Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Flying Sparks

Flying Sparks: Growing up on the Edge of Las Vegas by Odette Larson
Verso, 2001
Hardcover, 280 pages
ISBN-13: 9781859846063
highly recommended

Synopsis from Publishers Weekly:
After suffering years of abuse, Larson finally realizes that she'd only "wanted to be wanted." Her memoir opens when she's nine [sic; 8], with the school psychiatrist bullying her into finding images in his Rorschach cards. School troubles are fast overshadowed when a family "friend" rapes her. Soon, her life falls into a nightmarish pattern of running away and being abused, each betrayal further confirming her sense of unworthiness. Eventually, she's sent to a mental hospital called Sparks [sic], from which she escapes and ends up alone at age 12 on the streets of Oakland.... Only in the end does she suspect it's her mother's approval she's been craving, the mother who has beaten her for every little slip.... Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

My thoughts:

First a note: The mental hospital was not called Sparks, the hospital was IN Sparks... Sparks, NV, which is right by (and essentially part of) Reno today. The book made that clear but both the synopsis on the cover and the Publisher's Weekly review didn't seem to comprehend that Sparks is the name of a city. Maps are our friends, people.

This is a graphic account of the abuse Larson suffered as a young girl, beginning at age 8 until she was 12, not only at the hands of her mother but by predatory men in the late 50's early 60's. It's disturbing and graphic in its brutal honesty. As a young girl, Larson seemingly jumps from one awful experience to another, all while fearing the beatings her mother will give her, a vicious whipping with a belt. While Larson does write about the desert landscape with a real passion, most of her story will incite in readers a real rage against the way she was repeatedly mistreated and abused. The books ends quite abruptly and really without a satisfactory conclusion or a complete resolution. We know Larson is a successful teacher and author today. I'd like to know more about how she overcame her tragic childhood experiences and faced the challenges of adolescence.
Highly Recommended - but not for the tender hearted


"What is it?" he asked, holding the card out.
"I dunno." His bulging eyes jerked behind thick lenses. He was probing for something. I wasn't sure what. opening

She'll see the other times they talked to me, will see that I don't fit anywhere. She'll know it's my fault, children are supposed to be seen and not heard. She'll hear me, hear me trying to make the words come out, easy words that stick in my mind and my throat, but won't come out of my mouth. She'll know I'm stupid, and my momma said she didn't raise any idiots. She'll be disgusted because I made problems. pg. 4

I go back to school because Momma means business. She'll spank me 'til my bottom's blue and little droplets of blood trickle down the edge of the belt marks if I cross her. But, when I go back, the school people will send me home again. They did the last time, when they found me sitting on the steps. If that happens again, Momma will be really mad. So I find a quiet place at school, beneath the bushes, a waiting place where Momma won't see me if she drives by and the school people won't see me if they come out. I sit with my back against the wall, my knees pulled up close to my chest. While the normal children learn about letters, numbers, and which colors match, I learn to wait. pg. 5-6

For the disillusioned, Las Vegas was a trap, but for me, it was home. pg. 11

"It's your turn, Jack wants to talk to you now, baby. Is that okay? You wanna talk to Jack?" His voice was so low and close it vibrated in my ear. pg. 28

Jack chuckled and sat up. "That's my ex-wife," he explained. "she's just jealous. She thinks I shouldn't be able to have kids around me, not even my own. There's nothing she can do about it though. She would hurt me if she could." pg. 32

Momma says girls ratting their hair are just building nests for black widows. One girl got bit and went to the hospital because she didn't comb the rats out for a whole week. pg. 38

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Ron Howard

Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon... and Beyond by Beverly Gray
Thomas Nelson, 2003
Hardcover, 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9781558539709
highly recommended

Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon... and Beyond, the first full-length biography of Ron Howard, takes an in-depth look at the Oklahoma boy who gained national fame as a child star, then grew up to be one of Hollywood's most admired directors. Although many show biz kids founder as they approach adulthood, Ron Howard had the advantage of brains, common sense, and two down-to-earth parents who kept him from having an inflated view of his own accomplishments. He also had a longstanding goal: to trade the glare of the spotlight for a quieter but equally creative life behind the camera. This biography tracks his career from 1960, when he debuted as six-year-old Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show through 2002, when he accepted his Academy Award® as Best Director for A Beautiful Mind.
My Thoughts:

Gray did extensive research to write this unauthorized biography of Ron Howard. Much of her information was gleaned from previous interviews, as well as other sources. The biography includes 16 pages of photos and over 65 pages at the end consisting of a timeline, filmography as an actor, filmography as a director and producer, awards and honors, extensive source notes, and an index. What we learn, ultimately is what we already instinctively know: Ron Howard really is a nice man, although a more guarded, private man than many people might realize, but he really is a nice guy. Don't bother reading this biography if you're looking for scandal and dirt. Credit is deservedly given to his parents, Rance and Jean Howard, who played a tremendous role in shaping his life - and their pivotal role in his life needs to be acknowledged. I think Ron's nature, combined with their good, common sense, helped keep Ron Howard grounded. The one drawback to this biography is that it really seems to have been written too early in his career. Rather than being interviewed for this biography, Howard "felt himself to be in midcareer and not ready to participate in a long range assessment of his accomplishments."(pg x) Since this biography ends with Howard's Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, most people would have to agree that this biography is a little precipitous, and Howard (hopefully) has many years of work ahead of him.
Highly Recommended


Sizing up Ron Howard should be easy as pie. After all, everybody knows him. At least we think we do. He has been coming into our living rooms for the past forty years, first as lovable Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show and then as perennial teenager Richie Cunningham of Happy Days. pg. ix

No one else in Hollywood has so emphatically made the jump from child star to director. And his iconic status from his days as Opie and Richie continues to resonate, even while he directs award-winning motion pictures. Part of his appeal for me was that, in his journey from Opie to Oscar, there has never been the slightest whiff of scandal. As one veteran observer of the Hollywood scene told me, "I have never heard a bad thing about Ron Howard. Never." pg. x

Little Ronny Howard was America's kid brother. Bright-eyed and gap-toothed, with a shock of red hair that seemed made for Technicolor, he quickly came to exemplify the American virtues of innocence, optimism, common sense, and good humor. pg. 3

Ron has taken to heart what Rance told him then, that no matter who was watching, "I have only one job and that's to be your father and that's to teach you right from wrong. And nothing about that job embarrasses me." Those who wrote and produced The Andy Griffith show were quick to apply this dynamic between Rance and Ronny to the scripted relationship between Andy and Opie Taylor. pg. 18-19

Another one of the Howard's contract stipulations was that Ronny never be required to make personal appearances for the show. This proviso shielded him from overwhelming fan adulation and allowed him more time to focus on baseball cards, dinosaurs, monster models, and a host of other boyish interests. For a while, he even had a paper route, just like the other youngsters on the block. All these activities helped him remain matter-of-fact about fame and fortune: "When I was little, kids would come up to me at school and ask what it was like being on TV. And I always remember my dad saying that it was just like having a paper route - you still have to get up early and learn your way around." pg. 23

Douglas asked the obvious question: why would a successful actor want to direct? Howard's answer was a variation on something he has often said: "It's the idea of the control, and the fact that you're really carrying the responsibility. You're not in someone else's hands quite so much." In other contexts, Howard has emphasized that the actor's life is not one that suits his nature: "I didn't choose to become an actor. It fulfills no need I have, and the attention and adulation that go along with acting have always made me feel a little bit uncomfortable..." pg. 74

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Halting State

Halting State by Charles Stross
Penguin Group, 2007
Hardcover, 351 pages
ISBN-13: 9780441016075
Science Fiction
highly recommended

In the year 2018, a daring bank robbery has taken place at Hayek Associates. The suspects are a band of marauding orcs, with a dragon in tow for fire support, and the bank is located within the virtual reality land of Avalon Four. But Sergeant Sue Smith discovers that this virtual world robbery may be linked to some real world devastation.
My Thoughts:

Halting State is a cyberpunk techno-crime thriller. The chapters alternate between the point of view of three people: Edinburgh's Sgt. Sue Smith, insurance accountant Elaine Barnaby, and programmer Jack Reed. Basically, a virtual reality game has had its bank robbed. The police were mistakenly called, and, subsequently, while they are investigating an insurance company also becomes involved. The crime, however, is not what it appears to be.

