20 April 2010

Lab: The Blog to End All Blogs

The most logical subjects for this assignment seemed to me to be some former co-workers from Ball State University's Bracken Library. Four of the five are those, and one is from outside the library. I was sort of restricted to Bracken's collection, so that the patrons could easily obtain the books. In some cases certain books were simply not available, so I did not pursue those once I found they were not in Bracken's collection.

First, I spoke with "Elizabeth." First, I asked her to tell me about something that she'd read recently that she liked. She mentioned "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett. When asked what she liked about it, she said she liked the character development and the fact that several characters' stories intertwined. She also liked the community/family drama aspect, the historical (1960s) setting, and that it was not overtly topical or political. She likes things that are more reality based, with interesting women characters, but not too fluffy. She also spoke of Alice Hoffman, saying that she has not read all of her books, and would like to read more.

I searched read alikes for Kathryn Stockett, and initially found a book called "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society" by Mary Ann Shaffer through Amazon.com. This is the one I thought she would like the most. She had already read this one, but said that she DID really like it! I did a google search for read alikes for the first book, and found a page created by a librarian in the Rochester Public Library in Minnesota. I found a book here called "Sisters & Lovers" by Connie Brisco. This seemed like it would fit her preference for character driven stories, with several characters intertwined, and a community/family drama. Unfortunately, she read about six chapters and gave up on this one, saying that it seemed to be the same problems and conversations coming up over and over. I also gave her "The Third Angel" by Alice Hoffman. I looked through synopses of books owned by the library by this author, and this one seemed like one she would like. She had tried this one before, but didn't get too far. She read the whole thing this time, and liked it better. Overall, she said it was a good choice for her, but she didn't love it. So, I was not entirely successful here, but not too bad.

Second, I met with "Shelby." I asked her what she had read recently that she liked, and she also mentioned "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett. (So, I was set to find books for two people derived from a similar source... from the same library. Easy, right?) She said she liked that it was from the perspective of a maid, in the South, and that it was historical. I asked if the time period was important; she said no. She said she liked Amish stories, mentioning Beverly Lewis in particular. We then went over to peruse the Bestseller collection, and she gave me a string of authors and genres that she likes. She spoke of Patricia Cornwell, Jodi Pichoult, Lisa Gardner, James Patterson, Sandra Brown, Nora Roberts, and Julie Garwood. She said she likes suspense, women's lives, romance, detective stories, and the occasional autobiography (usually a movie star).

Some of the tools I know of require a subscription, so I often went to Literature Map first. I searched through several of these names. I found "The Keepsake" by Tess Gerritsen as a read alike for Lisa Gardner through Literature Map. "Shelby" had already read this one, but really liked it. Through the same tool, I found "One for the Money" by Janet Evanovich as a read alike for Patricia Cornwell. I searched this tool, Amazon, and even a general google search for Amish fiction, and was not getting what I thought would be good hits. Finally, I searched Ball State's CardCat with a subject search for "Amish." I found one fiction book and gave this to her with the Evanovich title. She recently sent me an e-mail saying that she was in the middle of another book at the moment, but did look through the two that I gave her. She said that she is sure that she would like them---"especially the Amish based one." I was a little iffy on the Amish book, since it was a little older (1962), but she said that didn't matter to her. So, I guess this was mostly a success, even though she hasn't read them completely yet.

Third, on the list is "Bill." I asked him the standard first question about what he had read lately and liked. He mentioned a book called "The Art of Intrusion" by Kevin Mitnick. Apparently Minick is a famous hacker from the 1980s, who was put in prison for his activities. What did he like about it? He liked the subject matter of hacking and computer security. He initially said he was interested in non-fiction, but I asked if he would be interested in fiction on this subject. He gave me a resounding YES! He went on to mention a couple of books by Neal Stephenson. He is interested in "tech-fiction," which may have mystery/thriller/paranoia aspects.

I found that it was not as easy to find non-fiction through the tools that I was familiar with, so I went to Amazon.com, and did a search for the Kevin Mitnick book. I found one called "Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World" by Bruce Schneier. "Bill" said this one looks good, but he hasn't gotten to it yet. By way of the listing for this book in the CardCat, I clicked on the subject heading for "computer hackers," and found "Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier" edited by Katie Hafner and John Markoff. He said this one looked okay, but he was skeptical because he had heard something about John Markoff that he didn't like (he didn't say what it was). William Gibson is a read alike for Neal Stephenson, through Literature Map. I wanted to give him "Neuromancer", since that is the book that sort of gave birth to CyberPunk fiction. Unfortunately it was checked out, so I have him "Virtual Light". He said it looks good, but hasn't gotten to it yet. The reason he hasn't read through the others is that the fourth book I gave him is the one he picked up first, and could not put down! This is a book called "Stealing the Network: How to Own the Box"... it is a book of short stories, by various authors (I couldn't find an editor listed). This was found as a CardCat subject search for "computer hackers" in fiction. He started this one because it is short stories and would be easy to stop and put down when he needed to. He was nearly finished with it when I spoke with him, and he really enjoyed it! He plans to look for the others in the series. I'd call this one a success, even though he didn't have time to read through everything I gave him.

Number four is named "Jake." He had recently read "The Case for Christ" by Lee Strobel. He liked reading about early church history. I asked him if there were any particular aspects about it that he liked. He said he liked reading about the customs and beliefs. He liked the style of the book, which is interviews, although some of it is in a narrative style and he would be fine with reading something that is more in a narrative style. He mentioned a book that he would like to read called "The Case for Faith" by the same author. I asked if he would be interested in reading fiction on this subject... he said maybe, but not really at this time. He would prefer non-fiction, and something that is more pro-Christian or something that presents a good pro/con arguement. He was not interested in anything arguing against Christianity.

