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Category Archives: book reviews

reviews of books

The Intrigue at Highbury: Or, Emma’s Match (Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mysteries #5) [book review]

jamie insalaco and grantI haven’t mentioned Grant in a while.  He’s the German Shepard mix member of our pack and neither diabetes, nor cancer, nor heart arrhythmia, nor blindness will keep him from breaking down doors or reviewing books.

That’s right, reviewing books.  Grant’s versatile.  He likes all sorts of things and apparently, weighing in on what Dr. Girlfriend is reading is right at the top of his list.  For Grant’s first (and possibly only) book review, he’s going to tell you what he thought of The Intrigue at Highbury: Or, Emma’s Match (Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mysteries #5) by Carrie Bebris. Read the rest of this entry

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Filing Glen Beck’s books where they belong

glen-beck-childrens-books

So poetic.  And only seven bucks, too!  Glen Beck must be proud.

Damn it, Kindle…

image

Every once and a while, my kindle will decide that its best function is to take up space.  It just sits there and shows me this screen in what I assume is an attempt to remind me that I need to spend more time reading outdoors.  I don’t know what causes this (automatic updates?) and I certainly don’t know what fixes it (positive thinking?), but eventually, the situation resolves itself of its own accord.  In the meantime, I am frustrated… And  reminded that a proper book has been state of the art since the printing press was invented.  Still, the kindle is a great device that I can’t help but recommend in one fashion or another.

Darth Vader and Son [Book Review]

darth-vader-and-son-front-cover

My Score: 80%

I love the idea of an extraordinary character in an every day role, and Darth Vader and Son pulls this off in spades.  There’s just one problem… Read the rest of this entry

Before There Was Twilight…

image

…There were cheesy romance novels.  Novels that were upfront about their crap factor.  Just look at these covers!  That’s some genuine schlock.

We are American: Unfulfilled Dreams by William Perez

Dr. William Perez

Last night, I heard Dr. William Perez speak about the issues of undocumented students and the challenges they face.  This has been on my mind lately.

I heard an interview with a family on WNYC radio last week.  The kids were born here, but the parents were here illegally – I forget where they were from, but it did not sound like a good time.  The little girl said something like, “I heard my parents talking in Arabic and they said a word I didn’t know.  I looked it up and learned it meant ‘deported’ – that’s how I found out they were here illegally.”  The parents are being deported and can choose if the children go back with them or not.  So much for anchor babies.

Comparatively to children who immigrated here illegally, the above child has it easy.  Imagine you were brought here when you were three years old.  You go to school and the day you bring home the SAT application and ask your parents for your social security number…  that’s when you find out.  You’re here illegally and unless you can change your status, your future is in serious jeopardy at best.

Dr. Perez talked about living a life I never imagined in my dizziest nightmares  – imagine trying to deal with issues like this while you were going to college…  it’s almost too much to think about.  Yet the data shows that many students in this situation do well in school and go on to be productive members of society.

In 2010, The Dream Act failed in the US Senate by 5 votes, but many states have enacted similar laws already.  We’re getting closer to where we need to be, but we aren’t there yet.  Hell, even Governor Rick Perry of Texas supports similar legislation in his home state, and he apparently never goes jogging without a gun.

Dr. Perez’s book, We are American: Unfulfilled Dreams, drops in November – I plan on picking it up.

Why People Thought The Rapture Was Coming

a-shore-thing-snooki

If you walked into a book store and saw this, what would you think?

In the interest of being thorough, I watched an entire episode of The Jersey Shore, and besides being a complete and total waste of my time, it was immediately obvious that none of the cast members (or whatever you call people on a reality show) were from New Jersey as per their EXTREMELY THICK NEW YORK CITY ACCENTS, but whatever.  Excuse me for expecting a show called “The Jersey Shore” to be populated by people from New Jersey, but I guess that’s presumption on my part – it merely takes place at the Jersey shore.

