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.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

THE LYING GAME


I struggled with the first half of this story and I shouldn’t have because it was a worthy third novel by Ruth Ware, best selling author of The Woman in Cabin 10 (see my review of 9/7/2016)...but struggle I did. And I know why. The author was very stingy in giving the reader any idea of what was going on. Every chapter gave me the pipe dream of putting two and two together, but it didn’t occur until page 177 when I finally had a good idea of what was happening. I mean if a person texts a message to her three former schoolmates saying, “I need you” on the first page, wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that she will tell them why she needs them before 175 pages have elapsed? And why did it take so long for the reader to find out why the four girls (they were 15 years old at the time) were kicked out of school seventeen years ago? I got the first clue on page 165 when our protagonist, Isa Wilde, was attending a class reunion (alumnae ball) and bumped into Miss Weatherby, her former Housemistress. I did notice this style of writing in Ruth Ware’s second novel, but it wasn’t as flagrant. In a good whodunit or mystery, I like having little clues dropped all throughout the novel...it challenges me to solve the puzzle. I don’t want to wait until half the novel goes by before I have a lightbulb moment. Okay, did I think Ruth Ware had a quality third novel? Absolutely, but I wish she would adopt a style similar to Agatha Christie’s. Agatha would drop hints and clues leading up to the conclusion so the readers could attempt to solve the mystery for themselves. So what did Ruth Ware do in the second half of the novel? She took the opposite approach of the first half and bombarded the reader with leads, clues, tips and information that almost made my head spin. With my pet peeve aired, I still recognize the author as a superior storyteller.

Isa and Fatima became best friends with Thea and Kate en route to a second rate boarding school in Salten, England. Thea and Kate have been playing a game they call The Lying Game. Isa and Fatima quickly made it a foursome of liars. Seventeen years pass since they were forced out of the school (see my comment in the first paragraph) and suddenly Isa, Thea and Fatima get a text message of three words from Kate (who still lives in Salten)...I need You. The three text back to kate...I’m coming, I’m coming, I’m coming. All three now have responsible jobs. Isa has a newborn baby that she is breastfeeding, but decides to take the baby with her on the train ride to Salten. On the way to Salten, Isa reminisces The Lying Game, “It comes back to me now as sharp and vivid as the smell of the sea, and the scream of gulls over the Reach, and I can’t believe that I almost forgotten it-forgotten the tally sheet Kate kept above her bed, covered with cryptic marks for her elaborate scoring system. This much for a new victim. That much for complete belief. The extras awarded for elaborate detail, or managing to rehook someone who almost called your bluff. I haven’t thought of it for so many years, but in a way, I’ve been playing it all this time.” Isa and baby Freya are picked up at the Salten train station by Kate in Rick’s Taxi (not mine). Kate owns and lives in the Tide Mill on the Reach. “It’s not a building so much as a collection of driftwood thrown together by the winds.” Kate tells Isa, “The whole place is sinking. I had a surveyor come and look at it, he said there’s no proper foundations, and that if I were applying for a mortgage today I’d never get one.” Kate will not tell Isa why she needed them until the others get there.

Fatima and Thea arrive. Fatima is now a doctor and a practicing Muslim wearing a hijab. Thea arrives...still the wild rebel. When they are all together, they go to the Reach to swim, smoke and drink...til two am. When they get back in the mill, Kate says, “I...then she stops. She drops her eyes. Oh, God, almost to herself. I didn’t know it would be this difficult.” “Spit it out”, Thea says, her voice hard. “Say it Kate. We’ve skirted round it long enough; it’s time to tell us why.” “Why what? Kate could retort. But she doesn’t need to ask. We all know. Why are we here? What did that text mean, those three little words: I need you?” As I told you in paragraph one, you will not put two and two together until you reach page 177, but on page 66 (this is as far as I will go with my recap), “Kate draws a long breath, and she looks up, her face shadowed in the lamplight. But to my surprise, she doesn’t speak. Instead, she gets up and goes to the pile of newspapers in the scuttle by the stove, left there for lighting the logs. There is one on the top, the Salten Observer, and she holds it out, wordless, her face showing all the fear she has been hiding this long. It is dated yesterday, and the headline on the front page is very simple: Human Bone Found in Reach.” Instantly, the girls know who that bone belongs to and what that discovery means to them, but the reader will not know until (you guessed it)...page 177. Did I whet your whistle? I thought so. Now get your own copy and try to solve this mystery (it will not be easy).

RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

Comment: Even though I gave this novel a excellent rating, there was one other issue that somewhat irked me besides the lack of clues in the first half of the novel. What was it? Breastfeeding. That’s right, breastfeeding. Throughout this tense story, the author made sure the baby was being fed and fed and fed (why would you even bring this baby into constant danger?). I don’t think a chapter went by without Isa offering her breast to baby Freya. Even during a tense moment when Isa is discussing Kate’s father’s supposed suicide note on page 332...out comes the tit:

“I’ve read the note again and again, more times than Fatima has, more times than I could count, watching the way the words trail away into illegibility, following the progress of the drug in Ambrose’s straggling letters. I read it on the train up from Salten, and during the long wait at Hampton’s Lee. I read it while my own daughter lolled against my breast, her rosebud mouth open, her halting breath cobweb-soft against my skin, and I can only see it one way.”

The lack of first half clues and the constant prattling about breastfeeding led to my giving this novel four stars instead of five.

Monday, September 4, 2017

the Labyrinth Wall


The author and her public relations representative sent my fourteen year old grandson, Kai O, an autographed copy of her novel to read and review:

Emilyann Girdner has been awarded numerous honors for her fiction and deserves them all. The Labyrinth Wall is set in a near inhospitable world. In this setting, the Mahk (people made by the Creator) have to choose between searching through acid rivers for Obsidian to pay for food or be left to die. The protagonist, Araina, is one of the Mahk.