Again, I had a difficult time finding something with the tools I know of, so I did a CardCat search for Lee Strobel. I did not find the book "Jake" mentioned in the collection, but I did find "The Case for a Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence that points toward God" by this author. So, I gave him this book. On this entry, I clicked the subject heading for "God--Proof, Cosmological" and found "A Case for the Existence of God" by Dean L. Overman. Hoping to find something similar to the book he requested, I did a subject search for "Faith." I looked through several titles and settled on "Why Faith Matters" by David J. Wolpe.

As it turns out, "Jake" asked for these types of books because he is writing a paper for a class. When I spoke with him again, he said that he has picked through all three books to find something useful, and that all three have been helpful to him. So, I'm happy with the results here.

Last, but certainly not least, is "Sally." She told me that she had recently read "Practical Magic" by Alice Hoffman. She said she liked the magical elements, the New England setting, and that it was a story dealing with women's lives and the whole family aspect. I also asked if she'd be interested in reading more from the same author, and she said yes. Although at this point, I had already given the most interesting looking Alice Hoffman book to the first person.

I tried Literature Map and Amazon.com, and both (as I suspected) suggested "The Witches of Eastwick" by John Updike. I thought this would be a perfect match, since it seemed to fit everything she told me. However, she stopped about half-way; mostly because of the sexual content. She liked the setting, but not the other aspects. Literature Map suggested Fannie Flagg, so I found "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe" in the collection. She sent me an e-mail saying that she is in the middle of it (although probably finished now), and is "thoroughly enjoying it! I love the writing style, love the content, love the interaction between people." I also did a google search... I searched read alikes for "Practical Magic" and eventually found "Like Water for Chocolate" by Laura Esquivel through a page a librarian had put together for the Northwest Regional Library System. Also, a classmate (Ben) had spoken about this one, and I remembered that it sounded interesting. "Sally" said that she LOVED this one... "was intrigued right from the start, and finished it the same day I started." I'd say this was mostly a success, with a suprising miss regarding "The Witches of Eastwick".

This was an interesting exercise. I actually kind of enjoyed looking these books up, and finding things for people. Although, it took longer than I expected and it wasn't as easy as I expected. I knew all of my subjects, and I was surprised by some of them. Once some of the other employees found out what I was doing, they wanted me to find something for them! I only had time for five right now... but I may go back and work with those people... just for kicks! ;)

Secret Shopper Assignment

I was somewhat limited on this one... I live in a very small town that is outside a decent sized town. Since I don't actually live in the decent sized town, I can't check anything out... and for this assignment, I wanted to go to a library where I'd actually be able to check something out. So, I was sort of stuck with "Smalltown Public Library" (obviously not the real name).

I went into the tiny library, and saw a tiny gray-haired woman near the desk. I needed to get my card renewed, so I asked to have that done first. It took her quite some time to do this, so I looked around. I noticed that she started doing other things, and wondered if she was done with my card since she hadn't bothered to tell me... she was. I then asked her if she could recommend something for me... she asked, "Well, what do you like?" I told her that I had recently read a couple of Houdini biographies that I enjoyed (true), but that my next read didn't have to be a biography. What did I like about it? ...the "magician" aspect... fiction or non-fiction would be fine.

She then pulled a draw from the card catalog, and started looking through the "magic" subject-headings... not much there (it really is a small library). She found one called "Magical Thinking: True Stories" by Augusten Burroughs. The cover had a "magical" photo, and a quick glance made it look interesting, so I told her I'd try it out. She also took me to the biography section, to look for another book on Houdini... I didn't really want another book on Houdini, maybe she was looking for other illusionists. She didn't really have anything else to offer on the "magic" subject apparently. Finally, she asked me if I liked "crime books." I'm not sure how she made that connection, but I told her "No," I don't mind crime in fiction, but I don't want to read about the real stuff. ...and that was that. She stamped a card for the one book and told me that if it wasn't quite what I was looking for to come back. She was nice enough, but I didn't think she was terribly helpful. Then again, the tiny library doesn't give her much to work with.

So, I get out to my car and start really flipping through the book... This is not what I wanted at all. One of the first pages defines "magical thinking" as: "A schizotypal personality disorder attributing to one's own actions something that had nothing to do with him or her and thus assuming that one has a greater influence over events than is actually the case." This coupled with a look over the table of contents told me that this is not a book that I have much interest in reading... and really no interest in reading now. I looked through some of the stories, and I'm still not sure what this book is really supposed to be about. It seems like it's a bunch of little stories about people with obssessive-compulsive disorder.

Again, she probably did the best she could with what was available... but the (apparantly) only book in the library that would fit for me (from what I told her) just didn't really work for me.

Mini-Assignment: Blog Topic 3

Let's say a few words on digital books and digital book production, shall we?

First of all, until I read Fenton's article, I was not entirely aware that there were companies out there through which one could store a book and self-publish it. I was also surprised that the books are able to be printed on-demand, even one at a time. From the description in the article, it seems that one can choose to have a quality book printed at very reasonable price. I actually think this is very cool. I know of some people who have tossed around the idea of publishing a book, but thought that it would be too expensive... or that they might have to do a huge order of 500 or 1000 books, not knowing if they'd actually be able to get rid of them! This gives them a great alternative. This is one side of digital books that I do like... well, the end result is a printed book, which may be why I like the process.

As for simply digital books, whether it is online, a PC program, or a personal reader, I'm just not completely sold on those.
Some people in this day and age seem to think (without much real thought) that everything is going digital, so we should just abandon traditional books. Even some libraries are pushing for more electronic books, and getting rid of their regular books. To this, I say "no" ...just "no." The digital world is too fragile to have that as the only source. It's not bad for a back-up... traditional books are frail to some extent as well. But still... and maybe I'm a bit old-fashioned with this... but electronic information is just so fleeting... it's there, and then it's gone. A real book is physical... you touch it, you hold it, you smell it... all of this goes into the experience of reading, whether for pleasure or information alone.

