The week in book reviews for 5/21

Well, here are the books that I scoured my brain with this week. It is, if I do say so myself, a pretty varied collection of randomness.


Alien Hunter: Underworld: A Flynn Carroll Thriller (Alien Hunter Series) by Whitley Strieber (*)

The nutshell summary of this book is simply that it’s gritty alien noir. Aliens come to earth. One man must stop them. That man stops them. Sorry if that’s a spoiler but that’s essentially what it boils down to.

To the positive side, the author has a unique take on the genre and the setting. No aliens are like Strieber’s and he isn’t afraid to go with something new and different. These aren’t your captain Kirk aliens. These are the terrifying and quiet Grays of your nightmares along with their many comrades from the stars.

To the negative, the whole thing is so incredibly implausible that it borders on idiocy. The aliens work in their quiet way but the hero somehow manages to go through so much and yet come out on the other side unscratched. I stopped counting the number of crippling injuries he had and almost threw the book in the trash when he underwent open brain surgery and then walked out of the hospital a few hours later. Related to this, the author wants to keep you engaged with gripping action but often when he tries to do so he seems to lose his grip on the narrative thread and the reader is simply pushed forward in the story and left wondering what happened. Many times a crescendo is reached and problems are somehow immediately resolved in a way that just isn’t explained. It’s as if a curtain of misdirection is laid over the story and we simply move on to the next bit. I’ve never quite read anything so poorly written.

In summary, this is a pretty strong avoid. It tries to be something great but just ends up being a disconnected mess. I read this through to the end but feel I could have spent my hours much more productively doing just about anything else.


I Don’t Believe God Wrote The Bible: The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To Another Reality. (Life) (Volume 1) by Gerald Freeman (**)

The nutshell on this book is that it’s the autobiographical retelling of the author’s adolescent adventures in Europe after overcoming his drug addiction and stepping out into the wider world. The story is a pretty typical hippie adventure of youthful excess and exuberant living. It does have a fairly strong moral thread that basically boils down to living the life you want to lead rather than feeling you have to adhere to someone else’s expectations.

To the positive, I love the book’s central message. The idea of grasping at life’s opportunities and not adhering to some societal standard is a strong one. The author gives us a fine example of how to pull yourself up by the proverbial bootstraps and suck the marrow from existence. We’d all do better to try to live more of our lives true to the example the author gives.

To the negative, as a narrative the story has a strong ‘you had to be there’ component. Freeman did a lot of amusing things but they all start to run together after a while. There’s not a lot of real surprises and things turn out in a pretty predictable way. It’s just not quite interesting or diverse enough to be a novel of wide appeal. Those who know the man will be vastly impressed but most casual readers will get bored after the 57th or 58th drunken escapade. Also, the book suffers from some textual errors which are fairly distracting. The whole thing needs a good sound drubbing by an editor.

In summary, this is an interesting slice of one man’s interesting life but it’s just not interesting enough to appeal to the average reader. It lacks narrative arc and progression and manages to travel across a fair amount of the European continent without actually going anywhere.


I Take You: A Novel (*****)

The nutshell view of the story is, as the blurb states, the story of a woman who really shouldn’t be getting married. She’s got every issue that traditionally disqualifies a woman from being ‘marriageable material’ from substance abuse to a Federal criminal record. Despite that, she still manages to be an incredibly adorable person.

To the positive side, this book is just a delightful romp. It fails to take itself seriously for even a full page and the vibrantly drawn characters are just made for a movie. The story is constantly and delightfully shifting and touches on some deep human questions specifically in the area of human sexuality and relationships. I’m a guy, not exactly the target audience, and I inhaled this in one long sitting while getting my knees tattooed. It’s a wonderful distraction even to the most obnoxious pains of life.

To the negative, this book will be incredibly polarizing to many. It’s got drugs and sex and alcohol and more sex and infidelity and incredibly graphic descriptions of sex. There’s a lot going on here and it’s not always terribly light-hearted and fluffy. But then again, what normal life IS all light-hearted and fluffy? Our protagonist is deeply “flawed” by societal standards, but is she really?

