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The Circle: Destroying Privacy

                                                                              The Circle

The Circle is a most disturbing novel.

Actually, “frightening”might be a better word. Most classic dystopian novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four, Fahrenheit 451, and even The Handmaid’s Tale describe future societies that don’t yet exist and may only exist in a more distant future “if this goes on.” But The Circle, written by Dave Eggers and published in 2013, depicts a world that is being built as you read these words. The infrastructure is in place, and the technology is almost there.

The Circle is a technology company, like Facebook on steroids. Its goal is to run all of the members’ social media through their Circle accounts–to connect everything and everyone, to store every bit of information known to humanity in The Cloud where it can be easily accessed by anyone at any time. Management’s end game is to require everyone to have a Circle account.

Mae Holland starts work at The Circle as a customer experience representative. At first she thinks of her work as just a job and doesn’t connect with the community as she is expected to. It takes some doing, but her supervisors convince her to be more “social.” It works all too well. Through a series of events which I won’t go into–read the book, and don’t forget to wear Depends–Mae agrees to become totally transparent, which means that everything she says and does will be recorded and can be viewed in real time by anyone with a Circle account–tomorrow’s reality TV, unedited and raw. She wears a bracelet that shows her the zings–Eggers’ version of tweets–so she will receive a constant flood of feedback about what she is doing and seeing. She is permitted to turn off the audio (but not the video, supplied by a tiny necklace camera) for three minutes while she’s in the bathroom, and she can shut down the whole system at night while she’s sleeping, but other than that, her life is open for all to see and hear. Her transparency turns her into a celebrity among the Circlers.

Soon Mae is driven by a strong need for approval, as represented by the number of smiley faces she gets on her bracelet (think “likes” on Facebook) and how low she can get her party score, which is determined by how many zings she sends out and how many groups she joins–basically, her level of involvement in the Circle community. She so craves approval that during a presentation of how quick and easy it is to get instantaneous survey results, the final question sent out to Circlers is: “Isn’t Mae Holland awesome?” Ninety-seven percent of the responders send smiley faces, but 3 percent send frowny faces. Rather than delight in having so many fans, Mae obsesses over the three percent who, in her mind, “want her dead.”

The most terrifying thing about this novel is that The Circle’s management wants to make transparency mandatory, and Mae is okay with that. In fact, there are some instances in which Mae decides to reveal secrets of her friends and family who want their lives to be off the grid–but Mae exposes them “for their own good” and because they’ll “thank her later.” The results of are tragic.

A movie based on The Circle was recently released. I saw the movie without knowing it had been based on a book, but when I learned that from the credits, I read the book. The movie does well enough at hitting major plot points, but it fails because it doesn’t capture the spirit of the book. The movie is actually a little warm and fuzzy compared to the book. In the movie, Mae (Emma Watson) is a sympathetic, though misguided, character who learns from her mistakes and tries to make things right in the end; in the book Mae comes off as naive and foolish, and she neither seeks nor achieves redemption. And–SPOILER ALERT–the movie does not have the same ending as the book.

Basically, the movie is a classic Hollywood tale with a flawed but sympathetic main character who reaches an epiphany, and everyone–well, almost everyone–lives happily ever after.

But the novel tells a darker story. It is the tale of an average person who became ensnared in a cult that is controlled by a charismatic leader.  It  is well worth reading because it takes Big Brother to the ultimate level, and it’s not about some distant possible future–it is happening now.

Halloween: Stories of the Season

Pen and inc drawing by Jeff Mason from October Dreams, a Harvest of Horror

Copyright 1989 by David Kubicek & Jeff Mason

moaning-rocksIt is almost an impossible task to make a list of good horror stories because there are legions of them, and there are many authors who aren’t on this list and probably should be. But in the interests of keeping the list manageable, I will only note a few of my favorites. The stories are listed in approximately the order in which they were published, ranging from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in 1820 to “Sun Tea” in 1989.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving 

This is a well-crafted story by one of the first master’s of the American short story. With his richly-detailed descriptions of the settings, the people, and the food, Irving transports the reader into his tale.

 “The Tell-tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe

I first encountered this short gem in class when I was in elementary school. Poe, like Irving, also did much to develop the style of the American short story. He wrote many other stories that are worth a read, but “The Tell Tale Heart” is one of my favorites.

“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs

This is my favorite all-time horror story, probably because it doesn’t show, but rather implies, and the implications are chilling. I also read this one (or my teacher read it to the class; I can’t remember which) when I was in elementary school. Teaching horror stories in elementary school seems to have been a trend when I was young.

“The Rats in the Walls,” “Pickman’s Model,” “Cool Air,” etc. by H.P. Lovecraft

I have never been a huge Lovecraft fan because, even though he wrote in the 1920s and 30s, his style was reminiscent of authors writing a century earlier. Also, he struggled with dialogue, so there isn’t much of it in his stories. That said, his imagination has generated many stories that have kept generations of readers awake at night.

“The Graveyard Rats” by Henry Kuttner

This is another one of my favorites. When Jeff Mason and I edited our anthology of original horror stories, October Dreams, a Harvest of Horror, we wanted to publish a classic story, and we chose this one because it had been out of print for years. Now OD has been out of print for years (although you can still pick up used copies on Amazon and other used book outlets), but fortunately this story is online in its entirety.

“Interim” by Ray Bradbury

Actually, this was my first choice for our OD classic horror story. Originally published in Bradbury’s first collection, Dark Carnival, it had been out of print for years. But while we were preparing our anthology, it was reprinted in a collection of stories from Weird Tales magazine, so we went with our second choice, “The Graveyard Rats.”

“The Girl With The Hungry Eyes” by Fritz Leiber

I saw the Rod Serling’s Night Gallery segment based on this story before I read the original. I highly recommend it, both the story and the Night Gallery adaptation.

“The Children of the Corn” by Stephen King

This is as good of Stephen King story to start with as any. He has filled several volumes with many excellent short stories. “Children of the Corn” is from his first collection, Night Shift.

“Beat Well” by Steve Vernon

This gruesome little gem (only about 175 words), had appeared in a magazine a short time before Jeff and I published it in October Dreams, can be read on the author’s blog.

“Sun Tea” by Robert E. Rodden II

Published for the first time in OD, this 12,000-word story currently is not in print, but if you can snag a used copy of OD, it is well worth a read. I hope at some point the author decides to re-release it as an e-book.

First, it may seem that I am shamelessly self-promoting my horror anthology; however, since that book has long been out of print, all of the copies you’ll find online were bought and paid for long ago, and I won’t receive a single dime for any of them that are sold today (except for a few copies I have, should I ever decide to sell them). And besides, they were in OD because Jeff and I liked them.

Second, this is by no means an exhaustive list of horror stories or of authors. If you want to investigate this genre further, in addition to the authors listed above check out the work of Robert Louis Stevenson (especially The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde and “The Body Snatcher”), Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch, as well as the plethora of horror anthologies on the market.

 

Fifty Shades of Grey Phenomenon

It should not come as a surprise that a book of little literary quality (and I use the word “literary” in the loosest sense) should top the New York Times Best Seller List, but it is irritating when one considers all of the excellent novels that don’t even come within hailing distance of the hot 100.