Also, I think some people are jumping on this bandwagon far too quickly. The general public is not ready to give up on books. While record stores are being shut down left and right, I still see book stores standing strong... especially used book stores. The stores are staying open somehow, so it is just far too premature to think that people don't want books. This is why it drives me insane to hear of libraries going more digital, and discarding their books!

I wouldn't fault someone for getting a personal reader... I'll admit, they're kind of nifty... but only as a substitute. Some do offer cool incentives: Barnes & Noble offer thousands of public domain books for free download to the Nook. This is kind of cool, if you just want something for a vacation or whatever, but it's just not the real thing. Amazon offered an exclusive Stephen King story for the Kindle. I admit, I downloaded it for the (free) PC version of Kindle so that I could read it, but I'm still not inclined to buy the device itself.

This is just one man's views... but the evidence that I've seen through friends and in the library is that people like these things as "something that will work for now," but most people still seem to prefer real books... I am certainly one of them.

Mini-Assignment: Blog Topic 2

I thought about writing about something more "important" for this blog, but I've decided that this is important.

At first, when I saw that this class would be spending a week on Young Adult fiction, I thought, "Why?" I mean, I've got nothing against it... I enjoy some myself, but this is Adult Readers' Advisory. The bottom line, however, is that many adults do enjoy reading Young Adult fiction. Like I just said, I'm one of them.

It's hard to say for sure where the recent trend started, but it may be the Harry Potter books that got adults back into reading YA fiction. The books are a lot of fun, and their easy to read. Of course, the Twilight books have also gotten a lot of older readers reading YA, this is probably a bit different crowd, but none the less they are finding something of value in books aimed at a younger audience. Around the time that Harry Potter ended, fans found a new fantasy hero in Percy Jackson. Many of these books are being turned into films, and I think this is a good thing, because it draws more people to the books.

The question may be "why?". Why are older readers finding themselves holding these books? Of course, it's not just the fantasy books, there are many realistic books that adults are also finding appealing. I think the biggest reason is that adolescence is such an important part of each person's life, that we never really lose those feelings... we never really let it go. Go to a high-school reunion, you'll see that often the same cliques get back together. The popularity of these books shouldn't really come as a surprise. There are a lot of YA shows on television (hello, CW network) that are very popular with adults. Adults see themselves in these characters. It's a way for them to re-live their youth... or in some cases experience, through the characters in the story, things that they did not or were not able to experience first hand.

Some have said that many of these books are really aimed at adults, just in a younger packaging. I'm not sure this is completely true... I would guess that it's more of a universal thing. The books are aimed at young people, with the underlying appeal to adults... if that makes sense.

I actually think this is a good trend, and the more popular it becomes, the more accepted it will be. Adults should be reading these books on one hand, to be aware of what their children are reading. On the other hand, adults should feel free to embrace this side of themselves... to enjoy an easy read, for pleasure.

Mini-Assignment: Blog Topic 1

I must admit, the tools for Reader's Advisory are something that I've had a bit of trouble getting a handle on for this class. That is to say, I sort of expected to find a few good websites and that would be biggest part of it. The fact of it though, is that there really are not just a few really good places to go, for the most part. What I've come to find throughout the book presentations and the Reader's Advisory lab is that there are many sources that one may have to sort through, and not just a few authoritative ones.

Books such as Saricks's The Reader's Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction can be a great tool for librarians and individual readers alike. By reading through that book, I have found several books that I would like to read. Actually, a few that I read for this class came from suggestions in that book. Librarians could of course find this book useful, but the downside is that the suggestions contained within are limited by space and by publication date of this book.

The online sources offer much more, of course. They can add titles immediately. But still, it can be difficult at times to find a good tool, or even a good list made by another librarian, to match what someone is looking for. There are a multitude of options, and it can be difficult to sort through them all. The genre specific ones seem to be the best really, which makes sense, since they have more focus (e.g. Fantastic Fiction, and Stop You're Killing Me). I especially found Fantastic Fiction to be good. Literature Map is okay, but it doesn't always hit the mark. Also, they only give authors, not titles.

One problem that I've run into on more than one occasion is that some of these sources, such as Novelist, require a subscription. This wouldn't be so much of a problem for libraries (although, if it costs money, that could be an issue), but it doesn't really help individual users much. I came across a few sites that were kind of difficult to navigate.

Often, if I was looking for a lesser known author, or non-fiction, I found myself having to go to google.com and searching the subject+read alikes. Sometimes I would find some good sources there, like a page a librarian had created for something specific, bit it involved a lot of sifting through the junk to get the good stuff. Sometimes, I had to look through Amazon.com recommendations. There actually is some good stuff there, but it is based on sales. Although, if one takes a few seconds to look through their reviews, sometimes recommendations can be found there as well.

I am, of course, new at using these tools, finding the tools, and using them effectively. I suppose if I were to do this on a regular basis, I would find some reliable sources and cut down on the time spent "sifting throught the junk."

08 April 2010

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Annotation 6)

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter... written by Seth Grahame-Smith... published by Grand Central... 2010.

I, probably like many other readers, expected this book to be somewhat light-hearted and campy. It really wasn't though. It is essentially a biography of Abraham Lincoln, from about age 9 through death, with a vampire storyline added into it. The book is divided into three sections: Boy, Vampire Hunter, and President.

The story opens with Abe hunting... turkey hunting, that is. He is going over and over what his father told him about a proper kill shot, so that the animal doesn't suffer more than necessary. He needs to hit the body, not the neck. Abe sets his sights on a turkey, but his shot is off... he hits it in the neck. He sees the look of fear and panic in the eyes of the turkey as it is hanging on and gasping for life. This affects him greatly; he refuses to take part in the dinner made of his kill. It also affects his later hunts. It is not much later, at the age of 9, that Abe's mother dies. At the time, it is from what is called the "milk sickness," believed to be brought on by tainted milk. Abe finds himself in a position to overhear a conversation between his father and someone who has lent him money. He discovers that his mother has actually died of a "fool's dose" of vampire blood (she has been made to ingest vampire blood, but not in such a way that will turn her into one of them). Abe vows then and there to kill every vampire in America.

