Book Review – Black Horses for the King

TITLE: Black Horses For The King
AUTHOR: Anne McCaffrey
PUBLISHED: 1996
FORMAT: Mass Market

According to the introduction, Black Horses for the King is an Arthurian Legend, but from a direction that we don’t normally get the story.  I’m not a huge fan of Arthur stories, but I thought that a combination of McCaffrey and a new angle would make this interesting.

The story follows Galwyn, apprenticed to his uncle because his father sucked at life.  Lord Artos crosses his path and Galwyn jumps ship (literally) to get away from his uncle and go on an adventure like he wants.  He has an ease with language and is considered an asset to the group.

I liked the writing style for the most part, although there were some wordings that were a little clunky because she was trying to sound old fashioned with how she talked.  But the blatant “screw everything that isn’t my way” was totally unpalatable.   At one point, for instance, Galwyn makes a big deal out of being thankful that his Uncle was only his mother’s sister’s husband and not actually a blood relative because he was pagan.  And no wonder he was a bad person because, duh, he was pagan.

And I’m totally of the opinion that I don’t care what a character is or isn’t, but there better be a damn good reason for making fun of everything.  And there was’t a lot that justified the total pagans-are-shit treatment.  (Because they’re not me and my way is right doesn’t cut it)

In the end, I decided that the book was way too soap box and way too unpalatable to finish. I decided the review was valid, but because I only got through the first 40ish pages, I’m not going to give this a number review.  Voice good, soapbox bad.  Rating ?/5.

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Books Review – The Christmas Scrapbook & The Mitford Snowman

NOTE: In honor of the holidays, I thought I’d do a couple holiday stories, so it’s a bonus twofer review day! I know that these are competing series, but hey, why not?


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TITLE: The Christmas Scrapbook
AUTHOR: Philip Gulley
FORMAT: Hardback
PUBLISHED: 2005

Okay, so I needed a Christmas book for the reading challenge, and I found this on the shelf.  It was short, so I grabbed it.  I’m not big on Christmas stories in general, and I’ve already read Skipping Christmas and Ester’s Gift, and a couple other short ones.  Thus, this one it was…

The book is apparently a stand-alone companion book to the popular Home to Harmony series of books.  I haven’t read them, but I had no problem following along with who everyone was.

In this story, the MC is Pastor Sam, determined this year to get a better gift than the almost two-decades of crap he’s managed before, so he’s off making her a scrapbook. Misunderstandings happen.  Hilarity ensues.  Or something. [Side note.  If you’re the type of husband that can’t manage something better than a friggin’ pelican to hold your kitchen sponge, you are doing this husband thing wrong.  He’s supposedly been married 17 years.  I don’t know why either one of them put up with the other.]

Look, I’m sure these are supposed to be cute and wholesome and whatever – and this felt like a rejected Andy Griffith Show story line.  But unlike Andy, Sam’s just annoying.  And the busybodies all over town are just … annoying.  And I know I said that about Sam, but let’s just say that if this beauty parlor had the only shampoo in existence, I’d never wash my hair again instead of having to deal with these twits.  Apparently being a total gossip is a “good Christian” quality.

And the wife…  So, this is a minister and his wife.  When Sam has somewhere to be Wednesday nights and a bad lie to cover it up, why does she automatically assume he’s cheating on her?  I’m not saying clergy can’t cheat, but I’d like to think they operate under a higher morality clause than the rest of us.  And I’d like to think that even if they were acting all suspicious, a minister’s wife would assume just about anything else before cheating.

Honestly, this book did less than anything for me.  Maybe people who love this series will think this is a cute story, but I think that it could have seriously used about 1000 more words to flesh some things out instead of weak transitions and the glossing over of stuff.  For instance, at one point somebody twists an ankle.  And since the response to that is more important than the actual ankle being twisted, it was reduced to about half a sentence.  That could have at least been an exciting paragraph.  But no.

