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.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

What a wonderful novel. What marvelous prose. I likened Amor Towles’ writing style to the writers of yesteryear. I can’t remember when I read a modern novel that matched his artistry as a wordsmith. Add his storytelling ability to the above talents and walah, you have his second New York Times bestseller. The story is well thought out: In 1922, an aristocrat, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, returns to Moscow after a four year stay in Paris. He finds himself now a enemy of the ruling party of Bolsheviks (the Worker's Party) led by Vladimir Lenin. The last Tsar, Nicholas II, is dead and so is the conception of royalty and their privileged lifestyle. It seems the Count wrote a poem, Where is it now? in 1913 (four years before the fall of the Tsar). The poem had nothing to do with Lenin’s revolution, but the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs accused the Count of writing against the Worker Party. The party’s prosecutor wants to know if the Count “came back with the intention of taking up arms and, if so, whether for or against the Revolution.” The Count says, “By that point, I’m afraid that my days of taking up arms were behind me.” The prosecutor wants to know what Rostov’s occupation is. Rostov says, “It is not the business of gentlemen to have occupations.” The Prosecutor then asks, “Very well then. How do you spend your time?” Rostov says, “Dining, discussing. Reading, reflecting. The usual rigmarole.” I’m only on page five and I was hooked already.

Later on on page five and six, the Committee decides the Count’s fate after a twelve minute recess, “Alexander Ilyich Rostov, taking into full account your own testimony, we can only assume that the clear-eyed spirit who wrote the poem Where is it now? has succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class - and now poses a threat to the very ideals he once espoused. On that basis, our inclination would be to have you taken from this chamber and put against the wall. But there are those within the senior ranks of the Party who count you among the heroes of the pre-revolutionary cause. Thus, it is the opinion of this committee that you should be returned to the hotel of which you are so fond. But make no mistake: should you ever set foot outside the Metropol again, you will be shot. Next Matter.” It’s obvious that the Bolsheviks want the remaining royalty silenced. By the way, The Metropol is a real luxury hotel in Moscow. Is this a great idea for a novel or what? Can the Count live in a hotel for the rest of his life with no hope of enjoying his customary stroll around Theatre Square? After his sentencing, he is escorted back to the hotel, but not to his luxury suite. His new living quarters will be a small attic room that will not fit all his stuff (for the lack of a better word). He takes some of his furniture and possessions up stairs...the rest of his belongings are now the property of the people.

On page 16, the Metropol Hotel employees were bewildered: “When he had been carted off that morning, they had all assumed that he would never return. He had emerged from behind the walls of the Kremlin like an aviator from the wreckage of a crash.” Since the Count had already resided in the hotel for four years, he knew all the employees by name. “My dear friends,” said the Count, “no doubt you are curious as to the day’s events. As you may know, I was invited to the Kremlin for a tete-a-tete. There, several duly goateed officers of the current regime determined that for the crime of being born an aristocrat, I should be sentenced to spend the rest of my days...in this hotel.” Everybody cheered! So at this point (page 16), the novel starts for real. The author turns the Count’s next 30 plus years in the hotel into an exciting and intriguing filled drama. You will become familiar with the hotel’s restaurants, bars and employees; it’s famous and not so famous guests, but most of all you will get the flavor of communism’s early years. It’s almost like the movie, Casablanca, but not played out in Rick’s bar (do you remember the bar’s owner, Humphrey Bogart?), but played out in the Metropol Hotel with the undertones of communism instead of Casablancas Nazi atmosphere. Overall, I was mesmerized by Amor Towles’ story and extraordinary prose. Get your copy now...you will not be sorry.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: I got my copy of A Gentleman in Moscow in December 2016 at a Barnes and Noble store during their annual “signed copy” sale (it took me a year later to finally get around to read it). If you haven’t visited that signed edition December sale...you should next year.

I was amazed how a tyrant like Joseph Stalin could be mourned by so many after he died on 3/3/1953. The man also known as Dear Father, Vozhd, Koba and Soso ruled Russia with a iron fist for about thirty years was surprisingly bewailed by the Russian population. An excerpt from page 349 of Towles novel examines the reasons why:

“On the sixth, Harrison Salisbury, the new Moscow bureau chief of The New York Times, stood in the Count’s old rooms to watch as members of the Presidium arrived in a cavalcade of ZIM limousines and as Soso’s coffin, taken from a bright blue ambulance, was borne ceremoniously inside. And on the seventh, when the Palace of Unions was opened to the public. Salisbury watched in some amazement as the line of citizens waiting to pay their respects stretched five miles across the city.”

“Why, many Western observers wondered, would over a million citizens stand in line to see the corpse of a tyrant? The flippant said it must have been to ensure that he was actually dead; but such a remark did not do justice to the men and women who waited and wept. In point of fact, legions mourned the loss of the man who had led them to victory in the Great Patriotic War against the forces of Hitler; legions more mourned the loss of the man who had so single-mindedly driven Russia to become a world power; while others simply wept in recognition that a new era of uncertainty had begun.”

Whatever the reason was, it didn’t matter to Nikita Khrushchev, who watched the spectacle on the sidelines...while he waited for his turn to abuse the Russian people.   

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Rafe Rebellius and the Clash of the Genres


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

Rafe Rebellius never stays in one place for long. His parents are scientists and constantly need to move because of their research projects. On their latest move, Rafe's parents say that they are staying put for good. This time they have moved in with relatives, but it doesn't take long before Rafe's parents need to move again. Rafe is left on his own with family members he has never met. 