He begins training himself and at the age of twelve, tricks the money lender (who is a vampire) to come to the Lincoln home. Abe "negotiates" with the vampire to cancel his father's debt. At the age of 16, Abe hears of a rash of young victims who are found drained of blood, not too far from his southern Indiana home. Abe finds and attacks this vampire, but his skills are not yet up for the challenge. He is rescued by someone named Henry. Abe wakes later in Henry's home, only to find that Henry is a vampire. They eventually talk, and Henry takes it upon himself to train Abe in the fight. Abe agrees, and becomes an excellent student. When he leaves, Abe agrees to take letters from Henry which will tell him the names and locations of vampires "who deserve it (death) sooner." This is all inter-woven with all of the factual information on the life of Lincoln. Grahame-Smith deals with Abe's difficult relationship with his father, life with his step-mother and step-siblings, and Abe's struggles to find work along the Ohio River to help support his family.

From then, the author takes us into Abe's early adulthood and somewhat beyond. We see Abe and his family moving into Illinois. Abe continues to find work. He begins building boats, which will then carry and sell goods down the Mississippi... all the way into New Orleans. Throughout this time, Abe continues to hunt when he can. In New Orleans, he meets up with a very interesting acquaintance, who also shows up later during Abe's time in Washington, D.C. The "Vampire Hunter" section shows Abe doing a lot of that, but it also gives the reader a lot of real information about Lincoln. After the age of 21, Abe no longer has to give all of his wages to his father, so he breaks out on his own. He tries various things, including working in, and later owning a retail store. He also runs for the state legistlature, and spends some time with that. We also see Abe fall in love, and make some unexpected friends. He begins his law practice, and continues to stay involved in politics. Eventually, he meets up with Henry again; and Henry introduces him to some very influential friends, who tell Abe they have big plans... in which he plays a large part.

Abe goes on to become president, of course, and his hunts are few and far between at this point. Vampires actually end up playing a large part in the Civil War, and Henry maintains contact with Abe. Actually, a lot of the "President" section focuses on Abe's factual life; the vampire elements are somewhat lessened here. The author takes the reader through the Civil War and on up through Abe's assassination. He deals with Abe's death, and the following events, in a very interesting way; and I don't want to spoil it for any potential readers.

Personally, I really enjoyed this book. I think I enjoyed it even more when it became clear that this wasn't going to be a campy story. It takes itself very seriously, and has a pretty serious tone throughout. It presents Abe as a tragic figure, and I guess in many ways he really was; but the fictional part shows him as a complex anti-hero. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is interested, and even those who are simply curious. It's a quick read, and you may actually be surprised to find that you enjoyed it.

16 March 2010

The War of the Worlds (Annotation 5)

The War of the Worlds... written by H.G. Wells... published (this edition) by New York Review Books... 1898/1960.

This book is clearly a classic, and for good reason; it set a standard for many followers. The story contained within is interesting, but the words were laid down over 100 years ago, so readers will notice some differences in the language. 100 years, however, is not so much time to make a huge difference, and the book is certainly readable by modern audiences, as long as they give themselves a bit of time to get used to the style in which it is written. Aside from the book's age, there is the matter of it being written by an Englishman, so there are some differences there, concerning the language. Also, despite the grand scale of the story, it is told in a way which is quite intimate. This may be a challenge to some readers who, being familiar with the filmed versions, may be expecting something a bit larger and "action packed."

Something that surprised me is the fact that the protagonist is never named. The book is written very nearly like an extended journal, so I am guessing that Wells intended the reader to accept the book as being written in his voice, as if this had really happened, to the world and to him personally. Having read this now, it is interesting to note that this is similar to what Orson Welles did with his radio version in 1938, being presented as if it was really happening.

I would guess that most people know the basic story here, but I'll give a brief synopsis just in case. The story takes place in England, in and around London. The narrator and an astronomer friend have witnessed ten "somethings" being launched from Mars over the course of ten days. At first, they did not know what they were or that they were "somethings" headed for Earth. Some time later the first "cylinder" lands in a field near the home of the narrator. It is very soon discovered, and people begin studying the huge cylinder. Attempts are made to open it, but eventually it unscrews itself. The Martians begin to come out. They are somewhat octopus-like in nature, with bulbous heads and tentacles. They operated large mechanical, tripod devices; and these are their means of transportation... and destruction. These tripods have what Wells calls a "heat-ray," which is apparently similar to a modern laser, though seemingly a larger beam than normally thought of by modern audiences. The Martians used this device in reaction to the immediate onlookers. At first, some people think that the Martians may have been frightened or misunderstood. Soon, though, more cylinders land on Earth and the Martians begin a full attack on the English cities.

The narrator, along with many others, flees his city, but he decides to go back to his home to observe the Martians. When he gets back home to find his town in shambles, he changes his mind again, and decides to go back to where he sent his wife. This is essentially how the rest of the book is told, with the narrator trying to survive his quest back to his wife. The story is written in a very introspective and journal-like manner. This may seem tedious at first, but after the reader gets used to it, it starts moving along at an easier pace. Wells gives various descriptions of the Martians within the tripod machines, their manner of feeding, and how they busy themselves with the building of their machines. He also tells in great detail of a plant, called here "the Red Weed," that the Martians (purposefully or not) brought with them. The Red Weed begins to grow on earth, and actually grows out of control. This phenomena is pretty interesting, not only to the narrator, but to the reader (me) as well. The weed eventually loses its footing, and the Martians themselves begin to be affected by their stay on our planet. You may know the ending, or you may be able to guess it... otherwise, I'll leave it for you discover on your own.

This is an interesting read that I would recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in science-fiction. As I said, it is a classic, and it is worth the time to have read it at least once. Some books of this age are written in a rather dry fashion, and even though they are considered classics may not be of interest to many readers. Wells does write with an intriguing style once the reader becomes accustomed to it, and there are certainly some beautiful passages.

