The Blog's Mission

Wikipedia defines a book review as: “a form of literary criticism in which a book is analyzed based on content, style, and merit. A book review can be a primary source opinion piece, summary review or scholarly review”. My mission is to provide the reader with my thoughts on the author’s work whether it’s good, bad, or ugly. I read all genres of books, so some of the reviews may be on hard to find books, or currently out of print. All of my reviews will also be available on Amazon.com. I will write a comment section at the end of each review to provide the reader with some little known facts about the author, or the subject of the book. Every now and then, I’ve had an author email me concerning the reading and reviewing of their work. If an author wants to contact me, you can email me at rohlarik@gmail.com. I would be glad to read, review and comment on any nascent, or experienced writer’s books. If warranted, I like to add a little comedy to accent my reviews, so enjoy!
Thanks, Rick O.

Monday, August 25, 2014

WONDER

This is a guest review from Patricia Koelmel, an accomplished artist and contending writer:

Very few of us are comfortable in our skin 24/7 for one reason or another. Be it a bad hair day, a cold sore, a pimple. Well, what if every day was like that, only a million times worse?

Wonder is a 2012 work of fiction by R.J. Palacio (for children ages 8-12) that brilliantly tells the story of ten-year-old August (Auggie) Pullman, an ordinary boy with an extraordinary face. Born with a rare congenital disorder characterized by craniofacial deformities combined with an unnamed secondary syndrome, he is referred to as a “medical wonder” of sorts. (His parents and fifteen-year-old sister, Via, by the way, are normal-attractive even.)

Of his condition, Auggie prefers to say only this: “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”

Now, if you’re wondering what going out in public must be like for Auggie, let me put it this way. Halloween (even over Christmas) is his favorite holiday. “[Of Halloween, Auggie says] I get to wear a mask. I get to go around like every other kid with a mask and nobody thinks I look weird. Nobody takes a second look. Nobody notices me. Nobody knows me. I wish everyday could be Halloween.”

Pretty sad, eh? But be prepared to be uplifted, too. Heartwrenching can turn into heartwarming on a dime. This smart, savvy, funny kid will surprise and touch you in ways you will never expect.

Flawlessly told from alternating character POVs, the story follows Auggie as he navigates his way through the fifth grade in his first mainstream school experience. Homeschooled up until now, he is naturally petrified. But thanks to a loving, supportive family, Auggie somehow manages to bravely march on as he encounters stares, whispers, isolation, and bullies. On the flipside, there are also friendships and wondrous, new times to be had.

In her debut novel, Ms. Palacio has crafted an unforgettable story about a boy, as far from beautiful as it gets, with a spirit more beautiful than most. It is no wonder Wonder made it to the #1 spot on the New York Times Bestseller List. So, do I recommend this book? You bet I do! Not only to the children it was written for, but adults alike. Oh yeah, it’s that good.

Final words: Here’s to hoping that one day society will no longer react differently upon encountering someone with an appearance as unique as Auggie’s. I can’t help but be reminded of the “Cantina Scene” from the 1977 Star Wars film when some of the most bizarre-looking creatures are seen chatting among themselves, clearly oblivious to their dissimilarities. To this day, I remember thinking at the time: If only “our” world could be like that.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: Rick O's blog compliments Patricia for that energized critique. I was thinking about reviewing other novels that dealt with deformities, like Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), or Christine Sparks’s Elephant Man, but it would ruin the flavor of her review. So why don’t we just go to “The Cantina”... have a drink and talk about it:

Picture is courtesy of WWW.Craveonline.com

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere

John Chu’s Hugo Award (2014) winning short story is somewhat unusual. It seems that rain has decided to fall on anyone caught in a lie. Wow, would that straighten out politics, or what? Can you imagine the President fielding and answering questions at a press conference? Anyway, the rain could be a drizzle or a downpour to match the severity of the lie. How this phenomenon started or what caused it to begin in the first place doesn’t seem important to the populace in this Tor.com original story. It was tested and found to be safe distilled water. Enough said...what? There are a lot of unanswered questions about this occurrence, but apparently not important, since this story is about a Chinese/American man coming out of the closet.

