Picture books!

Occasionally, I have to meet new people. Even more occasionally (thank goodness), I will meet a new person who, upon learning that I work at a library, will say some version of, “I like books – if they have pictures in them!” They will then look at me expectantly with an expression of inane smugness, waiting for a guffaw at their clever joke.

They don’t get the guffaw.

I actually do like books with pictures in them. One of the perks of working at a library is getting to see all the new books as they arrive, and new children’s books are the most exciting.

One of my favorite new books that came to us recently is I Am NOT A Chair! by Ross Burach. The story is about a giraffe named Giraffe who, on his first day in the jungle, keeps being mistaken by the other animals for a chair! Giraffe is not, in fact, a chair, but you’ll have to read the book yourself to see if he ever finds a voice to assert his place in the world.

Giraffe is not a chair
Yeah, right.

Now, if you’re a little over-analytic like I am, you might suppose that the other animals don’t recognize Giraffe for the giraffe that he is because the jungle is not his natural habitat. Luckily a quick online catalog search will turn up plenty of non-fiction books about giraffes to satisfy your need to be right. Libraries to the rescue!

Giraffe is a book
Oh my gosh. Look at that face.

Moving on, we have Escargot by Dashka Slater, a story about an arrogant a charming French snail on a mission to eat the salad at the end of the book, provided the salad meets Escargot’s distinguished culinary expectations. The plot moves along at a snail’s pace and is punctuated by solicitations for compliments from the self-obsessed self-confident title gastropod, but the character development and expressive illustrations will make it worth your time to read. I won’t entirely spoil the ending for you, but suffice it to say that Escargot’s gastronomic horizons are broadened.

Escargot salad
Hold the salt, please!

If Escargot whets your appetite, follow it up with one of the plentiful picture-laden cookbooks gracing our non-fiction shelves. Of particular interest might be Julia Childs’ Mastering the Art of French Cooking Patricia Wells’ Salad As A Meal, which has just enough salad recipes to make you feel healthy while flipping through its pages. (Feel free to skip straight to the bread chapter, though, and don’t forget about the perennially hungry public servants at your friendly local library when you’re handing out free samples!)

And here, because a book of poetry is really just the same as a book with pictures, I will end with a poem.

“It Was Early” by Mary Oliver

It was early,
which has always been my hour
to begin looking
at the world

and of course,
even in the darkness,
to begin
listening into it,

especially
under the pines
where the owl lives
and sometimes calls out

as I walk by,
as he did
on this morning.
So many gifts!

What do they mean?
In the marshes
where the pink light
was just arriving

the mink
with his bristle tail
was stalking
the soft-eared mice,

and in the pines
the cones were heavy,
each one
ordained to open.

Sometimes I need
only to stand
wherever I am
to be blessed.

Little mink, let me watch you.
Little mice, run and run.
Dear pine cone, let me hold you
as you open.

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!

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]

My Favorite Mystery Writers 2

When I’m not reading history or biography I tend to read mysteries, suspense novels,  and / or thrillers.  I have written in this blog before about some of my favorite mystery authors.  Here goes with some more!   I love British police procedurals, series that have a strong woman as the main character, mysteries with a touch of humor to them,  thrillers with an international twist, the noir genre,  and mysteries that are set in the near past (19th and 20th centuries).  Over the years, I’ve come to realize that some authors mean to have their books read in the order in which they are published, so I read them thusly.

Some authors are content to let their characters live in a particular time and others stretch their lives out to encompass long periods of time.  Here are some examples.   Jacqueline Winspear enters Maisie Dobbs’ life when Maisie is a young teenager in the first decade of the 20th century.  In her twelfth book,  an adult Maisie travels to Berlin in 1938.   Contrast that with Sue Graftons Kinsey Millhone, who appears to be stuck in the 1980s and  ages  one year every two and half books.    Anne Perry‘s character Thomas Pitt has been combating criminals and traitors in London for the last twenty years of the nineteenth century through thirty-one volumes in the series.  He and his wife, whom he met in his first case, married at the end of the first book and now have two teen-aged children.   Elizabeth George‘s Inspector Lynley mysteries seem to follow chronologically one right after another.

Although I prefer British mysteries written by British authors, I have found there are American writers who write mysteries set in the British Isles almost as good as the natives.  Elizabeth George is one of these.   Inspector  Thomas Lynley is a peer who likes to downplay his title, but dates a woman who is also an aristocrat.  His creator has paired him with a duo of detectives, Barbara Havers and Winston Nkata from totally different cultures:  Havers is from a lower middle class background who lives with aging parents  in council (public) housing;  Nkata is a black man who came from a violent, troubled youth.

Martha Grimes is another American author whose main character is a Scotland Yard detective.   Grimes is unique because all her mysteries have titles that are the names of real pubs in Great Britain.   Her main characters are Richard Jury, and Melrose Plant, a friend who helps Jury with some of his cases.   Plant is a hereditary peer who has given up his titles to the dismay of his American born aunt.  Jury and Plant’s worlds go from Islington, the area of London where Jury lives, to New Scotland Yard where he works, to Long Piddleton, where Plant’s ancestral home is located.   Secondary characters inhabit these locales and other places where Jury has to go for his cases.

