Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Twenties Girl: A Novel

Twenties Girl: A Novel
By: Sophie Kinsella

Published by The Dial Press, 2009

ISBN13: 9780385342025

448 Pages

didn't like itit was okliked it (my current rating)really liked itit was amazing

Sophie Kinsella, the popular author from the even more popular Shopaholic series, is back with a new novel. This novel contains everything Kinsella readers have come to expect and enjoy: humorous and culturally relevant commentary, the girl-next-door type(read: pretty and relatively smart, but a bit clumsy, flustered, and says whatever pops in her head; do now, think later), the "prince charming," and of course, the crazy and almost unbelievable situations. But this novel has a twist, and it ain't the living kind folks.

The story follows Lara Lington, a twenty-seven year old woman, who is visited by the twenty-three year old ghost of her great aunt, Sadie Lancaster. Sadie can't "move on" until she can find her greatest possession, a necklace she's had for years. She enlists the help of Lara, and together both women try to solve the "mystery," while simultaneously forging a friendship and learning about one another, something neither could have anticipated (except, of course, the audience).

Is the book good? Yes, it's an easy read, and a fun diversion, something that fans of chic-lit have come to understand and appreciate. Is it predictable. Oh yes, yes it is. A few chapters into the book, I was already aware of how the "mystery" was going to end (ie the culprit). However, to Kinsella's credit, while the general direction of the story may seem predictable, Kinsella always manages to twist the actual events around somehow. So while the ending is not exactly as we imagined it, its still an ending that we see coming.

Is this the fate of chic-lit books? Perhaps, but Kinsella has such charm and humor in her books that its no surprise millions are willing to read what she has to write. Myself included; I have read every single one of her books, under the pen-name of Sophie Kinsella that is.

In general, the book seemed a little too long for me. There were many scenes that I think she could have edited to make shorter, or just plain cut out, and it would not have detracted from the overall plot.

As for the two main characters, I found Sadie to be a bit annoying and rude. It was hard at times to imagine that this is a twenty three year old, albeit ghost, because she seemed like a bratty teenager. But as the story progressed, their friendship deepened, I came across my favorite underlying theme in the book: the importance of family and the disillusion of old age. I've always had tremendous respect for elderly people. Too often they are swept under the rug, their wisdom and experiences deemed irrelevant. Through Sadie and Lara's relationship, Kinsella is able to show the reader that old age does not mean decrepit. Sure, the body weakens, the physical appearance of youth disappears, but the mind is still fresh, young, still in its twenties :) The spirit of those who are older is one that is constantly saying, wow i'm old, how did that happen?! I think Kinsella does a marvelous job in showing that youthfulness, but also illuminating the fact that the old have gone through some extraordinary situations, if only people looked beyond the physical to truly appreciate it.

Overall, if you are a Kinsella fan, then I hardly need to sell you on reading it; you probably have already read it, planning to check it out from the library, or plain buy it. For those new to the Kinsella scene, this may not be the first book I would recommend of hers to read, but it has Kinsella's signature voice, so you can get a feel for who she is as an author.

Not as good as her other books, but a fun and easy read that will keep you entertained.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Stuart Neville/The Twelve

[Note: Stuart Neville's The Twelve, reviewed here, will be published in the US on October 1, 2009, as The Ghosts of Belfast, with a different cover. Other minor differences may exist in the text itself.]

Cover: The Twelve, by Stuart NevilleIf you are a novelist looking to be published, I have bad news for you: Stuart Neville sets the bar for beginners very, very high. In his own debut, he begins with a fascinating premise, topical but yet not likely to be yesterday's news anytime soon. Into the premise he inserts a half-dozen fully realized and wholly different main characters, and makes the arcs of their stories intersect in a myriad ways -- and makes us care about it all.

His protagonist, one Gerry Fegan, is a former... well, a former thug (a "hard man") for the Irish Republican Army. Whether simply strong-arming someone insufficiently supportive of the IRA, or killing an outright opponent, Fegan followed orders loyally and without question.

Without outward question, that is; inwardly, he had many moments of doubt and unease. During years of imprisonment and ever since his release, these questions come back to haunt him, and do so in the worst way imaginable for a killer: as his victims' ghosts. They will not let him sleep, and often they will not even let him rest. Moreover, they don't bedevil him merely at nighttime: even in his daylight hours, although silent, they will not let him forget them.

From the book's opening:
Maybe if he had one more drink they'd leave him alone. Gerry Fegan told himself that lie before every swallow. He chased the whiskey's burn with a cool black mouthful of Guinness and placed the glass back on the table. Look up and they'll be gone, he thought.

No. They were still there, still staring. Twelve of them if he counted the baby in its mother's arms.