The story starts to become interesting after Araina finds a hidden underwater passageway to a lush enclave, a sharp contrast to the barren wastelands she calls home. All of this is surprising and new to Araina...but this is only the beginning. Soon after, Darith, another Mahk, emerges into the enclave. Araina knows Darith as someone who isn’t afraid to attack other Mahks in order to steal a meal. Darith followed Araina to do just that. After fighting for a bit, Darith manages to cut Araina’s leg. But just as it seems Araina may lose, a hole opens up in the wall  and a mysterious Man in White comes through being pursued by two Creator guards.

The Man in White runs over to Araina and puts his hand on her wound and somehow the wound begins to heal. Soon after he closes the wound, the Creator guards catch up to him and drag him back to the hole where they came through...and it closes behind them. Who is the Man in White? Why were the Creator guards chasing him? How did the Man in White heal Araina’s wounds?

Emilyann Girdner’s novel is a unique story compared to other novels that I’ve read. The story was interesting; the characters felt like they could be real and everything that happened seemed important. However, some parts of the novel’s beginning were a bit confusing. I would definitely recommend this novel to readers between 12 to 18 years old.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: My grandson, Kai O, continues to be my main YA novel reviewer. This week he starts his freshman year in high school with a better understanding of English Literature because of the work he has done on Book Reviews and Comments by Rick O.  

Thursday, August 31, 2017

A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN


Betty Smith’s entertaining 1943 novel is reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ novels of the mid 1800s. Both wrote poignant stories about the poor and the downtrodden, but their characters managed to rise above their difficult environments and find ways to appreciate life despite the dire circumstances. Of course a character in a Dickens’ novel faced more troublesome situations, especially in Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. Betty Smith’s protagonist, Francie Nolan, almost seems okay with being poor, finding new ways nearly everyday to earn a penny or two. Some of the pennies found their way into her mom’s tin can bank that was nailed to the floor of their apartment closet...some were spent on candy or a pickle. A pickle could be a joy for eleven year old Francie, “She’d take a penny and go down to a store on Moore Street that had nothing in it but fat Jew pickles floating around in heavy spiced brine.” She said, “Gimme a penny sheeny pickle.” The Hebrew looked at the Irish child with his fierce red-rimmed eyes, small, tortured and fiery. “Goyem! Goyem!” he spat at her, hating the word sheeny...the pickle lasted all day. Francie sucked and nibbled on it. She didn’t exactly eat it. She just had it. That reminded me of when Charles Dickens’ character, Oliver Twist, said, “Please, Sir, I want some more” to the cruel master of the workhouse at supper time. Anyway, both writers wrote about the poor, although Smith’s characters weren’t treated as badly as Dickens’ were. In the foreword by Anna Quindlen, she said, “The best anyone can say is that it is a story about what it means to be human.” That’s almost as spontaneous as George Costanza (Seinfeld show, episode 43) coming up with the idea of a show about nothing. So be it! Nonetheless, the novel and the show were praiseworthy.

The novel is divided into five books encompassing the years 1902 through 1919 in the impoverished section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY. It tells the story of the Nolan family and the Ailanthus tree (Tree of Heaven) growing out of the cement sidewalk. Katie Nolan is the janitress for three tenement houses (they live in one) and mother to Francie (11) and Neely (10) and the wife of Johnny, a singing waiter and drunk. They were poor, but seemed to tolerate life regardless of their status. On Saturdays, Francie and her brother, Neely, collected rags, paper, metal and rubber from the dumbwaiter shelves in the cellar of the tenements their mom cleaned. They dragged all their junk in a burlap bag to Carney’s for pennies profit. If Francie let Carney pinch her cheek, she got a extra penny. One half of the pennies earned went into the tin-can bank in their apartment closet. Francie loved the old shabby library in her neighborhood, “Francie thought that all the books in the world were in that library and she had a plan about reading all the books in the world. She was reading a book a day in alphabetical order and not skipping the dry ones.” Francie and her family lived on stale bread all week. “She and Mama planned what meals they’d make from the stale bread in the weeks to come. The Nolans practically lived on that stale bread and what amazing things Katie could make from it! She’d take a loaf of stale bread (don’t you think that Betty Smith uses the word stale too often?), pour boiling water over it, work it up into a paste, flavor it with salt, pepper, thyme, minced onion and an egg (if eggs were cheap), and bake it in the oven...what was left over, was sliced thin the next day and fried in hot bacon fat.” Now, if you are wondering when this story (493 pages) is going to get exciting...it doesn’t. Remember in the first paragraph I implied that this might be a novel about nothing. That hasn’t stopped the novel from becoming an American classic.
   
One of my favorite sidebar characters was Katie’s older sister, Sissy Rommely. She was illiterate because she never went to school, but she had street smarts. She was a beautiful woman who had many lovers and marriages. Even though Sissy had ten stillborn children, she always kept her chin up. She had a crush on Katie’s husband Johnny and had a habit of calling all her lovers and husbands “John.” My other favorite secondary character was Mary Rommely, who emigrated from Austria with her very disagreeable husband, Thomas. Mary is the mother of Sissy and Katie. When Francie was born, Mary had many guidelines for bringing up baby Francie. She told Katie, “The secret lies in the reading and writing (by the way Mary can’t read). Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child.” Katie asked, “What is a good book?” “There are two great books. Shakespeare is a great book.” Katie inquired, “And what is the other great book?” “It is the Bible that the Protestant people read.” Don’t even ask me why she picked these books. Do you want to hear the other rules for bringing up Francie? Okay, “And you must tell the child the legends I told you - as my mother told them to me and her mother to her. And the child must believe in the Lord God and Jesus, His Only Son. Oh, and you must not forget the Kris Kringle. The child must believe in him until she reaches the age of six. The child must be made to believe in heaven.” Katie asks, “And then, what else?” Mary says, “Before you die, you must own a bit of land - maybe with a house on it that your child or your children may inherit.” Now you know the reason for the tin-can bank in the closet that I mentioned in the first paragraph.