This near future where everyone and everything is wired 24/7 seems plausible, especially based on the overwhelming amount of current technology and the way we use it to always keep ourselves plugged-in now (email, IM, twitter, facebook, cell phones, texting, GPS, bluetooth technology, earbuds, i-phones, blackberries, etc.) We have phones that aren't just phones, they are cameras, computers, GPS devices... and more. Picturing a future world where our technology opens us to a new kind of crime or sabotage is conceivable.

I'm not a gamer, however, and I'll admit to feeling a little lost and bewildered while reading Halting State. The book is written in the second person, which, apparently according to Publisher's Weekly, is "the authoritative second-person style of video game instructions." Stross uses some techno-jargon and Scottish dialect that could throw some readers off. I found the dialect easy but much of the techno-jargon baffling. While the basic plot was well conceived and the twist surprised me, I'm just not the virtual gamer coding monkey that will truly understand everything Stross has written in Halting State. I know one, though, so I'm passing the book on to him. I have no idea how to rate this one, but since I thought the end was surprising I'm going with highly recommended, unless my cyberpunk expert tells me differently.


It’s a grade four, dammit. Maybe it should have been a three, but the dispatcher bumped it way down the greasy pole because it was phoned in as a one and the MOP who’d reported the offence had sounded either demented, or on drugs, or something – but definitely not one hundred per cent in touch with reality. So they’d dropped it from a three ("officers will be on scene of crime as soon as possible") to a four ("someone will drop by to take a statement within four hours if we’ve got nothing better to do"), with a cryptic annotation ("MOP raving about Orcs and dragons. Off his meds? But MOP 2 agreed. Both off their meds?"). pg. 4

You shake your head and climb out of the car, tapping your ear-piece to tell your phone to listen up: "Arriving on SOC, time-stamp now. Start evidence log." It’s logging anyway – everything you see on duty goes into the black box – but the voice marker is searchable. It saves the event from getting lost in your lifelog. pg. 7

This is getting out of hand. "What was stolen?" you ask, pitching your voice a bit louder.
"Everything in the central bank!" It’s Webster. At last, you think, someone who gives simple answers to simple questions.
"Central bank where, on the high street?" You can’t be sure while you’re offline, but you don’t think there are any banks at this end of Drum Brae—
"Show her the video," Hackman says wearily. "It’s the only way to explain." pg. 12

"This is the central bank. Our task is to keep speculation down, and effectively to drain quest items and magic artefacts from the realm to prevent inflation. One way we do this is by offering safe deposit services to players: Avalon Four runs a non-persistent ownership mode so you can lose stuff if you’re killed on a quest and respawn, and the encumbrance rules are tight." pg. 14

"So why did you call us?" you ask. "It seems to me this is all internal to your games, aye? And you're supposed to be the folks who stop players from" - you shrug, searching for words - "arsing about with virtual reality. Right?" Wasting Polis time is an offence, but somehow you don't think the skipper would thank you for charging this shower. pg. 17

"This isn't just a hacking incident, it's insider trading." pg. 18

Mike asking you to help with Sally's fraudulent car claim is a bit like calling in an air strike to deal with a primary-school bully; but he's your friend, and besides, if anyone in the office notices and makes a fuss, you can point out that it's good public relations. pg. 25

The mess defederalization has left the country in has really come home to roost this decade: What the cooked books give, the cooked books taketh away. pg. 42

[B]etween you and Mitch and Budgie, you're three of the four corners of the former Social Networking Architecture Team, and you've flown out here on a budget shuttle from Turnhouse to get falling-down legless.... because god help you, it's better than remembering how badly you've been shafted. pg. 27

You're still busy trying to get your flight home, and your glasses can't keep up with the flashy graphical interface the airline uses: Cookies keep timing out and your session resets itself. The bandwidth is crap here, and the whole scene has turned out to be one gigantic bummer. You want home, and you're dying for that train back to Schiphol: You'd hoped to get away from the whole STEAMING mess once and for all, but the dying snake of a crashed and burning game plan has trapped you in its coils, and it feels like it's choking the life out of you. You really need to go home and get a job interview nailed down.
You wonder who your next corporate master is going to be. pg. 53

