Friday, December 12, 2014

Five on Friday - James W. Hall

Happy Friday my friends. I'm on the road so my usual chit chat will be a little brief today. I didn't want to miss out on sharing our Five on Friday, though, so let me get right to introducing our wonderful guest.

James W. Hall is a professor, a poet and a thriller writer. Oh yeah, he writes non-fiction and short stories, too. But his most recent release is the fourteenth book in his Thorn thriller series, THE BIG FINISHwhich came out December 2nd. He's an Edgar and John D. Macdonald Award-winner, was a Fulbright professor in Spain and founded the creative writing program at Florida International University. Whew! Pretty impressive resume, don't ya think? But I have to admit I'm rather fascinated by the fact that he once dug post holes and built a fence for Robert Redford.

I'm very excited to have him on the blog today, so let me turn it over to James W. Hall:

James W. Hall from his "first, and hopefully not last, trip to Venice."

If I could tell my 16-year-old self one piece of advice, knowing what I know now, it would be: Use your floss and sunscreen, and don’t fret so much about making every sentence sound so damn poetic.

The best gift I ever received was: a British racing green MG Midget for my 18th birthday. My dad was having an unusually good year in the real estate business, bless his heart.

A skill I’ve always wanted to have, but don’t is: Tuning a carburetor.

If I won the lottery tomorrow, the first thing I would do would be: Fire my parsimonious financial planner.

The #1 item on my bucket list right now is: Win a couple of rounds in a 65 and older tennis tournament.

Well an MG Midget IS a pretty great gift, I'd say! And we'll keep an eye out for that tennis win. Many thanks to James Hall for this fun peek into his life. Be sure to catch up with him on Facebook and Twitter. And you can learn more about him, his books, and his book tours at his website.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Stocking Stuffer gift ideas

The next post in my gift ideas series is a couple of ideas for your book lover's stocking gifts.

The first one is especially good if your book lover enjoys writing letters. I've had several books this year from Quirk Books that have really tickled my fancy and this pair of books of postcards does as well.

Hugs and Misses and Stars and Swipes both include 30 mailable postscards with humorous silhouette art from Wilhelm Staehle.

First I have to share the bio for Staehle on the inside flap of the binding. This will give you an idea of the tickling humor found on the cards themselves:

"Wilhelm Staehle is a horribly disfigured gentleman who often frightens small children when passing by. He divides his free time between sporting for fox hunters and dressing his broad collection of taxidermy. He also finds time to craft silhouettes. He begs you to enjoy them. Or at the very least to refrain from informing him if you do not."



Stars and Swipes is a collection of Americana images blended with pop culture to create wacky, laugh out loud scenarios like this one featuring Lady Liberty:

Text reads: "100 years with my arm raised in New York and still no cab."
I can envision these being great little greetings during hot political campaigns or just for your book lover who takes a special pride in his/her American-ness.



Hugs and Misses is summed up by Quirk as: "full of lovelorn ladies and roguish gentlemen suffering through painful encounters, indecent proposals, tasteless pick-up lines and failed attempts at charm. The postcards feature the truths about love and relationships that we're not permitted to say aloud (lest we find ourselves sleeping upon the couch)." Here's one of my favorites:

The text reads: (woman) "I'm allergic to mussels." (man) "That's fantastic I don't work out."

Both books of postcards are made from a nice, heavy stock and each card needs only a stamp--and your pithy message--to be ready for posting.

The other stocking stuffer gift idea I have to share with you is this humorous gag gift: Collected Works of Literary Lites. They are available on Etsy and are perfect for your book lover who has a "stinky" sense of humor.

And let's hear from you all. What other fun stocking stuffer ideas have you found for book lovers on your gift list?


Monday, December 8, 2014

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth - Christopher Scotton

My review of The Secret Wisdom of the Earth first appeared as a Maximum Shelf issue at Shelf Awareness. I am posting it today for non-crime Monday with their permission. You can also check out my interview with Christopher Scotton here.

First line: "The Appalachian Mountains rise a darker blue on the washed horizon if you're driving east from Indiana in the morning."

Making his fiction debut with an ambitious coming of age novel, Christopher Scotton paints the Appalachian region and its people with a reverential brush. Using their flaws and charms to highlight and shadow the work, Scotton produces a masterpiece in The Secret Wisdom of the Earth.

Leaving Indiana for Medgar, Kentucky, fourteen-year-old Kevin Gillooly and his mother try to escape the horror of an accident that took the life of Kevin's younger brother. His mother is non-functional with guilt, and Kevin is battling his own trauma plus the weight of blame from his father.