In the end, I suggest reading this to put yourself to sleep.  If you like your fiction so saccharine sweet (with an undercoat of hen chatter) that you get diabetes, maybe you’re the target audience, but I know that I certainly am not.  2/5.

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TITLE: The Mitford Snowman
AUTHOR: Jan Karon
FORMAT: Hardback Large Print
PUBLISHED: 2001

For those not in the know, Jan Karon has a series of books that take place in the little town of Mitford, and center around a sleepy southern town and a priest.  I haven’t read any of the novels, but I did review the other Christmas book about a year ago.

So this one.  The Mitford Snowman is a simple – and very short – story that starts with a couple guys sitting around talking and then it starts snowing.  Next thing everyone knows, an impromptu snowman building contest starts up, and everyone up and down the street gets involved.

It’s cute, and it’s simple, and I think it’s pretty much what it should be.

With that said, it’s short.  Like 1800 words.  Which isn’t necessarily bad for a gift book at Christmas, but I have several issues with this version.  Like I said, I got the large print one, which came out from Wheeler Publishing.  Unfortunately, this version has all black and white illustrations, and the short internet search I did about this book shows that the interior is actual in color in the regular print version, so I was sad to miss out on that.  Also, because Large Print somehow costs oh-so-much-extra to print, the cover price on this is $26.95.  Yes, $27 for 1800 words and some should-be-in-color illustrations in black and white.

And because it’s Large Print, it felt like I was reading a Children’s book.  There were something like 45 words per page.

So I was seriously disappointed with this version.

Bottom line.  For the story itself, I totally think its worth the read.  But the Large Print book isn’t worth it at all. I don’t want to even give this version of this book a rating.  But I must, so I’d give it a 3/5, mostly because the story is good.  The price with the B&W is a total ripoff.  That said, I’d give the regular version a 4/5, so if you can get your hands on that one, read it instead.  But if you have a friend that’s really into the Mitford books, this would be a great Christmas gift with a nice box of tea.

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Either book satisfies the Christmas Book portion of the challenge.
Book 6/52.  (And yes, I know these reviews published out of order.)

Book Review – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall By Anne Bronte

Title: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Author: 
Anne Bronte
Format: 
Paperback
First Published: 
1848
Published: 
1994

Anne Bronte’s second and last novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells the story of young Gilbert Markham who falls for the mysterious Mrs. Graham who he believes to be a widow.  After repeatedly rebuffing him and gradually befriending him, she relents and gives Gilbert her journal as both a confession and defense for her behavior.  Most of the novel consists of the journal, which relates the history of her troubled marriage and increasingly abusive and negligent husband.

It’s not a happy story, though it has a few lighter moments.  Gilbert is rather wrapped up in himself and melodramatic in his feelings and declarations and a little violent when disappointed (not to the lady but to a perceived rival).  He looks good mainly by comparison to the other men in her life.

Helen (Mrs. Graham) is a creature of realism as much as Gilbert is a romantic, though she began much the same.  She’s a very religious young woman who is convinced her own good character will correct what she first sees as minor flaws in her husband.

It’s a nice counterpoint to the myth of being able to “fix him”.  For the most part it’s a realistic portrayal of an abusive downward spiral and how society (particularly of the time) can work to trap a woman into an abusive situation and deny her many of the avenues open to men, including opportunities to pursue a profession.  Some of the most biting and still relevant commentary has to do with childrearing and the dangers of a “boys will boys” philosophy.  Not in the sense of skinned knees and a love of sports but in the sense that boys should be more free to indulge vices than girls because somehow drinking and swearing makes them “manly”.

I picked this up expecting a gothic tale and was caught off guard by the realism.  The text is redundant in places but reasonably well written.  At times the cast of characters seems unrealistically minimal.  It’s a strongly feminist work and more than a little preachy.  The story could be better refined, but I think it’s an important cautionary tale if not a fun one.  It leaves no dangling plot points, though the character the story is narrated to is never really introduced and thus feels a little artificial given the personal details shared.

