Books for Boys

Somewhere between 7 and 9 years old, I became a Reader.  And by Reader I mean someone who loves to read.  I’d been “reading” (deciphering the alphabet to produce words whose meaning I understood) since I was about 3, and by first grade I was the best reader in my class (just a small elementary school in a tiny rural community, but still – no brag, just fact).

But somewhere during or after second grade and before fifth grade, I really got into reading.  Why was that important?  Because when one loves to read, then one reads more.  When one reads more, one better develops vital language skills.  The more enjoyable reading is, the more one develops the information access skills that are critical to success in the twenty-first century.

And, perhaps alarmingly, boys are NOT turning into readers in the same numbers as girls.  This trend has been going on for at least a decade, and the causes are many:  popular tween and YA books focus more on the female audience by about 3 to 1; [YA titles are in a Golden Age, btw – perhaps more on that in another blog later…?]; boys are more likely to spend free time in video games than reading; and, finally, many educators don’t always know what’s “out there” for boys. Probably all true to some extent. While I can’t do much about most of those causes, I can share some titles that might help your young male to enjoy reading.  They made a difference for me anyway.

One of the books I came across in that important phase where I was developing as a reader was “Tarzan of the Apes.” Written about a century ago, it still has the excitement and adventure that is capable of hooking a reader.  Better yet, the author Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote a lot of sequels.  One of the things that happened to me reading Tarzan what that the author had a YUGE vocabulary.  I was constantly going to my Mom to ask her what a word meant. (Tarzan’s mighty thews, for example:  A well-developed sinew or muscle: “sinews of steel, thews of iron” American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.)

Mom got tired of answering me, and directed me to take a dictionary with me whenever I sat down to read the book.  Whenever I did not know a word, I had to look it up in the dictionary.  This had two great side effects: 1) My vocabulary grew by leaps and bounds (albeit with many somewhat archaic usages, like “mighty thews”); 2) I learned to use a dictionary really well.  While today’s young reader might be more inclined to look an unknown word up on the internet than to use a print dictionary, the benefits would still accrue.

Another book or set of books that really worked for me was the “juvenile” series by Robert A. Heinlein.  I’ve written in an earlier blog about how a kindly librarian directed me towards this author, but his books are great if the tween/teen reader has any interest in space or science fiction.

So really, there are some great books available, and the Library has them.  Here is a list of books I remember liking immensely as a young growing male reader – they have different reading levels and certainly the rule about having to look any word up if you don’t know what it means will apply, but overall I believe they have some real value.

Tarzan series – Edgar Rice Burroughs – jungle adventure

Heinlein “juveniles” – Robert A. Heinlein – science fiction [list here]

The Scarlet Pimpernel – Baroness Orczy – adventure during the French Revolution; features a hero with a secret identity

The Three Musketeers –  Alexander Dumas – adventure during the French monarchy – swords and swashbuckling

The Call of the Wild – Jack London – animal (dog) adventure during the Alaska gold rush

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain

The Good Earth – Pearl S. Buck – historical rags to riches story in pre-industrial China

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood – Howard Pyle

Beat to Quarters (Capt. Horatio Hornblower) – C.S. Forester – adventure on the high seas during the Napoleonic era

Lost Horizon – James Hilton – Hidden realm (Shangri-La) in the Himalayas

Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe

Jungle Books – Rudyard Kipling – like Tarzan, boy raised by animals (Mowgli)

The Great Impersonation – E. Phillips Oppenheim – adventure/mystery set in the WWI era

King Solomon’s Mines – H. Rider Haggard – hidden kingdom in Africa

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Verne – Captain Nemo and his fantastic submarine the Nautilus

Rabbit Hill – Robert Lawson – animal adventure (rabbits)

Watership Down – Richard Adams – animal adventure (rabbits, but like no rabbits ever known)

Lad: A Dog – Albert Payson Terhune – animal adventure

The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien (and the prelude, The Hobbit)

If the boy is younger, you might want to read these aloud to him.  Most are suitable for 10 year olds and up.  Besides growing a reader and increasing vocabulary, there is a lot of history, folklore, and imagination to be gained.  Please let me know if any of these fit on your list of beloved books, and feel free to suggest some others!

[All titles are held by the NC Cardinal Library system which Fontana Regional Library belongs to – the links might be to just the first book if it is part of a series]

Summer Music Memories

If you have ever been a listener to popular music, you’ve probably had the experience of “summer” music – when a song or an album becomes identified with the summer season.

It might be even be a particular summer – the summer just after high school graduation, or the summer you got your first full-time job, or the summer just after you met that significant other.

For whatever reason, music has always been a trigger for memory, probably exceeded only by the memory of particular fragrances.  But “summer music” has certainly played a part in many folks’ lives.

One of the biggest groups to perhaps epitomize the whole concept is The Beach Boys. Formed in 1961 in California, and composed of three brothers, their cousin, and a friend, their tight harmonies and infectious melodies alone would have earned them a spot in pop music history.  But it was their subject matter and lyrics that put them in possibly the top spot for summertime music.  Scoring thirty-six Top 40 hits, more than any other American band, their music has lived on for over 50 years.  Especially “summer” memories are found in “Surfer Girl;” “Fun, fun, fun;” “I get around;” ”Help me Rhonda;” “Sloop John B.;” “Good Vibrations;” and “Kokomo.”  All of these songs and more can be found on the music CD “Greatest Hits – 20 Good Vibrations” at the Fontana Regional Library.

Another song that resonates with many is the song “Cruel Summer” by the British female pop group Bananarama.  This song was originally released in the UK in 1983, but hit it big internationally in 1984 when it was included in the movie The Karate Kid. Other songs by the group have a definite summer feel: “Venus” and “Na Na Hey Hey,” for example, although the latter two were not original to the group; all 3 songs can be found on their Greatest Hits collection.