Matt, the above mentioned gentleman, is in love with Gus, a large Adonis type man. One day Gus says to Matt, “You know.” Gus’s voice is surprisingly steady given how his teeth chatter. “Now that we know how we feel about each other, how about we solemnize the relationship? Make it official.” Matt says, “Lets visit my family this Christmas. The two of us.” Gus says, “Are you sure? I can wait years if that’s what you want.” I smell trouble, especially with all the downpours that that meeting can produce (I finally got to use Mieville’s that that sequence). When they arrive at Matt’s sister Michele’s mansion for the holiday, Michele senses trouble and takes Matt into her office and says, '“How dare you?” She slams the door behind her and I remind myself that I’m bigger than her now and it’d be harder for her to beat me up. “Are you trying to kill Mom and Dad?”'

The story gets interesting from here on because Matt’s parents (not speaking English since they retired) want a grandson to carry on the family’s name and bloodline. Michele’s husband Kevin’s parents only speak Cantonese and Mandarin. Will they understand? Will Matt chicken out and say nothing? And the big question is: will it drizzle or downpour on this home? I thought that this story was astute and well thought out. It reminded me of Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles (see my review of 3/28/13). Both stories had amazing events happening to Earth, but the incidents took a backseat to the human interest part of the story. I do recommend this short story (and I mean short).

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: This award has been won by the heavyweights of science fiction: Larry Niven, Philip Jose Farmer, Poul Anderson, Edgar Rice Burroughs, George R.R. Martin, Orson Scott Card, John Varley, and Isaac Asimov. Is that some lineup or what? The problem is since these are short stories, they are mostly out of print. What I suggest is simple... try to buy these great writers in short story collections, such as:

The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke: The Star, Volume III (Arthur C. Clarke Collection: Short Stories Book 3) by Arthur C. Clarke. 

Amazon.com says of Clarke’s Hugo Short Story winner (1956), The Star: “In the title story of this outstanding collection, a group of cosmonauts discovers the remains of an advanced civilization in a remote star system-destroyed when their sun went supernova. They find that the civilization was very similar to Earth's-and that its people knew of their coming doom centuries before it occurred. What they find leads their chief astrophysicist-also a Jesuit priest-into a deep crisis of faith, sparked by a shocking revelation that has implications not just for history-but for religion."

"This collection of short stories demonstrates not only Clarke's technological imagination-but also a deep poetic sensibility that led him to ponder the philosophical and moral implications of technological advances. These stories demonstrate the range of his vision as an author-based on both our scientific potential and the deeper aspects of the human condition.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

THE BIOLOGY OF LUCK

The author sent me a copy of his novel to review:

The roots to Jacob M. Appel’s novel can be traced back to the eighth century BC. That is when Homer wrote his epic poem, The Odyssey. Now bear with me. In 1922, James Joyce, in an attempt to match the characters and happenings of Homer’s poem, published Ulysses. And in 2013, Appel publishedThe Biology of Luck. Okay, so what. Well, Joyce’s novel and Appel’s novel are both one day (in June) occurrence novels. Secondly, Joyce’s protagonist is Leopold Bloom and Appel’s is Larry Bloom. Thirdly, both novels are in big cities, Leopold walks the streets of Dublin and Larry walks the streets of NYC. Both characters meet some very strange people. So there you go, a little literature history. Jacob M. Appel, in a question and answer interview at the book’s end, admits that he paralleled parts of his novel after Homer’s and Joyce’s books. Also, I have read some minor criticism about Appel’s prose...too hard to understand. What? Try reading China Mieville’s neologisms without consulting a dictionary. Appel’s novel is written in an prestigious composition, very easy to understand without having to ‘google’ a word. I also thought the book within the book stratagem was very clever. Enough, lets get to the story.

