Thursday, September 26, 2013

Lily Dale : The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead

Lily Dale by Christine Wicker
In New York State, just an hour south of Buffalo, there is a little village named Lily Dale, where the inhabitants speak to the dead. The town became a center of the Spiritualist Movement in the early 20th century, and is still. It has workshops and demonstrations year-round, and is especially active during the summer months. In the past, it hosted such famous personalities as Harry Houdini and Mae West. Today it sometimes hosts speakers such as Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, and James Van Praagh.

Christine Wicker, the author of this book, went to Lily Dale for the express purpose of investigating this community and writing a book. She is, I believe, very honest in her writing, and reports to us her thoughts as she goes back and forth between belief and skepticism. She reaches no conclusions, or, at any rate, none that she sticks with. I found her writing interesting and entertaining, and almost felt as though I had been there myself.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


When Grigori Rasputin was murdered in 1916, he left behind two daughters, who were living with him in St. Petersburg at the time of his death. They were taken in as wards of Nicholas II, and lived with the Imperial Family until the Romanovs were exiled to Tobolsk in 1917.Enchantments is the story of the eldest daughter, Maria Rasputina, in that time of terror and trouble.

The story is narrated by Maria, in bits and pieces as she jumps forward and back through time. If you are reasonably familiar with the story of the last of the Romanovs, it's not particularly confusing, but I can see that it might give you trouble if you're not. As far as I can tell, most of the historical information is accurate, but Harrison has infused the book with her own whimsy, inventing fanciful conversations between Maria and the young Alexei (or "Alyosha" as he is called by Maria), and even a bit of youthful sexual exploration. It is a novel, after all.

Rasputin did have a daughter named Maria, who, I have learned, did survive the Bolsheviks and later became a lion tamer in Europe and America, even working for Ringling Brothers at one time. She also wrote several memoirs about her father, one of which I am currently trying to track down.

We all know the horrifying story of the fate of the Romanovs, and this book did little to add to that knowledge, but I found Harrison's treatment of Maria's memories of her enigmatic father (which I suspect are based on Maria's memoirs) to be the most interesting part of the story. I also enjoyed the tales she told to Alyosha. They have that dreamy air of fairy tale mysticism that seems so characteristic of much Russian literature. Harrison's treatment of Alexei's budding sexuality, on the other hand, seemed crass and unnecessary.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Coral Glynn: A Novel by Peter Cameron

Coral Glynn
In the spring of 1950, a young nurse named Coral Glynn comes to a dreary estate in the English countryside to nurse a dying patient. Her charge soon dies, and Coral finds herself courted by the elderly woman's son, a man damaged both physically and emotionally by the war, and almost as passive as Coral Glynn herself. Events unfold, and the characters are more acted upon than acting, yet still manage to occasionally surprise you with their hidden depths.

I liked Coral Glynn, but I recognized that it's not a book for everybody. If you're looking for action or romance, this is not the book for you. For a quiet, interesting, and introspective read, this is quite a good book.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Family Circle Magazine

Family Circle
Family Circle is another story.

At that same "Free" table at the library, I found a stack of Family Circles. They were a couple of years old, but with Family Circle it doesn't really matter. I quickly flipped through them all, tearing out any articles or recipes I found useful. The remains of the magazines are going back to the Free Table.

Mostly what I got was recipes. Tempting, inexpensive, and most of all, easy.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

La Cucina Italiana

La Cucina Italiana
Someone gave me a subscription to La Cucina Italiana. To be honest, I never would have bought it for myself. It's a pricy magazine, to start with.

The topic is Italian cuisine (and culture, travel, etc.) and the pictures and the quality of the magazine are excellent. But there just isn't anything there that I want to make. Or that I'm tempted to want to make. Or even -- and this is far more telling -- that I want anyone else to make for me.

So I'll truck the copies down to my local library and leave them on the "free" table. Hopefully someone else will get more use out of them than I do.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

Alas, Babylon
A couple of months ago, someone recommended two books to me, books that are -- or so I was told, great classics of science fiction. Never having read either of them, I decided I'd better check them out.

