Book Reviews: The Hoard – Neil Grimmett

As is often the case I received this book because the author offered it to me for free in exchange for a review. Despite that abundant kindness I give my candid thoughts below.

Categorically, the book is historical fiction-based-on-fact surrounding an unexplained explosion which occurred at an ordnance factory in 1951. Relatively complex and convoluted in its telling, this story twists and turns through many possibilities of a conclusion seeming at times to edge near to the supernatural before gently veering away to absolutely concrete occurrences.

To the positive side, the author’s rendering of place and character is haunting. There are many books which I’ve read over the years that leave their quiet but indelible marks on my memory and this is one such book. Grimmett’s characters are vivid and lifelike and will likely haunt my waking recollections and some of my darker nightmares for much time to come. As I said in the preamble, the story sometimes jogs lightly past what might seem like the supernatural but always manages to come down to something completely mundane and concrete. Also, the author has a keen talent for the graphic. His depictions of violence and sex are eye-popping and not for the fainthearted. Such details are used sparingly, however, and in just the right quantities to convey to the reader that some of Grimmett’s characters are right bastards.

To the negative, this book does require some patience. The author very artfully draws his scene and his characters but it can take a while to come around to a payoff. Once the book concludes it is satisfying enough but I don’t recall ever feeling a moment when I was entirely immersed in what the author had to say. I felt as if I was chasing a wisp of fluff around a meadow and just as I thought I had a handle on what was going on suddenly something new came up that required me to reset and try to untangle what I had lost. The book is satisfying but dense and complex. The casual reader is advised to keep a few simple notes to help keep things straight.

In summary, I get offered a lot of books and most of them get torn cleanly asunder but this one resides in the top percentile. An abundantly magnificent offering that will take you on a delightful journey if you give it sufficient time to develop.

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Book Reviews: Married to the Military by Terry L. Rollins

As is so often the case I received this book from the author in exchange for a review. Despite that immense kindness I give my candid thoughts below.

The book is a collection of easily digested vignettes featuring, unsurprisingly, the wives of those who serve our country every single day. Topics range from the joys of birth to the tragedy of death. Pretty much exactly what you would expect given the title.

On the positive side, the book certainly does tug at your heartstrings. Though fictional, I suspect that much of what is written here is pulled directly or at least adapted from real life. The sacrifices that these women make every single day is not to be dismissed or forgotten and Rollins portrays their struggles in an emotional style that makes it simultaneously easy to read and hard to forget.

To the negative, it is worth mentioning that the book is written from a heavily female point of view which makes it a sure winner with wives and mothers everywhere. That said, the male gender may have a bit of trouble empathizing because of this. That’s not to say that it’s impossible but potential gift givers should be aware of this possibility. Also, I found myself disappointed that the author had to ‘create’ these women rather than drawing more biographically on actual wives in the military. While I’m certain that the women in the stories represent their demographic wonderfully, something is always lost from the fictionalization of a story that could be just as well done and probably contain much of the same content when you can say that this person actually does exist. Readers love to imagine that the characters they’re reading about are real people and this book just barely misses that mark.

In summary, this book is an obvious choice for any woman and particularly one who has some connection with the U.S. military or, honestly, any military in the world. Men will have less of a connection to it but it might help them see more clearly just what the struggles are that their wives go through every day.

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Book Reviews: James Maxey – Bad Wizard

I received this book free in exchange for a review but despite that kindness I give my candid opinions below.

It’s been 10 years since Dorothy has returned from Oz. She’s now an investigative reporter for a Kansas newspaper and her primary target is none other than the Wizard who himself has successfully returned and is now the Secretary of War. I’ll not be spoiling anything if I reveal that they don’t stay in Kansas very long in this one.

Firstly I can’t say enough good things about this author. I get offered a lot of books and many of them… well, let’s’ just say our relationships just don’t work out. Maxey, on the other hand, had me hooked from the first chapter of the Dragon Apocalypse series that he sent me when it first came out a couple of years ago. His writing is twisted in that delightful way that makes you want to know what oddness he’s going to aspire to next and makes you sigh sadly when the last page is turned. If not for the pile of free books on my bookshelf, Maxey is the author I’d look to first if forced to actually buy my literature.

On the positive side, Bad Wizard is a delightful continuance of the Oz series and, for the most part, retains much of the flavor of the original book series. It’s obvious Maxey has done his research as he delves deeply into the original oeuvre of written Oz and ignores the cinematic adaptions. The book is filled with all the old favorites as well as many of the less known personages from the original series. To all this traditional Ozishness, Maxey also applies a subtle layer of mild steampunk. Our favorite munchkins can now look to the skies to behold a fleet of dirigibles. It’s a very complimentary mix of images.

