Tag Archives: language

Reviews: Killing His Fear

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As usual I received this book for free at the hands of the generous author. Also as usual, despite that great kindness, I give my candid opinions below.

On the positive side, the author has a keen grasp of psychopathic behavior and understands well the inner workings of the mind of someone suffering from schizophrenia. The narrative is also reasonably interesting and has a circumspect style told from the viewpoint of both the killer and the police who pursue him.

Sadly, the negatives far outweigh the positives of the storyline. At the simplest level, the grammar and typography is in need of a good, sound editing. Punctuation is misplaced, words are misspelled or misused, and most amusing of all there are two chapter 39s. The whole thing just seems rather slap-dash and it completely ruins the effect of story. Further, the dialog is unrealistic and childlike as characters go through stiff and unrealistic interactions with each other that just don’t sound like natural verbal discourse at all. The author seems to go through phases in which he will use a particular word (one jarring example was the word ‘gonna’ as a form of ‘going to’) 7 times in the space of one and a half pages and then never uses it again in the entire rest of the book. In another case he seems to decide that contractions are bad and just stops using them for several chapters resulting in almost robotic dialog.

In summary, the author knows his subject matter but his mode of connecting the pieces is just a shambles. His strength is portraying the mind of the mentally deranged but anything outside that realm just turns to improbable plot points that come to conclusions that are far too easy and predictable. At the heart of this novel there’s a real talent but it’s buried under rather a dark and murky bushel.

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In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the WoodsIn the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First and as usual, I received this book from a giveaway of some sort. Unfortunately I’m no longer at all sure which one so I can’t give credit where it’s due. Suffice to say, however, that I didn’t pay for it but will nonetheless give my candid opinions below.

Summarizing this novel is approaching impossible because it has only the most tenuous thread of anything real or concrete about it. On the surface, it is the tale of a man and his wife and their life together in the wilderness. They try to have a child but their first born arrives terribly deformed and the man, tasked with disposing of the malformed product of their love, secretly eats the baby. After the first ten pages which I have just summarized, things go on pretty much in this bizarre manner for the rest of the novel.

So to the positive side of things, this book has a terrible and mythological feel to it that fills the reader with something which can be considered to approach awe. Matt Bell pulls no punches and will write just about anything to get his point across. His style is dark, lyrical and deeply satisfying. One reads on and closely for fear that something important might be missed. The story brings to mind ancient religious traditions with turtles piled upon turtles as far as the eye can see or the mind comprehend. This is the mode in which this story unfurls.

To the negative side, all this spun cotton of words, this Gordian knot of a narrative does, have a distinct tendency to make your mind wander and it requires the utmost concentration to follow what’s going on and even after utmost attention there’s no guarantee that you actually understand what is going on. But, that is very much the tendency of the mythological. This book will be 1,000 things to 1,000 readers as they all pick their own thread of truth to pull out of the web of story.

In summary, this is not a book to be taken lightly. Those seeking fluff or mental ease by the pool should run quickly and desperately in the other direction. That said, if you want a tale as complex as a master’s thesis and with a lot to say about relationships, between humans and the world around them then dig in. Merely be warned that 7 readings will reveal 107 meanings.

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Disappearance at Mount Sinai by Jim Musgrave

Disappearance at Mount SinaiDisappearance at Mount Sinai by Jim Musgrave

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As usual, I didn’t pay for this book but it came to me through the grace and generosity of the author. Despite this kind consideration, I share my candid feelings on the book below.

Our protagonist is a Civil War vet turned private detective and he navigates a world filled with deep intrigue and diverse characters. Potential readers are warned that the language in this book could be offensive to some as the book deals very honestly with matters of race and Eugenics in the post-war American South. Personally I find this unsanitized rendering of the time and place to be refreshing but the easily offended should make note before purchasing.

To the positive side of the ledger, Musgrave delves honestly and in detail into the oft-forgotten episode of American history in which it was considered a good idea by many to sanitize the human race of anyone who wasn’t white. Those who point with disgust at 1930s Germany are herein reminded that those Germans didn’t invent anti-semitism and Eugenics. Musgrave displays to us through his work that hatred has much deeper roots. In addition to his larger history lesson, the author provides us with hoards of other amusing historical tidbits and isn’t afraid to sprinkle them liberally throughout the narrative and even takes time to explain them in most cases.