Jumping back to the late 50’s, “Summertime Blues” by Eddie Cochran captures the downside of being a teenager during the summer. Covered by many artists, from The Who to Alan Jackson to Jimi Hendrix, this song has been a perennial favorite; Eddie’s original version can be found on the album Absolutely the best of the 50s.

One with some personal memories for me is “Summer Breeze” by Seals and Crofts. Found on the album of the same name, the song paints a word picture of an idyllic summertime domestic world. Also on this album is the song “Hummingbird,” which has another summer memory link.

A much less idyllic but still compelling song is “Summer in the City” by The Lovin’ Spoonful from the mid-60s.  Contrasting daytime and nighttime (“at night it’s a different world”), the song incorporates the sound of car horns (a VW beetle, no less) and jackhammers. The library has the album Entertainment Weekly 1966 which includes this hit.

The group Chicago tells a story of a typical but ideal summer day in the song “Saturday in the Park.” Including lyrics about a man selling ice cream and the Fourth of July, many people have experienced the laid-back memories related in the song, which can be found on the album Chicago: Greatest Hits v. 1.

While some of the summer time hits referenced so far come from groups with many big hits, like Chicago and the Beach Boys, one of the less well-known songs comes from the group Mungo Jerry.  The group came from the UK, and this was their only US hit.  But it became one of the best-selling singles of all time, and while it was a “one hit wonder” you can still hear it played during the summer: “In the Summertime.” (And you can find it on this CD: Best of the 70s)

Another song that calls back some personal memories of summer for me is the DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince hit “Summertime.” Before Will Smith became a well-known actor, he and his friend Jeff Townes were a hip-hop duo.  This song was their biggest hit. It relates summer memories of the pair’s high school summers growing up in Philadelphia, and can be found on the New Millennium hip-hop party album.

Well, I think I probably just scratched the surface of summer music memories with these songs. I hope at least a few triggered some good thoughts for you – please let me know in the comments if you have your own favorites!

[P.S. The links will take you to a music video of the song or the library music CD so you can check them out!]

Outstanding Oddball Movies

Having received some good feedback when I shared some of my favorite re-watchable movies, I thought I might again share some favorite movies.

Now in my earlier movie blog, the movies I shared were pretty non-controversial.  It’s pretty easy to see that Casablanca is not only one of my favorites, but MANY people consider it a top-ranked film, if not the best film of all time.  It has been broadcast on US television more than any other film.

Not far behind that in repeated US broadcasts would be two other films from my list: The Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life; and as for popularity, the original Star Wars trilogy just celebrated the 40th anniversary of its origin, seemingly gaining in popularity as it goes along.

Finally, even the most quirky of the films I submitted (Young Frankenstein) is found listed among the best comedies of all time.  So I clearly have my “likes” aligned pretty closely with popular and critical viewpoints, or so it would seem.

BUT…I have some other films I like, maybe even REALLY like, and they are not quite in the same league as the five movies I previously blogged about.  In fact, they are quirky, idiosyncratic, and somewhat “non-mainstream” – some might even say “oddball.”  

I’ll start with rolling out a film by a French director released 20 years ago-  The Fifth Element.  Director Luc Besson first envisioned the story when he was sixteen, and it took him 22 years to get it made. It tells the story of an ex-military special forces major in the 23rd century (played by Bruce Willis), who gets involved in saving Earth when a young woman (actress Milla Jovovich) literally falls into his life.  Bruce Willis’ character is a down on his luck but principled cab-driver, and when “Leeloo” drops into his flying taxi-cab, the fast-paced plot takes off.  It seems “Leeloo” is the “Fifth Element,” the keystone to a weapon which can defeat a recurring and otherwise unstoppable evil being. While the plot on one level seems to be fairly straightforward science fiction, the movie has been described as “over the top;” “unhinged;” “…fun and boasts some of the most sophisticated, witty production and costume design you could ever hope to see;” “may or may not be the worst movie ever made;” it’s also been called the “best summer blockbuster of all time.” I’ll just say I find it funny, interesting, and reflective of humanity being stranger than any aliens.

Another very quirky film I enjoy is Raising Arizona. While “The Fifth Element” is 20 years old this summer, this next film was released 30 years ago in 1987.  Directed, written and produced by the Coen brothers Joel and Ethan, it was a very creative attempt by the famous (infamous?) brothers to make a film as different as possible from their previous movie, “Blood Simple.” The film is, in my opinion, VERY funny.  It tells the story of a crook/cop marriage (Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter) running aground because of the couple’s strong desire to have children but inability to do so.  They hear of a local family having quintuplets, and decide to kidnap one for themselves.  From there it quickly becomes a madcap, screwball plot involving the crook husband’s criminal pals, the husband and wife’s increasingly strained relationship, and the involvement of a private investigator also known as “the Biker from the Apocalypse.” There is a scene beginning with the robbing of a convenience store that seems irresistibly funny, along with a later scene of a bank robbery that has been ranked as one of the best bank robberies ever filmed. Yet for all the offbeat characters, the movie is strangely heartwarming. It also has some good quotes – I’ll drop one for you: “My friends call me Lenny – but I got no friends.”

