Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review — Unspeakable Things

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Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey is a crime/mystery story influenced by actual events.  Lourey writes about secrets. She is the bestselling Agatha, Anthony, and Lefty-nominated author of the critically-acclaimed Mira James mysteries, which have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, the latter calling her writing “a splendid mix of humor and suspense.”

There are several likable things in this novel, like the 1980s setting and pop culture references.  Secondly, Cassandra, the narrator and central character in the story, is very likable.  Not quite thirteen, there is still quite a bit of innocence in her interpretation of events, even though she is an adult when telling the story.  It gave me the same feeling as the narration in the movie “Silver Bullet.”  The inserts of  “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” throughout the book also brought back memories.  There is a good deal of nostalgia in the story.

Other parts of the book are too obvious or unexplained.  The parent’s parties are pretty obvious, even though it is not explained until later in the book.   Other things like the number of stairs the father climbs add an extra layer of creepiness to the story.  Although the implication it’s not difficult.  Other repeated events like the clipping of nails is a weird aspect of the story and not explained at all.

There is a level of creepiness that runs throughout the book.  It doesn’t build or subside as the story progresses but remains constant.  The mother is a teacher that seems like an old hippie with healthy food, home remedies, and openness on some issues.  The father is a creep and a drunk but is often left in charge of both daughters. The sheriff and some of the other townsfolk are just as bad.

Creepiness aside, this felt much more like a young adult novel than the promoted Adult Fiction tag.  Parts were too simplistic for an adult reader, and other elements that might be accepted by younger readers are questionable to adults.  The prologue would have the reader believe the narrator is an adult. Still, the telling of the story is undoubtedly that of a young teenager without any adult clarifications or added hindsight information.  The writing well done as it draws the reader into the story, and Cassandra is very likable.  The story has some twists, and although it is not predictable, there are plenty of unanswered questions that could have added to the account or created a bit of complexity.

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Book Review — The Art of Solitude

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The Art of Solitude by Stephen Batchelor is an examination of the concept of solitude. Batchelor is a British author and teacher, writing books and articles on Buddhist topics and leading meditation retreats throughout the world. He is a noted proponent of agnostic or secular Buddhism.

Solitude can mean many things. It can be physical isolation or even mental or spiritual isolation. On the physical side of isolation, we can be alone in the woods like the author describes in one of his adventures. However, how alone are we? Sounds of traffic. Vapor trails of overhead jets. Wildlife. Batchelor also goes to the extreme, and he recalls the story of Robert Kull (and a kitten) who spent a year on an uninhabited island at the tip of Patagonia. His isolation did not feel complete as he wrote in his journal; he knew others would read it, and that made a connection to others, breaking his true feeling of solitude. 

Batchelor takes the reader to Mexico, Korea, and Austria to experience spiritual solitude. Two of these experiences involved drugs — peyote and ayahuasca. In Korea, it involved cold and rain. Batchelor also references to Aldous Huxley and two others that he is fond of: French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1553-1593) and Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (1632- 1675) probably best known for Girl with a Pearl Earring. 

Solitude is a mix of Buddhism, drug experiences, stories, and a little art history. The collage effect of the chapters adds to the experience of the book. It creates a bit of a whirlwind tour in discussing art to serious Buddhism to seemingly 1960s counterculture drug experiences. The book can be opened to any chapter read. Each chapter is self-contained rather than building upon the previous chapter.  

