Thursday, February 25, 2010

Nook E-reader/Barnes and Noble


If you're curious about Barnes and Noble's new e-reader, the Nook, stop by my other blog to check out my review of sorts--it's a diary chronicling my sometimes euphoric and sometimes frustrating experience using the e-book reader. Hope you find it helpful!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Saul Bellow/HERZOG

47-year-old cultural scholar Moses Herzog has been kicked out of his house by his second wife, the beautiful and heartless Madeleine, and is now going through his version of a nervous breakdown--jobless (he'd abandoned his university position so Madeleine could relocate them to go back to school), friendless (Madeleine is now living with his ex-best friend, with whom she and his ex-shrink and ex-lawyer conspired to get her sole custody of his daughter), in a fantastic amount of debt (Madeleine continues to send her credit card bills to him, and he's sunk all his inheritance into the crumbling Berkshires cottage she made him buy), Herzog reconciles himself with his life by writing letters he'll never send to friends, acquaintances, strangers, celebrities, even dead philosophers.

Herzog was first published in 1964, and, from what I've heard and read, seems to be the peak product of Saul Bellow's literary career. Through the (I'm guessing) autobiographical gaze of the cerebral and emotional middle-aged Herzog, Saul Bellow really lets all his opinions about humanity, life, death, relationships, and meaningful pursuits unleash themselves on his reader, packing them into an extraordinarily thought-provoking novel. Although the plot is fairly minimal, there is rather more of a narrative drive than in some of his other books, making Herzog a little a more accessible.

If you haven't read Bellow before, I would say that his style is either for you or it's not. I can't go gallivanting through his novels; I really have to take my time, and often get frustrating with the characters, who are deeply (and self-indulgently) reflective and often extremely flawed. I've found, however, that my take-home feeling from his books is always very positive--I feel like my brain is sharper, and like I've learned something (or a lot of things) about human nature. Herzog has been, so far, my favorite (out of Henderson the Rain King, More Die of Heartbreak, and Ravelstein. I still have The Adventures of Augie March on my Gaps list, and I suspect I'll continue to read his books (maybe staggering them by a couple years or so, as I do!) so I'd be interested to hear if anyone else has read any others, and what your thoughts are.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

500th post: THE FORGOTTEN LEGION - Ben Kane


As a writer who lives in the world where Romans are enemies and fables become truths, this book spoke to my spirit. Kane has written the first in a series of epic tales about the lost history of the conquered - though definitely not forgotten.

Twins are born to a Roman slave; one becomes a gladiator, while his sister is sold into prostitution. Brennus is the mentor to Romulus, teaching him how to do battle in the arena. When forced to flee, the two join Tarquinius, one of the last Etruscan tribe, who is not only a warrior but a "haruspex," someone who knows the lost arts of divination in the tribe.

The three join the army and fight the Parthians, setting the tone for the future books where they will fight their way to Margiana and become the historically known "Forgotten Legion." Meanwhile, Fabiola, the twin left for death at the whorehouse, is wooed and won by the powerful Brutus. Her fortune also awaits us in the next volume.

While the book may seem like back story for a longer novel, it is full of ancient myths and battles. For example, one greedy general's quest for gold is used to parallel another myth about "beware of what you wish for" (and, strangely enough, appeared in another recent book, as well, but more on that in future posts).

I found myself flipping through the pages like eating potato chips. If kids could read this, history would be ever-so-much-more interesting. However, I don't think I'll feel quite full until I know more about the characters' fates. Please, Mr. Kane, follow the horrible examples of the trilogies turned into six-seven-eight-infinity books, and provide your readers these wonderful stories without dipping into irrational red herrings and plot twists. Diana Gabaldon, I am looking at you.

3.8 out of 5.0 Roman Riots.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Creative Writing MFA Handbook

Many of us avid readers are also would-be writers, editors, publishers, booksellers, etc. If that's the case for you, you may be interested in Tom Kealey's The Creative Writing MFA Handbook.



Tom Kealey is an MFA graduate himself, as well as a Wallace Stegner Fellow and a Creative Writing University Lecturer.

In the book, Keeley takes us step-by-step through the process from "Should I get an MFA" to "I'm at my new school now what?"

First he looks at some of the basics. Why should I apply? What's the difference between the MA and the MFA? What's low-residency? What's funding like? From there, Kealey moves on to detail criteria you should use when choosing your school. He gives a hierarchy, but also notes that it's really your choice where you place your priorities. Thirdly, he gives a list of his 50 best programs. This list features both MA and MFA programs, despite the name of the book.