...the twelve would follow Fegan through the streets of Belfast, into his house, up his stairs, and into his bedroom. If he was lucky, and drunk enough, he might pass out before their screaming got too loud to bear. That was the only time they made a sound, when he was alone and on the verge of sleep. When the baby started crying, that was the worst of it.
What do they want from him? Simple confession will not do, because confession can lead to absolution and these dead will not settle for any "justice" so passive. They want blood for blood. They want not Fegan's life, but the lives of those who condemned them to death, either by giving him his orders or by looking the other way rather than intervene.

Neville has chosen a simple device to ensure a modicum of tension throughout the book. He's organized The Twelve into 61 chapters, grouped into sections, and each section has a title (whereas the chapters are simply numbered). The title of the first section: "Twelve." The title of the second: "Eleven." And so on through the remainder of the book, like the rhythmic, relentless tolling of a bell marking Fegan's passage to true freedom.

There's another tension in The Twelve as well, one of the oldest of all. Straight into Gerry Fegan's personal hell comes a woman -- a living woman -- and her little daughter. Years ago, Marie McKenna committed one of the worst crimes possible, in the IRA's eyes: she "took up with" an officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary:
Even worse, he was a Catholic cop at a time when joining the police was still an act of treachery. [Marie] was already in poor favour amongst many Republicans as she wrote for one of the Unionist rags, the Telegraph or the Newsletter, Fegan couldn't remember which. A romance with a peeler cut her off from all but her mother.
The cop had endured a difficult life with Marie until she got pregnant, then "made his excuses" and took off. Fegan had had nothing to do with any of this in the past, but in the present he cannot escape his growing entanglement with Marie and Ellen. Now Fegan, and now the reader, must care not just about the dead and the soon to die, but about those in whose veins the blood still pulses freely.

And all of them must care, too -- in a different way -- about those in the old-line IRA who can't help but notice the one point where all the fresh trails of death seem to converge...

As you can see from the excerpts above, Neville writes with the assurance and apparent ease of a seasoned professional. Dialogue, exposition, action scenes: no difference. He switches effortlessly from one to another.

But you know what? You have to work to notice that much. You may set out with a critical eye, thinking you'll catch him – however smoothly – in the act of wielding his tools. I predict, though, that you'll repeatedly find yourself another two or three chapters further along since taking your last checkpoint. And you will have utterly forgotten any such mission within a few chapters of the shattering end.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Spirit Bridges, by Li Mo

Spirit Bridges: A Memoir
by, Li Mo
2009, Streetfeet Press
257 pages
ISBN: 978-0615294971

Spirit Bridges is a memoir of a girl born in Shanghai during the turmoil of the Communist Revolution in China. After the execution of Li’s father, her mother must flee with her and her two brothers, leaving Li’s older sisters behind. Li is forced to grow up while her fragmented family bounces from Hong Kong to Taipei to Madrid to New York City. Li must fight not only continuous poverty, but also various learning disabilities while being moved from one culture to another – one language to another.

Li does a good job of capturing the feeling of being dragged around the world from the eyes of a young child. It is a life filled with pain and uncertainty, with only fleeting moments of joy. Li is able to produce the hopelessness in her writing – proof that she was eventually able to overcome the challenges that made learning so difficult for her and become a talented writer. However, she paints so often with thick strokes of metaphor that it sometimes hinders the understanding of her experiences. What is more disappointing about Spirit Bridges is that we never get to see her transformation. We get the first half of a life lived struggling through poverty, cultural upheaval, violence and racial discrimination, taking us through the end of the 1970’s. What we don’t get is the climb out of the darkness that must have taken place in order for this book to ever exist. The back cover tells us that she is an “acclaimed storyteller, educator and writer,” but we never learn about those changes, her current life or how she made the transition from suffocating hardship. In fact, the story ends so abruptly with no resolution, I was left feeling that I had received only half of the book. It was as if one of the spirit bridges she speaks of had been removed and I was able to go no further with her.

For better or worse, Li has something that most writers of memoir simply don’t have – a story interesting and emotional enough to carry an entire book. I just wish I could have received the whole story within this book.

Click here for more of my reviews.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Based on Marv Gold's lifelong friendship with Shel Silverstein, this memoir gives a glimpse of the mysterious man who lived a juxtaposition. He created art for Playboy and published children's poems. He wrote incredible songs ("Boy Named Sue") but did not have the voice to sing. He barely gave interviews, and when he did, he turned the questions back to the reporter.

Do I feel like I know the man more now? Not really, though the book does have some interesting stories. However, I wonder if they are meant to enlarge the myth of Silverstein or simply remember that even his closest friends did not really know him.

With its quick narrative style, you can read this in a few hours at most. Because I never felt that I received substantial answers, it was more of a disappointment than an intriguing peek at a famous man whose children's poems will forever be stamped in my mind.

2.0 out of 5.0 Miami Beaches.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

I found myself on the horns of a dilemma. I had no intention of ever reading Twilight: teenage vampire novels, give me a break. I went through an Anne Rice phase many years ago and was pretty much done with bloodsuckers (with the exception of Dracula, still for my money the ONLY really significant vampire book because of its underlying fears and obsessions); besides, I had been forced to sit through the movie and found it a total yawner.