Overall, I give The Tenant of Wildfell Hall 4 out of 5.  It’s better than average, and there are many I’d recommend it to.  But I doubt everyone will enjoy it.

Books Review – Diary of a Teenage Girl (series)

Diary of a Teenage Girl
Kim #1 Just Ask 2005
Maya #2 It’s a Green Thing 2008
Melody Carlson
Paperback

 

Okay, I got these two books from the library sale, thinking that they were one and two of a series. I got them home and got a better look at them and discovered that they are but they aren’t – the Diary of a Teenage Girl series is apparently four books each about several different girls (five for Caitlin) that are somehow, somewhat related (cousins, friends, students at school together) with a few interrelated topics: God, journalism, and, uh, being a teenage girl. Thus, what I really got was Kim’s first book and Maya’s second book but not two consecutive books. Alas.
I started reading Kim first and got about a third of the way through before I just couldn’t stomach it any longer. I don’t mind Christianity being a part of a story if it really helps the story, but I don’t go seeking out Christian fiction as a matter of course. I’ve found some gems this way [Note: Eric Wilson’s Jerusalem Undead series. Go. Read. It. Now.]. But for every book like the Mandie series, where the characters happen to be Christian, there’s a book like this that tries so hard to jam it down one’s throat that you can’t help but choke on it.
In Just Ask, Kim is dealing with several things – wanting to get a car, trying to be Christian when her heritage dictates otherwise (she’s Buddhist by heritage, adopted into a Christian family), etc. And when she gets a speeding ticket, her father makes her pay it off by doing an advice column in the paper he owns. (The advice column thing is apparently an ongoing thing in the series, since one of the other girls ends up doing a column of some sort, too.)
So the book didn’t start off horrible. It’s a diary format, so it’s first person, which drives me nuts, but how else would you write a diary? But the author used a remarkable amount of underlining in the book – moreso than in everything else I’ve read this year combined – and that drove me nuts. Then there’s her writing style.
Look, everyone. There’s a big difference in a character doing something because it’s the right thing, or learning a lesson because God wanted one thing, etc., and having couple characters try this passive-aggressive “I know she died, but God’s there, so it’s totally okay” thing. This reads more like a sermon than a YA book, and that’s really off-putting to me. Everything that was done or happened in this book suddenly because a relate-it-to-God sermon. They went and saw Passion of the Christ and it became a “it’s good for a church movie” conversation where she ends it feeling inadequate because she’s not Christian. I was raised Catholic and didn’t have that much of a religious discussion about the movie; ours was more along the way of “How could any person treat another person that way, theology aside?!”
So like I said, I got a third of the way through, and the combination of good-enough (as opposed to actually good) writing and beating one over the head with God God God (hitting one’s self with the book would have been less painful) was just too much and I gave up.
I put both of the books aside for a bit and then decided to try the other one to see if it was any better.
Maya is Kim’s cousin, and with her mother in jail for drugs and her father a famous pop star, so she moves in with Kim. And Maya is totally in to being green, so she gets her own column in Kim’s dad’s paper (how many columns does one paper hold!?). And she’s just found God (I always hate that phrase. Where was he? Behind the drapes?!), so now she’s trying to figure out how recycling and God fit together. Because, um, that’s a problem how?
So, four pages in, we already have to have the “are you a Christian” discussion. Now, let’s stop for a minute. I have never in my life walked up to somebody and asked them what their religion was unless we were in a forum specifically for that – like an academic religious discussion – but here we have strangers that are doing community service asking if they’re Christian. Maybe that’s the author’s experiences, but they’re sure not mine. And like I said, I’m so not a fan of God-in-your-face being the way you write a religious book.
I’d rather a character show me they’re a good person through doing than have them quote a book to me. I know Athiests that have read the bible, too.
Oh, and with Maya, we get that added bonus of her being psycho into being green. And everything I’ve just said about the “Christian message” we now get about the “green message” too. At the end of every chapter, we get a tip box about going greener. “If we could recycle one newspaper a week…” “…do you know the difference between greener cars?…” And that doesn’t count what you get in the text. “How can this city not have a recycling program!?”
So, yeah. I gave up on that book about 15 pages in, because it was clear that the style problems I found in the other book continued in this one.