The only negative I can really propose is that while Maxey has retained much of the original flavor of Oz, he has burnished off to some extent the kid-friendliness of the original. As an adult I find this a positive development but it does give me some small pause in recommending it to my kids until they’re teenagers.

In summary, as always seems to be the case, Maxey has nailed it. Once started this one was hard to put down and I found myself reading it while standing at the stove or brushing my teeth. It quietly grabs your attention and keeps it mercilessly hostage as Maxey’s work tends to do. If you’re a fan of the Oz milieu, then this is a must have. Those outside that demographic are encouraged to get a copy of the original Wizard of Oz (available as a free Kindle download) and read that first. It’s about a two hour investment and well worth it as background and education.

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Book Reviews: Who Am I?: How My Daughter Taught Me to Let Go and Live Again by Megan Cyrulewski

downloadI received this book free in exchange for a review. Despite that kindness I give my candid thoughts below.

On the positive side, this book is a tremendously detailed and honest view of the author’s harrowing marriage to a man who could most succinctly be described as a narcissistic buffoon. The author holds back nothing and at times even transcribes episodes verbatim that put both parties in a pretty poor light. Our heroine is not only a sad victim but also deeply flawed and this sort of honesty is unique and admirable in a memoir.

Sadly, the negative aspects of the novel cleave closely to the positive ones. Yes, the narrative is detailed but much of the time it’s too detailed. Entire email threads, conversations and court filings are reprinted word for word and while these do back up the story they are ill-fitting additions to the text. Further, at too many points to make specific note of, the author descends into rants of profanity and name-calling against her child’s father. While I’m in no way denying that he deserved it, I’m not sure that as a parent I would want to put down in text my own worst moments for my child to read when they grow up. At times the tide of sympathy does at least contemplate turning more towards the neutral after a particularly protracted bout of verbal assassination.

Lastly, I’m really not entirely sure what this book is trying to be. From a content perspective it has the makings of a great novel but the writing style is more like something you would read in the police blotter. As readers do we need a day-by-day log of what happened? Under all the documentation and transcribed conversations there’s a really good book but as-is it’s rather a muddle.

In summary, a great and sincere story but it could use considerable cleaning up to make it a sharp and readable offering.

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Book Reviews: The Valesman (Collected verse Book 1)

I received this book free in exchange for a review but despite that kindness I give my candid opinions below.

Firstly, let me state that I am no expert in the realm of poetry, but like most of us, I know what I like. My criteria are rather straightforward in that I seek first to ask if it’s clear the work has something to “say” to the reader. Is there some deeper meaning than that merely indicated by the raw words on the page? In this case I have no doubt that the writer is trying to say something of deep personal consequence but for whatever reason it is utterly beyond my ability to tease out exactly what that meaning might be. I would not go so far as to compare it to poetry of the Vogon variety but it seems to fall only a few syllables short of such status.

In part, I would posit that as an Suburban American reader the context of this rural English setting is already rather alien. When you add to that the author’s almost constant use of bizarre turns of phrase: “cold and sodden as a babys bath mat”, “leaving momentos of sheep warts”, “… he could just roll over and die after a selfless decades soul-destroying battle against the law, obtaining press exposure flying (as an old air-mans wind-sock) some trussed solicitors trousers from his flag-pole for an obscurantist embezzlement of aunties will…” As I said, there’s something here I’m sure but it’s hidden deeply behind the 20th or 30th reading. Even after reading the notes on a few poems and going back to read them again I’m STILL not entirely sure what the literal meaning is supposed to be let alone the deeper symbolic one.

The second view I take on poetry is of a more technical sort. How well did the author either adhere to conventional forms or blaze a trail to create new ones. In this angle on the poetic arts this author does rather better. He does, at times, force his rhymes and has no general respect for meter but the vast majority of his poems seem to be free verse so there’s no basis for complaint since free verse is inherently just that. Do as you see fit, dear Author.

In summary, this is a book of poetry for the exceptionally patient. There are, even after 20 readings, only glimmerings of meaning evident in much of this book but perhaps it is the 30th reading which really holds the key. For me, it simply wasn’t worth the trip but for those who prefer their poetry readings to be more akin to spelunking expeditions into the bowels of winding prolixity, this may be exactly the book for you.

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Book Reviews: Martin Dukes’ “Worm Winds of Zanzibar”

I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. Despite that kindness my candid thoughts follow below.