In summary, this was, for me, a grand highlight to the genre. I could have done without some of the gratuitous sex scenes, but the richness of the depiction was one that made you wish that maybe YOU were marrying into this land of ribald dysfunction and merriment.


Amsterdam: A Novel by Ian McEwan (***)

The nutshell view on this book is that it is essentially the story of a friendship torn asunder. The narrative is fairly complex and the writing exceptionally literary but it does take a really long time to get to its ‘hook.’ Even when it does so, the hook isn’t terribly strong and takes a fair amount of willpower to carry forward with.

So on the positive side, the book is exceptionally erudite and paints a fine and detailed picture of its protagonists. They are very real and vividly portrayed and one could imagine knowing them in real life. Their intercourse is fairly realistic and they carry on like old friends tend to.

To the negative, the book takes a long time to get find its way to something interesting. The first full third of this short novel sets the stage and I found my mind wandering terribly and I wondered what exactly why I was bothering. Once I found the hook the a-ha moment was brief and only mildly impactful.

In summary, I can’t really find any group of readers to whom I would recommend this book. It wallows in the shallows of mediocrity and is not one that will come to mind unbidden over the coming months. In fact, utterly forgettable I’m afraid.


Head Case: My Brain and Other Wonders by Cole Cohen (***)

The nutshell view on this is that it’s the memoir of a woman who finds out one day that she has a hole in her brain the size of a lemon. From that point of introduction, the story spirals forwards and backwards in time describing her struggles before her diagnosis and her coping mechanisms afterwards. All in all it is an exceptionally detailed but rather disconnected tale.

To the positive side, the author is completely honest with us about her life. She’s candid and leaves no stone unturned from her sex life to just getting around town. The level of insight she grants us is extreme and she invites us into her life without apparent hesitation. Because of this, her treatise is a wonderful guide for anyone that finds themselves in a similar situation at least to the extent of the emotional and social aspects of such a diagnosis.

To the negative, the book as a narrative fails in many spots. The storyline is at times disjointed and fails to flow in anything approaching a consistent manner. The author seems to jump around in her story as much as she does geographically during this period. It is disconcerting and at times completely impossible to follow.

In summary, this is an intimate portrait painted with a confused brush. The author lets us into her life but once we get there the whole thing is a mass of carnival mirrors and foggy recollection. I understand the spirit of what the author is trying to say but her thesis is lost in a mass of proverbial spaghetti.

PS: I hope my review was helpful. If it was not, then please let me know what I left out that you’d want to know. I always aim to improve.


Snoopy, Master of Disguise (**)

The nutshell view on this book is that it’s a collection of about 100 classic strips from 1966 through 1987 in chronological order with one 4-panel comic per page. Most of the strips feature Snoopy prominently as doctor, Joe Cool, Masked Marvel, etc. The Red Baron is strangely omitted, however.

On the positive side, it’s hardly possible to say anything negative about Peanuts and Snoopy in particular. Snoopy is as adorable as always. However, as collections go this one just fails to be at all evocative. The omission of Snoopy’s most famous pseudonym aside, the collection just doesn’t have any cohesiveness; it’s as if comics were picked out somewhat at random. In a few instances a series of 3-4 consecutive days appears but for the most part each comic is a standalone. As a person who has ready the entire strip from beginning to end, I felt this a rather pale shadow of the true spirit of Schulz’s work. Further, printing one comic per page in a horizontal format seems like it’s just trying to waste paper and print as little content as possible.

In summary, a pretty large disappointment. I was really looking forward to this one but it turns out to be a very poor value.


The Worrier’s Guide to Life by Correll, Gemma (***)

The nutshell view on this book is that it is, simply, a collection of small graphical witticisms drawn from daily life. The topics covered range from women’s hairstyles to the contents of their purses and all the typical mundanity in between.