I haven’t read the complete novel, but I did read the first several pages. Basically, I read it as an agent and editor would if it showed up their slush piles (i.e., “hook me in the first few pages or I pass on it.”) The opening didn’t hook me because the prose was not polished, the dialogue was wooden, and the scene did not interest me enough to continue reading. I didn’t even get to the porn, which seems to be the primary reason sales of this book are challenging sales figures of such authors as Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, who actually are excellent writers.

Since I can’t speak to the content of Fifty Shades of Grey because I got bored, here’s a video of a an all-woman book club that did read the complete novel–apparently to the regret of some members in the group. The novel (and I use the word “novel” loosely) has already resulted in many parodies, one of which has been getting much press. Although I haven’t read Fifty Shames of Earl Grey, it certainly piques my interest more than the book at which it is poking fun.

Don’t Waste Time Dwelling on Bad Reviews

It is never pleasant to get a bad review. In fact, reading a review that savagely eviscerates the novel you’ve spent months nurturing is one of the most unpleasant experiences a writer can have.

This might help: Getting a bad review often means that you have missed your audience.

Even if you haven’t thought about writing to an audience, one exists for your book. If you’re successful at finding your readers—and assuming your book is well written—most of your reviews should range from 3 to 5 stars, which is where you want to be.

But every author who has collected lots of reviews has picked up some bad ones—even the most popular books by the most popular writers.

Try this experiment. Search Amazon for your favorite books. If they have enough total reviews, I guarantee that some reviewers will rip them apart. Most of the reviews may be 3, 4 or 5 stars, but there will be the inevitable handful of readers who rate the books as forgettable, a waste of time.

The bottom line is: You can’t please everyone. This also is true of “professional” reviewers,” those folks who get paid to review books and movies.

For example, one criticism of The Hunger Games is that the novel is not original, that a screwed up future world and a reality TV show where the contestants kill each other has been done before—the novel to which it usually is compared is Stephen King’s The Running Man.

Technically, everything has been done before. A fellow named Georges Polti analyzed lots and lots of literature and concluded that every story that has ever been written or will ever be written can fit into one of 36 dramatic situations, or plots. What makes each story fresh and different is what the author brings to the telling. Although The Hunger Games and The Running Man use the same basic plot elements, they are vastly different novels.

Does any of this make you feel better about getting bad reviews? Maybe the following chart will help. I’ve listed five popular novels and the reviews they’ve gotten on Amazon (as of 4:30 p.m. Central Time on July 22, 2012):

1-star 2-star 5-star Total Reviews
11/22/63 by Stephen King 88 80 1,268 1,871
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury 96 76 787 1,505
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins 247 193 6,156 8,220
The Help by Kathryn Stockett 182 123 4,450 5,639
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain 17 19 256 455

Remember two things:

  • Don’t give much weight to ratings without reviews telling why the readers didn’t like your book.
  • Don’t give any weight to mean-spirited reviews in which readers seem more interested in attacking you and your book than in giving constructive reasons why they didn’t like it.

A review is just someone’s opinion, and as long as you’re getting mostly positive comments, don’t waste time dwelling on the bad ones.

This article was originally published April 16, 2012, as a guest post on Wise Words. I’ve updated the information in the table.

Ray Bradbury Embarks On His Last Great Adventure

Ray Bradbury once said that there are three great adventures: being born, living, and dying. Last night Bradbury embarked on that last great adventure when he died at his Los Angeles home at the age of 91.

Bradbury not only had a profound influence on my writing style, but his book The Martian Chronicles inspired me to start writing in the first place. We exchanged a few letters in the 80s and early 90s, and I found him to be an approachable and generous man.

The first time I wrote him, I sent him a copy of the college thesis I’d written about him and his early work: Ray Bradbury: Space Age Visionary. In less than a week I received a note of thanks along with galleys for a new book of criticism of his work another author was publishing.

My first inclination when I heard of Bradbury’s passing was to take time off and read some of his stories in honor of his memory. But I immediately realized that the best memorial to a man who got physically sick if he didn’t write at least two pages every day would be to write. So as soon as I post this, I’ll go back to work on my novel. I’ll read some of his stories later.

For more about Ray Bradbury’s life check out his Washington Post obituary and his video Ray Bradbury on Writing.

Learn to Write Novels by Writing Short Stories

When I was in college a well-meaning English professor read one of my short stories and encouraged me to expand it into a novel. I wholeheartedly agreed. I thought it would make a good novel then, and I think so now. But at that time I wasn’t ready to write a novel. I’d only been trying to write professionally for a short time and was just becoming comfortable with the short story form. I didn’t realize that a novel is an entirely different animal, and it takes much longer to write.

So I started pounding the keyboard to transform my 5,000-word short story into a 50,000-word novel. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? Just add scenes. Piece of cake. Unfortunately, at that time I had never heard of Elmore Leonard or his one-sentence explanation of the driving force behind his writing: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

Long story short, my first novel was mostly made up of parts that even I skipped. I finally put it out of its misery at 47,000 words because I couldn’t stand working on it another minute, not even to reach my goal of 50,000 words. I never submitted it anywhere. I tried to throw it away, but the garbage man rejected it. He suggested I call the hazardous waste people. I put it on a shelf in the closet where it gathered dust and dead flies–who died instantly once they landed on it . . .

Okay, I’m exaggerating. But the best thing I can say about my first novel is that it stunk to high heaven, and the worst thing I can say about it cannot be published on a family blog. Mercifully, the thing was lost over the years as I moved from one place to another. I hope it won’t show up to haunt me when I least expect it.

Why should you care about my first novel-writing experience? I’m glad you asked.

Regular readers of this blog know by now that I have a man-crush on Ray Bradbury. Bradbury’s advice to aspiring writers is to write short stories to learn their craft. You can write one short story per week, 52 short stories per year, but it will take you months to write a novel. You get more practice, and more chances of getting it right – and you learn more about writing – by writing short stories.

Except for my one deviation described above, I followed Bradbury’s advice. I wrote 200 short stories before I wrote my next novel. Most of them were clinkers, but among the coal were some gems. I finally got it right and was prepared to tackle a longer form.

And judging from comments I’ve gotten from readers and reviewers, I did a much better job with my second novel, In Human Form, than I did with my first.

Ray Bradbury on Writing: Essential Advice for Aspiring Authors

As  most of you who have followed me for very long know, Ray Bradbury was my mentor. After reading a 25-cent copy of The Martian Chronicles that my mother had picked up at a thrift store, I decided to try to write like Bradbury and to get my stories published.

When I was in college I wrote a thesis about the connection of Bradbury’s early life to his stories. I called it Ray Bradbury: Space Age Visionary. Although I never published it, and the only publicly available copy I know of is in the special collections section at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Love Library, somehow Amazon got wind of it and listed it on their site.

I just came across an online video of a commencement address Bradbury gave in 2001. It’s 55 minutes long, so block out a good chunk of time to watch it. As I listened to him speak, I realized that I had followed his advice. I’d never heard him speak while I was learning to write, but while researching the man I’d turned up most of what he talked about in this commencement address.

Ray Bradbury is one of the great storytellers of our time. This video is essential for aspiring writers – for all writers. Watch it, bookmark it, and watch it again from time to time when you need inspiration: Ray Bradbury Commencement Address.

Dear Morality Police, Let Us Choose What We Read

Payment processing giant PayPal recently gave Indie publisher Smashwords an ultimatum: Remove all titles containing bestiality, rape, and incest or have your PayPal account deactivated.

