“Wool” gathering

I am a reader that usually shies away, okay more like runs away, from a book that everyone is raving about (especially an Oprah pick!), so I don’t think I will ever be reading that mommy porn book that everyone seems to be reading, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t applaud the book and it’s author, E.L. James, for doing something incredible, making us all much more aware of self-published fiction.

It’s truly astounded how James’ trilogy racked up so many sales in such a short period of time. I read somewhere that it sold 25 million copies in four months, compared to Stieg Larsson’s equally infamous publishing sensation, which sold 20 million copies in 4 years! That’s a lot of books!

Even though I’ve heard that these particular novels are not the most well written books of all time, they have certainly struck a chord with readers around the world and brought to everyone’s attention how the internet and self-publishing have increased the amount of available material for us, the lovers of the written word. Readers win, I like that!

What’s great is that somehow readers are ferreting out these stories, giving them a wider readership which in turn gets a publishers attention. It’s a kind of backwards process but it seems to be working!

I honestly wasn’t even aware, until this past year, how many self-published e-books there are for sale on Amazon, and for a very small price too! I’ve read maybe a half a dozen of them and I have to say they were all pretty darn good. There are probably more punctuation and grammatical errors than from a book that’s been looked over by an editor, but if you can ignore that and just enjoy the story I think you will be in for a treat.Wool

The newest self-publishing phenomenon is, “Wool” by Hugh Howey, an american author, who spent his lunch hours at his day job writing fiction. He self published these stories on Amazon and in the fall of 2011 found himself at the top of the Amazon science fiction best-selling list with, “Wool”, a 50 page novella.  With his readers demanding more, he continued to add installments to the “Wool” series, and it is now selling as a 5 part omnibus on the site. The phenomenon continues to grow with the series being optioned by Ridley Scott for a potential movie, and the publication of a hardback version by Random House coming out in England in January 2013 and an American publication sometime later in the year.

I’ve read part one and really enjoyed it, and it did leave me wanting to read more, so I’ve downloaded the omnibus as well!  I’ve just recently listened to a podcast featuring Howey, and he is of course pleased and amazed with his recent success, and has been able to quit his day job!

He also said that his other self-published stories are now selling like hotcakes, and that if he had gone the traditional publishing route his own success story would be much different. Howey said he never spent his time and energy sending out manuscripts to publishers and networking, he instead put all of his efforts into creating, and as a result he already has a lot of material on the internet for readers to buy without going through the usual slow process of conventional publishing.

So with publishers being cautious about spending money these days on an unknown name, the internet seems to be helping them find the next sensation without having to do much of the work. And for those of us, like myself, who are just learning to embrace the e-reader I guess we have to give credit where credit is due and thank them for giving us some new voices that might otherwise have been lost!

Here is the link to the Guardian Books Podcast if your interesting in listening.

Rock on!

A few posts ago I took a pic of two musician bios I had checked out of the library, one an autobiography from Rod Stewart and another a controversial book about Michael Jackson. I was very anxious to read both because these are two of my favorite singers of all times!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I was one of those pre-teens growing up in the 60’s that was swept away by the British Music Invasion. I adored the Beatles, Herman and the Hermits, The Dave Clark Five, The Who and Rod Stewart, with and without the Faces. I remember my friends and I giggling and swooning over the crazy clothes, long hair and naughty song lyrics. I listened to records for hours in my room, examining every detail on those album covers, singing along and loving it when they included the words. I sure miss album covers don’t you?  But I always had a thing for Rod the Bod, at least that’s what we called him. He had that scratchy voice, and the mod hairdo and his songs were really good, hey even my Mom like him!

I thought at one time I actually might get a chance to meet him, when on a trip to England I met a cousin and his mate who were working as roadies on his “Blondes have more Fun Tour”, but that didn’t pan out and instead they took me to a Sex Pistols gig and gave me a tour t-shirt.  Ugh, not the same at all!

Cover of "Blondes Have More Fun"

Cover of Blondes Have More Fun

But I digress, needless to say I was exciting to read what he had to say! I understand totally why Rod: The Autobiography has been getting rave reviews, it’s a lark from start to finish. His words come across just like he always has from the stage and the television, warm, intelligent, funny, talented and humble. Yes, I still have a bit of a crush can you tell?!  Unlike a lot of bios that are either dry and full of facts, this book seems honest and conversational. Most of the dirt he dishes is on himself, and when he gossips it isn’t done mean spiritedly but he gets his point across.  It’s one of the best rock bios I’ve ever read and if you listened to his music a lot like I did it’s really worth reading.

Michael Jackson’s biography is a good one too, but totally different. “Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson” by Randall Sullivan, is an excellent in depth look at poor old Michael Jackson. I can never think about him without feeling sad about how someone so talented and good looking could end up hating himself so much. Of course he isn’t the first talent that has died tragically, but his constant self loathing and his ever increasing need to alter his looks made his slow demise so much more public.

I can’t understand why his supposed fans tried to sabotage this book on Amazon, unless, like I suspect, they never read it, because if anything it makes you even more sympathetic to this multi-talented man who really only wanted to be loved.

Michael Jackson performing The Way You Make Me...

It really is tragic and if anything, this book will make you despise his entire family, because they are the ones that get crucified in this telling of Michael’s life from birth to death.  If all the facts are to believed, and the author seems meticulous in his research, they are truly awful people. This came to light as recently as this summer (which is included in this book), when Randy and Janet Jackson “kidnapped” their mother and tried to take over control of Michael’s kids. Because as the book says, Michael’s billions go where the kids go, and the Jackson clan has been trying to get every cent they can from Michael for years. It’s astounding how the Jackson’s have hounded and schemed, even after his death, to get rich off of Michael. They have used their mother Katherine to try to achieve this goal and it makes you understand a lot of how Michael Jackson turned out the way he did.

Michael was constantly told he was ugly by his father and his siblings. They told him he was too black, had a big nose and lips. It sure explains a lot about the way his appearance changed over the years! And then there were sexapades during the tours when there were just kids. His brothers and father using the groupies while little Michael tried to hide under the covers. Yuck, huh? Sorry that last tidbit was probably under the category of TMI but it seems to go on to explain his asexual behavior later in life.

This book is dense and probably isn’t for everybody, but it’s a fantastic read for those of us who followed Michael Jackson’s career throughout the years.  There is a wealth of information and specific details, and the author’s ability to formalize and verbalize these facts without making it dry and boring is truly amazing.

What’s great about reading books like these in this modern age of technology is the fact that as your reading a paragraph you can jump on your computer and call up an interview or a specific video that’s being talked about or even pull up Michael’s or Rod’s music and have it playing in the background. I found myself doing that a lot, and then getting distracted from reading the book. There is a LOT of content on YouTube from both of these guys.

I think one of the most fun facts I learned was that both Rod Stewart and Michael Jackson were friends with Gregory Peck! Who knew?!  You never know what totally useless trivia you will pick up in a book 🙂

The Racketeer by John Grisham

john grishamThe John Grisham of old has returned with another terrific page turner! It’s so satisfying to read the prose of a familiar author and know that the story will be strong from the first paragraph on the first page all the way to the period at the end of the last sentence.

I know a lot of Grisham’s readers haven’t always been satisfied with his excursions away from the legal thrillers that made him rich and famous, but I’m not one of those. I’ve enjoyed his sports themed books, like ‘Calico Joe’ , Ford County, his short story collection, and one of my favorites, Skipping Christmas, the extremely comical holiday tale.

But I have to admit I don’t think anyone writes a better legal thriller than Grisham, and he is back in rare form with his latest release, ‘The Racketeer’. Malcolm Bannister, a disgraced attorney, is sitting in a federal prison for a crime he didn’t commit. His life his pretty depressing, besides the obvious jail address! His wife has left him and he misses his kid, he has a long sentence ahead of him and no hope of getting out anytime soon, or does he? A Federal Judge has been murdered and law enforcement is stymied, but our jailbird might just have an idea of who done it and of course he’s willing to help out for a favor.

This is when the plot thickens, as they say, and becomes a real page turner. What information does Malcolm have? What is his connection with the Federal Judge if any? Will he earn his ‘get out of jail free card’? Inquiring minds want to know and so will you if you decide to read this book! If you’ve strayed from Grisham in the past I urge you to pick up his latest and start reading, you won’t be able to put it down.

Salt Sugar Fat ~~a book review not my latest diet!

salt sugar fatIt is not often that a book I’ve read affects me so powerfully, but this one was really an eye opening experience.  I am a long time junk food junkie and I’ve consumed many processed foods in my lifetime and after reading this book I have to say I felt a bit nauseous!

The book is divided into three sections as the title suggests, salt, sugar and fat, all those lovely ingredients that are added to processed foods to make them tasty and addicting to us the consumer and have a great deal to do with our current obesity epidemic.

I’m not telling anyone anything new when I say that the number of large people in this country is well, huge. It’s an alarming epidemic that has resulted in seat belt extenders on airplanes, larger clothing sizes in the stores and Disney World digging a deeper trench for the SMALL WORLD ride because the boats kept getting stuck.  I have always been perplexed by why this has happened. I mean when I was a kid if anyone carried a lot of extra pounds they were the exception not the rule. I realize that people are eating more, and there are more convenience foods than ever in the grocery store, but I was the product of a household where both my parents worked and we had a lot of these convenience foods in our house too, and I was skinny.

Well this book was able to give me some answers. Yes, we as a society eat a lot of convenience foods, but over time the food manufacturers have gotten more and more liberal with their additions of sugars, salts and fat in their products. It’s to the point that the average consumer is now consuming 22 teaspoons of sugar a day, 33 pounds of cheese a year and 850 milligrams of salt a day. The cheese amount alone is three times what we used to consume back in the 1970’s and the sugar and salt is way over the recommended daily allowance.

How did this happen?

Michael Moss has done a great deal of research and presented it in this book in a way that is interesting and not dry and clinical. He visits the major manufacturers of these foods, delves into their histories, visits their labs and interviews the food industry inventors and executives. It is fascinating, enlightening and scary all at the same time.

For instance it was fascinating to learn that the founder of Kellogg’s cereal, John Harvey Kellogg was a health nut who invented his cereal mixture to give to his patients at the sanitarium he ran in Battle Creek, Michigan. John Harvey was trying to find an alternative to the nations digestion problems caused by the heavy, greasy breakfasts they were consuming. His healthy grain filled cereal mixture was a hit with his patients, so he and his brother Will started manufacturing the healthful cereal to be sold to their patients and other locals, but Will had greater ambitions. While John Harvey was away in Europe, Will added some sugar to the mix and then their customers really liked it! John Harvey was pretty unhappy when he returned and found out about the change to his recipe. so little brother Will started his own sugary cereal company (not without a fight) and as they say, the rest is history.

It was also enlightening to learn that the majority of the current and past executives at the big food giants don’t consume the foods they sell. I would have expected a bunch of physiques similar to the Governor of New Jersey, but instead Moss found a bunch of healthy eaters. In fact the majority of them realize that they are the cause of the obesity problems but they aren’t quite sure how to fix it. It’s a complex problem.

It was scary to learn that all those low-fat, fat-free and lo-cal items that people buy to try to eat a little healthier are just pumped and chemically enhanced with more sugars and salts to make them edible. “No Sugar, No Fat, No Sales” is one of the chapter titles and Moss discovered this for himself when he taste tested a stripped down version of his favorite snack Cheez-Its and discovered it was inedible.

I hope a lot of people read this book and get their eyes opened because I know that I will never go to the grocery and shop the same way again. I will never be able to stop purchasing those foods I crave the most like salty potato chips, a divine sugary cereal or the occasional PopTart, but I hope that I at least will be more aware of what I’m buying and think twice before I throw it in my cart!

As Moss says in his book,

….this book is intended as a wake-up call to the issues and tactics at play in the food industry, to the fact that we are not helpless in facing them down. We have choices, particularly when it comes to grocery shopping, and I saw this book, on its most basic level, as a tool for defending ourselves when we walk through those doors.

The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman

georgian gentlemanI love the accidental meeting of a reader (yours truly) and a book. Most of the time I find a title I want to read from the usual sources, a book review, a friend’s recommendation, maybe a bookstore display, but every once in a while I find a great book from a more circuitous route, ‘The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman, the Life and Times of Richard Hall 1729-1801′, is that book.

One day I was doing an internet search for blogs about London and I stumbled upon The London Historians’ blog. If you enjoy history and London in particular you must check it out. In their right hand margin, they have a list of links to other history blogs, and one of them really struck my fancy, Georgian Gentleman.

The author of the blog and the book, Mike Rendell, inherited a treasure trove of papers, diaries and journals belonging to his ancestor Richard Hall, a hosiery merchant and farmer living during Great Britain’s Georgian era. I don’t know which was more fortuitous, the fact that Richard Hall wrote down numerous lists and notes on topics as varied as household inventories and prices, to recipes and the weather or that these papers were preserved by  generations of his descendants. Truly incredible!

After enjoying Rendell’s posts I decided that I would really love to read the book that inspired the blog. Lucky for me he was traveling to the US and offered to bring some books with him and mail them to any American readers who wanted to purchase them. I was in on that offer and bought myself one for Christmas! I used my limited self-control and managed not to begin reading it until Christmas day, but it was hard not to pounce on it.

In the wrong hands this correlation of scraps of notes and jottings, journals and diaries might have been dry and boring, and only of interest to other ancestors of Richard Hall, but Rendell has managed to pull all of it together and give us a fascinating and entertaining  glimpse into life in Georgian England.

I wish I hadn’t read it so quickly! I’m just glad that the Georgian Gentleman blog is updated frequently so I can keep reading and learning more about this great period of history.

I’m going to leave you with my one of my favorite passages. It’s interesting, repulsive and kind of funny all at the same time:

“One of the risks of eating undercooked pork was the risk of ingesting worms. Tape worms could spread to the brain, causing blackouts. The risk was to rich and poor alike, and so we see Richard (Hall) copying out the tale of the physician who prescribed a particular snuff to Princess Elizabeth – ‘the second day she voided a worm from the Nose, since which the complaint has totally ceased’.”

The Bee-Loud Glade by Steve Himmer

The Bee-Loud GladeThe Bee-Loud Glade by Steve Himmer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I think this was a well written book, it’s the subject matter of the story that’s made me not rate it higher. I don’t really like reading books or watching movies that try to teach me moral or political lessons, call me shallow, but that’s just the way I am. ~okay, I hear shouts of ‘SHALLOW’, out in cyberspace :)~

This is the story of Finch, a casper milquetoast of a man, who agrees to live his life at the whim of a very wealthy man, Mr. Crane for 5,000,000 bucks. Finch’s new position?, Mute Hermit residing in the garden of Crane’s estate. Crane is going to buy his own way to living the simple life, by living vicariously through a bought and paid for employee.

Reminiscent of the movie ‘Cast Away‘, our story revolves around Finch’s adjustment to his new environment, but because of the written word we are able to follow his thoughts as he goes through this experience and finds peace in the world of nature that surrounds him.  There’s no doubt that the author is trying to make the point that we are all in too much of a hurry and out of touch with nature, and we need to just stop and smell the roses and enjoy some peace and tranquility.

The problem with the narrative for me was the lack of conflict. Finch doesn’t care about money, he doesn’t even seek out the Hermit gig, he is pretty much just a drone who waits for someone, anyone, to steer him in the next direction and so Crane is just the next person to take him by the arm and lead him down the garden path, literally. Maybe if Finch had been someone like Crane, living in the fast lane, the offer of a huge amount of cash to shed his former existence to be a Hermit would have been more poignant, but instead it was just kind of monotonous.

Here is the poem by Yeats that gave the author his title,

Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall

Blue AsylumBlue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book really snagged me right from the beginning because I love historical fiction and I love books set in insane asylums, a win win!

Accused of being insane by her husband, Iris Dunleavy is put on trial, judged to be mad and sent off to an asylum on Sanibel Island in Florida. Set during the Civil War, the story unfolds through the eyes of Iris, as we follow her journey by train and boat to this remote location.

Iris is an attractive woman, a lady, not the usual type of person that is committed to such a place and she isn’t insane. Her only crime is not being a compliant wife for her plantation owning husband. She abhors slavery, and the cruelty and violence that her husband inflicts on his own slaves. Her husband hopes that she can be ‘cured’ at the asylum and come back to him a more malleable wife.

At the beginning I thought the theme of this book would center around the lack of rights that women held during this time period (or for many years afterwards for that matter). After all we have Iris’s husband easily getting her sent away for displeasing him and we have the doctor at the asylum thinking that women who speak their minds or get emotional suffer from hysteria and need to be administered a cure.
But somewhere along the line the writing and the story seemed to get a little watered down and lose some of its power. It was still a good book, but I felt like the last half of the story didn’t live up to its beginnings.

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

Shadow of Night (All Souls Trilogy, #2)Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had this book sitting on my e-reader just waiting for me to dive in to it for-ever, but I kept putting it off because for one thing it was the second book in a trilogy (not always the greatest in my opinion) and secondly it was over 500 pages. Boy, was I silly to wait so long because this book was even better than the first book, ‘A Discovery of Witches’!

The story starts off right where we left off, our witch and vampire, Diana and Matthew have traveled through time and ended up in Woodstock, England circa 1590. Deborah Harkness is such an excellent writer that she is able to describe their tumble back in time and make you see how the old world must have appeared to first time visitor Diana. Her descriptions of the dwellings, customs, language and landscape make the reader feel as if they are back in time as well.
As a lover of history, I appreciate the research that the author has done so that a history lesson is weaved seamlessly into the story.
I love the brushes and interactions the characters have with notable names of the period, some of them familiar others not so much. Throughout my reading I’ve run to Google more than once to find out more about one of these real life characters!

The book wrapped up a few loose threads, but of course left the door open for the third novel, which I’m hoping comes out soon!
I highly recommend this series, even if you aren’t much of a fantasy reader.

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

I was so looking forward to the release of The Casual Vacancy that I pre-ordered my copy back in June, a full three months before it’s release date. That’s something I hadn’t done since Ms. Rowling’s last book release back in 2007. To say I was salivating with anticipation would be an understatement. Like most of the world I devoured the Harry Potter series and I was thrilled when the announcement came that she was releasing a stand alone novel to satisfy the cravings of her hungry fans.

While not a term commonly used in the America, a casual vacancy is a term used in politics to refer to an unexpected open seat in a political assembly through either a resignation, illness or in this case death. The reader is briefly introduced to Barry Fairbrother, a member of the Pagford Parish Council who unexpectedly drops dead in the country club parking lot thus setting in motion a fight amongst his opponents and supporters for a chance at filling the casual vacancy.

What’s at stake is a decision on whether to cut loose a section of town referred to as The Fields. The Fields is inhabited by a less than savory section of the population, the poor, down on their luck souls who wouldn’t be normally welcome in the homes of the upstanding citizens of Pagford. But Barry Fairbrother had grown up in The Fields, went to university and made something of himself. He was a champion for The Fields, and was passionately fighting for them to remain under the jurisdiction of Pagford.

If it sounds like a less than riveting plot you would be right. It’s slow, plodding start had me setting it down numerous times, but Rowling’s reputation and the fact that I had forked out good money for it kept me reading!   What saves it from being yet another boring novel is Rowling’s talents at characterization. She has an ability to paint a perfect picture of each character and make you feel like you really know these people, or at least someone just like them!

But there was just something missing from this book, it was missing some magic, and no I don’t mean the Harry Potter kind of magic. I mean the kind of magic that makes you want to read a book fast to see what happens, and then be bummed when you do finish it because you wanted more. Maybe my expectations were too high? You think?! But come on this is the amazing J.K. Rowling.

I got the feeling that by using an abundance of swear words and adult themes that she was hoping to break away from being stereotyped as just a children’s author. Kind of like when Julie Andrews flashed a bit of skin back in the 80’s in the movie S.O.B. to shake up her squeaky clean image. But then I noticed in her bio that she is a founder of Lumos, a charity devoted to helping disadvantaged youth live a better life, a major theme of this novel, and maybe an explanation on why she chose writing the novel that she did.

I feel like I’ve been pretty harsh in this review. I think it’s the disappointment talking! The book wasn’t terrible but it sure wasn’t great either. It was just average and J.K. Rowling is anything but average.

The Empty Glass by J.I. Baker

This month marked the 50th anniversary of the death of screen legend Marilyn Monroe. As with most anniversaries, morbid and not, people come out of the woodwork trying to make a buck. There have been releases of never before seen photos, film festivals on television and of course book releases.

One of the few fiction books that came out this summer is, ‘The Empty Glass’ by J.I. Baker. It’s formatted like a mystery, with an employee of the L.A. Coroner’s office playing the part of detective. The mystery being, did Marilyn Monroe commit suicide or was she murdered? Ben Fitzgerald, the Deputy Coroner, is on the scene shortly after Marilyn’s death is reported to authorities by her housekeeper and psychiatrist, and he is firmly of the opinion that Marilyn was murdered. He finds himself alone in that opinion as his boss rules her death a suicide, even after a less than convincing autopsy.

He decides to go back to Marilyn’s house and reexamine the scene of her death and take a closer look at a diary he had earlier seen hidden under her pillow. Marilyn’s ‘Book of Secrets’ only confirms Fitzgerald’s suspicions that she was murdered. The diary’s secrets are powerful and heartbreaking and reveal that Marilyn’s life may well have been in danger by what and whom she knew.

As Fitzgerald goes about trying to discover the truth about her death he finds himself becoming as paranoid and unraveled as Marilyn. Is he losing his mind or are the forces that killed Marilyn out to get him too?

Mixing the facts of Monroe’s death with the legendary conspiracy theories, Baker did a great job of turning a true event into a mystery thriller. I am one of those people who truly believes she was murdered by either the Kennedy’s or the mob, so I liked the author’s slant in that same direction. The one problem I had with this book was its failure to transport the reader to the time period in which the events took place. 1960’s characters using lingo from a more modern era just felt like careless writing or editing. I’m probably just being a bit picky.

If you’re fascinated with the real life mystery and like a good thriller, then you will enjoy ‘The Empty Glass’.