But you see, I have a rule. If I start spouting opinions on a book, I have to READ it. I get incandescently annoyed with people who tell you that such and such a book is immoral, evil devilspawn and then, on further inquiry, admit that they’ve not actually read it, they’re just lifting their opinions from reviewers/the BFF/Aunt Sally/talk radio/etc. etc.

And I found myself saying “I can’t stand Twilight” and then realized I was CAUGHT in a trap of my own making. So, I borrowed KidOne’s copy and prepared to be dismayed.

Actually, I didn’t think it was all that bad. Sure, the writing sometimes resembles that of a good student who’s learned a heck of a lot of vocab for her SATs and just wants to make sure you all benefit from it. Sure, the characters are pretty two-dimensional and I got the impression that the rival hunters were invented just to keep the plot going, because the (quite well done) sexual tension of the first half can’t be kept up forever [insert joke here].

Yet I found Bella and Edward more engaging than I thought they’d be, and Bella’s klutziness makes her far more appealing than her sullen movie persona ever hinted at. I understand the novel’s appeal to teenage girls: the idea of being adored by an immortal Adonis who sees the real, special you inside the insecure exterior AND can tell you that you’re being lusted after by every other boy in the school just pushes so many buttons [insert even worse joke here] that it can’t fail.

I wouldn’t rush out to buy the next book, but if it finds its way into the house I may read it in one of my less literary moments. That’s a COMPLIMENT, folks, if a rather backhanded one: don't hate me, Twilight fans, it's just a review. And after all, anyone who is able to write a book and get it published and into the bestseller charts has done SOMETHING right. Furthermore, the editing, design, and marketing of this book are all pretty darn good. I may be a bit of a literary snob, but I know good publishing when I see it.

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

When I need to relax my brain by reading for the sheer entertainment of it, I reach for a mystery novel. The Amelia Peabody novels, of which Crocodile on the Sandbank is the first, are old friends of mine that can be relied on for their high entertainment quotient.

They are, first and foremost, spoofs of the Rider Haggard style of adventure novel: exaggerated characters, unlikely plots, and exotic locations. Amelia Peabody, Victorian spinster of independent means, sets off on some recreational travel and literally picks up a female companion in the streets of Rome. Her new friend has a satisfyingly murky past which follows them to their next destination, Egypt, where they meet the Emerson brothers who are conducting an archaeological dig. Amelia falls in love with Egypt and archaeology but finds herself at daggers drawn with the elder Emerson; or is that also love? Mix in a ghostly mummy and a smarmy villain or two, and you’ve got yourself a few hours of escapism.

I know people who intensely dislike these novels on account of the characters. They’re heroic: impossibly larger than life, preposterously resourceful, and when we get to the younger generation a few books along in the series, improbably good-looking and talented to boot. They’re possessed of great eloquence and terrifying amounts of self-confidence. But you’ve got to remember, they’re spoofs. No realism was intentionally harmed in the making of these novels. These are the creations of a confident writer who is having a huge amount of fun, and if you take them in the right spirit you’ll be laughing too.

On top of that, Peters’ writing is wonderfully crisp and spare, despite larding Amelia’s inner thoughts with sentences like “a glittering web of stars covered the indigo-blue vault” (because Amelia thinks in romance-novel clichés) and, as the series unfolds, inflicting some most distressing speech habits on her son Ramses. The plots whip along at a fast gallop to a fairly predictable conclusion, and much of the fun comes from waiting for the moment when Amelia herself cottons on to what’s happening.

As an added benefit, if you read through the series you’ll learn a surprising amount about archaeology, Egyptian history and geography, and many related matters. Several “real” historical characters or either directly portrayed or known to the fictional characters, and there’s a running Tutankhamen joke for good measure.

I’m not going to review every book in the series, but as I work my way through weightier tomes such as Gravity’s Rainbow I’ll be taking refreshing sips from the Emerson well to keep me going. A girl can’t be a literary snob ALL the time.

Stewards of the Flame, by Sylvia Engdahl

Stewards of the Flame
by, Sylvia Engdahl
2007, BookSurge Publishing
460 pages
ISBN: 978-1419675065

Fleet Captain Jesse Saunders wakes up in a hospital without any memory of how or why he is there. So begins Sylvia Engdahl’s science fiction novel, Stewards of the Flame, centered on a small colony world where everyone is wealthy and healthy…or else. Jesse quickly learns that the medical community on this planet is the only authority, acting as both judge and jury in the lives of everyone. Crimes and illness are considered one in the same and they are very aggressively diagnosed and treated with mind-altering drugs. Even death is illegal. Bodies are kept alive in stasis forever by a society that believes the body is the essence of existence. However, not everyone agrees, and Jesse’s new friends – Peter and Carla – have dedicated themselves to creating a much different kind of life for their covert dissident group. When his new companions manage to engineer his ‘legal’ escape, Jesse is confronted with a life both frightening and intriguing – a life where the human mind’s potential is revealed and relationships he has never experienced become possible. However, the future is uncertain, as discovery of any one member of the group could mean a certain end for them all.