Medgar offers Kevin a freedom he hasn't known before and one he desperately needs to survive the suffocation his family's loss is creating. He wanders the countryside with his new friend Buzzy Fink, discovering both the beauty and the hostility of a land that means everything to his grandfather, Arthur "Pops" Peebles. As adult Kevin narrates the story he fondly recalls, "Off we'd go, breaknecking the hills and plundering the hollows where the compounded guilt and grief I felt would fall away like original sin at a baptismal."

Through this small backwoods town in Kentucky, Scotton sketches a rainbow of humanity. Using natural--and often humorous--dialogue, vivid descriptions and authentic behaviors, he populates Medgar with a colorful cast Kevin meets as he assumes the role of assistant to his large animal vet grandfather. While most in Medgar are poor, this is the least of what defines them. For example, "'The Finks are poor, but they're proud poor. Esmer runs the hollow hard. Kids stay in school; they truck their garbage out once a week. These are solid people.'" Contrast them to the Budgets who "'generally don't go to school past the tenth grade; they live off the land, get handouts, and work the mines and odd jobs to make up the rest. They've been living in this hollow for almost one hundred years, marrying each other and having each other's babies. The gene pool is getting a bit shallow.'"

And with the diversity of people comes a diversity of issues: racism, hate crimes, poverty and the issue that symbolizes them all, mountaintop removal.

Coal mining has been a way of life in Medgar for many years, but instead of tunneling into the earth, the coal companies now remove the tops of mountains through explosions, leaving the landscape ripped open and scarred. For part of Medgar's residents, including Pops and Paul Pierce, this is a travesty that must stop. It's not only erasing the physical land but the history of Medgar's people: the acid rain created from coal dust erodes the headstones in the graveyards.

One Medgar resident bemoans, "'We are talking about mountains that have been here for ten thousand years. Mountains that have defined us for generations... and now three are gone.... they are not coming back.... Ever.'" And Pops points out "'People don't care about experts; they care about Betty Dodger being a widow.... They care about black water coming out of the faucets up in Corbin Hollow. They care about their neighbors getting sick from all this crap in the water.'"

As dark as Scotton daubs mountaintop removal into his picture of Appalachia, Kevin's narrative reveals the other side as well: the struggling families who have no other way of making a living in the harsh, elevated landscape. Their mineral rights and land ownership are all they can leverage. Still, Pops and Paul work to rally the Medgar citizens against the mining companies and the decimation of Kentucky's mountains.

The division between the factions intensifies during that summer of 1985. A series of violent crimes rock the town with more force than one of the mountaintop explosions and as the investigation stalls for lack of evidence, Kevin learns the hard truth in Pop's words, "'Evil doesn't have to be loud, son. In fact, it reserves that for the merely boorish. Evil is quiet, stealthy--it sneaks up on you, smiles, and pats you on the back while pissing down your leg.'"

The death of Kevin's brother, the wounding of nature and the crimes that happen in Medgar are all brutally dark and ugly, yet The Secret Wisdom of the Earth is splendid and hopeful. Scotton's undeniable love and awe of this region shine through as he painstakingly portrays strokes of beauty in man and nature.

While camping Pops teaches Kevin about the "courtesy pile" of firewood. And when Kevin wants to know what if people don't do their part, Pops' response is "'Well, somebody's gotta be first, don't you think? Just imagine what would happen if we all left a place a little better than we found it.'" This advice carries a multitude of meanings in the book, but it also reflects what Scotton has done with his debut novel. He's left the literary world a little better than he found it.

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth will be available from Grand Central Publishing January 6th in hardcover (ISBN: 9781455551927). There will also be an unabridged audio (ISBN: 9781478986874), narrated by Robert Petkoff, available from Hatchette Audio and Blackstone Audio

Friday, December 5, 2014

Five on Friday - Lesley Kagen

Happy Friday and my apologies for a quiet week. The days are just zipping past me lately and I have a bunch of stuff I need to be sharing with you. I'm going to do my very best to get back on track this weekend, starting with my holiday recommendation post that was supposed to be yesterday. I'll get that up for you tomorrow, it's a fun one for sure.

I also have to take a little minute here to do a celebration dance of sorts. If you've ever actually seen me dance you might suspect I've been badly injured and try to call an ambulance, so let's just pretend dance, o.k? This is my 1500th blog post. Good gracious! Who knew I had it in me? Next month will mark 7 years of this blog. SEVEN YEARS! Craziness! Thanks for being along for the ride. Making new friends has been the best part.

O.k. that's enough pretend dancing. On to other things...

Contests. What's going on with contests. Let's see:

My wonderful friends at TLC Book Tours have a contest going on on their Facebook page...a bunch of delectable bookish loot in this one.

Friday Reads has a great giveaway for Civil War/history buffs. It's a photography book called Houses of Civil War America. It sounds pretty fascinating to me, actually.

Criminal Element has a "What is War Good For" sweepstakes package you can win. I'm sensing a war theme here...kind of odd for the holiday season. Hmmmmm....

Well thank goodness for Lesa! She's a bit more in the holiday spirit with a Cleo Coyle Holiday Giveaway this week.

And our special guest today has a contest going on to win a copy of her new book AND an iPad Mini. So don't miss this one.

And now it's time to introduce an incredibly talented woman I'm delighted is joining us today. Lesley Kagen had an amazing path to her writing career. She worked in radio, in tv and restaurants! Oh and her most important job, of course, is mother. It wasn't until her children left that she began seriously writing.

Her debut novel, Whistling in the Dark, took a little while to find an agent who loved it, but now it's in its sixteenth printing. Whistling introduced her much loved O'Malley sisters, Sally and Troo. And this month brings the publication of Lesley's sixth novel, The Resurrection of Tess Blessing. If you're familiar with Lesley's work, you're likely as excited as I am for this new book. If you haven't read her work before, I encourage you to check it out. I especially adored the audiobook of Good Graces that Lesley narrated herself.

Because I am fortunate to worth with Lesley through her website, I know how busy she is with this book release and it's unpredictability. So I'm ever so grateful she could take some time out for a Five on Friday chat. Ladies and gentlemen, Ms. Lesley Kagen!



1. The # 1 item on my bucket list right now is taking my g-babies to Disney World. Nothing quite as wonderful and hilarious as the look on their little faces when they bump into Mickey for the first time.

2. The best gift I ever received, other than my children, was my first horse. I fainted.

3. One thing that I have no tolerance for is entitled folk. I can barely stop myself from punching them in the bread box.

4. If I won the lottery tomorrow, the first thing I would do is start planning how I would go about surprising the hell out of deserving people with gifts. (I have this fantasy to be John Beresford Tipton from The Millionaire.) How fun would that be!

5. The most daring thing I've done to date is move to Hollywood without a job when I was in my mid-twenties. I had this foolish idea that I'd be "discovered" like Lana Turner, even though I do not fill out a sweater the way she did. The only discovering that was done was that the ice cream at Schwab's Drugstore was awesome.

I think I would volunteer to help Lesley on her Millionaire re-enactment! You can learn a little more about Lesley in this interview at Huffington Post that ran the other day. Plus, as I know, you can check out her website, her Facebook Page and her Twitter account. Lesley's also been blogging, so you can follow along with her at her Yellow Umbrella blog as well.

Many, many thanks to the wonderful Lesley and to everyone for stopping by today. Have a grand weekend and happy reading!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Bookish Gifts for the Doglover on your List

The first group I'll target in the bookish gift series this year is dog lovers. Most of you who know me, know I am definitely a dog lover myself.

I have a couple of wonderful gift books that would delight most any dog lover on your list. First is a full-color photography collection called SHAKE PUPPIES. This is a book that will put a smile on your face as soon as you open it--heck, as soon as you look at the cover! I plan to keep it nearby for anytime I just need a mood alteration because every time I flip through the photos, I feel an overall sense of happiness descend on me.

The book consists of a series of puppy photos in mid-shake. Each puppy has two freeze frame shots from their shake motion and the looks on the puppy faces are priceless. There are long-haired puppies, short-haired puppies, big puppies and wee little puppies. And heart-warmingly, there are disabled puppies included as well. It's just an all-around lovely book. And if you watch the video below, you'll see that an ear flush or fluid of some kind was used to induce the shaking motions. I attempted to get my dogs photographed after their ear cleanings, but it wasn't nearly as successful as this.

 

The book also begins and ends with great segments from Carli Davidson, the photographer, on adopting puppies and some very basic first training steps. So this would also be a prize item for someone considering a new adoption.

There's also a previous collection called simply, SHAKE, that features dogs. Here's a little video you can check out:





The other book that would make a lovely gift for dog--and animal--lovers on your list is UNLIKELY HEROES by National Geographic writer Jennifer Holland. You may already be familiar with her very popular UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIPS. This follow-up is an uplifting collection of 37 stories about animals taking on the role of hero. There are instances involving domesticated dogs and cats, but also farm animals: cows and goats, exotic animals: elephants and lions, and lots of other fun creatures: elk, otters and llamas.

The stories are each short, quick reads so the book can be consumed in bursts, possibly a feature or two each night before turning in, or it can be devoured like a regular book. The small little factoid insets add extra interest and photos accompany each anecdote. (Note: the final book is full color, but my review version was black and white.)

SHAKE PUPPIES (and SHAKE) is available in hardcover from Harper Design. And if you really find yourself addicted, there are calendars of the shake photos as well.

UNLIKELY HEROES is available in a paperback version from Workman Press.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

My Life According to Books

Welcome to today's Thankfully Reading Weekend mini-challenge. This is a meme I have done for the past several years, thanks to my friend Pop Culture Nerd. This year I collaborated with her to come up with the sentence starters and we're sharing it with you for this mini-challenge.

For those who haven't heard of this fun activity before, I'm going to give you the beginnings to ten sentences. You complete the sentences with book titles from books you've read this year. They don't have to be books that were published this year, just books you read this year.

You can see Pop Culture Nerd's responses here. And the responses I gave for previous years include last year, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009 (yes, I obviously enjoy this--I hope you do, too).

So now on to this year's feature:

1. Black Friday makes me: Roosevelt's Beast (Louis Bayard)

2. If you post racists comments on Facebook, I: (flip) The Kill Switch (James Rollins & Grant Blackwood)

3. In my ID photo, I look like: (I belong in) Morgue Drawer 4 (Jutta Profijt)

4. If someone interrupts my reading, I: Think Like a Freak (Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner)

5. When I read/watch the news I: (become an) Angry Optimist (Lisa Rogak)

6. The last time I (we) visited the zoo, I (we): (were) The Happiest People in the World (Brock Clarke)

7. If I were a Supreme Court justice, I would: (dole out) Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson)

8. Absolutely nothing compares to: Adventures in the Anthropocene (Gaia Vince)

9. Best advice my mom gave me was: Don't Look Back (Gregg Hurwitz)

10. My hope for 2015 is: A Better World (Marcus Sakey)

O.k. what do you think? Ready to take a shot at it? You can post to your blog or leave a comment with your responses. If you post to your blog, be sure to come back and leave us a link so we can come see your responses! It's so much fun to see what everyone comes up with for these.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thankfully Reading Weekend!

Happy Friday and I hope everyone celebrating Thanksgiving had a wonderful day yesterday. I don't think my day could have been much better. I started out with a few hours of audiobook--listening to Craig Johnson's WAIT FOR SIGNS--and working on a Christmas present. Then my puppies and I went to my parents' house for a lovely dinner with them and the puppies got to play with their dog. And we wrapped up the day with several hours of reading THINGS HALF IN SHADOW on the sofa--I always have plenty of cuddling company when I read on the sofa.

As most of you know, because I mentioned this in an earlier post, I'm participating in Jenn's Bookshelves annual Thankfully Reading Weekend. I'll be hosting a challenge tomorrow, but today I'm responding to Jenn's challenge: What Book Are You Most Thankful For This Year? 

This is actually a rather easy question for me to answer and I really don't have to go back and look at my list of 2014 reads. A MAN CALLED OVE has been my stand out book this year. I've recommended it to more people than any other book and it will be my favorite for the year. It is so beautifully written with the most spectacular characters. I laughed and cried, got angry and rejoiced. For me, it was simply everything a book should be. I still think about it regularly even though I read it months ago--now that's a book that stays with you. This is one I'll keep in my collection for a long, long time as I'll definitely re-read it and luxuriate in its wonderfulness over and over.

I'm thankful for the experience of reading this book AND I have to say I'm thankful to everyone who wrote me to tell me they read it after reading my review. It makes me so happy to pass along the joy of a book like this. It's why I write this blog.

I'll be back a little later today to share with you the first of a series I'm doing this holiday season. I wanted to share some books and extras that may make nice gifts this year for people on your holiday lists. Next week I'll be back with some all new Five on Fridays and the gift idea post will be on Thursday, but today kicks off the official gift ideas post. Check back! In the mean time, pop over to Jenn's Bookshelves and check out the challenge for yourself. She has a very nice prize you can win if you participate, and you don't need a blog to join in!

Happy Reading! 

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Happiest People in the World - Brock Clarke

My review of The Happiest People in the World first appeared as a Maximum Shelf issue for Shelf Awareness. (Woo hoo, my very first ever Maximum Shelf Issue) So, this review is longer than my typical Shelf reviews. You can also read my interview with Brock Clarke that accompanied the issue. I am re-posting the review here with their permission. Hope you enjoy!

