great and Powerful.

Joel Edgerton (Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones)

Something that sets him apart a bit from the rest on this list is that he played a known character, that being the younger version of Luke’s Uncle Owen. Owen was played by Phil Brown in the original Star Wars. Brown had a very interesting career, notably to having been blacklisted.

He was also in 2015’s The Gift, a movie I dismissed after not being impressed by the trailer, but one that received positive reviews and is now on my list to watch.

Sally Hawkins (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace)

Hmm, her character doesn’t even rate a name, simply being listed a “villager”. This was her first movie, and since then she has had quite a career. I suspect it has been a better one than you might realize.

She earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine.

Proof of alien life?
Proof of alien life?

Keira Knightley (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace)

She played Sabé, a decoy of Queen Amidala. She was cast (it was her second movie ever) due to a physical similarity to Natalie Portman. Being a decoy, they often wore the same outfits, and the word from the set is that their own mother’s had trouble telling them apart at times. I would put forth that she has had the most success of anyone on this list post Star Wars, both commercially and critically.

I finally got around to watching her in Atonement, which is a favorite book of mine. A worthy adaptation, and yes, the green dress is amazing.

John Ratzenberger (Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back)

A few years before making it big on television he had a small part as Major Bren Derlin, a rebel officer. He has a couple of lines, and that moustache is easy to spot once you know to look for it.

Nowadays he may be best known for his prolific voice acting in Pixar movies, but let us never forget that place where everyone knows your name: Cheers.

Peter Serafinowicz (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace)

For the most part I haven’t taken voice acting into consideration, but I’m making an exception here for two reasons. One, he voiced (amongst other characters) Darth Maul, which is noteworthy. Two, he was in Shaun of the Dead. Unrelated, I tend to confuse him with Peter Sarsgaard for no discernible reason.

Come at me, bro.
Come at me, bro.

Dominic West (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace)

Yes, I realize most of these come from one movie, but that is just the way the casting went. You all can deal with it. West played a palace guard, so not too exciting there.

His best claim to fame may have come from playing a detective on The Wire, but I am going to mention 300 instead. Just because. And before you get excited about seeing his abs, he played Theron, the treacherous politician. Sorry.

Treat Williams (Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back)

I think this is a prime example of what I am talking about. He had two minor roles in the movie, as a rebel trooper and a Cloud City guard. He might now have the most credits to his of anyone in this post (so far), with over 115.

One of the more celebrated movies he was in is Once Upon a Time in America.

And now for some bonus listings, ones that didn’t really fit in but I still think are nifty.

Daniel Craig (Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens)

His was a true cameo role, although it initially went largely unnoticed since you never see his face. He plays the stormtrooper that Rey Jedi mind tricks.

He has had some noteworthy films since then. The first one I remember seeing his in was Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. I have a story about his shower scene in that one.


James Earl Jones (Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope)

What is there to say about the voice of Darth Vader? What is interesting is that his initial work only took a few hours. Lucas offered him points, but Jones insisted on being paid in cash. He wasn’t alone in doubting in this film, but the $7000 he got then pales in comparison to what he could have received in the long run.

He was in several Jack Ryan movies, like the The Hunt for Red October, opposite a couple different Jack Ryan’s.

Billie Lourd (Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope)

She played Lieutenant Connix, appearing in several scenes and getting some dialogue. In time she may well fit right into this list, as this was her first movie. You may also have seen her on the wickedly delightful show Scream Queens. In that show her character always wore earmuffs. Which makes sense once you learn that she is Carrie Fisher’s daughter.


Well, that brings us to the end. I won’t asked if you learned anything, because that wasn’t the point. The point was to entertain, and to maybe help you find some new good films to watch, or old favorites to revisit. Your feedback is appreciated. Oh, and if you haven’t already, check out my post about Star Wars books.









#Selfie: Because Sometimes the Most Interesting Thing in My Life is Me

#Selfie – The kitty does not approve.

A “selfie,” for the uninitiated, is a “self-portrait photograph.” This seemingly innocuous, yet somehow  ire-inspiring, social phenomenon/trend shows no signs of reversing: estimates range from over one million selfies a day to 93 million selfies taken everyday worldwide.

While selfies are generally held as an indicator of “millennial narcissism,” it’s always fun and interesting to see the “purpose-driven selfie” or how people use this particular format for self-expression as a tool for a larger purpose.

Selfies for Science:

Selfies for Art:

Selfies for… uh… Simian Rights?

Support your Library with a Shelfie:

A “shelfie” is a picture of your bookshelf or a picture of yourself with a bookshelf, say… at your public library, for example!

(find Fontana Regional Library on Facebook and Twitter)

And sometimes sad to see the consequences of selfies-gone wrong, as in the case of an Instagram (IG) Model whose selfie-obsessed lifestyle was making her miserable. Essena didn’t just delete her social media accounts and shrink from the internet (at least not initially – Essena O’Neill Quits the Internet Once & For All); she  was inspired to take a stand and reveal the truth— seeing shouldn’t be believing. Those people who always take perfect selfies of their perfect lives? They probably spend tons of time (and storage space on their phones) getting that one, perfect picture. And that quest for perfection takes its toll.

Selfies Gone Wrong:

I don’t think the whole selfie-situation is an indictment on millennials. While technically a millennial myself, I wasn’t born with a smartphone in my tiny, toddler hands. But I do remember a fascination with photo booths and tables/kiosks where you could get t-shirts and hanging wall calendars with your photo printed on them. Those little photo-strips (multiple pictures of yourself in slightly varied poses) could even be found in my dad’s,  who is firmly in baby boomer territory, photo album. “Selfies” are a cheaper, easier extension of that, so it seems unsurprising that selfies have exploded. We’ve always been self-obsessed— now it’s just easier than ever!

Even the potential 2016 presidential candidates are selfie-ing: Bernie Sanders’ campaign invites you to “Support Bernie with your Selfie“—


Advice for selfies? Like anything else: think twice, do once— once a day, tops!

What are your thoughts on selfies? Is it an exercise in narcissism? Have you seen or undertaken any cool or inspiring projects using selfies?




A Guide To Reading

Did anyone ever teach you how to read? Not the actual art of deciphering words on a page, but as in what books you should read when and things like that? Well, this isn’t that kind of guide. This is more of a tips and tricks sort of thing. I think many of us aren’t honest about our reading habits. We think we have to finish a book once we’ve cracked the cover. We think we have to read a book just because someone said we needed to. And we certainly will never admit to not having even tried reading Moby Dick or War and Peace.

