Year: 2009

Dynamic Duos

I’m not a mystery aficionado and in fact seldom read more than one or two books in any kind of series.  J. K. Rowling and Anthony Trollope are notable exceptions.  So, the best explanation for my extensive reading of Arthur Conan Doyle must be the Sherlock Holmes-Dr. Watson relationship dynamic. Anticipating Watson’s take on Holmes’ latest enigmatic pronouncement is nearly as suspenseful as tracking the hound on the moor. 

Most of us observed early in our reading careers (thank you, Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew) that fictional life is just better with one or more sidekicks.  Either your associate will pick up on a clue that you missed, or he/she will behave in a manner denoting the appropriateness of your being the leader.  Consider Jeeves and Wooster, for example.  In Spencer Quinn’s Dog On It: A Chet and Bernie Mystery, Chet plays the Jeeves role–more perceptive, generally more patient, and decidedly more instructive for the reader.  And Chet is a dog.  This is a new take on the duo franchise, but not the newest or most unusual.

The library doesn’t own this book yet (it’s on order) but I am very curious to read Judy Clemens’ Embrace the Grim Reaper. Here’s the scenario: Casey Maldonado, all but undone by recent tragic events, hits the road in search of comfort, direction, or whatever, accompanied by Death, who apparently guides her to a small town in Ohio and then assists her in solving a murder. 

I’m a sucker for a catchy title, but an inventive premise is almost as good.

A guilty pleasure

Reflecting on Ryan’s June 30 Facebook comment–Readers’ Exchange is also posted on the City of Round Rock’s page–I wonder how many other readers feel vaguely apologetic about their reading habits.  Here’s what Ryan said:

Unfortunately I primarily read non-fiction online and in trade magazine but I have been known to read a lot of autobiographies, mainly written by musicians.  “Scar Tissue” by Anthony Kiedis (Vocalist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers).  I’ve also read 3 of the Sword of Truth series books by Terry Goodkind.  I would like to read more poetry and narratives on the abstract side.  I should do that.

My initial response was that I should do that–read more nonfiction, science fiction, and trade magazines, that is.  I could blog for an entire year about all the titles that I won’t get around to though they’ve been recommended by friends with admirable taste, not to mention the books that would balance out my reading repertoire (did I mention nonfiction, trade journals, and science fiction?)  I applaud Ryan’s priorities and feel oddly comforted that others may suffer from reading guilt, as well.  I just read the blurb for Scar Tissue in the library catalog, and it’s now my reading list.  It called to mind another music industry-related title that I read a few months ago and would highly recommend:  Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon–and the Journey of a Generation.  

In return for his autobiography mention, I can offer Ryan this excellent, slightly edgy short story collection by Wells Tower: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.  How about some poetry recommendations, fellow readers? 

In-stock characters

“You remember Ann Richards, right?”  This is how a gracious library-goer recently jostled my memory into gear.  I’d just sent in her interlibrary loan request for an Edwin Shrake book, and my expression must have signaled that Mr. Shrake’s precise literary context was momentarily eluding me.

 “Edwin (Bud) Shrake was Governor Richards’ frequent escort and part of that wonderful group of Texas literary characters,”, she concluded, having offered the ideal hint.  No wonder a neat, caption-worthy phrase didn’t present itself.  Pressed to invent a brief tagline, you could say that Edwin Shrake co-authored one of the best-selling golfing books of all time, or that he knew Jack Ruby, or that he hobnobbed with Dan Jenkins and Willie Nelson, and you’d still fail to credit the influence of this novelist, screenwriter, journalist, and sportswriter. 

If you’re seeking intriguing characters, you can take your pick: fictional personas created by Texas authors, or the writers themselves.  This summer, one of the upstairs book towers at the library features novels set in Texas, and keeping that display stocked presents a challenge.   When I collect and slot in titles from the fiction stacks, alert readers are apt to spot a choice item and empty that space before I can admire the nicely stocked result. 

Genre-bending Lobster

Finishing a book just before work is not a performance-enhancing activity.  In addition to organizing myself for a punctual, presentable appearance, today I struggled to shift my concentration from one workplace to another.  I may be employed by the library, but this morning found me grilling shrimp, re-stocking the bar, and serving cheddar biscuits at Red Lobster.

Mentally, that is.  While reading book group selections is sometimes an act of duty, this time I was glad for the necessity of moving Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster to #1 on my monumental “want to read” list.  Published in 2007, …Lobster offers multiple attractions, including brevity (146 pages), author reputation, and unusually tight focus.  The premise–the last night before a seen-better-days Red Lobster franchise shuts down–works on multiple levels.  In the process of recounting just a few hours, this doomed-restaurant scenario sets up some intriguing questions.  Who will show up and who won’t?  What opportuntities are provided for the potentially unemployed staff?  What weird interactions will the nothing-to-lose situation prompt among staff and customers?  And, by the way, what kind of workflow keeps a Red Lobster profitably dispensing seafood on a daily basis?