When Rafe's new home and family members are threatened, he has to travel into the books that are in the house's large library to try to find the money to pay off the family's debt. Rafe needs to navigate through many different genres of books in order to attempt to get the money. Rafe Rebellius will meet many different characters throughout his journeys, including Two Gun, Fem and Whic. 

Overall, I thought this was an interesting read, but the one thing I didn't like was that the dialog seemed forced in some places. This was a different book from anything I've ever read. I would recommend this novel to the 7 to 12 age group.

RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

Comment: Kai seemed to struggle with this novel because it seemed babyish to him. I will not ask him to review a book below his age group again. 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Bird of Prey


The author sent me a copy of his novel to read and review, the review was done by Book Review contributor, Pat Koelmel:
Most days, I get my exercise from a brisk, five-mile walk, and along the way, I sometimes see roadkill. It isn’t often I see a dead cat, but when I do, it breaks my heart even more than seeing a dead squirrel or opossum. So I usually find a way to pull the cat’s body off the road to spare it further insult from passing cars. Therefore, I admit I wasn’t exactly thrilled about the thought of reading a book about a sadistic, kitty-killing seagull.
And once I started to read Bird of Prey, I wasn’t thrilled with its execution either. The seemingly never-ending sentences (the one I chose to add up totaled a whopping 131 words) were distracting as well as the bunching up of the dialogue of multiple characters into a single paragraph rather than separating it out as it is traditionally done. On top of that, there were a lot of grammatical errors. I also initially had a hard time getting into the story. In fact, the first pages left me wondering if there was ever going to be one. I was actually ready to slap a two-star rating on this novel and call it a day (which I now wonder, after finishing the book, if that could have been due, in part, to all those distractions).   
But, lo and behold, with the onset of Chapter 3, a story did appear to emerge with a character by the name of Mrs. Crick, an elderly, arthritic bird lover. Unfortunately, Mrs. Crick’s fascination with birds is described in too much detail and goes on way too long for my taste. And again, I started to wonder if a real story was ever coming. And, yes, Virginia, not only is there a Santa Claus, it turns out there is a story too … and a pretty good one at that. (Sorry, but I couldn’t resist the Christmas reference. ‘Tis the season after all.)
So how could a story about a seagull bent on killing cats be so good? Well, first of all, there’s a bit more to this 128-page novel. Set in the English seaside town of Bexhill-on-Sea, public outcry over the discovery of one dead cat after another soon gets the police involved and on the hunt for the killer, assumed to be a man. But it is Mr. Ryan’s droll British wit, vivid imagination, and talent for creating a range of unique and quirky characters that truly hooked me.      
I was also impressed with Mr. Ryan’s knowledge of gulls and how he incorporated facts about them throughout the storyline. For instance, did you know that a gull can drink sea water and expel the salt through its eyelids? (It’s true; I googled it.) Additionally, Mr. Ryan provided some excellent visuals of the gull’s attacks on the cats. For example (after dropping a cat into the sea to drown): “He [the gull] fancied diving down and grabbing the cat by the face so he could bring it back up to the surface again, to watch it sink for a second time, but he’d done this before and was captured in the clutches of two desperate paws with sharp protracted claws and nearly dragged down by the weight of the desperate, tired and dying creature.” (I do wish, however, that the author took more care to not use a word like desperate twice in one sentence.)
So you can see that, while it is difficult to forgive the grammatical issues, the further I got into this book, the more I enjoyed it. Intricately woven, Bird of Prey is a rare bird and well worth the read.  
RATING: 4 out of 5 stars
Comment: After reading Bird of Prey, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 thriller The Birds. Based on a story by Daphne du Maurier and set in the California seaside community of Bodega Bay, it tells the story of the sudden and unexplained onset of invading flocks of homicidal birds.
Here are some interesting “behind-the-scene” facts from a list of 25 posted by Moviephone:   
1. Daphne Du Maurier's novella, on which the film was based, was originally published in a 1952 issue of Good Housekeeping magazine. Hitchcock had adapted two previous films from Du Maurier's work: 1939's "Jamaica Inn" and 1940 Best Picture Oscar winner "Rebecca."

2. The director had long had an interest in birds. He'd been a bird-watcher as a boy. He also took inspiration from a newspaper article he read in 1961 about hordes of dead birds washing up onto the streets in the seaside California town of Capitola.

3. Hitchcock initially wanted his 1950s leading lady Grace Kelly for the role of Melanie Daniels, but after she married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956, she retired from acting and declined all offers to return to Hollywood. He'd also sought Anne Bancroft for the role, but even with his expansive budget, he couldn't afford her. Others on his wish list included starlets Sandra Dee, Carol Lynley, Yvette Mimieux, and Pamela Tiffin.

4. He discovered his eventual leading lady, Tippi Hedren, a model with no acting experience, when he spotted her in a TV commercial for a diet drink during NBC's "Today" show. He would eventually groom her into one of his classic icy blondes (a la Kelly, Novak, Eva Marie Saint, and Janet Leigh), choosing her clothes, hairstyle, and even her lipstick for her role as Melanie Daniels.