In an email to Smashwords authors, CEO Mark Coker said “PayPal tells us that their crackdown is necessary so that they can remain in compliance with the requirements of the banks and credit card associations.”

PayPal didn’t mention any names, but these “banks and credit card associations” are most likely Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express.

This is a major assault on free speech. It is an attempt by financial institutions to censor an author’s writing without due process (i.e. – going to court). Basically, the morality police are deciding what they don’t like and refusing to allow others the opportunity to choose to read it. And with the clout the financial companies have authors and publishers – especially Indie Publishers – find themselves between a rock and the proverbial hard place.

One thing you must realize is that books with adult themes or adult material usually are labeled as such so the reader can make a decision whether to read it or not. It’s unlikely that material readers find objectionable will be sprung on them without notice.

If a reader doesn’t want to read erotica, it’s best to stay out of the Erotica section. If a reader doesn’t want to read a book examining pedophilia, the cover copy for Lolita should send up red flags.

In fact, almost every classic novel you can think of, at one time or another,  has been challenged or censored.

What I ask is that the readers – not the credit card companies and banks, not citizens groups with names like The Moral Majority – be allowed to choose what they read and, just as importantly, what they don’t read.

For more information on this topic be sure to read: Legal Censorship: PayPal Makes a Habit of Deciding What Users Can Read and a letter from The National Coalition Against Censorship, and a follow-up letter from The National Coalition Against Censorship.

A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY Surges onto Two Amazon Top 100 Lists

A Friend of the FamilyI extend my  heartfelt thanks to everyone who helped make yesterday’s launch of my short novel A Friend of the Family a success. Your downloads propelled it a long way up the top 100 most downloaded books in two of Amazon’s categories.

On the Science Fiction list A Friend of the Family peaked at #26 and on the Literary Fiction list it peaked at #21.

For those of you who aren’t into the digital book thing, never fear. The paperback is in process and will be available by mid-March.

Thank you again for participating in yesterday’s event. Enjoy the story!

Bookstackreviews.com Review of IN HUMAN FORM

IIn Human Formn Human Form got another 5-star review, this time from bookstackreviews.com:

“It’s very difficult to portray the brilliant aspects of this book without giving plot spoilers . . . It’s wonderfully written and the early parts of the book portray the small town atmosphere perfectly.” 

Read the complete review at bookstackreviews.com

Author Interview

In Human FormUp Close and Personal with David Kubicek, Author of In Human Form

Author interview on Patti Roberts’ Blog: http://paradox-theangelsarehere.blogspot.com/2011/10/up-close-personal-with-david-kubicek.html

The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

The Ox-Bow IncidentThe Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Ox-Bow Incident is not your standard western. This is an excellent examination of mob justice and its consequences. Clark was a really good writer. He develops the characters and settings much better than many of the westerns I’ve read. The descriptions of western life sound as if he’s writing from experience, as if he were there, which is not the case.

Clark was born in 1909 in Maine. In 1917 his father accepted the position of President of the University of Nevada and moved the family west. By that time the west described in The Ox-Bow Incident was well on the way to extinction in the face of 20th century technology and civilization, but I’m sure there were still many remnants visible in the buildings and the landscape and many people still alive willing to tell stories of those times to an eager youngster. Even in the late 1930s, when Clark wrote this novel, he could have still found many people who remembered the west of 1885.

Not long after its publication in 1940 The Ox-Bow Incident was made into a movie starring Henry Fonda. The film is good, too, considered by many to be a classic. Read the novel, then see the film, in that order. I recommend both most highly.

View all my reviews

Red by Kait Nolan

RedRed by Kait Nolan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As young adult paranormal thriller/romances go, Red is page-turner. It tells the story of how love grows between Elodie and Sawyer. Neither of them knows the other is a werewolf when they first meet. Elodie, it turns out, is working with Sawyer’s father on a project to re-introduce the red wolf into Tennessee.

Sawyer’s dad also is a werewolf. His mother was shot while in wolf form–in Sawyer’s family, werewolves mate only with their own kind. Elodie’s father, who isn’t a werewolf, raised her after her mother supposedly killed herself when Elodie was three because of the curse on her family. Although Sawyer is a seasoned werewolf, Elodie, at age 17, is a late bloomer–she has yet to undergo a full transformation.

One night after working late, Elodie’s car breaks down. As she is walking home, a vehicle tries to run her down. Her assailant is a werewolf hunter who will not stop until she is dead. Elodie and Sawyer–who has appointed himself as Elodie’s unofficial protector–risk death as they search for a way to discover this hunter’s identity and stop him.

Red  has everything a good story should have: twists and turns and surprises, characters we can identify with and cheer for, and a pace that makes us hunger for what is coming next. I highly recommend it.

Available as an ebook from: Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

View all my reviews

The Rose and the Lily

The Rose and the LilyThe Rose and the Lily by Susan R. Ross

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this fairy tale picture book King William is desperate to marry off his spoiled daughter, Princess Rose. She is so demanding that he finds himself hiding under furniture (we first meet him when he’s under the bed) whenever he hears her coming.

As in most fairy tales, he invites suitors to compete for the hand of the beautiful princess. Prince Sterling is one of those who applies, and she sends him on a quest to find her the perfect hairpin.

He tries three times before he brings back a hairpin Princess Rose will accept. By then he has lost his enthusiasm for the beautiful but spoiled princess, and although she agrees to marry him, he turns her down and returns to Lily, a not-so-beautiful commoner he met while on his quest for the hairpin.

The Rose and the Lily carries a resounding message: character trumps beauty every time. The story is smartly illustrated by Megan Stiver. At the end of the book, Susan Ross provides instructions on how youngsters can make a crown.

View all my reviews

Love and Other Four-Letter Words by Carolyn Mackler

Love and Other Four-Letter WordsLove and Other Four-Letter Words by Carolyn Mackler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Love and Other Four-Letter Words is a well-written and engaging story about a teen caught in the middle of marital problems between her parents.

When Sammie’s parents decide on a trial separation, her father (a Cornell University professor) leaves for California on sabbatical while her mother sublets their home in Ithica, NY, and moves with Sammie to New York City.

Her mother, a frustrated artist, regrets leaving the big city for an art teaching job in Ithica when she got married. When she can’t find work immediately, she falls into a deep depression, leaving Sammie to take care of both of them while also trying to rebuild her own life. But before things get better, they will get worse, much worse, eventually leading to a melt-down.

This coming-of-age novel contains some profanity and mild sexual situations but nothing that would be surprising or disturbing to most teens. I highly recommend it for early teens on up.

Read my review of Carolyn Mackler’s The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things.

View all my reviews

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Help is a page-turner.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi, from 1962 to 1964 the novel unfolds against the backdrop of the segregationist society at that time. It is told in first person by the three main characters in rotating segments. Aibileen and Minny are black maids, and Skeeter is the white woman, recently graduated from Old Miss, who convinces them and ten other maids to tell their stories for a book she wants to write about what it is like to be black maids working for white families.

Given the social climate, Skeeter is risking ostracism, but the maids are risking not only their jobs but the prospect of being black-billed so they will not be able to support their families. After much work, Skeeter manages to gain the trust of Aibileen and the tentative trust of Minnie, but the other ten prove to be impossible to get.

Until some things happen.