This last question is a real draw for me, as I am fascinated by the inner workings of business enterprises.  O’Nan’s narration of the manager’s opening routine, kitchen workflow, and seating strategies would have entertained me sufficiently.  However, his manager’s-eye view of co-workers and customers, filtered through Manny’s empathetic gaze, proves that the human element is O’Nan’s real forte in this book.  

With its fully realized inner world, …Lobster creates the sort of social laboratory that science fiction readers appreciate.  Character vignettes would interest serious fiction fans, and the social/economic context of the story has definite documentary appeal.

I couldn’t possibly…

This is what the polite guest says to decline that second serving of something enjoyable–particularly if she/he suspects that supplies are limited.  Happily, this etiquette applies only to food. 

In the reading world, fiction fans are welcome and even encouraged to demand more, more, and still more of that favorite author or series.  And while authors shift into creative high gear to produce the next volume, someone has to offer delightful and engrossing alternatives.  Library and bookstore staffers are familiar with the “Who else should I read if I love ___?” question.  

Janet Evanovich is a frequent query.  Fans of the mystery series beginning with One for the Money admire Stephanie Plum’s spirit and sassy dialogue and specifically request “something else that’s just as funny.”  Jennifer Crusie, Linda Barnes, Jane Heller, Lisa Scottoline are some appropriate leads for the Evanovich reader awaiting her next installment.    

Those names are frequently mentioned, but when the question came up earlier this week, these two also came to mind:  Mary Kay Andrews and Elinor Lipman.  Andrews is the pen name of a well-established writer of other successful mysteries.  Her Savannah Blues offers a murder with the bonus of lots of antiques and collectible lore, not to mention entertaining dialogue sprinkled with quirky Southern flavor.  Savannah Breeze would be a nice follow-up.

Elinor Lipman isn’t a mystery author, but her characters do often have mysterious and enigmatic personalities.  Lipman’s prose is first-rate, and she’s a master of witty conversational exchanges.  I became a Lipman fan with The Pursuit of Alice Thrift.  Her latest, The Family Man, is also laced with dialogue that ranges from droll to laugh-out-loud funny.  The twenty-something Thalia definitely exhibits Plum-like bravado and spunk. 

We call these tips about similar authors “readalikes”, but we admit that, when it comes to providing a 100% match for your unique favorite author, we couldn’t possibly!

Bait and Switch?

I do judge books by their covers and am an easy mark for lush artwork or eye-catching fonts.  When it comes to titles, however, certain standards apply.  Whimsy and creativity are admirable, but the title should pertain to the content and should not be arbitrarily taken out of context from the pages.  Fair’s fair.

My title-appropriateness radar recently went on full alert when, well into Amanda Eyre Ward’s Love Stories in This Town, a bartender observes, “There are no love stories in this town.” 

How does this title not qualify as a bait-and-switch?  You’ll have to read Love Stories… for yourself, but I’ll just say that the author’s conscience may remain clear.  Ward’s story collection, potentially a fine choice for readers who normally prefer novels, does have much to say about love and what it asks of us.  As for the “town” part–the locales are varied, from Butte, Montana, to Saudi Arabia, to Austin (where the author resides); each one contributes more than just local flavor to the proceedings.  While Part One stories are standalone episodes without shared characters, the Part Two “Lola Stories” track significant life events for one memorable woman. 

Book groups take note: following the stories you’ll find an interview with the author, along with questions and topics for discussion.  Ward’s list of favorite short story collections suggests some wonderful future reads.



Getting a Reputation

It’s a momentous week to launch a new blog.  Michael Jackson’s death has inspired all sorts of musings regarding what his music meant to whom and when.  His legions of fans include so many in our area, and yet I heard someone on KUT radio observe that “Austin isn’t really Michael Jackson country”.   A city known for quirky tastes and musical diversity, Austin is not easily identified as anyone’s turf, certainly not that of a pop icon.  

Everyone knows that Austin is enviably weird and progressive.  In Round Rock, Cedar Park, Georgetown, and other such places, we’re still discovering which choices demonstrate our character.

Reading preferences express so much about a community.  Comments offered at the library here in Round Rock are intriguing, but we’d like to hear much more from readers, library users or not.  What do you love to read?  Avoid reading? (And are there stories explaining why?)  What favorite author do you see languishing on the shelf and wish others would encounter?  

Share your thoughts and critiques about books, authors, new formats such as Kindle and mp3, or any other reader-ly opinions with us here.   What we read is who we are!