Anyway, let’s get back to the exciting Nolans. The last thing that I’m going to tell you about is the search for weekend meat (then you will have to read the final 446 pages on your own). On page forty six, Neeley came home and he and Francie were sent out for the weekend meat. This was an important ritual and called for detailed instructions by Mama... “Get a five-cent soup bone off of Hassler’s. But don’t get the chopped meat there. Go to Werner’s for that. Get round steak chopped, ten cents’ worth, and don’t let him give it to you off the plate. Take an onion with you, too.” So off they go, Francie and Neely on their important mission: Francie and her brother stood at the counter a long time before the butcher noticed them. “What’s yours?” he asked finally. Francie started the negotiations. “Ten cents’ of round steak.” “Ground?” “No.” “Lady was just in. Bought a quarter’s worth of round steak ground. Only I ground too much and here’s the rest on the plate. Just ten cents’ worth. Honestly. I only just ground it.” This was the caveat emptor Francie had been told to watch out for: Don’t buy it off the plate no matter what the butcher says. “No. My mother said ten cents’ worth of round steak.” Furiously the butcher hacked off a bit of meat and slammed it down on the paper after weighing it. He was just about to wrap it up when Francie said in a trembling voice, “Oh, I forgot. My mother wants it ground.” “God-damm it to hell!” He hacked up the meat and shoved it into the chopper. “And mama said to chop up this onion in it.” “Jesus!” the butcher said explosively..."And-a-piece-of-suet-to-fry-it-with.” “Son-of-a-bitchin’ bastard,” Whispered the butcher bitterly. This was only Francie’s first stop on her meat mission...on to the next store! I thought these pages were funny and reflective of the times (early 1900s) in the slum section of Brooklyn.

With the penny almost obsolete in today’s world, I was surprised how much could be bought for a penny, nickel or a dime in the early 1900s. Wow, imagine if you had a five dollar bill! I obtained so much knowledge of what it was like to live in the slums of Brooklyn between the years 1902 through 1919 that it was well worth the price of admission. What were some trivial things that I learned? How about, “Most Brooklyn Germans had a habit of calling everyone who annoyed them a Jew.” The girls played Jacks and the boys played Potsy. You want to hear a good line? When Katie tells Sissy that “Johnny’s a drunk”, Sissy says, “Well, everybody’s something.” I remember a similar response on the Ed Sullivan Show when Myron Cohen (a very funny man) was telling a joke about a husband who unexpectedly comes home and finds his wife lying naked on their bed. He opens the door to their bedroom closet and finds a naked man standing there...and the naked man says to the husband (but first a pregnant pause a' la Jack Benny)...Well, everybody’s got to be someplace. Too funny. Betty Smith writes a lot of lines about the neighborhood stores. “Francie liked the pawnshop the best - not for the treasures prodigiously thrown into its barred windows...but for the three large golden balls that hung high above the shop and gleamed in the sun. There was the bakery store on one side of it which sold beautiful Charlotte russes with red candied cherries on their whipped cream tops. On the other side was Gollender’s Paint Shop. The most interesting store was housed in a little shanty which had been there when the Indians prowled through Williamsburg.” It was a old fashion cigar store (four for a nickel). “He had a wooden Indian outside his store which stood in a threatening stance on a wooden block. One of Francie’s favorite stores was the one which sold nothing but tea, coffee and spices. The mystery of mysteries to Francie was the Chinaman’s one-windowed store. The Chinaman wore his pigtail wound around his head. That was so he could go back to China if he wanted to, Mama said (haha). All he knew was tickee and shirtee. Oh, to be a Chinaman, wished Francie...to eat all the lichee nuts she wanted and to paint those symbols with a slight brush and a quick turn of the wrist and to make a clear black mark as fragile as a piece of a butterfly wing! That was the mystery of the Orient in Brooklyn.” Can Betty Smith write or what? I highly recommend this piece of Americana.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: Sometimes I get carried away writing a review...this was one of those times. It really was just a story, but it was also a history lesson. It’s like when I read Mark Twain - I learn so much about the south and its intricacies during the mid to late 1800s. The tree of heaven (hardly mentioned), which grows in the cement outside the tenement houses, is a sturdy tree of China origin. To me, the tree is really a metaphor symbolizing the hardiness of the Nolan family (and just maybe the perseverance of the neighborhood’s various ethnicities as a whole). At least that’s what I got out of it.

Betty Smith was a simple and unpretentious lady. Just read the following two quotes from Betty Smith, the first from her and the second quote from her protagonist, Francie. “I wrote about people who liked fake fireplaces in their parlor, who thought a brass horse with a clock embedded in its flank was wonderful.” Is that an endorsement for the average Joe, or what? “People always think that happiness is a faraway thing,” thought Francie, “Something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains - a cup of strong coffee when you’re blue; for a man, a cigarette for contentment; a book to read when you’re alone - just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness.”

If you think the part about a man having a cigarette for contentment is chauvinistic, remember that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was written in 1943.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

WE ARE HOLDING THE PRESIDENT HOSTAGE


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

He did it again! Another innovative novel by Warren Adler, the creative storyteller. This is the third Adler’s novel that I’ve read and reviewed this year (see my review of Mother Nile (1/5/2017) and my review of Heart of Gold (5/12/2017). In my opinion, this novel is his best yet. It has a great plot with lots of action, plenty of surprises, and many cliffhanger chapter endings that keep you reading through the night. Did Adler remain a descriptive writer? Do Indian chiefs wear feathered warbonnets? Here is a sample of his descriptive writing: The Mafia Don, Sal Padronelli, aka the Padre, shows his mafioso crew into a room, “He waited as they filed in, filling the small room. With the exception of Benjy, they were an aging, gray, bulky-looking group. In this atmosphere, pushed close together on the couch and chairs, they looked like overripe fruit that had rolled out of its sack and rearranged itself helter-skelter in the room.” We all know that Ernest Hemingway and his 1920’s expatriates killed off descriptive writing, but it seems that Warren Adler is from the old school of writing...to my liking. It’s hard to believe that this novel (originally published in 1986) was never turned into a movie. I can visualize Marlon Brando  playing the part of The Padre. Why not? Marlon was only 62 when Adler’s novel was published in 1986 (the Padre was 69 in the novel) and it was 14 years after The Godfather movie. Anyway, what’s We are Holding the President Hostage about? Well, let me tell you...