The book begins well, building tension and providing plenty of twist and turns as Jesse tries to understand what is going on around him and who he can trust. When he becomes free of the Meds – Jesse begins to learn about the powers of his mind and the abilities of the people he has quickly come to trust, even while he recognizes that they are keeping something from him. This is where this clipper of a story – which had been zipping right along – suddenly lost all its wind and parked in the doldrums. The nature of the story required a certain amount of setup along the way, but the dialog felt like I was reading a transcript of a graduate school parapsychology class – for 300 hundred pages! It became a long-winded, back-and-forth conversation that laid out everything you could have ever wanted to know about what the mind may or may not be capable of. If there was anything left for the reader to figure out themselves, I don’t know what it could have been. In the meantime, the plot languished. Even as the action picked up in the final scenes of the story, it still took a backseat to the ongoing moral and theoretical conversations of the characters.

However, the story is not all bad. Engdahl’s writing is simple and engaging. The characters are well developed and the romance between Jesse and Carla feels real and is quite well done. Also, the question of when medical decision-making should belong to the patient or to the state makes for an interesting and timely debate. Unfortunately, the story itself offers little tension and the ending is predictable long before the last page.

If you have a keen interest in parapsychology and medical ethics, you may find this an interesting addition to the discussion. But if you are looking for an engaging story from beginning to end, you will probably be disappointed.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge
by, Elizabeth Strout
2008, Random House
286 pages
ISBN: 978-0812971835


It is uncommon for exquisite writing and expert storytelling to meet in the same book. It is uncommon for a collection of short stories to read as a perfectly balanced novel. It is uncommon for a single character to be so dynamic that the observation of her mundane life would be spellbinding. It is a priceless gem that is able to do all of those things. The novel Olive Kitteridge is such a priceless gem.

Elizabeth Strout brings to life the character of Olive Kitteridge – a retired school teacher in Crosby, Maine – with thirteen interlaced short stories. Often, the stories begin from the perspective of a different character, capturing their situations while providing wide-ranging perspectives of Olive – from obsessive to caring, remorseful to funny, tyrannical to ambivalent. In many cases, Olive is only an ancillary character in the story, and yet her powerful personality burrows into everyone’s consciousness – sometimes for the better, sometimes not – but always affecting them in some way. Strout produces a tour-de-force of the waning years of a character that highlights facets of our delights, our fears, our failings. There is humanity in these stories that reaches out from the page and sparks memories from our own lives. In addition, Strout’s writing is magical. She is able to create layer upon layer of depth with her writing, bringing the people, places and events into stunning clarity while never lingering anywhere for too long – a most uncommon talent.

“But the gesture, the smooth cupping of the little girl’s head, the way Suzanne’s hand in one quick motion caressed the fine hair and thin neck, has stayed with Olive. It was like watching some woman dive from a boat and swim easily up to the dock. A reminder how some people could do things other could not.”

This one passage summarizes how I felt as I read Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout is a woman who makes writing beautiful, meaningful stories appear so effortless, while reminding readers how she is able to do things with words other could not. My only disappointment was when the book had to inevitably reach its end. I cannot overreach in calling this book a simple masterpiece. Find the time to read this book – you will be well rewarded for the effort.

Read more of my reviews here.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Happiness Sold Separately by Lolly Winston

Happiness Sold Separately by Lolly Winston
Women's Fiction, 304 pages
2006, Warner Books
ISBN-13: 978-0-446-53306-5

Lolly Winston's second novel tackles two of marriage's most difficult scenarios: infertility and infidelity.

Elinor Mackey is trying to cope with being forty (as if that isn't hard enough!) and the tail end of a two-year infertility battle (as if that isn't hard enough!) when she catches her husband with his hands in the whore-cookie jar. The opening chapter is almost humorous in the way she handles the discovery. Elinor goes through the typical reactions later: anger, guilt, sadness, insanity, revenge, and finally, acceptance.

The events that follow do seem a bit contrived at first. We see her husband Ted's side of the story, but never have a good reason to justify his adultery (because, duh! that kind of behavior is unacceptable), so the story is quite believable. Even though you find yourself screaming at the pages, hoping the characters will somehow hear your pleas ("Don't do that!", "No! That will just make things worse!", "Didn't I just tell you not to do that?"), you never get the feeling that these events weren't probable…and you never get the feeling that you want to stop reading.

Winston does an excellent job of getting the reader to turn pages, taking seemingly mundane activities (such as washing laundry, reading under a tree, cleaning the bathroom) and creating entertaining scenes. Witty dialogue permeates the dark areas of the story without lightening them too much, which would take away from the weight of the issues. Here's one of my favorite exchanges:

"You can clean up the dust bunnies and coffee rings, but you can't sweep away the unhappiness?"

"Sort of."

"Well, maybe you could invent a product. Cuts grease and malaise!"

Roger laughs.

"Bleach away your husband's lover!"

Ouch. Roger can't think of anything funny to say.

Elinor's dark sense of humor is apparent in both her dialogue and the narrative, which I think many women today can connect with, whether or not they've personally experienced her situation. Her neighbor, Kat (ironically, a happily married mother of three), is an excellent supporting character. Just the right balance of whimsy and spunk. Gina-the-whore didn't garner any sympathy from me, despite obvious attempts to do so through her point-of-view scenes and the introduction of her son (from a previous relationship) as an emotional tug at Ted's heartstrings. She has "stay away from me, I'm bad news" written all over her character, almost to the point of stereotyping.

Certain scenes in other character's viewpoints (Roger & Gina), weren't completely relevant until the end, making for a few frustrating moments, but I'd suggest reading the whole novel before settling on an opinion. This is, essentially, Elinor and Ted's story, however, the climax (a comical culmination of seemingly unrelated events all gathered together by a desperate ten year old boy) wouldn't have worked without the other point-of-view scenes. When I reached the last page, I was disappointed that it was over, in a good way.

Winston's writing is clean, easy to read, and moves along at a pleasant pace. The cover had attracted my initial attention at the bookstore, the blurb on the inside flap got me to buy it, and the story within confirmed I'd made a good purchase. Highly recommended, especially for women.

~Lydia Sharp

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Like my wife Lydia (who also posts reviews), I tend to approach reviews from the perspective of both reader and writer.

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson was an interesting read. I will come right out and say I liked the Will Smith movie better. It was obviously more intense. Incidentally, that was the most recent of three film adaptations.

The book was mildly disappointing...from a reader's perspective. I'm still going to insist on it being a must read, especially for writers. It really is a marvelously weaved bit of storytelling with excellent writing.

Therein lies the conundrum. I don't pull novels off the shelf to learn technique. I like to be entertained. I hate when my inner editor chimes in when I'm reading a new book.

"Do you see what David Drake did there?"

"Yeah, dude shot an alien in the chest and then stabbed the other alien in the eyeball. Go away and let me read."

Okay, schizophrenic leanings aside, on with the review. Yeah, I know, finally.

Bearing in mind the book was written in the '50s, I was a little surprised by how much the MC wanted to get it on with the female monsters (in the book, they're vampires, which is different from the vampirish/zombie-ish/too-many-days-in-a-tanning-bedish freaks in the movie) beating on his door every night.

The stories are very dissimilar between the movie and the book, by the way. There is a dog in both, a barricaded house, non-human former humans, and that's about it.

Matheson was indeed born a gifted writer. Also, he looked like a nerdy Willie Nelson. Look at his picture. I dare you to argue.

He takes the mundane and makes you read it. You're not enthralled, but he makes every scene seem like it's setting up something bigger. Sometimes, though, they were just mundane scenes.

As a writer, Matheson was a ground breaker. An amazing number of his novels went on to become movies. With I Am Legend specifically, he brought the non-spiritistic vampire to the mainstream, and also the shock ending.

This is where he lost me as a reader. You sit, reading and wondering how it's all going to turn out, and then after a plot twist that explodes out of nowhere, it all crashes into an abrupt shock ending. I found it unsatisfying and didn't like it.

It is within that shock ending, though, that we can all learn a thing or two about writing. Namely his last line: I am legend.

The most recent Writer's Digest had an article on titles. It said using the first or last line as the title is a no-no. Matheson completely kicks the teeth out of that theory.

Once you read that line, you take a pensive look back at the rest of the story. You realize how all of those mundane things the MC was doing made him a legend. He couldn't have titled it anything else.

Matheson totally set you up for something huge, then let you down, then made you go, "Dude! That was brilliant!". Like the fireworks scene in Coneheads.

I'm laying even money all comments (if any) on this post will be about Coneheads. Someone's going to mention the high dive, then the golf club scene, consume mass quantities...

In short (haha, Joe, too late for THAT!), the ending comes so quick after the whirlwind plot twist, it's a little irritating. But his closing sentence is quite possibly one of most profound endings in modern literature. Like Ali's "anchor punch" on Liston in '64, it was short, came out of nowhere, and didn't look like much, but it still rocked an ending.


THE SPANISH BOW - Andromeda Romano Lax

Feliu was almost born Feliz, which means "happy" in Spanish. After the birth, he lay still and silent, so they began to fill out his death certificate. Due to a slight spelling error, his name was changed.

This signifies the theme of the novel: a slight change can have divining ripples throughout the rest of someone's life. For example, after his father's death, he received a bow without horsehair, too big for a violin, but how else could it be used? As a small child in rural Catalonia during the turn of the twentieth century, Feliu knew nothing about music until, by chance, he meets the famed pianist, Al-Cerraz. Through one note, Feliu is set upon a lifetime of learning the cello, a lifetime that includes historical appearances by King Alfonso and Queen Ena, as well as Picasso.