22 February 2010

Practical Magic (Annotation 4)

Practical Magic... written by Alice Hoffman... published by Berkley... 1995.

I almost don't even know where to begin. For a book that's around the 300 page length, this seemed so much larger! ...and I mean that in the best possible way. Despite the fact that the story has a fairly intimate setting, it is nearly epic! The story itself is sprawled out over about 35 years, although there is also a bit of digging even further into the past. So much happens just in the first section of the book that I felt like I had already read an entire novel! I was a bit surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. Hoffman is masterful with her prose, and draws the reader in from the first few pages. Had I not been too tired, I would have stayed up all night reading this book! As it was, I read the story over three (it's a magic number) days... which, on the other hand, I was just fine with... I was really in no hurry for the story to end. It occurs to me that I'll have to look for a sequel... I sort of doubt it's out there, but I'll look... either way, I am interested in reading more from Alice Hoffman.

The story is all about the Owens women, a matrilineal family in which all girls are given the Owens name regardless of the father's name. The story begins with two young girls, Sally and Gillian, who have gone to live with their aunts after the death of the girls' parents. The girls are given much freedom as they are growing up (no bedtime, eating candy for breakfast). They also (secretly) pay very close attention to the behavior of their aunts. All of the Owens women have had to deal with ridicule and alienation in the town in which they live, but despite that, almost all the women in town have gone to visit the aunts at one time or another. The aunts help women gain their desires (mostly love) through magic... not the "abra-cadabra" kind of magic, but real earth-based magic. The girls have grown up watching this, and are both intrigued and appalled by what they see.

The story unfolds with the girls growing up. Gillian is the prettier, more popular sister, but she still ends up with her share of troubles. Sally is identified well by her hair... she is the darker, more sullen sister; and she always tries to be the stable one, while Gillian is more of the "wild-child." By the time she turns 18, Gillian has had enough of her aunts and dealing with what it means to be an Owens woman in the Massachusetts town. She leaves, goes west, and vows to never go east of the Mississippi again! Sally stays behind with the aunts. Sally eventually meets a man, who has the approval of the aunts, and has two daughters of her own, Antonia and Kylie.

The story then moves even further, with Sally's girls growing up. It finally settles in a time when Antonia and Kylie are 16 and 13; this is when the rest of the story takes place. Breaking her vow, Gillian shows up at Sally's house with a "problem." Sally decides that it's best if they just bury the problem, and move on with their lives. This is exactly what they do, and Gillian stays on with Sally and her girls. Much time is then spent on the younger girls, showing some parallels to Gillian and Sally themselves (this is a story about family as much as it is about love).

Gillian eventually does find the love she needs, or rather he finds her. Ben Frye, a local high school teacher. He just sees her one day in the yard and falls in love with her. It sounds cheesy, but Hoffman makes it work. Men are not always put in the best light in this book, but they are not always portrayed as "wicked" either. Hoffman actually does something very cool with Ben Frye. Sure, he may seem somewhat pathetic in his utter devotion to Gillian (while she continues to refuse him), but at the same time, Hoffman gives him an air of magic while he is courting Gillian. In point of fact, Ben is an illusionist in addition to being a teacher (he entertains children in the hospital, for example). Finally, Gillian allows herself to give in to her feelings, and Ben calls it "fate."

Throughout this part of the story, Antonia and Kylie have their own share of problems. In the end it is the problem of Gillian's that she and Sally buried some weeks ago that comes to the surface. The aunts have to be called in to help them with this one. Gillian hasn't seen them in 18 years, and is unsure how they will be toward her. They accept her, of course, and help her out of the hole that she dug. ...and things have a way of working out in the end...

Like I said, the story is spread out over a long period of time, and a lot happens. I have intentionally left out a lot of smaller plot-lines so as not to spoil it all for any potential readers. There is a movie based on this book, of the same name, but I have not seen it so I can not comment on how well it follows the story set out here. It seems to me that it would be difficult for the film to follow it completely, because it is such a large story (it would really take about a season of television to do it justice). I would certainly suggest this story to anyone looking for a good family drama, with a large helping of the so-called "magical realism" in the mix. When I say "family drama," I don't mean that it is a "family friendly" type of story, but rather this is a story that examines the intricacies of a family... particularly one that is based around the women of the family. Even though this may be labeled as part of the "Women's Lives and Relationships" genre, I would still recommend it to anyone (yes, you too, men) who is willing to try something a bit different from the norm.

As a final note, I would also like to comment on the writing style. Hoffman has a beautiful, natural, and lyrical way of writing, which made for a very pleasant read. Interestingly, the book was not really divided into chapters, as I would have expected, although it was divided into four sections. Often there weren't any breaks in those sections. One sub-plot flowed into another, into another, and sometimes back again or into another. This was definitely different from what I normally read. It reminded me of something that was said in a Feminism & Theatre class I took as an undergraduate student: "Men have waffles for brains, and women have spaghetti." ...and it's kind of true (this was also stated in the class)... men have these little compartments in which they keep information, and then they just go and get what they need. Women, on the otherhand, have everything in one big pile of information... one thing flows into another, and into another, into another... maybe back again, and into another. Again, this is not mine to say... it was discussed in the class. This way of thinking was explored in some of the plays that we read, and I also noticed it here in this most excellent novel!

12 February 2010

The Nature of Balance (Annotation 3)

The Nature of Balance... written by Tim Lebbon... published by Liesure Books... 2001.

I have a bad habit of buying books, thinking they look cool... and then not reading them for awhile. I think, I'll get around to it eventually, but they often sit there for some time... I guess each book has its time. I actually bought this book several years ago, but the time to read it was now... or rather the last few days... the time to review and annotate it is now.