Included in Solitude is the author’s translations of the Four Eights (The four eight-verse poems from the Aṭṭhakavagga of the Sutta Nipāta), which he refers to throughout the book. Tying in the arts into his experience is also appreciated and appealing as well as his personal experiences. The use of drugs in this context is a little confusing. I have no personal qualms about mind-expanding drugs, but it did not seem to fit well with the other material. In Buddhist thinking, that the use of intoxicants is counterproductive to developing an enlightened mind. Batchelor does admit to this, and he does not encourage others to use intoxicants. He does, however, defend his experiments with the explanation that during meditation, we release dopamine, norepinephrine, or serotonin into our system. Does it matter if chemicals from plants enter our body too? His question is a bit more elegant than mine but expands on the idea that it is chemicals that allow us to enter more profound meditation. I am not convinced of that thinking, and I think there is a line between spiritual tranquility and recreational peacefulness. All in all, Solitude is a fascinating read that although it shifts topics, it has something for everyone but not everything for someone. 

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Poetry Review — Armageddon

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Armageddon by Ami J. Sanghvi is the poet’s third collection of published poetry.  Sanghvi is a bit more than just a poet; she is a mixed martial arts fighter, a model, and a brand ambassador.  On her web page, she says that she embraces the extremes: Indian and American, creator and destroyer. This seemed to be an intriguing mix.

Sanghvi opens this work with an introduction which explains the theme of the collection as well as some personal information on the poetry’s development.  Early on:

Every day, I step out into the world and find
myself greeted by manipulation, greed, ignorance,
and other terribly sinister things. The result is that I
have almost entirely lost my faith in mankind, and
this great thing we like to call “humanity” [for some
reason unbeknownst to me].

This is the build-up to the poetry of the real world.  Poems titled “Consumerism”, “United States of Affliction”, “Trophy Wife”, and “Burial” set the tone for the reader.  The message is clear but the words seem somewhat forced.  Her sonnet “Satan Devours Bones” is true to form, but the rhymes are simple and predictable.  There is an abundance of talent in the writing but Sanghvi seems to be trapped by form or limiting herself with end rhymes that tend to be featureless.  However, there is talent, as “Earth, Mankind, Heaven: Trifecta Synthesis” shows:

The brush sweeps through the dark, vivid dusk,
A striking sky of sea, wood, and rust;
Among clouds, where there is more wander than lust,
Men crave to touch glory before turning to dust.

Her appreciation and admiration of Milton show through in many poems, but it is where she breaks away from emulating Milton that her work begins to shine.  The poem “Creed” is probably the best example of this collection.  The poet cracks out of her mold and expresses herself in a unique and meaningful way.  There is a great deal of potential in the poet’s work and I expect very good things will come in future collections.

 

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Book Review — Supernova Era

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Supernova Era is a work of speculative fiction by Liu Cixin. Cixin is a nine-time winner of the Galaxy Award (China’s most prestigious literary science fiction award), winner of the 2015 Hugo Award (for The Three-Body Problem) and the 2017 Locus Award (for Death’s End) as well as a nominee for the Nebula Award.
Supernova Era is an interesting work of fiction and was written shortly after the Tiananmen Square uprising. The most difficult premise of the novel is taken care of near the beginning of the story and is put into play by a mysterious supernova. This quick pulse is needed because it requires the reader to suspend quite a bit of disbelief. However, it takes place rather smoothly and seemingly with enough “science” to explain it and before the reader can protest a “Wait, what?” the story has already moved on. This leaves the main body of the work which seems to have been influenced by Lord of the Flies and 1984. The latter may also be an influence of the Chinese society in which the author was raised. Big Quantum is a computer that monitors pretty close to anything with a computer chip, inventory, or a digitally stored record. In post 9-11 America, this may be one of the least difficult areas to grasp in the story.
With young teens left to run the world even when trained and assisted by technology, things fall apart quickly. A Thirteen-year-old is hardly ready to Prime Minister or even run a power station. Some aspects of the book and behavior are, as expected, strongly influenced by Chinese culture others are much more in tune with the video game mentality which leads to new problem-solving methods. Real-life problems emerge and must be handled in new ways. Earth has become a planet of orphans. Guidance must come from peers and without adults to moderate behavior things like alcoholism and the strong urge to shirk one’s duties and drop out are strong forces. The unasked question the book seems the answer is it doesn’t matter what kind of world we leave our children, they are going to reshape it in their own way.