I will admit it. I have never read Moby Dick or War and Peace. See? That wasn’t so hard. And I suspect my poll numbers didn’t really drop much with that revelation. Reading makes us put on airs and masks, just like many other things in life do. We all want people to think we just read classics and critically acclaimed award winners, but the bestseller lists tell a different story.

woman reading book
Reading: it’s not new.

Look, I know that many of you don’t need me to tell how to conduct your reading business, but I have learned a thing or two in my day, and maybe someone out there will benefit from this wisdom. Or better yet, someone out there will find a new book they like. For those who at the end find this to have been a waste of time, I recommend you try a good book instead next time.

Try popular books and series

Maybe that seems too obvious?  A good way to find something new for you to read is simply see what is popular. I have done that with several series, with mixed results.

Janet Evanovich’s One for the Money (Stephanie Plum series). I loved this book, and liked the next dozen or so well enough. The lack of resolution of the love triangle and repetitive plot elements means I haven’t read the last few, but overall a success for me.

Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons (Robert Langdon series). Read this during my first visit to Franklin (where I now reside), but that is neither here nor there. I liked it okay, but haven’t gotten around to reading anymore of his.

Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Left Behind (Left Behind series). I thought the concept was really intriguing, but for me the writing itself fell short. I made it into the third book before giving up.

Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Millennium series). I enjoyed this trilogy. Could have used a little tighter editing perhaps, but with Larsson having passed away I understand the difficulties there. I haven’t read the new one, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, by David Lagercrantz yet. Someone let me know if it is worth a go.

Give up on books (and admit failure)

If you aren’t enjoying the book you are reading, then stop reading it. I think this is a skill we have to learn, the ability to put aside a book (or series) you have started. If you must know how it turns out, skip to the end or find a summary online.

There are all sorts of reasons not to like books. You might not like the writing style, or the genre, or the content, or whatever. That is okay. I was reading a fantasy series some years ago, an epic six book thing. I do not recall who the author was off the top of my head, but that isn’t important. The thing was that I was three books in and wasn’t having any fun. The hero was kind of a jerk, and then actually switched sides, making it hard to root for him. What I realized it was missing was comic relief. That series was desperate for humor.

So own up to it, especially if it is a classic or something recommended to you. If you came up to me in the library and said “put one of your favorite books in my hand” I might give you, say, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Perhaps once you were reading it you might say to yourself “ye gods, what dreck. There are like 80 ways I don’t like this book.” If that were the case, then you should stop reading it and come back and ask for something else. I would not be offended.

Yeah, this one isn’t a keeper.

Come to terms with not reading everything

This is a big one. No one can read all the books (although I do know someone who read 300 in a single year). And most of us haven’t read all of the books everyone is “supposed” to read. You know, those books on the required reading lists you get in school. Spoiler alert: those lists change over time.

Time for an experiment. I just now did a Google search for books everyone should read, and this was the first result. Only 30 books on there, so give me a moment to count how many I have read. Processing your results…15! I’ve read exactly half. Interesting list, with a mix of genres and newer and older books. Some that I haven’t read: Little Women (maybe wrong demographic here, although I did just read Jane Eyre a couple years back), The Book Thief (newer book I haven’t gotten around to yet), A Tale of Two Cities (I haven’t read any Dickens ever), and The Color Purple (which I started years and years ago but couldn’t get into).

Classics for a reason

I am mildly fascinated with what qualifies a book to be considered a classic. This is a topic that many people more learned than me have tackled. The point here is that a lot of these books are considered classics for a reason. Hmm, that sounds like a future blog post in and of itself. You might find it worthwhile to give some of the ones you haven’t read a shot. Or to revisit ones you read before, like in school, and didn’t care for back then.

I first read To Kill A Mockingbird in 10th grade, and it didn’t make much of an impression on me. I read it again maybe 15 years later and was like, oh, this is probably the best book ever. On a side note, for a book that is about pretty common things, it has an unusual quality that sets it apart. I have on more than one occasion had a patron clamoring for something like it, only to disappoint them with the news that there is nothing else like it.

Another example is The Catcher in the Rye, which I’ve read twice, probably about 20 years apart. I liked it the first time, and found that it totally held up the second time.

Don’t be embarrassed by what you are reading

Romance novels are enormously popular (and come in many varieties and genres), but some people are embarrassed to be seen reading them. Teens can sometimes see reading as an undesirable activity, and might not want to be seen with a book in hand. I myself find that when someone asks me what I’m reading it is never when I am enjoying something like Lord of the Flies, but always when it is a Dungeons & Dragons novel, or maybe an X-men graphic novel.

That shouldn’t make a difference, but we let it. I should certainly know better, as my mother taught me that reading was the important thing, regardless of what it was. A nice perk of reading on a tablet or other device is that no one needs to know what it is. Embarrassment can be hard to overcome, but there are tactics and techniques you can use to keep the reading train rolling.

reading on the fire escape
You can always read in private, too.

Read before you criticize

Let us be honest here. There are bad books out there. But poorly written, cliche ridden tripe can still be popular (just like with movies). We might like to bash these books, but to be fair you might want to give it a read first. This first occurred to me several libraries ago, when the branch I worked at put on a huge Harry Potter event for, IIRC, the third book (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, so 1999 I guess). There was a small but vocal group of protesters outside, and in the newspaper article about it one of theses objectors admitted to not having read any of the books.

That got me thinking, and while we can certainly rely on reviews and word of mouth to give us an idea of the quality of a book, sometimes I have decided to give a maligned book a read before offering my opinion on it. I’ll give you two examples.

Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer. A massively popular book (and series) that has generated a lot of discussion. I finally gave it a try, and found it to be okay. Decently written, but short on plot and action. I mean the big vampire throwdown at the end happens off page! But not a bad read, and certainly more appealing for those in certain demographics. I felt no need to read the others, especially considering the feedback I had received on them from trusted sources. Plus the whole love affair between a teenager and a 100+ year old dude icked me out a bit.

Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James. When this series became a big sensation a couple years ago I decided to give it a shot and judge for myself. (The fact that it started out as Twilight fanfiction is coincidental, I assure you.) I made it about two thirds of the way through the first book before giving up. The sexual content didn’t concern me much (and in fact I found it tamer than some things you see in other bestsellers), but the writing did. Holy crap is that book poorly written, at least in my opinion.

Read bad books for fun sparingly

I had to stage an intervention on my wife, who had fallen into the habit of reading bad young adult novels and talking about them on Goodreads. It is perfectly fine to read a bad book now and again, and I suspect we have all enjoyed a bad book before. but there are limits! They will bum you out and bring you down. Moderation in all things! Oh, and if you enjoy a book that others think is terrible, that is perfectly fine. Happens all the time.

That is not my bookshelf, but I have read some of the books that are on it.

