Sunday, 31 October 2010

Top Ten Favourite Books - Number 9

It's Sunday morning and I just took Nikki, our miniature schnauzer out for her morning walk around the neighbourhood. In her old age, she's developed a habit of waking sometime between 4 and 5, so I've gotten into the habit of taking her out. 'Dog trains owner'.  Anyway, since we're up, what better time to add to my list of my favourite all-time novels.

Firstly an update on the two books I'm currently reading, John Dunning's The Bookman's Promise and Giles Blunt's The Delicate Storm. I've been reading each for about a week now and am enjoying both quite a bit. The Bookman's Promise is another of the Cliff Janeway series. In this one, (Spoiler alert if you worry about that sort of thing). Cliff has purchased a rare Sir Richard Burton, famous English explorer, book at auction. This action starts a chain of events in which Cliff tries to find a collection of Burton's books that were taken from an elderly lady's family 80 years earlier. I'm about a quarter of the way through this story and it's very much in the hard-boiled mystery genre, but updated. Cliff is a tough ex-cop, turned used bookseller, and he quickly develops a closeness to the old woman and wants to help her find her inheritance. It's well-paced, with a fair bit of action and so far, interesting twists and turns. Quite enjoying.

Giles Blunts The Delicate Storm is the second of his Detective John Cardinal mysteries. I'm not quite so far into this one, but even so, it's been very entertaining. I do enjoy this series in part because the books are set in North Bay (although named Algonquin Bay in the series) Ontario. This story has involved Detective Cardinal and his partner, the lovely Lise Delorme, in the discovery of a body in the woods. Thus far he has briefly investigated a fur trapper and is now being forced to work with the RCMP and CSIS (the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, Canada's answer to the CIA). At the same time John is dealing with his father's health issues. It's been a nicely paced story so far and I look forward to finding out more about the murdered body and what the interest is of CSIS in the murder.

Now onto my main purpose, that being to talk about the second book in my Top Ten favourite list. Philip K. Dick was born in 1928 and died in 1982. He was a science fiction writer who introduced me to the 'alternate history' type of science fiction. That wasn't his only style of Sci Fi novel; his stories dealt with drug abuse, altered states, many varied concepts. I think the first of his books I read was The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, taken in a Science Fiction novel course I took at university. But the one that grabbed my attention the most, was The Man in the High Castle. The version I have was published by Berkley Books, the 11th printing in Dec 1983. The story was written originally in 1962.

The Man in the High Castle is alternate history. Its 'what-if' scenario asks the question, what if World War Two had ended differently, what if in fact, the Japanese and Germans had won WWII and the United States was divided between Japan and Germany. The novel was well received in the Sci Fi world, winning Philip Dick the Hugo award in 1963. It is a very complex story, with stories within the story, many characters are reading a novel which tells its own what if story, what if the Nazis and Japan hadn't won the war. The main characters live in the Japanese West Coast states; deal with antiques of American pop culture to satisfy the Japanese taste for everything American. There is an ongoing relationship with the I Ching for some characters; the use of the I Ching to outline the course of their actions for the lives. It's a fascinating novel and one I've read a few times. It got me interested in other alternate history, by authors like Harry Turtledove and J Gregory Keyes. There is a nice interplay between the Japanese culture and that of the Nazis. I even recall getting a book on the I Ching to find out more about it. I highly recommend the story; it's probably one of the more accessible of Philip Dick's stories, but still with enough twists and turns to keep you occupied.

Of the other Philip Dick novels, I also still have, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Dr Bloodmoney and A Maze of Death. At one time or another I also read Ubik and have recently purchased A Scanner Darkly and The Unteleported Man.

A brief synopsis of the three I have read;

A Maze of Death - (Bantam edition printed in Sep 1977) - Fourteen earthly exiles on an island in boundless space. Fourteen victims of a murderous power. Is this nameless menace the product of their own darkest imaginings - or some richly mysterious, infinitely more terrifying other?

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch - (A Manor Book, printed in 1975) - When Palmer Eldritch returned from a distant galaxy, he claimed he had brought a gift for mankind. It was a drug that would transport one into an illusory world. One could spend years in this other dimension and never lose a second of Earth time. Eldritch offered immortality, wish fulfillment... the powers over time and space. But he exacted a terrible price; he, Palmer Eldritch, would enter, control and be a god in every one's private universe - a universe from which there was no escape, not even death.

Dr Bloodmoney, or How we got along after the Bomb (Ace Books, copyright 1965) - What happens when the Bomb that everyone has been talking about since 1945 finally drops? What happens to the people and the animals of Earth? Will it mean the end of the world? Or will everything continue in a different way?