My fiancée and I both took a look at this book and ultimately I found it slightly more entertaining than she did. Even with my direct prompts of the form, “Don’t you think THAT is a little bit funny?” she just looked at me with almost a look of pity. On the grand scale of humor I found one “heh” in about every 5 pages or so (my favorite reference was the “twerker’s carbuncles”) my fiancée saw nothing of redeeming value. Our shared decision was that the author was “trying too hard” to be funny and thus failed more or less completely. (though I still have affection for those carbuncles).

So on the positive side, the author did provide a few amusing turns of phrase and her artwork is very simple and easy to digest. Unfortunately, it just never quite makes its way to humorous for either of us. Sad to say that this was well intentioned but just didn’t quite make it to the starting gate.


Girlgoyle by Army, Better Hero (*****)

Firstly, this is a YA novel and my criteria for judging those is fairly straightforward and three-pronged. First and foremost, I ask myself if there’s anything in the book that I would not want my own children to read or be exposed to. I have absolutely zero tolerance for sexual or drug references and this book has none of that. In fact the only thing I can find of even remote concern is some light non-graphic violence and exactly one profanity in the use of the phrase “p***ed off”. So this is a clean one for all but the youngest and most sensitive children who might have difficulty with the fight scenes.

Secondly, I ask myself if the book offers anything positive for the reader. In this case, it’s not effervescing with positive themes but it’s not entirely devoid of them. During the course of the book the female protagonist deals positively with and overcomes her own misgivings about her body and manages to overcome her initial misgivings about a group of girls that she had initially had difficulty with. There are strong themes of reconciliation and cooperation and shows the reader a good example of building trust. It also teaches the key idea of not judging people based on their appearances.

Thirdly, and most importantly to the reader, will it entertain them? I’d say the answer is a resounding positive. I pulled through the book in a few hours without difficulty and it has an early hook and brings you along quite steadily throughout the story. The 14-year-old female protagonist is relatable, kind and she finds herself in a varied and unique situation with engaging characters who are both friend and foe. I can easily imagine this as a prolonged series as the heroine develops into a woman.

The only negatives I can cite about the book I relate to overall story cohesion. At times the story makes reference to previous points in the story that just don’t exist. It feels as if the story was cut down from a longer version and in doing so lost some hunk of the story. I cannot prove that, of course, but in a few instances the text calls back to previous stories and plot points that just never happened. This is a fairly minimal concern, however, since context wins the day and one can make assumptions around the missing bits.

In summary, I was thoroughly entertained and the book is a positive one for the target audience. The plotline seems to be a mix of “Dead Like Me” and a standard youth exceptionalism tale like “Harry Potter”. I’m excited to see where the series goes from here.

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Random Babbling for 5/13

Really intended for future Rob Slaven to peruse but you can watch it if you want.

Main bullet points:

* Who gives a crap about anything I have to say? Only me really.
* Giving up on Amazon – Rejected Reviews, etc
* Penny Dreadful – Truly dreadful but it’s got a nude Billy Piper in it.

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Request for an Interview from an Academic Researcher

Rank48Recently I was approached by a university researcher who wanted to do an interview with me on the topic of writing in social media. He approached me as an Amazon reviewer so I agreed to answer his questions. Below find my responses to his first volley of inquiry.

Can you tell me a little about what got you started writing Amazon reviews?
I’ve always been of a mind to bore people with my online drivel so in 2011 I first stumbled across the GoodReads site. There you can sign up for book giveaways in exchange for an honest review of the book. I reviewed several dozen books and cross-posted these on Amazon and within a year I had offers for other items to review that were much less literary. I started, as I suspect everyone does, with small electronics: chargers, cords, electronic gizmos. It has been my observation that anyone in the top 10,000 reviewers or so that posts an email will be graced with at least one offer for a free product. As time goes on like begets like and whatever sorts of products you’ve reviewed before will find their way to your mailbox.