Create your own book club 

My wife and I did this a few years back as a way to both read some of the books we had never gotten around to and also to be able to talk to each other about our reading more. It worked well enough for awhile. We found a recommended reading list we liked (alas, I can no longer find it online, though I have printed copies), and we would round up two copies of a book on it to read at the same time. We didn’t get too far, as we don’t always read at the same pace and things like that. But it was fun, pointed us to good books (like Atonement), and is something that is easy to do with family or friends.

We also held our First Annual Bad Book Contest, where we each submitted what we thought was one of the worst books we had ever read. I entered Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, by Philip Athans, and she chose Hush, Hush, by Becca Fitzpatrick. Let me just say there were no winners, and no Second Annual Bad Book Contest. (Hush, Hush, by the way, is a fairly popular series, and was even optioned as a movie, although that project has since been cancelled. When people ask me for the book I get it for them without providing any commentary about it.)

Genre bingo

A nifty way to find new kinds of books, detailed in a previous blog post. I’ll have a follow up post once I hit bingo on one of my cards. Getting close!

Message in a bottle
Some reading should be prioritized.


Two weeks ago I started reading a paperback, and managed to lose it. I therefore needed a new book, and at my house there are plenty of options. Stacks of pages just waiting for my attentions. So, at the advice of my wife, I made a list of them and chose which one I would read at random, via a roll of the dice. Or die, actually. A single d20 did the trick. The winner was All Other Nights, by Dara Horn. I’ll let you know later how it turns out.

Blind recommendations and curated lists

This one is a bit scarier, especially if you the person you ask isn’t familiar with your reading preferences and habits. What you do is ask someone to stick a book in your hand, and that is what you read. I’ve had really good luck with it myself, but I can see how it might go bad. Alternatively, there are tons of recommended and suggested reading lists out there you can use to find books to read, especially if you are looking for books similar to ones you’ve already read. As always, your local friendly library can help with this.

Bringing books home

Finally, a word of caution. I used to bring home all sorts of stray books, thinking I would get around to reading them. I eventually learned to be more discerning with the strays I picked up (or bought at the used bookstore), as some of the books languished unread for years, and others I would try to force my way through under the misguided notion that I “had” to read it.

You don’t want to be the one who chose…poorly. On a related note, you have to learn to let books go. Unless you have an actual home library

Home library
(Which I don’t)

you probably find yourself short on shelf space. Instead of trying to cram yet another bookshelf in maybe you need to lighten the load on the shelves you already have. Acknowledge that some of those books you will never read, or, something I was guilty of, that you won’t ever get around to re-reading them. Keep the ones you will read, and the ones you truly love, and the ones you use for reference, and the ones you just like having on your shelf. I bet you’ll still find plenty to take to the used book store, on put out in the garage sale, or perhaps donate to the library (which will then probably give them to the library’s used book store).

Well, that wraps up this meandering essay. Let me know what things you have learned during your reading escapades!

Murder Mysteries Set on Trains

Before the advent of automobile and air travel, railroads were the way travel long distances.  As early as the mid-1860s, both coasts in the United States were joined by rail.  By the 1930s, railway travel brought cities closer together both in America and Europe and had a certain romance to it.  At the same time motion pictures were gaining in popularity, so it did not take long for trains to find their way to the big screen and attract the attention of movie directors such as Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock directed two motion pictures set at on trains:  The Lady Vanishes and Strangers on a Train.  In the first movie, based on Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins (Not available on Cardinal*), the plot centers around a elderly English lady disappearing off a train in Central Europe in the time leading up to World War II.   The setting is in a small fictional country in Central or Eastern Europe with a dictatorial government.   A British agent on the train must get a message back to London.

The idea of switching murders with a complete stranger is the plot twist behind Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel Strangers on a Train, made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock.  Imagine meeting a stranger on a train, or anywhere else for that matter; having a conversation about people you know you would like to see dead.  Then the other person suggest you murder his person and he kill yours.  That’s what happens to Guy Haines when he meets  up with Charles  Anthony Bruno in Patricia Highsmith’s story and Alfred Hitchcock’s film. (spoilers ahead)  As usual, there are differences when a book is brought to the screen.  For example, Bruno (Robert Walker) murders Guy’s estranged wife on page 81, while in the movie that happens near the end.  Another example is Guy(Farley Granger)’s occupation; in the book, he is an architect and the movie, a professional tennis player.  Additionally, in the movie,  to get past the censors of the 1950s, Guy has to double-cross Bruno and not kill Bruno’s father, like he does the book.  In the book and the movie, Bruno eventually dies.   In the former, guilt overtakes Guy and he turns himself in.

Agatha Christie wrote three mysteries set on trains, two featuring her Belgian detective Hercule Poirot,  the most famous of which is Murder on the Orient Express.   Poirot is traveling on the Orient Express from Istanbul back to England, when the train gets stuck in a snowdrift in Yugoslavia.   An American passenger is murdered and as there are no police on the train Poirot is charged with solving the case.  What he discovers is the victim was traveling using an assumed name and is wanted for a ghastly crime back in the States.  The other passengers in the coach, despite their varied nationalities all seem to have a connection that crime.   The story was made into a movie in 1974, starring Albert Finney as Poirot and an all-star cast.   Masterpiece Mystery had a better version (in my opinion) as a part of a tv series, with David Suchet as the Belgian detective.

The 4:50 from Paddington, which was filmed as Murder She Said, has Jane Marple doing the sleuthing.    In the  book a friend of Miss Jane Marple witnesses a murder on a passing train, but when she reports crime to the authorities, she is not believed.   The two women figure out the body must have been dumped off the train at some point.  Miss Marple figures out where and hires a young woman to take a position at a nearby estate to search for the body.  (In the movie version, Miss Marple sees the murder and does the investigation herself.)  The body is discovered and New Scotland Yard is called in and the investigation broadens geographically.  Needless to say, Miss Marple helps the police find the murderer.  As usual with Christie stories, red herrings abound!

A favorite plot of mystery  and screen writers is to combine murder mysteries set on trains with stolen jewels.  Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes movie, Terror in the Night, is one of these; Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train is another. In the former, based on parts of number Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories,  Holmes is hired to protect a valuable jewel while he, the owner and her son ride the train overnight in England.  The son is murdered and the jewel stolen.  The murderer has a number of tricks up his (gender neutral)  sleeve to throw the famous detective of the scent, but in the end Holmes prevails.