A terrorist kidnapping goes dreadfully wrong in Egypt. Ahmed, a Lebanese trained terrorist, wanted to kidnap the United States assistant Secretary of State. Instead he grabs a woman and her child. The woman turns out to be Maria, the daughter of NYC Mafia Don Salvatore Padronelli, and the boy, Joey, is his grandson. Ahmed initially doesn’t know the value of the prize he has acquired. As the getaway car disappeared around the corner, he says, “An American is an American.” The woman looked at him coldly. She had, he noted, recovered her arrogance. “You won’t get away with this,” the woman hissed as her arm shot out. Her fist glanced off the side of his head. Calmly, he directed the pistol toward the boy’s crotch. “He’d be such a pretty little soprano,” Ahmed said, watching the woman as the blood drained from her face. After a moment, she expelled a word. It sounded very much like “Daddy”. “Daddy,” he said with a chuckle. “No Daddy can help you now.” I wouldn’t be too sure about that, Ahmed.

Meanwhile, back in NYC, “Salvatore Padronelli, the Padre as he was called, planted his black Thom McAn shoes beneath the table of the private back room of Luigi’s Trattoria on Mulberry Street. It was located one block from his modest two-story house in which he had resided for forty years...On it was the usual basketed bottle of Chianti, a container of standing breadsticks, and a half dozen small tumblers.” This is where mafia business was conducted. He was surrounded by his crew. I loved the names of his crew, such as Angelo Petinno, “the Pencil”; Vinnie Barboza, “the Prune”; Carmine Giancana, “the Canary”; Rocco Mondavano, “the Talker”; and Benjy Mustoni, “the Kid”. It doesn’t get better than that. The Padre listens to some problems until the pay phone in the room rings. The Pencil picks up the phone...it’s Robert, Maria’s husband, in Egypt. He gives the bad news to the Padre that Maria and Joey have been kidnapped. This is also bad news for the kidnappers since everyone knows that immediate family is sacrosanct to mafia families.

Kidnappings for ransom or for prisoner exchanges were going on throughout the Middle East. Currently, twenty four Americans were being held. The Padre doesn’t think the government will do anything about it. Several days later, President Paul Bernard receives word that three of the hostages have been executed. He holds a news conference…”assuring them that the government was doing everything it could, appealing for their patience, implying that negotiations were going on at this very moment.” The Padre watching the President’s speech on TV with his son-in-law Robert knows that’s a line of malarkey. Robert asks the Padre what he would you do? “I would use my power”, the Padre said, hoping that all the suggested implications of his comment would suffice. “How?” “Power is no good unless it is used,” the Padre said. “I would go against all who made this action possible.” “With this President we will never get them back...only if we put his cojones in here.” He moved his fingers together and slowly brought them together. What? A Vise?

Will the Padre and his crew take the President hostage and make him use mafia strategy to get Maria and Joey released? Will it work? Who and how many will die? This novel was 339 pages of delightful tension. If you want to read a thriller...this is your novel. I highly recommend this novel and, by the way, anything else that the talented Warren Adler has written.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: I love mafia movies. It sounds Un-American, but I root for the bad guys. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 The Godfather is my all time favorite mafia movie, but there are two other movies that if I’m surfing through the TV channels and one of these pop up...I’m watching.

Martin Scorsese’s 1990 movie, Goodfellas is an adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s 1986 bestseller, Wiseguy. The book and the movie tell the true story of Henry Hill’s (Ray Liotta) rise and fall. Is there any movie character more terrifying than Tommy Devito (Joe Pesci)? Or his partner in crime, Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro)? And how good was Paul Sorvino, who played mafia boss, Paulie Cicero? I love this movie.

The second movie is Robert De Niro’s 1993 directorial debut, A Bronx Tale. I loved this movie. A young Italian-American boy is torn between his hardworking bus driving father (Robert De Niro) and local mafia boss Sonny LoSpecchio (Chazz Palminteri), who gives the boy a job in his bar. I thought the sidebar plot involving the boy falling in love with a African American girl was brilliant.

Monday, August 7, 2017

DRAGON TEETH


Knowing that the literary world is full of ghost writers, it’s almost unfathomable to believe that another new Michael Crichton novel has been published...nine years after his death. I read his Pirate Latitudes in 2009, one year after he died. But there was always talk about him writing a novel about pirates, and since they found the completed manuscript on one of his computers...I had to reckon that it was genuine. Then another novel, Micro, was published in 2011. This novel was said to be one-third done and finished by author Richard Preston. Okay that seems plausible. Now, Dragon Teeth is published in 2017. Are there more novels to be discovered? Or is this the last one? His fifth and last wife, Sherri Crichton, says in the afterword (page 292), “Honoring Michael’s legacy has been my mission ever since he passed away. Through the creation of his archives, I quickly realized that it was possible to trace the birth of Dragon Teeth to a 1974 letter to the curator of vertebrate paleontology of the American Museum of Natural History. After reading the manuscript, I could only describe Dragon Teeth as 'pure Crichton.' It has Michael’s voice, and his love of history, research, and science all dynamically woven into this epic tale.” Well, I wouldn’t call this novel epic, although I wouldn’t completely disagree with Sherri Crichton that he wrote it either, but I reserve my almost tongue-in-cheek thoughts. There are traces of the author’s genius throughout the novel and, as we all know, he is the author of Jurassic Park. I guess my major problem is trusting that the novel is 100% Crichton since nine years have passed since Michael died. Why did it take so long to publish this novel?

