Tag Archives: reading

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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On Tom Sawyer and Reading in General

Good Tom? Evil Tom?

Alright, I give up. You’ve doubtless watched me burble on endlessly for quite a while with my book reviews and after handing out far too many 2 and 3-star reviews I have to admit that I’m done. I’m cooked. I’m out. I’ve shuffled off the mortal coil and joined the choir invisible when it comes to Amazon book reviews. I just can’t do it for one minute more. There’s just too much random rottenness out there and I can’t bring myself to waste one more second of my time reviewing all this pasty modern tripe. My God there’s a lot of junk out there and everyone seems to think they’re the next Hemingway.

So what to do instead? I have, for now, gone back to plan #9: Pick a classic novel and dive in to up to my eyebrows reading commentary and interpretation and then spiraling outward to the reading the works related to it. Then it’s my intent to read the books which preceded it and then those which it inspired directly. In this way it’s my hope to not only have read the book but also come to a keener grasp of its contexts, influencers and the resultant works within a larger literary cosmos.

Pursuant to that, I picked the lightest and fluffiest thing I could think of in the category of modern classics and sat down to spiral it out as described above. That leads me to the beloved and much adapted Tom Sawyer.

Reading this for the first time as an adult it strikes me just what a total ass Tom is. All too often we tend to hold Tom up as a delightful mischievous scamp who’s just being a playful little boy but nobody seems to mention that for most of the book he’s making plans to become a highwayman and murder people on a regular basis. Or at least that’s the persona that he’s presenting to the rest of his “gang.” It remains to be seen if Tom is really Satan incarnate or just a weaver of tall tales but the text leaves a fair ambiguity on the question of whether Tom is just a precocious boy or if he is destined to become the next Injun Joe ready to rape, murder and plunder for the sake of a few coins.

Moving on to general commentary, those who know more than I do on this topic by a factor of millions, seem to fairly consistently agree that Tom Sawyer is rather a structureless mess of disconnected narrative. Having re-read it I can’t help but agree that it seems a jumble of random anecdotes that have cohesion only in that they involve the same “loveable” scamp of a boy. The real service of the book seems to be as an introduction for the more highly respected Huckleberry Finn.

So with that I’m back to Finn followed by “Tom and Huck among the Indians”, Tom Brown’s School days and Aldridge’s “The Story of a Bad Boy.” If nothing else I’m amused by the profligate use of the name Tom in this particular genre.

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Book Reviews: The Siege by James Hanna (*****)

Firstly, and as usual, I received this book free in exchange for a review. Also as usual I give my candid thoughts below despite the delightful privilege of receiving a free book.

From the standpoint of narrative form the book is comprised of two parts. In the first 100 pages the narrator is in the midst of a hostage recovery effort but through the use of well-organized flashbacks we see the days that lead up to the incident in meticulous detail. The second part deals with the aftermath in a more straightforward narrative flow.

On the positive side, the writer quite obviously knows what he’s talking about. This is NOT the parboiled Hollywood version of prison drama; this is the raw, gritty and complex reality of life in a prison and the best of its genre that I’ve ever come across. The author’s style is rich and engaging painting a vivid picture of his setting and his very believable characters. If you want the truth behind life in prison administration this is probably the book you’ll want to pick up first.

The only negative that I would note isn’t really a negative so much as a caution to readers who might be looking for a guns-blazing action novel. This isn’t that. As I said, this is real life and real life seldom lives up to the idiotic standard set by the movies. There are moments of what one would call “action” but for the most part the novel is one of psychology and tangled mental interactions between the varied cast of characters.

In summary, highly recommended if you like your novels with engaging ideas over fountains of blood and violence.

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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: Chains by Bobbie Sue Nicholson (**)

CaptureFor once I picked up this book on purpose rather than receiving it free in exchange for a review. It seemed a reasonable choice from among all those books available because, like the author, I spent some time at “Perdue” (as the author spells it in her biography) though I prefer the more traditional spelling of Purdue.

The best way I can sum up the writing style of this author is to quote directly from her editorial blurb for the book on Amazon because this short paragraph reflects closely the entirety of the contents of the book:

After graduating from Denver University, with a degree in Art Education, I attended Indiana State University for my master’s degree. Having earned two degrees in 5 years, I begin teaching and continued to take classes. I now have a lifetime teaching license in Indiana. I have taught Art at all grade levels from Kindergarten to College. I’m married and still living in Indiana. We have two sons who lived nearby. I wrote my first story when I was in grade school. My mother was the only one kindness to read it. My children were in grade school before I started to write seriously. I took a writing class from Perdue University. My stories are a joy to write. The characters can form to my winds and wishes.

