Monthly Archives: October 2012

Books for most of the last half of October

Hymnal for Dirty GirlsHymnal for Dirty Girls by Rebekah Matthews

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As usual, this book was sent to me as part of a GoodReads drawing.

This little work is really more of a pamphlet and tips the scales at a scant 35 pages. The writing is engaging and does get one’s attention in a hurry but by the time you’ve wrapped your mind around what’s going on (well, around the several things that are going on) the book is over. That said, I’m not sure I could have stuck through it for another 200 pages. Written from the perspective of an adolescent girl the author does a good job of portraying the emotions of her protagonist but as a guy I felt I was squirming a bit uncomfortably as if I was privy to something I shouldn’t necessary see and something that I didn’t entirely understand. This is probably a fitting tribute to the author’s skill rather than a criticism but it didn’t quite strike me as something I’d want to sit through for a longer period of time than was required for the tiny offering to be digested.

If anything, perhaps too well written for my demographic. Probably approaching perfection for the opposing one.

The Revolution of Evelyn SerranoThe Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received this book free in a GoodReads drawing in exchange for an honest review.

It’s first worth noting that this book can easily be consumed in a few hours, so a nice evening read. Sonia Manzano, better known as Maria on Sesame Street, brings to us a fictionalized account of the 1969 Young Lords uprisings in the Bronx that is not only informative (I’m not afraid to admit I’d never heard of such an event) but also very moving. Our protagonist goes through her own personal bildungsroman as the society around her does the same.

Also worth saying that while touching on such heady themes as social change it remains completely appropriate for young readers. It’s not entirely clear from the packaging what the intended audience is but it is safe for youthful consumption. The author teaches us an important bit of history along with a fair amount of Spanish. A wonderful contribution to children’s historical literature.

Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in PhysicsParadox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics by Jim Al-Khalili

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As I’ve said countless times lately, I received this book in a GoodReads giveaway.

With the popularity of shows like “The Big Bang Theory” it’s not surprising that books of this sort are making their way increasingly into the awareness of the reading public. In a nutshell, I think this book tries to cover too much ground in too little time. For most of the topics covered a 300-page book just for one topic is not usually sufficient so to attempt to summarize this much material in 220 pages for 9 such topics is a breathtakingly complex undertaking. That said, it is reasonably executed given the Herculean nature of the task. Rather than critique further let me try to guide the reader part by part.

Chapter 1 is rather an outlier. Potentially interesting but with a distinct mathematical bent that will leave many readers scratching their heads. Do NOT judge the book based on the first chapter. Just politely skip it if it gives you flashbacks to statistics class.

Chapters 2-4 work together as examples from classical physics. They stand alone but comprise a skippable grouping of their own if they don’t sit well with you.

Chapters 5-7 represent Einstein’s General and Special Relativity. As concepts they are massively intriguing but again, if they don’t appeal then they are a skippable grouping.

Chapter 8 is really more philosophical than physical.

Chapter 9 is the most referred to bit of physics in the past 50 years in popular culture. If you read nothing else then read this.

Chapter 10 is for the UFO crowd.

Chapter 11 is a bit of a throw away. Perhaps a tease for a next book.

In summation, I think that like any book of this type it’s straddling a fine line. As someone who has been reading books of this ilk since he was 10 it’s just a rehash of topics I’ve read half a dozen times before. There’s no new information here. For the uninitiated I think it tries to be too broad in scope and will leave a lot of head scratching. I will say though that with the exception of the first chapter the author has successfully eradicated the mathematics from these topics. That in itself is an accomplishment not to be sneezed at.

Lazarus is DeadLazarus is Dead by Richard Beard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Unsurprisingly, this book came to me free from a GoodReads drawing. Despite its free-ness, I’ll give it my honest review below.

In many ways this book fails. It’s not especially dramatic. It’s certainly not funny and in almost every way not even very entertaining. Yet for some ineffable reason it did drag me along to the very end. The problem is that I just can’t put my finger on why. I’ve read more than my share of really poor books and this isn’t a poorly written book. On the contrary it’s very well constructed, artfully executed and professional.