On to the rating, I suppose.
I tried to offer these to a couple friends and despite being Christian and having attended religious high schools and colleges and whatever, even they refused them. I’m actually considering throwing them in the trash.

No, really.

So, uh, I guess I give them a 1/5. Just, don’t bother with these at all. Unless you need toilet paper or firewood.

Books Review: Divergent and Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Title: Divergent
Insurgent
Author: Veronica Roth
Format: 
Electronic
Published: 2011 (Divergent) 2012 (Insurgent)

 

The premise of this dystopian Young Adult trilogy is straightforward enough.  I’d even argue that it is perhaps too straightforward and therein lies its primary undoing.     The books are based on the idea that future Chicago is divided into clans (here known as “factions”) based SOLELY upon the individual’s personality trait.

The first book is the story of one Special Snowflake called Beatrice who leaves the Abnegation (eg. Quaker) faction of her birth for the more daring Dauntless.   She gives herself the cool, hip new name “Tris”, jumps off a seven-story building into a pit and then makes herself over from a quiet blonde in gray to the kind of person you instinctively avoid on the subway.    Most of the first book chronicles her transition from meek child to what is supposed to be an elite warrior but is really nothing more than a person with uncontrolled impulses toward danger.     Theoretically the Dauntless faction is the security and armed force for this fragmented new Chicago.   Reading the story, however, it’s obvious that Veronica Roth has absolutely no CLUE about how one trains a soldier.  For crying out loud, the bulk of my knowledge in the subject comes from GI Jane and George RR Martin novels and even I know that discipline is the primary skill instilled in any soldier.    Yet the Dauntless faction operates on the exact opposite of discipline, praising people for acting on their most erratic impulses.    That means that fully two thirds of the first book are a frustrating mess of watching punk teenagers get even MORE annoyingly idiotic.     The last third of the book shifts gears entirely, dumping us into the inevitable war between the factions that were originally designed to keep the peace.

I can go on and on about how terrible these two books are, about how incomplete their setup is, about how much they don’t make sense.   But instead I’m going to let you in on a bit of a secret.

These are Christian Fiction.   

In her acknowledgements of the first book,  Veronica Roth says “Thank you, God, for your Son and for blessing me beyond comprehension” .   In the second book she thanks God for “keeping His promises”.   Other than those two sentences there is little mention of religion or faith in the thousand-plus pages of story.   But it’s painfully clear that these are meant as a Christian Fiction-style response to The Hunger Games.     By the middle of Insurgent the messages about peace, sacrifice, character are coming fast and furious.   Roth said that she “[tries] to avoid preaching of any kind” yet these books  read like the author has had a steady diet of heavily-polemic Christian Fiction a la Janette Oke and Ted Dekker.

I’m a devout follower of Christ Jesus, and not ashamed of that fact.   Yet I also make no bones about my extreme dislike for most fiction marketed primarily to Christians.   It has been my experience over the past 40 years of being a reader that much of the fiction sold for Christian audiences is more concerned about re-making the philosophical points found in the Bible than it is about telling a story.    Because of that the stories are often weak, illogical, profoundly uninteresting.      What I find very curious about these two books is just how odd  it is to have the weaknesses so prevalent in Christian-targeted fiction and also to not have the overt “and then Jesus saved all of Chicago” moment.       I find myself wishing that Roth had either decided to write a better series or to make this one more open in its morality play.     As it stands, these first two books in this series are doubly-hollow and wholly illogical.

Writer Wednesday – Andrew Toy

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Let’s start with the basics. Who are you?
I’m Andrew Toy, author of The Man in the Box and blogger at the popular AdoptingJames.wordpress.com, book editor, and writing coach.