The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s first novel, tells the story of writing this book and of what happens after it is published. It has been made into a movie – due out in August – which from the looks of the trailer seems to follow the novel quite well. But I encourage you to read the novel first; they have to do lots of trimming and condensing to fit a 444-page book into a two-hour film.

I most highly recommend The Help.

View all my reviews

Self-Publishing and Book Reviewers

Although self-publishing is less stigmatized now than it was even ten years ago, we still have a long way to go before we stamp out every form of prejudice against self-published books. For instance, book reviewers – other than local reviewers in the author’s hometown – refuse to review self-published books. They won’t even open the book and read the first few paragraphs, which is enough for people who make their living reviewing books to determine if the writer is good, or if he’s publishing prematurely.

Once upon a time, I edited a book called October Dreams: A Harvest of Horror. I received an average of 240 submissions per month. I had lots of other things to do besides read 240 submissions per month, which would have taken a substantial amount of time. After reading a couple of paragraphs, two pages at most, I knew two things: 1) If the writer was ready for publication, and 2) If the story was the type for which we were looking. That’s not difficult to do, and it doesn’t take much time. There is not an editor anywhere who reads every word of every manuscript he or she receives.

When I was a student at the University of Nebraska, one of my English teachers brought in an arm load of self-published books. They weren’t difficult to find. UNL’s English department publishes The Prairie Schooner, a prestigious literary magazine. The Schooner receives many review copies of books from traditional and self-publishers. At that time they dumped the self-published books on a table where anyone who wanted them could pick them up.

My teacher read excerpts from the books, and we all had lots of laughs over them – until he came to one written by a fellow named Thomas M. Disch. That piqued my interest because, being a reader of speculative fiction, I was familiar with this author’s name. My teacher, with a smirk on his face, started reading. Slowly, the smirk dissolved. He stopped reading, and in a voice that clearly communicated his astonishment, he said: “This isn’t funny.”

He seemed almost let down, as if the Prairie Schooner had cheated him by putting this book on the rejects table.

The reason that book wasn’t “funny” might have been that Thomas M. Disch had a long history of being “traditionally” published. I don’t know why he chose to self-publish the book my teacher picked up. There are many reasons writers choose to self-publish, and it is a mistake for a critic  to dismiss a book because of his or her own misconceptions, his or her own prejudices.

Reviewers who have a rule that they will review no self-published books, would not have reviewed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which Mark Twain self-published because of “the foolishness of his publishers.” That’s one reason some writers self-publish. Other writers self-publish because the pay is better (a royalty of 60-85% vs. 10-25%), and they are paid more quickly (many traditional publishers withhold an author’s royalties for three pay periods – 18 months – after the book is published). Other books may be self-published because, for whatever reason, they failed to find a publisher who thought there was a market for the book.

And yes, many self-published books are not ready for publication. But this is true of traditionally published books as well. I’ve been an avid reader for many, many, many years, and 99% of the books I’ve read were published by traditional publishers. And I’ve read lots of crap. Lots of crap. I’ve read fiction by writers who weren’t ready for the big time or who had ineffective editors or both, and I’ve read nonfiction books that did not support their hypotheses with good evidence. I’ve also read many good traditionally published books.

On the flip side, I’ve read some good self-published books as well as some that were not ready for publication.

My point is, to borrow an old cliché, you can’t judge a book by its cover. A reviewer who refuses to even look at a book because it is self-published not only is failing to do his job, but he’s also doing his readers a disservice, readers who might like Amanda Hocking’s stories, for instance (for those of you who may not have heard, Hocking found her audience by self-publishing, then was offered a $2 million deal from a “traditional” publisher).

For a look at some famous authors who self-published, check out my earlier blog post Self-Publishing: Is It For You?

Amanda Hocking’s Trylle Trilogy

Torn (Trylle Trilogy, #2)Torn by Amanda Hocking

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Switched, Torn and Ascend make up the Amanda Hocking’s Trylle trilogy. Although each book has a beginning, middle, and end, they all fit together, so this review will cover all of them.

The story is about a girl named Wendy who learns, as a teenager, that she is a troll. Not like the ugly irascible creatures in fairy tales. These trolls look like humans, but they have peculiar qualities that distinguish them–such as hard-to-manage hair, a distaste for foods humans like (such as soda pop and pizza), and a preference for going barefoot. They also have mental abilities like being able to move objects or control the wind. Wendy has the ability to persuade people to do things, although as Switched begins her persuasive ability is in a very rudimentary form because it hasn’t been developed yet.

The story begins with Wendy learning that she is a changeling–her mother switched her with a human infant–and now a “tracker” has come to return her to the Trylle. He comes for her early because the villains of the story, another tribe of trolls, is planning to kidnap her.

That is the start of the story which will span three books before reaching its conclusion. The Trylle trilogy is a fast read, and Hocking is an excellent story-teller. Her narrative is full of twists, turns, and surprises. The only thing that prevented me from giving it four stars is that some of the dialogue is distracting.

For example, when two characters are arguing Hocking tends to use lots of exclamation points and uses phrases like “he yelled” or “she shouted,” which is similar to killing a fly with a sledgehammer; the dialogue is written well enough that the reader probably would picture them arguing without the added emphasis.

Also, instead of relying on “he said” or “she said,” Hocking uses words like “he smiled” or “she laughed,” when it might have been better to say “he said, and smiled” or “she said, and laughed.” I stood in front of the mirror and , just to try it out, talked while I was smiling; it looked creepy.

But those were minor distractions. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the Trylle story, and I think you will, too.

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In Human Form Book Trailer

Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow

Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space KapowJacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow by Nathan Bransford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jacob Wonderbar has one of the coolest log-lines I’ve ever seen: “Space travel is all fun and games until someone breaks the universe.”

That sentence sets the tone of this zany novel for young people, ages 9 and up. Jacob – general troublemaker and the terror of substitute teachers – and his friends, Dexter and Sarah, buy a spaceship from a disgruntled alien for a corn dog and set off for adventures in outer space.

In trying to prevent their spaceship from crashing, they fire a missile that causes a chain reaction of explosions across the universe (which Jacob dubs “the spilled milky way”), which blocks the path to Earth. Miraculously, no one is injured, no inhabited worlds destroyed, but in the words of two cosmic police officers the kids just caused a “big mess.” Unfortunately, that mess will prevent them from returning home for one or two thousand years (according to a construction worker when they try to head home), and there is no detour around the chaos.

The novel contains a pirate, a planet that smells like burp breath and has a day one minute long, a planet populated by scientists, a planet populated by substitute teachers, and a king of the universe.

Nathan Bransford is a former literary agent whose blog is an excellent resource for readers, writers, and anyone remotely interested in the publishing industry. I’ve been looking forward to reading Jacob Wonderbar ever since Nathan blogged that he’d sold it. I like the book, kids in the tween and early teen years will like it, and adults who are fans of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (which I am) will like it.

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Please Look After Mom: A Review

Please Look After MomPlease Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Please Look After Mom is a must-read. Told from the viewpoints of four people – a daughter, a son, a husband, and Mom herself – it is about a family’s reactions to Mom’s disappearance at a subway station in Seoul, South Korea. The family reports Mom’s disappearance to the police, and they post fliers asking if anyone has seen this woman. At first they get a few calls, but soon the calls stop coming. It is as if Mom has vanished into thin air.

But the search for Mom is only a loose framework on which hangs a story of self-discovery as each viewpoint character reflects on what Mom meant to him or her. Please Look After Mom is full of surprises. It is a character-driven story that engaged me from page one, and I highly recommend it.

