Tag Archives: racism

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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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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Strange Fruit by Michelle Janine Robinson

Strange FruitStrange Fruit by Michelle Janine Robinson

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

As usual, I received this book for free. This time, from a LibraryThing Member giveaway. Despite that kindness, I will give my candid opinions below.

To summarize the plot in a nutshell, the world has gone to hell in a handbasket and an American Apartheid has settled over the country. Terrorism and economic devastation reign supreme and a growing group of racial activists are fighting to stem the proverbial tide.

On the positive side, and it’s a slender one, this book had potential for an interesting story of sorts. If properly done, there was some amount of potential for this but absolutely none of that potential was realized.

The negative side is rather a lengthy ledger, sadly. First, one can’t say enough negative about the writing. It seems to be written at about a middle school level. The author writes in a rather redundant and choppy manner with little regard to transition or narrative. The editing is similarly poor. It’s obvious that the spellchecker has been run but little else; words are often transposed, misused, or clumsily chosen.

Leaving the words themselves aside, the author has made the story utterly implausible. Characters seem to shift in personality rapidly and without cause like they all suffer from bipolar disorder. Anyone trying to read the text will be left in a rather fearsome jumble attempting to keep track of the various goings on since the author doesn’t tie things together in anything approaching a connected narrative. The whole thing is rather a mess.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t touch at least briefly on the content. The main premise in this novel is that white conservatives are going to take over the country and reestablish slavery. While I’m the last person to side with white conservatives about anything, it would seem that if a white guy wrote a book with the premise that African Americans are going to take over the country and enslave the whites, it would be classified as hate speech. This book at its heart just seems to inflame racial tensions. Personally, every demographic in this country has problems and every demographic causes problems. We’re all at fault in one way or another for the problems which plague us. Books like this don’t really add constructively to the solution of any of these issues; they just serve to annoy and polarize readers’ thinking.

In summary, poorly written, poorly edited, socially non-constructive. Might have been entertaining if not for all the previous negatives.

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The Bequest of Big Daddy by Jo-Ann Costa – My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Bequest of Big DaddyThe Bequest of Big Daddy by Jo-Ann Costa

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As usual, I didn’t pay anything for this book but instead it arrived happily in my mail because of a GoodReads giveaway. Despite this very kind consideration I give my candid opinions below.

As the book begins we meet Big Daddy, an irascible and taciturn old man who would as soon tell someone to “F*** Off” as look at them. Big Daddy is a beast of a man with a huge progeny because of a life of casual infidelity to every woman he’s ever been with. The balance of the book explains this horrid man’s history and how he got to the man he turned out to be.

On the positive side, Costa gives us in Big Daddy a wonderfully disgusting and controversial character. His opportunism and disregard for anyone but himself is infuriating in many ways but as we are told more of his history we begin to understand why he became the insufferable brute that he is. Clearly Big Daddy was an ass of major proportions but given the situation he was put into by fate, one couldn’t really expect much better. The author gives us a great rendering of a rather hateful character and a delightfully dark history to boot. His supporting cast is also wonderfully vivid with unapologetic portrayals of former slaves in the post-war South.

On the negative, Costa’s writing does sometimes suffer from a few problems with continuity as I found myself flipping back to try to piece together some event that had taken place without any proper introduction. Also, bracketing the narrative of Big Daddy we have the story of Jo-Dee, one of his modern-day descendants who is looking back and getting to know her frightful long-lost ancestor. She makes an appearance narrating the end of Big Daddy’s life in the first chapter and appears again in the last chapter describing her unearthing of family history. Frankly, the beginning and ending chapters detract from the story that one really wants out of this book. They introduce a level of soft and gauzy mysticism and “magic” to the story that makes for a rather unpleasant non sequitur.

In summary, loved the bits of the book centering on Big Daddy but, like a cigar, the whole thing would have been more enjoyable with the end cut off. There’s a seed of a great story here if only one can remove the husk.

PS: It is my endeavor to provide reviews that are succinct, honest, balanced and above all help the potential reader to answer the simple question, “Do I want to read this or not?” Any feedback you can provide about how you feel I have accomplished those goals (or not) is immensely appreciated.

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Test Piece – Eric Frank Russell [1951]

Other Worlds Science Stories – March 1951

Other Worlds Science Stories – March 1951

(Below you will find a summary and my general interpretation of the short story ‘Test Piece’ written by Eric Frank Russell in 1951.  It is one of a multi-part series of posts devoted to the short stories appearing in the 1952 Omnibus of Science Fiction.)

Three hundred years ago, Fraser, a space-scout from Earth, hundreds of light years from his home, came upon a lonely planet named Shaksembender inhabited by a race of humanoids.  Having reached the end of his career he made his final report to Earth and chose to settle there for the rest of his life.  During his twilight years his hosts came to revere him as a God.  By the time of his death there was a shrine in his name and his teachings had become a legacy that remained woven into the culture of the planet.  When Harry Benton and his crew arrived to make official contact with the planet centuries later they had no idea what they were walking into.

Making first contact with a world is never easy but the inhabitants of Shaksembender are downright suspicious.  The delegation from the planet questions Benton and the crew closely but is nevertheless infinitely hospitable.  Before the end of the first day Benton and company have agreed, at the insistence of the Shaksembender delegation, to visit the shrine of Mr. Fraser on the following morning.  As the delegation departs, the crew begins the process of analyzing the meeting.  Their ship is equipped with a device that can read and record the thoughts of everyone on board.  Looking over the logs, they find that Fraser’s legacy is one of intense suspicion towards the people of Earth.  The Shaksembender people have laid a trap for them at the shrine to test just how far the human race has evolved since Fraser left it 300 years ago.  If they arrive at the shrine and are found unworthy, then it’s clear that they’ll never make it back to the ship alive.

The manner of the test is far from foolproof but does create much tension among the crew.  If the crew utters two specific words during their stay on the planet then they are to be branded as heathens and instantly destroyed.  Unfortunately, the thought recorder is unable to determine exactly what these two words are so the next morning a tense crew makes its way to the shrine thinking again and again what those words could possibly be that would spell their demise.  Once they arrive, the delegation from the planet reveals a portrait of Mr. Fraser, a black man with white hair, and many tense minute pass.  Finally, it’s clear that none of the crew has said the words that would spell their doom.  Relieved, the captain pulls the head of the delegation aside to tell him about the thought recorder and determine exactly what the words were that would have destroyed them all.

As it turns out, the two words could not actually be printed in a publication of the time and they will not be printed here.  The text refers to them simply as “two simple words of two syllables each” and I can only assume they refer to one grievous expletive and one derogatory word for a person of African descent.  The crew’s reaction is uplifting as they laugh at the silly “gabbledegook” while their tension wanes.  They all quickly realize that they could never possibly have been caught in the trap since it required the utterance of words they’ve never heard of in their lives.

For a story written in 1951, it really does give one hope that someday we may live in a world where words of such hatred are just gibberish from some by-gone age.  It’s been 60 years since this story was put to paper, but I like to think that every year we’re a bit closer to forgetting such epithets and learning to respect each other as human beings.

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