The fact that a cast member (never mind the one called ‘Snooki’) wrote a book (or more likely, had someone ghost write it for her) isn’t one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, but it damn well should be.  Nevertheless, no rapture.  Maybe if The Situation hooks up with Ark Music Factory and drops a fresh jam, well… that might push us over the top.

Taming The Star Runner book review

Taming Of The Star RunnerDuring sixth and seventh grades, I read all of SE Hinton’s books.  Twice.  The Outsiders, That Was Then, This Is Now, Rumble Fish, Tex and finally Taming the Star Runner…  hey, can one serve someone in SE Hinton lore the way people have those dance offs?  Because I totally could.

For whatever reason, I requested a copy of Taming the Star Runner for Christmas this year, and I gobbled it up again in just a few hours – I read pretty fast, and when I’ve read the book before, I think I read a hair faster than normal.  Also, please note I use the expression ‘a hair faster,’ not to be confused with ‘a hare faster,’ which is a totally different colloquialism.  But in any case, it’s an easy read.

I’ve always thought  Taming the Star Runner was Hinton’s… I don’ t know, oddest book?  It feels the most divorced from the other ones, and not just because it doesn’t use any of her reoccurring characters.  Something is different this time around – sure, Hinton’s first four books were published between 1968 and 1979, and TtSR didn’t come out until 1988…  But it’s not just the first appearance of a little kid or a sympathetic parent figure or the fact that this is book is in 3rd person rather than first, like her previous novels…  it’s not any of those things.  It’s Travis.

spoiler alert

To summarize the book and it’s plot threads is not an easy feet, although the book is easy to follow. (I do maintain the first chapter or so is kind of a mess, but after that Hinton gets into a nice flow – that mess might have been intentional, as I’ll discuss below.)  Travis has to leave home and move in with his Uncle Ken after he cracks his stepfather in the head with a blunt object in a fit of anger.  Ken has a house on several acres and leases his barn to a horse trainer named Casey, who is a phenom and not much older than Travis.  He ends up at a little hick school in Nowhere, Oklahoma (it’s Oklahoma, right?  Hinton’s books always take place in Oklahoma… don’t they?) where he doesn’t fit in.  Despite receiving poor grades in English, Travis manages to sell his novel, a strange twist:  our angry, drinking, smoking, swearing and violent teenager is a sensitive artist who used to have a part-time job as a veterinary assistant.  That seems strange to me.  I get that characters don’t have to, and probably shouldn’t be, drawn flatly, but Travis is all over the damn place.  Only luck, he realizes later in the novel, saved him from killing his step father when he hit him in the head with a fire poker.  When Ken tells Travis he has to move out of the house because he threw a phone across the room during an angry conversation with his mother and nearly hit Ken’s soon to be ex-wife and young son, he reacts by bursting into tears.  You know what the tough guy says?  “I thought you liked me.”  But he gets to stay, some other stuff happens and the book ends.

(A quick word on animals and their portrayals  in this book:  it’s effing weird.  Motorboat, Travis’ cat, is, vivid and interesting.  His need for something to do – whether it’s hunting mice, hanging out at the barn or receiving attention from Travis, he’s always on the move, or trying to be.  We don’t get quite as much information about the horses – except maybe the Star Runner, who is not bipolar like Travis; the Star Runner is just always pissed off instead of flying all over the place – and I could have done without the snake getting killed, despite it being one of the better written passages in the book.)

You have to wonder what Hinton did with the chapter where he talks to the school psychiatrist, who, after a few minutes of listening to Travis, interrupts to ask, “Has anyone in your family ever been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder?”  Admittedly, Travis is going through a tough time (though of his own making due to his total inability to manage his anger even a little bit) with moving to a new place, living a new life, unresolved curiosity about the father who died before he was born and his need for Ken to fill that void… maybe that’s enough to explain his erratic moods.  But I vividly remember a passage that goes something like:

When he was six or seven, he remembered thinking that teenagers were dumb and by the time he was twelve, he was dying to be one.  Maybe it was going to be like that.