Kyung-sook Shin is one of South Korea’s most popular novelists and has won many literary awards for her work. My only disappointment is that Please Look After Mom is the only book by this exceptional writer to be translated into English. I hope it does well enough so there are more to come (as of this date it is number 27 on the New York Times best seller list).

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The Moaning Rocks and Other Stories Available in Paperback and Digital

The Moaning Rocks and other stories“David Kubicek deals with the most profound of emotions, betrayal in a small community, and does so wonderfully.” – Lincoln Journal Star,1988, reviewing “Ball of Fire.”

For those of you who prefer a physical book, rather than digital,  The Moaning Rocks and other stories is now available as a trade paperback. At $12.95 it’s a bit more expensive than the eBook because a paper book has significant manufacturing expenses compared to a digital book, which doesn’t. Remember, the eBook is still at a special introductory price of $0.99 until May 31, 2011, at which time it will revert to its regular price of $2.99. To get the special price enter coupon code SH37D.

The Moaning Rocks and other stories contains 13 short stories and 1 novelette ranging from the commonplace to the bizarre. This collection showcases a wide range of my storytelling including contemporary, science fiction, and horror. Following each story is the my commentary on how it came to be written.

From the back cover of the paperback edition:

  • “Ball of Fire:” Jill Tanner’s UFO sighting makes her a laughingstock in this small farming community—until everyone starts having close encounters of the weird kind.
  • “What’s Wrong with Being A Nurse?:” Many children want to be police officers, firefighters, doctors, or nurses when they grow up. Why does Chris’s seven-year-old daughter Suzy want to be a human sacrifice?
  • “A Friend of the Family:” In a desolate future where doctors have been replaced by Healers who practice primitive treatments like bleeding, one medical man risks his freedom to help a member of a Healer’s family.
  • “The Moaning Rocks:” Is the old legend about death coming to town just a story? George Winterholm is about to find out.

…and 10 other stories.

Some of the stories have been previously published, and others appear for the first time in this collection.

Learning To Swim: A Review

Learning to Swim: A NovelLearning to Swim: A Novel by Sara J. Henry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Learning to Swim begins when freelance writer Troy Chance sees a child plummet from the deck of a passing ferry into Lake Champlain. Instinctively, she dives in and saves him, then begins the long swim back to shore.

The child, who speaks only French, tells Troy his name is Paul. Other than that she manages only to get sketchy information from him. He tells her he was kidnapped and held in a room somewhere, and that the kidnappers shot his mother.

Troy becomes attached to Paul and, instead of going to the police right away, uses her internet researching skills to do some preliminary investigating of her own. She wants to find out to her satisfaction that the boy will be safe if she turns him over to the authorities and he’s returned home. She wants to make sure the father wasn’t involved in his abduction.

Her investigation leads her into deeper involvement with Paul and his father and puts her under suspicion of a local detective who thinks she had something to do with Paul’s initial disappearance.

After an attempt on Troy’s life, she really hits the investigation trail, determined to find the two men who kidnapped Paul. But what she stumbles into is a twist that I never saw coming.

Learning to Swim is Sara J. Henry’s debut novel. It is a relationship story as well as a mystery, and on both levels it succeeds very well. I highly recommend it.

Visit Sara J. Henry’s blog at Sara in Vermont.

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Under the Dome: Trapped in a Stephen King Nightmare

Under the DomeUnder the Dome by Stephen King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I put off reading this novel for more than a year because it is massive, 1,074 pages in hardcover. But I may have temporarily forgot that Under The Dome was written by Stephen King, who, in his own words, likes to write with “the pedal to the metal.”

Under The Dome has all the earmarks of a Stephen King novel: violence, massive destruction, sexuality (much of it perverted), and a deliciously depraved villain. It also has a cast of characters so large that King lists the main ones (in categories, no less) at the front of the book for easy reference. He also gives us a map of Chester’s Mill, Maine (the sock-shaped town, population 2,000, where the story takes place) showing the major landmarks in the novel.

The hero is Dale “Barbie” Barbara, a disillusioned ex-army officer (he has been the cook at the Sweetbriar Rose restaurant for the past few months) who is on his way out of town when the Dome comes down. I won’t tell you what the dome is or why it comes down. Suffice it to say that Barbie is trapped, which is inconvenient. He was leaving because of bad blood between him and some of the town’s young punks, particularly Junior Rennie, the son of Big Jim Rennie, used car dealer and one of the town’s three selectmen.

Big Jim uses the dome to assert his leadership. The town needs a leader to keep order now that it is cut off from the rest of the world, and why shouldn’t that leader be Big Jim? The only problem is that Barbie manages to get a call out to his former commander, Colonel Cox, who promotes him to Colonel and puts him in charge of the situation.

This doesn’t sit well with Big Jim as he embarks upon his mission to take over the town with the help of his “special” police officers. These are the town thugs who will do what Big Jim tells them, using whatever force is necessary (or even unnecessary) to keep the citizenry in line. Barbie and the friends he’s made since coming to town are the major obstacles in the way of Big Jim’s goal. They must be silenced, discredited, and/or killed to prevent them from interfering with Big Jim’s plans. He implements those plans through deceit, general skullduggery and even murder to turn the townspeople against Barbie and, as King calls them, the expatriates.

Under The Dome may be a massive novel, but it is a page-turner, right up though the electrifying climax and conclusion. I highly (double highly) recommend it.

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True Grit: Two Movies and a Novel

True GritTrue Grit by Charles Portis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although I was a fan of the John Wayne movie based on this novel, I’d never read the book before. When the latest film incarnation with Jeff Bridges was released, I dug up a copy of the novel and read it before going to see the movie.

The critics were right. The Coen brothers version does follow the novel more closely than the first movie, particularly in some key spots that I won’t tell you about. I hate giving things away.

There is, however, one major section where the story departs from the book, and I can’t figure out why. There is no reason structurally or story-wise that it should be changed (even the John Wayne version followed the novel here). I won’t tell you which part it is, either. But it really doesn’t make that big of difference. It’s just odd, and I actually do like the Jeff Bridges True Grit better than the John Wayne version. And Matt Damon, who plays LaBoeuf in the Coen brothers version, is a better actor than Glen Campbell. Sorry, Glen. Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Mattie Ross, also gives a commendable performance in her first major motion picture role.

Enough prattling about the movies. The book is an easy and an enjoyable read with strong characters and action. It is one of those genre novels that rises above its genre. I highly recommend it.

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Full Dark, No Stars: Stephen King at his Best

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Full DarFull Dark, No Starsk, No Stars is a collection of four novellas that delve into the darker regions of the human psyche.

  • In “1922,” Nebraska farmer Wilfred James murders his wife to prevent her from selling her land, which lies adjacent to their farm – and to carry out his brutal crime he enlists the help of his teenage son.
  • In “Big Driver,” Tess, a mild-mannered writer, is brutally attacked and left for dead, and she hatches a plot to seek revenge on those responsible.
  • “Fair Extension” is a deal with the devil story Stephen King style.
  • And in “A Good Marriage,” Darcy Anderson discovers, after 27 years of marriage and two children, that her accountant husband Bob has been a serial killer since before they met.

If you like Steven King’s novels, you’ll like Full Dark, No Stars. King is a master of the shorter form. I highly recommend this collection.