Philip Dick's stories can be very strange and weird. In many, there is little to no contact with reality, or you just don't know where reality starts or if it even exists. His stories occupy many planes of reality and are interesting to search through. I really enjoyed and have a few times, The Man in the High Castle. Philip Dick is a unique writer and if you enjoy sci fi, he definitely needs to be explored. One final word on The Man in the High Castle is that a TV mini series is supposedly in production for BBC, possibly directed by Ridley Scott. Something to look forward to.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Where Am I At Now

In previous Blogs I indicated some of the books I was reading; Arthur Conan Doyle's The White Company and Kingsley Amis' The Green Man. Well, for a quick Blog, I'll update you on those books and where I am now with my reading. (Possible spoilers if that bothers you)

The White Company was written in 1891. I have a Pan Books paperback published in 1976. It tells of the tales of The White Company, as it describes it on the back cover, "Battle-royal, tourney, melee, skirmish or siege - all were one to the hard - bitten mercenaries of the White Company."

The Company were led by Sir Nigel Loring, an old knight, called out by the Prince of England to help him with his invasion of Spain. The other main character is Alleyne Edricson, younger son of a royal family, who has spent most of his life in a monastery while his brother ran the family estate. He is put on the road to experience life for a year and ends up involved as Sir Nigel's squire.

The story tells of their journey from England across the English Channel, adventures with pirates, jousting matches in France, battles with French peasants and the ultimate heroic battle in Spain against the Spanish king.

It was a bit of a slow start with this story, but as the journey of Nigel, Alleyne and his two other compatriots, Hordle John and Samkin Aylward, progressed, the story slowly grabbed my interest. It's your basic young man's adventure tale. There are implications that maybe the life of a knight is on the downhill slope, what with the peasant revolt at the Chateau Villefranche, but these are minor matters on the whole. Basically it's a tale of adventure and the honour of Sir Nigel as he searches for opportunities to gain honour with small adventures against other knights. A nice story and makes me want to read the story of Sir Nigel's early life, simply called Sir Nigel.

After The White Company, I read Kingsley Amis' The Green Man. Well, more accurately, I started The Green Man after I'd finished David Benioff's City of Thieves. I normally have two books on the go, one for downstairs, that being The White Company and my bedtime book, The Green Man.

The Green Man is a ghost story/ mystery. This is the first Kingsley Amis book I've read, but the outline on the back jacket made is sound interesting. It was first published in 1969; with this Panther Books edition published in 1971.

The back jacket describes it, "Maurice Allington, landlord of The Green Man and epic boozer, has two big problems - apart from his drinking one, which is more a way of life anyhow. One is to get his mistress, his wife and himself into the same bed at the same time ( a challenging variation on the eternal triangle if there ever was one). The other, distinctly less pleasant, is how to deal with the malignant ghost of Dr Thomas Underhill, 17th century practitioner of black arts and sexual deviations.... "

I must say I quite enjoyed this story. Maurice isn't the most likable character, at the beginning, cheating on his wife, ignoring his daughter and adjusting poorly to his father's recent death. Compounding this he is seeing things or experiencing ghostly visitations. It's a dry telling of the story, but at the same time, quite engrossing. As Maurice searches out clues about this ghostly intruder, he does realize things about himself and the conclusion is quite nicely resolved. Quite a neat little story.

 After finishing, The Green Man, I grabbed The Blight from my 'must read' bookcase. From the inside jacket, it states that the copyright is 1968, but there is no indication when Panther books published their paperback edition. John Creasey is author of more than 500 different novels, with Panther publishing most of his more famous characters, Dr Palfrey and his organization Z24, The Toff and The Baron. I had read one or two of his Inspector Gideon stories, written as JJ Marric and found them entertaining.

The Blight was definitely a quick-read. It involves a murder in Christmas Valley and the discovery of a blight which is destroying trees and potentially all plant life on the Earth. Dr Palfrey heads a secretive organization, Z25, that has links to most countries in the world.

The story reminds me very much of The Man from U.N.C.L.E books I read as a youngster. It might be a bit darker, grittier than those books, but it covers the same idea; the agency of dedicated individuals, who are bent on keeping the world safe from various enemies. It's what it is, but an entertaining story, well-paced, that fills an evening. It may be more suited to male audiences, but give it a try.

On the weekend, I usually head off to ABC Books to see what new comics might have arrived for me as I do have my regular series. This past weekend, there was only one, but of a series that had stopped after Issue 5, early in the summer. As you can see, it's called Executive Assistant, about a young woman, trained at an early age to be a Ninja warrior.

She is trained to be the executive assistant to a Japanese warlord/ businessman. Besides being his assistant, she also gets rid of enemies to his business, but realizes that he is a murderer, especially when he has her boyfriend murdered by another ninja.

If it sounds familiar to you, yes, it is very similar to the new TV series, Nikita. It's a nicely drawn comic, lots of action, colorful and a nice afternoon read. Looking forward to the new episodes, which should be coming out in the early winter.

Well, finally, what am I reading now? I've caught up with my most recently finished books. I now have two mysteries on the go, both from authors I've enjoyed in the past. So far these latest stories haven't let me down yet.

Firstly, there is John Dunning's The Bookman's Promise. I've read a couple of the Bookman books and they are well crafted mysteries. The stories follow Cliff Janeway, an ex-Denver cop who leaves the force under less than ideal circumstances but decides to follow his life time passion, that being a book seller.

