In honour of whose birth these triumphs are

It is the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birthday (observed).  In honor of this special day, I shall refrain from posting any commemorative poetry.


The best and the worst

I have to stop using the Big Move as an excuse for not doing things, like keeping up with the blog.  Although, because of all the unpacking I've been doing, I think I could stretch it out for another month or two.  Nevertheless, it's time to be responsible.  Ish.

I read fewer books during 2013, probably because of moving.  But, wait.  I wasn't going to use that as an excuse.  Anyway, here they are:

1.  The Emperor's Soul, by Brandon Sanderson.  Sanderson is always an entertaining writer, and he comes up with some fabulous magic systems.  Sometimes you have to be a little patient -- with him or with yourself -- as he unfolds (or you eventually figure out) exactly what is going on, but it's always worth it.  Recommended.

2.  Edward Ardizzone, by Gabriel White.  This is a sort of biography/review of Ardizzone's art.  I've been collecting books illustrated as well as written by Edward Ardizzone for the last five or six years, so I found this to be an interesting account.  Recommended if you like Ardizzone or children's book illustration.

3.  The Greyfriar (Vampire Empire #1), by Clay Griffith and Susan Griffith.  I'm not a huge fan of angst-ridden, romantic vampires.  I prefer a more traditional, Bram Stoker-Dracula type vampire.  To me, vampires are evil and incapable of loving anyone or anything outside of their own existence.  That doesn't mean I can't occasionally read books about romantic vampires, as long as they're not too sappy or annoying.  The Greyfriar is a case in point.  I think it helps that the book has a steampunkish setting, which is a big plus.  It also has fairly engaging characters that manage to transcend the stereotypical.  Recommended if you like vampire love stories and steampunk.

4.  I Am Not a Serial Killer, by Dan Wells.  Young Adult and older fiction, the protagonist is a young serial-killer-in-the-making.  Not my favorite thing to read about (I've avoided the Dexter books), but the protagonist is a sympathetic character, and Wells writes well from a teenager's point of view.  There is an element of the supernatural, which sort of comes out of the blue, but if you're prepared for it beforehand (as I was), it doesn't annoy.  This book is the first of three novels.  I haven't read the other two, but I probably will.  Recommended if you like YA horror.

5.  The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley.  A classic English countryside mystery novel with an 11-year-old genius for a detective.  It works brilliantly.  Suspense, humor, pathos -- it's got it all.  Recommended.  There are sequels!

Incidentally, I've read some complaints that there's no way an 11-year-old girl would talk the way Flavia (for that is her name) does, but I've decided the narrator is not Flavia as an 11-year-old, but an older Flavia writing about when she was eleven.

6.  Some Danger Involved, by Will Thomas.  A historical murder mystery set in Victorian London and featuring a detective and his assistant.  Very well written.  There are, if I'm not mistaken, three other books in the series.  Recommended.

7.  Salvage and Demolition, by Tim Powers.  A time-travel mystery novella by the author of the brilliant Anubis Gates.  Salvage and Demolition has the same kind of intricate plot that all comes out clearly at the end, but I was a little disappointed in the characters.  Recommended if you like Tim Powers.

8.  The Pale Blue Eye, by Louis Bayard.  Another historical murder mystery, this one set at West Point and featuring Edgar Allan Poe, who was a cadet there back in the day.  Edgar Allan Poe involved in solving a murder?  Sounds good to me!  But I was not happy with how it turned out.  I won't say why, in case you decide to read it, but I felt cheated.  Not recommended unless you like feeling cheated.

9.  Elegy for Eddie, by Jacqueline Winspear.  Another Maisie Dobbs case, and a pretty good one.  These are not formulaic murder mysteries, so if that's what you want, don't read the series.  But if you like good historical fiction with characters you can feel affection for, and with a dash of psychology and a little murder and suspense thrown in, then you may enjoy the Maisie Dobbs books.  Recommended.