Tell us (briefly) about you…
I’m a simple guy who was born and raised in Southern California. I was the dork who would rather be writing stories than be impressing the girls with skateboarding and surfing – I mean, I tried that for a stint of time, but didn’t really work out to my advantage. I love ice cream, pizza, bean burritos, my Floridian wife, and our awesome loft in Louisville, KY.

…and a bit about what you’ve written…
The Man in the Box is an adventure/fantasy novel. I’m always hesitant to say “fantasy novel,” because it’s really a fictional book that dabs into fantasy every now and then. It’s about and average family man, married with kids, who discovers his imaginary childhood world inside a cardboard box. In this world he faces zombie-like ghosts, runs from dinosaurs, encounters titanic-sized panthers, giant insects… anyway, as you can imagine, he becomes increasingly addicted to life inside this adventurous world and he’d rather not spend time with his comparatively mundane family. So, he’s go to choose what he wants more. And the ending just might throw you for a surprise… Oops. Did I say too much?

…and what you’re working on right now.
I’m afraid I’ve told other bloggers and fans that I’m working on an apocalyptic series, but I’m putting that on hold until I get through some more research and possibly find a co-author. But just a couple of days ago, a light went on in my head and I was struck by the inspiration of a young reader’s book which I’m very excited about. I don’t want to give too much away just yet, but let’s just say dog-lovers and history buffs both will enjoy this read, no matter what age.

What are your earliest book-related memories?
Like reading them or writing them? Reading them, I was the first one in my kindergarten class to read an entire picture book by myself: If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. That was a good day, reading it to the whole class as they oohed and awed. My advise to kids, however, don’t accept your 15 minutes of fame too early in life, if they do in fact, only present themselves once in a lifetime. I could have done better, I’m sure. Writing books, however, I wrote a couple in junior high and high school (after I determined skateboarding was getting me nowhere), of which the public will never see.

What are your three favorite books?
Bottom of the 33rd by Dan Barry, The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, and… I’m comfortable enough in my masculinity to admit that I really, really like Little Women. It’s a great character study! (It’s actually neck-in-neck with Anne of Green Gables.)

How many books to do you read at any given time? What are you reading now?
I read three books at a time: One fiction, one historical/biographical, and one Christian-related. Right now I’m reading Life of Pi (fiction), Elizabeth the Queen (biography), and Adopted into God’s Family (Christian). I can’t put Life of Pi down.

Finish this sentence; when I curl up with a book, I ___
…Feel like a girl. But when I read a few pages while I’m waiting for the dogs to go poop, I’m hoping it doesn’t rain all over me.

To re-read or not to re-read that is the question.
I read a lot of really good books. But if by some chance, I come across an exceptional book that I just don’t want to end, that’s when I’ll read it again a year or two later.

How likely are you to read a book that’s been recommended to you?
Very.

How likely are you to recommend a book (that isn’t yours)?
Extremely.

What do you look for in a good book?
Depends on the genre. For fiction, I’m looking for that rare moment when storytelling and skilled penmanship meet (it’s rarer than one might think). Life of Pi is once such book. For history or biography, I’m looking for how observant the author is about particulars and facts and tidbits other observers might not pick up on. Give me ALL the juicy details! For my Christian books, I’m looking for creativity and originality in their theological teachings. That’s rare to come by. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis would be the perfect example of that.

Why do you write?
Okay. Here’s my being extremely vulnerable. I write to tell good stories. I tell good stories in hopes that Pixar Studios will want to have me join their storytelling team. That my expectation, anyway. The reality is, I just want to tell good stories and make a living off of it.

If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be?
A lawyer. For real! There’s a lot of acting and story-spinning involved. The same story can be told a million different ways!

Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Pixar movies. Loud, upbeat, happy music.

What has writing taught you about yourself?
That I can (and will be) so much better.

How do the people in your life seem to view your writing career?
My wife is completely and 100% supportive of it. I can’t ask for anything more.

