Monthly Archives: June 2015

Books for the week of 6/14….

The week was a pretty diverse one…. As always, I received these via some free outlet or other in exchange for a review. Despite the joy of getting a free book, I’m absolutely honest because… well, anything else would be a pretty poor showing on my part now wouldn’t it?


A World Without Boundaries: A story of human atrocities, despair, migration, and interconnectionsA World Without Boundaries: A story of human atrocities, despair, migration, and interconnections by Ge Xiong

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The nutshell view on this book is that it details the author’s escape from war-town Laos until he eventually finds himself in the United States speaking not a word of English. The narrative is a detailed and honest retelling of this grim life transition.

To the positive, the author omits nothing. During the tale the narrator takes the time to make comments about farming methods or family history even while the chaos of war is breaking out around him. It is very much a stream of consciousness story and anything that did happen is related in detail to the reader. It’s a rather refreshing approach to the historical narrative.

To the negative, at times this can become cumbersome. There is a LOT to go through to get to the heart of what is being discussed. The reader must go along narrator’s idea of proper pacing and immerse themselves in the detail.

In summary, this is an exceptional snapshot of place and time. The author’s descriptions are vivid and detailed and really take the reader back in time mentally but it is a fairly intense labor to get there. You have to be patient and willing to get the full effect from the book. Otherwise you are left with a rather empty shell of the experience.


Le Tomcat Diaries: Lies, Fries, & Blue Skies in the South of FranceLe Tomcat Diaries: Lies, Fries, & Blue Skies in the South of France by E.A Menches

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The story is written in first person from the viewpoint of a family cat and from a narrative standpoint it follows the basic pattern of a character displaced from their familiar surroundings and forced to set up shop in a new and unfamiliar place.

To the positive side, the narrator is amusing and extremely cat-like. He behaves and thinks in exactly the way any cat owner would sometimes suspect their pet to be thinking based on their apparently irrational behavior. Dead birds are gifts. Owners must be trained to do the right thing and the cat is absolutely always right and in some ways completely in charge. Having been around a cat or two, this seems pretty close to their own self-image. From a writing standpoint the text is solid, simple and very straightforward.

To the negative, this is fun for about 30 pages. After that it just becomes somewhat repetitive and trite. What was funny at first becomes rather laborious and you just want it to end. This is no “Watership Down” I’m afraid.

So all in all, it’s a cute idea but just didn’t quite do it for me. The optimal target audience for this book is probably that group which shares the most in common with the protagonist and his owners. If you’re in the south of France and you’re a cat lover then have at it. I think everyone else will probably be only lightly amused.


The ActorThe Actor by Paul A. Wunderlich

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The nutshell summary of this book is that it gives us the inside view of the greatest actor of his age, the smiling face that moves the Texalifornia propaganda machine forward from one weekly episode to the next. The tone of the book is partly Orwell’s 1984 and partly Mike Judge’s Idiocracy.

To the positive side, I really like where the author is trying to go. The concept, though at least partly derivative, has a fresh take on the dystopian horrors that await us after after a nuclear exchange. Seen from the viewpoint of one of the cogs in the propaganda machine, this isn’t a narrator that we’re at all accustomed to seeing in this sort of novel. I think the concept could be extended greatly into a quite a series. The author has found a great concept to wrap words around. There is also an extremely visual element to the book that the author uses to great effect. Many of the author’s descriptions will stick with me for quite a while.

To the negative side, the novel really had me struggling in a couple of areas. Firstly, the mix of Orwell and Idiocracy was hard to swallow. While it is possible to mix dark social commentary with farce, it’s exceptionally hard to get away with and I found the author’s more comedic images to be a distraction from what I assume he was really trying to say about society and culture in general. Textually, the book struggles as well. I’m hopeful that my copy was an early release because the typographical problems scattered like cockroaches from every page. The misuse of common words was distracting and the almost constant repetition of certain phrases such as “inch-thick layer of makeup” was at fairly maddening.