10.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.  I first read this when I was about twelve years old, and I loved it.  I especially thought the last few chapters (where Tom and Huck try to help Jim "escape" from prison) were hilarious.  Of course, I had a different reaction now that I'm older,  The last few chapters were kind of annoying, but I related them to the beginning chapters and could see how Tom was so anxious and eager to make his life as exciting as the books he read, and organizing events so that they would be.  A little sad, but understandable.  He just needs to grow up a little, like Huck does during the course of the book.  So I appreciated the book just as much as I once did, but on a different level, whatever that means.  Recommended.

I'll add that the part that annoyed me the most when I was a kid was the chapters with the King and the Duke.  And those were the parts that annoyed me the most this time around, although I think I could see more humor in them now.

11.  Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie.  There were some entertaining anecdotes herein, but overall I could not see the point to this book.  Not recommended, unless you need something for your book club to pointlessly fawn over.  It's just that kind of book.

12.  The Aylesford Skull, by James P Blaylock.  Hurrah for the return of Langdon St Ives and his family and associates.  And his nemesis, too, I suppose.  My one complaint about the book was that I could see where it was going but the characters couldn't and so they made what I thought were a couple of stupid decisions.  But it lengthened out the story, so that was all right.  Recommended, especially if you like steampunk and even if you don't.

13.  Slightly Chipped:  Footnotes in Booklore, by Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone.  Entertaining account of the adventures of two book collectors.  Recommended if you're a book collector.

14.  The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson.  A Middle Grade book and a lot of fun.  Pretty standard middle grade/young adult fare about a lone teenager learning to deal with issues that bother lone teenagers, but made entertaining by the plot and setting and by Sanderson's sense of humor.  And there's suspense, provided by evil creatures.  At first, the evil creatures don't seem that scary, but as the book goes on, they acquire a sort of nightmarish quality.  Recommended.

15.  The Bookman's Tale:  A Novel of Obsession, by Charlie Lovett.  Book collecting, Shakespeare, secret manuscripts, mystery, love!  Oh, and a murder that's not all that important, except to the guy who got murdered, I guess.  Good stuff all around.  Recommended.

16.  Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo.  This book is too profound for me to say much about it, especially since others have said it already and much better than I ever would.  I will say that it made me sad to read about what Hugo thought we ought to do to make the world better, that if humanity continued on the progressive course it was on, eventually there would be no poverty, no prostitution, no thievery, no injustice.  Well, Victor, I'm sorry to say that those problems are all still very much with us.  But I loved reading about how one man, fighting against seemingly hopeless odds, did all that he could to live a righteous and virtuous life.  Recommended.

Note:  I read the unabridged version, which I recommend.  Also, Gavroche was probably my favorite character.

17.  The Winter Queen, by Boris Akunin.  Another historical mystery, this one about a Russian detective in the early 1900s.  Or was it the late 1800s?  Anyway, it was a little confusing, and I don't mean the dates.  I mean, I got what was going on, but the exposition wasn't smooth and the characters were just a little annoying.  And the ending was just too typical, and so predictable that I wonder the characters in the book didn't see it immediately.  Fah.  There are sequels, but I haven't decided if I'm going to read them.  If someone told me they were much improved over the first one, I might.  Recommended, with reservations.

18.  The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak.  I liked this book a lot, except I was kind of annoyed by Death's interpolations.  Recommended.

19.  Steelheart, by Brandon Sanderson.  A YA book, and a very good one.  There will be sequels, and I'm glad.  Recommended.

20.  Mister Max:  The Book of Lost Things, by Cynthia Voigt.  Middle Grade semi-mysterious book about a boy suddenly having to fend for himself and doing it by solving situations.  Well written, although a little slow moving at times.  It rewards patience, however.  Recommended, especially for reading aloud to kids under the age of 12.

21.  Mitosis, by Brandon Sanderson.  More like a long short story divided into chapters than it is an actual book.  And speaking of actual books, it was, at the time I read it, available only as an e-book, so it's actually not an actual book.  This story fits in between Steelheart and the next novel in the series.  Recommended.