Larry Bloom, a nondescript and balding NYC tour guide has written a novel about his dinner date, Starshine Hart, the most beautiful girl in the City (according to everybody in the novel). The story unfolds with Larry taking a group of Dutch visitors on a tour of the city after he visits the local post office. He meets his group at Grant’s Tomb where a protest is taking place. Larry hustles the group to their first destination. Meanwhile, we meet Starshine in the first chapter of the book Larry has written. She lives in a flat with her dingbat roommate, Eucalyptus, a scrimshaw artist with many cognitive problems. The reader finds out that Starshine has two main squeezes: Colby Parker, the heir to a lawn chair tycoon, and an aging former Weather Underground revolutionary, Jack Bascomb. I mentioned in the first paragraph that there were strange characters in this story but wait more to come. In the interim, the letter Larry picked up is from the publisher Stroop & Stone. He decides that he will open the letter at the dinner with Starshine to find out if his book was accepted and to express his undying love to her at the same time. Some big plans for a portly unappealing man wooing the most beautiful girl in NYC (some say in the world).

In the ensuing pages (Larry’s continued tour), and the emerging chapters (Starshine in Larry’s novel), we meet many strange exotic New Yorkers. Does this make any sense to you? If you read this delightful novel, it will. You will encounter: Bone, the one arm super of Starshine’s building who can fix or get anything done; Ziggy Borasch (great name), a failed writer and sometimes maniac philosopher; Kalkhazian, the opinionated Armenian florist; Snipe, Larry’s self-serving boss; Rita Blatt, the homely sexist reporter from The Downtown Rag; and, the annoying Dutch tourist, Willem van Huizen. Somehow, Jacob M. Appel harmonizes all these characters before the story ends. Then comes the ending, ah, the ending. Is it real time or just another chapter in Larry’s proposed novel? I read that many reviewers highly criticized the conclusion. I, for one, think that the ending was absolutely brilliant. The concept that life is fleeting and only takes one day for everything to revise has enthralled many authors into writing memorable novels. I believe this is one of those novels. I am impressed with all the innuendos that are left dangling throughout the novel. By the way, what’s Appel trying to tell us when he consistently mentions Walt Whitman and Herman Melville?  I’m not saying that this work challenges Homer or Joyce, but it is the perfect novel for your local book club discussions. I think that the hoi polloi will embrace this novel; therefore, I highly recommend this novel.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: Lets talk about a few one day occurrence novels other than the ones I mentioned in the review. Among Aniya Wells' picks are:

Mrs. Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf: “The fearless, essential author used one of her most beloved novels to bravely discuss issues relating to mental illness, feminism, human sexuality, existentialism and more. Centered on the Clarissa Dalloway of the title, the book starts with her pondering the decision to marry her husband rather than another man or the woman she loves. Meanwhile, World War I veteran Septimus Smith grappled against post-traumatic stress disorder and symptoms that many literary critics believe parallels the author’s painful battle with bipolar disorder and depression. The eponymous character serves as an outlet for Woolf’s feminist and bisexual leanings, while Smith’s gradual descent provides a scathing commentary on the ways medical professionals rush and marginalize their mentally ill patients. Many of the themes she explores continue to impact today’s society as well.”

Seize the Day (1956) by Saul Bellow: “Like many, many other memorable protagonists created by the incomparable Nobel Prize recipient Saul Bellow, Tommy Wilhelm faces down a particularly grim midlife crisis. Unemployed and isolated from his father, kids and wife — who won’t even grant him the courtesy of a divorce — he spirals into a writhing existential dilemma that only a master such as Bellow could compellingly portray. Set during the 1950s, an era when a clearly defined middle class began coalescing in the United States, Wilhelm’s struggles intend to parallel this shifting societal change. What makes the novel so impressive is how it effortlessly weaves in social commentary, interpersonal reflection and a realistic, appropriately emotional conclusion all within the events of one exceptionally crowded, deeply personal day.”

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) by Philip K. Dick: “Even those who (unfortunately for them!) never picked up a Philip K. Dick, originally from Illinois, novel in their life still know some elements of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? thanks to Ridley Scott’s iconic film adaptation Blade Runner. As one can probably expect, the movie took some liberties with the original story, though both remain classics in their own right. Dick’s novel presents a day in the life of bounty hunter Rick Deckard, tasked with deactivating some incredibly advanced androids known as Replicants. As time marches on, the protagonist wrestles with some serious questions regarding the nature of life and sentience. With so many ridiculously human robots about, his assignment begins blurring lines between the organic and the technological — a phenomenon that inspires plenty of ethical opining both within and without the covers.”