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Edith's War

Edith's War by Andrew Smith
Trade paperback, 380 pages
Axiom Publishing, March 26, 2010
ISBN-13: 978-0986496202
highly recommended

Synopsis from the cover:
Edith's War, is a fictional narrative based on historical fact that tells one woman's heart-wrenching, yet ultimately heart-warming, story of hardship, love, passion, and motherhood during World War II. When Edith Maguire is caught up in the trials and tribulations of her Italian neighbours following Britain's internment policy of 1940, her life appears to be transformed.
Edith's story is interwoven with observations and recollections by her two adult sons, which slowly but surely release hidden memories and reveal long-held secrets. The intricacies of familial relations and the omnipresence of war are brilliantly illuminated by two generations - mother and sons - in this ground-breaking work of fiction.
My Thoughts:

Typically I have had some issues with most historical fiction, mainly because many novels tend to take some facts and then proceed to play loose with the details. I like the facts, the setting, and the mood to all be as historically accurate as possible and reflect the period without putting a modern spin on it based on our current sensibilities. Edith's War manages to fulfill my requirements beautifully. Andrew Smith did his research (which I researched before I accepted a review copy) and, much to my delight, kept a real sense of time and place throughout Edith's War. This was even more apparent because the chapters flip back and forth through time.

The novel opens in 2002 with Edith's two adult sons, Will and Shamus (61 and 56), in Venice, spending a day together before the arrival of their 83 year old mother, Edith. Alternate chapter are set during WWII, starting in 1940, when Edith Maguire was a young war bride, pregnant and living with her mother-in-law by Liverpool. The chapters with Will and Shamus stand in sharp contrast to the chapters with Edith during the war. Will and Shamus relate to each other like real adult siblings do - they disagree, react to each other in a well defined way, and have long-held roles and resentments, while at the same time they are comfortable with each other and begin dredging up memories of the past. Between the brothers, we are privy to Shamus' inner thoughts and know his inner turmoil, especially coming to terms with the recent death of his long time life partner, Luke, while we have to wait to gain a greater understanding of Will.

Edith's story is more straightforward. We immediately see her developing relationships with her mother-in-law, teenage brother-in-law, Liam, and members of the Baccanello family during WWII. We know about her immediate attraction to Carlos. It is from her friendship and love of the Baccanello family that we view the tragedy of the internment of British Italians and the devastating effect it has on the family and Edith. As we slowly learn about Edith's experiences during the war, we follow the brother's interaction and slowly learn the details of their memories. Although I think most readers are going to guess right away where the story is heading, it is a very satisfying book. Lately I've been trying to not compare books from two different authors, but two books read back to back and basically set during the same time period beg for some comparison. If you want a very quick, light treatment of the internment of the Jews, the biggest trial to be restricted membership to golf courses, don't care about historical accuracy (as much as I do), and need some whimsy, Read Mr. Rosenblum. If you like a more serious, realistic look at internment during WWII, and appreciate an exploration of family dynamics, read Edith's War. Highly Recommended

Many thanks to Andrew Smith (and Ruth Seely) for providing me with a review copy of Edith's War.


Italy: 27-09-2002 08:56
“Ma fai attenzione! Madonna!”
Will Maguire had run slap bang into a burly young man who was letting it be known he considered the collision to be entirely Will’s fault. opening

Shamus wouldn’t have been surprised by an angry explosion from Will. The slightness of his brother’s frame — almost half the size of the Italian’s — had never held him back from confrontation in the past. And the whole brouhaha had been the young man’s fault in the first place. But instead, while clearly unhurt by his fall, Will appeared more confused than angry. He was staring at the man and frowning, as though trying to work out how, and from where, the young Italian had materialized.
“British!” exclaimed the Italian. “From London perhaps? I lived there for two years when I was a student. Very nice.”
To Shamus’s astonishment, Will merely nodded his head and continued to stare at the man. Shamus wondered if perhaps his brother was in shock; normally quite vocal, it wasn’t Will’s style to be so tight-lipped. pg. 10-11