First line: "The moose head was fixed to the wall, the microphone in its mouth was broken, but the camera in its left eye was working just fine, and as far as the moose head could see, this was just another Friday night in the Lumber Lodge!"

In a madcap, international adventure, Brock Clarke, author of An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, asks what would happen if one of the happiest people in the world—a Dane—was forced to flee Denmark and reinvent himself in a small town in upstate New York. Clarke’s answer will make readers laugh, scratch their heads and maybe even investigate their high school guidance counselors a wee bit closer.

Following the 2005 strife involving political cartoons of the Islamic prophet Muhammad printed in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, cartoonist Jens Baedrup receives a task from his editor at the Optimist—a small weekly paper in Skagen, Denmark. “Draw a cartoon depicting in some way or other the controversy.” A naturally positive man with no personally strong feelings about the controversy, Jens isn’t sure if drawing this cartoon is such a good idea. But ultimately he decides it is his job and everything will be just fine. He is mistaken.

Two Danish-Muslim teenagers happen upon Jens’ cartoon in a discarded copy of the newspaper. They are angry about the cartoon and feel insulted by Jens and the Optimist. Their answer is to burn the newspaper office and Jens’ home. “Though their anger hadn’t made it clear to them that when burning down occupied buildings, killing someone [is] always a possibility.”

The Danish Security and Intelligence Service decides to make that possibility a reality, and the man known as Jens Baedrup is declared dead in the house fire. He bounces around Europe for a few years and then the agent assigned to him decides—contrary to her superior’s orders—to send Jens to Broomeville, New York. He will become Henrik “Henry” Larsen, a high school guidance counselor. What the agent doesn’t tell Jens is that Broomeville is the city she fled when her lover left her for his wife. Her former lover is the town’s high school principal and the one she calls on to give Jens the job.

As Henry settles into his role of school guidance counselor, he learns the idiosyncratic characteristics of American life like “…that American sports talk radio announcers liked to say about something, ‘There’s no doubt about it,’ before then expressing their many doubts about it; that American political commentators liked to preface their comments by saying, ‘No offense,’ before then saying something offensive…that Americans were very impatient people with very short attention spans; that Americans believed as long as they were inside their trucks they were invisible…and that in general Americans thought their trucks were magic.”

The new guidance counselor’s arrival in Broomeville is the first in a series of events that shake up the sleepy little backwoods town. Soon after his arrival, Henry’s predecessor dies from what the coroner is calling a self-inflicted gunshot wound even though her brother denies she was suicidal. Henry falls in love with the principal’s wife. And finally, a mysterious Dane shows up looking for Jens Baedrup. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to most of the town, a CIA training school is recruiting the young outcasts of Broomeville, meeting regularly at the town diner.

In Skagen, teenagers drop a literal match on the gasoline that ignites Jens’ home and destroys his life. In Broomeville Clarke flicks a figurative match at these accelerants—a questionable suicide, a volatile marriage, a stranger and spooks—coating the town. Not only has Clarke relocated his happy Dane, he’s given him flames to juggle but no juggling lessons. The result can only be spectacular.

The Happiest People in the World is a wacky spy novel full of ingenious commentary devices. Pithy statements throughout--“You miss a lot when you spent so much time looking through binoculars”--offer up insightful advice as well as thematic acumen. Clarke isn’t wasteful in words, imagery or plot devices. Down to the smile on Jens face and the clocks on Doc’s diner wall, every detail plays a significant role.

Cultural differences come into play when the Danes can’t fathom committing a murder with a gun or the Americans can’t easily buy one in Denmark, when the Danes won’t rent a car over taking mass transit because of wastefulness, and most especially when there are communication barriers. But Clarke illustrates just as clearly that communication is a problem even between people sharing the same language and culture. It can destroy families, friendships, businesses. If communication doesn’t work, nothing works.

The espionage format is the vehicle that provides an element of suspense and a swift plot pace, but readers are more likely to anticipate the characters’ next debacle rather than their next crime. In other words, think Maxwell Smart as opposed to James Bond.

The Happiest People in the World isn’t a book that easily fits into a nice marketing category but it does offer plenty to appreciate for many different readers—a little happiness for all kinds of readers in the world.

The Happiest People in the World is available in hardcover from Algonquin Books (ISBN: 978-616201111) and as an unabridged audiobook (ISBN: 978-1622315123), narrated by Adam Black, from Recorded Books.

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