How’s that for a three pack?

James Joyce on the cover of Time Magazine, 5/08/1939:

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

MR. MERCEDES

Slowly I turned (the pages?), step by step, inch by inch... Hey Abbott! Yes, at times this slow moving novel by the great Stephen King reminded me of the famous Abbott & Costello Niagara Falls sketch from their 1950’s television show. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a tad but not by much. Remember how exciting The Stand and It was? Well keep remembering. I think Mr. King is writing too many novels at the same time under too many different names. Slow down, you are still the best commercial author out there...oops, did I say that? Okay, I know that I’m being too tough on this author, but seriously, how many chances will I have to criticize one of my favorite authors? All right, the author does reclaim his credibility as the novel finally explodes with action and suspense starting on page 279 (what took you so long?) through the end of the book. During the first 278 pages, I really thought Stephen King lost his ability to provide the reader with apprehension and tension, thus my beginning paragraph rant. So what is the novel about?

A wacko named Brady Hartsfield (he is Hartfield on the inside cover jacket, no ‘s’ in the middle of his last name), who works as an I.T. Tech for a geek squad and as an ice cream man for Mr. Tastey, steals a Mercedes from a Mrs. Trelawney and decides to plow into a crowd of people lined up for a job fair. The results are eight dead and fifteen maimed. He later mentally tortures and convinces the super rich Mrs. Trelawney into believing that she left the keys in her Mercedes and is therefore responsible for all those deaths. She commits suicide. Meanwhile, Bill Hodges, a retired detective, who failed to solve the case (amongst two or three others) sits in his home watching T.V. pondering suicide. Wow, a lot of weak minded people, right? Anyway, one day Bill gets a letter from the wacko stating that he is the Mercedes killer. He wants Bill to contact him on the internet on a super secure site called The Blue Umbrella. This gets Bill out of his doldrums and after giving it some thought contacts Brady Hartsfield (or Hartfield-sorry it’s the editors fault) and types, “Seen a lot of false confessions in my time, but this one’s a dilly. I’m retired but not stupid. Withheld evidence proves you are not the Mercedes Killer. *uck off, *sshole.” Which prompts Brady to think to himself, “You fat *uck, he whispers, unaware that hot tears have begun to spill from his eyes. “You fat stupid useless *uck. It was me! It was me! It was me!” Now you are probably saying to yourself, “I thought you said that it was boring?” Well, believe it or not the story bogs down from here (page 151) until page 279. That’s a 128 pages of trying to keep my eyes open. 

Luckily, page 279 happens, and I wake up big time. Stephen King, you are a sly one. You took a three star novel and made it a four star novel in the last 158 pages. Two of the sidebar characters in the story, Holly Gibney, a twice institutionalized cousin, who has had ‘breaks with reality’, and Jerome Robinson, a grass mower and brilliant student, become big time contributors in pursuing this case. You probably noticed that I like to use a lot of commas and polysyndeton syntax. Anyway, the wacko decides to do one more mass killing. Now, if you have read Stephen King before, you know that the wacko (Brady) could succeed or not. It depends on the author’s mood at the book’s end. I thought this novel was going to ape King’s Lisey's Story, which started out boring and became even more monotonous. Mr. Mercedes wasn’t as good as the two Stephen King novels I mentioned in the first paragraph, or Thinner , one of my personal favorites, but outstanding none the less. One has to wonder how this author can crank out so many noteworthy novels, but he does. Based on the first 151 pages and the last 158, I must recommend this novel.

RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

Comment: Lets talk about my three favorite Stephen King novels mentioned in my review. First there is, The Stand: Goodreads.com says, “This is the way the world ends: with a nanosecond of computer error in a Defense Department laboratory and a million casual contacts that form the links in a chain letter of death."And here is the bleak new world of the day after: a world stripped of its institutions and emptied of 99 percent of its people. A world in which a handful of panicky survivors choose sides -- or are chosen. A world in which good rides on the frail shoulders of the 108-year-old Mother Abagail -- and the worst nightmares of evil are embodied in a man with a lethal smile and unspeakable powers: Randall Flagg, the dark man.