This list was my favourite thing about the book. I have found lists before that offered a ranking of Postgraduate Creative Writing programs. Three of the most well-known are the US News and World Report of 1997, the Poets and Writers list, and the Atlantic list. But they offer simply a ranking of the top 5, 10 or 50 programs. What Kealey offers goes above and beyond, giving an insight as the why he includes programs in the top 5, 10, 20 or 50, based on funding, faculty, teaching opportunites, program innovations etc. I really regret I didn't read this book a month earlier, before visiting the websites of over 70 creative writing programs.

Kealey also walks you step-by-step through the the application process. He helps you through the decision of what to send as your writing sample, and how important that particular portion of the application is. Then he gives advice on reccommenders, the personal statement, the GRE, transcripts, and the inclusion of articles whish were not requested.

Books about graduate programs often don't focus on anything past acceptance, but Kealey includes a chapter about deciding on a school to help you reorder your earlier criteria when choosing among the schools you've been accepted to. Finally, he gives an overview of what you can expect when you join your program.

In the appendices, he includes interview transcripts, useful links, reccommended reading lists, and a comprehensive lists of postgraduate programs in the USA and internationally.

There were two shortcomings for me personally. Firstly, the book offers no information for international students. Secondly, the author is unfamiliar with low-residency (and admits this), so there is very little information detailing low-residency programs.

Whether or not these are concerns for you, the book is still a wonderful tool for those seeking to to earn a postgraduate qualification in creative writing.

Playing the Game

Belle de Jour is an anonymous call girl working in London. Playing the Game is the 3rd book chronicling her adventures, following The Further Adventures of a London Call Girl and The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl.

In this book, Belle decides to leave the sex game and get an office job. Playing the Game is a witty observation of office life, physical and interpersonal relationships. It is riddled with humourous pearls of wisdom like "There's only one reason a woman should agree to sub-standard sex, and that's when she's getting paid".

The book is structured as a diary of sorts. At the end of each month, Belle also provides a top 10 list. The lists include "Ten Steps to Getting Over Him", "Ten things that make a House a Home," and " Ten things about being an adult that are nothing like you could have imagined". Belle infuses these lists with her humour and witty advice and they are on of the best features of the books.

There were a few things I didn't like in Playing the Game. Maybe the most obvious (or obvs as Belle would say) was her affinity for abbreviations. Unless you are discussing an organisation or disease or something which is never referred to in full, abbreviations have no place in literature- with the possible exception of those that characters use in conversation among themselves. It was annoying to keep track of the abbreviations and there were times when I couldn't. By the same token, there were some references that only a British person would be familiar with. Fantastic for Brits, not so fantastic for the International audience. Throughout the novel, it was clear that this book was written by someone who was not an author, but a person who happened to be writing. And at times that left much to be desired.

Overall, witty and insightful, but not very well put together.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Douglas Wilson/FIVE CITIES THAT RULED THE WORLD


If you like a little history but you're afraid of falling head-first into some huge in-depth tome, have no fear. This book is a brief overview of five cities that have influenced history: Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London, and New York. It includes a small collection of interesting tid-bits about each city--just enough to satisfy the curious.

The chapters about Athens and Rome will actually be too shallow for most. You'll get the same info you learned in any high school Ancient Civ class. The chapters on New York and London were my favorite, probably because I didn't know much about the history of those cities going into this.

At the end of each chapter, you get a short justification of why the city was included in the book. Wilson argues for each city's importance in shaping history. He credits Jerusalem for its religious influence, Athens for its intellectual influence, Rome for law, London for literature, and New York for commerce. I would have liked to see his arguments expanded because for me, these brief chapter endings were the most interesting and unique parts of the book.

The other unique slant this book boasts in a Christian lens. Emphasis is placed on church history (although again, if you've ever taken a church history class there will be nothing new for you here), and the entire epilogue is a justification for Christian interest in the histories of these cities.

Overall, the book provides a nice start for the Christian (or religiously curious) reader looking for an intro to global history.

Buy it here.

I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. If you click on the "Buy it here" link and purchase this book, I will receive an affiliate commission.

Dr. George Simon/IN SHEEP'S CLOTHING

How many of you have a member of your family or a "friend" whom you consider toxic? By this I mean within minutes of beginning of a conversation you feel drained, pissed off, and/or off-kilter? People who deliberately try to manipulate you into "helping" them? Or worse, people who covertly manipulate situations to their advantage—even if the only advantage is having the upper hand?