The first book was The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham. Of course, I'd seen the movie version long ago, and found it mildly entertaining.

I gave the novel a try and got about a third of the way through it before I decided that life was just to short to spend any more of it reading this book.

The other book was Alas, BabylonAs you can imagine, I wasn't in any hurry to get to it.

But I picked it up this month, and I was amazed. It's a wonderful book. It's a post-apocalyptic novel first published in 1959, during the height of the Cold War, but if I didn't know better, I would swear it was a "historical" novel written recently -- absolutely nothing dated about it at all.

Well, I guess I'll take that back. There were two aspects of the book that seemed dated, reading it today. One involved gender roles, but they were really pretty typical of the 1950's and the narrator seemed to realize that they were outdated. The other aspect was the attitude toward nuclear fallout and radiation. It seems positively unreal to me that the characters didn't worry about it much -- at least to start with -- but they I remember the Civil Defense drills I experienced as a child in the 60's. (Unlike most other schools, we didn't actually dive under our desks, but we were marched down stand in lines in the basement.)

Altogether, an excellent book, and one I would heartily recommend. It was, I should probably mention, a little on the optimistic side, even to the point of being unrealistic, but that's not always a bad thing. On the Beach  is another excellent, vintage post-apocalyptic work (published in 1957), and it just depressed the heck out of me.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Buffalo Stampede

Buffalo Stampede by Zane Grey
My father was a huge Zane Grey fan, but I don't believe I'd ever actually read one of his books. He'd certainly written enough of them -- at least 90, including those that were published posthumously. At least 110 movies have been made, based on his novels.

Buffalo Stampede was first published as a 12-part serial in Ladies Home Journal in 1924 and 1925. It's original title was The Thundering Herd (which, actually, I like much better.) It surprised me that the book was originally aimed at a female audience.

All in all, I greatly enjoyed this book. The characters are a little thin, I think, but I got completely got caught up in the excitement of the buffalo hunt. Zane's strength, in this book at least, is that he really makes you feel just what it was like to be there, in an era that is long gone, hunting an animal that will never dominate the plains again.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Fifty Shades Darker: Book Two of the Fifty Shades Trilogy

Fifty Shades Darker
Really, I just wanted to know what all the fuss was about.

Fifty Shades of Grey, as you're probably aware is a runaway best seller -- an enormously successful work in the field of erotic fiction. I guess I should specify financially successful -- I make no claims about its literary merit.

So, of course, I wanted to take a look at it. I didn't want to actually spend money on it, however, so I reserved it at my local library, where I found myself #591 on the list. I guess I should be grateful that the library has it at all -- it's been removed from a lot of libraries all over the country.

Well, I resigned myself to a wait. After all, I wasn't all that eager to read it, my library cooperative had multiple copies, and -- let's face it -- people probably didn't take long to finish it. But then, on my last visit to the library I saw Fifty Shades Darker, the second book in the series, just sitting there on the New Book shelves.

So I checked it out and took it home. I read the first chapter, which was about a rather unlikeable young girl who had just broken up with her boyfriend and, apparently, started a new job. It was pretty whiney. I hate whiney.

So, next I started leafing through the book, looking for the "naughty bits." I found some. They weren't very good, and, surprisingly, they were pretty whiney too. Sheesh!

I won't be reading this book, or its predecessor, or its successor. I do not recommend it. (If you want to read some good erotic fiction, I'd recommend The Sleeping Beauty Trilogy  by A. N. Roquelaure, who is really Anne Rice writing under another name. And you know that woman can write, right?

Something else that I'd recommend as good reading are the Amazon Book Reviews of the first book in the series. They are just too, too funny! One reader used the search function on her Kindle  to count the number of times the characters bite their lips, raise an eyebrow, cock their heads, quirk their lips, blush or flush, murmur, whisper, clamber, and gasp. (That function alone is worth the price of a Kindle, don't you think?)

The Vanishers: A Novel by Heidi Julavits

The Vanishers
There's no doubt about it: The Vanishers is a very strange novel. Amazon Reviewers are all over the board with this one, but, as far as I can see, most of the reallybad reviews are from people who were expecting a serious paranormal novel.

