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 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 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.

Thursday, August 31, 2017


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 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 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


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 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’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


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.”