The novel, itself, is historical fiction delineating an episode (fictional) during the actual Bone Wars (1877-1892) between leading American paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. History will tell you that when the war was over...they were both broke and out of funds. Anyway, our protagonist (fictional) is a eighteen year old Yale college student, William Johnson. His father, Silas, is a rich Philadelphia shipbuilder. William always seems to be in trouble in school, usually because he and his arch-rival, Harold Hannibal Marlin (another rich boy), “competed in every arena - in the classroom, on the playing-field, in the undergraduate pranks of the night.” They argued incessantly, always taking the opposing view from the other. One day, William lies to Harold that he is going to go west with Professor Marsh. “I am going with Professor Marsh. He takes a group of students with him each summer.” Harold says,”What? Fat old Marsh? The bone professor?”, William says,“That’s right.” Harold says, "You’ve never laid eyes on Professor Marsh, and you’ll never go with him.” The boys bet a thousand dollars on whether he will go or will not go. Now the pressure is on William to get on the professor’s team. When William goes to see the professor, he is stunned when Marsh says, “Sorry. Too late. Positions all filled.” The professor says to William, “If you wanted to come you should have answered the advertisement last week. Everyone else did. Now we have selected everyone except - You’re not, by any chance, a photographer?” William fibs, “Yes, sir, I am! I am indeed.” The story is off and running, as William hires a local photographer to give him twenty lessons “for the outrageous sum of fifty dollars.”  

The story dragged a bit at times (not typical of a Crichton novel) and had some useless paragraphs, such as, when William meets Robert Louis Stevenson on the train heading west. Stevenson tells William that he is going to California to meet the woman he loves. Historically, this is correct, but the wrong year. And why would Wyatt and Morgan Earp be active characters in this novel? And what was the brief appearance of Brigham Young all about? Even though Young has nothing to do with this novel, we find that he is a “gracious man, gentle and calculating. For forty years, the Mormons were hounded and persecuted in every state of the Union; now they make their own state, and persecute the Gentiles in turn.” Calamity Jane also makes a very brief appearance in not such a good light, “Calamity Jane was so masculine she often wore a soldier’s uniform and traveled undetected with the boys in blue, giving them service in the field (as a harlot); she had gone with Custer’s 7th Cavalry on more than one occasion.” I’m only bringing up these lowlights, because I don’t remember Crichton using these diversion tactics before. I do recommend reading this novel even though it’s not his best (if it is his...ouch).

RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

Comment: Suspicion has surrounded many authors after their deaths. Harper Lee (passed away in 2016) had that albatross around her neck all her life. First, she was accused of not writing her bestseller, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). Many people say her friend Truman Capote wrote Mockingbird. Then 55 years later, a second novel was found and published (Go Set A Watchman, see my review of 2/23/2016). It was deemed poorly written compared to Mockingbird, giving credence to the Truman Capote theory. But since her death (shortly after the publication of Go Set A Watchman), most literary people believe that it was a first draft of Mockingbird.

And how about the great German writer, Franz Kafka? None of his novels were published until after death. While he was alive, he did have some of his work published in magazines, but no novels. His literary executor, Max Brod, was supposed to burn his manuscripts upon Franz’s death. He did not. He published all his works, including his famous The Metamorphosis, The Trial and The Castle. Could a ghost writer have slipped a phony into the mix? Possibly, but not likely.

Finally, getting back to Michael Crichton’s novel, I found it interesting that it took so long for people to believe that dinosaurs existed. “This was certainly still so in 1876. Much earlier in the century, Thomas Jefferson had carefully concealed his own view that fossils represented extinct creatures. In Jefferson’s day, public espousal of belief in extinction was considered heresy. Attitudes had since changed in many places, but not everywhere. It was still controversial to espouse evolution in certain parts of the United States.”    

Thursday, July 27, 2017

SPECTRUM


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

I didn’t find the genre of this novel post-apocalyptic or dystopian like most reviewers did. It smacks of weird fiction (but not in a bad way). You don’t know what weird fiction is? Read award winning author, China Mieville, who is the undisputed champion of that genre. See my reviews of Railsea (10/26/2012); Embassytown (3/4/2012) and Kraken (4/10/2011)...then you will know what I’m talking about. Martin Ott’s novel is written in that style sans Mieville’s rather sesquipedalian language and the constant use of "that that". I thought Ott’s novel was weird fiction because no matter how well you assume that you understand the story, you really don’t have a full grasp of what’s going on. You kinda do, but you really don’t. That’s the hallmark of weird fiction novels. I mean in Ott’s novel, exactly what is the Usan empire? Why is "usa" used as an interjection throughout the story, such as, “Usa, that hurt!” (in other words, “God, that hurt”). Did you get a good handle on what crisping was? And what’s up with Mr. G? Why are there pets in this story, such as a Chimpanzadog or a Chickendog? Because that’s weird fiction. Have a idea for a pet? Just go to your local Pet Center and tell them what you want. I mostly enjoyed Ott’s story, but like the three Mieville novels I mentioned above...I felt, nonetheless, that I had brain damage when the story ended.

President George Polk (a crisping freak) was on top of the world in his ozonodome in Collings City. “A party smoldered behind smoky windows, emanating a hazy crimson glow. Inside, a crowd had formed in George Polk’s rumpus room, a high-tech entertainment center and gambling den where the president entertained guests, brokered deals, pretty much whatever he wanted.” Mere Roosevelt, who works for Polk, is there. His claim to fame with Polk is that he developed a transmission fluid that increased the efficiency of the city’s organiputer (don’t ask me what that is). And he just got crisped! (first treatment?). Mere is a lightening...why is it important to be dark skinned? “He didn’t notice any change in pigmentation - he was still plenty light for a Hightowner.” Mere and his wife, Gail, used to be Lowtowners. Mere wanders home after some shenanigans in town and gets into a heated argument with Gail. Mere falls asleep. When he wakes, “Her Zero G suitcase was gone, just as she was. After all the threats, she finally gone and done it. She’d moved out on him.” Then, “Mere waited as long as he dared and sliced airborne through the faint after-image of the phasing hatch. He pivoted after landing and whirled in time to watch the doorway solidify.” When I was in the Marine Corps, the D.I. would say, “Now that’s how a Marine leaves a room.” Haha.  