5. Hitchcock took his customary cameo at the beginning of the film; he can be seen outside the pet shop, walking two dogs, which were the director's own pets.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

the NEGLECTED ONES


The author sent her novel to me to read and review:

This novel was mainly a dissertation on today’s atrocious nursing home conditions. I was made to believe that this novel would be comparable to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (see my review of 6/15/2015). The author presented her novel to me as a suspenseful, psychological thriller with sinister overtones. That statement is flawed at best. It starts out as an ordinary story that suddenly mutates into a ridiculously zany and bizarre ending. But none of it was  suspenseful or thrilling for me. The author’s promise of ghosts haunting the nursing facility initially seemed to be an afterthought. Zelda (the main character’s mother who calls ghosts...spooks) saw a spook on page two and didn’t see another one until page 108. And when they finally appeared, they were more preposterous than scary. So what did the author do correctly? She kept the main characters down to a reasonable number. Her prose, while mostly rudimentary, seemed mistake free. It boils down to the fact that the story wasn’t electrifying nor groundbreaking. I felt no empathy for any of the characters, including the patients and the trapped ghosts. We already know that nursing homes are notoriously uncaring for a variety of reasons, which the author (to her credit) identified in her novel, but I don’t think (that) it is possible to have a catastrophic event happen every time you drop by to visit your relative (which was the case in this novel). I think the author has a feasible future in literature, but please come up with a better tale sans the fantasy part. This story is not comparable to Henry James’ classic short story. 

The story starts with a rain storm off the coast of Maine. David Reed is painting in his studio when he gets a call from one of the few good nurses from the Haven Nursing and Rehabilitation Center where his mother, Zelda, is a patient recovering from a broken hip. The nurse asks David if it’s okay for them to give his mother a drug to calm her down. David says “no” to that idea and gets in his car and drives down to the nursing home. As it turns out, his mom was being verbally abused by a mean nurse named Taylor Hanson. David arrives and calms his mom down. Zelda says, “David, please get me out of here.” David says, “Once you finish your therapy, I’ll take you home.” David explains to Zelda that the doctor will not release her until her therapy is finished. She says, “But I’m afraid.” David says, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Zelda says, “Yes there is. There’s spooks in here.” This is the first mention of ghosts, or spooks, as Zelda calls them. As the weeks go by, David realizes what a abusive place this nursing home is. His mom says she is refused showers, made to pee in her pants and abused every day. Kevin and Edgar Fitzgerald are friends of the Reeds. Their father (they call him Da) is also an abused patient at the Haven’s center. The abuse gets worse. David threatens to sue the doctor for reckless endangerment to no avail. David takes his grievances to the State Health Department. He gets nowhere with them, “I’m sorry. But the results of our investigation show that the staff at Haven has done nothing wrong.” Suddenly, the Fitzgerald brothers say that the Haven staff killed their Da...will the poop hit the fan? (so to speak). 

This is where the story moved into the fantasy genre. It’s kind of like when the movie, The Wizard of Oz went from black and white to color. Like when King Kong left the jungle and arrived in NYC, or when Alice in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland fell through a rabbit hole into a fantasy world. Why C. L. Salaski switched from a drama to a fantasy is something only she knows. But all is not lost. If the novel was awful, I wouldn’t have finished the book. I finished the book. Strong evidence of what I said in my opening sentence in the first paragraph is presented at the end of the novel. On the last page, the author list eight things you can do to end neglect and abuse in nursing homes. If this is a subject you are interested in, then by all means, read this novel...it could motivate you to do something good.

RATING: 2 out of 5 stars

Comment: I wonder if this novel could be considered portal fantasy. Basically, it’s about moving from our world (in this case at Haven Nursing) to another world (the angels taking the ghosts to heaven). It might be stretching the definition, but it does fit. B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog say that one of the best portal fantasy novels is Neil Gaiman’s, Coraline :

“One of Gaiman’s earlier novels, with a successful movie adaption from Laika Studios, Coraline is one of those deceptively terrifying books that draw you with mysterious descriptions, and then hold you tight as the scares and the creeps come faster and faster. Coraline and her family move to a new house, and young Coraline is pretty fed up with it; it’s old, it’s boring, and her parents do not give her the attention she wants. But when she discovers the key to a locked door in the living room, she goes through into a different world: a big, beautiful, lavish house, with parents who shower her with attention and treats, with entertainment around every corner. It is perfect. So perfect, she doesn’t even mind that her other Mother and Other Father have buttons for eyes. And that they don’t like when she leaves. And, in fact, don’t want her to go at all. Gaiman’s spooky story is a prime illustration of how sometimes, an imperfect world is a perfectly fine thing, and that what you journey to find may have been in front of you all along.” 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The ELIXIR

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

Bud Hutchins is back and better than ever! JB Michaels, writer of middle grade YA novels, introduces his young inventor/detective to another wacky case to unravel. Is JB Michaels starting to lean towards the personas of one of my favorite writers, Terry Pratchett (4/28/1948 to 3/12/2015)? While there isn’t a Discworld, there are some familiar characters. Missing are wizards, dwarfs, trolls and of course...DEATH. Will they start to appear in book three? The author’s latest Hutchins adventure almost had a comic book feel about. During the various fights in the novel, I could almost visualize the Batman fight words: BAM!, KAPOW!, WHACK! and POW! Is this novel restricted to young adults? I don’t think so. Any reader who enjoys Rick Riordan novels or J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels will enjoy the Bud Hutchins’ series. If I keep writing, I’m going to give the author a swollen head. Nevertheless, I do need to mention that Bud Hutchins has the ability to transport to different destinations a la Star Trek. The difference being that Bud leaves markers in different places and then transports to them later. Okay, enough of what I liked (did I mention that I loved the short chapters?). What didn’t I like? The novel was too short. What else? Well, I was hoping that the Frankenstein experiment on top of the Sears Tower would have been successful (just kidding). The only other flaw (that) I found was minor. It's customary when writing a novel to write in italics when a person is thinking something. A example of what I'm saying is in my last paragraph...the author wrote, Bud thought, "perhaps I should intervene." I changed it to, Bud thought, "perhaps I should intervene." I know it's picayune, but it's a pet peeve of mine.