This is not that. It's the slightly bizarre tale of Julia, a 20-something "Initiate of Promise" at the Institute of Integrated Parapsychology, and her convoluted relationships with her mentor, her dead mother, and a host of other people. Both Julia and her mentor are plagued with physical and psychical ailments -- the only question is, who is attacking whom?

The book has humor, surprises, and a whole lot of weirdness. I would definitely read this author again.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Triggers - Robert J. Sawyer
Triggers is Robert J. Sawyer's most recent book, just released this year. I have a warm spot in my heart for Sawyer, mostly because he's one of the few famous authors that I've met. (I met him at a local science fiction convention; he was a friend of a friend.)

Like many of Sawyer's books, it starts out with a fascinating premise. A scientist has developed a machine designed to erase traumatic memories, and is in the process of testing it on a PTS victim when a terrorist bomb detonates nearby, The electromagnetic pulse generated by the bomb amplifies and scrambles the effect of the device. The result is that everyone within a certain radius of the machine -- hospital workers, secret service agents, and the President himself -- now has the memories of someone else in addition to their own.

Naturally, this presents a severe threat to national security, and a great deal of the book is concerned with tracking down the various individuals and finding out whose memories they have. Are any of them lying? Are any of them a serious threat? The implications are fascinating, and Sawyer does an excellent job of considering just how those effects might play out.

The ending, however, is a little bit of a disappointment. Sawyer likes happy endings, and this one is just a little too much sweetness and light for my taste.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Odd and the Frost Giants

Odd and the Frost Giants
I seem to be on a bit of a Neil Gaiman kick lately. I recently read his M is for Magic, and then ran across this book at the library and decided to check it out. I also have a book of his (adult) short stories that I haven't started yet.

Odd and the Frost Giants is a short children's book that Gaiman wrote as his contribution to World Book Day. The book was originally published for no profit to either Gaiman or the publisher, and offered for sale at £1 to children in the UK.

It's a pleasant enough book -- not one of his best, but certainly worth the short time you'll spend reading it. The title character, Odd, is a young Viking boy who, in typical fairy-tale fashion, goes out into the world and has adventures. He befriends a trio of animals -- who, of course, are not exactly what they appear to be -- faces the Frost Giants, and brings things to a satisfactory conclusion for both the Norse gods and his beloved village.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Prosperous Heart by Julia Cameron

The Prosperous Heart - Julia Cameron
The Prosperous Heart: Creating a Life of "Enough" is Julia Cameron's most recent foray into the field of inspiration for the creative soul.

Cameron's books are always inspiring, although sometimes they do tend to get a bit repetitive. This one, at least, has a different subject matter. She teaches us to think ourselves worthy of our hire, and to appreciate and understand the things that make us truly "prosperous."

Death of a Kingfishe

Death of a Kingfisher 
Death of a Kingfisher is the most recent addition to the Hamish Macbeth Mystery series by M. C. Beaton. This is only the second of her novels that I have read, but I am a HUGE fan of the Hamish Macbeth BBC Scotland television series.

M. C. Beaton is a pen name of author Marion Chesney, who also writes under the names Sarah Chester, Helen Crampton, Ann Fairfax, Marion Gibbons, Jennie Tremaine and Charlotte Ward. She has a lot of devoted followers, especially for the Hamish Macbeth series.

Frankly, it's difficult for me to understand why.

If you like plodding prose, simple declarative sentences (subject-verb, subject-verb, subject-verb), and a writing style that reminds me of the worst of my elementary-school readers, then this is the book for you. About the best thing I can say about the writing style is that I didn't notice any spelling or grammatical errors. The plot, meanwhile, wanders all over the place.

Presumably, the earlier books in the series are much, much better. Some of her fans have hypothesized that she didn't write the most recent ones herself. I'm inclined to be a little skeptical of that idea, mostly because I find it really difficult to believe that anyone would pay a ghostwriter for such drivel.