An author’s success with a series of books inhabited by the same characters, such as Grimes’,   depends on similar characteristics that make for hit series on television.  First, of course, there has to be good writing.   The main characters have to be believable and supported by an entertaining secondary cast of characters.  A good example of this is one of my favorite authors whom I haven’t mentioned yet, Daniel Silva, who writes thrillers that could mirror tomorrow’s headlines.  The main character of Silva’s books is Gabriel Allon, an Israeli art restorer who doubles as a spy/assassin.  Among Allon’s supporting cast is his second  wife, Chiara, also an agent for the Office, the Israeli intelligence agency they both work for.  In addition to her, he has a team who supports him in whatever op they are running.  Various agents from MI6, CIA, etc. also populate these books, along with villains from a number of Arab organizations, both real and fictional.

To close, I’d like to remember one of my favorite writers, Ruth Rendell.   She died in May 2015 at the age of 85.  She was honored by the Queen as a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1996 and as a life peer, Baroness Rendell of Babergh, in 1997.  As such she was an active Labourite member of the House of Lords until she had a stroke four months before she died.  “The last words of Ruth Rendell’s 66th novel, which can be revealed without a spoiler, consists of someone declaring: “Now it’s all over. ” May she rest in peace!

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.

Why Read Moby Dick?

I don’t recall if I ever attempted to read Moby Dick in the past.  I have faint memories of seeing Gregory Peck on the movie screen as the one legged Captain Ahab driven to madness in his striving to get revenge from the great white whale.  At that time, over sixty years ago, we had Classic Comics.  They would now be called graphic novels.    (To see the cover of Classic Comic of  Moby Dick  click on the title. )  So why at my advanced age did I decide to read Moby DickTo begin with, I read Nathaniel Philbrick’s National Book Award winning book, In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, about the real incident in 1820 on which Melville based his novel.   Second, I read his  book entitled, Why Read Moby Dick.

 The story of The Essex takes place in a time, 1820, when, as soon a ship was out of sight of the shore, its crew was out of reach of help should a crisis occur.  Although navigation had improved since the European explorers cast off their harbors, ship to shore communication had not, and would not until the invention of the radio at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

According to National Geographic’s website, a Sperm Whale is 49 to 59 feet long and weights 35 to 45 tons.  The whale that sunk the Essex hit the ship’s bow, splintering it, causing the vessel to start sinking.   The survivors left the wreck in three whale boats (the smaller vessels actually used to hunt the whales) and eventually attempted to make it to west coast of South America, which was over 2,000 miles to the east.  There are no spoilers here – to find out how survivors, if any, were rescued, you will have to read the book!

Whales had a very valuable product:  oil!  Before the discovery of petroleum,  whale oil was used in lamps and other products.  But getting whale oil was a dangerous occupation and very labor intensive.   Crews on whale ships would stay at sea for up to three years while searching the oceans of the earth for whales.  For example,  The Essex left Nantucket on August 21, 1819 sailing east, with the prevailing winds, to the Azore Islands, then southeast to Cape Azore Islands off the coast of Africa.  The next step of the vessel’s journey was southwesterly along the east coast of South America, then around Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean.  After preceding north, picking up provisions along the way, up the west coast of South America, The Essex headed west, south of the Galapagos Islands, until November 20, 1820, when she was rammed  by a whale and sunk.

Nathaniel Philbrick’s father was a English professor who introduced his two sons to Moby Dick at a young age.  Philbrick states he has read Moby Dick at least a dozen times.  He has found:

“Contained  in the pages of Moby Dick is nothing less the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals that contribute and to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 as well as a civil war in 1861 and continue to drive this country’s ever-contentious march into the future.” (p. 6)

Unfortunately, Moby Dick did not sell well during Melville’s lifetime.  From the time the book was published, 1851, until the author’s death, 1891, the now classic  sold only 3,715 copies. That’s under a hundred copies a year.   It was not until after World War I that critics, especially contemporary  20th century writers,  took notice of Melville’s novel.

Although I’ve had a copy in my library for over sixty years,  I have not taken time to read Moby Dick, but I am reading it now.  Why should I read it at all?  Why should you read it?  What role did Nathaniel Hawthorne play in the writing of Moby Dick?  Read Nathaniel Philbrick’s relatively short book to answer those questions.

Go to the following websites if  you desire to find out more about sperm whales and the 19th century American whaling industry.

 

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?”

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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.

The Omnicompetent Hero   

When British TV producer Jim Grant found himself “let go” from his position due to corporate restructuring, he read some mystery/thriller novels.  One thing that started to bother him was that each hero in the novels he was reading had some sort of flaw.  Deciding to write a novel himself because “they are the purest form of entertainment,” he also decided he’d had about enough of these “miserable and depressed” protagonists, and he would write about a hero without any such flaws.