22.  Walking through Shadows: el Camino de Santiago de Compostela, by Carl Sesto.  Sesto's account of his walking the Camino when he wasn't even prepared for it, physically or emotionally.  Very interesting and, I think, useful if you're planning a similar jaunt.  He could use a proofreader, though.  Recommended.

On to reading more books!


That wasn't a leaf. That was page one.

Resolutions are hard to keep, especially if you don't really believe there's a purpose behind making them. Nevertheless, here I am.

Here's a review of the authors I got books signed by during 2012.  Not as many as in previous years, but that's partly because I moved.

 Brandon Sanderson at the Memory of Light release party, 
BYU Bookstore, 8 January

 Connie Willis at ConDor, 9 March

 Terry Brooks at Mysterious Galaxy bookstore, 23 March

 Brandon Sanderson at Phoenix Comicon, 22 May

Cherie Priest at Phoenix Comicon, 23 May

Terry Brooks at Phoenix Comicon, 23 May

Timothy Zahn and Michael Stackpole at Phoenix Comicon, 24 May

Frank Beddor at Phoenix Comicon, 24 May

Brandon Sanderson at Barnes and Noble bookstore, 24 September

James P Blaylock at World Fantasy Convention, 1 November

Tim Powers at World Fantasy Convention, 1 November

Tad Williams at World Fantasy Convention, 1 November

I also got a couple of books signed by Patrick Rothfuss at the WFC, but I couldn't get a picture of him because he was aswarm with fans.  Also, I'm a little disappointed at the poor quality of the WFC pictures.  My camera was on the wrong setting, and I didn't realize it until too late.

I was very excited to meet these authors and get books signed by them, but I think the one that meant the most to me was having James P Blaylock sign my collection of Langdon St Ives books.  The World Fantasy Convention was in Brighton, UK, and I hauled a suitcase full of 30+ pounds of books all the way there.  During the signing, Blaylock asked where I was from and I said, "California".

He said, "You schlepped all these books from California?!"

"I did," I said.  But what I wanted to say was, "Brother, you don't know the half of it."


We're diverting to Phoenix

The last time I went to San Diego Comicon, I was one of about 250,000 people – some in very strange dress – squirming my way through the crowds and standing in seemingly interminable lines.  It reminded me a lot of high school.  What was even more irritating than having to spend most of my time standing in line waiting to get a signature or trying to get into even the lamest panel was that I paid a lot of money for the privilege.  And every few years the cost of standing in line went up.  So, after serious reflection, I decided that, even though there were some really good guests I’d be missing out on, I wouldn’t be going back.

My decision made me a little sad.  I enjoy pop culture conventions.  I like getting books signed by authors.  It’s fun to catch previews for the next blockbuster movie or tv series.  It’s entertaining to see some of the clever and detailed costumes fans come up with.  Every once in a while I find something – a book, a t-shirt, a poster – that I or someone I know will appreciate.  I would miss that part of the con-going experience.

So I was really happy to find out that other cities and places are having Comicons, too, like Phoenix and Denver and Las Vegas.  I went to Phoenix Comicon this year.  I chose it partly because of who the author guests were and partly because I have a friend who lives near there and I didn’t need to stay in a hotel.
Smaller is definitely the way to go.  Phoenix didn’t have the big publishers or studios there with the latest arcs and trailers of upcoming programs, but there were plenty of celebrities and authors and all stuff like that there worth attending for.  The venue was big enough to support a vast dealer room; the food choices were better than anything I ever found at the San Diego con; and I was free, with occasional exceptions, to walk through the halls and down the aisles without having to slow my pace to a snail’s crawl as I collided with hordes of storm troopers and superheroes.  The crowds in Phoenix on Thursday and Friday reminded me of Disneyland on a rainy Wednesday in February, which is not bad at all.  The weekend was a little worse, and I did have to stand in line a couple of times for more popular authors, but it was still never as bad as San Diego.