Mere realizes that “Today was Augusa 1, the beginning of yet another citywide clothing mandate. To liquidate overstock from faulty quotas, Pyramid marketers had created a new fashion-turtle neck shirts without shirts. Mere was stopped by a policemen (a white shirt) who said, Where is your turtleneck ring, citizen? The white shirt flicked on his portable comp, unwrapped a fresh needle, and pricked Mere in the palm. A trail of wires snaked beneath the guard’s uniform and emerged through his pant legs into an organiport.” The white shirt realizes that Mere is okay and just got promoted by friends in high places. Mere says, “So does this mean I’m free to go?” The officer says, “With a warning. But don’t let it happen again or we’ll slag your ass, friends or no.” Mere’s major troubles start when he finds his wife in a sexual situation at the Sierra Resort. He beats the men up and leaves. He decides to head to a bar that was in his old neighborhood in North Irony called Boo’s Bar. “A watered down rom (the drink of choice) didn’t sound like too bad an idea, especially after demolishing those loin-clothed fatcats.” Later that night (on page 42), outside the Boo’s Bar, Mere would mistakenly kill a white shirt. This is where the main anguish for Mere starts and the action shifts into overdrive.

Weird fiction is tough to read because almost every situation is somewhat bizarre and fuzzy. That’s why I say that my brain bleeds trying to figure out what’s going on. Sometimes the reader is not cognizant of the simplest things, such as what year the story is taking place in, or whether or not the characters are on earth or on an imaginary land. Anyway, Martin Ott did a yeoman’s job on this novel, but I can’t grade his novel at the same level that I rated China Mieville’s Railsea. By the way, I had to read three of Mieville’s novels before the lightbulb went on.  
  
RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

Comment: I believe it’s notable that Book Reviews and Comments by Rick O has surpassed a significant milestone...The Tercentenary level. That’s right, the above review of Spectrum is review number 301. It took six years and nine months to do it, but it got done. Hopefully my reviews over that time period have become more expressive, eloquent and omniscient (just kidding). But seriously, after writing reviews for almost seven years, it has given me a better understanding of the writing game, and I hope that that knowledge has reflected in better and better reviews by me and my guest reviewers. Did I get China Mieville with that that or what? Anyway, I’m constantly getting emails from authors expressing their preference for my style. They tell me that they like my in-depth look at their work (remember it’s their baby) and they love my comparing of their book to similar books and authors. My third book of reviews should be published around Christmas time.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

EMPIRE of the SUMMER MOON


In 1871, the Manifest Destiny was in full swing and it was time to rid the West of the hated Comanches. This 2010 bestseller by S.C. Gwynne certainly gives the reader a belly full of hate for the Comanches. Was the author writing about the savagery of the Indians more than the brutality of the white man? Probably, but the Indians were most likely employing their terroristic actions against the settlers to discourage any others from coming west. Early on Andrew Jackson wanted to extend the area of freedom west. He had many followers that believed the United States should set up democratic governments going west. That was the death knell for Mexico and all Indian tribes...later it was extended to the Pacific Ocean and beyond. It seemed the prevailing attitude was: If you weren’t Caucasian...you weren’t qualified to govern your territory. The author didn’t say that, but it was done in a tacit manner. Any historian knows how the Manifest Destiny advanced westward after the Indians were defeated. Anyway, this book centers on the hated Comanche nation. The Comanches were so vicious that they were able to kowtow the ferocious Apache tribe and chase them into Mexico. This book also features the kidnapping of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker by the Comanches culminating in the birth of her half breed (by Comanche war chief Peta Nocona) son, Quanah, who later became the leader of the Comanche nation. A 1956 movie starring John Wayne, The Searchers, was inspired by this true event. Caveat to the faint of heart...don’t read anymore of this review.   

The book basically covers the forty year war against the Comanche nation. The book tends to flip back and forth during the various years of conflict. This was a tad annoying to me; I would have preferred the years to have been in a chronological order during the hostilities between the Comanches, the white settlers, the Union Army and the Texas Rangers. Anyway, Colonel Mackenzie was given the task of wiping out the Comanches in 1871 by General William Tecumseh Sherman, hero of the Civil War. “For Mackenzie on the southern plains, Comanches were the obvious target: No tribe in the history of the Spanish, French, Mexican, Texan, and American occupations of this land had ever caused so much havoc and death. None was even a close second.” Early on, Mackenzie’s troop came upon an Indian attack of a wagon train. It became known as the Salt Creek Massacre. “According to Captain Robert G. Carter, Mackenzie’s subordinate, who witnessed its aftermath, the victims were stripped, scalped, and mutilated. Some had been beheaded and others had their brains scooped out. Their fingers, toes and private parts had been cut off and stuck in their mouths. They had been clearly tortured, too. Upon each exposed abdomen had been placed a mass of live coals. One wretched man, Samuel Elliott, was found chained between wagon wheels and, a fire having been made from the wagon pole, he had been slowly roasted to death...burnt to a crisp.”

By 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, making the old trails west obsolete, such as the Oregon Trail. Buffalo hunters were slaughtering the buffalo. “In Kansas alone, the bones of 31 million buffalo were sold for fertilizer between 1868-1881.” All these changes were underway when Mackenzie’s Raiders left their camps on Clear Fork. The Indian tribes were impeding progress...they needed to be wiped out. Especially the hostile Comanches band known as the Quahadis. “Quahadis were the hardest, fiercest, least yielding component of a tribe that had long had the reputation as the most violent and warlike on the continent; if they ran low on water, they were known to drink the contents of a dead horse’s stomach, something even the toughest Texas Ranger would not do. Even other Comanches feared them.” In 1871, Mackenzie was tracking a Quahadi band that was led by a young war chief by the name of Quanah. Mackenzie and his men didn’t know much about Quanah. No one did... Quanah was simply too young for anyone to know much about him yet...He was reputed to be ruthless, clever, and fearless in battle. But there was something else about Quanah, too. He was a half breed, the son of a Comanche chief and a white woman.” Okay, aside from the first paragraph, all of this happened in the first seven pages. On page eight the reader is going to find out why Quanah’s mother was famous... “She was the best known of all Indian captives of the era...She was ‘the white squaw’ because she had refused on repeated occasions to return to her people.” Who was she?