The story opens with Bud (a PI) and Bert (an android built by Bud) filming a Dr. Covington of the Chicago Met University with his teacher’s assistant, Tricia Pazinski. Bud was hired by Mrs. Covington to find out if her husband was having an affair. Bud’s drone films the couple in a passionate kiss. Bert says to Bud, “We should have enough evidence to convince Mrs. Covington of her husband’s foul behavior.” Bud and Bert head back to their office in Bud’s missing grandfather’s home. The house also billets the undead Maeve (remember her in book one?) in a basement freezer. A werewolf monk had torn out her throat previously and now she has a artificial voice box. Is this story a trip or what? Maeve and Bud (a semi-member) are members of the Order of St. Michael, who are pledged to protect the Earth from evil spirits. Since the house is for sale and a realtor has an appointment to show the house to a couple, Bud leaves the house a mess on purpose, but more importantly forgets to lock the freezer (and there is a full moon tonight). Obviously the realtor and her clients run out of the house after encountering Maeve, who has now turned into a full-blown werewolf (HaHa). Maeve also runs out of the house and races (following a strong scent) towards a cemetery. Bud and Bert pursue Maeve. Don’t worry, I’m not giving the story away...I’m only on page 19. I’m just whetting your whistle for what’s ahead.

“She (Maeve) entered the Mt. Olivet cemetery with a single leap...the scent grew stronger. She reached the top of the hill and down the path saw a police squad car. Parked...the squad car’s passenger door and rear passenger side door were open...there was an unconscious police officer inside...another officer’s head rested on the steering wheel...their sidearms were missing….the shotgun missing. The source of the odor had to have been here. It was the strongest in this area.” Suddenly shots rang out towards her. “Then she saw him - a man dressed in a cream trench coat and a suit that matched the jacket. He wore a fedora cocked to the left. The man’s face bore a large scar. Al Capone had risen from the dead.” A ferocious fight ensued. Bud thought, "perhaps I should intervene." After the fight was over, "The ghostly Capone was a blue bloody mess. His face was literally covered with scars. Maeve's shoulders and chest raised and lowered quickly. She stepped back from the mess of Al Capone. She looked up at Bud then fell to the ground in a growl." All right, you had your 25 page taste of this novel. Are you ready to buy your own copy of this action-packed novel or what? I think JB Michaels’ age target is probably 12 to 18 years old, but seniors (like me) can also enjoy a fast-moving YA novel sans profanity and sex every so often...can’t we? I guess you realize that I loved this novel. I highly recommend it to any age group.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: I mentioned in the first paragraph, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. For quite a few years I read his extraordinary novels until I decided to move on to other genres and authors. He wrote 41 novels in the series and sold 85 million copies in 37 different languages. He was known to wear a large (usually black) fedora hat. He died at the young age of 66 (I say young because I’ll be 73 this month) from Alzheimer’s Disease. When he died, his assistant, Rob Wilkins, wrote from Pratchett’s twitter account, “AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.” In Pratchett’s Discworld series, DEATH was a (once in awhile) character and you knew when he appeared, because he always spoke in CAPITAL LETTERS. Scary, isn’t it?

My two favorite novels from the Discworld series are: His first novel, 1983’s The Colour of Magic and his 1999 novel, The Fifth Elephant. If you have never read a Discworld novel, do yourself a favor and read one...he was a great writer.   

Sunday, December 3, 2017

HYPNOSIS a return to the past


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

I think Maria Ines Rebelo’s first novel was somewhat of a menza menza effort for me. I never really felt any empathy for any of the characters. They all seemed one-dimensional with little, or no depth. The story was not exciting for me and I wasn’t sure what the purpose of the novel was. Why did the author spend the first 39 pages describing the hypnotist’s family...it was boring. And it wasn’t until page 68 that the hypnotist and his mysterious patient finally met. Poor editing (it threw me off-kilter) and misspellings annoyed me, such as hiss for his, di for did, and theyears without a break between the words. And on page 36, how can librarian Georgine Gunderson be “5 feet 25 tall?” I understand that writing a novel is difficult. I’m sorry that my review is not what the author probably expected, but the novel wasn’t fully ready for publication. At this point, I normally tell the author what I think she/he did well. In this case, I was going to pass, but then I thought that wasn’t fair since every writer has some attribute that can be nurtured. Ms Rebelo’s X factor is in storytelling. While still in it’s raw form, I think that it can be developed with (in my opinion) a better story. The author states, “Through reading her books she hopes that her readers acquire a different view of the power of the human mind, or mankind itself.”