As usual, it was amusing to see who was dressed as whom.  Here’s a partial list of what I saw:
  • Lots of Dr Whos, male and female
  • Assorted superheroes and villains, male and female, including Loki (male and female) and Bane, whom I have not previously seen at cons.
  • A couple of nuns, male and female
  • Many steampunk and neo-Victorian ensembles
  • A few guys without shirts, not even painted green like Hulk.  I don’t know who they were supposed to be but it’s a fashion choice they ought to rethink for aesthetic reasons.  Same with the handful of people who thought underwear = costume.
  • Storm troopers, bounty hunters, and Jedi knights
  • Zombies and zombie killers
  • Furries
  • Much Starfleet crew
  • Lots of “Carry On” shirts with variations
The highlight for me, naturally, was getting books signed, followed closely by attending panels to hear authors speak.  I did pretty well acting normal when getting books signed.  I think I might be getting used to it!  I even had a bit of a conversation about steampunk tropes with Cherie Priest.

So, normally I would recommend Phoenix Comicon and other small versions of same, but maybe I won't.  I don’t want them to become so popular that they get overcrowded.

Not too crowded . . .

. . . but still a little weird.

Brandon Sanderson

 Cherie Priest

Terry Brooks

Timothy Zahn and Michael Stackpole

 Frank Beddor

Invader Zim and Grr

Indiana Jones



No clue

This isn't the princess you're looking for.

 Two of my favorites:  Ming the Merciless and Prince Vultan

A plethora of Doctors




It got a little more crowded on the weekend.

The dealer room had everything from light sabers . . .

. . . to fezes.  What more could you want?


I don't know whether to shoot you or adopt you

Our local Friends of the Library have an annual luncheon where they invite an author – usually one who writes literary fiction – to come and speak to the group.  Bottom Shelf volunteers also show up with a selection of fine, and sometimes collectible, used books that have been set aside during the preceding months for the very purpose of offering them to luncheon attendees.  Because of the guest author – or because of the kind of books the guest author writes – these luncheon attendees are, for the most part, older women.  And because of that, the Bottom Shelf, while providing a selection of material with appeal to Civil War buffs, motorcycle enthusiasts, sports fans and the like, dedicates most of the table space to cookbooks, art books, and children’s books, which sell very well to the typical luncheon-goer who is more often than not thinking ahead to Christmas and birthdays, and is thus able to get some very nice bargains for the various children, cooks, and art lovers amongst her acquaintances.

This year, however, the Friends were able to line up a shimmering, glowing superstar in the literary firmament:  Dean Koontz.  He's a genre writer instead of a literary author, and one of the most popular novelists EVER.  And that’s why the Bottom Shelf sold almost no books at the luncheon.

It wasn’t Dean Koontz’s fault.  Much.  It was we at the Bottom Shelf who failed to realize that such an author would attract a large number of luncheon attendees who couldn’t care less about art or recipes or children’s books, let alone Civil War battles or some pro golfer’s advice on how to improve your swing.  We know our community, but we didn’t reckon on the impact the Dean Koontz fanship from outside the community would have.

Also, it was very crowded and no one could see our tables, even if they had been interested in our books.  But that’s okay.  It was an opportunity for us to learn a lesson:  bring more books by the celebrated author and not so much of anything else.

The crowded venue

 Our little nook full of unwanted books

From the point of view of selling books, we did not do so well, but from the point of view of choosing an excellent guest author, our luncheon was a huge success.  Dean Koontz was a very entertaining and hilarious speaker, and was generous with his time in making sure that everyone got their books signed, even if it meant going to a less secure location out on the veranda after the luncheon ended because the venue managers had to start setting up for the next function (a wedding).

Dean Koontz signs books for all and sundry

And when I say less secure, I’m not joking.  Because of Koontz’s fame and because of the kind of books he writes, several fanatics have been attracted to him and have either 1) tried to adopt themselves into his family, 2) written creepy letters to him, or 3) threatened his life.