The Blue Train, or the train Bleu, ran from Calais on French coast of  the English Channel to Nice on the Riviera.  It was the train very wealthy traveled on to winter on the Riviera.  In this story, Poirot faces a radically different puzzle that he tried find the solution to on the Orient Express.  The basic plot concerns Rufus Van Aldin, who gives his daughter, Ruth Kettering,  an expensive jewel.  As she travels on the Blue Train, she is found murdered and the jewel is missing.  As usual in Christie’s stories, people are not always who or what they first appear to be.

In Paula Hawkins recent best-selling novel Girl on a Train, the chief character commutes to London on a train that goes past the house where she used to live with her ex-husband.  The train always has to stop behind one of the neighboring houses and one day she notices the woman who lives there with a different man.  A few days later, reads in a newspaper that woman has disappeared and she goes to the police.  When they don’t believe her, she gets more involved in the case, bringing her ex and his current spouse into the plot.    Without giving the plot away, let’s say the chief character has issues.  I’ll bet this one makes to it to the big screen as well.

*Available from Amazon in the Kindle format




We Hardly Read You: Authors We Lost In 2015

As this year ends I thought I would write about some of the authors who passed away this year. Now I don’t want to bum anyone out here. We want to celebrate these writers and then maybe read some of their books. I will, however, link their names to news about their passing if you wish to learn more.

There are a lot of authors in the world, and I’m sure there are plenty of others that perhaps deserved mention here. This is not meant to be an inclusive list, so if you see someone I left out please talk about them in the comments, and maybe point to which of their books we should take a look at.

I also had to decide in what order to do this list. My first thought was to be random, but I do not have my dice with me (and I am willing to bet a lot of money and/or chocolate that I have more dice than you do). Chronological would work, but my list isn’t currently in that order and that would mean more work, so alphabetical it is. Here we go!

Snowman with hat and scarf
A happy snowman. We have to keep the cheer level up in this blog.

Stephen Birmingham, American author of nonfiction, mostly about the wealthy, notably those of ethnicity. He also wrote some novels along these lines. America’s Secret Aristocracy is one of the former, and The Auerbach Will one of the latter.

Michael Blake, American author. Also an Academy Award winner, for the adapted screenplay for the movie Dances With Wolves. This was after he wrote the novel Dances With Wolves, of course. 

Marcia Brown, American writer and illustrator of children’s books, and winner of three(!) Caldecott Medals. She was born in Rochester, New York, where I once lived, but I suppose that is irrelevant. Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper was one of her award winners.

Vincent Bugliosi, American attorney and nonfiction writer. As a Deputy District Attorney he successfully prosecuted Charles Manson. Later he coauthored (with Curt Gentry) the stranger-than-fiction account of that case, the chilling Helter Skelter. Way back before my library days I had a coworker who was too scared to read this on his own, so every day when I came in to work I had to recap my reading for him.

Ivan Doig, American author. Most of his books were set in his native Montana, as he brought his own voice to American Western literature. He also penned a couple of memoirs. The Bartender’s Tale sounds like a good read based on the title alone.

Happy girl
I don’t know who this kid is but she sure is happy!

Dorothy Butler, New Zealand children’s writer and reading advocate. She wrote both for kids and for parents trying to get their kids to read. She was made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for her efforts. Her Babies Need Books is used by library staff to help plan programs. My Brown Bear Barney is one of her picture books.

Ellen Conford, American writer of children’s and young adult books. She won numerous awards and had several of her books adapted into television specials. A Job for Jenny Archer starts off an eight book series.

Wes Craven, American film director. Yes, Craven is famous for the many horror movies he did such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, but he also took a crack at writing. Fountain Society is part medical thriller, part conspiracy story, and part ghost story.

Peter Dickinson, English writer of children’s books, detective books, and poetry. Not everyone can say that! He won two Carnegie Awards, was a finalist for the Hans Christian Andersen Medal. Try his James Pibble series, starting with The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest.

E. L. Doctorow, American writer of historical fiction. He was also an editor and professor, and won more awards than he had books. You can’t really go wrong reading any of his. Billy Bathgate is one of his most celebrated works.

Happy flowers.

Wayne Dyer, American self-help writer and speaker. Dyer’s book sales are in the tens of  millions. His debut, Your Erroneous Zones, has sold an estimated 35 million copies by itself. That puts him in some pretty exclusive company.

Joseph Girzone, American author and Catholic priest. His best known work is the Joshua series, which reached ten volumes. After initially selling his books out of the trunk of a car, he ultimately reached sales numbering in the millions.

Tom Koch, American comedy writer. He wrote for MAD magazine for almost 40 years. Oh yes, they still print MAD, and yes, you can get it from the library. He also wrote for television and radio.

Tanith Lee, British writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. She wrote over 90 novels, plus assorted other things. She was the first woman to win the British Fantasy Award for a novel, and she received numerous other nominations and awards. She often did dark spins on fairy tales, such as this variation on Snow White: White As Snow.

Pedro Lemebel, Chilean writer. Surely not as well known in these parts as some of the others, but I think a lot of lists could be improved with the addition of gay Chilean writers. Try his My Tender Matador, translated by Katherine Silver.

Scrambles was a happy kitty.

Colleen McCullough, Australian writer. Her second book, The Thorn Birds was not only an international bestseller but also was adapted into one of the most popular television miniseries of all time. She did so much research for her Masters of Rome series that Macquarie University awarded her a degree.

Ann McGovern, American writer of more than 50 children’s books. She also once lived in the narrowest house in New York City. She wrote all kinds of books, like Shark Lady: True Adventures of Eugenie Clark.

Terry Pratchett, English fantasy writer. Actually that would be Sir Terry Pratchett, having been knighted for his writing endeavors. His Discworld series spanned 41 books by the end, was published in 37 languages, and has sold nearly 100 million copies overall. He even tweeted his own death. The Colour of Magic starts the series off.

Thomas Piccirilli, American author who wrote in multiple genres and won four Bram Stoker Awards. Now unfortunately horror is an underrepresented genre around here (demographics and all that), so you won’t find any of his books on our shelves, but you will find many of them as eBooks, such as The Night Class.

Paul Prudhomme, American celebrity chef. He authored cookbooks focusing on Creole and Cajun cuisine, starred in five seasons of cooking shows, and is in the Culinary Hall of Fame. I myself don’t go much for the spicy stuff, but that is my failing, so cook away: Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Fiery Foods That I Love.

Cookies make everyone happy.

Ann Rule, American true crime writer. She was already doing some crime writing when she started working alongside a man named Ted Bundy. This ultimately led to her writing one of the top books about him, The Stranger Beside Me, and she followed that with many well known true crime books.

Oliver Sacks, British neurologist and author. He mostly wrote about case-studies about his work. His autobiographical Awakenings was turned into a movie starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.