If I had to put forth a theory I’d say that it’s most probable that I was drawn forward in this book by the vacuum of my own ignorance. The story, in a nutshell that’s sure not to actually spoil anything, is a fictionalized account of the life of Lazarus. Based on the Wikipedia entry describing Lazarus the book is not too far off the historical version of the man. The real Lazarus seems to have lived a life of variety and suffering just as our fictional one did. However, since I intentionally read every book without previous research, I had no idea who this Lazarus person was. If you had asked me before to describe him the answer would have been more or less:

“Lazarus…? someone from the Bible… maybe started a department store chain?”

That would entirely sum it up. For every tiny event in the book the question, “Is this true or not…?” rolled through my head and it is that question, echoing through page after page that I think drew me on to the end.

So now the question is, what good does any of this information do for you, the potential reader? I am tempted to suggest that readers should first acquaint themselves with this Lazarus person before diving in. However that would cause those who are susceptible to the “pull of ignorance” to be less motivated to read the book. Contrarily, I’m guessing there are those who would benefit from a bit of foreknowledge of what they’re supposed to be reading about. Those who are merely interested in a good story will fit into this group. The third category of reader, those who know their bibles without the use of Wikipedia, I suspect will enjoy this book the most since it offers some potential insight into what Jesus’s youth just might have been like. Just take it all with a grain of salt or two.

The GlimpseThe Glimpse by Grant Carroll

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

First things first: This book was a freebie from GoodReads in exchange for an honest review. It should be further noted that I am not a Christian and as such I will review this text purely on its literary merits. I am not a frequent peruser of this genre so I will not even make an attempt to compare it with others of its type.

Carroll’s “The Glimpse” is a typical dystopian drama in which our characters find themselves in a world stripped of religion by an overly zealous authoritarian world government. The novel paints a picture that mimics closely the fears of many of the Christians in this country as they await the intolerant one-world-government that will take away their right to worship as they choose. Given this thematic choice the novel wins points for addressing a topic that the intended audience can relate to and has immediate concerns about.

Unfortunately, the manner in which this story is executed is exceptionally primitive. While one can imagine the world Carroll wishes to paint the manner in which he does it brings to mind a Hardy Boys novel. Characters flit into and out of conflict with ludicrous ease while engaging in dialog that is cloyingly sweet and impossibly devoid of realism.

In short, Carroll’s novel has at its core a good idea and one that I suspect his readers can relate to. Sad to say though that the writing just falls wide of the mark. It is important to remember that in order to write a Good Christian Novel you must first write a Good Novel. This is not a Good Novel. Though it certainly is profusely Christian.

Better Living Through Plastic ExplosivesBetter Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As usual I received this book from a GoodReads giveaway.

I really wanted to like this book but I just could never quite catch my stride with it. The stories contained here are brief and disjointed in a way that fails to capture one’s attention. Viewed in isolation the author is obviously good at their craft but somehow taken as a whole it’s hard not to just skim over the words and realize only later that you’ve been reading for 20 minutes but not consumed anything the author had to say. In fact, the text blows by like a summer breeze and it makes it difficult to even formulate a coherent review. Nothing is more ample evidence of that fact than this rather incoherent bit of feedback.

Perhaps the whole thing would be better consumed in small bits over several days rather than taken all at once. The text is exceptionally tangled and complex so that generally means that one story a day is more in order. Sadly, the bits of this I did manage to catch are not interesting enough to motivate me to pursue that line of evaluation.

Nick, The Journey of a LifetimeNick, The Journey of a Lifetime by Christine Schimpf

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A slight variation on my standard disclaimer applies to this review. The author contacted me directly requesting a review of her novel and provided it free of charge. Despite this generous consideration on her part I will provide my honest feedback.

Weighing in at three hours total reading time this book is really more of a novella. In its 212 pages it gives us an insight into the life of a simple immigrant carpenter as he makes his way to America to seek his fortune with a growing family. Schimpf’s offering is written in a very simple and straightforward manner that is easily accessible and easily consumed at one sitting.

Unfortunately, this easy accessibility seems to come at a cost. The events portrayed lack depth and detail and one suffers a bit from reader’s whiplash. Children appear in the family and we are forced to wonder about their ages for quite some time. Events which one might expect to be dramatic turn out to be without consequence and for the most part there is no real sense of drama. For a narrative covering such temporal and geographic distance the landscape seems rather flat.

Topically, this book reminds me strongly of “The Shoemaker’s Wife.” It too tells the story of a similar, though more dramatic immigrant journey, and its endearing quality is its lavish attention to details. Sadly, Nick’s story is at the opposing end of the same spectrum. We are given far too few details and we’re never allowed to be properly tantalized. Schimpf’s protagonist seems taciturn and at times unlikable and one is not sure whether to cheer for him or merely accept what seems to be a fairly easy success.

In summary, “The Journey of a Lifetime” has at its heart a good story but it is merely a thumbnail sketch. It suffices for a family history told at the dinner table to children but does not stand well on its own as a novel intended for the more literate masses.

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Books: The Wild Duck Chase

The Wild Duck ChaseThe Wild Duck Chase by Martin J. Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is worth noting, as always, that I received this book in a GoodReads drawing in exchange for an honest review.

Before I laid eyes on this little book I’d never even heard of the Federal Duck Stamp Program. In fact when I started it my fiancee looked at me with that expression that says politely and succinctly, “you’re reading a book about what now…?” I will admit that I had my doubts as well but I pride myself on always trying to keep an open mind on whatever gems find their way to my door and this one did not disappoint.

From a writing standpoint Smith is consummately professional. He gives us a depth of detail that is admirable and evocative. I’m ready to buy a Duck Stamp, or a dozen, at next opportunity. His portrayal of a government program that works and works well has me sold. Chapters 3, 11 and 12 resonate especially as they withdraw from the details of the contest and the competitors and focus on the background and the origin of the program and conservation in the United States.

The grandness of those three chapters, however, does lead us to the shortcomings of this book. While the program itself a wonder to behold, many of the personal specifics of the competitors I found rather tangled and dull. Yes, the Hautman family is the stuff of legend in this pass-time, but I’m not sure we needed to hear about them and others like them at such length. Other readers will probably find the depth of coverage here endearing but I suffered a bit from Hautman fatigue.

In a totally dissimilar vein, I was exceptionally disappointed that a book ostensibly about an art program should feature no illustrations whatsoever. I think the artistic points would have been much better carried off with some examples of the genre in color. I realize, of course, the complexity that full-color plates bring to the production of a book but I would say simply that they’re pretty much required if your topic is art.

In summary, an amusing little romp through a model government program and one that we should all look to support. It would have benefited greatly from some photos though.

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Books for the First Half of October

Father Gaetano's Puppet Catechism: A NovellaFather Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism: A Novella by Mike Mignola

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As always, this was a book that I received for free in the mail because I clicked a button. Presumably on GoodReads.

Mignola submits for your approval, a tale of a young boy… yeah, enough Serling. The back of the book touts this one as very Twilight Zone and it is fundamentally a blend of “The Dummy” and “The Invaders”. There’s not really much that’s terribly original about this book but it is wonderfully executed. Set in war-torn Sicily during the second world war, the whole thing comes across as very real and very moving. This could be the seed of a much protracted full-length novel but in its current form it only really gives a hint of its own potential. The text makes for an entertaining three hours.

The Lighthouse Road: A NovelThe Lighthouse Road: A Novel by Peter Geye

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like many of my recent submissions this was a GoodReads giveaway. Unlike many of my recent submissions this book is wonderfully and carefully crafted not only in language but also in storyline.

Previous reviewers have complained that the timelines in this book are too complexly intertwined and hard to follow and while I will admit that there is a lot going on, the book very handily states the month and date of each chapter in the page heading. Any reader finding themselves confused can merely consult the top of the page and remember a few key dates. This weaving in and out of history adds great suspense to the whole narrative in a way that would have been difficult to achieve with a straightforward telling. I congratulate the author for having the courage to trust his readers to follow him on his tale just as he presented it. It must be admitted, however, that this will make the movie adaptation a bit more complex should it come to pass.

In summary, Geye’s story is a complex one but a wonderfully fulfilling one. His use of language is exceptionally rare in a modern novel intended for a mass audience. It is a treat not only for those who love a complex and engaging storyline but also for those who find the occasional need to drag out a dictionary quite pleasurable.

Blackberry WinterBlackberry Winter by Sarah Jio

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I’m now very accustomed to saying, and required to say by law, this book was delivered unto my door free of charge through a GoodReads giveaway.

The cover seems to scream romance. It ain’t. The back of the book calls it a mystery. It’s investigative but I’d not call that sufficient cause to categorize it as a “mystery”. I’d summarize it more closely as simply a well-written and believable historical novel that centers closely on the dynamics of loss and motherhood. Everything else is really backdrop.

Overall the writing itself is wonderful and the majority of the book flies by with really a creeping sense of impending crescendo. Jio carefully and meticulously constructs this offering and the story really plays out quite wonderfully. My only real criticism is that the historical aspects of the novel are de-emphasized to the point at which you might very well believe even the historical bits could come to pass just as readily today. Most certainly people have changed little in 80 years but if you’re going to paint your characters against this backdrop you could at least provide a bit more local color.

Blackberry Winter is certainly a worthwhile read for a couple of stormy afternoons but I’m not sure I’d put it in the elite reaches of my recommended reading list. It takes us on a journey but not one that really pops and makes me glad that I took the time.

Eutopia: The DiscoveryEutopia: The Discovery by Kathy Motlagh

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The ever more prevalent disclaimer applies: I received this book in a GoodReads drawing. Along those lines, I signed up for this drawing for the purposes of getting a book for the kids that we could all read and discuss.

Eutopia is a morality tale, designed to teach children basic virtues. As always it’s tough to strike a balance between teaching and entertaining and this example of the genre misses the mark in several ways.

Firstly, I can’t seem to put my finger what age group this book is supposed to target. The format strikes me as appropriate for a younger child. Kids over 10 (at least in this household) just ignored it as a “kids book” and would have naught to do with it. In delving into the text though the content and style was more appropriate for an older child. I think as far as audience goes this book falls into a no-man’s land. Illustrative to my point is the reaction of my 7-year-old. She read the book and all I could get out of her was, and I quote, “They went to another planet.” Any allegorical aspects of the book are lost on her. Any child old enough to actually get anything out of it is put off by the format and the primitive illustrations and likely to refuse to read it.

More specifically on the text, the whole thing seemed rather rushed. The author has a good concept but you can sense a lot from the distribution of illustrations. The first third boasts one illustration on every other page. The middle third is devoid of art until the artist seems to rather guiltily start drawing again near the end. We’re also rushed through the story as the protagonists seem to achieve their goals with only trivial effort. Apparently persistence is not one of the virtues to be taught in this volume.

On the positive side, I like what the author’s trying to do here. Lessons in morality are important ones so any attempt to set that in the context of something kids actually want to read is a grand one. However, this book just goes about it far too obviously. A dose of subtlety and patience with the storyline would improve the product vastly. I could imagine a whole series of books along this line, colorfully illustrated, patiently constructed with an evolving story line. I’m rather reminded of trying to give your dog a pill. If there’s too much pill and not enough meat then the dog will simply spit out the medicine. The problem with Eutopia is that the audience who will actually read it is likely to read the book but miss the pill.

ContritionContrition by Robert E. Hirsch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Unsurprisingly to those of you who have read my last dozen reviews this is yet another FirstReads book from GoodReads, forged in the furnace of randomness and tempered with an increasingly surprising tolerance for the inane.