How would you characterize your writing style when you write Amazon reviews?
Terse. It has been my impression that customers don’t have time for a lot of protracted blathering on so I try to make things as short and sweet as possible, condensing my points to a few bullets that sum up things as succinctly and completely as possible. For those who want a bit more detail, I have tended as of late towards video-based reviews that demonstrate the product in some way or illuminate its shortfalls.

What are your goals when writing Amazon reviews?
This is a tricky and multi-headed question. The prime mover of all things in Amazon land is, of course, the helpful vote. Customers give us direct feedback by voting helpful or unhelpful on reviews as they read or watch them. So the ultimate goal in this game (and, let’s be honest, it is a game) is to garner as many helpful votes as possible. The more helpful votes, the higher your ranking and the higher your ranking the more free crap rolls in the door. At a very fundamental level, this is the most basic and visceral goal of the whole thing.

Attached to this is the idea that you’re helping others to make a buying decision. When I receive a product that’s just downright terrible my number one goal is to do everything I can to make sure nobody actually pays money for it. If I can find some redeeming quality in a product I’ll point it out but above all the goal is to make sure nobody gets taken for a proverbial ride and that when customers actually do buy something that they get what they expected based on the reviews. The vote system drives one to to write reviews but the injustice of the system is what really keeps a reviewer up at night.

Can you ever remember a time when you didn’t achieve your goals when writing Amazon reviews? Why or why not?
As I’ve said previously, the goal that keeps me up at night most is trying to make sure customers get what they expect. When a product arrives at my door it’s my duty to make sure it’s at least a serviceable product. I cannot even hope to tell consumers everything about a product but I can at least point out obvious fatal flaws and do everything in my power to ensure customers get a reasonable quality product. The problem with that, however, comes in two forms. Firstly, many, many reviewers hate to say anything negative about a product. They received it free so they feel they should say something nice or say nothing at all. So even if a product isn’t worthwhile, the ‘yes man’ crowd can drown out even the most circumspect naysayer. Additionally, the power of the vote works in both directions. Often manufacturers will hire services to suppress unflattering reviews with down votes and vote up the positive reviews that cast their product in the best light. As might be imagined, this battle is extremely difficult to win.

How do you decide what to review and why?
This answer varies wildly depending on my mood at the time I’m looking at an offer. In general, rather selfishly, I tend to offer to review products that I want to have or that I imagine others around me would want. Secondarily I will sometimes choose products that seem like they’d merely be diverting or interesting to try out. In summary, this is almost completely selfish. I review things that I have a use for.

Do you model your method of reviewing on anything? Do you read other professional or Amazon reviews before hand?
Typically, no. I don’t read other reviews for the same product because that tends to have a bias impact on the results. I don’t tend to read professional reviewers because, frankly, I think the more plebeian viewpoint is probably more helpful in some cases.

How do you decide which reviews to update and why?
I update any review on which I receive new information. Sometimes the manufacturer will contact me with updates or sometimes a friend to whom I’ve given an item will provide additional feedback on it. In general, however, I don’t go back to proactively update reviews without reason. Just slogging through new reviews is enough of a chore.

Do you have a particular process for writing reviews? Any steps you take before or while writing?
This varies wildly depending on the product. If the product makes claims that it’s “durable” or “shatterproof” then I put those claims specifically to the test. I’ve taken electronic equipment out into the parking lot and hurled into the air based on certain claims by the manufacturer. Admittedly at least part of the reason for that is because it’s entertaining but again, I want to make sure that manufacturers at least live up to their packaging.

How would you say your style of writing reviews has changed over the course of time (if they have)?
If anything it’s become even more terse than it was in the beginning. As time goes on you begin to get a very firm sense of what the identifying points are for any one sort of product so the whole process becomes rather formulaic. You test the 45th selfie stick in must the same way as the 44th selfie stick so it’s much less like writing than it is simply checking off a list of things to check.