Lou Silverstone, American comedy writer. He wrote for MAD magazine for almost 30 years. Oh yes, they still print MAD, and yes, you can get it from the library. He also wrote a bit for MAD’s competitor, Cracked. That magazine is no longer in print, but is thriving online.

Bertrice Small, American romance writer. She wrote both historical and erotic romances, and believe me, there is a difference. The romance genre has more rules to it than you would think. She wrote over 50 books, some stand alone but most in series, and of course received numerous awards and honors. Darling Jasmine features Skye O’Malley, one of her more beloved characters.

Melanie Tem, American horror and fantasy writer. Among other things she won two Bram Stoker Awards and a World Fantasy Award. Try her award winning Prodigal as an eBook.

He’s smiling!

Vera Williams, American writer and illustrator of children’s books. Her most well known book A Chair for My Mother won the Caldecott Medal and was featured on Reading Rainbow. Also available in Spanish.

Eric Wright, Canadian writer of mystery novels. Like many authors he was also a professor. His police procedurals won the Arthur Ellis Award four times, and  he received numerous other awards and nominations. The Last Hand.

T. M. Wright, American author of horror, speculative fiction, and poetry, which is a wonderful trifecta. Another writer who isn’t on our physical shelves but is on our digital ones, such as his A Manhattan Ghost Story (and its sequels), which has been published in over a dozen countries.

Wow, that is quite a list, and with quite a bit of literary diversity on it as well. If you have any fond remembrances of these authors, or other authors for that matter, please share them below. Like for instance there was that that time I was reading Sir Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal in a Golden Corral, and…well…that is a really boring story. Not the book, mind you. The book is really good. My story about it is boring. We need better stories around here! I’m counting on you!

Star Wars. Star Wars (Books) Everywhere

What is the first thing that comes to you when I say Star Wars? For me it is that Star Destroyer rumbling down the screen, first seen back when it was just Star Wars, and not yet Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. I was 10 at the time, and no other movie experience has come close to that since. My first Star Wars action figures came on 12 back cards, so believe me my fandom is legit.

Darth Vader Santa bobblehead
Reason for the season?

I think for most people Star Wars evokes visual images such as that. We had the original three movies (plus their theatrically released Special Editions), and the three prequels (one so far re-released in 3D), and now Episode VII: The Force Awakens is upon us. Seven movies spanning, what, three generations? I’m never sure how generations are counted.

Of course there is also The Clone Wars animated movie. Can’t forget that, right? Plus the two made-for-TV Ewok movies. the Droids made-for-TV movie, and the disowned Holiday special (starring Bea Arthur). The television series include Droids (13 episodes), Ewoks (35 episodes), Clone Wars (25 episodes), The Clone Wars (121 episodes), and Rebels (23 episodes to date). Phew, that is a lot to watch. But today we are talking about reading Star Wars. After all, the book came first. Sort of.

The official novelization of Star Wars was released in 1976. Attributed to George Lucas, we now know it was ghost written by Alan Dean Foster. No one paid it much attention at the time because Star Wars wasn’t a thing yet. In 1978 Foster wrote Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, and the Star Wars Expanded Universe (EU) was born. Splinter of the Mind’s Eye is a nifty enough adventure that features Luke and Leia shortly after A New Hope takes place. Fun, but not canon.

Two EU trilogies would follow over the next few years, one featuring Han Solo and the other Lando Calrissian, but then nothing (except the movie adaptations) until 1991. That was the year that Timothy Zahn, like Foster an established sci fi writer, put out Heir to the Empire. This was  eight years after the last movie had been out, and not much was happening then in the Star Wars world. Zahn’s book (first in a trilogy) changed that.

In 1992 the sequel came out, plus three Star Wars books aimed at younger readers. In 1993 four more came out, and six in 1994, and 10 in 1995, and so forth every year since. How many are there? Well, that is a tricky answer, tricky because what counts as a Star Wars book?

Star Wars books

Adult Novels

On the heels of Zahn’s trilogy came many other new books. Initially it was a mish mosh of stand alone books and short series or story collections. All were set after the original movies, continuing the stories of our favorite heroes…and villains. For many Zahn’s are considered the best, and have a true cinematic feel to them. The others often fell into the trope of what new super threat is there now. “Blew up a Death Star or two? No matter, there are more of them” sort of thing.

Eventually LucasBooks took more editorial control over the EU books, and developed a routine of planned series with multiple authors and curated story lines. Many well known authors have taken a crack at writing Star Wars, including Greg Bear, Terry Brooks, Troy Denning, Barbara Hambly, R.A. Salvatore, and others.

So where does one start? Anywhere, really. There are series and standalones, books set after the movies and 1000s of years before them, good books and meh books. Here are a few suggestions.

Shadows of the Empire, by Steve Perry

Rogue Squadron, by Michael Stackpole (X-wing 10 book series)

Vector Prime, by R.A. Salvatore (The New Jedi Order 19 book series! Warning: a much beloved character does not survive this book.)

Betrayal, by Aaron Allston (Legacy of the Force 9 book series)

Outcast, by Aaron Allston (Fate of the Jedi 9 book series)

Death Troopers, by Joe Schreiber (zombies!)

Scoundrels, by Timothy Zahn (Han and Lando in an Ocean’s Eleven style caper.)

Aftermath, by Chuck Wendig (lead in for the new movie)

LEGO minifigures
Darth Vader and his posse

Novels for Younger Readers

Ewoks and Jar Jar Binks are vivid reminders of how a lot of Star Wars is aimed at children. As adults we sometimes assume some type of ownership over the franchise that just isn’t there. Anyway, there are plenty of good books for our younger readers too.

The Rising Force, by Dave Wolverton (Jedi Apprentice 20 book series, all but the first one written by Jude Watson. Ages 9-12, but good crossover appeal, like most of these books, really.)

The Desperate Mission, by Jude Watson (The Last of the Jedi 10 book series, Young Adult)

Han Solo at Star’s End, by Brian Daley (trilogy, Young Adult)

Eaten Alive, by John Whitman (Galaxy of Fear 12 book series, modeled after Goosebumps. Seriously).

Darth Vader and Son, by Jeffrey Brown (4 of the most adorable picture books ever.)

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, by Tom Angleberger (6 book series about sixth graders obsessed with Star Wars.)

And there are piles more Star Wars book in the children’s area of your library, including many aimed for beginning readers. We even have Star Wars phonics.

Graphic Novels

Marvel published the first Star Wars comic books in conjunction with the release of the movie, and various companies have been doing the same ever since. There are some good stories in there, and some laughable ones as well. I like looking at the old Marvel ones, when the only source material they had was the first movie. The romantic tension between Luke and Leia is creepy. I suppose they only ever teased that in the comics because they weren’t sure if Leia would end up with Han instead.

