Sunday, August 29, 2010

Spooks

Anyone following this blog should know by now that I not only read books written for adults but also some written for "young adults" and children.  (I'm thinking the term "juvenile fiction" is probably going out of style because of the connotations of the word "juvenile.")  I just finished reading The Spook's Tale and Other Horrors by Joseph Delaney, one of the series (for older children, not quite young adults?) titled The Last Apprentice.  This series concerns the supernatural adventures of a young man, hundreds of years ago, who is apprenticed to a "spook", someone who battles witches and demons and evil creatures of many kinds.  The books in this series are all dark in mood and setting, but the stories are all compelling and chilling.

Somehow I'm reminded of the series of horror/supernatural/mystery novels for children written by John Bellairs.  When our daughter was growing up it was a family tradition for several years to get every new John Bellairs book that came out, and each member of the family would read it.  In contrast to the Last Apprentice series, the books by John Bellairs are set in present day, and are not as grisly, but there is plenty to capture the imagination.

Nonlinearity, and Life as an Adventure

In the early '70s, while I was in high school, I discovered a series of books in the public library called "TutorTexts."  Each of these books taught you a particular subject through what was called "programmed instruction."  Each page or two would introduce a new concept and test your new knowledge by asking you a question.  Depending on your answer, you would be guided to one of two other pages in the book.  If you were right, you were rewarded by picking up the subject from the page number for the right answer.  If you were wrong, you were guided to a page that explained why.  Then you would be steered back into the training again.  It was a nonlinear way to read a book, because a reader's journey could take many different paths, and none of them went in perfect linear order from the first page to the last.

When my daughter was young she enjoyed reading the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series and the "Time Machine" series of children's adventure books.  The concept in these books was very similar to that used by the TutorTexts.  Based on the storyline presented to you, you would periodically have to make a choice about how you - as a character involved in the story - should act.  Depending on your choice, you would be guided to a new page and the story would pick up from there.  Unlike TutorTexts, however, it was possible to get to the end of one of these books and actually fail to save the world, or die at the hands of monsters, or the like.  Then you had no choice but to go back through the book and try to make choices that would lead you to the successful ending.

"Life is an adventure" is a cliche that is not universally embraced.  There are times when I wish I had the freedom to more easily steer that adventure.  Certainly there are always choices to be made, leading to successful or not-so-successful outcomes.  But if I could really "choose my own adventure," I would have less uncertainty to confront in life, and be able to enjoy the journey, knowing that I didn't have to worry so much about the destination.  After all, we usually don't get to go back through the book of life and try new choices if we find that our recent ones lead to failure.  What happens is that we learn from our choices, our mistakes, and use what we learn to make better decisions in the future, but the sum of all these decisions is still a journey that can't be repeated.  That puts more pressure on making the right choices the first time around.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Rivers of America

I recently picked up a used copy of Peter C. Mancall's Land of Rivers: America in Word and Image.  This is a collection of writings over the past few hundred years that describe the place of rivers in America's history.  The essays and excerpts are accompanied by a number of incredible photographs and artwork illustrating America's rivers.  There are pictures of floods and baptisms and waterfalls and commerce, from 17th century woodcuts to photos by Ansel Adams.

This book reminds me of the Rivers of America series of books that were published (and republished) from the 1930s to the 1970s.  Each edition in this series of over 60 books is a historical narrative devoted to a single river.  Many of them are familiar - the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Hudson, and others - but I have to confess that some of them I had never heard of before.  The Housatonic?  The Sangamon?  And where the heck is the Winooski?  There for a while I thought I would start collecting this series; I have a weakness for series of books, especially if they deal with history, or the outdoors.  But shelf space is at a premium in my house, so I decided to forego this pleasure.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Of Shadows and Mist

I have a habit of reading a number of books in parallel.  But when I discover one that really grabs me, I'll stick with it and quickly finish it.  Such was the case in 2005 when I decided to try Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind (rating: 10/10).  In Barcelona in 1945 a boy discovers that someone is methodically destroying every book ever written by an author named Julian Calax.  The mystery behind Calax's true identity grips the boy and won't let go.  Ruiz Zafon does a fantastic job of characterization and really kept my interest.  Few books that I read do I ever rate so highly.

The Prince of Mist by Ruiz Zafon (rating: 8/10) is a much different book but still very enjoyable.  This is a relatively short horror novel for young adults.  The author states in an introductory note that he hopes the young adult books he's written will appeal to readers of all ages.  The Prince of Mist did appeal to me, and I finished it quickly.  Like The Shadow of the Wind, the story takes place during World War II.  To me, there was the barest hint of the movie Summer of '42 - wartime setting, a beach, adolescents trying to understand their feelings for the opposite sex.  And the evil behind the story reminded me of something I would expect Stephen King to write, were he writing something for young adults.