While I will concede that turning thirteen is a milestone in any young man’s life, I can’t remember feeling (nor any guy conveying any feeling anywhere in the neighborhood of this) that I just can’t, just can’t wait to turn thirteen.  Sure, I liked birthdays, but what little kid doesn’t?  Turning twelve didn’t do anything any greater than turning eleven did for me, so I was pretty sure turning thirteen would be the same, and I was right.  I bring it up because I have a hard time finding the connection between the Travis that stole his mom’s Valium in sixth grade and sold it for the money to buy a type writer and the Travis that can’t wait to turn thirteen – or the Travis that is described as follows:

Even Travis knew the difference between a couple of swats and a beating.

fire-poker-taming-the-star-runner

Imagine getting his upside the head with one of THESE? Can you even imagine HITTING someone with one of these? Sheesh!

I should hope so – he’s sixteen and he wrote a damn book all by himself!  Not only is the character bipolar, but so are the descriptions of him.  Travis tells his mom that Motorboat likes hunting mice down by the barn – seems like a simple exchange, no?  Read on:

“Well, I’m glad he’s earning his keep.”

“Hey,” Travis said hotly, “I’m workin’ now, I’m giving Ken some board money.”

“Honey, I didn’t mean…”

Down, tiger!  I think she’s just making chit-chat.  But then you have these moments coupled with moments like these, it’s hard to know what to think.

Travis had read it, but not at school.  He just liked Robert Frost.

Yep, it’s not enough that he’s well read when it comes to prose, he reads poetry, too.  (It also comes up that Travis has read both The Iliad and The Odyssey.)  The poem that is referred to, The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost, has been stuffed down my throat my whole life; I would think Travis had read it at school, but again, this is the pains to which Hinton went to paint Travis as a sensitive guy… who picks fights, drinks bourbon, smokes cigarettes and hit his step father in the side of the head with a fire poker.  By the end of the second act, he’s practically having a panic attack.  He seems pretty bipolar to me, and Hinton’s narrator isn’t helping any, so I guess you file that under the ‘unreliable narrator‘ section in your bookcase.

So, although I never really picked up on it before, I came away from this reading (my third for sure, but it’s possibly my fourth) of Taming the Star Runner with the idea that Travis has bipolar disorder and the 3rd person narrator is unreliable.  I guess I might be looking too deeply into the situation, as it is a book for teenagers, but then, it was over a decade between publications for Hinton and she tried a lot of other new stuff with this book, so maybe it’s safe to assume she was trying more than a teenager would catch on to.

My Rating:  4 out of 5

NOTE:  My copy says ‘Taming the Star Runner,’ but the Amazon files say ‘Taming of the Star Runner,’ as does the image at top right.  I have no idea which is correct – Wikipedia does not recognize the ‘of,’ and I guess it doesn’t really matter, anyway.

Mark Twain Is Smarter Than Alan Gribben

Twain was awarded a doctrine of literature from Oxford University... not exactly Auburn University, but still...

Twain was awarded a doctrine of literature from Oxford University... not exactly Auburn University, but still...

Alan Gribben is the English professor at Auburn University at Montgomery who suggested that NewSouth Books replace the word “nigger” with “slave” and the word “injun” with “Indian” in a new edition of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”  Mr. Gribben is quoted to have said, “even at the level of college and graduate school, students are capable of resenting textual encounters with this racial appellative.”

First, a word on advice:  know who you’re getting it from.  I’m sure Auburn is a great school, but check this out:

Auburn’s top-ranked football team, which is preparing to play Oregon in Glendale, Ariz., for the national title on Monday, has tumbled in the N.C.A.A.’s most important academic measurement to No. 85 from No. 4 among the 120 major college football programs.

I have no respect for schools that place athletic achievement above educational endeavors, and its looking like Auburn sacrifices standards and principles to win football games – so maybe they’re not the first school to run to when you have questions about American Literature Classics.  I’m also suspicious anytime a southern school has anything to do with ‘whitewashing’ American history.

