Tag Archives: 4-star reviews

Book Reviews: Married to the Military by Terry L. Rollins

As is so often the case I received this book from the author in exchange for a review. Despite that immense kindness I give my candid thoughts below.

The book is a collection of easily digested vignettes featuring, unsurprisingly, the wives of those who serve our country every single day. Topics range from the joys of birth to the tragedy of death. Pretty much exactly what you would expect given the title.

On the positive side, the book certainly does tug at your heartstrings. Though fictional, I suspect that much of what is written here is pulled directly or at least adapted from real life. The sacrifices that these women make every single day is not to be dismissed or forgotten and Rollins portrays their struggles in an emotional style that makes it simultaneously easy to read and hard to forget.

To the negative, it is worth mentioning that the book is written from a heavily female point of view which makes it a sure winner with wives and mothers everywhere. That said, the male gender may have a bit of trouble empathizing because of this. That’s not to say that it’s impossible but potential gift givers should be aware of this possibility. Also, I found myself disappointed that the author had to ‘create’ these women rather than drawing more biographically on actual wives in the military. While I’m certain that the women in the stories represent their demographic wonderfully, something is always lost from the fictionalization of a story that could be just as well done and probably contain much of the same content when you can say that this person actually does exist. Readers love to imagine that the characters they’re reading about are real people and this book just barely misses that mark.

In summary, this book is an obvious choice for any woman and particularly one who has some connection with the U.S. military or, honestly, any military in the world. Men will have less of a connection to it but it might help them see more clearly just what the struggles are that their wives go through every day.

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Movie Reviews: The Grand Budapest Hotel (****)

Laura and I marched off to see this movie after seeing previews for several weeks. Are we glad we did? Oooh, mostly, though it put Laura to sleep and I was very yawnful at various points.

I won’t summarize the plot for you because that’s what the description is for but the feel of the movie was very French to me with a bit of 70s criminal comedic espionage movie. Imagine the Pink Panther movies, I guess. The movie is a first person narrative in which the characters speak to you directly throughout the action much like Amélie, one of my own personal favorites.

To the positive the movie was delightfully photographed. The scenes are artistic and well-composed and, as I said, felt very European. The plot is wacky and madcap and isn’t laugh-aloud funny but instead cute and whimsical. That said, it’s not really a comedy as it has a deep undercurrent of tragedy that overtakes the whole thing in the end.

On the negative side, when asked closely if she was glad we picked it, she was mildly non-committal since, as I noted above, she did fall asleep during the movie. It is visually stimulating but doesn’t really grab the viewer’s interest. Other reviewers hold differing opinions as aficionados of the cinema but as a plebe it just didn’t quite get my complete attention.

In summary, we were the youngest people in the theatre at 45 with the majority of the other viewers ranging into their 50s and 60s. They seemed at least moderately amused and there wasn’t a great deal of snoring (not even from Laura) but I didn’t hear any applauding after the movie either.

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Loving Spoonfuls – Cooking with Grandmas (4/5)

I picked this title because it looked lonely in Amazon Instant Watch and needed a review. I’m vaguely glad I did but it wasn’t at all what I expected.

So to begin with let’s talk about what this is. Based on the description and the logo and the descriptions I expected some sort of a sit com but in fact it is a very bare-bones cooking show. Each week the host goes into the home of a grandma and they cook a meal together. All the grandmas come from well-known cultural group so there’s a Chinese grandma and a German grandma and a Southern U.S. grandma. All very diverse. Usually this is where I go into positives and negatives but that wouldn’t really help here. Instead a few random observations.

This isn’t really a recipe-driven cooking show. The recipe is generally, as with all the grandmas I’ve ever known, a bit of this and a bit of that. If you ask, “How much water did you put in?” the answer is likely to be “As much as it takes!” as if that’s the most obvious thing in the world.

The feel of this show is VERY unrehearsed, almost on the edge of unprepared. It is as honest a view of people as you can be expected to get on television. Sometimes the grandma’s are shy. Sometimes they’re visibly annoyed. Sometimes they’re flirty. This is a lot of honest-to-goodness grandma.

For the most part the host is respectful but can at times be mildly mocking and poking fun at his guests. I wasn’t terribly amused by this but he does work pretty hard at being funny.

So, in summary, if you want a cooking show with all the quiet ease of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood or are just nostalgic for your own grandma, this is a good choice. Not really likely you’ll learn a ton of detailed cooking techniques but as with any grandma encounter, that’s hardly really the point.


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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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Of Ink, Wit, and Intrigue – Samuel Pepys meets Dorian Gray (4/5)

As usual I paid nothing for this book but instead received it for free in exchange for a review. This time it was from NetGalley. Despite that repeated and wonderful kindness, I give my scrupulously honest opinions below.