My bookshelf also holds this author's adult novel The Angel's Game, and I'm looking forward to that one as well.  Once again the author turns to Barcelona as a setting, and books play an important role in the story.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Portable Genius

The "Portable Genius" series of guides by Wiley are well-designed resources for anyone owning an Apple product.  As esthetically pleasing as Apple products are in design, guides for Apple products should be just as well-designed, and this series does not disappoint.  Glossy pages, step-by-step instructions, color screen-shots, and a casual style of text contribute to a comfortable and rewarding experience in finding the information you need.

When I added a MacBook Pro to the household I picked up a copy of the guide titled Switching to a Mac: Portable Genius. I've used Mac's in the past, but the Macintosh has gone through a lot of changes over time, and I really wanted an easy way to start making the most of my new machine.  Switching to a Mac gave me just the answers I needed as I learned my way around the MacBook Pro and the Leopard operating system.

Inspired by the quality of Switching to a Mac, when I bought my iPad I bought a copy of the iPad Portable Genius.  This volume is another useful member of the Portable Genius series.  Though I'm well into understanding what all I can do with my iPad, this book is showing me things I might not have picked up on.

When I finally get an iPhone, I'm going to buy - you guessed it - the iPhone4 Portable Genius!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Prometheus Road

Bruce Balfour is the author of science fiction novels The Forge of Mars, The Digital Dead, and Prometheus Road.

The Forge of Mars (rating: 7/10) concerns mysterious artifacts found in caverns on Mars.  I read it in 2004 and noted that while it had a few too many characters to keep track of, I found it interesting that it had so many themes in it, including Navajo culture right alongside virtual reality and AI (artificial intelligence).

Scientist Tau Wolfsinger and archaeologist Kate McCloud, the main characters of The Forge of Mars, also appear in The Digital Dead.  "Virtual versions of the dead control the desires of the ones they've left behind."  I tried to get interested in The Digital Dead but couldn't, and wound up abandoning it in 2006.

But for some reason I thought I'd give Balfour another chance.  I just finished Prometheus Road (rating: 7/10).  Like the previous two books, virtual reality and AI play key roles, but this is not Wolfsinger's and McCloud's world.  This world is a post-apocalyptic landscape governed by gods with control issues.  The lead character, Tom Eliot, must face these "gods" in order to free the land of their control.

Now here's the curious thing.  I'm tempted to give The Digital Dead another chance.  There's some precedent for that with me.  It wouldn't be the first time I've done it.

So Many Books, So Little Time

When I was in tenth grade I decided to start keeping track of the books I had read.  Initially this was simply an index card file.  Years later it became a spreadsheet on the computer.  And a few years ago, I moved years of records into a fantastic computer program called Book Collector, from the smart people at Collectorz.com.

Book Collector allows me to keep track of what I've read, what I own, what I've loaned to others, what I have ordered, what I would like to read someday.  About 18 months ago I used it to generate the following statistics.

As of February 8, 2009, I had read 2238 books (about 59 per year).  I owned 1139 books, but of those I had only read 367.  That meant that at the rate I read, if I stopped buying books (yeah, right) the unread books I own would last me 13 years.

But then I took it further.  I assumed I'd live to be 80 and continue reading at the same rate.  If that was the case, I should only buy a new book every 12 days or so (30/year) to break even (have read everything I own) by the time I die.  At which point my lifetime total would be about 3800 books.

So if I only have 1500 more books I can squeeze into my lifetime - the ones I own that haven't yet been read and the ones I will wind up buying - how will I prioritize what I'll read?  Or buy, for that matter?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Locus

Locus.  No, not the bug - that's "locust."  This is "Locus, The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field."  The August 2010 issue showed up in the mail today.

If you want to know what's going on in the science fiction & fantasy publishing industry, this is the magazine to read.  It covers everything from new books coming out to obituaries of noted authors to news on publishing mergers to legal battles.  I especially like to see what's new that's coming out.  But over the past few years this has included a large number of vampire, werewolf, and zombie-themed novels.  With the exception of World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (rating: 9/10), I don't do vampires, werewolves, or zombies.  Another trend that I don't (and may never) appreciate is that of sci-fi/fantasy/romance crossovers.  I wish I had a nickel for every time I've re-shelved a book in Borders after seeing that it had romance in it.  Just not my cup of tea.