Creating the pen name “Lee Child” for himself and creating the hero named Jack Reacher, that author became a huge success.  The Reacher novels now number twenty titles, with the 21st due out this November.  There has been one movie grossing $200 million worldwide, and the second movie about Reacher is slated to be released this October.

I came across Jack Reacher while playing “Genre Bingo” several years ago.  Since then, I’ve read every one of the 20 titles, and also seen the movie.

Reacher the character is smart, and his moral compass is unshakeable.  Moreover, he is absolutely the toughest physically.  Essentially, there is no criminal situation he cannot solve.

svzjbLee Child was not the first to create such a character.  Going back to Siegel and Shuster in the 30s with their Superman character, moving to Doc Savage, and continuing with such characters as James Bond in the films and Lara Croft in video games, I’ve dubbed such heroes “omnicompetent” – in other words, they do all things well.

However, Jack Reacher may be the biggest omnicompetent hero thriving in fiction right now.

What are Reacher’s strengths and attributes?

Physical strength: 6’5”, 250 lbs. of  muscle; hand to hand fighting ability – fights with brutality and a mix of moves from various martial arts learned in childhood and Military Police training; marksman – Reacher is one of the top long distance rifle shots in the entire world, and is proficient with virtually all firearms; inborn internal clock – always knows what time it is; mathematical ability – able to perform calculations in his head and does mathematics for fun; fearlessness – reacts to situations that would induce fear in others with aggression; language arts – fluent in English and French, passable in Spanish; musical knowledge and memory – can recall entire musical pieces note by note with the ability of an inborn MP3 player, has obscure blues musicians lives and histories memorized (and this figures into plotlines); and finally, detective ability – due to his background in the Military Police, Reacher has thorough knowledge of procedure and understands how to investigate mysteries.

After meeting this prodigy in print, it was disconcerting to many to have Tom Cruise play Reacher in the movies.  Lee Child, however, was fine with it, claiming that Cruise captured the essential element of the Jack Reacher character – he is a force of nature and unstoppable.

If any of this sounds appealing, please investigate the world of Jack Reacher (books, CD audiobooks, eAudio, eBooks, and movie), at Fontana Regional Library.

A man for all genres?

Genre fiction is probably the most popular of what circulates at a public library.  Mysteries, romance, science fiction, fantasy, etc. always have devoted readerships.

Many authors are known for the kind of genre they (mostly) write in – the late Louis L’Amour, although he wrote in a few other genres, will be remembered (and still read) for his Westerns.  Agatha Christie wrote some romances but is famous for her mysteries.

One contemporary author, however, seems to be trying very hard to play “genre bingo” (see Chris’ blog from last summer).  He’s written juvenile fiction, contemporary mysteries, science fiction, young adult superhero novels, and high fantasy. He has stand-alone novels, series, and even finished a highly popular high fantasy epic series that was started by another author.

This author is Brandon Sanderson.  He first came to attention with his first novel, a stand-alone fantasy called Elantris.  (available also as a CD Audiobook)

He next ventured into the territory of a fantasy series, called the Mistborn saga.  (that series now has seven titles as of 2016).  As you might guess by those numbers, the series was highly successful.

But before he’d even completed his original planned trilogy, he shifted gears and started a children’s series, the Alcatraz series, about a young hero whose special gift is that he’s very good at breaking things.  Many libraries bought the first book because it was titled Alcatraz versus the evil librarians. There are now 4 books in that series, again a measure of their popularity.

His next work was another standalone fantasy called Warbreaker.  This was followed by the announcement that Sanderson had been chosen to complete the extremely popular fantasy series The Wheel of Time.  Its creator, Robert Jordan, had passed away but had time to complete notes and recordings on how to complete/resolve the series.  Sanderson was chosen by Jordan’s widow and editor, and his work in completing the series has received acclaim.

While completing the Wheel of Time, Sanderson began another high fantasy series of his own called the Stormlight Archive, which is planned to be a ten-book series.  So far, two have been published.

In 2012, he started a contemporary mystery series with a radical protagonist who suffers from a split personality disorder.  There are two books in that series.

In 2013, Sanderson began a young adult series with the title The Rithmatist. Later that same year, he started another YA series, this time in the popular superhero genre, called The Reckoners series.  That trilogy was just completed this year with the title Calamity.

Sanderson has been a top 10 New York Times bestselling author, has won several major awards, and also teaches creative writing at the university level.  His fantasy novels are admired for his unique takes on magic and magic use, while his mystery and YA series are known for their sometimes surprising characters and plots.

If you’ve been counting, he has been published in 6 areas/genres – fantasy, science fiction, mystery, superhero, Young Adult, and children’s.

Fontana Regional Library has about 24 of his titles, in formats from eAudio to eBook to CD Audiobook, and even print.  If any of this sounds interesting, try one and let me know what you think!