Do you ever respond to comments about your reviews? How do you adjust your reviews in response to those comments?
I do, but not all the time. If the commenter requests information and I can actually provide it, I will do what I can to help out but often I don’t have the product any longer. If I kept every miscellaneous gewgaw that came across my desk I’d have little room for anything else. I have, at times, found myself apologizing to a commenter for missing some nuance of the product that I completely failed to pick up on. Those are exceptionally helpful for the next review but don’t make me feel any less guilty if someone bought a product that didn’t work for them because I gave it high marks. Luckily this doesn’t happen particularly often.

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Is there anything better than a Godzilla movie? I think not.

View on Path

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How to be a Victorian – Notes, Chapter 2 – Men’s Fashion

g2573Everything below came to my attention because of one little book. Well, a rather large book. If you want the real stuff and not my notes, go buy a copy here.  I won’t be held responsible for any loss of productivity you might encounter because of it, however.

So what was life like in Britain between 1837 and 1901?  Chapter 2 describes the fashions of the era.

  • Men’s Undergarments tended to be practical and geared towards keeping out the cold.  Sleeved vets and full length pants were the fashion of the day.  A man of this era would have found it disgusting to not wear full pants and vest between his skin and his outer garments
  • In shirts, among the wealthy, only the collars and cuffs were visible.  Taking off your jacket was something done in only the most casual environments.  Many colors were available but white was the mark of the rich since they were so difficult to keep clean.  Checked and striped were popular with the working people.
  • Collars were an essential part of any moneyed person’s attire.  Typically these were detachable from the shirt and starched very high.  Collars were such a pain to do at home that often they were sent out to be done by a professional even if the rest of laundry was done at home.  Often they were so starched that if one attempted to bend them they would crack.  A turned down collar was reserved for only the most informal occasions.
  • Offices and homes were typically kept around 50 degrees so fabrics of the day were much more substantial.  Waistcoats were made of very stiff, thick material that was often embroidered.
  • Gaiters, waterproof fabric wrapped around the ankles, was worn to protect the pants.
  • Slim waists were the fashion of the day even for men.  Many men wore corsets.  Trousers for men too were slim fit often with stirrups that went under the heel of the shoe.
  • The introduction of the sewing machine in 1845 changed the world of fashion considerably.  Previously the only ready-to-wear fashions available were baggy and any fashionable person would have to have their clothes custom made.  With the introduction of the sewing machine the available ready-to-wear lines became much more varied.
  • The 1860s saw the introduction of new chemical dyes to replace the previously plant and animal derived ones.  Men of fashion tended towards black for both fashion reasons and also for practical ones since the black did not show the ubiquitous coal dust of the city so readily.  Women tended towards bright eye-catching colors like never before.
  • No respectable man of the day would be seen without a hat.  Commonly they were only removed to show respect to another.
  • Hats had a strict social hierarchy with the top hat standing alone as the most aristocratic.  These hats stood up to 14 inches tall and could cost up to 3 months of a normal worker’s wages.
  • The Bowler hat was introduced by the Bowler brothers in 1849 at the request of a customer who wanted a hat that was “robust and easy to keep on”.  This replaced the top hat in many situations but still was a sufficient sign of status that a factory worker who attempted to wear one would likely be dismissed from his position.
  • Straw hats also saw wide use.  A high quality hat might last a lifetime.  These were considered rather luxurious items until cheaper imports of straw mats from China in 1880 made them more affordable.

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Movie Reviews: Different Drum

I picked this movie because it looked lonely and unrated on Amazon Instant Watch. Well, and because the description mentions Indiana. As a dude from Indiana, I can totally speak to that bit.

The nutshell summary is that this is a travelogue movie that’s shot in a very informal and random manner. You feel like you were there but all in all nothing of great consequence happens. A couple travels from point A to point B and have pretty realistic adventures that result in a pregnant woman with a bedazzled eyepatch, urinating on the train tracks and changing a flat tire.