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The Martian Chronicles: An Allegory for the Conquest of a World

The Martian ChroniclesThe Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a young boy,  Ray Bradbury was fascinated with the planet Mars. Many kids – and even many adults – in the early 20th Century were fascinated with Mars. It was our nearest neighbor, coming as close as 35 million miles of Earth. It had green patches that could be vegetation, it had white polar caps (ice?) that appeared to shrink and grow with the seasons, and some astronomers claimed to see lines (straight lines, indicating that they were made by intelligent beings) which they called canals. What a wealth of imagination for young boys – and science fiction writers.

During the 1940s, Bradbury expressed his fascination with Mars in a series of stories, several of which he later collected into The Martian Chronicles (1950). But The Martian Chronicles is more than a collection of related stories. It is an allegory depicting the settlement of a world, obviously paralleling the settlement of the New World by the Europeans, conquering the Native Americans and taming the western wilderness. The novel also depicts the decline of human settlement on Mars. To help this collection of stories work as a novel with a unified theme, Bradbury wrote a number of bridge passages to ease the transition between stories.

I won’t say too much about the plot. For those of you who haven’t read it, I don’t want to give anything away. I wouldn’t call The Martian Chronicles science fiction. Even at the time Bradbury wrote these stories, scientists were pretty much in agreement that the Martian environment was too harsh to support human life. Bradbury never cared much about the science, which is probably why some hard core science fiction readers don’t care for him. He has always been more interested in showing what kind of trouble we can get into if we don’t use technology responsibly. According to Bradbury:

“It is all too easy for an emotionalist to go astray in the eyes of the scientific, and surely my work could never serve as a handbook for mathematicians. Somehow, though, I am compensated by allowing myself to believe that while the scientific expert can tell you the exact size, location, pulse, musculature and color of the heart, we emotionalists can find and touch it quicker.”*

So if you can get past the fudging over the science and enjoy the fantasy/allegorical aspect of The Martian Chronicles, this book has lots to say and is a must read.

*From The Ray Bradbury Companion by William F. Nolan (Detroit: Gale Research, 1975), p. 70.

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The Warmth of Other Suns: The Story of the Great Migration

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great MigrationThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lincoln may have freed the slaves in 1863,but that only changed the nature of African Americans’ enslavement in the south. They got paid for their work, but their paychecks were much smaller than the paychecks of white people doing the same type of work–sometimes, as in the case of sharecroppers, they would be lucky to do more than break even, and sometimes they ended up owing the planters whose land they worked. Black people could not vote, they had to step off the sidewalk if a white person was coming, they had to look down when talking to white people, and black men had to be especially careful not to look at white women. Lynchings were commonplace, and no court in the south would convict a white man for killing a black man.

This was the life for freed black people living in the south for more than 100 years, until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s began gathering steam and resulted in key court cases and legislation that eventually killed the Jim Crow laws.

Many African Americans left the south, heading north and west, in search of better lives. Beginning as a trickle about 1915, it soon became a flood and finally petered out about 1975, when southern society was changing enough that blacks didn’t feel that it was urgent for them to leave to seek better lives.

The Warmth of Other Suns is the story of The Great Migration, focusing on three immigrants who took three different routes–George Swanson Starling to New York, Ida Mae Gladney to Chicago, and Robert Pershing Foster to Los Angeles. George Starling left when he got word that he might be lynched, Ida Mae Gladney and her husband George were sharecroppers who wanted a better life, and Robert P. Foster was a surgeon who left so he could practice his profession without restrictions dictated by the color barrier.

But the north was not the land of milk and honey many blacks expected it would be. There was still racial tension and discrimination, but of a different variety, and Wilkerson does a good job of covering the struggles the immigrants had while starting their new lives.

Wilkerson, whose parents migrated from the south and who was the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism (in 1994), spent about 15 years researching this book, conducted more than 1,200 interviews, and retraced the routes taken by Starling, Gladney, and Foster.

The Warmth of Other Suns is a history buff’s dream. It is a readable and informative book about a period that changed the face of this country. I highly recommend it.

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Huckleberry Finn Censorship

Poor Mark Twain. He can’t catch a break.

When The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in 1884, censors banned it because it portrayed the slave Jim as a human being. Today, Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth books in Alabama have joined forces to publish a combined cleansed

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

version of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The new edition will replace the N-word (which, by Gribben’s count, appears 219 times in Huck Finn and 4 times in Tom Sawyer) with the word “slave.”

In the first place, I don’t see how “slave” is an improvement over the N-word. Slavery was not a good thing. It was one of the most shameful conditions ever condoned by this government or any government. So one would think that if the N-word was offensive to school children, “slave” would cause its own share of nightmares.

In the second place, to rewrite Twain is to rewrite history, as the Soviet Union used to do. The N-word was commonly used in Twain’s day. If Twain had meant “slave,” he would have used “slave” instead of the N-word. Remember, it was Twain who said: “The difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

In the third place, the N-word is a teachable moment. It is an opportunity for teachers to talk a little about the time in which the novel was written and why the N-word, although commonly used then, is offensive today.

We can’t escape our history by denying it. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a literary masterpiece. It should be taught as it was written or not taught at all.

The Earth, My Butt, & Other Big Round Things: A Review

The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round ThingsThe Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an exceptional novel.

It is a character-driven story about 15-year-old Virginia Shreves who feels that she doesn’t fit in – not at school and especially not with her own family. Her mother is an adolescent psychologist who does not practice what she preaches. Her father is a little less rigid, but he’s a high-powered manager.

Both of Virginia’s parents are workaholics and leave her to fend for herself most of the time. She idolizes her older brother – who is a chick magnet – and wishes she were more like her older sister, who has joined the Peace Corps (much to her mother’s chagrin) and is working in Africa.

All of Virginia’s family are dark-haired and thin. Virginia is blond and has a weight problem, due in large part to comfort eating.

Then something devastating happens that changes the entire family dynamic (I won’t tell you what it is; it’s a crucial turning point and best if you discover it for yourselves), and puts Virginia on the road to making major changes in her life.

The characters are well-delineated – especially Virginia, who gets inside your head the way that few characters do. Even the minor characters have their quirks, like Alyssa Wu who knits all the time to keep from fidgeting, and the math teacher Mr. Mooney, who forgets formulas but who remembers a plethora of old songs that he associates with names (“Carry me back to old Virginny . . . “) and sings whenever he interacts with students – much to the students’ mortification.

Although The Earth, My Butt & Other Big Round Things is technically a young adult novel it can be enjoyed at any age.  An excellent read. I recommend it highly.

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War, by Sebastian Junger: A Review

WARWAR by Sebastian Junger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is not what you may think it is, namely the “war is hell” theme or “we’re fighting for our country” mantra. War is not a political book. The reasons for the war and whether it is right or wrong, the author says, is left for politicians to haggle over.

Between June 2007 and June 2008, journalist Sebastian Junger made five trips to the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. He was “embedded” with American troops, meaning that he was “entirely dependent on the U.S. military for food, shelter, security, and transportation.”

The Korengal Valley is a particularly bad place to be in terms of fighting, and the Taliban proved to be an unconventional fighting force.

For instance, the Taliban would pay a teenager $5 to go up in the hills and start shooting at an American outpost. When the Americans returned fire the teenager would put down his weapon and disappear down the back side of the hill. The Americans knew about this stunt, but they had to waste an entire afternoon and lots of manpower to make sure it was a stunt and not a real “firefight.”