My recommendation: read the earlier books, or watch the series, but definitely give Death of a Kingfisher a miss.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

Quiet: The Power of Introverts
in a World that Can't Stop Talking
Let me begin by saying that I know it's totally unfair to review a book that you haven't read. However, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain is due to be returned to the library soon, so I took a quick look through it last night to see if I wanted to read it or not.

I don't. Let me explain why.

I read the introduction and most of the first chapter and then leafed through it, stopping to read wherever I found anything that looked as though it might be interesting. Based on that, it seems to me that we have a case of an introverted author who has way too many conflicted feelings about being introverted. The book begins with a treatment of how much extroversion is valued in our society, and how introverts are generally treated as inferiors.

Let's just say that that hasn't been my experience. I'm mostly an introvert (I think -- it's complicated) and I don't feel that my introversion has ever held me back. I have a lot of friends who would be classed as introverts. I have friends who are extroverts, who don't seem to have issues about introverts. I have never really noticed that introverts seem to be held back in business, and I worked in a car dealership most of my working life.

One of the bits I hit on in skimming is where she's addressing the issue of education and seems to believe that teachers would be surprised to learn that one-third to one-half of their students are introverts. Really? I would have thought the percentage would have been much higher than that. And I would have expected that teachers would have been inclined to overestimate, seeing that the type of behaviors that are encouraged in most schools tend to run to introversion. (Sit down and be quiet and listen. Express yourself through writing. Read a lot.)

Another bit that caught my eye was Cain's treatment of the election of 1828, in which she hypothesized that Jackson won the election, in part, because his campaign emphasized his extrovert qualities. ("John Quincy Adams who can write, and Andrew Jackson who can fight.") That caught my attention because I knew that, although Jackson had lost to Adams in the previous election in 1824, he had won both the popular vote and a plurality of the electoral votes -- before that campaign slogan had been invented. (The election was decided by the House of Representatives. The House Speaker, Henry Clay, detested Jackson.) Jackson won the election of 1828, in part, because Adams refused to embroil himself in the campaign. So I guess maybe it was introversion that defeated him, after all.

To be honest, I really lost faith with this book when I read the Author's Note at the beginning. Cain states that she "...did not use ellipses or brackets in certain quotations but made sure that the extra or missing words did not change the speaker's or writer's meaning." To me, that is such an egregious violation of scholarship that words practically fail me.

Again, I haven't read this book, so I'm not really qualified to review it. But these are my thoughts, for what they're worth.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Imagine: How Creativity Works

Imagine: How Creativity Works
I'm only about half-way through Imagine: How Creativity Works and so far, I find it fascinating.

Not everyone agrees with me. I see on the Amazon Review Page that the book has only gotten 3.8 out of a possible 5 stars, on the average. (127 of the 188 ratings are for 4 or 5 stars, however, the rest are at the bottom of the board.)

I think that most of Lehrer's detractors are objecting to his seeming reliance on anecdotal evidence, and not a lot of scientific citation. For me, a relative novice to the subject of how the brain works, that's all to the good. It makes for an enjoyable read, and provides more than enough practical hints for developing one's own creativity.

The first part of the book deals with creativity in isolation; the latter part will deal with creativity in groups. I suspect that I'm reading the more useful part of the book right now, at least as far as my own needs go.

I just finished this book, and I have to say I was pretty impressed by it. I enjoyed the parts about creativity in groups much more than I expected I would -- probably in part because it goes against much conventional wisdom on the subject. (I've never thought that brainstorming groups worked particularly well, and Lehrer explains why this may be so.)

The last couple of chapters did bog down a little. I think that this might be because the author was trying to come up with solutions for our society at this point; Lehrer is better at asking questions than at finding solutions. Not that there's anything wrong with that. The questions themselves were fascinating.

These are a few of the main points I took out of this book:

  • Why an epiphany often follows a period of complete mental block.
  • What types of creative thought are best served by concentrated focus, and which by relaxation.
  • Why "people on the fringe" are often the most creative.
  • Why non-critical brainstorming may not be the best technique for creative input.
  • How the conditions in Silicon Valley were perfect for innovation. (It may have had something to do with the California Civil Code, which makes it nearly impossible to write a non-compete clause into an employment contract.)