In 1978 Stephen King published The Stand, the novel that is now considered to be one of his finest works. But as it was first published, The Stand was incomplete, since more than 150,000 words had been cut from the original manuscript. Now Stephen King's apocalyptic vision of a world blasted by plague and embroiled in an elemental struggle between good and evil has been restored to its entirety. The Stand Complete and Uncut includes more than five hundred pages of material previously deleted, along with new material that King added as he reworked the manuscript for a new generation. It gives us new characters and endows familiar ones with new depths. It has a new beginning and a new ending. What emerges is a gripping work with the scope and moral complexity of a true epic.

For hundreds of thousands of fans who read The Stand in its original version and wanted more, this new edition is Stephen King's gift. And those who are reading The Stand for the first time will discover a triumphant and eerily plausible work of the imagination that takes on the issues that will determine our survival.”

Next we have, It: Goodreads.com says, “The story follows the exploits of seven children as they are terrorized by an eponymous being, which exploits the fears and phobias of its victims in order to disguise itself while hunting its prey. "It" primarily appears in the form of a clown in order to attract its preferred prey of young children. The novel is told through narratives alternating between two time periods, and is largely told in the third-person omniscient mode. It deals with themes which would eventually become King staples: the power of memory, childhood trauma, and the ugliness lurking behind a fa├žade of traditional small-town values.”

Now for my favorite, Thinner: Amazon.com says, “Billy Halleck, good husband, loving father, is both beneficiary and victim of the American Good Life: he has an expensive home, a nice family, and a rewarding career as a lawyer. But he is also fifty pounds overweight and, as his doctor keeps reminding him, heading into heart attack country. Then, in a moment of carelessness, Billy sideswipes an old gypsy woman as she is crossing the street—and her ancient father passes a bizarre and terrible judgment on him.“Thinner,” the old gypsy man whispers, and caresses his cheeks like a lover. Just one word…but six weeks later and ninety-three pounds lighter, Billy Halleck is more than worried. He’s terrified. And desperate enough for one last gamble…that will lead him to a nightmare showdown with the forces of evil melting his flesh away.”

Now for some Stephen King quotes:

From The Stand: “Show me a man or a woman alone and I'll show you a saint. Give me two and they'll fall in love. Give me three and they'll invent the charming thing we call 'society'. Give me four and they'll build a pyramid. Give me five and they'll make one an outcast. Give me six and they'll reinvent prejudice. Give me seven and in seven years they'll reinvent warfare. Man may have been made in the image of God, but human society was made in the image of His opposite number, and is always trying to get back home.” 
  
From It : “Maybe there aren't any such things as good friends or bad friends - maybe there are just friends, people who stand by you when you're hurt and who help you feel not so lonely. Maybe they're always worth being scared for, and hoping for, and living for. Maybe worth dying for too, if that's what has to be. No good friends. No bad friends. Only people you want, need to be with; people who build their houses in your heart.” 
  
From Thinner: “Food was becoming more abstract, more aestheticized and compartmentalized-- and indeed, after kaiseki, who can ever go back to Burger King, or even a well-made gourmet sandwich? Instead of food, I longed for other things to swell my body and buoy its lines--- lists of ancient queens, the grave and stately names for the forgotten regions of the sea, the imagined words for desire in hermetic languages; food, on the other hand, was leaving me increasingly unmoved.... I grew thinner and thinner, streamlined, my blood nourished by ever-slighter molecules, some kind of pale elongated light running the length of my body, nightmares detouring it in the most starved, and so-lightly blue-black-bruised, corners of my flesh. In this state of non-health, every step became a performance, each stride an act of contrition, a question and an answer.... On the once-dry, now-flowering branches of my skeletal limbs, the words sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch were being invisibly but indelibly written. I was a festival of new senses.”

Stephen King on the cover of Time Magazine: