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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Book Reviews: Grizwall’s out,and he is telling his side of the story (**)

As usual I received this book free in exchange for a review. Also as usual I will be absolutely candid about it in spite of the kind consideration of a free book delivered unto mine doorstep.

Amazon describes the book this way, blurby goodness follows:

Grizwall is a collection of short interconnected stories that share the adventures of a dog who experienced many things in his amazing life. From bears and porcupines to helicopters, planes, and torrential rains.These are a few of his adventures I have tried to share in an entertaining way, the stories are true, except….Grizwall didn’t really talk.

The wilds of beautiful British Columbia the setting we follow Grizwall from Vancouver Island to the far North on one adventure after another. So sit back and enjoy the ride Grizwall always did.

With commentary from Grizwall himself the stories are meant to entertain and hopefully amuse.Take care,enjoy.25% of every purchase donated to the S.P.C.A. on behalf of Grizwall. For ages 8 to 108>

The nutshell view of this book is that it’s a parallel dual memoir of a man and his dog. The man’s thoughts appear interleaved with those presumed thoughts of his dog as they muck about in the wilds of Canada having all manner of rather random adventures.

On the positive side, this is a book with quite a bit of heart. It’s advertised as a tribute to a boon companion now passed on. Like all dog owners Grizwall has felt the joys of having a dog and the sorrows of suddenly not having a dog and he pours his heart and his memories into this book with great candor and openness.

Unfortunately, all the candor and openness in the world cannot compensate for the poor execution of this book. It is rife with typos and misused words and completely lacks professionalism. Like many of its ilk it is in need of a good sound editing both for grammar and for content. The rambling and sometimes poor text aside, the pictures included in the book are also in need of attention. Each time before the dog in the story speaks his picture appears in the margins. Very sadly the way the picture is cropped makes it look as if the dog is in some sort of pain or twisted into a very uncomfortable position. The effect is rather unsettling.

In summary, the author has a good idea but has simply failed to execute on it. This is, at best, the rough draft for a book that needs several more weeks of attention before it is sufficiently polished and deserving of sale to the general populous.

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Book Reviews: Scream Vacation (The Raven Archives) by Dr. I. Seymour Youngblood (*****)

As is the usual preamble I received this book free in exchange for a review. Also as usual I’ll be completely honest despite that kind consideration.

The Amazon blurb describes the book this way:

Carter’s spring break is a total bust. His family was Orlando bound until his twin sisters, Maren & Macee, sabotaged his dream vacation with their dorky ghost-hunting obsession. Now, he’s stuck in some “haunted” backwoods cabin in the middle of nowhere all because his sister’s favorite show is filming there during spring break. But what Carter always made fun, his sister’s love of the supernatural, turns out to be no laughing matter on their SCREAM VACATION.

Firstly, this is a book aimed at youth so I give it a slightly different going over than I would an adult book. I look at three basic questions and the first of those is to ask if there’s anything inappropriate for the age group. It has been my sad duty to give many books for adolescents poor scores because they had sexual or drug content but in this case the book is clean as a whistle. There is some mild pre-teen rebellion but there’s nothing to be scared of if your kid brings this book home. There’s not even any violence to speak of.

The second thing I look for is rather the opposite of the first and that’s to find positive lessons or morals in a book. This book does reasonably well at that since the main character does come to understand his family a bit better and after all is said and done they’re a closer group than they started out. This doesn’t really seem to be the focus of the book but it’s there.

Lastly, I ask myself if the book is entertaining and in this case the book scores high marks. I’m an adult and I found it amusing so kids will probably devour it. It is, of course, rather simplistic and from an adult perspective nothing new but these are kids we’re talking about as the target audience and it will be right up their proverbial alley. I can see this series doing really well.

In summary, this is a real standout in the realm of independently published books. Aside from a very few editorial errors this is an exceptionally professional, responsible and entertaining book for the young people in your life. Highly recommended for kids that like to be scared but not too scared.


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Book Reviews: The Siege by James Hanna (*****)

Firstly, and as usual, I received this book free in exchange for a review. Also as usual I give my candid thoughts below despite the delightful privilege of receiving a free book.

From the standpoint of narrative form the book is comprised of two parts. In the first 100 pages the narrator is in the midst of a hostage recovery effort but through the use of well-organized flashbacks we see the days that lead up to the incident in meticulous detail. The second part deals with the aftermath in a more straightforward narrative flow.

On the positive side, the writer quite obviously knows what he’s talking about. This is NOT the parboiled Hollywood version of prison drama; this is the raw, gritty and complex reality of life in a prison and the best of its genre that I’ve ever come across. The author’s style is rich and engaging painting a vivid picture of his setting and his very believable characters. If you want the truth behind life in prison administration this is probably the book you’ll want to pick up first.

The only negative that I would note isn’t really a negative so much as a caution to readers who might be looking for a guns-blazing action novel. This isn’t that. As I said, this is real life and real life seldom lives up to the idiotic standard set by the movies. There are moments of what one would call “action” but for the most part the novel is one of psychology and tangled mental interactions between the varied cast of characters.

In summary, highly recommended if you like your novels with engaging ideas over fountains of blood and violence.

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