His new career path involves him in mysteries, generally to do with old books that he is searching out. It's a very different, interesting concept and a tour de force for John Dunning. As of 2006, there were 5 Bookman stories, with this one published in 2004 as the third of the series.

So far, it's held my interest very nicely. It involves a book that Janeway has purchased for a considerable sum, at a Boston auction, a book by 19th century explorer Sir Richard Burton. The book is claimed by an elderly woman as her birthright. The adventure/ mystery involves Janeway searching for the complete collection of Burton books that were supposed to have been passed to her on her grandfather's death.

It's early days at the moment as I'm just getting into the story, but I'm already anticipating the rest of the adventure.

My bedtime book is Giles Blunt's The Delicate Storm. Giles Blunt is a Canadian mystery writer. The Delicate Storm is the second in a police detective series set in North Bay (or as he names it, Algonquin Bay) Ontario. I've read the first, Forty Words for Sorrow, and enjoyed quite a bit. Part of the enjoyment is that I grew up in North Bay, or at least finished high school there. So reading his stories does bring back some memories of the area as he doesn't change street names or the local area.

The Delicate Storm follows Detective John Cardinal as he works with the RCMP and CSIS and his partner, the lovely Detective Lise Delorme to solve two different but possibly linked murders.

Giles makes North Bay come alive to me and his stories, well, the one I read anyway, are gritty and interesting. So far, The Delicate Storm has caught my interest and I look forward to many pleasurable evenings being spent following Detective Cardinal as he travels through Algonquin Bay on his way to solving the crimes.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

All Things Buffy

Who would have thought that a show about a teenage cheerleader would have such an impact? I think the first time I heard about Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS) was in an article in Time Magazine (I'm not sure when exactly) but the article discussed this new breed of empowered heroines that were making their presence felt in TV. Women like Sheena Queen of the Jungle, starring Tanya Roberts, The Relic Hunter as played by Tia Carrere and of course, BtVS, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar.

The first appearance of BtVS was in a 1992 movie starring Kristy Swanson. Now personally, I liked the movie. I thought it was quirky, funny and just neat. It generally got panned I believe, but at the same time I think it attained cult status as the precursor of the TV series. This was Joss Whedon's trial opportunity to present his idea and it almost blew it for him.

However, gladly for countless future fans, Joss was able to get the idea for a TV series accepted and off he went. It took awhile; Buffy didn't air until 1997, but it was definitely worth the wait. For me personally, and I'm speaking as a then-42 year old man, it did have a strong impact on my life. The year before my marriage had broken up and I was adjusting to being single again and living on my own. My confidence wasn't great and there were many other negative things going on. The good things in my life remained my two girls and my two dogs.

Now I'm not implying that BtVS changed my life or anything like that. I had to do that on my own, learning to be happy in my own skin, so to speak, and to adjust to a new life style where I only got to see my girls weekends, sort out my finances, etc. But when Buffy came along, it also coincided with a number of positive changes.

In 1998, during the second season, my oldest girl told me of a community online, the Bronze Beta where people liked to talk about the show. She knew that it was a show I really enjoyed, as did she. It just so happened that my older brother had given me his old PC and this one had enough strength that I could now get onto the Internet. So of course, the first place I went was to this site that my daughter had told me about.

Talk about an eye opener. I was brand new to the Internet, hadn't a clue about posting boards, didn't know how to post, etc. I also figured that a site dedicated to a teenage vampire slayer would be inhabited by teenage girls and if I tried to post there, that I'd just be perceived as some sort of weirdo. Well, after checking out the site for awhile, I realized that, in fact, the majority of people that frequented the site were middle aged professionals. So I became a regular poster. The good thing about this was that it allowed me an opportunity to interact with people my age or thereabouts; something I wasn't really able to do, living on my own as I sorted things out in my life.

BtVS introduced me to the Internet, not only the Bronze, as it was called in one of it's earlier iterations, but it introduced me to the outside world and got me comfortable with using the web. I've got to say, those first months were heady and exciting. I was now using IM to talk with my new friends, involved in various role playing games online where we each took roles from the show and made up our own stories. It might seem silly now, but at the time, it got me out of my shell, got me communicating again.

The next thing that BtVS introduced me to was the Posting Board Party (PBP). Each year, in November, a committee had an online auction to allow Buffy fans to register for the upcoming PBP; a charity event held in Los Angeles, where 300 - 400 Buffy fans could party, enjoy each other's company and possibly meet cast and crew of the TV series. I started posting at the Bronze in Oct 98 and didn't try to attend the PBP in 1999 as I was still a 'newbie' so to speak and didn't really know that many people. However the following year, having now become a regular poster at the Bronze, met many friends from around Canada and the US, I decided to try and get tickets to the 2000 event. And I succeeded. It turned out to be a fantastic event, I got to meet many people I had only talked to online and I got to meet so many of the cast; having lunch with Mark Blucas aka Riley Finn, and meeting many others at the main event. (Amber Benson / Tara in the photo across).