Marcus Belling was a world famous hypnotist with his own TV show and private practice. Anne Pauline Roux was a troubled twenty-five year old woman. Marcus tries to help patients that have “trauma from dreams of past lives” via hypnosis sessions. Anne was a sad and anguished patient. “The dreams of past lives seemed to invade her nights, year after year. Try as she might, she could not prevent the same, familiar man’s voice putting in her mind a set of questions that did not seem random: Who are you? Are you able to travel to the past? Do you want to discover what exists there?” Anne was aware of the long dispute between Marcus Belling and his rival hypnotist, Josef Salvaterra, but she decided to seek treatment from the more famous Marcus Belling. Is Salvaterra going to muck this up? Anyway, Anne finally starts treatment with Belling on page 79. Her first hypnosis takes her back to 1785 as Aurelie Caen, a renowned scientist/chemist from the 18th century. “Even though she was in trance, Anne Pauline could clearly see and hear the two newly arrived persons. To Anne’s surprise, the woman was her, but living in another time!” The Caens’ and their assistant Rosalie were attempting to turn base metals into gold. While hiding under a table, Anne was watching the experiments when the unthinkable happened. Rosalie saw Anne! How was this possible? Although this novel mostly bored me, do you see how the right words in my review can make this novel exciting?

“Anne panicked. She could never imagine that someone in a past life could be able to recognize her in this different time and space and while under a hypnotic trance! She did not know how to react, but the green-eyed girl from the future was sincere as she begged to the Caens’ assistant: no-one could know that she was there. Rosalie was moved by this mysterious hiding woman’s despair and decided not to denounce her to the scientists.” When Anne came out of the trance, she decided to withhold this incredible information from Marcus. The novel was off and running...so to speak. So listen, as you know, I wasn’t thrilled by this story, but that doesn’t mean (that) you will not like it. So I do recommend this novel if the subject matter interests you.

RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

Comment: I remember a movie I saw in 1970, On a clear day you can see forever, starring Barbra Streisand and Yves Montand. It was a typical musical comedy/drama that Barbra starred in many times. In this movie she sees a psychiatrist about breaking her five pack a day smoking habit. She accidentally gets hypnotized and recalls fifteen different past lives. The psychiatrist falls in love with one of Barbra’s past lives, which causes a problem when Barbra’s character, Daisy Gamble, finds out that he is in love with a past life and not her. At her final meeting with the psychiatrist, she informs him that in a future life (the year 2038) they will be married. It was a fun movie.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Memory of a Bygone Christmas

A very short Christmas story by review contributor, Pat Koelmel:
A DAY IN DECEMBER
My father was known by most who knew him as a mean and nasty man.
He usually walked around with a scowl, and when he spoke, he spoke his mind even if it was hurtful. Therefore, it was no surprise that people avoided my father if they were lucky enough to be in the position to do so.
He also had a terrible temper that could be set off by the most minor of events. Spilled milk could easily do it. So it would make sense that my mother, my brothers and sisters, and I feared him most times.
But one Christmas something changed inside him if only for a short moment of time.
I was about 13 or 14 … maybe even 15. My father was watching TV when out of the blue he said to me, “This year, I’d like to take you myself to buy your Christmas present, maybe something to wear.”
I looked up from whatever I was doing. It was important to give my father your full attention when he spoke. I didn’t answer. I continued to listen instead.
“I want to be there to help you pick it out,” he further explained.
This was not something my father had ever suggested before. My mother always did the shopping. I didn’t know what to say so I just smiled.
My father rarely smiled, but this time he smiled back at me. In fact, he smiled back with a smile that almost glowed. His smile made me happy. Suddenly, I felt safe. Suddenly, I didn’t fear him.
“We’ll go wherever you want,” my father went on. “You choose the store.”
I picked Daniels. Daniels was a high-end store back then. It had the kind of clothes I only dreamed of owning.
I knew about Daniels because that’s where my big sister Joan bought all of her clothes. She came home with something new every week, but Joan could afford to shop there. She had finished school and was working full time in a fancy office.
My father and I went to Daniels that afternoon. The store was located in Somerville, just a ten-mile drive from home. The closer we got, the faster my heart beat.
When we walked into the store, my father headed for a chair. From there, he watched as I searched through the racks and racks of beautiful clothes. I wasn’t even worried that I might be taking too long. I looked back at my father. He was relaxed, still smiling.
I finally settled on a pair of stretch pants, the kind with stirrups. They were woven with a small black and white check print. I picked out a black turtleneck to go with them. I tried on both pieces in the dressing room and came out to show my father.
He smiled that warm smile again and nodded his approval.
After I changed back into the clothes I came in, I proudly walked up to the cash register with my father. Mr. Daniels chatted with us as he checked us out. When he handed me the package, he thanked us both for coming. “Merry Christmas,” he said.
I don’t remember when my father changed back to his old self again. Nor do I remember when a young girl’s blissful love for her father changed back into fear. It could have been an hour later … or the next day.
Many years later, I saw a similar pair of stretch pants, woven with a small black and white check print. I bought them even though I knew they were no longer something I would ever wear again. I tucked them away along with my memory of that day in December.