To the negative side, the aforementioned tidbits of history, while informative, can at times seem non sequiturs and can go on for several sentences interrupting the narrative flow. Language too is sometimes a problem as characters of various dialects repeat the same characteristic words or phrases over and over in an exaggerated verbal stereotype of a particular demographic. This can get a bit grating, me boy-o! Lastly, the dialog is at times melodramatic with characters proclaiming that they’ll do “something” if it’s “the last thing they’ll ever do!” or phrase of similar hyperbole. One is reminded rather more of Adam West as Batman than a 19th century private investigator. Luckily these occurrences are fairly rare but when they do occur they do tend to stick out. Holy verbal protuberances, oh faithful readers!

In summary, Sinai is an improvement over Musgrave’s previous work. Like its predecessor, it is firmly rooted in real events and expounds upon them in a logical and believable manner. Musgrave’s work is exceptionally well conceived but simply lacks a bit of editorial spit and polish. The occurrence of typographical problems in this book is also less than its predecessor and I have higher hopes still for the third volume in the series.

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Forevermore by Jim Musgrave

ForevermoreForevermore by Jim Musgrave

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As usual, I received this book because somebody gave it to me for free. In this case, the author approached me directly with a copy of the whole trilogy as one volume. Despite this kind consideration, I give my candid opinions below, as will quickly become self-evident.

Firstly, a few general comments and a readers recommendation. It is suggested that you read this book in the following manner: read the first chapter and allow the oddness of it to roll around in your head for a few moments. Then sally you forth unto Wikipedia and read the real events as recorded by history. Smirk bemusedly at yourself for a few seconds and then continue to read the rest of the novel. Anything less enigmatic than that is left as exercise to the reader.

On the positive side, our author has picked an fascinating episode of history for his target. Saying more than that will spoil the fun but it is my considered opinion that historical fiction is best when it starts out with some reality that is abundantly screwball in its own right and expands upon it in a realistic way. I won’t go so far as to say that this book is a potential truth of the matter, but the thread of the tale has a pleasant glow of vague plausibility to it that fits well with the genre. Furthermore, the book is easy and accessible but still endeavors to expand the reader’s knowledge of history (and vocabulary) without any significant missteps. The author has done his homework, despite what other reviewers may say to the contrary.

On the negative side, the novel does suffer from some fairly significant editorial woes. At times it’s difficult to tell who the narrator of a given passage is and transitions in time and place are sometimes hard to pick up on. The text is rife with historical references but at times so rife that they feel rather forced. I appreciate the author’s research but one doesn’t have to stuff everything he knows about 19th century life into one book. Lastly, during our dramatic climax the book reads more like an Abbott and Costello routine than a serious mystery novel. As a reader I’m happy to accept either but it is generally preferred if the author picks one or the other and sticks with it.

In summary, this is a very well conceived novel but it must be remembered that readers of the mystery genre especially are punctilious beasts that will pick apart every detail of every sentence you write. They have to because they must find the answer before the end arrives. That’s rather the point of reading a mystery novel. So while this novel is generally good, it’s not quite up to the standards of its chosen genre. As a first novel it’s a brilliant initial step though and I look forward to the next two in the series.

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Bootstrapping your way to Polyglot status

When I was a wee lad, many, many, MANY years ago, I found the coolest thing in a local bookstore.  Well, ok, I thought it was the coolest thing in the universe but you’re very likely to think differently.  It was a book, written in French, that taught the reader Arabic.  At the time, it caught my attention for two reasons.  The first is that you don’t really see a lot of Arabic textbooks around.  At least not in 1985 you didn’t and especially not Arabic textbooks written, as this one was, back in the 50s.  For whatever reason, Arabic just wasn’t respected as a language so it was hard to find resources to learn it.  Now, of course, with the recent conflicts in the Middle East, every aspiring private in Signal’s Intelligence is interested in picking up a bit of Arabic or Farsi or whatever happens to be handy.  But back “in the day” as they say, it was rather unheard of.

The second thing that caught my attention was that it was a book, written in a language I don’t know, intended to teach yet another language I don’t know.  Since the first day I laid my monolingual eyes on that book I have been struck by the awesome majesty of the idea that you could learn one language, then use that new language to learn a third and thus reinforce the second.  Proceeding thusly you could daisy-chain your way into the sort of polyglot status one tends to read about in Jane Austen novels.  The world would be your oyster.

One funny thing about reading a lot of 19th century literature as a child is that it gives you a rather warped sense of what’s important.  Again, when I was a wee lad, I read about characters who could converse fluently in English, German, French, Spanish and had a smattering of Portuguese (note the omission of the barbaric Arabic) and I was in awe.  As far as I’m concerned, if I could converse in five languages then little else would matter.  My value system for personal accomplishment is founded in a day long past.  Sure, I can pick apart C++ or C# or even Pascal.  I can go on and on about why JavaScript is the work of Satan.  But I’d trade all that computer programming mumbo-jumbo for a working knowledge of French verb conjugation.