Jumping ahead somewhat, I did attend one other PBP, that being the final in 2003. At that one, I brought my wife, Jo, who I had met online at the Beta. She attended the PBP in 2002, came to see me on the West Coast for a visit, then came back summer of 2002 to stay. At the PBP, we were interviewed by the Buffy magazine crew as one of many couples who met while watching/ discussing BtVS online and followed on by getting married.

Of course that is the greatest, most positive influence on my life that BtVS had. Jo and I got married Aug 2002 and are still happily sharing our lives.

Of course, BtVS the TV show also spawned so many other things. I used and may still have the Buffy board game. You can see the Buffy beanie bears at the top of this post. There were also action figures, nice Xmas presents for my girls.

One of the happiest off shoots of the TV shows was the arrival of the comic books series, based on the show. In a previous Blog, I had mentioned that I know longer purchased comics once my family moved back from Germany. I was at university and moving on with my life and felt that comics were kind of juvenile. Once my two daughters came onto the scene, I did continue a family tradition of putting a comic in each of their Xmas stockings, as I did enjoy that. However, that was about the extent of my comic purchases. 

One day, lo and behold, while I was in a newspaper shop, that also sold comics, I saw a Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic. Of course, I had to buy it, just to see what it was like.

 Well, suffice it to say that it started my love affair with comics all over again. I now have an extensive collection of the BtVS series and some of the follow-on series. They were good stories, well-written, well-drawn. Many were written by the  writers on the show, which made them even more interesting. A comic dealer in Victoria told me recently that the Buffy comics were still the most popular by far of those being produced, a testament to the ongoing popularity of the show, even 7 years after it went off the air. A comic season 8 came out in 2007 and is still being drawn. Excellent storyline as well.

As well as the more standard comics, a number of graphic novels have also been produced, mainly based on story lines found in the comics and combined into a graphic novel format. The nice thing about them is they combine a popular storyline under one cover and are big enough to fit nicely on a book shelf.

Finally, there also quite a number of novels published based on the series. Original novels have been written by Mel Odom, Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder, amongst others. I did read a few, enjoying Child of the Hunt, about the Wild Hunt, a group of mystical beings that hunt souls in Sunnydale and Immortal, about an Immortal vampire. My personal favourite novel was the Gatekeeper Trilogy, written by Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder. In some ways, it reminded me of Stephen King's The Talisman, in that it also has a parallel universe to Earth, where people can travel along pathways (here called the Ghost Roads) to get to other locations on Earth. It was very interesting, very accessible and most enjoyable.

I've kind of nattered on a bit about the TV series, but I honestly don't think there have been too many shows that have had the impact on pop culture as has BtVS. I can think of the original Star Trek as another, maybe the X-Files when it first came out. BtVS spawned so many other things; spin offs, comics, books, conventions, etc. The successful Angel series, which ran for 5 years, came out of Buffy and made David Boreanaz a household name. At least one album was produced, based on music heard on the series. The series still runs today on many networks. The wife and I have just refreshed our interest in it, watching our Much More Music network, which has shown the complete 8 seasons. Excellent!

Anyway, just to finish off, if you've never seen the series, read any of the comics or books, you should explore. It's great fantasy and some of the very best and innovative episodes seen on television. I must mention two of my personal favourites. The first is Hush, in which the characters lose the ability to speak and pretty well the whole episode is done in silence. The Gentlemen, the demons who cause this are one of the scariest ever shown on BtVS, I think. The other is the classic, Once More With Feeling, this being the musical episode. It was fantastic and a show that must be seen.

Enjoy Buffy!!

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Thrills and Adventure - Alistair MacLean

At one time, he was my favourite author, churning out adventures and war stories that I loved. I could always count on an entertaining page turner when I picked up an Alistair MacLean story and it was sort of comforting in a predictable way. He was a prolific writer and I tended to prefer his earlier writings.

For information, these are the novels he wrote during his life -

HMS Ulysses (1955), The Guns of Navarone (57), South by Java Head (57), The Last Frontier (59), Night Without End (59), Fear is the Key and The Dark Crusader (61), The Golden Rendezvous and The Satan Bug (62), Ice Station Zebra (63), When Eight Bells Toll (67), Where Eagles Dare (68), Puppet on a Chain (69), Caravan to Vacares (70), Bear Island (71), The Way to Dusty Death (73), Breakheart Pass (74), Circus (75), The Golden Gate (76), Seawitch (77), Good-bye California (77), Athabasca (80), River of Death (81), Partisans (82), Floodgate (83), San Andreas (84) and Santorini 86).

I'm not sure why I originally picked up an Alistair MacLean book, but I think it was from the movie posters at the Base Theater in Chatham, New Brunswick. A number of his books have been made into movies. I remember seeing the movie poster for The Satan Bug and it looked so interesting. I was probably too young to be able to go see it at the time, but when I realized it was also a book, well, that got me started.

I so enjoyed his stories. I guess they could be classified as pulp fiction nowadays, but even now, I'm finding that I'm enjoying reliving these stories. As a youngster, I read almost all of his books, from HMS Ulysses  through to Circus. I remember my friends in Chatham buying me Caravan to Vacares as a going away present when my parents moved to Germany.  I bought many at the Book Store at the Base Exchange in Lahr, Germany. I even read Force Ten from Navarone as a weekly installment in the Stars and Stripes newspaper in Germany.

