Tag Archives: 3-star reviews

Reviews: Smartbrain (Penchant Series Book 1) by G. F. Smith

51a-zv-JbCL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_As is often the case, I received this book for the purposes of review. Despite that immense kindness, I give my candid thoughts below.

The summary on this one is tough because it evolves quite a bit as it goes on. It starts out mildly creepy techno thriller and ends somewhere completely different with all manner of action bits. I won’t give you much more detail than that to avoid spoilers.

So to the positive, our author is a reasonably good writer. His prose is measured, well constructed and easily consumed. His characters are real and vividly described and you do begin to feel for them. Mr. Smith’s creativity is also obvious as he puts his characters through a dizzying gauntlet of situations and one is left with a sort of whiplash once all is revealed.

The negatives, however, left me gasping in annoyance at the end. This book is exceptionally long and not because of the complexity of what’s going on. His description of events and situations is almost Dickensian in scope but with none of the quaintness of the old classics. One eventually has to skim in self-defense and at the end of a couple pages finds that nothing much has really been missed. Further, the book changes gears dramatically at 37% through (based on my Kindle’s reckoning) and it takes a long time to figure out what’s real and what’s not. This is, I suspect, part of the author’s intent, to keep us a bit confused as readers, but it’s a major distraction in a book that has a lot of difficulty holding the attention of its reader.

Further, some of the book’s most obvious points are in need of a close examination. The cover alone made me fear for the quality of the book and it took considerable reading time to assuage those fears. Unfortunately, the author’s choice of proper nouns is overly simplistic and almost young adult so they add a major distraction. The name of the device, for example: Smartbrain seems like something from a 60s B-movie. Add to that names like Vectren, Athena and ‘Brain Computer Interface’ and the tone of the whole book seems to be in a bit of conflict about whether it’s trying to be mid-20th century or more modern.

In summary, I think the author has a solid foundation for this story but it just tries to go too many places at once and takes far too long to get there. I packaged away my incredulity during the first third of book only to have it all spill out repeatedly in the last two-thirds and have to be packed away again. As much story as actually resides between these pages it could be half the length and cause me much less impulse to sigh, “What? You mean there’s MORE!?!??!” and consider hurling my Kindle across the room and taking a belt of whiskey. To quote Emperor Joseph II, there are simply too many notes… or something along those lines.

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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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Book Reviews: American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning by Kate Sweeney (***)

Every once in a while I actually pay money for a book and in this case I rather wish I hadn’t. Usually I go into a “positives vs negatives” analysis on books but in this case I think I’ll opt for more of a “this is what this book is” concept.

Firstly, what I expected was hard non-fiction. I wanted a tightly-connected book that described the history of funeral practices in some level of detail. Instead what this book gives you is a rather loose cobbling together of a few historical tidbits and a surprising amount of memoir. Imagine something of the form, “roadside memorials have become increasingly popular; Steve built a roadside memorial in 1976 when his wife died in a terrible accident. She was blonde-haired and blue-eyed and stood 5’8 with a wispy figure and a penchant for pancakes that would make any man weak in the knees.” OK, I’m making all that up but that’s the general form we’re talking about. The book seems to be about 15% history, 15% current day practices and 70% personal anecdote from the author’s time writing the book. It’s well-written certainly and entertaining in some ways but it’s completely not what I expected when I plunked hit the ‘buy’ button.

The second important thing to know is that the book is not really terribly historical. The first chapter talks about funeral practices of days gone by from hair jewelry to cooling boards but the second chapter is about memorial tattoos and from there we’re very much stuck in the present day. So this is a book about TODAY and only remotely historical.

In summary, it’s entirely possible that you’ll love this book. The author is a good writer and entertaining in a certain sense of the word but you should not buy this book with the idea that it’s going to teach you much about the history of the mourning process. It contains a plethora of anecdotes both relevant and not; some entertaining and some not but if you, like I was, are just looking for an exploration of the morbid history of how we deal with those most final of destinations…. this isn’t that book. Mary Roach’s “Stiff” is probably more your cup of tea.

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Book Reviews: Dead of July (***)

As is usual, I received this book from the author in exchange for a review. Despite that kindness I give my absolutely candid opinions below.

The high-level summary of this book is pretty straightforward. Our main character finds herself in a new city and almost immediately embroiled in trouble just because she tried to help out a child in need. What ensues is a mixture of violence, suspense and the paranormal.