Firstly, this is a YA novel so the first and overriding question I ask myself is, simply, whether I would want my own children to read it. To that simple question, like Dukes’ previous novel, I respond with a resounding YES. Dukes’ book is suspenseful without being absurdly graphic and complex without being overtly adult. He manages to engage with his readers without bashing them over the head. Further, he teaches them something without TEACHING them SOMETHING, if you get my drift. Martin Dukes is among the best at treading that fine line.

The second question that bounces in my head for YA novels is whether it’s actually entertaining. Again, my answer is yes, but less resoundingly so than for the previous novel. This novel is a sequel only really in that it deals with the same characters, not due to any cohesiveness of theme. The author has expanded the scope of his world greatly but those who liked the first in the series may or may not like the second. The tone and pace are completely different so they really must be judged as entirely separate entities.

Lastly, it must be asked if the reader will learn anything from the novel. As before, the answer is to the affirmative with liberal inclusion of new concepts ranging from history and geography to multi-dimensional cosmological theories. There is a lot to be teased out of this work if you look closely for it.

Leaving aside the YA genre for a bit, Dukes’ work has always enthralled me despite my adult status. He weaves together very skillfully the genre of escapist fantasy with an almost Dan Brown sort of mythology. His work is a blend of “What Dreams May Come” and a 1950s Sinbad adventure movie. He can take two things with seemingly no real relationship to each other and spin them up in exotic and surprising ways.

The negatives I would note are few and far between but not to be omitted. The most notable defect is the cover of the book itself. My fiancee and I both were struck immediately at how poorly it makes the potential reader want to pick up the book. Had I not had previous experience with this author I might have tucked it quietly into the “I’ll get to this later…. maybe…” pile. The title too does not especially inspire and fails utterly to represent the book in a positive manner. Lastly, the typography in my edition was a bit off. In several instances whole words or sentences were omitted. A careful reading of the proofs is advised for any subsequent printings.

In summary, Martin Dukes’ series of novels is one of the few that I would recommend wholeheartedly not only for content and entertainment but for sheer educational potential.

View the Review on Amazon

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On Tom Sawyer and Reading in General

Good Tom? Evil Tom?

Alright, I give up. You’ve doubtless watched me burble on endlessly for quite a while with my book reviews and after handing out far too many 2 and 3-star reviews I have to admit that I’m done. I’m cooked. I’m out. I’ve shuffled off the mortal coil and joined the choir invisible when it comes to Amazon book reviews. I just can’t do it for one minute more. There’s just too much random rottenness out there and I can’t bring myself to waste one more second of my time reviewing all this pasty modern tripe. My God there’s a lot of junk out there and everyone seems to think they’re the next Hemingway.

So what to do instead? I have, for now, gone back to plan #9: Pick a classic novel and dive in to up to my eyebrows reading commentary and interpretation and then spiraling outward to the reading the works related to it. Then it’s my intent to read the books which preceded it and then those which it inspired directly. In this way it’s my hope to not only have read the book but also come to a keener grasp of its contexts, influencers and the resultant works within a larger literary cosmos.

Pursuant to that, I picked the lightest and fluffiest thing I could think of in the category of modern classics and sat down to spiral it out as described above. That leads me to the beloved and much adapted Tom Sawyer.

Reading this for the first time as an adult it strikes me just what a total ass Tom is. All too often we tend to hold Tom up as a delightful mischievous scamp who’s just being a playful little boy but nobody seems to mention that for most of the book he’s making plans to become a highwayman and murder people on a regular basis. Or at least that’s the persona that he’s presenting to the rest of his “gang.” It remains to be seen if Tom is really Satan incarnate or just a weaver of tall tales but the text leaves a fair ambiguity on the question of whether Tom is just a precocious boy or if he is destined to become the next Injun Joe ready to rape, murder and plunder for the sake of a few coins.

Moving on to general commentary, those who know more than I do on this topic by a factor of millions, seem to fairly consistently agree that Tom Sawyer is rather a structureless mess of disconnected narrative. Having re-read it I can’t help but agree that it seems a jumble of random anecdotes that have cohesion only in that they involve the same “loveable” scamp of a boy. The real service of the book seems to be as an introduction for the more highly respected Huckleberry Finn.

So with that I’m back to Finn followed by “Tom and Huck among the Indians”, Tom Brown’s School days and Aldridge’s “The Story of a Bad Boy.” If nothing else I’m amused by the profligate use of the name Tom in this particular genre.

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