So what is?  Patrick Rothfuss, author of the fantasy novel The Name of the Wind (rating: 9/10), is featured in the lead article in the latest issue of Locus.  Like many other people, I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Name of the Wind and only wish the next book in Rothfuss' trilogy would come out sooner.  The Name of the Wind has no vampires, werewolves, zombies, or romance.  (Some might argue with me on the "romance" part - there is a component of a love-story - but it's not what I think of when I think of romance.)  Also, sitting on my shelf waiting to be read is the anthology Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery, edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders.  That one I expect to thoroughly enjoy as well.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

From Musashi to Ochiai

In order to make room for new books, I frequently sift through my old books and see if I can get rid of any (usually by selling them at Half Price Books).  Considering whether I should get rid of Hidy Ochiai's translation of and commentary on Miyamoto Musashi's Book of Five Rings, my thoughts traveled in several directions.

First, A Book of Five Rings.  I read this quite some time ago and liked it very much.  Using warfare as a metaphor for competition in business resonated with me at the time.  But 28 years later, with 28+ years of business experience under my belt, I'm no longer interested in that metaphor.  And though I respect Sensei Ochiai, I didn't gain much from his annotation.

Second, training in washin-ryu karate with Sensei Ochiai.  It has been a long time.  Though I progressed to purple belt (yon-kyu, one belt below brown and black), I would have trouble remembering any but the simplest of katas now.  But Sensei Ochiai was someone we all respected greatly.  It was not only for his skill, or his association with some of the biggest names in martial arts (such as Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris).  It was how he carried himself, and his demonstration of what training and self-discipline can accomplish.  I remember how nervous I was the first time he tested me for a belt!  And even more so, what it was like to practice sparring with him.

Sensei wrote two books that I will definitely keep in my library, as they are important reminders of that period of my life.  They include The Essence of Self-Defense and Hidy Ochiai's Living Karate.  But I'm going to give up his annotation of Musashi's classic.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Magicians

Lev Grossman's The Magicians.  How would I describe it?  Take Harry Potter and make him older, an anti-hero.  Take Hogwarts and make it far more serious, even perhaps a tad sinister?  Throw in a land like Narnia, but not quite so benign.  And then imagine giving Stephen King license to create some Evil.

I finished The Magicians quickly, partly because it was an engrossing read, partly because I was stuck in a plane on the tarmac for hours, and the next day stuck in an airport for hours.  This is not a book for kids by any stretch of the imagination (and this book does stretch the imagination).  It takes on some big themes head-on, particularly the notion of searching for happiness.  I was reminded more than once of the expression, "Be careful what you wish for - you may get it."

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Used Bookstore Experience

Over the years I've visited and frequented a large number of stores selling used books.  I've found that there are certain characteristics that can make for a not-so-pleasant expedition in search of literary treasure.
  • If the aisles are too narrow, I can't back up enough to be able to easily scan a shelf of titles.
  • If the lighting is poor and I need a flashlight to read the titles, I get very annoyed.  There's a bookstore in Melbourne, Florida that has very narrow aisles and poor lighting and I won't be going back.
  • If the books are not arranged logically, or only partly arranged, I don't have the patience to poke through them.  One store I know organizes the books into categories like art, religion, transportation, etc., but then doesn't bother to alphabetize the books by either author or title.
  • If I have to find a ladder - or heaven forbid a worker licensed to climb a bookshelf ladder - I'm going to look somewhere else unless I'm pretty desperate.
I realize that there may be treasures overlooked because others also don't like narrow, unlit aisles of poorly arranged and inaccessible tomes.  But these factors take a lot of the fun out of it all.

Finally, one of my biggest pet peeves has nothing to do with the store and everything to do with fellow shoppers.  So many people will walk between me and the shelf I'm looking at without so much as the slightest apology that if I see someone approaching I will frequently move closer to the shelf so they have to go around me.  Whatever happened to common courtesy?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Icelandic Sorcery

I've always wanted to visit Iceland.  It's off the beaten path, it has mountains and glaciers and fjords and tremendous waterfalls and an active volcano that can disrupt air travel for thousands and thousands of people.  Janni Lee Simner chose Iceland as the setting for her young adult novel, Thief Eyes, and infused the story with scenery and sorcery in a tale that draws on Icelandic history and folklore.

I enjoyed Simner's first novel, Bones of Faerie, a merging of post-apocalyptic struggle and a supernatural world encroaching on our own.  When I learned that she was coming out with another novel, I was eager to read it.  Thief Eyes did not disappoint.  Simner's books, while written for a "young adult" market, are fun to read even if you're not quite as young an adult as you used to be, or would like to be.