The author, a practiced cellist in her own right, pours her love for the instrument into this novel. As for the historical aspects, there are some tidbits that are stretched to fit the narrative. This never broke the spell for me of this fascinating world of music and artistry... at least, until the final chapter. Rather than continue with the wavering lines of fate, there is a loud splash of a giant rock thrown into the pool.

While the ending disappointed me, I still find myself reflecting on the other aspects of the novel and appreciate the dedication to historical aspects. When one can enjoy a piece of literature and learn from it, I believe it is worth a look.

3.75 out of 5.0 Spanish Super-Charged Coffees.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Island of the Lost, by Joan Druett

Island of the Lost
by, Joan Druett
2007, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
284 pages
ISBN: 978-1565124080


“Hundreds of miles from civilization, two ships wreck on opposite ends of the same deserted island in this true story of human nature at its best – and its worst.

Auckland Island is a godforsaken place in the middle of the Southern Ocean, 285 miles south of New Zealand. With year-round freezing rain and howling winds, it is one of the most forbidding places in the world. To be shipwrecked there means almost certain death.”

-Island of the Lost

So begins Joan Druett’s book, Island of the Lost – Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World. It is a tale that would seem implausible, if not for the fact that it is all absolutely true. In 1864, near the end of the age of sail, two separate ships did indeed wreck along the coast of Auckland Island – a tiny sliver of land sticking out of the forbidding Southern Ocean – a place that remains uninhabited to this day. By piecing together logbooks, memoirs, newspaper accounts and Druett’s own personal trips to the desolate island, she is able to create a vivid account of two divergent stories of survival. The schooner Grafton and its crew of five wrecks at the southern end of the island. Through inspired leadership and the camaraderie of the whole crew, they are able to eke out an existence in spite of the vast hardships. At almost the same time, the Invercauld wrecks at the north end of the island. In contrast to the Grafton, most of the 19 surviving crew of the Invercauld quickly succumb to the elements, infighting and a leadership vacuum.

Druett does an excellent job of weaving the two stories together, contrasting a crew working together with a crew in shambles. Her credentials as a historian insure an exhaustive level of research, while her award-winning skills as a novelist ensure that the text is entirely readable. The story moves along nicely and never fails to give the reader a sense of just how precarious the castaways’ plight is. While the book spends perhaps a little too much time describing the multitude of ways to kill a seal and not quite enough time discussing the lives of the castaways after their ordeal, as a whole it is a wonderful effort at delivering a look into a place and time not widely understood. There is also a thorough collection of notes at the end that provide many more factual details. However, its greatest attribute is the way it shines a spotlight on a teachable moment of history – how survival is often determinant on who you are with and how well you work together. If you have any interest in sailing history or stories of survival in the remote reaches of the world, this is a great book to have.

Read more of my reviews here.

The Songbird In My Heart, by Mark Steven Rhoads

The Singbird In My Heart
by, Mark Steven Rhoads
2009, Belle Vista Publishing
208 pages
ISBN: 978-0615273624

Mark Steven Rhoads begins his book with the edict:

“This book has a simple intention; to point you toward the purpose of your life, to recognize the simple magnificence that is you and to perceive life’s remarkable beauty around you.”

It is a noble purpose, indeed. While the visuals are nice, the format simply doesn’t work. The mix of clunky prose, an extravagant number of rudimentary poems and amateur photos stewed together make it nearly impossible to gain an understanding of what Mr. Rhoads was trying to accomplish. Rather than giving the reader a coherent whole, it ends up as a haphazard scattershot of ideas without any cohesion between them. It’s difficult to get any sense of an overall message, much less any tools to put to use in life.

There was beauty in the pictures and verse, but it never took me anywhere. I agree with the basic premise of finding life outside of just work (something I have tried to do in my own life) and I really wish he had driven that point home. Instead, I ended up scratching my head at the end wondering what it was that he expected me to do or not do, but I didn't get any answers. It was a book I was very much looking forward to reading - I really wish it could have been better.

Read more of my reviews here.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Winner, by David Baldacci

The Winner
by, David Baldacci
1998, Grand Central Publishing
528 pages
ISBN: 978-0446522595

David Baldacci proved his mastery of the modern thriller with Absolute Power and Total Control. The Winner was released in 1998 and looked to continue the Baldacci brand of storytelling. Destitute waitress LuAnn Tyler lives a ramshackle existence with her newborn daughter in a poverty stricken southern town. At least that’s the case until she is approach by a man named Jackson who promises her the unthinkable – a certain win in the national lottery of $100 million dollars. Her conscience tells her to say no, but before she can, events conspire to make Jackson’s offer the only hope for LuAnn and her daughter. At the time, Jackson’s conditions are acceptable, but ten years later, LuAnn decides to defy those conditions to take back her life with the hopes that the seemingly invincible puppet-master Jackson will be none the wiser.