The bitter irony of all this, of course, is that despite a reasonably competent command of the even English language, I’m too fucking shy to talk to 99% of the people in the universe anyway.  So yes, I could put forth a grand effort to learn French and then be even more shy about talking to people in that language.  I would postulate, if placed under close cross-examination, that most of my fascination with language is really just an attempt to overcome the bitter distance I feel separates me from the people I’d really like to be having a conversation with in the first place.  It is a useless attempt to learn my way out of a personality deficiency.  At any rate, that is a grand digression.

Returning to the here and now, my current area of pursuit is German.  My eldest is taking German in high school so it would be a good reinforcement for me to learn along with her or at least be able to encourage her.  To that end I’m piddling along to at least stay abreast of her class.  I’ve got several years of Spanish under my belt, so I’m hoping to refresh that by doing dual “homework” in Spanish and German.  At the least I’ll pick up a few key phrases and make Hogan’s Heroes all the funnier.  Which, if you really think about it, is the only real reason to do anything.  Oh, that Sargent Schulz!

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Understories by Tim Horvath

UnderstoriesUnderstories by Tim Horvath

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book came to be via the Kindle Buffet as I was browsing about for something to read on vacation. Since I actually paid $1.99 for this book for a change, I’m exceptionally motivated to be honest about it.

Generally I like to frame my reviews as positives, negatives and summary. Occasionally, I come upon a book that breaks this mold because I can’t find an appropriate comment for some section. In this case I can’t really find anything negative to say about this book. The author is an obvious talent. He can craft sentences into the most twistedly entertaining prose I’ve seen in a long time. His talent for coining words baffles the dictionary and forces the reader to stop and think about what they’re reading. Horvath’s verbiage is high art.

As accompaniment, his content is delightfully surreal. Through all his stories there is a common thread of “What in the …?” that pleases in the same way that Dali’s melted clocks, though nonsensical on the surface, display a deeper and more significant undercurrent of importance.

In summary, well worth the investment of a few dollars. While the purchase should not be questioned, however, the environment of consumption should be carefully considered. This is not one to be read while the kids play frantically in a maelstrom of manic energy. Understories is best left for a quiet contemplative environment in which it can be completely and fully appreciated. Give this one some space in your brain and you shall not be disappointed.

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Sweet Holy Motherfucking Everloving Delusional Bastard by Jerome Segundo

Sweet Holy Motherfucking Everloving Delusional BastardSweet Holy Motherfucking Everloving Delusional Bastard by Jerome Segundo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As usual, I won this book from the author in what I would categorize as a quasi-GoodReads giveaway. Despite that kind consideration my candid opinions follow.

The story masquerades as a not-so-typical twenty-something memoir; our three protagonists, who could not be any more dissimilar, find themselves in a series of amusing and illuminating situations that reveal much about the mental state of men at this particular time of life.

On the positive side, once the reader is properly engaged with the novel (it did take a while for me to get into the flow of it) the story really is quite difficult to pull away from. While the specific hijinks engaged in are difficult for me to relate to personally, the story really does capture one’s attention. The author’s use of language and wordplay, along with the illustration of the relationship between the three male leads is both amusing and intellectually insightful. The group of three guys makes you rather pine for a trio of strong friends to hang out with (though one could do without the felony convictions). Lastly, the author includes some rather vivid descriptions of sexual encounters which are sprinkled throughout the novel at reasonably appropriate intervals. While I’m not typically one who seeks out such things, Segundo executes these descriptions with a wonderful and evocative realism that is rare in the genre.

The only real negative I would point out in any of this is that the book is so thoroughly provocative that it will be difficult for it to find any market whatsoever. Its title alone assures that it cannot make any uncensored appearance on the New York Times Best Seller List. The book has a lot to say and crystallizes well some key differences between the way genders view the world but sadly the whole thing is stuck behind a title that creates such a visceral reaction in many that the message is lost to the universe as a whole.

In summary, you can’t judge a book by its title. Segundo has delivered entertainment and also a strong sociological point that may sadly never make its way to any sort of popular consumption. The author’s use of language is playful, entertaining and well-executed. Another good book doomed to obscurity by insufficient marketing.