Remember the old saw that said if you had a dream where you were falling, and then hit bottom, that you would die in "real" life? Well, that concept is the catalyst of this story. One of the main characters, Peer, wakes up in the middle of the night from a bad dream (falling is part of it, but a voice inside tells her to wake up). She hears noises from her neighbor's apartment... Eventually there is a knock on the door and one of the couple from next door stumbles in... looking beaten and mangled (as if she has fallen from a great height). Peer goes over to check on the other half of the couple who is in a similar condition... only dead. Peer goes back to her own apartment to find her neighbor now also dead. Understandably distraught, she decides to leave and go to see a friend. In the lobby of the building, she sees another tenant who has gone quite mad... flinging himself against the walls. She makes it past him and goes out to find that the street gives off an odd feeling, and the few people out have also joined her neighbor in madness.

Cut to another main character (he is probably the main protagonist, but the story later revolves around a group): Blane is out in the woods, as he often is. He feels a closeness with nature, but doesn't know why... he also can't seem to remember much about his earlier life. He can't seem to sleep, not completely... ever. He just goes to the woods and lies on a tree trunk... getting as close to nature as he can. He knows the woods and its creatures well... tonight is different though. He notices birds dropping from trees and dying right around him. A deer comes right before him, and after he opens his eyes to see it, the deer is choked... its throat colapsing... and it also dies on the spot. Again, things are different in the world tonight. He heads to the nearby graveyard and sees a figure that seems familiar. He also notices all of the dead animals in the graveyard... and a little boy, dead... arranged in a particular manner, which seems to be a message for him.

Blane hears activity in the town square and goes there. He finds that there are many confused and mourning people there, with their dead around them. He talks to some, befriending a woman named Holly. They, the dead, seem to have been hit by the same thing that happened to those in Peer's building. They are just dead... as if chrushed, or beaten, having had a great fall. Blane and Holly try to call around town by phone... no response... from anyone. They call around to other towns, other countries... and still nothing. They finally decided to go out looking for help... and other "survivors."

Other characters are also introduced... Paul is a scientist doing a nature study on the outskirts of town. He wakes up... also from a falling dream, but in his dream he fell into a cushion of snow. He shows signs of bruising, but is clearly alive. He encounters strange behavior from the nearby animals... eventually to the point of danger. He leaves... looking for answers. He instead finds an abandoned ambulance... it's only occupant is blood, and a lot of it. Some way down the road he finds Blane, and returns with him to Holly and the others in town. A girl named Mary also comes into the picture... She is following a group of other kids (older teens, but really just kids), for lack of anything better to do. These kids like to torture and kill animals of the rich people of the neighborhood as a form of revenge... and fun. Mary doesn't care for it much, but just wants to be accepted into the group... so, she goes along. After the "event" of this particular evening, the animals get their revenge... by way of a woman (who is possibly something more than human) named Fay. She spares Mary, and gives her a mission, a reason to live... which is just what Mary has always wanted. Of course, Mary is desparate to feel needed and takes this mission from her easily accepted and beloved Fay. The mission is to kill a woman... Mary will know who she is, and when the time is right to kill her. Later, Mary meets Peer.

Eventually, all of these characters are on the road looking... and they find each other. They exchange stories, and agree that the "survivors" are those who didn't sleep last night. So, they band together and go searching. In this respect, the book sort of reminds me of Stephen King's The Stand, in the way that we have a group of people who have survived some sort of catastrophic "event," and are now out looking for fellow surviviors. They have a couple of "encounters" with Fay along the way... she has left other messages. Also, she allows the group to be attacked by hundreds of birds while the group is stopped at a service station/restaurant along the road. Fay has control over nature though, and when she thinks that Blane might be in danger of actually dying here, she wills the birds to drop dead where they are (after the group has been attacked and "bloody well" injured). Fay and Blane do have some sort of connection... Fay knows it, and Blane feels it somehow.

Blane "remembers" a bit, and becomes more aware of Fay. He tries to fool her by taking the group to a farmhouse to hide for awhile. This does not work. The situation sort of comes to a head there... more animal attacks, and Mary tries to do what she believes Fay wants her to do. All along the way... throughout the story, all of the characters notice that the animals and other parts of nature are beginning to change physically, in addition to the aggressive behavior toward humans. There are many mutations, although generally nothing too extreme. Nature is just changing. So... Blane goes to look for Fay to "settle" things... and Mary takes action...

Nearly the entire book feels like it's building up to something... This is fine, but at some point I started to wonder if the story would gain a focal point. The book probably could have had about 100 of its 400 pages edited out and been better for it... well, maybe. The climax does eventually happen, but it seems a bit anti-climactic after all of the build-up. Overall, it was a pretty good read for me though. I would suggest this to readers who enjoy stories with a dreamlike quality; and there are several dream sequences here. Also, I would suggest it to readers of "apocalyptic" fiction. It should be noted, however, that the title tells a lot about the story. Nature needs balance. It may seem like things are only being destroyed, but there must be balance...

Finally, I think that I should warn any potential readers that there is no explanation for the deaths by way of "falling dreams." I kept waiting for one, but it never came. Humans are connected to the rest of nature though... more than we really realise. I suppose if "she" wanted to "send a message" like this, it could happen. Think about it... look at the way the lunar cycle affects us, for example... you never know...

08 February 2010

7 Deadly Wonders (Annotation 2)

7 Deadly Wonders... written by Matthew Reilly... published by Simon & Schuster... 2006.

I had never heard of Matthew Reilly before. Honestly, I took a suggestion from the back of the Reading Genre Fiction book by Sarick in the "5 book challenge" section. It seems that with a lot of adventure books there is a strong military presence. I don't mind that to some degree, but I really wanted something with more of an "Indiana Jones" kind of feel. That is pretty much what Reilly delivers here in this book.