Another movie from the far side is a fantasy movie (no science involved, but instead “a kind of magic”) titled Highlander. This tells the story of Connor MacLeod, born in 1518 in Scotland. He is “killed” in 1536, but finds out he is an Immortal, a sub-race of otherwise normal humans who cannot die except by decapitation. The movie actually starts hundreds of years later, in the late 20th century.  It is the time of the Gathering, when the various surviving Immortals begin to hunt and kill each other in order to gain “The Prize” – a sort of superpower which could lead to the winner being the ruler of the world, although just what that means is fairly undefined.  Much of the movie showing Connor’s history comes in the form of flashbacks, featuring his allies (foremost Sean Connery as an Immortal Egyptian named (improbably) Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez) and his enemies, mainly the Kurgan, a very bad savage Immortal. Called “the greatest action film” and “no equal among sword-and-sorcery flicks,” I think there are at least three or more reasons why I like this movie: 1) Christopher Lambert as Connor MacLeod – his accent seems weird, but his facial expressions and acting makes you think at times this really is a 400+ year old character; 2) Clancy Brown as the Kurgan – his scene in the church is unnerving and convinces you this guy is an evil nutcase; 3) the soundtrack by Queen – the band wrote many of the songs specifically to match the mood of the scenes where they are played.  This movie inspired sequels, a fairly long-running television series, and a tagline you might recognize: “There can be only one.”

Another “weird” movie is The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the Eighth Dimension. Featuring the eponymous Dr. Banzai as a polymath physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot and rock musician, it sort of comes across as a wired/manic/updated version of the pulp hero “Doc Savage.”  Like the Doc, Buckaroo has a team to help him in his adventures – the Hong Kong Cavaliers (vs. Doc’s Fabulous Five), and also like Doc Savage, Buckaroo finds himself saving the world from villains and monsters.  In the movie, Buckaroo invents a device that lets him travel through solid rock; and while testing it and simultaneously setting a land speed record with his jet car by going through a mountain, Buckaroo accidentally brings back a strange creature.  News of this reaches an alien (played by John Lithgow) who has been inside an asylum for the criminally insane – he escapes and one of the strangest plots then ensues.  Toss in a romantic angle (the long lost twin sister of Buckaroo’s deceased wife), another group of aliens at war with the evil ones, a new recruit for the Cavaliers, and the involvement of several of Buckaroo’s support groups (similar to Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street Irregulars) and you have yourself one absurdist movie.  Why in the world did I like this?  Well, I am a bit of a fan of absurdist humor (such as Monty Python) and the weird but light-hearted story seemed to invite re-watching due to its complexities.  (Why is there a watermelon hooked up to strange devices in Buckaroo’s laboratory?  Is Rawhide (Buckaroo’s lieutenant) really dead? Why is the only female Cavalier in Tibet?)  The movie seems to be set up in a very detailed alternate reality, and there are constant references to this larger reality that are only mentioned and hinted at.  Two interesting facts: Buckaroo’s right hand man (Rawhide) is played by the same actor [Clancy Brown] who was the Highlander’s main antagonist, the Kurgan; also, there was a sequel set up for this movie that never happened – Buckaroo Banzai against the World Crime League. (I wish they’d done that one!)

Well, there you have some oddball movies that have found a spot in my heart.  Feel free to check one or more out if any stir your interest; they are all available through Fontana Regional Library or the NC Cardinal system.

Do any of them stir fond memories for you if you’ve seen them?  Or, like me, do you have your own list of “weird but good” films?  Share in the comments please!

Repeat Readings

Several months ago I wrote about movies that I had re-watched again and again; specifically, movies I had seen at least 5 times. I talked about why I’d ended up watching those films as much as I had, and about the movies themselves.  I actually got a fairly big response to that blog posting – apparently lots of folks either liked the particular movies I mentioned, or they just shared the same habit of re-watching some of their own personal favorites.

I later realized that for some people, the urge to re-read favorite books is also strong.  While for some, reading a book once and moving on in search of something new is the preferred method, for others the desire to re-visit a favorite title is compelling.

Probably one of the biggest examples is how people read and re-read the holy writings of the world’s various faiths.  Or beyond that, for hundreds of years people have read the writings of the great poets, turning to them on multiple times.  Shakespeare, as well, is a perennial favorite.  I think part of the appeal in this class of writing is the depth of what is there – multiple readings reveal new insights, especially as we grow older.

Beyond the Bible, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare, multiple readings are also a joy for readers of fiction, especially if the work is longer or part of a series.  I have read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien multiple times, and so have others I’ve spoken to.  I know a group of people who read and re-read the entire Harry Potter novels (in order, of course!) – sometimes on an annual basis.  I’m also aware of the following popular novel series that are re-read by fans:

One of the keys to this particular category is that many of the series can be started by fairly young readers and still have enough depth and detail to make an older reader want to pick them up.  The Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling (see earlier link), in particular, follow a young set of protagonists as they age to young adulthood.  If read for the first time as a younger person, re-reading can evoke not only the pleasure of “discovering what happens” but also re-capturing in some sense the youth we may have had as first-time readers.

Another set of titles that are often re-read may or may not lead the reader to other books in what is actually a series, although many may not be aware there are sequels to the title that they are re-reading.  Titles that come to mind are The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Wizard of Oz, A Wrinkle in Time, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or Tarzan of the Apes. [Although the latter title should make one want to read the next title in the series (The Return of Tarzan), as the first book really is a bit of a cliffhanger.]

Still another group of titles are those that are not necessarily part of a series, but where the author either creates a memorable heroine or hero or does such a strong job establishing the setting that they create a desire to re-visit the author’s creation.  Classic examples of this might be Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Little Women by Louis May Alcott, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, or A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  (If you want to get a multitude of opinions from a group of Dickens fans, ask them to name the best of his 14 or so novels)

Besides individual titles, there are authors who have such a strong voice that people come back to their works, whether novels or short stories, repeatedly, regardless of genre or subject matter.  Three such authors that come to mind for me are P.G. Wodehouse, Neal Stephenson, and Roger Zelazny. I would read or re-read pretty much anything they wrote.  And I could name more, of course – all readers have favorite authors, but those three seem striking for how they create interest whether they are writing about golf, Baroque history, or the possible end of the world.