On the positive side, our author has taken great and obvious care with her work. Seldom has an independently published novel come across my desk that is so well edited and free of grammatical and spelling problems. Thompson also has a knack for creating characters that pop with realism; these are the sort of folks I’d like to invite out for a drink sometime. They are candid, real and well-formed almost as if the author knows them in real life. I also enjoyed the way the author wove the supernatural and mundane aspects of the world together. Yes, our protagonist has contact with the spirit world but it’s not the center of the story but put forth as a sometimes casual aside. This attitude lends a great deal of believability to the supernatural aspects of the story.

To the negative, I asked the author specifically what genre she was targeting because at times the book seems to drift between suspense and memoir. She replied that it was intended to be suspense and that didn’t surprise me but it did reveal that she has a fairly steep hill to climb from a writing standpoint. The novel is written in the first person and includes a wealth of very specific anecdotes that in no way add to the suspenseful aspects of the novel. That, coupled with the first-person point of view, tends to squash any attempts at really building tension from one page to the next. We know a lot about the character and we can relate to her. She’s very real to the raeder but it’s hard to build much suspense when the protagonist seems to spend so much time doing unrelated unsuspenseful things.

In summary, I like what the author’s done with this book and it has great potential but it does need some tightening up. As a reader we can see the action very vividly but the story does seem to lack the dark and grimy aspects necessary for a true suspense novel. I’d suggest that potential readers perhaps bookmark this author and wait for future installments when she has had a bit more of a chance to perfect her craft as I am confident she will. You may not be on the edge of your seat with this novel but you may well be with the next one.

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Book Reviews: The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne (***)

Click to Visit on Amazon

Click to Visit on Amazon

As usual I received this book for free in exchange for a review. This time from LibraryThing. Also as usual I provide my scrupulously honest feedback below.

The story runs basically along the lines of the standard ne’er-do-well gambler who runs afoul of not only the law but also the laws of probability until one day… he doesn’t. That’s really all you need to know and probably exactly what you expected.

On the positive side of things, the setting for this novel is fascinating and that fact alone is what kept me reading. The multitude of cultural differences in the East and Macau specifically make for an entertaining backdrop if you’re a xenophile who just likes to see how other people live and think. It seems evident that the author has spent no small amount of time in this region and has gotten to know the natives as well as they know themselves. I believe this is what the more professional reviews tend to refer to as ‘atmospheric’. It was that and it’s a good thing because there wasn’t much else to keep me interested.

To the negative, there just isn’t … anything. To speak bluntly, things happen to this gent but at no point am I at all sure why I should care. He’s neither sympathetic nor sufficiently odious to inspire any real opinion one way or another. The description refers to this book as “suspenseful” and somehow a “ghost story” but don’t believe a word of it. Through the book there’s a passing reference to spirits in two sentences out of the entire text. Even then it’s just passed off as the superstition of the natives and quickly dropped. I just don’t see how this book lives up to its description.

In summary, normally I blast through a book this size in a night but in this case it stretched on for a week because I kept finding reasons not to go back to it. This one drags on abominably and resides on the fetid fringes of not even worth finishing. If you’re really into Eastern culture or love baccarat specifically, this will have some appeal. The rest of you should just move on to something else. An interesting cultural peepshow but not what the majority of the world is going to consider worthwhile.

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The evening in movies… a selection of documentaries

This evening I took a little tour, as I often do, of the newly released movies on Amazon Instant Watch. This time the new material included quite a few documentaries. I sum them up here for your perusal.



Baghdad Taxi (4/5)
As is usual, I picked this movie because it looked rather lonely and unreviewed on Amazon Instant Watch. Am I glad I did? Yes, but the whole thing makes me rather sad.

Firstly, if you are a conservative who believes that by going into Iraq that we “did them a favor” or somehow improved their lot in life then you need to look for another movie. This film is very much centered around the everyday Iraqi and the everyday Iraqi… is not happy about our presence in the region.

The overwhelming sense I got from this film was that this taxi driver could be taxi driver anywhere. Sure, he drove past lots of dunes and mosques but those could have easily been mountains and grain silos. As much as we want to assert our American uniqueness, we’re really not all that different. Forgive me if my liberal viewpoints are showing but no matter where you go in the world we’re not all that different. The only way you can tell one region of the world from another is that sometimes the green rectagonal highway signs are in Arabic.