Secondly, a word on Mark Twain:  he’s the greatest.  Haley’s Comet adhered to the man’s wishes… the man literally commanded the heavens:

“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it… The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'”

He died in April – it swung by to pick him up in May.  Oh, and he’s also generally regarded as the father of American Literature, so you can’t fuck with his words.  Changing Twain’s text is akin to saying you know better than Twain, and Mr. Gribben, lets not embarrass ourselves…  I doubt you have half of Twain’s intellectual powers on your best day.  Can anyone imagine Twain suggesting that some text from another excellent historical author should be changed?  Not likely.

Finally, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is about RACISM.  How can you take the racial slurs out of a book about racism?  Isn’t racial slurs a large part of the point?  “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” helps contemporary Americans see where we were, how far we’ve come, and how very far we still have to go.  Modifying the text is as bad as selling teeth whitener that removes the enamel along with the stain… it’s the kind of thing that will get you ridden out of town on a rail, tarred and feathered.

Don’t buy the modified version of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn;” it’d be like denying your past.  We’re Americans, and we are who we are.  We never stop growing or changing; sure, sometimes folks come along who try to retard the process, but we’re smarter than them – sometimes you need to swab the knuckleheads off the deck of your river boat.

Drama: Understanding the Three Act Formula

drama masksI’ve created a few companion posts to go along with my reviews:  a rating system and a spoiler alert warning.  Now, I’m ready to take it a step further and explain what I mean when I reference Act 1, Act 2 or Act 3 in a review.

When I say ‘drama,’ I’m not just referring to a specific genre; all stories have drama.  When I reference an ‘Act,’ I understand your mind may immediately jump to theater, but the three act system of story structure is relevant to all mediums.  In the simplest terms, Act 1 is the beginning, Act 2 is the middle and Act 3 is the end.  Each act has to accomplish specific goals:

batman beginsACT 1: you meet all of the characters and learn about the central conflict that drives the story.
EXAMPLE:  In Batman Begins, we meet Bruce Wayne, Rachel Dawes, Alfred Pennyworth and other characters and learn about the central conflict that drives the movie:  Bruce’s parents were murdered in front of him when he was a child.  To reconcile this conflict, Bruce becomes Batman and begins working on bringing justice to Gotham City’s criminal underworld.

ACT 2: the main character(s) is thrust into the worst possible situation they could be in.
EXAMPLE:  Batman Begins – Bruce’s house is burned down, all the criminals break out of jail and Ra’s al Ghul is going to release his fear toxin on Gotham City.

ACT 3: the main character gets out of the horrible situation.
EXAMPLE:  Batman Begins - Batman beats Ra’s al Ghul and is confident that they’ll pick up the remaining criminals still at large.  Bruce begins rebuilding his house.

It’s that simple:  conflict, conflict inside of conflict, resolution.  Let’s try it again, but this time with a comedy:

The 40 Year Old Virgin

the 40 year old virginACT 1:  Andy is a lonely and in some ways juvenile man and at 40, has never had sex.  To address this conflict, Andy  starts dating and meets Trish, who he quickly falls for.  Although Andy hides his virginity from Trish, they decide to wait 30 dates before having sex.

ACT 2:  Trish and Andy fight when Trish attempts to initiate sex and Andy is still afraid and hasn’t told her he’s a virgin.  When she arrives at his apartment, she finds a box filled with pornography that she assumes is Andy’s property and Trish is angrier still and storms out.

ACT 3:  Andy reveals to Trish that he’s a virgin and not some pornographic crazed psycho killer.  Andy and Trish get married and have sex, ending Andy’s virginity.

A good story should have characters that grow and change throughout the story.  As the conflict resolves, they’re not the people they were when the story began; this is because what happened in Act 2 was so stressing that they had to react to it in Act 3, hence they come out different on the other side.

Hope this was helpful!

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