Finally, there are those “quirky” books that maybe no one else you know re-reads, but you find yourself picking them up again and again. I’ve heard of folks who re-read Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach.  I think the title I’ll pick as an illustration of this type is one from an author I just mentioned, Roger Zelazny.

Late in his life and writing career, he wrote a book called A Night in the Lonesome October. It was his last book, and one of his five personal favorites.  The plot is pretty bizarre, incorporating a Chthulu-like end of the world scenario, and is narrated by Jack the Ripper’s dog.  But one of the reasons I read it, besides the references to other novels, movies, and fictional characters, is that the book has thirty-one chapters, each linked to October 1-31, and for some reason, I have often picked it up on October 1st and read a chapter each night as the month progresses.  I’ve done this enough times that, while it does not happen every year, it does seem to be becoming a tradition with me.

 

So do you have any books you re-read?  Share some in the comments, if so; and happy re-reading!

In Praise of eBooks

One of the things about doing a bit of a retrospective of where you’ve been in the last year is that you occasionally realize things that sort of slid by you when you were actually experiencing them.

While compiling my list of top 10 recommendations of books I read in 2016 , I did a count of how many book titles I actually read last year.  Turns out since I keep a reading history – you can do this too in your online library account:

cardinal-screenthat I read 100 books, averaging about one every 3 or 4 days.

This surprised me, as 2016 may have been one of my biggest years ever for reading that many titles.  I may have surpassed that during the summers when I was 10-12, but I’ve generally found less time for reading as a working adult, a husband, and a father of a young child. So how in the world did I read that many books?  I believe it was the fact that 80 of the 100 books I read were in the form of an eBook.

Now please know from the start that I am in no way denigrating the “true book” experience – I too am a bibliophile, as one might expect from a librarian. I love the physical properties of a book: the tactile sensation of turning the pages, the smell of an older volume.  I probably have more volumes of books in my home than the average — it reminds me of the joke I used to tell: “What do you get when a professor marries a librarian? 15 bookcases full of books.”

Nevertheless, in the world I live in now I never could have reached 100 titles read in one year were it not for eBooks.  Here’s how it happened…

I do have a Kindle, but I must confess that a dedicated eReader has not been the primary platform for me and eBooks.  No, the device I read eBooks on is my smartphone.

To make this work, it took several different factors – one was the Overdrive app.

“OverDrive Media Console is a proprietary, freeware application developed by OverDrive, Inc. for use with its digital distribution services for libraries, schools, and retailers. The application enables users to access audiobooks, eBooks, periodicals, and videos borrowed from libraries and schools—or purchased from booksellers—on [various]devices…” — Wikipedia

This handy application (available in the Apple and Android universes, as well as others) is fairly easy to download, and, as stated above, free!

The second factor is the fact that by far the majority of US public libraries have chosen the Overdrive app to allow access to their eBook collections. You DID know that almost all public libraries have eBook collections, right?  Sometimes I wonder when I read about people touting various “for profit” paywall sources for eBooks – I’ve paid for less than six eBooks total.  I read library-sourced eBooks almost exclusively. Why not?  Who wouldn’t want free?

So big factor one and big factor two = FREE!

One of the nice things about the Overdrive app is the ability to download the book you want, instead of streaming.  Once it’s downloaded (and you have the choice of a download version compatible with Kindles or a more general standard called ePub) you don’t need an internet connection to read the book (which also saves on battery power for your device, not to mention data used from your phone’s service plan).  You can also choose the font size, the screen brightness, etc.  This makes it easy to read on the beach, in the car (while someone else is driving, of course), or even at night with a black screen / white letters that’s easy on your night vision.  Then it is quite convenient to pick up your device and read while you wait at the doctor’s office (instead of reading the year-old Sports Illustrated or the even older Better Homes and Gardens), while you are in a long line at the Post Office during the holiday mailing season, while you are waiting at your child’s basketball practice, or even in front of the fireplace on a rainy night instead of picking up a physical book.  When you put all of that spare/possibly wasted time together, you too can read 100 books a year.

SO…if you have a portable device like a tablet, phablet, or smartphone, start by making sure your library card is updated and ready to go.  You can do that by accessing your library account online:   the “My Account” button in the upper right hand corner of this webpage – http://fontana.nccardinal.org/eg/opac/home

(Or of course coming into a Fontana Regional Library branch in person, or calling your local branch…)

Once you know your account is “good to go,” travel to either the iTunes App store for Apple products: [https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/overdrive-library-ebooks-and-audiobooks/id366869252?mt=8];

Or for Android devices, go to the Google Play store: [https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.overdrive.mobile.android.mediaconsole&hl=en].

Download the app and open it – it will guide you through the initial set-up.  Basically, it will ask you to identify your library and enter your library information and library barcode.  Once you do that, be sure and mark that you want your device to remember the information, unless you enjoy keying in the 14-digit barcode repeatedly.

At that point, your device is ready to browse and search for eBooks you might enjoy.  When you find a title (and the library has best sellers and a wide selection) you are interested in, just ask to Borrow that title – you can then have the eBook for 7 to 21 days (depending on the title – you can even choose the borrowing period for some titles!) and you start reading just by “flipping” screens on your device, just like turning pages on a physical book.  You can bookmark your place in the eBook (make sure you learn how to do this at the start) and then pop in to your reading choice during all the “spare corners” of your life.  Before you know it, you are reading like a house afire!

We can help you get started on reading eBooks here @ your FRL library – we have several people able to offer free device help as you need it.  Just ask!  Happy e-reading!

Rollicking Reads from 2016

It is the time of year for retrospectives.  And rather than recap celebrity deaths (Prince, Bowie, Mariah Carey’s career), I thought I’d pick a handful of materials I’ve checked out from the library that gave me hours of enjoyment this past year of 2016. They were not all published in 2016, but 2016 was the year I read them for the first time.

Overall, I’ve read 80 eBooks this past year, and about 20 additional books in print.  From those 100  I’ll select 10 things to recommend, all available from Fontana Regional Library or the NC Cardinal state system that FRL belongs to.

One explanation about my selections: I like science fiction and fantasy genres, but also like thriller and adventure novels, good comedies, and even some mysteries; when reading non-fiction I like histories, biographies, and memoirs.  So you will see “all of the above” in the ten titles/series I’ve chosen.  I’ll start with a memoir…about a movie, made about a book, that was written about a fictional book.

1.As you wish: inconceivable tales from the making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes (2014)

A memoir by the actor who played Westley in the now-classic movie The Princess Bride.  Hilarious and heart-warming, behind the scenes stories of how the movie came together, from the screenwriter (who also wrote the original book) to Billy Crystal to Andre the giant.

2.The Brilliance series by Marcus Sakey

3 titles: Brilliance (2013),  A Better World (2014), Written in Fire (2016)

An edge of tomorrow science-fiction thriller-adventure, about the social problems that occur when a percentage of the world’s children start manifesting savant-style gifts (like lightning calculation, but also mind-reading, pattern recognition, fantastic reflexes, etc.). It’s the story (somewhat similar to the story line of Blade Runner), about a special agent who hunts down the “Brilliants” who have broken the law.  And he and his youngest daughter are also Brilliants…

3.The Invisible Library series by Genevieve Cogman

3 titles: The Invisible Library (2016), The Masked City (2016), The Burning Page (2017)

This fantasy series contains the tales of an alternate reality wherein many alternate realities can be traveled to, and the Invisible Library where the librarians attempt to collect all the versions of various books by travelling to the multi-verses involved.  Each alternate has a varying degree of Law vs. Chaos – Law based realities are like ours, with science and technology, whereas Chaos realities have fairies, dragons, magic, etc.  The realities are on a spectrum, so many of them have a mix. One of the first places the first book goes is a steampunk world with a Sherlock Holmes surrogate vs. vampires.

4.Chronicles of St. Mary’s series by Jodi Taylor

8 novels, plus novellas: https://www.goodreads.com/series/109102-the-chronicles-of-st-mary-s

In this fast-paced science-fiction series, St. Mary’s is an historical institute where historians study history via time travel.  A secret to all but their sponsoring Thirsk University, these tales tell of a the madcap adventures of the historian Madeline Maxwell, as she bounces with her colleagues from the fall of Troy to the Gates of Thermopylae to encounters with Isaac Newton and dodo birds.

5.Night School by Lee Child (2016)

Like all the Jack Reacher books written by Child, this one can be read as a standalone work, and not in any particular order.  Some of the Reacher books are “contemporary” and others are set back in Reacher’s past, while he was still in the Army.  This is a “past” title detailing how Reacher and a select team of both FBI and CIA agents undertake a secret mission to stop terrorists before they strike.  The appeal of the Reacher novels lies in the Jack Reacher character himself, as his unique brain and his indomitable physical gifts combine to thwart evil wherever he encounters it. In total, there are 21 books as of Night School.

6.Six of Crows series by Leigh Bardugo

2 titles: Six of Crows (2015), Crooked Kingdom (2016)

This fantasy duology is set in a steampunk world with some magic, and is sort of a fantasy version of Ocean’s Eleven. A group of six misfit but highly competent mercenary/criminals set out to infiltrate an un-breachable fortress and liberate the prisoner held there. There are lots of plot twists, with the leader Kaz usually (but not always) one step ahead of his opponents.

7.Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley

8 published novels and one novella : https://www.goodreads.com/series/46160-flavia-de-luce

A mystery series set shortly after WW2, whose heroine Flavia is only 11 (in the first book), but possessed of a mind like Sherlock Holmes, a rather morbid interest in chemistry (specializing in poisons), and the youngest of a very interesting English noble family.  Most of the books are set in the environs of the decaying mansion and grounds of the de Luce estate, but one of the books sees Flavia off to Canada.  The series has ongoing themes, and is not really designed for standalone reading, but it can be done that way without undue difficulty.

8.The Reckoners series by Brandon Sanderson

3 novels and one novella: https://www.goodreads.com/series/93010-reckoners

An Earth where there are no super-heroes, only super-villains (the Epics), opposed by an extraordinary band of non-superpowered human rebels known as the Reckoners. Their goal – somehow defeating the Epics and restoring their world. Their only hope is to exploit the secret weakness of each super-villain.

9.Ex-heroes series by Peter Clines

5 titles: https://www.goodreads.com/series/67447-ex-heroes

{from the author’s website} In the days after civilization fell to the zombie hordes, a small team of heroes—including St. George, Zzzap, Cerberus, and Stealth—does everything they can to protect human survivors. Each day is a desperate battle against overwhelming odds as the heroes fight to keep the undead at bay, provide enough food and supplies for the living, and lay down their lives for those they’ve sworn to protect. But the hungry ex-humans aren’t the only threats the heroes face. Former allies, their powers and psyches hideously twisted, lurk in the shadows of the ruin that lies everywhere…and they may be the most terrifying threat of all.

10.The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (2013)

[from the publishers webpage] “The art of love is never a science: Meet Don Tillman, a brilliant yet socially inept professor of genetics, who’s decided it’s time he found a wife. In the orderly, evidence-based manner with which Don approaches all things, he designs the Wife Project to find his perfect partner: a sixteen-page, scientifically valid survey to filter out the drinkers, the smokers, the late arrivers.

Rosie Jarman possesses all these qualities. Don easily disqualifies her as a candidate for The Wife Project (even if she is “quite intelligent for a barmaid”). But Don is intrigued by Rosie’s own quest to identify her biological father. When an unlikely relationship develops as they collaborate on The Father Project, Don is forced to confront the spontaneous whirlwind that is Rosie―and the realization that, despite your best scientific efforts, you don’t find love, it finds you.”

*****

As you can see, I discovered some wonderful series last year, as well as individual books, that kept me up too late, made me laugh out loud, and grabbed my imagination.  I hope you find something here that you will likewise enjoy!

[disclaimer: with series I am just linking to the first title in the series for you to get started, but I either list the existing books in the series or provide a link so they can be read in order]

Repeat Viewings

Recently I saw on Facebook someone asking folks to talk about movies they’ve seen 5 or more times.  There is something to be said for a movie that makes you want to pick it up and watch again (and again) even though there are no real surprises left to be viewed. Although, I guess the best movies, like the best books, have enough depth and layers that a viewer might pick up something never seen before, or that went by fast enough not to significantly register on the first watching.

One of the first movies I ended up seeing five or more times was Young Frankenstein.

yf

The movie features the recently deceased Gene Wilder as the eponymous hero.  Gene’s character is the grandson of the infamous creator of the Monster, a patchwork creature put together from dead bodies and rejuvenated/revived/brought to life by the original “mad scientist.”  Filmed in black and white and featuring Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Terri Garr, Peter Boyle, Gene Hackman, and many other excellent actors, it was directed by Mel Brooks (who also co-wrote the script).  This comedy is filled with hilarious ad-libs and many quotable lines, but it was somewhat accidental that I ended up watching it as many times as I did.  After the initial viewing, it just kept on popping up where I was in situations available to watch it again, and since I enjoyed the movie greatly, that’s just what I did.

A second movie I watched repeatedly was one I was far more deliberate about in my viewing.  That movie is probably the top of my list of favorite movies – Casablanca.

220px-casablancaposter-gold

Now I have to really rein myself in when speaking about this classic title – for example, I wrote a college paper exclusively on the recurring aerodrome beacon motif that director Michael Curtiz uses to such good effect in the film  (I know, pretty geeky).  Set in the early days of WWII, before the U.S.A. entered the fray, it has a complex plot that is ultimately very satisfying, but what makes the film so enticing are the actors (both the leads and the other 22 speaking parts), the cinematography, and the writing (again, lots of quotable lines).  Watch it if you’ve never seen it – you will agree (I believe) with why it is at the top of so many “greatest of all time” film listings.

Interestingly enough, those first two films were done in black and white; the former for effect and the latter due to its age (1942).  The next movie(s) I’m going to reference were noted for their state-of-the-art special effects – the Star Wars trilogy (the original 3 movies, now referred to as IV, V, and VI).

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I first heard of these when I saw a paperback at a drugstore where the back cover said “soon to be a major motion picture.”

sw-pbk

This novelization was pretty good, and I enjoyed it, but like a lot of science fiction books turned into movies, it engendered very low expectations.  I was amazed when the movie became such a great hit.  Now just to make it perfectly clear, I’m talking about Episode IV – A New Hope; Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back; and Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.  These movies redefined for me and a generation what science fiction movies were, and what one could expect from superior special effects. On top of that, it’s a classic coming of age, good vs. evil tale, just coincidentally set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away.  I will probably watch Episode VII five times eventually (so far I’ve only seen it twice), but I have no plans to re-watch the “prequel” trilogy. [BTW, copies of that paperback are now going for between $150-$300 on eBay, and no, you cannot borrow mine.]

Speaking of movies that were on the cutting edge of special effects, the next film was literally on that special effects boundary – the movie was begun in black and white, and part-way through it changed to color.  You might have guessed by that I’m referring to The Wizard of Oz.

oz

I first saw this when I was five years old, on broadcast television (the film was decades old at that time already).  Now I do not recommend this film for every five-year old – I had nightmares after watching this.  And while the Wicked Witch was terrifying to me, the nightmares involved the Flying Monkeys.  The thought of creatures that could swoop down from above and either destroy me (as they did the Scarecrow) or carry me off really freaked me out.  Still, the wonderful music, the drama of the tornado, the magic of Oz, and the overall quality of the film drew me back and I think I might have watched it at least once a year for the next five or six years. Look for the way the filmmakers took the “opportunity” of color movie-making and incorporated it into the plot as the story moves from Kansas to Oz (and back).

I’m returning to another classic black and white film for my final recommendation.  The story around my “repeat viewing” of this movie is two-fold: the first is that I genuinely like the movie and probably would have watched it multiple times completely on my own, but the second reason is that my friends Mark and Ginny used to throw an annual Christmas party at their house called “It’s a Wonderful Party.”  Yes, the movie is one you might very well be watching this very season – It’s a Wonderful Life.

life

Now the party was very much like other Christmas parties for the most part:  food, beverages, party games, etc.  But the party always concluded with the playing of the movie as we all sat around and ate popcorn popped in bacon grease (one of Mark’s specialties – don’t ask, just try it if you have not). The film is officially defined as a “fantasy,” and was director Frank Capra’s personal favorite of all his films, and one he personally showed to his own family every Christmas. It tells the story of a good man who comes to believe it would have been better if he’d never been born, and the efforts of his guardian angel to show him otherwise by taking him to an alternate reality where his community suffered drastic changes due to his absence. The lead, James Stewart, also said this movie was his personal favorite of the films he acted in.  Heartwarming, with moments of deep emotion, it can still choke you up at Christmas time with its conclusion.