If you know or have ever known someone like this (and who hasn't?), YOU NEED TO READ THIS BOOK. This book focuses more on the covert manipulators rather than the emotional vampires, but even so, it should help you in many areas of your life. Dr. Simon doesn't give a lot of specifics on how to handle these people; sometimes he admits that the only solution is to emotionally disengage from the person causing you misery—but he leaves it up to you to make that call. Still, reading the book was a revelation, not only because I saw several people I knew in the book, but because I saw some of myself (I'm ashamed to say). Reading it a second time was painful, because it was only then that I realized my behavior was negatively affecting my relationships. I'm not saying I'm totally a changed person, but I'm definitely more assertive in a healthy way, and I don't feel like a panting dog performing tricks anymore, trying to please everyone.

You might think this kind of book can make you paranoid, seeing manipulative behavior all around you. But it doesn't. You learn to separate the wheat from the chaff (that's probably not the right metaphor here, but you get the idea), and you'll wind up with a deeper understanding of people—and yourself. I first read this book a few years ago and then again about six months ago (when a real change began to take place) and am getting ready to re-read it again. That may seem like overkill, but so far it's been illuminating upon each re-read, with certain passages that had no meaning before leaping out to give me new insight. I have a friend who's always been very good at "pegging" people, and now I see that her parents simply taught her many of the same issues found in this book. But if you didn't grow up learning that critical thinking skill, this book will really help.

This is also a great book for writers for the same reasons.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Net Present Value of Life by Michael Di Lauro


One of the joys of spending too much time online is “meeting” people like Michael Di Lauro. I happened upon his very first blog post, and got to be his first commenter (always fun!) At that time he had just written his first novel, and a very short time later it was picked up for publication. Knowing how difficult getting published can be, I must say I was vicariously overjoyed at this, and offered to review the book when it came out. So here I am, with the added buzz of knowing that the author may actually read this review!

The interesting thing about The Net Present Value of Life is that it is driven not by a story, but by an idea--or rather, a set of ideas. That’s nothing new, of course, but I don't come across such novels often, and it's quite a daring move (I thought) for a first novel. The plot is quickly summarized: a jaded 40-something financial analyst, Charles, meets an elderly British lady, Fay, and is challenged by her to rethink all of his values. Consumed by his career and his supposed need for financial security, he has suppressed the creativity and joy of his younger days and is miserable and hostile. His meetings with Fay open up a new life based on meaning rather than money.

As I read this novel I was often struck by how it captured the Zeitgeist of my own generation (I’m 50) and how it echoed many themes that I’ve come across in my own reading. Many of us are now questioning the American Dream model that has dominated the Western economies for the last 70 years or so: work hard at school, get a good job, buy a nice house and retire near a golf course. Writers like Daniel Pink and Barbara Sher are making a living by urging us towards creativity and passion, Christians are signing up in droves for Crown Financial courses based on swapping debt-fuelled “prosperity” for fewer possessions, financial freedom and a meaningful life, and our children… well, who knows what they’ll do, but I don’t think the nine-to-five job will feature prominently. So if all of this interests you, you’ll find The Net Present Value of Life a thought-provoking read. If these ideas are new to you, you’ll find a few avenues for further exploration in the dialogues, and a few more listed in the afterword.

It’s an easy, dialogue-based read, and another interesting thing that struck me is that it might appeal to MEN. You may well be aware of the “fiction gap” theory, the perplexing fact that most fiction is read by women, while men seem to go for business and self-help titles. I’m sure I’ll hear from some male commenters that they read fiction ALL THE TIME and I’m not up to date on research into reading trends, but I think I just finally understood the massive popularity of Dan Brown, whose books similarly fictionalize ideas rather than narrate fictional events.

So I’m thinking that Michael Di Lauro may have hit on a promising vein here. My advice, from a reader’s viewpoint (and since I’m hoping Michael will read this I’ll address it straight to him) is: find more dynamic settings for the next couple of novels, and work out some meaty plots on which to hang your ideas. Build on your fluency with dialogue and inner character development, as the ability to get complex ideas across in a way anyone can understand is a great gift. A companion website that discusses the ideas in depth and provides links for further reading would be an excellent idea and would help to increase your fan base. I offer British nonfiction author Anthony Peake's site and blog as an example (I know Tony personally, and although I'd debate his ideas I admire the way he's gone about communicating them.)