Monday, November 27, 2017

ARTEMIS


Andy Weir’s new novel moves from the world of Martian astronaut/potato farmer Mark Watney to the safer confines of Earth’s moon. I did like The Martian (see my review of 4/15/2014), but was mostly bored with the predominantly solo character novel. In Artemis, I wasn’t bored, but I wasn't enthralled either. Mr. Weir seems to get close to novel perfection but somehow missed his orbit on both novels. I wasn’t quite thrilled with his wise cracking, small time smuggler Jasmine Bashara, who suddenly turns into a super heroine (so to speak) after a failed attempt to earn a million slugs (Moon money) from one of the Moon’s richest citizens. I realize (that) what I think means very little to Mr. Weir since he probably earned a small fortune with his first novel’s movie receipts, but literature is literature. Neither of his novels are going to claim a piece of the Great American Novel. That term was first articulated by novelist John William Deforest in 1868, and he thought that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (see my review of 12/9/2012) was “the nearest approach to the desired phenomenon.” Anyway, I’m not saying Andy Weir is a commercial writer, but he hasn’t jettisoned from that stigma yet either. Mr. Weir’s novels remind me of American astronaut Alan Shepard, who was rocketed 116 miles up and down in a fifteen minute flight...unlike John Glenn’s actual three orbit ride. So what am I trying to say? I’m saying...write an American classic space opera instead of another inconsequential novel like this one. Take the real orbit ride, not the quick up and down ride. You can do it. Take your time. There’s no rush. You could be the next Issac Asimov. Okay, no more jawing - what’s this almost good novel about?
   
Artemis is a Moon colony with five main aluminum bubbles connected by tunnels no wider than a hallway. Jasmine Bashara (now 26 years old) has lived on the Moon most of her life with her recently alienated father, a master welder. She lives in a tiny enclosure that she calls her coffin, because you can’t stand up in it. She is trying to get her EVA license so she can join the EVA Guild (people who are trained and authorized to go outside the bubbles) and start earning some decent slugs. The Guild takes tourist outside the bubble to tour the Apollo 11 landing site during which the tour leaders wear their EVA suits while the tourists get around in individual hamster bubbles (pretty funny). Jazz (as Jasmine is known by) has recently failed her EVA test because her used faulty suit blew out a valve assembly and she had to run for her life back to the bubble. She couldn’t afford a new suit...it’s a catch 22 situation. Anyway, while she tries to save enough money, she works as a porter and small-time smuggler. One day she is called on her Gizmo (a futuristic smart phone) by one of the Moon’s wealthiest citizens, Trond Landvik. He offers Jazz a million slugs to destroy Sanchez Aluminum’s harvesting equipment. The Sanchez company makes oxygen for Artemis by separating anorthite rocks into aluminum, silicon, calcium and oxygen. Since they supply oxygen for the colony, Sanchez gets all the electricity they want for free. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Trond tells Jazz, “For the last four months, I’ve been collecting oxygen and storing it away. I have enough to supply the entire city’s needs for over a year.” Does Trond want to destroy Sanchez aluminum so he can take over their city contract, or does he have other motives?

Jazz says, “You want me to stop Sanchez’s oxygen production?” “Yes, I do.” He stood from his chair and walked over to the liquor credenza. This time he selected a bottle of rum. “The city will want a fast resolution and I’ll get the contract. Once that happens, I won’t even have to build my own smelter. Sanchez will see the futility of trying to make aluminum without free power and they’ll let me buy them outright.” Who really owns Sanchez Aluminum? Is Jazz about to open up a can of worms? You will have to read the next 262 pages to find out. One thing that Andy Weir did that was clever was the emailing back and forth from Jazz on the Moon to Kelvin at Earth’s KSC complex in Kenya (since they were each nine years old). Kenya set up the Moon base in the beginning and now KSC acts like a bank for Artemis converting Earth currencies to slugs. The sporadic conversations between the two gives the reader all the background information he/she needs without having some of the chapters in the past and some of the chapters in the present. For that I congratulate the author. I thought his prose could have been better - a lot of it was rudimentary. If my first paragraph analogy seemed space themed...it was done so on purpose. I did like the novel, but I think the author can do much better, especially in picking out the right story to tell.

RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

Comment: This the second time that Andy Weir has written a space opera (a novel set in outer space), but neither were great novels. I’m waiting for him to come up with a classic, like Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 novel, 2001: a Space Odyssey (which became a four book series). Or Isaac Asimov’s 1951 novel, Foundation (which became a seven volume series). Or Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, Dune (which became a six volume series). Do you see what I’m getting at? Write one great novel and the others will naturally follow along with many possible Hugo Awards.

Friday, November 17, 2017

then SHE was BORN


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

When I finished the last page of Cristiano Gentili’s novel, I said to myself...this was a pretty damn good book. Not only was the author’s storytelling terrific, but it served as a big enterprise for the author. Before the story starts, the author clarifies his plea for what he explains is a just cause, “This is a work of fiction based on true events. A girl named Adimu, the protagonist of this novel, does not exist. Both Adimu and the succession of events narrated in the story are fruit of the author’s imagination. However, every individual among the thousands of individuals with albinism living in sub-Saharan Africa - and this is a fact - has experienced at least some of the episodes the character Adimu faces. In this sense, and only in this sense, are the events in this novel absolutely and incredibly true.” The author has the support of eleven Nobel Peace-Prize Laureates plus the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis supporting his cause. Based on this pre-information, I thought I was going to read another bleeding-heart novel that was just trying to get its main political theme through. Wow, I was so wrong. This is a standalone novel that doesn’t need to embrace any mission. Although the author’s prose is somewhat rudimentary at times, the story is not. The main characters were kept to a respectful level with easy to remember names. There is no guess work in this novel since, “In 2011, he went on a personal fact-finding trip to Tanzania, to assess the living conditions of Africans with albinism.” This novel is the English translation of his book, originally written in Italian.