I can understand some fan behavior.  I regularly get books signed by my favorite authors.  I have a little more trouble with the concept of the fan letter, though.  Maybe it’s because I’m naturally shy, but it seems kind of weird to write someone – an actor, for instance – what is essentially a love letter based on your familiarity with a character they were only pretending to be, or, in the case of an author, based on a fictitious work.  I did write a fan letter to Nancy Kwan after seeing her in Disney’s film “Lt Robin Crusoe, USN” (with Dick Van Dyke) when I was ten years old.  She sent me an autographed picture postcard of herself in reply, and I have cherished it ever since.  (Except I don’t know where it is.  I cherish it in absentia, I guess.)  But I never told Nancy Kwan she was my mother. 

Anyway, circumstances being what they are, Dean Koontz brought his own security to the luncheon, and they were much in evidence, particularly after he moved out of the dining area and onto the veranda.  It was the first time we'd experienced anything like that at a FOFL luncheon.

I hope the Friends will continue to invite the occasional genre author to future luncheons. Doing so appeals to a much broader audience – and the Bottom Shelf managers will, I hope, now be prepared for such an audience and adjust their luncheon book offerings accordingly.


The journey is the treasure

So, apparently it is Children’s Book Week.  And not only that, but it is the 94th annual Children’s Book Week.  Where was I?  How is it that I did not become aware of Children’s Book Week until the week is nearly over, let alone CBW's first century?  Well, that won’t happen again.

To commemorate Children’s Book Week, and because I just finished watching a documentary on author Lloyd Alexander, I am highlighting three classic children’s book series that I believe every child should read, even if they are no longer children.    These are books that were published when I was a child but that I somehow missed out on.  I finally did read them when I was in my twenties, but again, where was I?  Where was I  ten or fifteen years earlier when these books were all the bestselling rage and winning awards and amassing young admirers?  I was an avid reader even as a child, so I have no explanation for how I overlooked these titles.  I almost feel ashamed, but I think I’ll blame my teachers and school librarians instead.

The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander

The Chronicles of Narnia, by C S Lewis

A Wrinkle in Time (and the whole Time Trilogy consisting of five books), 
by Madeleine L'Engle.  I have not yet ceased to be amazed that I missed this one as a child.


The cafeteria is for feeding, not fixing, your face

Sometimes I find the most interesting books while working at the Bottom Shelf.  The other day I picked up a copy of Hi There, High School! a classic guide that claims it will tell you “how to make a success of your teen years”.  Wow.  Success as a teen.  The El Dorado of the adolescent.  I sure could have used a book like that back when I was actually in my teen years.  Or could I?

Through the humorous experiences of some stereotypical characters, Hi There, High School! shows anyone, no matter their level of social ineptitude, how to make the most of the high school years.  Here are a few examples.

Chapter II (which is really Chapter Two and not Chapter Eleven like most students nowadays will erroneously suppose because no one teaches Roman numerals anymore) starts out with this rousing anecdote:

“'We’ll fight and work for you, Central High . . .'  The words flash on the big screen on the auditorium stage.  Everyone sings with pep and enthusiasm.”

Two things come to mind as I read this paragraph.  First, apparently the author can only remember the first line of the school song.  This is not an unusual occurrence.  The first line is all I remember of my own high school song:  “Hail, alma mater!  Hail to maroon and white!”  The rest is a blur.  I remember a bit more of my college song, “Rise and shout, the Cougars are out!  Da da de dum de da da glory!”  And then there’s something about a story (to rhyme with glory) and then there’s a bit more sporty matter, and then the big finish of “the Cougars of BYU!”  I think.  But that’s just the fight song.  I have no memory of any alma mater tune.

The second thing that comes to mind is that the author tells us everyone sings with pep and enthusiasm.  I think I believe this because I’ve seen similar scenarios in old movies, but it certainly does not reflect my reality.  Not that I went to all that many pep rallies.  Let alone games.

Chapter II also discusses such important things as whether the school allows you to bring your lunch from home and eat it in the cafeteria.  Our high school had no cafeteria.  But most people didn’t bother to bring lunch from home because we had something better than a homemade lunch, better than a cafeteria, better than anything Hi There, High School! could ever conjure up.  We had fresh, hot buttered French bread for 10 cents a piece!  No one can beat that, not even Central High.