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Book Review — Grow Great Vegetables in Texas

Grow Great Vegetables in Texas by Trisha Shirey is a year-round gardening book for the people of Texas.  Shirey is a native Texan who developed her love of gardening while assisting in her family’s large vegetable garden. For over thirty years, she has managed the renowned lakeside gardens of Lake Austin Spa Resort in Austin, TX. Herbs, vegetables, fruit trees, edible flowers, and native plants fill the 19-acre site and inspire the resort’s guests to start their own gardens and to manage them organically.

Shirey provides a month by month guide to gardening for each of Texas’s five zones.  There is more to gardening than buying seeds and seedlings in spring and planting them.  There are plenty of do-it-yourself tips for testing your soil, making trellises, composting, and making cold frames.  The reader is also given guides on what to plant and when for each zone in the state.  There is also information on where to plant certain plants to meet their sunlight needs and avoid overexposure to the Texas heat.

One of the most important sections of this book, for me, is on pest control.  Even in the suburbs of Dallas where I live there are plenty of pests.  Aphids will find your fruit trees.  Squirrels will eat all developing fruit.  Rabbits will get the greens. A small patch of non-native potatoes will bring an army of grubs.  Perhaps the most troublesome are the raccoons who will eat anything.  Anything but Habernaro peppers that is.  It seems once your garden is discovered it becomes a landmark in the animal and insect community. Shirey does offer some ideas to control these pests with DIY solutions or a dog, less welcoming than mine.

Although my gardening time is limited nowadays, I am going to try the methods discussed in this book and get started with the January plan.  Grow Great Vegetables in Texas provides the gardener with plenty of illustrations, graphs, and photos along with a wealth of written information.  This is an excellent place for the beginning gardener to start and the experienced gardener to brush up.  Very well done.

 

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Book Review — James Bond: Live and Let Die

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James Bond: Live and Let Die by Van Jensen, Ian Fleming, and Kewber Baal (Illustrator) is a graphic novel of Ian Flemming’s Live and Let Die.  Jensen is the author of the Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer series of graphic novels and, by day, a magazine editor.

James Bond novels are different from the movies in both large and small ways.  Bond isn’t Roger Moore; he’s a bit tougher looking and isn’t afraid to shoot a bad guy in the face.  The storyline varies.  Its different but still a bit the same — Less blacksploitation and less drug centered. The novel is more serious and less flashy.  Still, a very good graphic presentation of a classic Cold War Era spy novel.  Well done.

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Book Review — 750cc Down Lincoln Highway

750cc Down Lincoln Highway by Bernard Chambaz is a graphic novel of unexpected adventure.  Chambaz is a French novelist, historian, and poet, winner of several French literary prizes including the prestigious Goncourt for his first novel, L’Arbre de vies.

What is a runner to do when right before the start of a marathon he gets a breakup text instead of well-wishing?  He goes to a bar and drinks bourbon. A discussion begins with another patron and the Lincoln Highway becomes the subject of conversation.  This leads our author to rent a motorcycle and ride the highway from New York to California.  The general feeling as someone who rides is that the author may be new to riding.  He refers to his Honda Shadow as a 750cc motorcycle, which it is, but displacement is usually used to describe sportbikes and not cruisers.  A Honda Shadow is a Shadow and those in the know understand its a750.  Riding in the rain also seems to be a new experience for Chamaz.

What makes this worth reading is the separation of life experiences.  Riding to forget his ex-girlfriend or at least come to terms with the breakup. Second, it is separating her from his running. And finally, it is about the ride and the other riders one meets and places that are seen.  Runners have their cliques and groupings but people on motorcycles are a closer group, strangers on the road are quick to bond and share stories and help.  The road itself is a much different place on a motorcycle,  It is not the same road that one experiences in a car. A good book on life, people, and healing.

 

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