Most of the novel took place on an island of Tanzania named Ukerewe. A native islander, Juma, delivers an albino baby, which is the worst possible thing that could have happened to her. Juma felt “only scorn and disgust...she had diligently followed every directive given to her by the woman of the clan...yet she had borne this monstrosity.” Her husband, Sefu, viewed the baby and thought to himself, “She was a curse, a judgement...how could I have begot such a thing...it has to die.” The women in the birth hut said, “It’ll have red eyes like the devil, it’s a zeru zeru (Swahili for a person with albinism) with witchy, magical powers.” Sefu leaves Juma, his second wife, and goes back to his first wife and children. Sefu, speaking with village chief Kondo, demands that the baby has to die. Sefu’s mother, Nkamba, and the grandmother to the albino baby objects. Nkamba says, “Follow the example of our neighbors, the Masai, she continued, holding Sefu’s gaze. Tomorrow, at dawn, place the baby on the ground in front of the gate where the community herd is kept. Let the beasts decide her fate. If the cattle trample her to death as they leave their pen, that is her destiny; if she survives, I will raise her.” The village chief, Kondo, and the village shaman, Zuberi, granted her request. Sefu is not happy. A young fisherman said, “The birth of a white shadow is a bad sign. Zeru zerus must be left in the forest from the moment of birth as an offering to the Spirits. That is how it always been. She has to die alone, far from the community.”

During the night before the test, Nkamba prayed. Then, “In the dark of the night the old woman, crept to the pen where the cattle were kept, each one known to her by name. She stayed there only long enough to collect some urine from a cow to dampen a rag. This way you will recognize her as one of your own and do her no harm.” In the morning, “Nkamba set the bundle on the ground, right in front of the pen’s gate. She asked her son if she could be the one to open the gate. After a nod, Sefu waited, a motionless ebony statue against a gray sky that threatened rain. Most of the villagers hoped to see the hooves of the milk cows trample the newborn and, thus, ward off the curse that risked destroying their island world...She opened the gate. The beasts bellowed and moaned and crowded the pen’s entryway. The first cow trod forward with uncertain steps. The animal lowered its muzzle toward the infant, obstructing the others behind it. It sniffed at the bundle and stepped over it. The second and then the third cow distinguished the presence of a living thing on the ground and sidestepped it too.” The rest of the herd burst out of the compound causing a cloud of dust around the baby. Did the baby survive? “Then, out of the hush, an acute and distressing cry from the tiny creature issued forth. A small white arm broke free and waved in the air...she was alive.” At least for now. Sefu forbade Nkamba from naming the baby. A local native, Mosi, a graduate of a catholic seminary, who was now known as Father Andrew vowed to help get the baby a name. With an appeal to the village chief, Kondo and the village shaman, Zuberi, Nkamba was allowed to name the baby. Father Andrew baptized the baby the next Sunday. Father Andrew told Nkamba that she must now name the baby. Nkamba said, “She will be called Adimu” (meaning rare in Swahili).
  
All of this happened during the first twenty six pages of the novel, which immediately tweaked my interest. This is how a good writer (like Cristiano Gentili) starts a novel...take the ball and run with it (I still love idioms). Don’t bore me with a 150 pages of useless fluff before the plot slowly starts to develop like the many books (that) I’ve read and reviewed in the past have (is it correct to end a sentence with have?). Anyway, the only flaw that I could find in Then she was born was in the coinciding story of Charles and Sarah Fielding, the rich Caucasian gold mine owners, who lived in mansion known as “The White House” on the island of Ukerewe in Tanzania. Their story was so powerful that it almost overwhelmed the story of Adimu, who represented the reason the novel was written for in the first place. But the author brilliantly melded the two stories together resulting in a whirlwind ending. This novel was quite a trip, and I wish the author all the luck in the world in his quest to end Africa’s prejudice and hateful attitude towards African albinos. Great job Cristiano Gentili!  
  
RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: I almost didn’t take this novel on because I didn’t see the need to review it since the author already had 41 reviews with a 4.5 average rating. But he lured me in by telling me that I’m a professional reviewer, that I review books in a fair way, that I know my business and how satisfactory it would be for him if his novel received a five star rating from me. Well, Cristiano Gentili, you got your five star review...and you earned it!   

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER


Although Mark Twain published various writings previously, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was his first solo novel (1876). It was followed by the 1884 publishing of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (see my review of 12/17/2012). Don’t ask me why Twain left out “The” in Huck Finn’s novel title. Twain wrote two sequels for the Tom Sawyer character: Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) and Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896). The Sawyer novel gave birth to one of Mark Twain’s legendary villains, Injun Joe, and one of his most lovable characters, gray haired Aunt Polly (was she the forerunner for Aunt Bee in Andy Griffith’s Mayberry TV Show?). Anyway, the novel was filled with memorable characters, including Huck Finn, Joe Harper and Becky Thatcher. The vernacular language of the 1870s was used in the Sawyer novel but in a less abusive fashion compared to the Huck Finn novel. A example of the local language is revealed on page 15 when Tom is trying to trick his friend into taking over the job of whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence. Tom tells Jim, who was on his way to get a pail of water from the town’s pump for his missy, “Say, Jim, I’ll fetch the water if you’ll whitewash some.” Jim shook his head and said, “Can’t Mars Tom, ole missis, she tole me I got to go an’ git dis water an’ not to stop foolin’ roun’ wid anybody. She say she spec’ Mars Tom gwine to ax me to whitewash, an’ so she tole me go ‘long an’ tend to my own business-she ‘lowed she’d tend to de whitewashin’.” (Of course, Tom eventually tricked Jim into whitewashing the fence). In the preface, the author says, “Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.”