Are there any stereotypes about writers that you don’t think are true?
No. They’re true. We’re all weird and very socially awkward. I choose to be socially awkward because I want to see how people respond to unexpected circumstances, then I can transfer that to paper.

What do you see as the biggest challenge today for writers starting out?
Twitter, Facebook, Pintrest, itunes… everything is a distraction from writing. That’s why I get most of my writing done on paper.

Have you made any writing mistakes that seem obvious in retrospect but weren’t at the time?
This is too embarrassing. Next question.

Is there a particular project you would love to be involved with?
Yeah, that apocalyptic series I hinted at earlier. I can’t wait to get started on it. That, and Pixar’s latest projects.

How do you deal with your fan base?
I love ‘em! I feel I’ve earned their trust and I want to keep it by continuing to tell stories that they will be happy to invest in.

Finish this sentence; my fans would be surprised to know ___ about me.
My fans would be surprised to know that I deliver pizzas to help pay the bills. So keep telling your friends and family about my books so I can have more time to write!

Anything else we should know?
Yes. Don’t ever, under any circumstances, crawl into a cardboard box and close your eyes. And if you do, stay well hidden at night…

Book Review – My Orange Duffel Bag

Title: My Orange Duffle Bag: a journey to radical change

Author: Sam Bracken (With help from Echo Garrett)

Written/Published: 2008-2010

Format: Hardback

 

My Orange Duffle Bag is the story of a man named Sam, who was kicked out into the world by his mother at the age of 15 with nothing more than his orange duffle bag and a few clothes.  It deals mostly with his journey to not be another statistic, and to instead succeed at football and academics and later religion.

Here’s the thing.  I’ve been excited to actually sit down with a copy of this book since the original self published version of it appeared at a booth I was part of during a book festival.  The self-published version was orange canvas, complete with a white zipper and full color pages and it was as beautiful and incredible as it possibly could be.

The version I finally got to review is the copy my library had; professionally published by Crown Publishing and missing the awesome zipper, but still awesome looking.

 

So, I popped a movie in and sat down with this book (ever the multi-tasker) and eventually turned off the movie and just finished this.  The book is about 200 pages long, but there’s a lot of white space and a lot of pretty layout, but it’s short on content so I finished it in just under two hours.

The book is divided into three parts – the first is a short history of his life.  Just a paragraph or so about a year in his life, boiled down to the most generic of story lines.  “Age 10 – I win my first track meet and my step-brother uses me as a human dart board”  Onto the next age.  And key points of his life – Age 18, I am baptized – are glossed over so quickly that you almost miss them.

The second part of the book talks about his time through college.  How he succeeded at football but doubly succeeded at academics because he set huge goals.

The third is over half the book and includes his “7 rules for the road.”

 

I was hoping for a little more, actually.  I think that Sam was trying to hard to be positive and uplifting that he forgot to tell us about himself.  I didn’t need a full memoir, but I wanted some sort of connection.  What I didn’t get anywhere in this book was EMOTION.

And what I didn’t get was what drew me to this book in the first place.  You see, after Echo got the book to my booth, I kept in touch with her and her brother Kevin Montgomery, who does a 50 states in 50 days concert tour to raise money for Echo and Sam’s Orange Duffle Bag Foundation.  So through them in other venues I’ve heard the stats.  Only about half manage to get a HS diploma, 2% get a four-year degree.  Over a quarter end up homeless.

And while Sam wasn’t formally in the system (he stayed with friends for random periods of time and bounced from house to house), the fact that this WASN’T him is a story that I wanted to hear along with the tips and tricks for being awesome.  Especially since a lot of these are common sense.  (The gist is want it and do what it takes to get there.)

 

Granted, the book is beautiful in any form.  Several of the pages could be really awesome motivational posters, and I wish they were.  And I think it’s a book worth sharing.

It’s not a top rating, but I’m confident putting it solidly in as a four out of five.

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