Star Wars: Aratanaru Kibō,  (manga Star Wars)

The Star Wars (based off the original screenplay draft)

Star Wars Omnibus : A Long Time Ago… (the first Marvel comics)

Star Wars Omnibus. Shadows of the Empire (good example of Dark Horse comics, features Mara Jade, who in the EU marries Luke Skywalker.)

Star wars : Clone Wars Adventures (series aimed at younger readers)

Star Wars Pez
The usual suspects.


The movies all received novelizations of course, as did some of the video games. Most stay very close to the source material.

Star Wars Trilogy

The Phantom Menace, by Terry Brooks

Attack of the Clones, by R.A. Salvatore

Revenge of the Sith, by Matthew Stover

The Force Awakens, by Alan Dean Foster (not yet released)

The Clone Wars, by Karen Traviss

The Force Unleashed, by Sean Williams

A New Hope: The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy, by Alexandra Bracken (a retelling of A New Hope for younger readers)


And finally there are a ton of nonfiction books for all ages. Some expand and expound upon the Star Wars universe, while others go in all sorts of other directions. Here is just a taste.

The Star Wars cook book : Wookiee cookies and other galactic recipes, by Robin Davis ; photography by Frankie Frankeny

Star Wars : the magic of myth, by Mary Henderson (Smithsonian exhibit tie in)

LEGO Star Wars : the visual dictionary, by Simon Beecroft and Jason Fry

Star Wars : the essential guide to warfare, by Jason Fry with Paul R. Urquhart

Star Wars origami : 36 amazing paper-folding projects from a galaxy far, far away, by Chris Alexander

Star wars : incredible cross sections, by David West Reynolds

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars : Verily, A New Hope, by Ian Doescher ; inspired by the work of George Lucas and William Shakespeare (for realz. Doescher has done Star Wars as Shakespeare for all six movies to date, and they are brilliant.)

LEGO General Grievous and minifigs
General Grievous and friends

Wow, that seems like a lot of Star Wars books, but in actuality I barely scratched the surface. Books for every fan of every age. Whether you have never seen Star Wars on the big screen or will go to your grave insisting that Greedo shot last, there is a Star Wars book(s) for you.





Sir John Keegan

British historian John Keegan and I were almost contemporaries.  Although he was four years older than me, both of us were boys living in a Britain troubled by war in the early 1940s; he in England, I in Scotland.  Keegan told interviewer Brian Lamb a few years ago he chose military history  to study because he lived in the south of England as a boy in 1944 and saw the enormous Allied force that was preparing liberate Europe from the Germans.   Ironically, because of the lasting effects of a boyhood illness, he was disqualified for serving the military. When he went up to college, it was to Oxford.   After Oxford,  and a trip the United States, Keegan was appointed to a senior lectureship at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and later held visiting professorships at Princeton and Vassar. After twenty years at Sandhurst, Keegan retired and went to work for the Daily Telegraph as a reporter and Defence Editor.

Beginning in 1970, Keegan launched a writing career that spanned four decades, including a History of Warfare, histories of World War I, The Second World War, and the American Civil War; he also authored volumes on Intelligence in WarThe Mask of Command, and The Face of Battle.  Although Keegan deals with individual battles in a number of his books, Six Armies in Normandy  is the only one that focuses on one campaign.  With the exception of his general histories of wars and the Price of Admiralty, Keegan wrote exclusively about conflict on land rather water. In addition teaching and writing, Keegan lectured all across the United States and Canada.  For his contribution to military history Keegan was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in the Millennial Honours in 2000.  For the purpose of this blog, I want to focus  on one of his twenty books:

The American Civil War, published in 2009. Instead being battle oriented like so many other histories of the American Civil War, this book concentrates on topics and campaigns.   Keegan’s theme of the importance of geography to the fighting of war  in North America continues from  the The Fields of Battle, which described Keegan’s travels on the continent and the wars that have fought there from colonial times to Indians wars of the late 19th century .  The distance between Washington and Richmond and the Mississippi Valley explains why  the armies on both sides in the western theater seem not to have as much attention paid to them as those around the two capitals in the east.  Along with distance, Keegan points out that the Alleghany Mountains provided a formable barrier between  the two areas of the conflict.    Keegan also explains that the differences in the majors rivers in the eastern theatre, which tended to flow northwest to southeast, making barriers to approaching Richmond from from the north; and those in the west, which, with the exception of the Mississippi,  flowed from the Appalachians north to the Ohio River and hence to the Mississippi and to the Gulf of Mexico.   The major rivers in the west, the Mississippi, the Tennessee, and the Cumberland led right to the heart of the Confederacy instead being a barrier like they were in the east.  To make use of the major rivers in the west, Union forces developed a shallow water naval force that backed up infantry by using their  guns as artillery and providing transports for moving troops in the same way the Army of the Potomac  was transported in Virginia.  A little over eighteen months after Ulysses Grant’s first battle in November 1861, he had captured Vicksburg splitting the Confederacy in two.

In addition to the geography of the eastern United States, Keegan discusses the military leadership on both sides.  It seems he only thinks two generals are outstanding:  Grant and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. In the twentieth century, compares Rommel to the Confederate general.  He points out Lincoln had a problem finding leadership in the eastern theater until he brought Grant east in 1864.   Keegan sees Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan as a team winning the war for the Union, especially after Sherman’s march through Georgia and up to the Carolinas, while Grant was leading to charge in Virginia.   On the southern side, Keegan claims Lee was to much of a gentleman to be a good commander and President Davis could not get along with his generals.

What makes Keegan’s history of the American Civil War interesting besides its emphasis on geography  and leadership are its comparisons with twentieth century wars, especially  the Great War and World War II.   He relates the battlefield, the casualties, and type of fighting at Shiloh to World War I battles.   Keegan attributes the high rate of wounded and dead to the minié bullet,  fired from a rifle, that traveled at a higher velocity than the ammunition  from a musket.   The American Civil War yielded more than million casualties, according to Keegan, of that number, 200,000 died.   In percentage of population, he compared that to European losses in World War I and Soviet casualties in World War II.

Keegan died in 2012 after a battle with illness caused by a reoccurrence of his boyhood sickness.

John Keegan on Book-TV

WDTAM: What Do These Acronyms Mean

We as a society cannot seem to function online without the prolific usage of acronyms. Individually we may have differing views on the value of these acronyms, but regardless they are part of life now. There are surely a variety of reasons for this, and we can point the finger of blame at many things, but I think this is the main culprit/catalyst:

Flip phone with keypad
Many consider this to be “old school”

Take note of those keys. In order to type out a text message on there you had press a lot of keys. For instance, in order to get an “i” you had to press 4 three times. It is easy then to see where this led. Saying “are you there” took 26 (feel free to check my math) button presses, while “r u there” took only 19. You can’t argue with math and science and general human impatience.