This book is, to put it loosely, a bit of an outlier in the modern literary world. It’s set in mid-1600 England and is the fictionalized life of John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester. It’s written in a diary format so the whole thing reminds me very strongly of a cross between The Diary of Samuel Pepys (who makes a brief cameo appearance) and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

To the positive, this is a unique and richly rendered exhibit of life during these times. The reader is treated to all the usual plagues and illnesses and their accompanying treatments as well as all the common entertainments of the day. As a work of crystallized history it is a wonder. The main character is also delightfully scandalous and easily and promptly disliked by the reader. This is a rich and very detailed verbal tapestry.

Unfortunately, to the negative, it comes across at times as almost impenetrably dense and shares many of the negative attributes one can ascribe to Pepy’s diary. It’s an abundantly curious historical artifact but it hardly makes for popular reading.

To summarize, this is a book that for some will be a miracle. It is that detailed historical period novel that you’ve always wanted that grinds all the way down to the daily choice of ‘vittles’ as the protagonist puts it. If, however, you are not prepared for what is at times a laborious grind of a read, then there are better choices. Only you can judge whether you prefer your history entertaining or overflowing with detail. Unfortunately it does not seem possible that both can occur simultaneously.


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Where were you? Events that Changed the World – Very easily digested tidbits from history (4/5)

I picked this particular bit of video because it looked lonely on Amazon Instant watch and in need of a review. Am I glad I did? Yeah, mostly.

This short-lived series is a collection of mini-documentaries covering momentous events in world history from 1945 through 2004. Each event gets 24 minutes of coverage that runs something along the lines of a 4-minute introduction to the event, then 20 minutes in which the history is put into historical context. So for the moon landings we start out in the 60s for the intro, then we go back 100 years to the pioneers of rocketry and then work our way back up to the 60s again.

On the positive side, the episodes assume you know absolutely nothing about the event in question. They start from the basics of “This is the moon” and work you quickly back up to the importance of the event in question. I’m also impressed that the series does not take an America-centric view on history. It does have a preference for the Western Hemisphere but every continent at least gets a mention in some episode.

To the negative side, the production value of some of these episodes is atrocious. The incidental music sounds like something from a royalty-free website of music clips. It’s distractingly bad most of the time and almost worth muting the TV and turning on captions. (Sadly there are no captions) Further, the video is all period footage which is to be expected but something has happened in the translation that introduces very tight waves that creep in and out of the playback. Lastly, the introductory vignettes and the bumper graphics between commercials all seem to have been left in. So in any one episode you see the same video of a dirigible about 10 times.

In summary, these are neat and easily digested tidbits of history if you can put up with the production problems. Probably something to show the kids so they know what in the world grandma and grandpa are talking about when they go on about World War II or the JFK assassination.


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Dead Americans and Other Stories – Infinitely creative to be sure (4/5)

As usual I received this book for free in exchange for a review. Also as usual I give my scrupulously honest opinions in spite of NetGalley’s generosity of providing a free copy.

This really is a tale of two books. About 60% of the content of this book revolves around what I could only succinctly describe as alternative history. Familiar names like John Wayne, Orson Welles, Mark Twain and others all do things that seem reasonably within their respective characters but most assuredly did NOT actually happen and at times perform perplexing anachronisms. The remaining 40% of the book is a series of related tales centered on a fictional world in which the dead are sold for parts and many have their life histories tattooed upon their bodies. Personally I’m a fan of the latter practice and may soon enact it myself but that’s irrelevant to any qualitative statement about the book.

On the positive side, the author has a tenacious talent for the bizarre. All of his stories have a quality of perplexity that is rare to find in any author. In the portion of the book that I describe as the “dead are sold for parts” there is a particularly strong thread of continuity and I’d like to see that milieu expanded into a novel or even a series of them. This is a delicious and darkly foreboding place that one would giddily and guiltily visit time and again in the written page but never likely admit to anyone for fear that you just couldn’t do it justice in describing it.

To the negative, the portion of the book that I describe as alternative history left me rather disappointed. Perhaps it’s my own idiosyncrasy but I was far too distracted trying to unravel the reality of Twain and the others from the fiction that was woven around them. This is a perpetual weakness of the alternative history genre in my mind and one this book just didn’t manage to properly address.

In summary, the author is a grand talent but I think the book focuses on the wrong thing. The very cover emphasizes the wrong part of the book. I acknowledge fully the author’s talent but I think that, as the saying goes, his light is hidden under a bushel and that the real meat of this book lies in the middle and is filled with unfamiliar and notably unAmerican names.


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Eternal Redemption (novella) – Amusing and allegorical (4/5)

As usual, this book came to me free in exchange for a review. Also as usual, my scrupulously honest opinions follow in spite of the kindness of receiving a free copy of the book.

In a nutshell, this novella is a standard Faustian tale in which our protagonist regrets the bargain he made centuries ago. The story is amusing because the author has chosen a familiar and popular premise. One can almost never lose when the devil appears in your book. The one twist we see is that we view the story from the perspective of the aftermath of the bargain rather than the time which led up to it.