Reilly gives the reader a hero, Jack West, Jr., who is reminiscent of Indiana Jones, but clearly different. West is not a professor or an archaeologist, he is a military man... although, he has tried to leave that life somewhat behind him. Also, while the military is present in this story, it does not seem overwhelming, so the book can easily be enjoyed by a reader (like me) who did not want a largely military based story. Another thing that separates this story from the Indiana Jones stories are the somewhat fantastical elements. For instance, Jack West has a mechanical arm... the left arm, from the elbow down. The story of how this came to be is given to the reader in a "flashback." West's plane has the ability to hover, as the plane has been modified by West's former professor and present friend Max Epper. The professor serves as West's "Q" (from the James Bond series), and also a sort of "Gandolf" figure... he is even code-named "Wizard" by another character. Also, West has a pair of wings... graphite wings that is, which enable him to zoom down into situations somewhat undetected... somewhat undetected.

Oh yeah... one other thing that makes this story different from the Indiana Jones stories: the Americans are the villains. I suppose it depends on perspective really, but from the point of view of our hero, the Americans who are active characters in this book are definitely not the good guys. There is also another group of "bad guys;" a certain group of Europeans. Essentially, the story is about chasing power... and really, in this kind of a situation, most people are just in it for themselves... and anyone else is the "bad guy." I should probably mention at this point that not only is Jack West an Australian, but so is the author. I don't think there is any great agenda at work here though. Apparently, Reilly has had American heroes in his other books, and simply decided to make the hero of this book Australian. ...fine by me... it keeps it fresh and interesting to see things from another perspective.

Okay, with all of that being said, what is this story really about (other than chasing power)? Apparenly, Reilly reads a lot of non-fiction, and he happened to be reading about Egypt. He found that the Great Pyramid at Giza once had a capstone that is now lost... this became the focus of the story at hand. According to this book (7 Deadly Wonders), every 4500 years a specific sunspot comes into perfect alignment with the apex of the Great Pyramid. With the capstone in place, if a certain ritual is performed at exactly the time of the alignment, the nation of the person who performed the ritual will have supreme power for 1000 years. If something goes wrong, well... great destruction. The capstone is gone from the pyramid and it was separated into 7 pieces and hidden with each of the 7 wonders of the ancient world, on order of Alexander the Great.

Fast forward to 1996: there is a birth of a new Oracle, who can read the ancient language which will lead to the 7 pieces. Jack West tries to cut off the European group from finding the child, but he is too late... or is he? He goes down to help the mother (who the Europeans have captured and then stranded upon the birth of her son), only to find that there is another child waiting to be born! It is too late to save the mother, but West delivers the child by "c-section." This child is a girl who will also be an Oracle, and therefore able to read the ancient Word of Thoth.

The story of the capstone is known by certain people of certain power all around the world. There is of course the group of Europeans, the Americans, and West and his team (and later another group). West, representing the Australians, has gotten together with representatives from several other nations in Ireland to discuss a way to stop the Americans and the European group from gathering the capstone pieces and performing the ritual of power. They intend to either get just one piece to stop the ritual from being performed entirely, or to perform the ritual of peace at the appropriate time on the Great Pyramid. Agreements are made in Ireland, and West and his multi-national team take the baby girl to a secret location (in Kenya... shh!) to raise her until the time of the Tartarus! They raise her for ten years; to the time when the bulk of the story takes place.

I won't give away much more of the story, but I will say that it was interesting to read this type of book. I have seen many adventure movies, but I think this is the first real Indiana Jones-style adventure that I've read. It's one thing to see all of the action and the booby-traps that an action hero has to face in a movie, but it is somewhat different to read about it. I mean, in a movie you just see it all, but in a book the author has to take time to explain it all. It took me a bit of time to get used to this, but not long. Also, as is apparently common among adventure books, there were many maps and illustrations. They were a little cheap looking in this book... I guess I'd say a little "cartoony," but not too bad. Overall, I would definitely suggest this book to someone looking for an interesting adventure tale... with some Indiana Jones-style action.

28 January 2010

“Kirkus-style” review

The Thief of Always... written by Clive Barker... published by HarperCollins... 1992.

The Thief of Always is the first book by Clive Barker to be aimed at a younger audience (he has since published two titles in the Abarat series). Barker has previously been known as mainly a writer of horror fiction. He burst onto the scene with his "Books of Blood" short-story collections in the early 1980's, which earned a quote from Stephen King ("I have seen the future of horror, and his name is Clive Barker.") that has followed him throughout the years.

In this book, however, Barker has lightend the tone somewhat, and headed into new territory by writing a book for older children/young adults. The story is still a bit on the dark side (though no darker than something like the "Harry Potter" books), and still retains Barker's penchant for the fantastique. It begins with young Harvey Swick feeling bored and nullified by the "great gray beast February." That soon bordom soon lifts as he has a visitor who pops in his window (not unlike in the story of Peter Pan) who claims that he can take Harvey to a place where he can do anything he pleases, have all the fun he likes, and never be bored again! Harvey is reluctant, but eventually follows... through his hometown, and through a wall of clouds to a place that is quite unlike his dreary neighborhood. He goes up to a great house and is greeted by a kindly woman, Mrs. Griffin, who offers him and food he likes.

Harvey meets a couple of other children in the house. The girl takes to herself, but Harvey goes out to play with the boy on the bright summer-like day. Soon enough, it becomes evening... and Halloween! ...which later becomes Thanksgiving, and then Christmas (with snow!) later that night! Harvey has found himself at Mr. Hood's Holiday House! All seems well, with Harvey and his friends having a year's worth of fun in each day! ...but is all as it seems? ...and what is wrong with the fish in the pond behind the house? Harvey begins to question... but questions are not always well-met!

All in all, this is a wonderful book for younger readers and adults alike! There is great fantasy adventure, with just enough chills to delight readers. Harvey does learn a life-lesson in the end, but Barker manages to not make it preachy. This book is definitely recommended for young readers who can handle something on the darker side of things, and also for adults who would like to revisit something of this sort.

Shutter Island (Annotation 1)

Shutter Island... written by Dennis Lehane... published by HarperCollins... 2003.