“Her name was Cynthia Ann Parker. She was the daughter of one of early Texas’s most prominent families, one that included Texas Ranger captains, politicians, and prominent Baptists who founded the state’s first Protestant church. In 1836 (you see what I mean about flip flopping years?), at the age of nine, she had been kidnapped in a Comanche raid at Parker’s Fort, ninety miles south of present Dallas. She soon forgot her mother tongue, learned the Indian ways, and became a full member of the tribe. She married Peta Nocona, a prominent war chief, and had three children by him, of whom Quanah was the eldest. In 1860, when Quanah was twelve, Cynthia Ann was recaptured at the battle of Pease River during an attack by Texas Rangers on her village, during which everyone but her and her infant daughter, Prairie Flower, were killed.” Her husband, Peta Nocona was pursued by Texas Ranger, Sul Ross, and ultimately killed, but her two sons, Quanah and Peanuts, got away. Okay, you just had a eight page taste of history, the rest of the pages are on you. The book seemed long (although it was less than 400 pages) because reading history in its straight form can be a bit boring, but the knowledge gained is priceless. I highly recommend this piece of yesteryear.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: It seems to me that the Union Army and the Texas Rangers took a very long time to figure out how to fight the Comanches, and when they finally did...the war turned in their favor. Why the troops would dismount to fight the world’s best horsemen (the Comanches), who could accurately fire arrow after arrow with precision, is beyond me. Finally, when the Texas Rangers got the famous Jack Hays to lead them, strategy was used for the first time against the Indians. “Hays preferred surprise-killing them, just as the Comanches preferred to do, in their villages while they slept. He had learned the fundamental lesson of plains warfare: It was either victory or death.” There was no such thing as a fair fight. You either won or lost.

“He also learned quickly what would become his main advantage: Comanches were extremely predictable. They never changed their methods. They were deeply custom-bound and equally mired in their notions of medicine and magic. They reacted to a given situation - such as the killing of their war chief or medicine man - in exactly the same way, every time. In white man’s terms, they were easily spooked.” In other words, if you killed one of their leaders, they became disorganized and scattered.

The invention of Samuel Colt’s .36 caliber, five chambered rounds revolving pistol was a God send for Hay’s troops. Now in a mounted close-up fight, Hay’s troops each had two chambered pistols (a total of ten shots before having to reload) against the Indians, who had a quiver of twenty arrows each. “No one knows exactly how these revolvers came into the hands of Jack Hays and his Rangers. But they most certainly did. Whenever the event took place, the Rangers immediately grasped the significance of such weapons. To them, Colt’s contraption was a revelation: a multishot weapon that could be used from horseback and thus, at last, even the odds.”

Unknowingly, a big weapon the white men brought to the plains were their diseases. Cholera, measles, malaria, smallpox, whooping cough and influenza killed off many thousands of Indians.        

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy


This is a guest review by my thirteen year old grandson, Kai O:

Don’t panic! The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy starts off as a normal day for Arthur Dent. However, Arthur will soon have to walk outside his home to try to stop a construction crew from clearing out his house for a new bypass. But for Arthur Dent, that’s a small problem to worry about, because unbeknownst to him, a Vogon spaceship is heading to Earth to demolish it for a new Galactic Freeway.

Luckily for Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, one of Arthur’s friends (who is actually a
researcher for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) shows up. And Ford knows exactly what’s going on. So he grabs Arthur and pulls him away from his home to go to the local pub for muscle relaxants (booze). At the pub, Ford tries to explain to Arthur how he is really a researcher for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who has been marooned on Earth. Next he tries to tell Arthur that a Vogon Constructor fleet is screaming towards earth with the intent to demolish the planet for a new Galactic Freeway.

Their muscles relaxed, Ford and Arthur leave the pub to try to get off the planet. Unfortunately, Arthur isn’t cooperating because he just discovered that his house has been destroyed. In his rage, Arthur doesn’t notice the Vogon fleet descending towards Earth. The Vogons announce their plans to the entire world. Finally, Arthur understands what Ford has been trying to tell him. At the last second, Ford takes Arthur and beams them up into a Vogon ship. Ford explains to Arthur that the Dentrassi chefs aboard the ship allowed them to be beamed up.

Arthur doesn’t know this yet, but this is the beginning of an adventure that will take him across the galaxy. This is just the first of five hilarious novels by Douglas Adams. This series is easily one of the best I’ve ever read. I strongly recommend this novel to anyone thirteen and up.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: My grandson has taken over the YA book review duties, so I can concentrate on other genres (not that Hitchhiker’s was a YA book). I think he has been doing a great job in honing his review skills.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

the X VARIANT

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

When the author, Rosemary Cole, said her novel would be a post-apocalyptic/time travel/zombie novel, I thought no way. She did accomplish that, but I think that it would have been a smoother trip without the time travel part. Couldn’t they (the Unathi) figure out a cure for the zombie-like virus without going back in time? For that matter, couldn’t the author come up with a better name for the surviving human race of the future other than Unathi...how do you pronounce that? (I’m being picky) Mutating viruses in novels are not new. I wonder if the author got some of her ideas from Michael Crichton. Crichton’s Andromeda Strain (1969) deals with a out of control virus that mutates. And Crichton’s Prey (2002) deals with the nanoswarm similar to Cole’s dronet. If she did read the Crichton novels to get ideas...kudos to her. I can’t think of two better novels to read to gain insight to the future scientific world without boring the reader to death with technical hodgepodge. Rosemary Cole gave the reader just enough technical information to understand what was going on. More importantly she gave the reader (in my opinion) an original story with three dissimilar predicaments in the same novel...well done Rosemary.  