The novel starts out rather tranquil in the fictional town of St. Petersburg, Missouri on the Mississippi River. Tom Sawyer lives with his half brother, Sid, and his cousin Mary at his Aunt Polly’s house ever since Tom’s mom passed away. Tom is a conniving young man that just wants to do his own thing with no strings attached. He loves swimming, fishing, goofing off and playing marbles...he hates work, going to school and going to Sunday School. When Aunt Polly takes Tom to church, we have the opportunity to meet the town folks on page 35. “The crowd filed up the aisles: the aged and needy postmaster, who had seen better days; the mayor and his wife; the widow Douglas, fair, smart, and forty, a generous, goodhearted soul and well-to-do, her hill mansion the only palace in the town; the bent and venerable Major and Mrs. Ward; lawyer Riverson; next the belle of the village, followed by a troop of lawn clad* (*dressed in fine summer clothing); then all the young clerks in town in a body and last of all came the Model Boy, Willie Mufferson, taking a heedful care of his mother as if she was cut glass. The boys all hated him, he was so good.” Tom caused a stir in church when he let out a big pinch-bug from his percussion-cap box (a storage box he kept in his pant’s pocket) and a vagrant poodle dog began chasing it around the aisles. I told you that this novel starts out docile, but Twain’s writing is terrific. Want more excitement? Tom falls in love with the new girl in town, Becky Thatcher. He tries to show off in front of her at school, but that only gets him in constant trouble with the school’s master. When is this story going to explode with excitement? How about on page 43 when Tom runs into his buddy, Huck Finn? Don’t worry about the slow start; this novel will definitely get unexpectedly tense soon enough.

After Tom had his loose tooth pulled by Aunt Polly (the gap in his upper row of teeth enabled him to expectorate in a new and admiral way), he headed for school. “Shortly Tom came upon the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard. Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town, because he was idle and lawless and vulgar and bad-and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society, and wished they dared to be like him.” I loved the Huck Finn character. Let me give you a little bit of Mark Twain’s marvelous descriptive writing as he chronicles Huck’s appearance, “Huckleberry was always dressed in the castoff clothes of full-grown men, and they were in perennial bloom and fluttering with rags. His hat was a vast ruin with a wide crescent  lopped out of its brim; his coat,when he wore one, hung nearly to his heels and had the rearward buttons far down the back; but one suspender supported his trousers; the seat of the trousers bagged low and contained nothing; the fringed legs dragged in the dirt when not rolled up.” Can you visualize how he looked or what? Anyway, they talk about how to get rid of warts, Tom’s missing tooth, ticks, and dead cats (Huck has one with him that he traded for with another boy). Huck tells Tom that dead cats are good for curing warts with. Tom tells Huck that he knows something better to cure warts. Tom says, “Why, spunk-water.” Huck says, “Spunk-water! I wouldn’t give a dern for spunk-water.” Tom says it works because Bob Tanner did it. Huck says, “Who told you so?” Tom says, “Why, he told Jeff Thatcher, and Jeff told Johnny Baker, and Johnny told Jim Hollis, and Jim told a nigger, and the nigger told me, There now!” Pardon the language, but that’s how they talked in 1870. History is history.

Huck convinces Tom to meet him at the cemetery at midnight that night to prove his point. “Why, you take your cat and go and get in the graveyard’ long about midnight when somebody that was wicked has been buried; and when it’s midnight a devil will come, or maybe two or three, but you can’t see ‘em, you can only hear something like the wind, or maybe hear ‘em talk; and when they’re taking that feller away, you heave your cat after ‘em and say, ‘Devil follow corpse, cat follow devil, warts follow cat, I’m done with ye!’ That’ll fetch any wart.” So let me end my review at the spot where the boys go to the graveyard to test Huck’s theory and unexpectedly encounter three human devils. Can one of them possibly be...Injun Joe? This incident would cause Tom to say later on in the novel, “Well, I was afeard.” (don’t you love this 1870’s language?) This is where the novel took off like a runaway train, proving, once and for all, that Mark Twain was a great storyteller. In the conclusion section on page 204, Mark Twain writes, “So endeth this chronicle. It being strictly a history of a boy, it must stop here; the story could not go much further without becoming the history of a man. When one writes a novel about grown people, he knows exactly where to stop-that is, with a marriage; but when he writes of juveniles, he must stop where he best can. Most of the characters that perform in this book still live, and are prosperous and happy. Some day it may seem worthwhile to take up the story of the younger ones again and see what sort of men and women they turned out to be; therefore it will be wisest not to reveal any of that part of their lives at present.”

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Comment: Just so you know, I left out the guts of the novel so you can discover the greatness of Twain on your own. By the way, for what it’s worth, this novel was written in third person narration (it’s got something to do with the author telling the story...I think).

I loved one of the sidebar parts of the novel where Twain talks about a boy’s desire: “There comes a time in every rightly constructed boy’s life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure. This desire suddenly came upon Tom one day. He sallied out to find Joe Harper, but failed of success. Next he sought Ben Rogers; he had gone fishing. Presently he stumbled upon Huck Finn the Red-Handed. Huck would answer. Tom took him to a private place and opened the matter to him confidentially. Huck was willing. Huck was always willing to take a hand in any enterprise that offered entertainment and required no capital, for he had a troublesome super-abundance of that sort of time which is not money.”

If you want to read excellent book about a boy and his treasure hunting, read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (see my review of 8/23/2016). It’s one of my favorite classics…Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest-yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum! Shiver me timbers!