It is in Chapter III (Three, not One Hundred Eleven) that the plot really gets going.  Here we learn about a school’s traffic system and the proper behavior for getting to class.  We meet several characters who show up again and again throughout the book, such as Breezy Jones and Buzz Newton, and a group of girls called Traffigoons because they are road hogs; that is, they “stop in the middle of the corridor and start a gabfest”.  My high school was a little on the crowded side, so when even one person stopped walking in the hall, it caused a traffic jam 50 feet back.  Gabby girls were seldom the cause, though.  At my school, it was usually because someone had started a fight.  Two or three people started slugging each other and those of us at the back of the traffic jam would sigh and hope it got cleared up by the time we inched our way forward to the site of conflict.

Chapter IV (which has nothing to do with intravenous procedures) is a little scary.  There are some pretty explicit threats about what will happen to you if you cut class or have unexcused absences.  It’s all pretty much alarmist twaddle, though.  In my experience, cutting class was never as dire as they make it sound.  I cut class a handful of times, and was only caught twice and was able to talk my way out of it both times.  Well, one time.  The other time I just told my teacher I didn’t care about the consequences.  He was so flustered at my response that nothing happened.  Now, my brother, on the other hand, cut nearly a whole semester before the attendance secretary caught on that maybe he wasn’t really at home with a tummy ache after all. 

Succeeding chapters give all sorts of useful advice on proper table etiquette (for eating lunch in the cafeteria, in case your school has one), for getting homework done, for studying effectively, for speaking in public (like at a club meeting), and for trying out for school sports, none of which applied to me.  Oh, I usually got my homework done, but I just tried to keep a low profile for the most part so that I didn’t get made fun of or yelled at or beat up.  I know one guy who walked into the boys’ locker room during a football game, startled some jokers who were handling a transaction involving illegal substances, and got pounded for his trouble. 

Chapter XII advises teens to be on their best behavior at large in the community – at the soda shoppe, for instance, or at the movies – because they are representatives of their school, and they wouldn’t want to give Central High a bad name.  Right about here is where I started feeling that perhaps Hi There, High School! was just a tad out of touch with modern youth.  Yes, it would be lovely if high school aged individuals behaved with proper decorum on campus and off, used the correct eating utensils in the correct way, tipped the soda jerk, didn’t talk during movies, and had family councils with Mom and Pop.  But I’m afraid the attitudes of rudeness, selfishness, and exhibitionism that have such a stranglehold on people today had already sent their invasive tendrils into society by the time I was a teenager.

It is not until Chapter XVI that the characters in the book get around to dealing with the real issues of teen success; that is, Popularity.  And here I find nothing new.  In the book, Jane, Ted, Phoebe, and all the other successful characters are successful because they are friendly, well-mannered, good conversationalists, and considerate of others.  Also they dance well.  Somehow, the kids at my school never learned that popularity depended on characteristics like those.  Sure, it helped to be friendly, but it helped even more to be athletic, to be good-looking, and to have that certain something (that je ne sais quois, my chums who took French would have said) that drew others to them whether they were kind, good-hearted people or not.  And sometimes it helped to be a clown, but only if you were already well-liked.

As I finished the book, I came to the conclusion that Hi There, High School! would not have helped me much back in the day.  It can give you plenty of advice, but if you’re a jerk you’re not going to take it.  And if you’re already a decent person, the advice is superfluous.  No book can give you a scintillating personality or athletic or leadership skills.  So, if you are a relatively shy, insecure type with above average intelligence who likes Shakespeare, Hollywood musicals, religious history, and Fred and Ginger movies, you’re pretty much not going to be popular.  But you will have your circle of mostly-like-minded friends with whom you’ll get along just fine.  You will use a fork properly, behave with decorum at the movies, discover your sense of humor halfway through your Freshman year, be funny amongst your friends and quiet with everyone else, go to approximately one football game in four years, have a blast during Senior year because you’re taking mostly electives, have your share of joys and heartaches, and graduate with few regrets, but only a few.  And that pang will fade with the years, like so many other things.