So I’m putting this one in the “interesting” and “intriguing” categories for readers who like to think, and will be watching Michael’s career with fascination. I hope he takes his own advice and sticks to the creative path.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Recent Reviews of CUT SHORT by Leigh Russell

PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY US (starred title)
This tense and compelling narrative introduces an extraordinary new mystery protagonist. A wide variety of characters come seamlessly together to advance the fast-paced, twisty narrative. Russell paints a careful and intriguing portrait of a small British community while developing a compassionate and complex heroine who's sure to win fans.

NOIR JOURNAL
The story is not noir; it's a police procedural, and a very good one. Leigh Russell's first novel, Cut Short, is a complex, multi-layered, extremely well-structured, and involving police procedural. The plot of Cut Short moves rapidly, with new victims, witnesses, suspects, and sub-plots. All fit together tightly, pulling the reader into the story.
This is an excellent book--the kind one might read for hours on a winter evening before a roaring fire. Russell pulls the reader into an intense involvement with DI Geraldine Steele, the other characters, the town of Woolmarsh, and the search for the killer. Truly a great start for new mystery author Leigh Russell.

CRIMETIME
The prose is sharp and eminently readable. The chapters are short, encouraging the reader to sample just one more before bedtime, and the characterization - although nothing out of the ordinary - is pithy and believable. Steel herself is a likeable central character, and the fact that women are in danger adds piquancy to the plot and heightens the drama in an excellent debut. If Russell can build on it for her next Steel book, Road Closed, this will be a series well worth keeping tabs on.

CUT SHORT has been reprinted for the 2nd time in six months and is in UK bookstores and on amazon. update amazon.com sold out again one week after restocking (!) 500 more copies on the way. Might be best to preorder before they sell out again...

Sunday, February 7, 2010

THE LAST DAYS OF MADAME REY/A.W. Hill


Note to FTC: I received this free copy from the author A.W. Hill. My review is most likely a little biased, as he's one of my professors at Columbia College Chicago.

The Last Days of Madame Rey is the second novel in the Stephen Raszer Investigations. Raszer is a private investigator and a scholar/expert on secret societies. His specialty is finding missing people who have been abducted or tricked into joining religious sects or secret societies.

This time Raszer must infiltrate the Military Order of Thule, a private army in a legal dispute with the tribes of Mt. Shasta for land rights. Abel Cohn has hired him to find his son, Fortis, a lawyer who has fallen under the spell of Bronk Vreeland, the army's misogynist and tail-boneless leader. With the help of his old Gyspy friend and fortune-teller Madame Rey as well as an old lover (now friend) April Blessing, Raszer is able to infiltrate the order via a professor who studies the seismic changes on Mt. Shasta.

The mystery deepens when Raszer learns why the Order wants the land: they believe they can free the Lemurians, a lost, antediluvian tribe trapped in the center of the earth. With them, they can establish a New World Order. How do they want to do this? By blowing up Mt. Shasta, of course.

Like Neil Gaiman, Hill expertly sets the supernatural world side by side with the "real" world. He blends a lot of genres: mystery, fantasy, the spy novel. It's fascinating reading, I can assure you. I've never read Dan Brown, but I've seen reviews on Amazon stating that A.W. Hill's work offers a much meatier version of the same subject matter as Brown's work, and I think that's probably true. The book is now in paperback.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Bethlehem Road Murder by Batya Gur

The Bethlehem Road Murder by Batya Gur

The body of a beautiful young woman is found during the preparations for renovations of an formally abandoned house. At the scene,  Inspector Ohayon  learns the discovery of the body was made by a former lover.  Not only is the Inspector tackling a tough case he is also reconnecting with his past.  Set against the backdrop of the Al-Aqsa Intifada and the ghosts of kidnapped Yemenite children, Gur weaves an intricate story involving multi-ethnic neighborhoods, racial tension and secrets. 