In the end…. yeah, it’s not a picture that’s ABOUT something. There’s no grand crescendo but it’s a story that really, we’ve all lived. As the picture wraps you don’t say to yourself “wow!” so much as you do, “yeah, I remember when…” We have all lived some vague insubstantial version of this story but unlike this filmmaker, we didn’t bother to record it.

This is a movie that doesn’t make you remember IT so much as it makes it remember your analogous version of what you just saw. This is a movie for when you’re in a contemplative and reminiscent mood.

Notes from my viewing…

The style is that clumsy but endearing one in which everything is shot in a very informal way. Shots get cut off at times, don’t quite work out, sometimes out of focus, but very lifelike. It makes you feel like you’re there but it’s not got that over-processed look that most of the Hollywood junk does. I love this aspect of the film.

The credits are exceptionally high tech and come in about 11 minutes into the film. They add a distinctly charming air to the whole thing. They also act as chapter markers.

The whole thing feels VERY midwestern. I would swear that I’ve been in some of these places. There are some great shots photographically; very similar to what I’d take when I’m traveling.

The dialog in this film is so… pedestrian… there’s a bit talking about uncles and great uncles and how that works and it’s just so… real. It’s very much like a real life conversation that’s really ABOUT nothing but it’s the sort of thing that makes up our entire lives.

Movie is filled with lifelike little contradictions… like the pregnant protagonist who smokes and drinks at times but then acts terribly guilty about it. And her identical coats in yellow and green.

My god; some of these painfully nondescript settings are completely and utterly realistic. Case in point, visiting the protagonist’s cousin. The situation is rather bizarre but the setting is completely natural.

This movie….. this movie has the MOST polite armed robbery in the history of … well, of history. Holy CRAP that was nonchalant. That is the Midwestern way. “Give me all your money but, you know, whenever you want.” OK, not quite a quote, but that’s the general idea.

Eight minutes from the end, it’s time for Indiana!!!!!

Yeah, that’s Indiana. Northern Indiana at least. Lots of Amish.

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How to be a Victorian – Notes, Chapter 1

g2573Everything below came to my attention because of one little book. Well, a rather large book. If you want the real stuff and not my notes, go buy a copy here.  I won’t be held responsible for any loss of productivity you might encounter because of it, however.

So what was life like in Britain between 1837 and 1901?  Chapter 1 describes basic personal care from the era.

  • Most people in the Victorian era rose with the sun.  If you were a factory worker or someone who had to get up earlier, you could hire a knocker-upper to come wake you up at the appointed time since timepieces were rather expensive.
  • Windows were left open no matter the weather because stale air was considered deadly.  Therefore a nice bedside mat was considered a wonderfully luxury for those that could afford to keep their feet warm when first rising from bed.
  • The majority of people washed in a water-filled basin beside the bed.  Once a week the luxury of using hot water was common in many households.  Since the windows were wide open, most washed in their clothes to keep from freezing.
  • Before Victorian times, people didn’t wash with water at all as this was thought to invite disease.  Instead they rubbed themselves down with a dry pad and changed their underwear with greater frequency.
  • Scientists at the time thought the skin contributed greatly to respiration.  In one experiment they varnished an entire horse.  It quickly died from heat exhaustion.
  • Soap was expensive with a 4oz bar of soap costing as much as a joint of roast.  Washing and laundry could consume 5% of the typical household budget.
  • Ammonia or vinegar was a common deodorant.
  • Carbolic acid was a common disinfectant and even today its sharp smell is considered an indication of cleanliness
  • Tooth care products were often home made; their key ingredients were soot, salt or charcoal.  More expensive products purchased from apothecaries had many other added ingredients to make them taste better but tended to be pink rather than white.
  • Women’s sanitary needs were suspended from a belt or even slung over the shoulders since bloomers were not supportive enough to keep them in place.  Sanitary napkins were sometimes mail ordered or simply rags that were washed month after month.

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