In summary, I had a hard time settling on one rating for this book. The concept has wonderful potential but the execution boggled my mind at times. Wunderlich has done a unique job of cobbling together various elements of the standard Dystopian genre and making it his own. I do wonder how much better it could be with a good sound drubbing by a professional editor, however.


Sunny The Snail- And a Colorful Crayons: Inspiring Children's Book about being creativeSunny The Snail- And a Colorful Crayons: Inspiring Children’s Book about being creative by Karmen Sanda

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a kids book, of course, so rather than the standard format I’ll just jot down a few notes as I go.

* Illustrations are fun and whimsical and fairly colorful.

* A few problems with the text. Colorful is misspelled in the title page and the passage “…help his beloved mommy to finally distinct who is who between his brothers” isn’t … well, just isn’t quite English.

* This book has a solid message though; I approve of any book that teaches people they can (and should be!) different from others and to not be afraid to make their mark in the world.

* The coloring page at the end to ‘make your own snail’ might be a touch difficult to execute on with the eBook.


Stuck in the Passing LaneStuck in the Passing Lane by Jed Ringel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ll admit that when I received this book I looked at the cover and thought… ok… then I looked at the back and suddenly my expectations went straight into the cellar. This isn’t really a book that’s going to immediately grab you by the hair and make you pay attention to it. In fact, the first 20 pages I kept thinking, “ok, how much of this do I have to read before I can legitimately give up…?” But around page 30 or so, it finally took its hold. The simple nutshell on this book is that it’s the intimate no-nonsense view from the inside of the brain of a pretty common everyday guy who finds himself in the online dating world. And it’s not one of those in which he blames every woman he breaks up with for this or that. He goes through all the same thoughts that real online daters do (not that I had years of experience with that myself, *ahem*) in which they ask themselves not only what happened but also that most common of repeated mental phrases, “what’s wrong with me?”

So to the positive side of things, Jed writes like a man who has really figured himself out. Well, has figured himself out as much as any guy ever really figures himself out. He may not know the answers to the big questions of relationships but he has at least figured out what the questions are. His take on things is completely honest and unassuming and while some readers may find his tendency to jet off to Singapore a bit perturbing, especially if they don’t have the assets to jet off to Singapore themselves, I think that anyone who’s done the online dating bit will find a lot that’s familiar in this book. Lastly on the positive side, the author has a very good balance between too much detail and not enough. I find in many memoirs that the reader is forced to grind away endlessly for hundreds of pages to find the real meat in the proverbial salad but Ringel’s all meat, if he will forgive me for the unfortunate analogy. *ahem again*

On the negative side, many readers will be, I think, at least somewhat disappointed that the narrative doesn’t really end up anywhere. Essentially, the author starts at his divorce and goes through relationship after relationship in chronological order. There is no grand denouement; there is no final smoking gun or any sudden revelation of truth; there is no shaft of light down from heaven. Things just stop and you’re looking at the back page. I’d argue that’s OK though because that’s the way life is. Until, of course, life isn’t. But by that time you’ve stopped reading.

In summary, if you can relate to this book as a mature dude dating again later in life, it’s a real find. If you’re a mature lady dating mature dudes and wondering what’s going through their puny little brains, it’s even more of a find. If you’re neither of these things… well, I’m sure you’re not still reading this anyway.


Legends and Lies by Bill O'Reilly and David Fisher | Summary & Analysis: The Real WestLegends and Lies by Bill O’Reilly and David Fisher | Summary & Analysis: The Real West by InstaRead

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The title of this book is ‘summary and analysis’ but to be utterly frank, it’s 95% summary. The book is these basic parts.

Summary – 10 pages. Essentially, a list of all the characters in the book with a 2-3 paragraph description of what they did and why they’re important.

Main Characters – 3 pages. The same list of characters that appears in the summary but with much shorter descriptions.

Character Analysis – 4 pages. The same list of characters but broken down by subgroup: hero/outlaw – educated/uneducated – performer/folk-hero

Themes – 12 pages. The same characters broken down by what theme they represent: respect for the law, ethics, media sensations, etc

Author’s Style – 1 page. A very brief analysis of the authors.

To say that this is fairly unreadable is to understate things tremendously. It does, I suppose, summarize the book well enough, but it boils out anything approaching entertainment value. It’s exceptionally dry and almost entirely devoid of anything which could be termed analysis.


Are You Seeing Me?Are You Seeing Me? by Darren Groth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The tiny nutshell view on this book is that it’s the story of a family trying to find stable emotional ground again after the death of their single-parent father when one member, Perry, the son, is autistic and has to depend on his sister for many of his daily needs. The narrative is constructed from a dual viewpoint so you get half of the story from the daughter’s viewpoint and half from the autistic son’s.

Firstly, this is a YA novel so I give it a different critical eye than I would an adult novel. I ask myself three simple questions. The first of which is: “Is there any reason I wouldn’t want my kids to read this novel?” In that regard, there is a fair amount of profanity but it’s nothing over the top. There is brief mention of sex but nothing graphic. The book is devoid of drug use and has only minimal violence and it’s the sort that kids are exposed to in action movies: car chases and the like. So on that basis I have no negative concerns about the book.

Secondly, I ponder whether there’s anything in the book that would make me WANT my kids to read it. In this case, there are a few positive messages about reconciliation and coping with situations and perhaps understanding a bit more about how the autistic mind operates. These themes don’t leap out and club you over the head but they do represent an example of a family in a tough situation making it through to the other side so children dealing with loss might find it helpful. The book isn’t terribly strong in this regard but its themes are at least present.

Thirdly, and somewhat less importantly, will the kids enjoy reading it? In this case, I’m not really convinced. As an adult I found it interesting from more of an intellectual standpoint, getting inside the head of this autistic child and seeing their family dynamic. Unless the YA in question knows a person in this situation I think it might be difficult to engage their interest completely.

So to the positive, the book is clean and has some weak lessons to teach. I was reasonably entertained and zoomed through this title in a few hours so it’s a quick trip to be sure. The family dynamics are well rendered and the characters vivid (as you’d expect since the author lives with an autistic son).

To the negative, the action does seem to flag about three quarters of the way through as evidenced by my sudden nap at about that point. Also, some of the segments from the autistic son’s point of view leave the reader rather wondering what exactly happened. His perception of events (or retelling of them) is sometimes warped by his autism so some part of the real story is rather unknowable.

In summary, this is a solid afternoon read and safe for the kiddos but it’s not on my “if you only read one book this month” list exactly.


Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Written in the form of a letter from a father to a son, “Between the World and Me” is a detailed crystallization of the state of racism in our country today and its historical roots throughout the entire history of our country.

My normal review format is to prattle on about positive and negative aspects of a book but in this case I think it’s really more important to the potential reader that they understand what exactly it is that they’re getting.

For those who want a light breezy primer on racism… this is not it. This is profound and erudite and is the sort of book you could pick apart sentence by sentence for a year and at the end of that year just shake your head in despair. What Coates has done, like I’ve never seen before, is passionately and profoundly lay out the sad state of race relations in this country. The book reads like a PhD thesis as it patiently and methodically makes its points and then proves them.

The book is also infinitely quotable. I read a few passages aloud to my fiancee and her wide-eyed reaction was to simply mouth the word “wow”. Coates strings words together in a most elegant tapestry that forces the reader to think carefully and internalize the grim realities of life as a victim of racism in this country. Read so that ye may weep and know the truth.

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Book Reviews for the week ending 6/7….

Rather a light week this week, it seems. Do you have a book you’d like reviewed? Email me at slavenrm@gmail.com and let me know what you’ve got.