The Winner drags a bit early on as it tries to flesh out every thought of every character, but once the action gets going, it is intense and fun. You will root for LuAnn, but just like her, you won’t always know who is on her side. Baldacci is at his best when he is putting his characters in deadly situations where they don’t know where the trouble is coming from and they need to find that one hole to squeeze through to safety – and The Winner offers that up more than once. The story could have been a bit tighter and there were moments where the plot stretched believability to the edge. However, this is frankly when Baldacci is at his best. Baldacci’s stories are like McDonald’s Big Macs – you know they aren’t fine dining, but you love them for what they are. All in all, Baldacci provides exactly what should be expected from his novels - a thrill-ride of a story that keeps the pages turning.

Read more of my reviews here.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

JOHANN JOSEPH FUX/The Study of Counterpoint

This is the definitive text on learning 16th Century counterpoint, a term you non-composers may not be familiar with. Basically, it's a strict style of composition with lots of sometimes conflicting rules that make you wonder about the sanity of the people who developed it.

But once you master the rules, the process actually becomes meditative and kind of fun in a very, very geeky way. After all, this is a text meant more to be used than read. And Fux really simplifies things, which is why I suspect so many people use this text. (It was used by the greats: Haydn, Beethoven, etc.)

But . . . I've docked it a star. Why? Fux uses A DIALOGUE BETWEEN A TEACHER AND HIS STUDENT to introduce the rules. I'll sit here for a moment while you let that sink in. A dialogue? Between the teacher and student? In the 16th Century?

Seriously, how hokey is that?? I'll give you an example:

Josephus: I come to you, venerable master, in order to be introduced to the rules and principles of music.
Aloysius: You want, then, to learn the art of composition?
Joseph: Yes.

. . .

Aloys: I am happy to recognize your natural aptitude. There is only one matter that still troubles me. If this is removed I shall take you into the circle of my pupils.
Joseph: Please say what it is, revered master. Yet surely neither this nor any other reason will move me to give up my plan.

You know, after typing these exchanges I realize this dialogue sounds vaguely sexual. Not quite the image I was going for, but now I think I'll be re-reading this in a whole new light.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

MADAME BOVARY - Gustave Flaubert

I have spent more time considering the name play of the title character than the literary merits of this novel. Did he mean that she was "bovine" or a cow? Also, do publishers read the book before printing the cover? Seriously, it took me five Google pages to find a non-blonde Emma.

Sigh. I suppose I should review this book for those of you who care. Perhaps you skimmed the Cliff's Notes (kids, these were paper versions of items like Spark Notes) or skipped to the end. Whiny, spoiled Emma Bovary has a series of lovers. She kills herself at the end. Oops, sorry to spoil it. Um, spoiler? Is it too late?

Yes, I understand the historical importance of this book - Flaubert was sued after portions were released in serial form. In fact, he dedicates the book to his lawyer. I must have seen too many commercials for Doritos or Bud Light because most of the steamy sex scenes that sent women groping for the smelling salts were lost on me.

And Emma is a spoiled cow. Hmm... I wonder if he planned that.

2.0 out of 5.0 Brown Cows.

Allegheny, Monongahela, by Erinn Batykefer

Allegheny, Monongahela
by, Erinn Batykefer
2009, Red Hen Press
ISBN: 978-1597091343
80 pages


The mark of excellent poetry is that it leads you to places you could never find on your own. Erinn Batykefer’s collection of poetry – Allegheny, Monongahela – does that and more. Far from a simple collection of poetry, Allegheny, Monongahela tells an interwoven story of growing up in Western Pennsylvania based in part on titles of the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe while relating a sometimes beautiful, sometimes violent, often depressing family history.

The pallet of language Batykefer paints with is far broader than most poets. And unlike many collections, never once throughout the interlaced poems does her voice falter. Some poems – such as Eureka Vacuum – stand alone using the simple images of childhood. In other cases, two or three poems flow together to paint an overall image of life and death. Three poems in particular speak to the loss of her grandfather, ending with the powerful Death in the Family, which sent me off to call my insurance agent and schedule a physical. The Inheritance bears witness to a fight between her mother and sister. It is done so well because rather than placing you in the room, she is able to make you experience the memory of it instead. While often dark, there are glimpses of the beauty of the region such as in Two Yellow Leaves, describing autumn along the Allegheny River. Anyone who has ever spent any time in Pittsburgh will find instant familiarity in Pittsburgh as Self-Portrait I and II. The Whiteout wraps the feelings of depression tightly within the imagery of a long Northeastern winter. I read Horizontal Horse’s or Mule’s Skull with Feather four times – and loved it more with each reading.

Poetry collections often miss the mark by surrounding several great poems with groups of mediocrity. Allegheny, Monongahela does no such thing. If you have any interest in poetry and you want a collection that reads like a novella, you need to pick up a copy. I, for one, will be reading it over and over again to inspire me to take my poetry to another level.