What did I enjoy about his books? Well, I think it was the battle of good against evil. His stories had a character, often working on his own, or maybe with a small team, relying on their own wits to resolve an evil; The Satan Bug, with its stolen virus with the potential to destroy the world, or Puppet on a Chain, with its Dutch drug dealers. The hero had to rely on his own wits and strengths, in enemy territory and still win in the end. It didn't matter how much of a beating he took, and he did, he just bandaged himself up and went on with his business.

There were so many good and varied stories, in so many varied settings; battling the German Army in the Mediteranean, escaping the Japanese invasion in Singapore, on a nuclear submarine in the Arctic. Fascinating locales, interesting story lines, adventure at its best.

Many of his books have been made into movies; the most successful being Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, probably. But others provide an entertaining escape; such as Ice Station Zebra, Puppet on a Chain, Breakheart Pass, Force Ten from Navarone. Others aren't quite so successful, such as The Satan Bug and Golden Rendezvous and could be classified as B Movies, but still, if you enjoy the books, it's worth checking them out.

Recently, as I've wandered around my local used book stores, I've found myself drawn back to the books again and have found myself buying them slowly. I like the covers and I'm enjoying reliving those early thrills and chills.

Alistair MacLean died in 1987. If you want to see what he's all about search through your local used book store and try the experience. I'm glad that I had the chance to enjoy his writings. He provided me with much enjoyment and still is.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Comic Books - A Starting Point (Pt 1)

My interest in comics started Xmas mornings. Every Xmas 'Santa' would put a couple of comics in my stocking, along with the usual candy canes, chocolates and other small presents. I figure that 'Santa' hoped they might keep me occupied a few minutes longer so my parents could sleep in a bit longer before the Xmas day festivities got started. Of course when you wake up at 5 am on a Xmas morning, we still ended up getting up a bit early. :0)

There was always an Archie or Little Lulu or Richie Rich comic to keep me entertained. Once we moved to Chatham, New Brunswick and I was a bit older, like seven or eight, I started to buy my own comics. Saturday my buddies and I would go to the Saturday matinee at the Base Theater. In the Fall, we would start off with five pin bowling, then head to the movie. Next to the theater was the base Grocery store, where we would stock up on penny candies, licorice cigars/ pipes, candy cigarettes (all before these became politically incorrect), 5 cent bags of Hadfield's potato chips with hockey cards or toy soldiers inside, and comic books! Back then they were ten cents a comic and it had a great selection.

I read anything. I had a  particular crush on Supergirl. She was gorgeous in her blue tights and red cape.  Comics let me journey to so many different worlds. Superheros, war stories, horror, western and even Classic comics.

When we went on trips to visit relatives back in Ontario, usually a two week journey, I would gather my comics and wander around PMQ's (military housing for military families), going door to door and trade my old ones for new ones. Looking back on it, it seems so totally out of character and there is no way I would let my children do that today. I would trade with kid's or their fathers and have a new batch of comics ready to take with me on our trips. Cool, as it didn't cost anything, other than the effort of wandering around our neighbourhood. I still find it amazing how many father's read and were willing to trade comics. (Well, maybe not so amazing now, since I still collect them.)

Whenever we hit Kirkland Lake, where my grandmother lived, I would head down to the corner store down the block. There, I could replenish my supply and also get frosty cold Orange Crush from the pop cooler. My cousins in Noranda also collected so I could take a break from my comics and let them last a bit longer, by reading their comics.

I had to be careful reading in the car. If I focussed too much, I would get a headache and if things went to the worst extreme, well, let's just say there could be an emergency stop. I never did learn how to limit my reading while travelling, but my endurance improved. *g*.

We moved to Germany in 1968. When 3 Wing Zweibrucken closed down, our family moved down the road to 1 Wing Lahr. At the Base Exchange, across from the High School, was the Book Store. Not only did I get my fix of Alistair MacLean and Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, but I was introduced to the comic genius of Jack Kirby. I loved his style and collected most of his series, especially The Demon, The New Gods, Forever People, Mr Miracle.

My favourite comic then was Kamandi, Last Boy on Earth. It was such an imaginative series, kind of an extension on the Planet of the Ape movies; with talking dogs, lions, anything you could think of. He was very much like Charlton Heston, with his girlfriend, Flower. The animals were interesting, the situations were excellent. I had the whole series at one time; also the complete New Gods and The Demon. I stopped collection comics after we moved back to Canada, other than the odd one.

Unfortunately, when I got divorced in 96, I sold all of them for a pittance. Hormones and all that acting up. However, my love for comics was rekindled after that time, with the help of a tv show about a female vampire hunter named Buffy. I'll talk about that and my current collections in a future post. (Note that the pictures used in this post were taken from the internet. Thanks for that.)