It’s 2616 and life on earth is utopian. Humans have evolved into a super post-apocalyptic being known as the Unathi after a virus notoriously called SHAV (synthetic hemorrhagic airborne virus) almost wiped out earth’s population in 2079. Originally SHAV was created to cure cancer, then unwisely used as a weapon against the United Islamic States...later it mutated into a worldwide killer. The new human model known as the Unathi knows no violence. The current human of 2616 was of the old flesh and bone version combined with a symbiont and undetectable drones. What? Okay, I’ll let our main character, Kala, explain what they are, as she answers a question on how she can detect people, if they are around or not, from a human of the 2079 past, “My symbiont lets me do that,” explained Kala. At his blank stare, she went on. “I am Unathi. We are a symbiotic race, two combined species dependent upon each other - human host and symbiont. Our symbionts evolved from the SHA virus over hundreds of years. It produces drones inside our bodies that can tell us where objects or living things are in our vicinity. They can also pacify humans.” She almost said “or kill them,” but stopped herself just in time. Do you see how easily you can understand the science in this novel without all the technical jargon? Simple and to the point.

Anyhow, The 2616 Unathi rarely had any health issues; that’s why it was a surprise when some of the population developed problems with their drones and the Dronet that connected everyone directly mentality. “Every Unathi individual was carefully engineered (They have careparents, not a mom and dad) in a science that had developed over the centuries since the pandemic, selecting the most desirable genetic material from around the globe...but now there was something wrong. People’s drones had stopped functioning, and no one knew why.” Our heroine, Kala (who has a sentient symbiont and is stronger and faster than the rest of the Unathi’s, but is smaller in stature), was meeting her bondmate (apparently Unathi’s don’t get married), Liet, for lunch at a nearby open-roofed dining room. Liet seemed troubled over what was going on. “Kala fully expected someone to figure out what was going on and make the disappearances stop (people were disappearing from all over North America), but they went on and on...she heard their cries on the Dronet.” Suddenly a man in the dining room started to breathe heavily. Unexpectedly, Kala’s drones couldn’t feel him, it was like he was a animal. His eyes bugged out, bared his teeth and attacked a woman near him. He was killing her, but since the Unathi knew no violence in their utopian world, no one knew how to help her. Kala and Liet ran for their lives. They ran to the airtrain station. A woman on the train turns on a man, sinking her teeth into his neck. The woman had mutated into what’s called a Xin (a X-person, later called a ghal) causing her to become a killer. Kala, Liet and some passengers they met on the train are forced to jump off the train or face death. They are badly hurt from the jump, but the symbionts in their bodies quickly healed their broken bones and other severe injuries.

Afterwards, Kala and the train survivors find a woman who was building a hovering device. They attach it to a floating barge and look for food. They find a rooftop where a holocast conference for the living is just starting. The main speaker is a scientist named Wilm. “Greetings, he said. I am Wilm. I know you’re all thinking that there’s no hope. And you’re right, there is none-not for us personally. But there is hope of saving our kind. Please listen to what I have to say.” He explains that the 2079 virus mutated into different strains. The epsilon strain was flawed and these genes are latent. “We don’t know why they’ve suddenly switched on now, but that’s what has happened in the symbionts of the Xin, and we have the X-variant mutant as a result.” So what’s next? “However, we did discover something we didn’t know: there is one strain that doesn’t have the genetic flaw. Beta has no flaw, Wilm said, Beta is perfect.” Okay, how can they defeat this virus and survive as a race? Alright I will tell you and end this teaser...what happens later is worth the price of this novel. “Now, you’re probably wondering what this discovery can do for us. Well, it can’t save us personally, but it might save the Unathi race. As luck-or fate-would have it, after decades of work my colleagues and I have just completed testing a device for faster-than-light space travel...we are now attempting to convert that technology to time travel, and I believe it will work. If we can go back to 2079 and change the past, we have a chance to save the Unathi.”

Wilm believes that if they go back to 2079 and kill all the humans that have the epsilon strain and protect all the people that have the Beta strain, the future will change and the current virus of 2616 would never have happened. Wow, what a story. But since the Unathi are nonviolent, will they be able to kill? If they succeed, will they be able to get back to 2616? What happens if they don’t succeed? What if Wilm’s theory is wrong? Okay, I covered the first 67 pages, now you will have to read the next 234 pages to find out what happens. By the way, this is only book one of a planned trilogy...book two will be out in 2018. As I said in the first paragraph, Rosemary Cole would have had an easier time writing this novel if she would have left the time travel part out, nevertheless she triumphed big-time on her own accord. Get your copy of this exciting novel now...you will be glad you did.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: As I mentioned in the first paragraph, I loved the two Michael Crichton novels, but my favorite mutated virus novel is a Stephen King’s novel, The Stand (1978). I read the novel in 1978, so I never got to review the novel on my site (I would have to reread the novel...it’s too long to do that again) because I started my review site in 2010. But I’ll tell you what Goodreads.com and Amazon.com said about King’s novel:

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.

Amazon.com says: Stephen King’s apocalyptic vision of a world blasted by plague and tangled in an elemental struggle between good and evil remains as riveting and eerily plausible as when it was first published.

A patient escapes from a biological testing facility, unknowingly carrying a deadly weapon: a mutated strain of super-flu that will wipe out 99 percent of the world’s population within a few weeks. Those who remain are scared, bewildered, and in need of a leader. Two emerge-Mother Abagail, the benevolent 108-year-old woman who urges them to build a peaceful community in Boulder, Colorado; and Randall Flagg, the nefarious “Dark Man,” who delights in chaos and violence. As the dark man and the peaceful woman gather power, the survivors will have to choose between them and ultimately decide the fate of all humanity.