MORE DROPPINGS FROM THE DRAGON: A Hitchhiker's Guide To SalesMORE DROPPINGS FROM THE DRAGON: A Hitchhiker’s Guide To Sales by Richard Plinke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The nutshell view on this book is that essentially, it is a disconnected series of random conceptual tidbits about the process of being a salesman. No, scratch that, more generally it is about being a human who interacts with other humans and how to do that in such a way that people both respect you and know that they’re being respected in return. It should be noted that your reviewer this evening is a software developer by trade so if there’s one thing we know how to do it’s look down on puny humans. This book completely contradicts all of my time-worn strategies for putting humans in their places and making sure they know exactly how worthless they are to me!

To the positive, this book really does have a great sense of “person.” What do I mean by that? Well, as the reader one can really sense the author’s personality lurking behind the printed page. Mr. Plinke is just the sort of person who #1: would hate being called Mr. Plinke and #2: would be a delight to sit down and have a conversation with. He’s witty, easy-going and filled with lots of introspective insights that would make an evening fly by like a flatulent dragon on a updraft. The book isn’t really all that much about sales; it’s not about ‘closing strategies’ and all that specific rot but really strikes me more as a simple guide to being a professional in human society.

To the negative, I’m not terribly sure that every reader will necessarily fall in line behind my opinion on this topic. The author appealed to me at least somewhat because he unceasingly decided to quote my favorite songs and movies over and over and over again until I was dizzy with the ambrosia of nostalgia. Those who have less of a visceral relationship with Douglas Adams and every Beatles song ever might be left rather wondering who in the heck he’s talking about.

In summary, Plinke has endeavored successfully to both amuse and teach something at the same time. While he’s not going to have any crowd rolling uncontrollably with rather a different color of underwear than they came in with, he does manage quite nicely to give one something to think about as well as keeping things light and entertaining. If the world lived by Plinke’s guidance we’d all be quite a bit happier. And get along a whole lot better as well.


Fortune SmilesFortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is comprised of six very dark but very different stories. The protagonists range from child pornographer to North Korean defector to cancer patients. In each case, the characters are facing some key turning point in their lives, for better or worse.

Years ago Johnson’s previous novel, “The Orphan Master’s Son” son, showed up on my doorstep as an ARC for review
and after reading it I kept the book around when I usually give away my ARCs to other readers. Similarly with “Fortune Smiles” I felt like this book was one to keep on the shelf forever. Johnson’s first three stories are breathtaking and kept me up late to finish them. His characters are so bold and candidly portrayed that you can’t peel your eyes off of them wondering what they’re going to do next. The stories are solid, gripping and original as well as potent and unforgiving in their honesty to the darkness they portray.

To the negative, the last half of the book, while still entertaining, does tend to flag a bit. The stories of North Korean defectors and an ex-warden in an East German political prison camp were certainly timely but failed to hold my attention as keenly. Perhaps I had become accustomed to Johnson’s style again but I didn’t feel quite as pulled along as I did with the first three stories.

In summary, at least in part this series of stories is a masterpiece. It is brutal and deals with people at their absolute basest level. It unapologetically paints portraits that make the reader cringe and yet also nod with some element of recognition.


Small and TallSmall and Tall by Uri Newman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book strikes me as a simple melding of two books I read to my kids when they were younger. It’s the old Muppets big/tall story plus Green Eggs and Ham. I’ll quote one page as illustration:

“I do not need
to be here and there.
I can be
anywhere.
I do not need
to jump on the wall.
I do not need
to do it at all.”

So I suppose that’s potentially interesting to kids but it’s nothing terribly new or original.

Moving on, the illustrations are simple line art and reasonably entertaining but don’t be thinking there’s anything more complex than the cover hiding on the pages in between. Also worth noting, perhaps, that the villain’s face is a dead ringer for Snidely Whiplash

The story illustrates the differences between adults and children. The two characters banter back and forth for 30 pages about which one is best. The man says he’s best because he’s bigger and gets to do things. The child argues that he’s best because he gets to just sit around and play all day. Again, nothing terribly original about that and the characters don’t come to any agreement so much as they agree to disagree.