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Drunk Dialing the Divine by Amber Koneval

Drunk Dialing the DivineDrunk Dialing the Divine by Amber Koneval

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before I begin I should say that as usual I received this book via a GoodReads drawing. Despite the kind consideration of receiving a free book my candid thoughts follow.
As further preamble it should be noted that if I’m not really in this book’s target demographic. As a book of Christian poetry it should have little appeal to me since I’m neither religious nor much of a fan of poetry. However, I pride myself on an almost self-destructive open-mindedness when it comes to GoodReads drawings. So, when flipping through the titles the thing that caught my eye and made me request a copy was the title. Just those four little words give one the feeling that the book has an edge to it, that it’s not just an empty, vapid book of praise but offers a bit more.
To my delight, the contents live up to the title. Koneval’s work not only celebrates the God she praises but also dares a bit to question him. Her work has a wonderful edginess and, to put it as simply is possible, is just great poetry. So many times in works of a religious bent, the art is lost under the religion. In this case the author starts out with solid, evocative images and uses them to make her point rather than trying to cram doctrine into free verse.
As illustration, I give you a small sample from page 35, a poem titled “God is a Nutter.” In it she paints us a vivid picture that is sure to hang about in my mind for a while:

Babies born with smiles that gleam
Like bullet casings
Pulling grenade pins
Like they were the strings on balloons

Innocence lost; how could a just and vigilant God let such things come to pass one might say?

In summary, I’m the last person one would expect to appreciate such a work but it’s rather irresistible. Not just a book of Poetry. Not just a Christian book. Surprisingly exceptional.

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Of Spies, Guys and Dainty Pirates

Hard Drive Finger PrintAfter finishing with the scurvy pirates a few days ago I started Sulick’s new book on espionage in America. It seems promising. The introduction informs us that there was no established part of the U.S. Government responsible for counter-espionage until 1939. During times of war, a group of officials was cobbled together to catch spies but when hostilities ceased they were disbanded. This meant that every new outbreak caused the whole department to be recreated from scratch, a very inefficient process. The author goes on to point out that the U.S. has had a rather false sense of security from espionage because of the psychological protection of the yawning oceans that lie between us and our combatants. Add to that the unusual level of personal freedom we enjoy and you get a country very susceptible to spies.

Espionage during the Revolutionary War was rife because, honestly, not everybody agreed with the idea of revolt in the first place. The first convicted spy against the U.S. was Dr. Benjamin Church, a well respected physician and member of the inner circle of the revolutionaries. Even as a surgeon his earnings were a paltry $4 a day but no one found it surprising when he suddenly started living a lavish lifestyle well above his means. He was considered above suspicion until a coded letter to his handlers was intercepted (he had entrusted it to one of his mistresses for delivery) and decoded. When confronted he claimed to be just pulling the legs of the British but was still found guilty. Unfortunately for the revolutionaries there was no law for espionage so there was some legal problem with what exactly to DO with the guy. He was eventually imprisoned and sent to the West Indies.

In the fictional realm, I highly recommend Bernay’s The Man on the Third Floor. Our protagonist is a gay book editor in the 1930s with a wife and family. His male lover lives on the third floor and acts as chauffeur. I think I need say no more.

Finally, a short dangling participle from the land of Pringle’s Pirates. In 1720 a group of pirates was captured, convicted and sentenced to death by hanging (and maybe some drawing and quartering after that). Two of the pirates stepped forward and declared that they could not be executed with the phrase: “We plead our bellies!” Pregnant women could not be executed and Anne Bonny and Mary Read had lived among the pirates and some of the pirate’s kind attentions had taken root. There is some speculation that the entire story may be apocryphal but also a fair amount that it is true and that the women were smuggled aboard as “wives” for two of the male pirates. Unfortunately, privacy is pretty hard to come by on a pirate ship. Once the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, the cat was shared amongst the crew.

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Books for the second week of November

CaptainCaptain by Thomas Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As I almost always say at the beginning of every review, I received this book as part of a GoodReads drawing. Despite that kind consideration I will provide my utterly candid opinion below.

Many other reviewers have pointed out the dramatic aspects of this novel and I won’t disagree with them. The story runs along the typical line of air disaster movies that were so popular in the 70’s and 80’s and is a reasonable example of such. The standard ‘plot complications’ that arise in the story are reasonably novel and one does feel educationally edified by the end of things. Block’s work grabs the attention and then holds on to it rather fitfully for what seems like a very long time. “Captain” is a standard pulp airline suspense novel.