Shutter Island is the first book that I've read by Dennis Lehane, but it will probably not be the last (that alone is a pretty good compliment). The copious quotes, and ads for his other books, let the reader know that Lehane is mainly an author of suspense/thriller novels. They are cinematic, and indeed, films have been made based on his books. In point of fact, the filmed version of Shutter Island comes out 19 February... directed by none other than Martin Scorsese.

Lehane's writing style is a bit different from what I normally read. The descriptions of the general scene, landscape, etc. seemed to be a bit thin... In some ways, that made it more like a screenplay (which usually gives the director, director of photography, etc. more room to play). There were a few spots in the book that it actually took me a minute to realise that there had been a scene change, because of the lack of descriptors. Also, secondary characters were also sometimes thinly described, but as I have found, that is apparently typical of the genre. The protagonist was described pretty well, and the reader learns more about him as the story progresses... especially in the latter part of the book.

I really don't want to give away too much of the story, as there is something of a mystery here... and I'm sure anyone who wants to read this book, or see the movie, would not appreciate me spoiling the surprises.

It begins in 1954 with U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels going to the titular island to investigate the disappearance of a patient/prisoner at a hospital for the criminally insane. It seems that one Rachel Saldano turned up missing one night... out of a locked room, which was still locked. They tell the Marshall that it was as if she "evaporated from the room." Teddy and his partner, Chuck, meet with the head doctor of the facility and then begin their investigations. They begin their questions and find that one of the doctors has just left that morning, and suspect that he was involved, but he cannot be reached. They continue by questioning each patient in the building, individually. They then question the staff... everyone is essentially telling the same story (Teddy thinks the stories are too similar). They discover a lighthouse that they are told is for septic processing... The thing is, however, the lighthouse is heavily guarded. Finding out what is really happening in the lighthouse becomes a large part of the "quest."

One of the Marshalls' first stops is the room from which the patient vanished. There has been a note left behind; a rather cryptic note. Teddy sees that it is some kind of code (he did a bit of intel' work in WWII). Teddy soon breaks the code, and clues begin to fall into place. This is certainly a bright spot of the book; Lehane devised a complex and brilliant code, and the reader is entranced with the way it plays out. The code is a large part of the story and comes in and out as called for.

Unfortunately for Teddy, he suffers from migraines. He has already been untrusting of the main doctor (Cawley), but he has a migraine "attack" in the doctor's office. Cawley offers him some pills, and Teddy finally gives in and takes them. Teddy later thinks this may have been a mistake. He does not sleep well, and is beginning to lose touch. This is understandable, after being surrounded by the criminally insane, on an island... and to make matters worse, a hurricane hits the island.

About half-way through, Lehane throws a wrench into the story (or puts on the brakes)... there's a... well "something" happens, but Teddy things it is all too convenient. He and Chuck continue to look, especially trying to find out what's happening inside the lighthouse.

I really don't want to give away anymore, but as with most stories of this kind, there is a "twist" at the end... which was cool, and it was a great twist at that... but then Lehane gives the story another slight twist... and I'm not so sure on that one... perhaps it would have been better without that final "tweak." I'll leave that for you to decide after you read the book, or watch the film (that is if the film stays true to the book).

24 January 2010

Interesting quotes...

...feel free to comment with additions...

"Life isn't divided into genres. It's a horrifying, romantic, tragic, comical, scifi, cowboy, detective novel."
--Alan Moore

...and I don't feel like sifting through thousands of pages to find the exact quote, but in Stephen King's "The Dark Tower" series, Roland (the main character) says to another: "Does everyone in your world want only one flavor in their stories?"

...sensing a theme? ;) I love cross-genre stuff... There's no reason writers or readers should limit themselves. Also... never underestimate your audience.

13 January 2010


Hello... My name is Joseph Skeen... most people call me Joe, and that's fine... Joseph is cool too...

I graduated last year from Ball State University with Majors in Classical Culture and Latin, and minors in Ancient Studies and Medieval & Renaissance Studies. This is my second full semester in the MLS program at IUPUI.

As an undergraduate at Ball State, I worked in Bracken Library at the Circulation desk... I also did some time in the stacks, shelving books and such. I enjoyed working in the library, working with students, and I really enjoy the university atmosphere... so, I thought this would be a decent career for me to pursue.

Personally, I am very invested in the arts... mostly music and film, but I love all forms of art. I have played in rock bands in the past, but more recently I have been involved with the Muncie Civic Theatre. I began acting there in 2004... I have acted in 17 shows, and helped out in other ways for a few more... I recently returned from a vacation in Austin, Texas! ...great arts scenes happening there... music everywhere... art everywhere... and great food everywhere! ...loved it!

Working in some sort of art or theatre library would probably be ideal for me... otherwise, I'd like to be in an academic library... again, to be involved in the university atmosphere.

I haven't actually had a lot of time for pleasure reading for several years now... I've been very busy with school and things... I generally prefer Horror, Science-Fiction, and Fantasy... but I'm open to other genres. After I finished my undergraduate degree, I decided to dig on some Stephen King, as I had never read any of his stuff... I began with "The Gunslinger", and then couldn't stop until I had finished the entire seven book run of "The Dark Tower"! ...great books! ...great mix of genres! King often gets criticised by academics, but perhaps they are afraid to try new things? King is not. I gravitate toward things that are a bit different... "normal" stories are bland... and the real world, the everyday world can be bland enough (especially in Indiana) without reading about more bland situations. ;)

Being involved with theatre, I do enjoy reading some plays... Shakespeare, of course... though, even there, I prefer the more fantastical, or magical plays... My three favorites are "A Midsommer Night's Dreame", "Macbeth", and "The Tempest"... I also enjoy some of the "classics" (we, of course, could argue about what should be tagged with that term)... such as "Beowulf" on up through things like "The Scarlett Letter"...

I'm sure this class (along with my other two classes) will keep me busy, but I think it will be interesting!

...whatever you have, make it a good one! ;)

R. Joseph Skeen, Esq.