The Taliban would also leave weapons lying at various points in the hills. They would walk unarmed through villages – often past American soldiers – up into the hills, pick up the weapons and start shooting.

War focuses on the soldiers, the bond among them, and their thoughts about what they do and why they do it. As I mentioned earlier, the big picture of why we are in Afghanistan, as far as the troops are concerned, is something for the politicians to argue about. They are fighting to that they can go on living and so that their buddies can go on living.

This book shows how war changes people, for better and for worse. It has made me examine my preconceived ideas about our troops, and I highly recommend it for everyone. Those of you, like myself, who have never seen combat will gain a new perspective on war and the men and women who fight.

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Identity Crisis, by Debbi Mack: A Review

Identity CrisisIdentity Crisis by Debbi Mack

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Identity Crisis follows former public defender Sam (Stephanie Anne) McRae as she works to clear her client of a murder charge which turns out to be anything but simple. The clues lead her into a case involving identity theft, ties to the mob, a fire in a school lab, and revenge.

Sam’s practice doesn’t make a lot of money. She shares an office building–and a receptionist–with an accountant, her car is an old beater that barely runs, she lives in a small apartment and has trouble paying her bills.

I got the impression that her lack of income has to do with her devotion to her clients, who aren’t necessarily corporate climbers. This makes her the kind of heroine we like to root for.

Not only is this a good mystery, but Mack–an attorney herself–is a good writer. Without slowing the story she makes her setting (Maryland during a hot sticky summer) come alive. She uses a few well-chosen words to give substance to the scenes and to the locale. She even puts in details about the accents of people from different parts of the state.

All in all, this is a good read. I highly recommend it.

For more information visit Debbi Mack’s Website.

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A Man Called Outlaw, by K.M. Weiland: A Review

A Man Called OutlawA Man Called Outlaw by K.M. Weiland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I won’t say too much about the plot of A Man Called Outlaw. To do so might give away too much information, and I hate giving spoilers.

This novel tells two stories, thirty years apart, and switches back and forth between them–a few chapters in 1887, then a few chapters in 1858-9, then back to 1887 again. In the end the story-lines merge, and loose ends are tied up.

I hope that’s not giving away too much. But it’s obvious from the beginning that there are two stories going on. I even guessed the big secret long before the ending, but that didn’t lessen the suspense. I was still eager to see how the story played out.

The author does a good job of maintaining suspense, and despite what I thought I knew, it kept me riveted until the end. In addition to the “greedy rancher trying to force the smaller ranchers off their land” plot, the 1887 protagonist, Shane Lassiter, is struggling with his own ethical and moral dilemma. Both problems are resolved in the novel’s explosive conclusion.

Have I given too much away? I’ll shut up now. This is a great read and a good addition to every western afficianado’s library.

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Relics of Repentance–The Letters of Pontius Pilate & Claudia Procula, compiled by James F. Forcucci: A Review

Relics of repentance: The letters of Pontius Pilate and Claudia ProculaRelics of repentance: The letters of Pontius Pilate and Claudia Procula by James F. Forcucci

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you are interested in Biblical history and archeology, you’ll like this little booklet. The story leading up to the Crucifixion of Jesus is well-known, but then the Bible says nothing more about Pontius Pilate and his wife, Claudia Procula.

In Relics of Repentance, Biblical researcher James F. Forcucci tries to shed some light on events that were overshadowed by the formation of the Christian movement.

Relics is built around A Letter From Pontius Pilate’s Wife, translated by journalist Catherine van Dyke and first published in 1929. The letter is said to have been written by Claudia Procula to her friend, Fulvia, several years after the Crucifixion. The letter fills in some blank spots in the lives of Claudia and Pilate both before and after the Crucifixion.

To flesh out the story, editor Forcucci also has culled from various sources several letters purportedly written by Pilate as well as an excerpt from The Gospel of Nicodemus (formerly The Acts of Pilate).

For more information about Relics, check out http://issanapress.tripod.com/

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A Date You Can’t Refuse, by Harley Jane Kozak: A Review

A Date You Can't RefuseA Date You Can’t Refuse by Harley Jane Kozak

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Date You Can’t Refuse is the fourth installment of Harley Jane Kozak’s mysteries involving Wollie Shelley, who is described on the back cover copy as a “serial dater,” presumably because she often ends up dating Mr. Wrong.

Writing is a second career for Kozak, who grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska. Her first career is in acting. Born Susan Jane Kozak she took her stage name from the motorcycle and began her career on a soap opera and eventually appeared in such A-list movies as Arachnophobia and Parenthood.

Wollie Shelley is a greeting card artist. She’s a good artist but not financially successful. To complicate matters, her brother – who is mentally ill and in a halfway house – has been threatened with eviction.

Reluctantly, Wollie (short for Wollstonecraft, after Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th Century feminist) accepts an undercover assignment from F.B.I. agent Bennett Graham. She is to be a Social Coach for a company called MediaRex. In exchange, Graham promises to make sure her brother is allowed to remain in the halfway house.

A “Social Coach,” as it turns out, is a combination of chauffeur and etiquette coach. Her pupils are visitors from Eastern Europe who must be introduced to American customs. The F.B.I. thinks something nefarious is going on. Wollie’s job is to plant three bugs, each in a specific area of the house, and to report on anything out-of-the-ordinary that might be said or done at the compound.

The story makes many twists and turns on its suspenseful path to a surprise ending. Wollie is endearing as the narrator, revealing much about herself. She doesn’t have the makeup to be a spy – she must even be coached by her friends Joey and Fredreeq on how to lie – but she is committed to taking care of her brother.

The quirky characters whom Wollie coaches provide much of the humor. There is Zbiggo, the burley over-sexed boxer who spends much of his time unconscious and a good portion of the rest of his time getting into trouble. And Felix, who wrote a book called Jesus Made Me Skinny, and is in this country for an operation to remove the folds of skin left hanging on his body when the fat melted away.

Other mysteries in the Wollie Shelley series are Dating Dead Men, Dating is Murder, and Dead Ex. A Date You Can’t Refuse is an excellent novel. I highly recommend it.

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Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali: A Review

InfidelInfidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Infidel is the story of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, born a Muslim in Somalia and raised in Africa and Saudi Arabia. At the age of 22 she sought asylum in the Netherlands to escape a marriage her father had arranged to a distant cousin she had never met.

She became a Dutch citizen and earned a degree in political science, and in the thirteen years she lived in the Netherlands she fought to open the eyes of the west to the plight of Muslim women, first as a writer and speaker, and later as a member of Parliament.

What is most striking about this book is Ali’s courage in fleeing her family, in chipping away at beliefs she’d once held sacred, and finally in speaking out about the many injustices of a system where everything a people do or are expected to do is dictated by directives written down more than a thousand years ago.

I highly recommend this eye-opening memoir.

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Death of the American Novel? Really?

I’ve always considered writers to be storytellers. If the story had what one of my college professors called “a deeper, hidden, secret meaning,” that was fine as long as it had a proper beginning, middle and ending, as long as it–warning: I’m about to use what some self-proclaimed  literati consider to be a dirty word–ENTERTAINED.