Friday, 8 October 2010

My Top Ten List - Number 10

Well, here it is; let the bells ring and the banners fly. This post will cover one of my All-time Top Ten favourite books. A bit of a explanation first as to how I chose them. I would say that my top five were relatively easy. But in my Top Ten, I initially had 15 or so books. In general, I chose books that were timeless to me; books I can pick up at any time and read with complete enjoyment. Some, and here I'm probably talking mostly about the top five or six, I've read a few times. Others I may only have read once, but they did have quite an impact on me; books I can recall fairly easily, also books that I've enjoyed in other formats such as movies.

Looking at my list, I do have a preponderance of science fiction, but that has always been one of my favourite styles of literature. I'll maybe talk more about sci-fi in future blogs, but sci-fi, at its best, can be all-encompassing, from the most exciting adventures on far flung planets to discussion of personal and current worldly issues and finally to true scientific issues. But at this point I'm digressing as my first book is not sci-fi. The choice of making this story number ten might be somewhat arbitrary as I'm only really sure which make up the top three or four. But be that as it may, it's a good starting point.

Barbara Tuchman is a prominent historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for my number Ten book, The Guns of August.  The book was initially published in 1962 and according to the Foreword of this edition was an immediate success; which isn't surprising to me at all.

I had reread this novel recently as my good wife got it for me for Xmas 2009. As I was making up my Top Ten list, I tried to remember the first time I read The Guns of August. I want to say it was when my father was stationed in Chatham, New Brunswick in the 1960's and that I got it from the base library. It was a place I loved to frequent, browsing the shelves for interesting looking books.

However, it is possible that it was in Grade 9, while we were in Lahr, Germany, 1971. I was a member of the Library club (yup, you've got it; I was a bit of a geek) so had even more ready access to the books there and took full advantage of the library.

At any rate, the book was fascinating. Briefly, it covers the first month of WWI. It details the declaration of war and ends with the stop of the relentless advance of the German army through Luxembourg, Belgium and France, by the Franco-English alliance.

Barbara Tuchman turns these events into a tense, exciting story. She details the negotiations between France and England to try and get England into the war. It covers the brave defence of Belgium as they wait fruitlessly for assistance from England and France. She covers the main personalities of the war on both sides, making them interesting and real and often covers minute details and events that make you feel as though you are in the action. The story held my attention when I read it so many years ago, back in the late 60's and once again when I read it in early 2010.

Whether you enjoy history or not, this is a must read as it provides an excellent perspective of these critical events that culminated in the 'War to End all Wars'. Having read the story once again, it's made me interested in reading others of Barbara Tuchman's histories, especially The Zimmerman Telegram which deals with an incident between Germany and Mexico in 1917 and was an influence in provoking the US entry into WWI.

History was never my favourite subject in school. In fact, at the first opportunity, when I had more choice in the subjects I could take, I dropped it. However, books like The Guns of August and others, e.g. Vimy by Pierre Berton, Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan, The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester, etc. have held my interest and made the past come alive. I plan to discuss in more detail some of the historic novels that grabbed my attention in future Blogs.

But to summarize, if you want to read about and feel the events that led up to the initial invasion of France by the German army in August 1914, start with Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Bookstores (Part 1)

One of my favourite past times is wandering around bookstores. It doesn't matter if it's for new or used books. It's all the same to me. Jo is very patient because when we go out, I usually find a way to visit one or two. :0)

I thought I might post about some of my favourite book stores, although this might end up being a short topic as I can't really remember too many book stores from before I came to Vancouver Island. But I'll do my best.

Let's start off with the book stores in the Comox Valley; the towns of Courtenay and Comox.

I tend to stick to my favourites. When I'm looking for new books, there is The Laughing Oyster on 5th Street in Courtenay. I must say they do give out a lot of book marks; a nice variety if I do say so. We have a new rule in the house, no new book marks unless one leaves. Anyway, I really enjoy wandering around there. It has great fiction and mystery sections. I like the way it's laid out, even to the stools where you can sit down while scouring bookshelves. It's where I was introduced to Donna Leon's mysteries and Charlaine Harris' Lily Bard mystery series amongst others. I've also found quite a few nice Design / Decorating books for the missus there.

The other store I head to for new books is Blue Heron Books on Comox Avenue in Comox. It's a smaller store than The Laughing Oyster, but it's kind of quaint. I tend to find fiction books that I haven't seen elsewhere. I think because it's nice and small that it's easier to take my time and look at everything in the shelves. I found Margaret Atwood's The Flood there and also was introduced to Iain M. Banks for the first time (neat book cover on The Algebraist). I also like their small history section and have found quite a few books for my father dealing with the Royal Canadian Navy.

The other book stores I spend the most time in are used bookstores. The first is in Courtenay, just up the road from The Laughing Oyster. It's called ABC Books and Inner Sanctum. I think the first time I went in there was to check out the comic books. I had moved to Comox from Ottawa in 2001 and for the past few years in Ottawa had begun collecting comic books again.