Gur captures the tight knit community feeling of a close neighborhood.  The petty squabbles, the gossiping, the desolation of a place hostile to outsiders.  However there were several features of the book I found troublesome.  The writing is verbose.  I see no purpose in spending nineteen pages to express an idea that could have been amply covered by two.  It only detracts from the story.  Not only are the character’s dispositions longwinded but there are are also points where this copious writing slows the action of the story almost to the point the reader wants to give up.  For example Ohayon and his love interest spend hours discussing the philosophy of love, when everyone else connected to the case is hard at work.  Almost as big a problem for me are the characters.  The supporting characters are all more forceful and over power Inspector Ohayon.  Having finished the book, it is not Inspector Ohayon that stands out in the memory.  The story is also bogged down by the translation.  Whilst I appreciate the difficulty of translating the work into English, the dialogue is stilted.  Often characters use the exact same wording to describe an event.  Also with the overuse of pronouns, it can be hard to keep up with who is being referred to.   With a better translation and a hundred page edit, it would be an enjoyable read.  As it stands I wish I had those three hours back.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Alone in the Crowd by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

Alone in the Crowd by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza
One afternoon a pensioner leaves the police station in the Copacabana region of Rio de Janeiro after learning the Chief of Police can not meet with her directly.  Moments later she is run down by a bus.  Although there is no overwhelming evidence for murder, Inspector Espinosa is not convinced it was merely an accident.  A bank clerk, with an intense attraction to Espinosa, soon emerges as a person of interest. The story is not a ‘who dunnit’ but rather a ‘what happened’.

Alone in the Crowd is a short, easy read, flowing smoothly throughout.  Although this is a psychological thriller, it is not of the deep forensic analysis type.  Rather Espinosa must connected the cloudy memories of his youth with the bank clerk.  Mr. Garcia-Roza does not get mired in introspection , rather his Inspector contemplates the case whilst walking the teeming neighborhoods of Rio and in the company of sensuous women.  I am greatly looking forward to reading more of Inspector Espinosa.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
Science Fiction (Beacon Press, 2004)
Original hardcover by Doubleday, 1979


Stunning. Breathtaking. Heart-wrenching. Memorable.

Kindred will leave you lying awake at night, wondering how it's possible that you--a 21st century white woman who thought she had been well-educated through the public school systems about what happened in times of American slavery--didn't really know diddly-squat. That's what it did to me, anyway.

I'm generally not a fan of time-travel stories, but this novel should be on everyone's Must-Read list.

Dana, a 20-something black woman living in 1976 with her white husband, Kevin, is suddenly transported back to the antebellum South to save the red-headed boy, Rufus, son of a plantation owner, from drowning. It happens quickly so she acts on instinct, and just as quickly, once Rufus is safe, she is transported back home.

The second time she's pulled back, Rufus is a few years older, and again, in danger of dying. Through this visit, she begins to put the pieces together of why, but never how. (This is something that SF writers need to pay particular attention to: the question of HOW is never as important as the question of WHY. If something doesn't need to be explained, then don't.)

By the third time she goes back, her husband is inadvertently brought with her. This is sort of good, because he's white and can claim she belongs to him, so they don't get separated. But sort of bad, because Dana's not sure if she can get him back home if she transports again. And her connection to Rufus turns out to be more important than a simple cry for help.

If I say anything more, the experience will be ruined for you. I'm not certain why this novel had been labeled Young Adult Fiction at my library (the content is invariably adult), but after reading it, I do believe it should be required reading for high school students. There are things brought out through this story about our American history that they don't teach you in school, and they should.

Some of it will undoubtedly make you cringe, gasp, cry, etc. But it's worth it. You cannot read this book and not feel changed in some way. Highly recommended.

~Lydia Sharp

Bloody Harvest by Richard Kunzmann

When the mutilated body of a child is discovered outside Jo’berg, South Africa, the detectives of the Murder and Robbery Unit must work to determine if this is a normal, albeit heartbreaking murder, or if it is a muti killing.  As the case progresses is becomes apparent this is only a single incident in a crime enterprise that includes drugs and trafficking.  This case becomes not only a fight to quash the criminals responsible but also pushes to detectives inner demons to the surface.
 
I muddled through the first 112 pages of this novel, never quite being able to determine exactly what bothered me about it.  Maybe it’s the third person present tense prose, or the overused racial dichotomy of the lead detectives.   Perhaps it was because the main character and especially his wife annoyed me so.  It was probably all these things plus a few more I still haven’t been able to put into words.  Whatever the case, I soon found I couldn’t put it down.  There was a good mix of character development and action.  I do not need frequent gun battles in my novels but in this case it provided a break in what easily could have become a tedious melodrama.  The story not only encompasses the intertwined cases of the Murder and Robbery Unit but also the melding of traditional African rural society and Western Urbanization and those who are forced to accept a place there.