I might share other titles in the future – I’m sure these five titles are quite likely to match many others’ list of movies seen five or more times, and maybe next time I’ll share some films less likely to be common to a big number of readers of this blog.  Until then, Fontana Regional Library has all of these titles if you’d like to either watch them for the first time, or do some “repeat viewings” of your own!

Reading Series – a professional’s guide

Probably the first series I ever encountered was one my three older sisters had “bequeathed” to the family collection – it was the Trixie Belden mystery series.

As I read the single book in the series that we had on our bookshelves, I quickly became aware of (and somewhat annoyed at) the fact that the title in question was NOT the first book in the series.  In the book, references were made to events and characters from the previous novels. Starting the series in the “middle,” so to speak was certainly not ideal.

And that brings us to a fundamental feature of reading a series of novels – depending on the series, it can end up being virtually just one long story.  Many readers consider it vital that they start the series at the beginning.  It’s easy to see why that could be important – in a highly complex series, the plot development, character development, timeline and essential story being told are dependent on a linear progression of comprehension.  Imagine starting The Lord of the Rings trilogy at the second book: who are these people/creatures?  Why is the ring important? Where in space and time is the action taking place?  All these are set up in the first book.

Almost as important as starting at the beginning is having access to the conclusion of the series, or perhaps better stated as having access to the entire series.  Again, using one of the most popular titles as an example, imagine not having access to the final book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The second book concludes with a “cliffhanger” ending, and the reader is drawn inexorably on to the next/final piece of the story.  The term “cliffhanger” literally means a story (whether a movie, radio drama or book series) where “each installment ends in suspense in order to interest the [audience] in the next installment.” (From dictionary.com)  Of course, it comes from an installment of the story ending with the protagonist hanging from a cliff, and the audience does not know what is going to happen.

As story-consumers, we all want to know what’s going to happen next.  If the story in a book series compels the reader, we are eager to follow the series to its conclusion.  And that introduces another “downside” to becoming addicted to a series – if the series is ongoing, then the reader must wait for the next piece of the story to be produced.

I remember getting the first book in a series once for Christmas.  At the time, the series had four volumes.  Originally planned as a six-book series, I anticipated getting “hooked” on the story, but since the volumes had been getting published roughly a year apart, I did not foresee much difficulty in procuring the remaining volumes.  That book was The Eye of the World, and the series was the best-selling Wheel of Time series.  Well, that book series eventually ran to 14 volumes, and the author died after volume 11.  As you can imagine, distress by the fans was not insignificant.  Luckily for the readers, (if not the author), the author Robert Jordan died from a condition where death was foreseen (although expectations were for four years and he only survived about 18 months).  Therefore, he dictated and completed an outline for how the series was to be finished, and his wife/editor picked an excellent writer to complete the series.

This is not just an isolated example; right now, the highly popular book series A Song of Fire and Ice (on which the Game of Thrones television series is based) is uncompleted.  Originally planned to be a trilogy, it has expanded in the author’s vision to be a seven-book series, of which only five are complete.  The last book was published almost five and a half years ago.  Because of situations like this, some readers will not start a series unless they know that it has been completed.

BEWARE THE DANGERS OF STEPPING UNHEEDINGLY INTO A BOOK SERIES!

On the other hand, there are few reading experiences more potentially rewarding than a long, dense, well-told story.  A reader literally does not want the series to end!

Currently, I find myself following several ongoing series.  Here are some still open-ended series that I eagerly anticipate the publishing of each new installment:

The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

The original name for the first title was Semiautomagic, and describes this blend of urban fantasy with noir detective story.

A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin [see earlier link]

The series that is the basis of the very popular HBO series Game of Thrones [see earlier link]; this series takes almost every fantasy trope and stands it on its head.  Compelling reading.

The Necromancer Series by Lish McBride

This is a YA series with a good-hearted hero who unknowingly is heir to dark necromantic powers.

The Checquy Files by Daniel O’Malley

The first book starts with the heroine having no memory, but awakening surrounded by dead bodies.  It gets even more intriguing after that.

The Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines

Superheroes in a post-apocalyptic world of zombies!  ‘Nuff said.

And here are five series that are completely finished that I’ve enjoyed:

The Lord of the Rings by J. R.R. Tolkien

This is the ultimate high fantasy series.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

A children’s series with surprising depth, it tells the story of an alternate world of talking animals.

The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan (and Brandon Sanderson) [see earlier link]

This fourteen title high fantasy series is not for lightweights, but it is a richly developed world, has a multitude of interesting characters, and the long story’s destination is ultimately worth the journey.

The Baroque Series by Neal Stephenson

3 historical fiction novels (with cliffhanger endings) set in the period from the mid-1600s to the early 1700s – they span the globe, and while the main protagonists are fictional, they interact with real historical characters while telling an incredible tale of the real-life wonders that took place around the world during this time period when science was in its infancy.

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

This series tells the story of a young wizard through seven titles, each covering a year of his schooling while he and his friends deal with dark and deadly adversaries. {And our library has the titles in Spanish too!}

Finally, there are series where each title is essentially “stand-alone” – if you are hooked by the setting and/or the protagonist, but want to feel free to “dip in and out” with no linear plotlines, I can recommend these:

The Tarzan series by Edgar Rice Burroughs (the first two books do have a “one story” theme, with the first book ending in a cliffhanger of sorts, but the rest are pretty much stand-alone).

A child of noble English lineage is orphaned in the deepest jungle of Africa and raised by apes.

The Reacher series by Lee Child

A lone wolf former military policeman drifts across the US righting wrongs and solving mysteries.

[The Fontana Regional Library system has some or all of the titles mentioned in each of these series!]