This was thanks to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was one of my favourite television shows. I had noticed one time that there was now a Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic book series and had begun religiously collecting them. This revived my childhood interest in comics and I had also begun collecting a variety of other series; Fathom, Witchblade, Tomb Raider, etc. (Yup, I like comic series about full-figured, independent - minded, strong heroines. :0)). Anyway, when I got to Comox, I wanted to see if there was a comic book store in the area. I discovered that ABC Books sold them. Hence, my checking the place out. While their comic book selection, in-store, is relatively small, they do a thriving mail-order business, much to my delight. I now have my regular comic series, plus a few new ones, revised periodically that I order through ABC Books. They also have an excellent used book selection, especially mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, War, etc. They also sell some books on consignment, and I've managed to find some older books that I used to read as a kid, such as the Ian Fleming books, Alistair MacLean, Lester del Rey. I also got most of my CS Forester, Horatio Hornblower books there. It's a great place to browse in; plus I like their credit system, rather than cash for books turned in, you get credit and much more than if you got cash. You can use this against most of the used books. And you've got to like a place where they know your name. :0).

The last bookstore I want to mention is Nearly New Books in Comox. It's moved once since I got here and has changed owners as well, but still seems to be holding its own thanks to the latest owners. It's got an extensive selection of books, especially mysteries and I am always able to find something there that I've been looking for. They also have a good credit exchange program. My only problem with these programs is that I actually have to get rid of some of my books. But once in awhile I do find one or two that I know I won't read ever again and probably don't mind turning in.. once in awhile.. lol.

There are a couple of other book stores in the area, such as the Coles in the Driftwood Mall and another nice used book store near 5th Street in Courtenay, Second Page Books. But like everyone, I've got my favourites.

Anyway, that's my first post on bookstores. In future ones, I'll highlight stores in Victoria, Dubai, etc.

I'd like to end this Blog on a bit of a tangent. I displayed some of the book marks that the Laughing Oyster hands out when you purchase books there. I've got book marks from a few of the other stores I frequented in other cities, especially Victoria. But the ones I use when I'm reading are two other ones. One is a bookmark that a Buffy friend sent me one time and the other is one that Jo bought me as a Xmas present. I love them both. And it's convenient when I usually have two books on the go at any one time. 

I'll leave you on that note. I'm thinking that next time I'll start with the first book in my Top Ten list of favourite books. See you then. 

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Donna Leon & the Commissario Brunetti Mysteries

I enjoy reading almost any genre of literature. I have tended to focus on certain types depending on my age, where we lived, what I was doing; my sci fi period, my adventure/ war period, etc.

Of late, that being the past few years, I've found myself more drawn to mysteries. I don't know why particularly, maybe it's the trying to solve the crime, the varied types of crime novel, the different locations. Pick any of the above. But usually when I hit a book store nowadays, the first place I head is the mystery section.

One of my favourite mystery authors (call it one of my Top Ten) is Donna Leon. She has written a series of novels, based on a Venice Police Commissario, Guido Brunetti. As of 2010, according to wikipedia anyway, she had written 19 novels. Searching back into my foggy memory, I think I noticed her novels one day when I went to one of my favourite local book stores, The Laughing Oyster, in Courtenay. Looking to see if there were any new authors that might attract my attention I was drawn to the book jackets of Donna Leon's stories. They are simple, but the colours stand out. I often find that's the first thing to attract my attention (look at Laurel K Hamilton's paperbacks as a perfect example). Now that my attention was caught, I, of course, read the jackets of those available and the summary was interesting enough to make me buy one as a sample.

I don't remember which was the first purchase, but over the past couple of years I've bought 12 of the series and finished 7; Acqua Alta, Death and Judgement, Uniform Justice, A Noble Radiance, Doctored Evidence, Death in a Strange Country, and Death at La Fenice. At one time, once I got started with a particular series, I would avoid any other authors until I had finished the one I was hooked on. Now I tend to vary author, genre, etc, just for variety sake. They last longer that way and get to savour them.

What is it that attracts me to the Donna Leon stories? There are so many things; firstly, because they are so well written. They aren't action mysteries, even though the crimes are often violent. They are well-paced, allowing for a wonderful look into Commissario Brunetti's family life, providing a view of Venice that displays it's vibrancy, but also the decay and the corruption. I enjoy just sitting in a cafe with Guido, savouring the Italian meals he has there, or those wonderful meals he shares with his family; his wife Paola, and his two children. He has a slow methodical pace to solving crimes, generally relying on his intuition to come up with solutions.

One of my favourite characters is the lovely, mysterious Signorina Elletra, secretary to Guido's boss, Vice Questore Patta. She is too smart for her job, at least, as Guido and his Sergeants seem to think, but she seems to love assisting them in gathering information to help them with their cases. She has a knack for gaining electronic access to people's banking and personal information, has contacts all over the government. There is no hint of any type of romantic interest between Brunetti and the Signorina; not when he's happily married to Paola, but there is definite admiration for her cool skills at gathering information and her ability to deflect the Vice Questore's demands and criticism.

It's a joy to sit back with one of Donna Leon's novels, share her vision of Venice and Italy. The Commissario is an honourable man in a society that seems rife with corruption. He is worn down by years of solving crime, but I hope he never tires too much as his crime solving always satifies me.