Good book. I recommend it.

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones
It's not my first time through A Game of Thrones, not by a long shot. But I recently watched the Game of Thrones TV Series Version on DVD, and that reminded me of how much I love the series. I'm on my fifth trip through the first book, but by the time I get to the last one it will only be my second reading of that. (I kept rereading the series every time a new book was about to be released -- or I thought one was about to be released. That George Martin -- quite the tease, isn't he?)

As far as the TV show goes, I liked it, but I feel no compulsion to watch it again right away. The thing about the Song of Ice and Fire series is, the books are so incredibly good that's there's not really much a film version can add to it. (If you've only seen the TV version, waste no time -- read it today. You won't be sorry!)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Writer

The Writer
The Writer is probably my favorite magazine on the topic of writing. I admit -- I'm too cheap to actually spring for a subscription, so I get them from the library once they reach circulation status. (Generally, the most current issue of a magazine has to stay in the library.) I like this magazine much better than Writer's Digest , although I read that one regularly, too.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Wind Through the Keyhole

The Wind Through the Keyhole - Stephen King
If you're a fan of Stephen King's Dark Tower series, you won't want to miss out on his latest, The Wind Through the Keyhole. I enjoyed the series greatly -- in fact, I was just thinking it was time to read it again -- but you don't need to remember all the details in order to enjoy this book.

In his foreword, King places The Wind Through the Keyhole as about Volume 4.5 out of the 7-volume series. It's a tale within a tale -- within another tale, as a matter of fact. In it, Roland Deschain and his ka-tet -- Suzsannah, Jake, Eddie, and Oy -- have taken shelter from a killing storm and the group wiles away the hours listening to story Roland tells of his youth. That story involves shape-changers, an ancient evil, and a frightened boy, and to that boy Roland tells another story, one that he had heard from his mother's lips in his own childhood.

I found the book entertaining and a good use of my reading time, although it certainly doesn't have the depth of some of his greater works. In general, Amazon Readers seem to have come to the same conclusion. They've given it an average rating of 4.2 out of 5 stars -- you can read all 76 reviews here.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection
The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection is the most recent addition to the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. Like all the other books, it is charming. In this one, Precious Ramotswe finally gets the chance to meet one of her idols: Clovis Anderson, the author of the book that launched Mma Ramotswe's career. The results are not quite what either of them anticipated.

Along the way, Mma Ramotswe and her friends deal with all the little issues that make life so interesting. Mma Potokwane has been removed from her post at the children's orphan farm. Fanwell, one of the mechanics at Speedy Motors, faces some serious legal difficulties. And Grace Makusi and her new husband have to deal with an unscrupulous contractor while getting their new home built.

Of course, all ends happily for all of our favorite characters, and life goes on pleasantly in Botswana.

Monday, September 9, 2013

M is for Magic

M is for Magic
M Is for Magic is technically classed as Young Adult fiction, but really, it's appropriate for anyone who loves a good tale. It's a collection of short stories by Neil Gaiman, all with a somewhat magical theme, and some of them are pretty darn good.

I'm sort of on the fence as far as Neil Gaiman is concerned. I first discovered him with Good Omens, a wonderful book that he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett. (I'm a huge Terry Pratchett fan.) From there I tried American Gods and Anansi Boys. Although I normally like books in that genre, I found his just a little too grim for my taste. Later on I discovered some of his children's works, and especially loved The Graveyard Book. So, I don't know -- let's just say I love some of his books.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Twitter Power 2.0

Twitter Power 2.0
Twitter Power 2.0: How to Dominate Your Market One Tweet at a Time is a book specifically about using Twitter for business purposes. I'm pretty new to the field, but I'm not sure I totally agree with everything the author has written. For sure, I'd want to learn more before following his precepts.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

All a Twitter

All a Twitter
I don't know a whole lot about Twitter. I've tried using it from time to time, but I've not had a lot of luck making sense of it. I found All a Twitter: A Personal and Professional Guide to Social Networking with Twitter to be a tremendous help in figuring out how to go about learning more and participating more. A good book for a beginner.