Ultimately it doesn’t really matter how the trend started or what our feelings about it are. The important thing is to recognize that even if we never use any ourselves we will come across others using them, and we should be have at least some rudimentary knowledge of what they stand for.

There are dozens and dozens of them, but most are not widely used. Some are very specific towards particular types of conversations, topics, and websites. You can find a variety of lists of acronyms online, including an explanation of lolspeak, and also find articles warning about how teenagers use acronyms as codes to do things they don’t want their parents to know about. I never worried about that too much. I assumed my teenagers would try that sort of stuff, being teenagers and all.

Clearly up to no good.

So what we have here is a list of the acronyms I most commonly come across or use myself. Your results may vary, of course. I’ll not only spell them out but also use them in a sentence that also links to a book I like. I’ve probably blogged about these books before, but that is okay. This is my blog post and I can do what I want. Also, most of these can be done with either capital or small letters, either/or.


Laugh out loud. This one is so overused and cliched now that I have seen people write “actual LOL”, to convey that they really did laugh as opposed to it being a stock reply. There are variations to express increasing levels of supposed laughter, such as ROTFL (rolling on the floor laughing).

“The book Hyperbole And A Half will make you repeatedly LOL.”


By the way. Used to change the topic or add an aside.

“btw, have you read Amanda Palmer’s amazing book, The Art of Asking?”


Be right back. Letting someone know that you will be away from the conversation for a brief time.

“brb. I have to see if my wife is done watching Game of Thrones again. She is in love with Tyrion.”

BRB sounds kind of like baseball jargon. It isn’t.


In my honest opinion, or in my humble opinion. Used to indicate that you are stating your opinion, and not necessarily stating a fact.

“IMHO, The Reapers are the Angels is the second best zombie book.”


In case you missed it. For when you share something with someone that you realize they might have seen already.

ICYMI, this library blog about Dark Fiction was really cool.


On the other hand. This is for when you present an alternate opinion or option.

“OTOH, Zone One was also a really good zombie book.”


As far as I know. Telling someone that you think this information is correct, but that you haven’t verified it.

The Stand is Stephen King’s longest book, afaik.”


If I recall correctly. Used to admit that your memory may be faulty.

“IIRC, Lexicon is Max Barry’s only book to date.” [Ed. note: it is not. He has written five novels so far.]


Hooray, more or less.

“w00t, the library has the Archer book!”

I know it is hard to tell with this font, but w00t is spelled with zeros.


Best friends forever, and before anyone else (also a shortened form of “babe”.) One used for your best friend(s), the other for a significant other.

“I suggested Atonement to my BFF, and Silk to my BAE.”


In real life. So people know you aren’t talking about something you made up on the Internet.

“I work at a library IRL, so I can always give you good book recommendations, like The Gone-Away World.”


Not safe for work. A way to let someone know that what you are sharing (often a link) has content (often language or nudity) that might not be (or definitely is not) suitable for viewing in a work environment.

“Here’s a clip from Gone Girl, where Amy takes out Desi. Totes NSFW, tho.” [Ed. note: that link actually just takes you to the Gone Girl dvd in the library catalog.]

As I said before, there are tons more of these. Share any you think are interesting in the comments, or ask about ones you wonder about.

Random Book Day 2015: You’ll Know It When You Read It

Ah, that rare moment when it happens. You start reading a book, and at some point (usually early on) you realize that it isn’t a book at all, but a BOOK. A revelation. A work of art. This doesn’t happen often, and many times it is by chance. It is wonderful to be surprised in such a way. This happened to me not long ago, and that book kicks off our third annual Random Book Day blog.

This is not a random bear.
This is not a random bear. The cat pic comes later.


Here by Richard McGuire

Here book cover

I could start by saying that Here is a graphic novel, but that is so limiting. Graphic novels (and I blogged about them before) simply tells us the format of this book. It has pictures. It is illustrated. A much better descriptor of Here is “literary force of nature”.

Here tells the story of a particular room, or more accurately a particular place. Each page is like a snapshot of the room at a different period in time, from the distant past to the far future, but mostly focusing on the last 100 years or so. We can see what was happening there throughout the years, and see the people who were there. Birth, death, happiness and sorrow. Ultimately the story is not as much about the room but about the life that happens there, and believe me life suffuses this book start to finish. Maguire both wrote and illustrated it, and I think he deserves a medal.

I finished reading it while on my lunch break, and it is a good thing I did so because otherwise I would have been late coming back. There was no way I was not going to stop reading it. It wasn’t just my favorite book of the year, it was the best book I read this year.

Room by Emma Donoghue

Room book cover

Speaking of rooms, my next book is called, umm, Room. It is told from the perspective of Jack, a five year old, which that alone would be interesting, but Jack’s life is not typical. He has spent his entire life, all five years, in the same room. His mother was kidnapped and imprisoned in the room by the only other real life person Jack has ever seen, Old Nick. Jack does not realize this man is his father via the rape of his mother.

Okay, you can tell already that this is an intense story. I had reservations about reading something that would be such a downer, but it came well recommended. As in I asked my wife for something to read and she literally stuck this in my hand. While it is intense, everything being filtered through the innocence of Jack (who thinks the entire world is contained within the room) softens the blows a bit.  And, mild spoiler alert here, when they escape Jack is thrust into a world of wonder that also terrifies him.

The emotional impact of the book can be rough at times but it is well worth the effort. Many others would second this. And now there is a movie of the book, starring the talented Brie Larson, that is on my must watch list.

Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb

Bimbos of the Death Sun book cover

And now for something completely different. McCrumb mostly writes contemporary historical fiction set in the Appalachian Mountains. This is not one of those books. It is a murder mystery set at a science fiction convention. A prickly author is killed, and the convention attendees are left to both keep the show going and try to discover who the killer is.

Bimbos (the title is the name of a book one of the protagonists had written) serves as a perfectly fine mystery, but also realistically captures the feel of both the setting and the people who inhabit it. There are a lot of stereotypes involved, but McCrumb never makes them seem cliche. Plus, just like me, you can learn about filk music (that is not a typo).

This book may seem at first to be lowbrow, especially considering the pulp style cover, but it rises well above the masses. In fact, it won an Edgar Award. A good choice to do some genre breaking. it is also fun to see the differences in technology, such as a lead character talking about this new thing called email they are using at the university he teaches at.

Random House Tower in NYC. Because books.
Random House Tower in NYC. Because books.