I have wondered who would play Commissario Brunetti were his stories ever put to film. Wikipedia does say that 16 of the mysteries have been put to film by German television, but my German is a bit rusty. I picture him as being played by Omar Sharif, although he is probably too old now. Maybe Giancarlo Giannini would suit the role. I think that a series of Commissario Brunetti mysteries on Masterpiece Mystery would be as popular and long lasting as many of the Poirot or Lewis mysteries.

If you've never read a Donna Leon mystery, try one. You'll love them!

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Keeping Track of my Books

My wife, Jo, has bought me many neat presents. Off the top of my head, I can think of the wonderful pocket watch (something I've always wanted) and some of my favourite books. One Xmas she searched the Internet and one of my favourite book stores in Victoria, Chronicles of Crime (I might talk more about this place another time) to find me almost all of Ian Rankin's - Rebus series (a series I'll discuss further as well). She found me a couple of books by Simon Winchester, about the production of the first ever complete edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, not something I'd ever have thought to purchase, but which turned out to be two of the most fascinating books I've read.
But what I wanted to mention here was one of the most useful gifts I've ever received. Let me lead into this by saying that I keep track of my books and Jo's, as well, on a Microsoft Access database. It tracks the books by author, genre, title, etc. and I enjoy updating after one of my trips to the local bookstores (a favourite past time). It's a nice program, but it doesn't help much when I'm out on the prowl and there have been quite a few times where I've come home with a newish book by one of my favourite authors, only to discover that, once again, I'd already had that title. I'm sure we've all been there.
Anyway, one Xmas, I opened up a book shaped package from Jo, wondering what new book she might have obtained for me, only to be surprised to see that it was a notebook, entitled "Books I've read" and subtitled, "Books I want to read". It's a hard covered notebook by Frances Lincoln Limited Publishers.

Inside, it has tabbed pages, lettered from A to Z.
Beside each tabbed letter is a blank page titled 'Books I want to Read'.
After each tab, there are usually two more pages; the left one for
Author/ Title and the right leaf for Notes.


I write in pencil, listing the authors and title I want to read.
I get those from wandering around book stores
and seeing which stories might interest me, or by
reading the summaries/ advertisements about
other books in the pages of books I'm reading.
Publishers always advertise other authors or
other books by the same author inside books.

When I purchase one of the books on this page, of course, I erase it and add to the other pages in ink.

Whenever we go out for an afternoon and I know we might hit a book shop or two, I bring along this book. That way I can add new books of interest to my 'want to read' list or make sure I do have a particular title so I don't buy it by mistake. I also have a couple of loose leaf pages inside listing books I've bought for Jo before and also books I might want to buy for her. (remember, I love buying books as gifts.. lol). The other sheet includes my list of comics (yup, comics, not graphic novels) that I'm tracking when I hit ABC books. That's where I get my comics as well.

I love this gift; it's getting a bit worn from use, but it's loved and appreciated.

PS - In a previous post, I had mentioned that one of my current books was David Benioff's City of Thieves. I finished it this morning and just wanted to sum up my thoughts on the story. I found it a page turner. The story held my interest; it had a mix of humour with a contrasting tone of the threat of War and violence. The characters were interesting, especially the two main characters, Lev and Kolya. I also particularly liked Vika, the young female partisan. I'm always partial to strong female characters and she was smart, quick witted and independent minded. All in all it was an excellent story and well worth the read. It made me want to read others of Mr Benioff's. I've picked my next bed-time book, but haven't started it yet. It's Kingsley Amis', The Green Man, described on the jacket as, "a masterly novel of other-worldly suspense and fear.' We'll see.

Friday, 1 October 2010

The Bible

My mother always said I was a voracious reader and she was right. My favourite story of hers was that she remembered me reading the bible at a very early age. I don't exactly remember getting through the whole Bible, but I do know I tried it out once. I got to a bit about so and so begatting so and so and it seemed to go on and on, not really my cup of tea at that age.

My parents' bible was lovely
though and had so much character. Mom let me take it a couple of years back. It's small and worn, but I wouldn't part with it.

Speaking of Bibles, I also have the Lutheran bible that her parents brought over from Germany when they emigrated to Canada after the first World War. Of course it's in German, but as you can see, also lovely.

My mother wasn't totally wrong with her story though. I do recall borrowing at least one of those illustrated Bible story books from the school library when I was a kid. There were always neat pictures and stories of the more exciting events from the Old Testament; always inspiring for a young boy and not necessarily in a religious context. I mean more that they were great adventure stories, very exciting with lots of action. How could the story of David and Goliath not be exciting!

We weren't a particularly religious family growing up. My mother made sure we went to church on a Sunday, but for me the best part of church was being able to buy the weekly Catholic church comic book. It was called Treasure Chest and as far as I remember it wasn't just religious stories. Here is a link to the wikipedia page, which describes it quite well.

Anyway, I think I've rambled on enough about this topic; we'll see what comes up next post.
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