“You’d better sit, if you aren’t already,” Will continued in a bossy, older-brother tone of voice that immediately irritated Shamus. “Edith has decided it’s time she did a little travelling, namely a sojourn in Venice with her darling sons.” pg. 15

“Well let’s face it, since Luke died, you have no reason to go home, do you?” asked Will. “Don’t you get lonely in that empty pile of bricks, curled up in the fetal position with your thumb in your mouth?”
Shamus said nothing.
“Look,” said Will. The change in the timbre of his voice was a signal of a halt in his harangue. A huskiness that, despite the imperfect phone connection, Shamus recognized — remembered — as the white flag of a temporary ceasefire. “For some reason unknown to man or beast, this trip seems to matter to Edith. I’d like you and me to do this together, that’s all,” concluded Will. pg. 17

England: 1940
It wasn’t the bloodshed that sickened Edith; she’d seen worse brawls. What repulsed her was the expression of sheer hatred that had transformed Liam’s normally placid, boyish features into a grotesque agglomeration of convulsive muscle and quivering flesh.
“You’re a bunch of Nazi wops,” he’d screamed. “Why don’t you clear off back to Italy before we lock you all up.”
Liam was standing nose to nose with Domenico Baccanello, the youngest son of the Italian family who lived in the bungalow next door. He gripped the front of Domenico’s shirt so tightly his knuckles were white with tension. pg. 21

“Let me see the paper,” said Edith. Instead of handing it to her, Liam held up the newspaper with his free hand and peered at it with his good eye. He quoted line by line in an exaggeratedly dramatic voice:
There is a stinking wind from the Mediterranean which bodes no good,
Yet we still tolerate Mussolini’s henchmen in this country!
The government of Italy has thousands of loyal followers here,
Italians by birth, Fascists by breeding. pg. 25

“Well I think we all deserve a cup of tea,” declared Mrs. Maguire two hours later. She took a final admiring glance at the transformed shed with its hen run securely enclosed in gleaming chicken wire. Carlo had carved out a couple of openings at the base of the shed wall, inside the run, for the hens to go in and out. Edith had planted sprouting potatoes and vegetable seedlings — Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and lettuce — in the bed that Mrs. Maguire had prepared to one side of the front lawn. Liam had disappeared into the house the minute the last section of chicken wire had been secured. Carlo retrieved his jacket from the window ledge and swung it over one shoulder. pg. 28-29

Italy: 27-09-2002 09:53
"I thought it was a bloody gunshot. It's weird how you never think you're particularly affected by news reports, but then they're the first thing you think of when something like that happens. Terrorist attacks. Al-Qaeda. They explode into your consciousness from some hidden recess of your brain you didn't know you had." pg. 41-42

England: 1940
...Anna clearly thought it more effective to shout loudly in Italian. But then she switched to an anguished English as she called desperately to Mrs. Maguire, "My friend, come quickly. They're taking Gianni and the boys. Come help us, please." pg. 46

"Our only crime is our Italian roots," Anna eventually said, dropping her hands to her sides. pg. 49

Monday, June 21, 2010

Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English

Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English by Natasha Solomons
Little, Brown & Company, June 21, 2010
Advanced Reading Copy, 357 pages
Hardcover ISBN-13: 9780316077583

Publisher Comments:
At the outset of World War II, Jack Rosenblum, his wife Sadie, and their baby daughter escape Berlin, bound for London. They are greeted with a pamphlet instructing immigrants how to act like the English. Jack acquires Saville Row suits and a Jaguar. He buys his marmalade from Fortnum & Mason and learns to list the entire British monarchy back to 913 A.D. He never speaks German, apart from the occasional curse. But the one key item that would make him feel fully British -membership in a golf club-remains elusive. In post-war England, no golf club will admit a Rosenblum. Jack hatches a wild idea: he'll build his own.
It's an obsession Sadie does not share, particularly when Jack relocates them to a thatched roof cottage in Dorset to embark on his project. She doesn't want to forget who they are or where they come from.