Ghostman by Roger Hobbs

Ghostman book cover

Hobbs debut novel is quite impressive. Jack is a career criminal, a ghostman, a man who can hide in plain sight and disappear without a trace after a job is finished. Jack is very good at his job, but a mistake he made years ago comes back to haunt him, and to pay off his debt he is off to clean up a botched New Jersey casino heist. Of course the job is not as straightforward as it sounds, and Jack has to use all of his skills to come out alive.

Hobbs does a great job of keeping the suspense high, and of giving an inside view of how a man like Jack operates. I was honestly surprised that a new writer could craft a book is such a masterful way. Fans of Lee Child and Robert Stark are doing themselves a grave disservice by not reading this. Granted, the follow up Vanishing Games certainly falls short of the high mark set by Ghostman, but I am still looking forward to what else Hobbs produces.

In Red by Magdalena Tulli, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston

In Red book cover

I mentioned I was going to read this not long ago, and indeed I did read it. And it was good enough to add to this list. Set in a small town in Poland in the early 20th century, In Red is a mixture of gritty realism and fancy surrealism. I found myself reminded of The Grand Budapest Hotel in some ways, and also of Salvador Plascencia’s wonderful book The People of Paper. Bouncing from character to character, one scene will be a straight telling of standard doings in the town and the next will feature something like a girl whose heart had stopped refusing to die and going about her regular routine of reading French romance novels, or a bullet that was fired years ago striking someone after completing its circumnavigation of the globe.

I started to grow disheartened as the end of the book, as it all seemed to be heading towards an incredibly sad ending, but Tulli reminds us that these are all just stories, and that stories are told in many different ways. This book is told in a very entertaining way, and my hat is off to both Tulli and Johnston, who translated it so well. Also, I don’t typically wear hats.

Armada by Ernest Cline

Armada book cover

I feel a bit bad for this book, because Cline’s first one, Ready Player One, was not only a really fun read but had such a distinctive voice to it that it makes it hard for Armada to get out from under its shadow. Nevertheless, Armada is a fine read, a rollicking sci fi adventure that does some clever lampshading.

Zack is a pretty standard high school kid. Having lost his father at a young age he has some anger issues to deal with, which gives his character depth that many teens depicted in fiction do not. He of course spends a lot of time playing video games, and one day while sitting in class he looks out the window and sees a spaceship directly out of Armada, his favorite game. It turns out that the game all along was intended as a training simulator for an inevitable alien invasion. Zack, being one of the best players in the game, is recruited along with many others to combat the alien threat.

The book stays focused on Zack, but because of his skills and his background he is exposed to the highest levels of the military and we get to follow both his story and the big picture of the invasion. Armada is filled with sci fi and 80s references, but not to a distracting degree, and not to a level that you feel like you are missing out if you don’t get all of them. I also really liked how Cline pokes some good natured fun at the genre. Zack realizes quickly that this invasion has massive plot holes in it, much like so many books and movies do, and he starts asking questions and doubting the official narrative. A fun read, and one that has a bit more depth than is first evident.

Time to play the game. Some of you know what I mean.
Time to play the game. Some of you know what I mean.


Swan Song by Robert McCammon

Swan Song book cover

Well, enough of the fun and whimsical reads. Swan Song is horror, and lives up to the genre. It tells the story of survivors of a nuclear war who find themselves on the opposite sides of a conflict between good and evil. Sounds a bit like Stephen King’s The Stand you might be thinking, and you would be right to a degree, although Swan Song is certainly not a derivative work.

One thing that happens is that many of the characters start being afflicted by growths that cover much of their bodies, especially their faces. In this way even some of the good guys have the outward appearance of monsters for much of the story. On one side is the girl Swan, who has the power to bring life back to sticken plants, and her ex-wrestler protector Josh. On the other side is former survivalist Colonel Macklin, and his protegee, a teen by the name of Roland who shows us that real monstrosity comes from within.

Swan Song is a long book, and set in the 1980s it is a bit dated now. Plus you really have to wait for the payoff at the end. But that payoff is certainly worth it. In fact it was the co-winner of the first Bram Stoker Award, along with King’s Misery, so that should give you an idea of the quality of this book.

The Last Days of Video by Jeremy Hawkins

The Last Days of Video book cover

So in full disclosure I will say that I work with someone who is related to the author. That being said, I wouldn’t talk about this book if it wasn’t any good. The title is pretty self explanatory. Waring Wax is the proprietor of a small independent video store in a small college town in North Carolina. Wax muddles drunkenly through life without much concern until threatened by the arrival of a shiny new Blockbuster across the street.

See what Hawkins did there? This is a new book, published in early 2015, and we all know that there are no more Blockbuster stores anymore (sort of). Hawkins presents a standard enough story that has a lot of non standard elements. Wax has to overcome his personal issues, and his employees who chip in to help have to overcome theirs. Throw in a director of a movie being filmed in town who believes himself haunted by the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock and you end up with quite the tale.

Hawkins has said he was influenced by the BBC bookstore comedy Black Books, but I think there is some A Confederacy of Dunces in their too, and there is nothing wrong with that. Plus it has a really cool cover.

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

The Rook book cover

This was my favorite book of the year up until the point I read Here. I wouldn’t have said it was the best book I had read, but I sure did enjoy it. Like Ghostman above it is a debut novel, and it was recommended to me by the same person who recommended Ghostman. Hmm, there is another book on my list he told me about. I think I ought to read that one too.

The Rook is the story of a woman who awakens in a muddy park surrounded with bodies and with her memory largely gone. She finds a letter in her pocket addressed to her that starts explaining things. Her name is Myfanwy (sounds like Tiffany) Thomas, and she works for a secret British organization that is basically a supernatural MI6. She herself is a high ranking member of the unit, a Rook. The memory loss was the result of an attack by a rival, and anticipating it she had written the letter in the pocket, and many others as well, so her future self might have a chance to survive. And to track down her assailant, an enemy who poses a threat not just to her but to the Britain itself.

On the surface one might think this was a version of James Bond crossed with Lara Croft, but it isn’t really. Myfanwy is not so much the action type, and in fact previously was loathe to use her powers. Her new self, however, isn’t as timid, much to the chagrin of her enemies and rivals.

I liked the various powers characters had. Many felt fresh in a genre where it seems like we have seen it all before. The book does have a conclusive ending, but is well suited for a sequel(s). Something I am eagerly awaiting.

Well, that wraps up Random Book Day 2015. I hope you’ll find your own random, or not so random, reads this year that will make you want to share them with the world.

Random Book Day 2013

Random Book Day 2014

Not so random kitten.
told you.