So all in all, I’m not sure my kids would have been terribly interested but maybe yours would be. The book is free of misspellings and grammar problems so that alone puts it head and shoulders above a lot of free children’s books out there.


Turning BlueTurning Blue by Stuart Canterbury

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The nutshell on this book is, essentially, exactly what you’d expect from the blurb. It’s the day to day grind (no pun intended) of shooting X-rated films. It dives into depths (no pun intended) that you wouldn’t expect and isn’t afraid to expose (ok, pun intended) all the behind the scenes rigmarole that goes into them. It is at times mundane but that’s one thing that makes it so obviously realistic. It’s not all about the Money Shot.

So to the positive, as I’ve noted, it does feel exceptionally real. I’m no fan of this particular genre so I’m not terribly well qualified to say it, but no author would include so much detail that can’t be construed as particularly interesting unless it added quite a bit to the realism of the story. One wonders at times if Canterbury wrote a book or if he just transcribed a series of recordings. Also, the book styles itself as ‘hilarious’ but I’d put it more in the category of ‘quirky.’ At no point did I laugh during the reading of this book but it was filled with quite unusual characters that represented their archetypes very well. It’s quite a varied cast of characters from the oleaginous producer to the high-maintenance stars themselves.

To the negative, for all the realism it’s almost too real. Sure, events transpire in the book but they’re all fairly low-key. Even when the cops bust in or people die it’s somehow a non-event and things just move on rather unaffected. There’s a very non-emotional vibe to the whole thing. It’s as if characters are doing things which should be very charged emotionally and should be important but they’re somehow carried off as irrelevant and no big deal. Come to think of it, that sort of sums up the entire x-rated industry, doesn’t it?

So to summarize, this is a solidly written book with some potential to entertain those who have an interest in this particular segment of the movie industry. Personally I found it a tad flat but if you’re into this sort of thing I can see how you’d really love the behind-the-scenes view on this genre.


Fraternity HouseFraternity House by Arthur Jay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received this book free for review from the author in exchange for an honest review. Despite the privilege of receiving a free book, I’m absolutely candid about it below because I believe authors and readers will benefit most from honest reviews rather than vacuous 5-star reviews.

The nutshell view on this book is that it’s entirely what it claims to be. It covers, in three highly amusing parts, the life of a college Frat brother in the late 70s/early 80s (I’m not sure we’re ever told specifically but this is based on the choice of music in the book). The general structure and organization of the house is laid bare for all to see along with life as a fully-formed brother and as a pledge (or poop).

To the positive side, this book really is entertaining, if you have any interest in such debauchery. It puts forth the good and the bad in somewhat equal measure and doesn’t hold back. It’s candid about alcohol and drug use and hazing and all the sordid details of life in the fraternity. We also get a cringe worthy view of house discipline and initiation rites. The book is broken up into numerous sections of less than 10 pages so you can easily read a bit and come back to it without difficulty. It’s a well-organized book even for someone who’s not an avid reader. It’s very easily digested.

The only real negatives are fairly trivial. Firstly the writing does wobble at times. The text suffers from a few typographical errors and misused words. It’s nothing a fairly gentle editing couldn’t rectify. Secondly, the book ends rather abruptly. I won’t make any attempt to spoil the ending but I did find myself expecting a final reflection on life in a Frat house. Perhaps something with a philosophical bent or some words of advice to future poops. After turning the last page I felt that I’d been pushed off a cliff about 10 pages too early.

In summary, this is a vastly entertaining book and an honest one. There’s no huge crescendo of action but it just very consistently lays down the events as they transpired for all to see. It probably helps that the statute of limitations is long expired on all these shenanigans. A recommended read but you’ll want to ignore some of the textual issues and take it for what it is.

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