Have space suit – will travel

I was crazy about outer space as a kid.  I had astronaut pajamas, and I remember as a 5-year old jumping into bed to go to sleep and doing a countdown (5…4…3…2…1 – Blastoff!) before closing my eyes and pretending my bed was a rocket.

I also had the book “You will go to the Moon” and re-read it endlessly.  I suppose with that kind of a background, it is not very surprising to learn that I eventually ended up reading science fiction.  After all, astronauts had already gone to the moon – I needed something more.

My ticket to this interest in reading was granted by a kind librarian at my public library.  On my first visit to their new building, she noticed me wandering in the stacks and asked me what kind of books I liked.  I replied, “Books about outer space!”  She led me to a section of the stacks and pointed to some books that had rocket ships on the spines {something like this:  scifi-rocket}

She handed one to me titled “Have space suit – will travel.”

It was my first book by an author named Robert A. Heinlein.

Robert Heinlein is generally acknowledged to be one of the giants of early science fiction, not just by readers and fans, but also by other authors.  His writing career, started only after prematurely ended stints in the military, politics, and as an inventor (for example, one of the first modern designs for the waterbed in 1942) began with his first published story in 1939; originally written for a $50 prize in a writing contest, he instead sold it for considerably more.  He quickly dominated the science fiction genre; in the year after (1940), he wrote and saw published three short novels, four novelettes, and seven short stories. One could say that no one else really dominated their genre as Heinlein did in the first few years of their careers.

The book that won me over [Have space suit – will travel] was the last of his twelve titles that were known as “Heinlein juveniles.”  What would now be known as YA, or Young Adult, these twelve titles are considered some of his best works – I quickly found and read all the earlier titles after discovering this author. Published by Scribner’s, these books came out every year before Christmas between 1947 and 1958.  However, Heinlein felt constrained by his editors and their target audience, and he jumped to a new publisher (Putnam) when his 13th title was rejected by Scribner’s.  That book was Starship Troopers, and became rather controversial in its time for its admiring portrayal of the military; it was followed by titles that were real game-changers and blockbusters in science fiction: Stranger in a strange land, and The Moon is a harsh mistress.  Each of these is considered by many to be a contender for being known as his best (vs. his juvenile titles).

Heinlein wrote 32 novels, 59 short stories, and 16 collections published in his lifetime. Four films, two TV series, several episodes of a radio series, and a board game were derived from his work. He wrote a screenplay for one of the films. Heinlein edited an anthology of other writers’ Sci Fi short stories.

Three non-fiction books and two poems have been published posthumously. One novel has been published posthumously and another, based on Heinlein’s notes and outline and written by Spider Robinson, was published in 2006. Four collections have been published posthumously.

From waterbeds to waldos, from TANSTAAFL to “grok”, from Space Marines and powered battle armor to Tribbles and the concept of “paying it forward,” Heinlein left his mark and legacy on our time. He has had an asteroid, a crater on Mars, and an endowed chair in Aerospace Engineering at the US Naval Academy named after him.  Try one of the 153 works under his name found in NC Cardinal, and you might find him, as I did, to be a favorite.

You’ll like this one!

 

If you get a reputation as a “reader,” it won’t be long before folks you know start asking you about books.  “Read any good books lately?”  “What are you reading now?” “I need a good book recommendation – what do you suggest?”

You’ll hear that even more often if you happen to be a librarian or work in a library. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that, I’d have more money than you.

People like all sorts of books.  As discussed earlier, the most popular books in libraries usually fall into the genre fiction areas.  (Mysteries, thrillers, romances, etc.)  When asked the question about a good book to recommend, I could ask “What types of books do you usually enjoy?”  If the questioner was someone like my friend Stephen, and I knew he liked history, I could say, “Have you read 1491?”

If it was someone like Chris, I might say, “Try Ghostman – it’s a quirky, well-written thriller.”

But I do have a “go-to” title, that so far has been remarkably well-received by almost everyone I’ve ever recommended it to.  Like mysteries?  Like romance?  Like history? Like books that have a story within a story? Or for my library colleagues, “Do you like stories featuring libraries?”

sotw

There are some other things to like about this book.  The first thing is that it was originally written in Spanish. Not too many people (besides Westley Roberts) have known many Spaniards, but Carlos Ruiz Zafón is one worth getting to know. Besides the author, the translator is also outstanding, and her work on translating this title to English is amazing. Her name is Lucia Graves, and she is the daughter of Robert Graves.

This book, written in 2001 and translated to English in 2004, is a worldwide international bestseller titled The shadow of the wind.  At the heart of this story is the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books. A young boy named Daniel Sempere, whose mother has died, is taken there by his bookshop owner father shortly after the end of the Spanish Civil War, but pre-WWII.  The Cemetery is a huge library of old and forgotten titles.  A few secret librarians guard the library.  Traditionally, anyone once admitted is allowed to choose one book, which can be taken from the Cemetery, but which must then become the responsibility of the initiate and guarded for their lifetime.  Daniel chooses a book by Julian Carax called The Shadow of the Wind, and becomes its guardian.

Daniel becomes enraptured reading the book, and soon sets out to find other works by Carax.  He tries to find out all he can about the author.  In his investigations, he unleashes the dark forces that have tried to bury Julian and destroy his works, including every copy of The Shadow of the Wind.

This book is full of fascinating characters and a lot of history as well.  The writing is exceptional, and the descriptions make the story come alive in your mind. The story captures the sweetness of youth and adventure, as well as the darkness humanity is capable of.  Some characters are models of loyalty and integrity, while others are monstrous and implacable.

So with some trepidation but also some confidence, I recommend The shadow of the wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.  Let me know what you think!

P.S. – if you like the book, the author has written two others in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books cycle.