I’ve spent my career wedding entertainment with a “deeper, hidden, secret meaning.” Readers who pick up my stories to be entertained will be satisfied. So will readers who want to analyze them. The two conditions are not exclusive, as critic Harold Bloom seemed to suggest in 2003 when he scolded the National Book Foundation for giving a “Distinguished Contribution to American Letters” award to Stephen King because good literature could not be that popular.

The idea that a story can be meaningful and entertain is not new. Many of the classics, novels that are taught in our schools and universities, were popular.

Mark Twain made lots of money with his books (he had to because he also lost lots of money investing in inventions that tanked). Huckleberry Finn in particular can be read as an adventure story, but for those who want to delve deeper Twain is saying plenty about the human condition.

John Steinbeck had hit the best seller lists before he published The Grapes of Wrath, which not only was popular, but it also rocketed him to the top of many corporate America sh*t lists. In a nutshell, the story was about the crappy treatment of displaced Oklahoma farmers during the Great Depression. For those who want to delve deeper, though, there’s lots of stuff to think about.

For example, the Rev. Jim Casey is a Christ figure. Writers of literature like to put Christ figures into their stories.  When I first read this book for a college English class, I took it a step further. An angry mob beats Casey to death with pickax handles. Pickaxes, before they are separated from their handles resemble crosses…you can probably see where I’m going with this. It may be speculative bullsh*t, but my professor was pretty excited about my analysis.

Other popular novels which also encourage the reader to think are Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is an amazing novel considering that it was a first novel and its author was only 23 years old at the time of publication.What’s amazing is not that a 23-year-old could write a novel that is both popular and literary, but that one so young would have such a depth of understanding about the world.

Some more modern practitioners of literary fiction that also is popular are Ann Patchett (Bel Canto) and Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife)

A favorite phrase of many English teachers, particularly in high school, is: “What was the author trying to say?” Then they look meaningfully at the class as if expecting some student to pipe up with the “theme” of the novel in one or two sentences. I always hated that phrase. If you want meaning in one or two sentences, open a Twitter account.

The meaning in a story is in the characters, what they say and how they react in different situations. The meaning is in the conflict of the story and in its resolution. The meaning is in the emotions that the writer arouses in the reader.

It is possible for a novel to be both entertaining and meaningful, and some of the meaning will rub off on the reader whether he or she does a deeper analysis or not. For instance, many readers may not get all that business about the Rev. Jim Casey being a Christ figure, pickax handle theory and all, but they will be incensed at the crappy way an uncaring society treats the displaced Oklahomans.

The American novel is not dead, as critic Lee Siegel claimed in a New York Observer article. His reason: because the public no longer talks about books. This is not the Nineteenth Century. We have movies, TV, and video games to talk about as well. And even novels continue to be talked about, although probably not during the series finale of Lost. The Internet provides countless forums for literary discussion. You can also find book discussions on TV, and many communities have organized reads like my hometown’s One Book One Lincoln where a particular book is read and then discussed in small group settings around the city.

So, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the novel’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

For additional reading see: “Literary storm rages as critic Lee Siegel pronounces the American novel dead.”

Review of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The trade paperback edition of Jamie Ford’s debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, hit bookstores on October 5, 2009, and within a week had climbed to number 15 on the New York Times bestseller list. By October 23 it had peaked at number 13. Since then it has remained in the top 30, ranging up and down from the mid teens to the high 20s (as I write this on the first day of summer 2010, it is #27).

An unusual achievement for a first novel, but Hotel is an unusual novel. It is about the relationship between Henry Lee, who is Chinese, and Keiko Okabe, who is Japanese. The story begins in 1986 when Seattle’s Panama Hotel is preparing to re-open after having been closed for more than forty years. The personal belongings of many Japanese families are found in the basement–apparently stashed there when the families are relocated to internment camps during WWII. Henry gets permission to go through the treasures, searching for anything that might have belonged to the Okabe family, but in particular for a recording by a local jazz artist that he and Keiko had shared when they were 12 years old. Although Henry married (his wife has recently died) and had a son, the memory of his first love has always haunted him because they were separated when she and her family were sent to a camp. To complicate matters, Henry’s father despises the Japanese because they are the enemies of China. He makes Henry wear an “I am Chinese” button so that he won’t be mistaken for the enemy.

This is a love story, but it is also about subtle forms of racism. Henry is not accepted by other Chinese kids because he attends a Caucasian school. Keiko is sent to an internment camp although she is third generation American and doesn’t even speak Japanese. The story shifts deftly between 1986 and the 1940s. Ford’s research and writing style make the war years and his characters come alive. Especially poignant is Ford’s depiction of the death of a community after its residents are rounded up and shipped out. An excellent novel. I highly recommend it.

Ford himself is of Chinese descent. His great grandfather, Min Chung, who immigrated to the U.S. around 1865, changed his name to the more western-sounding William Ford. Jamie Ford’s second novel is scheduled for release in early 2011. For more information, visit Jamie’s Website.

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Review of True Compass, by Edward M. Kennedy

True Compass: A Memoir by Edward M. Kennedy My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is an extraordinary memoir. It held my interest and was a quick read, which is good for a 500+ page book. There are several reasons why this autobiography is so intriguing:

  • It gives a well-rounded look at Ted Kennedy’s life: his family, his schooling, his years campaigning for his brothers, and his own political service.
  • Kennedy writes candidly about the low-points in his life: his brothers’ assassinations, Mary Jo Kopechne, and his divorce.
    He gives a behind-the-scenes look at the Presidents with whom he served, portraits that often differed greatly from their public personas.
  • This is not a kiss-and-tell autobiography, but Kennedy is candid about his experiences and what he learned from his mistakes.

True Compass is a must-read for anyone who has, or is planning to have, children. The first part is largely concerned with how the Kennedy childrenTrue Compass: A Memoir were raised. I’ve seen many times in the media that Joe Kennedy groomed his sons to go into politics. Ted debunks that notion. His parents, he said, emphasized public service but did not dictate to their children how to accomplish that public service. In fact, Joe was surprised when Jack announced that he planned to run for Congress.

The book is full of anecdotes. For example, to illustrate the respect for Joe by his adult children, Ted told of Jack’s visit home while he was president. Jack decided to sleep in on Sunday morning but awoke suddenly when he heard his father’s footsteps coming up the stairs. Knowing that he would be questioned about why he wasn’t in church, he dressed hurriedly, slipped out the back way, and climbed over the fence into the neighbors’ yard. Ted didn’t mention if Secret Service agents were right behind him or if he ditched them, too.

True Compass gives us a good look how things get done in government and how politics has changed over the years. Kennedy tells about good and bad experiences he has had working with both Democrats and Republicans, and he doesn’t use his book as a platform to lash out at people he doesn’t like.

This is a nonpartisan book. It tells the story of an American dynasty and its last patriarch. It is a memoir that should be read, and can be enjoyed, by Democrats and Republicans.

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Review of Sh*t My Dad Says, by Justin Halpern

Sh*t My Dad Says Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is hilarious. The Backstory: Justin Halpern started a Twitter account (of the same title) where he tweeted humorous quotes from his father. He didn’t tweet quotes frequently, but before he knew it he had over 1 million followers and was getting calls from agents. One result was this book, which quickly shot to the top of the New York Times best seller list. The Dad in the title has a potty mouth (one reason I recommend it for adults), but he is an educated man, a doctor who spent his career in research. At the end of each chapter is a list of quotes on various subjects. Each chapter tells a story about a different experience Justin had growing up and what he learned from his dad in the process.

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