For more of my reviews, click here.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Lost City of Z by David Grann

Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett was “the last of the great Victorian explorers who ventured into uncharted realms with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose”. And like many of his kind, he disappeared into the Amazonian jungle (in 1925) never to return.

The Lost City of Z tells the tale of Fawcett’s quest for El Dorado (which he referred to as “Z”) and the subsequent attempts to find out what happened to him. It’s also part memoir, because Grann didn’t just research this book from his desk. There’s a small part of me that understands this desire to get about as far off the beaten track as you possibly can, and then there’s the part that wonders: if I had been researching the dangers of the Amazon, including hostile tribes, skin-eating diseases, and parasites that target every part of your body, including… but let’s not talk about the little fish… would I actually pack my bags and head in that direction? I have to hand it to Grann, because I think I would be staying right here in the Chicago ‘burbs. Especially as many of the Fawcett-seekers never came back.

OK, in these days of air transport, antibiotics, GPS and better understanding of indigenous peoples, things are a bit safer, and Grann’s adventures could be said to have involved discomfort rather than any of the nasties listed above. Still, the first-hand account did lend color to a narrative that already had sufficient material to entertain its readers. AND, according to IMDb, a movie is now in pre-production with Brad Pitt in the leading role, so dashing explorers may be in fashion once more by next year and a whole bunch more, um, visionaries could be heading for the Amazon.

All this is a roundabout way of saying I enjoyed the book. The writing didn’t wow me, being journalistic with a definite leaning towards cliché. Maybe a bit more editing was needed, or maybe it was just the subject-matter that lent itself so well to familiar tropes. But the subject-matter is pretty entertaining, and I actually liked the conclusion, which left me more interested in the Amazon from a purely historical/anthropological standpoint. A book that ends well! As you may know from my other reviews, I am seldom satisfied with endings.

So go forth, young man, or woman, and read this book for a Discovery Channel-ready account of derring-do or lunatic obsession, depending on your point of view. At 270 pages of narrative, it’s a quick and entertaining read.

Marsbound, by Joe Haldeman

Marsbound, by Joe Haldeman
2008, Ace
304 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0-441-01595-5

If you're looking for a book to curl up with in your Snuggie, immersing yourself in a slow read while sipping hot cocoa by the fire, Marsbound is not for you. The one thing that consistently impresses me about Haldeman's work is that it reads quickly without leaving you breathless.

For this piece in particular, I'm still amazed at how a 66-year old male war veteran accurately depicted the thoughts and feelings of a 19-year old female virgin.

Carmen Dula (said virgin) travels with her family from Earth to a budding colony on Mars for a five-year stay via a space elevator (see cover art) for part of the way, then a shuttle for the final leg. The realistic portrayal of space travel was refreshing, since science fiction today is saturated with so many fantastical theories on the subject. It really does take a long time to travel between planets--even within the same star system--when you don't have things like wormholes and (dare I say it) FTL technology.

Haldeman also tackled some interesting technical points without making it boring. Communication time lag, freeze-dried meals, how to take a crap in a space elevator, zero-gravity sex (does Carmen get some kind of an award for being the first woman to lose her virginity in space?), and how to survive on a planet with rampant dust storms and no atmosphere, to name a few.

Of course, a story about Mars wouldn't be complete without Martians. However, the Martians in this story aren't really Martians at all, they're just living on Mars, much like the human colonists. This is where I found the only downfalls of the book. The physical aspects of these aliens were unique, their purpose was intriguing, and the events that led up to "first contact" were humorous. That is where the creativity ended, though. Much of what followed, I'd seen a million times before (well, at least a hundred), and the aliens seemed to get less intelligent the more you learned about them, making me not really care what happened one way or the other.

Also, the ending didn't satisfy me. It was clear that certain things were purposely left open for a sequel (surprise! the sequel comes out in 2010, with a third book already underway).

That being said, I would still recommend this book, if for no other reason than Haldeman's dry wit that he effectively sprinkles throughout. A good weekend read.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Shadowlight, by Lynn Viehl

Shadowlight: A Novel of the Kyndred
By, Lynn Viehl
2009, Penguin Group
ISBN-13: 978-0451412782
336 pages

This decade has seen the rise of the vampire novel, thanks in no small part to the colossal success of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. One of the more popular novelists in the supernatural romance/thriller genre has been Lynn Viehl. Her Darkyn series has produced several trips to the New York Times bestseller list for trade paperbacks and created a legion of fans. Viehl’s newest novel Shadowlight, begins her newest series – the Kyndred – a spin-off of her Darkyn novels.

I had some problems with Shadowlight. The story was slow to get started and lurched from one scene to the next without much continuity, making it difficult to follow who was doing what. I just couldn't find much to hold on to. After the first 100 pages, I realized that I still didn’t care very much about any of the characters. The basic premise of the story was interesting enough, but in the end, when I finished the novel I was simply unable to buy in to the story or its characters. There may be other readers who will enjoy Shadowlight, (Viehl has a lot of fans) but I just couldn't get into it that much.