This title though requires little tolerance on the reader’s part. While the packaging is nothing fanciful, the cover is adequate and represents the contents reasonably well. Despite the fact that this was an unedited advance copy the text itself left little to be corrected. It’s a fairly tightly wound ball of string, to coin a phrase.

At its heart (or more appropriately, soul) Contrition is a crime drama with a very well executed supernatural element. I religiously refuse to even read the back of the book before starting so when things started to go rather odd about a third of the way in I was intrigued. One is very gently and naturally introduced to elements of woo-oooo-ooooo (cue the theremin music) and it all comes across as fairly believable. In a broad sense this is the way the preternatural should be represented in fiction, as just a thin veneer to the story that leaves the skeleton of the narrative intact.

Flipping to the constructive for a moment there are a few foibles. Our protagonist is a police officer and at various points during the story he employs interrogation tactics that would not fool a five-year-old. Similarly, for the most part the supernatural elements were well played but the injudicious use of certain words with a negative connotation like ‘psychic’ or ‘channeling’ broke the spell from time to time. The author is subtle but should be aware of the impact that just a single word can have on the reader.

To sum up, Contrition is a delightfully suspenseful work that at times consumes the reader’s attention entirely and one is lost in the printed page. Luckily for all the dogs waiting patiently for their supper this effect is relatively transient but it is a testament to the dramatic construction that they should wait even a few minutes longer for their kibble. Hirsch’s work is a rare gem in a genre that usually earns very critical reviews from this observer.

All We See or SeemAll We See or Seem by Leah Sanders

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Before we begin it should be noted that I received this book because a very attractive woman I know won it in a FirstReads drawing. She was kind enough to pass it along to me and so I’d like to invite her over for dinner sometime so I can properly show my appreciation.

Overall I would give Sanders’ offering fairly high marks. For the uninitiated to the genre it’s an accessible introduction to the “Brave New World” line of science fiction. The story runs as a parallel love story and degenerate society allegory. Saying much more in specific would constitute a spoiler so I will merely end there.

I must add though that as one who was practically weened on the genre it took exactly two pages to tease out the main storyline. Within those two pages it’s apparent that what we have is an intertwining of Huxley and THX 1138. Don’t expect anything earthshaking here but it is a quick read even if it doesn’t break any new ground. She does add a human and romantic flair that was never well executed in previous renderings of this motif.

To summarize, this is a great one-night read but not something that will have you nerding out around the water-cooler at work the next day.

Sword of the Bull Mongoni Sword of the Bull Mongoni by James J. Caterino

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I received this book, like many before it recently, through a GoodReads giveaway. It arrived in the mail just days ago and bore a return address label with the author’s name on it so I know that they mailed it themselves. This always makes me a bit soft-hearted since I wish to encourage those who are just starting out.

Unfortunately, try as I might, I find precious little to say that would be at all encouraging about this book. The story line is embarrassingly cliche and overly graphic. The writing is primitive and rife with typographical and editorial errors. When I gave it to my fiancee to look over her exact words were, “Is this written by a fourth-grader?” I’m not sure I’d go quite that far but it did strike me as something Napoleon Dynamite might write. All that’s missing is a few ligers.

In an attempt to at least be constructive, since I apparently cannot stretch my writing prowess far enough to be supportive, let me merely make a few suggestions. Firstly, pick better cover art. In today’s day and age photoshopping a sword into someone’s hand is not sufficient for the cover of a large format book. We can all tell. Secondly, lose the screenplay format. No community theatre in the universe has the budget to enact such a play and no movie company will ever produce this. Ever. For your next story go with a format that readers can actually tolerate and then if it takes off you’ll have plenty of time to adapt it for the screen. Lastly, and easier to resolve, STOP capitalizing every fifth word. It’s ANNOYING and DISTRACTING even if you are trying to add EMPHASIS to the blood that is constantly SPURTING.
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