You will no doubt get something different from this film but the grand takeaway for me is that go wherever you will in the world, people are people. The reactions of people in the street in Iraq after being invaded are no different from those in Atlanta, Georgia. Neglecting the difference in language they say the exact same things and ultimately all they want is to have their country back. It’s an enlightening illustration of the human species.



Ukranian Brides (4/5)
I picked this movie because it was very newly released and looked lonely on Amazon Instant Watch. Am I glad I did? Yeah, really I am.

So when I started this movie I expected the standard cliches: Creepy desperate dudes seeking desperate women for love and marriage. That’s not exactly what I got. Yes, there were creepy dudes who were well past their prime. And yes, they were looking for atrociously young Eastern Block women to get married to. The women though… they were surprisingly cagey and knew what they wanted and weren’t afraid to say, “um, no. Go away” despite the fact that they might be going home to a cardboard box.

On the positives and negatives of the film, this was a really revealing portrait of the way guys think. The beginning is classic male-human thinking. They’re all sitting around a big notebook full of women and just picking based on appearance alone. That is *SO* Homo Sapien male that it’s not even funny. This movie has a lot of hidden truths to reveal about the way both women and men think about relationships. The other interesting thing to watch out for is the hidden expressions of the women involved. One minute they’re bright, happy, engaged and the next their faces reveal utter and complete boredom and disinterest as if they’d rather be anywhere else.

To the negative, the one thing that stands out for me is the lack of a final status update on the couples involved. The summary says that there are three couples but really for most of the video it’s two guys who are out to find wives. I won’t spoil anything for you but at the end things… wrap up … but there’s no final statement of “3 years later they were all hit by an asteroid” or whatever to let you know how these couples worked things out or didn’t. It’s rather a letdown because now I’ll never know.

In summary, this is a good movie to watch with a significant other and one that will cause endless conversation. It’s not quite everything you could want in such a film but it is brief, to the point and does reveal quite a bit about the way men and women approach long-term relationships.



Muti Murders (3/5)
I picked this title only because it looked lonely on Amazon Instant Watch and in need of a review. Am I glad I did? Not especially.

The nutshell view of this is that it’s a documentary covering Muti murders, a ritualistic African practice of human sacrifice in an attempt to appease the Gods or the tribal ancestors. The movie covers an intriguing topic but it is incredibly graphic. If you watch this, you will see photos of children who have been beheaded and their heads will be right next to the body staring back at you. This is not a movie for the timid.

To the positive, this movie covers an important topic. This is serious business and several murders of this sort happen every month. It’s a real problem and it can be hoped that by exposing them through this movie we can contribute to putting a stop to the practice.

On the negative side, as I said, the whole thing is periodically very, VERY graphic. If that’s what you’re looking for then I guess you’ve found it. Also, vastly secondary to the disembodied heads on display, the documentary seems rather over-produced with lots of rather vapid transitions and spooky bumper music. It’s somewhat distracting at the least.

In summary…. yeah, I said it all above. An important message but one that turns the viewer’s stomach.


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Edited to Death – Good to see NPR-listeners in a book but not a great plot (3/5)

Firstly and as usual I received this book for free in exchange for a review, this time via a LibraryThing giveaway. Also as usual I give my candid opinions below.

The book centers around a professional writer-cum-sleuth who gets involved in the murder investigation of her editor and close friend. The novel is set in the San Francisco bay area and the characters are very liberal; they listen to NPR, have wine with dinner and enjoy a very socially and culturally diverse group of friends. To me this was joyful and refreshing to see in a novel but if you dislike those who practice what is generally termed an “alternative lifestyle” then you will want to look towards another book.

To the positive side, I quite enjoyed the writer’s depiction of the area and the people in it. It’s obvious that she’s spent some time there and she makes the place sound like an idyllic retirement locale if I should ever be so lucky. Her characters are vividly drawn, diverse and behave in self-consistent and colorful ways that makes them seem like old familiar friends that you’d really want to hang out with. As one who conveys people and place this author is top-shelf.

To the negative, the plot seemed rather flat and trite. I kept reading for the people but the plot seemed like one that has been played out a hundred times in a hundred books. There’s nothing particularly innovative about the story except that it’s been shifted to an unusual demographic. I religiously avoid spoilers so I can’t say much more, especially considering this is in the mystery genre, but at the end I felt like I’d read the script for an episode of CSI.

In summary, I love the writing and I love the locale but the story struck me as rather a non-event. I look forward to more from this author if it should happen to show up on my doorstep.


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