At its heart the story has a good idea but at times the rendering is shaky. The text could use extensive editing and part of the reader’s soul dies each time the author uses the phrase “can’t hardly”, drops one of several unnecessary profanities or uses the same trite phrase four times in the span of two pages of text. Block’s rendering of the technical aspects of flying are wonderfully credible and solid but once he wanders outside his realm of immediate knowledge things seem to come apart. The interactions between characters range from maudlin to plastic and fail to sound the ring of truth in the reader’s ear. Block also has a tendency to use rather obsolete terminology and wording that made me check repeatedly that the novel wasn’t actually a reprint of one written 20 years ago. The pervasive use of the term “internet message” over the more common term “email” was especially distracting.

From a content perspective, it’s clear Block knows his way around a plane but it’s equally clear that he has a bone to pick with the manner in which the airline industry has evolved over the past few decades. I’m certainly in no position to make any value judgement on whether those changes are good or bad but it is evident what Block’s opinion is. He spends considerable effort painting the old school pilots as heroes who get their jobs done despite the utter incompetence of their higher-ups. This results in some befuddlingly implausible situations that dilute Block’s obvious knowledge of piloting an aircraft.

In summary, “Captain” does offer us a dramatic insight into the world of a commercial airline pilot. Unfortunately, some of the points of execution are firing rather amiss and the result is a novel that is obviously written by an airline pilot and not by a professional writer. There is much merit to be sure but this one needs quite a bit of additional polish to make it a quality novel.

Dictionary Of Omens And SuperstitionsDictionary Of Omens And Superstitions by Philippa Waring
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For once this book has nothing to do with a GoodReads giveaway. It is merely a random book picked up from the ether. It’s worth noting that I started this one with the intent of reading it straight through. This is fairly unusual for a reference book but since I have recently instituted a policy of reading three books at a time it made some amount of sense. One book in the current reading pile, according to the new scheme, should be easily consumable in tiny interruptable bits. This was that book.

As a book to be read straight through this is fairly unacceptable. It’s redundant, unentertaining and pretty poorly organized. To this my diligent reader may say, simply, “duh, it’s a dictionary” but it goes beyond that. When I was a child I read the dictionary and it’s not all that terrible. There is, at least, a sense of variety. Waring’s definitions all have an infuriating sameness to them that makes one grit ones teeth and turn the page with increasing hopeful vigor as time goes on.

However, as a reference work it has its shortcomings as well. Since I’ve read through the first third of the book in its entirety I can tell you that it is, at times, inappropriately self-referential. If one is going to be using a book by randomly hopping into the middle bits looking up superstitions related to the word “badger” then phrases like “as stated earlier” and “as we said before” are rather nonsensical. It seems clear the book was written in some sort of order which doesn’t match up well with the order of use. There is also a problem with organization in that some entries are not sufficiently self-referential. Terms which are typically considered synonymous bear strikingly different information and do NOT refer to each other in any way. So the results of any reference depend at least in part on luck and choosing the exact right word. Lastly, the book is terribly dated. Despite its publication date in 1997, most of the entries appear to date from the 70s.

In summary, this book is going on my shelf for later reference but I’ll remember the lack of organization and work a bit harder at using it when its use is required. Not the best dictionary ever but better than nothing.

100 Diagrams That Changed the World: From the Earliest Cave Paintings to the Innovation of the iPod100 Diagrams That Changed the World: From the Earliest Cave Paintings to the Innovation of the iPod by Scott Christianson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As is the usual preamble, I received this book as part of a GoodReads giveaway.

For most purposes this rather brief tome is serviceable as a coffee table book. Each entry is given one page devoted to the diagram with a half page of text to describe it. In general the author does a good job of choosing his topics and while most are already familiar to any individual of average erudition there are some new tidbits to be gleaned. As a book to be read from cover to cover it does become somewhat daunting because the author’s text is often very brief and very high level and one can never quite settle into any particular topic before being shuffled off rather quickly to the next. The chronological ordering of the book is exactly what one would wish for in such a work and the full breadth of history has considered.

On the constructive side of my observations it seems evident that the author had some difficulty coming around to 100 ‘diagrams’ for inclusion. Many of the entries can only marginally be called diagrams at all (or the diagrams are really only secondary to the significance of the achievement being documented) while others are of dubious significance to begin with. The idea that a sketch for the iPod should appear in a book alongside Copernicus and da Vinci is, in this reviewer’s opinion, an affront to any reasonable view on how we could what is significant and what is not in the grand scale of history. Lastly in this vein the text at times seems rushed and perhaps suffers from over-editing. The chosen textual format is so short that no real background can be properly conveyed and the reader suffers a bit from whiplash.

In summary, this book would make a reasonable addition to the coffee table but cannot be considered for any serious reading. It would have been better served as a book containing half as many diagrams but with much expanded text.

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