The writing style of this book is rather perplexing. Within the first 5 pages, the narrator speaks much like a man would who has had the benefit of centuries to hone his mode of speech. His erudition is vastly conspicuous and his sentences ramble on interminably as if the utterer had nothing better to do for several more centuries. Personally I found the effect to be most literary and refreshing but after that brief introduction the text settles down into something quite pedestrian. To illustrate this point, from page 1:

“An ill mind acts in accordance with its forsaken nature, but is inhibited from the capacity to predict the long-term effects of an erred volition.”

Then about half-way through the story:

“He stepped into the cavern and waited, half expecting a booby trap to seal the portal shut behind him.”

This is not to say that one is qualitatively inferior to the other, but merely to point out that there is a wide swing in tone from the beginning to the end. So if you’re reading a sample that includes page 1 and don’t understand a word of it, fear not. It does come back down to Earth. Personally I would have preferred it had stayed in its lofty prolixity but if that were the case then I am confident that I really would be the only one who wanted to read it.

Moving beyond the writing itself, the story, while entertaining, seems to lack subtlety. I judge much about the quality of a book based on the images which come unbidden to mind as I read the text. In this case the images were those you might see in a graphic novel. The plot raced along but seemed to lack details and artistry. That is no doubt because the author’s real intent is more allegorical than descriptive, but that theme didn’t seem sufficiently strong to distract me from the rather surface treatment of the action.

In summary, it’s a worthwhile buy at its current price point but I think that the writing style within the first 5 pages caused my own expectations to ascend to unattainable heights. This novella is a unique blend between descriptive action and poignant allegory but I’m not sure it has attained exactly the right blend between the two. It definitely spurs further interest in the author and I am anxious to see what else he may produce in the future.


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Friend Me – A book you might soon see in a theatre (4/5)

Firstly, and as is usually the case, I must provide a disclaimer that I didn’t really buy this book. Instead, I received it directly from the author who just happens to sit a scant 10 feet from me at work each day. Despite this kind consideration, and the fact that anything I say might cause my cubicle to be set aflame before I arrive at work tomorrow, I will review this title with absolute candor. Anything less would be a violation of my personal integrity, which is worth more than a few flaming cubicles. It also bears revelation that this novel is fairly rife with Christian themes and while I am an upstanding and sometimes outspoken “secularist” I will in no way hold that fundamental disagreement against the book, even at the risk of a burning bush appearing to accompany the ashes of my office chair.

Also as usual, I begin with the positive. When the author described the premise of this novel to me months ago I was mightily impressed with the novelty of the overarching story-line. Faubion’s central idea in this novel, social networking run amok, is not only original but timely and at its kernel, very believable. John also has a way of describing tense scenes with great vividity that pulls the reader along quite against their will. It was an act of willpower to put the book down at times and only the threat of having the author beat me into the office the next morning was sufficient to get me to go to bed at a reasonable hour. Touching briefly on the religious aspects of the novel, Faubion’s characters are clearly Christian and they’re not afraid to show it. Despite that, their appearance in the novel is at no time preachy or obtrusive even to one who isn’t exactly in the book’s target demographic.

Moving to the negative side of the review, while the main theme was strong, much of the small-scale execution left me scratching my head. The characters seem to flit into and out of situations with little regard for reality. The whole narrative seems rather whitewashed and devoid of any real detail about what’s going on. In general, and as you will no doubt notice from my other reviews, I am a fairly punctilious reader and lack of detail is a serious bother to me in this book. At many points, particularly the last third, the novel seemed rushed and more like a hurried summary of events than a meticulously planned out work of literature.

In summary, this book revolves around a truly inspired premise but seems to fail in the details. What it lacks in literary merits it makes up for in concept. This reads like a screenplay or movie novelization and I fully expect to see this adapted to the screen, perhaps with Tom Cruise playing the role of the author.


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You’re in Charge – Probable Cult Classic (4/5)

I picked this movie just because it seemed lonely on Amazon Instant Watch and I’m glad I did because this could be the next Officespace or Napoleon Dynamite.

If I were to sum up this movie…. it would be fairly impossible. It’s a multi-threaded tale that includes, among other things:

* A gritty, sloppy home-birth with multiple husband slaps

* An ex-con who fancies himself a doctor of holistic medicine

* A manic gardener who has plans for a placenta

* A mumbling creole home remodeling company

As if all these basic themes aren’t enough, the movie is infinitely quotable.

* “People are like teabags. You never know how strong they are until you put them into hot water”

* “So, you’re asking me to fire myself?”

* “We need ebola; we need the plague, that’s how viral we have to go right now”

* “You had the baby! Would you put the gun down?!!?”

In summary, Amazon calls this a comedy and I can’t really categorize it any other way, but I’d add the word “quirky”. It’s not the sort of film that makes you laugh out loud so much as it makes you say, “um, wow.” after it’s over. This is one that’s probably funnier the second time through. And the third. And the fourth. Ad infinitum.


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