Like the bio quoted above, the text of this book is riddled with grammatical and spelling errors and at times borders on incomprehensible. As I’ve said of so many books in the past, this one needs the devoted attention of a good editor. The frequent transposition of the number 1 and the letter l make me think this book was transcribed electronically from typewritten pages and never even spell-checked or read over to make sure it was correct. Lastly in the vein of formatting, the narrative switches points of view violently without so much as a blank line to indicate it. This leaves the reader wondering what’s going on and forced to go back and re-read whole pages before coming to the conclusion that one section has ended and another begun.

As for the plot, it consists of a story told by an aging grandmother to her curious grandson. Unfortunately, the story is rather flat and predictable and has that rather typical quality of only being truly interesting in the event that you know the person telling the story. It is a frequent and persistent truism that most stories told around the dinner table among family are not usually interesting enough for the general populous to consume and enjoy. This story falls into the rather cliche category of “had to be there”.

In summary, the author has obviously paid a great deal of attention to certain aspects of this book but has failed utterly to compose a coherent and readable work. Perhaps with a bit of care and attention to the textual components the story would be brought to light more effectively but in its current form it contains very little to recommend it unless you happen to have some personal connection to the events portrayed by this novel.

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Book Reviews: The Wife of John the Baptist (*****)

As usual I received this book free in exchange for a review, this time from the author. Also as usual I will give my absolutely candid opinions below.

This novel is a rather unique blend of religion, history and the supernatural. Our protagonist is the daughter of a rich Greek merchant who can sense the history of people and objects merely by touching them. This by itself is a sufficiently unusual beginning to pique most interest and it only gets better from there.

On the positive side, this book is full of intricate historical details but doesn’t really assume that you know anything about the life of everyday people during the life of Christ. The author very patiently explains everything from wedding rituals and menstruation to bathing habits. If nothing else this book is a grand history lesson. If that’s not enough, the book is also a passionate story of love found and lost and found again. One could easily and happily take this whole book in in a single sitting.

To the negative, there’s not much to say but for the span of 10 pages or so there’s a prolonged recital of John’s history that made my eyes glaze over and I almost put away the book. It struck as a discordant note in the narrative and I had to flip ahead several pages to avoid it. Also, it should be noted that I don’t really know the true history of any of these events so I can’t speak to their accuracy but I will say that nothing in the book rang out as obviously contrived. It seems to keep very truly to its primitive historical roots.

In summary, a beautifully wrought and detailed fiction wrapped around one of the most noted names in all of history. If you’re religious or just love a good historical fiction then this is highly recommended as long as you’re not easily offended by a lot of sexual references because apparently they do that quite a bit in the first century A.D.

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Book Reviews: Ghostly Tales: Poltergeists, Haunted Houses, and Messages from Beyond (*****)

As usual I paid nothing for this book but instead received it for free in exchange for a review. Despite NetGalley’s kindness I give my scrupulously honest opinions below.

This book is pretty simple. It’s just a collection of haunting tales. You could have guessed that by the title alone, I’m sure. But what it is NOT is any attempt to analyse or explain anything. It’s just straight-up campfire-grade spooky stories.

To the positive side, I give the author credit for just getting down to it. There is a bit of an introduction but not much and the stories just start right up without excessive preamble. Our tales of horror are divided into handy categories and were all sufficient to raise a bit of gooseflesh on me though I did prime things rather well by laying abed by myself in the dark before reading. It wasn’t enough to keep me up but it did keep me thinking.

To the negative, I’m not going to make any comments about whether you should believe any of these stories because, let’s face it, you’ll believe what you want to. However, these did seem to all fall along pretty common lines and you could place each story in some movie or some TV show of the past. I picked out a couple of Twilight Zone plots pretty easily and I’m sure most of these either have their roots in or have inspired some fictional retelling along the way. As I said, it’s up to your belief system which way that pendulum swings.

In summary, this is a nice, tidy collection of hair-raising tales that are either just nice stories or real-life accounts of encounters with the supernatural. Which is it? That’s your decision.

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