My Thoughts:

Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English by Natasha Solomons was originally released by Sceptre on April 2010 in the UK as Mr Rosenblum’s List or Friendly Guidance for the Aspiring Englishman. Just released today in the USA, personally, I have to tell you that I like the UK title much better. It suits the story because Jack's list is an important element to the story. (I also must say that the UK got a better cover too.) The novel was apparently inspired by the experiences of Solomon's grandparents.

The novel starts slow and if I didn't feel a compulsion to fulfill my duties and read the ARC, I might have set this one aside based on the beginning. While I ended up enjoying the story, Jack's sheer determination to build a golf course (after starting a successful carpet manufacturing business) no matter what, was getting on my nerves a wee bit. I really wasn't feeling any great connection with him and, quite frankly, he annoyed me at times. The character I really wanted to get to know better was Sadie. Solomons would share some interesting tidbit that gave us insight into Sadie's character and then we'd be back to the golf course. The story seemed to stall in places, so the pace was uneven. I also felt while reading this that I've read it before - it's basically a re-adaptation of a well-traveled story. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it, because in the end, I did. It has a winsome, charming sort of familiarity, but there is something that kept me from totally loving it. There's a lightness, a lack of depth, and some inconsistencies that held me back.

Solomons is a screenwriter and I can't help but wonder if her experience in that area had too great an influence on the way she wrote the story. Writing for a movie is very different from writing a novel. In the end, Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English might make a better movie than novel. If I was still giving stars, I'd probably go three and a half, but not four. I'm planning to pass my ARC along to someone who might enjoy it more than I did. Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English is a light read, and could be a good summer vacation book.

Thanks to Hatchette for providing me with this Advanced Reading Copy.

No quotes

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2007

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2007
by Tim Folger (Editor), Richard Preston (Editor)
Trade paperback, 300 pages
Houghton Mifflin, 2007
ISBN-13: 978-0618722310
highly recommended

From cover:
The Best American series is the premier annual showcase for the country's finest short fiction and nonfiction. Each volume's series editor selects notable works from hundreds of periodicals. A special guest editor, a leading writer in the field, then chooses the very best twenty or so pieces to publish. This unique system has made the Best American series the most respected - and most popular - of its kind.
My Thoughts:

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2007 features 28 essays from 20 different periodicals. The essays chosen reflect a wide range of topics, from the sewers of Rome to video games to DNA. You can tell that all of the articles were chosen with care to represent the best essays from that year. I enjoyed most of the essays very much - a few less than the majority. All in all this was a good anthology and I'm going to check out others in the series.
Highly Recommended

Foreword, Tim Folger
Introduction, Richard Preston
In Rome's Basement: from National Geographic, Paul Bennett
Plastic Ocean: from Best Life, Susan Casey
For the Love of Lemurs: from Smithsonian, Richard Conniff
The Rabbit on Mars: from Isotope, Alison Hawthorne Deming
Fishering: from Ecotone, Brian Doyle
Dinosaur Shocker!: from Smithsonian, Helen Fields
Cooking for Eggheads: from Discover, Patricia Gadsby
Cyber-Neologoliferation: from The New York Times Magazine, James Gleick
The Final Frontier: from Discover, John Horgan
How to Get a Nuclear Bomb: from The Atlantic Monthly, William Langewiesche
The Effeminate Sheep: from Seed, Jonah Lehrer
Let There Be Light: from Time, Michael Lemonick
The Nature of Violence: from Orion, Jeffrey Lockwood
The Germs of Life: from Orion, Lynn Margulis & Emily Case
Neanderthal Man: from Smithsonian, Steve Olson
Health Secrets from the Morgue: from Men's Health, Michael Perry
Hitler's Willing Archaeologists: from Archaeology, Heather Pringle
Sex, Lies, and Video Games: from The Atlantic Monthly, Jonathan Rauch
The Flu Hunter: from Smithsonian , Michael Rosenwald
Notes on the Space We Take: from Ninth Letter, Bonnie Rough
The Olfactory Lives of Primates: from The Virginia Quarterly Review, Robert Sapolsky
Ruffled Feathers: from The New Yorker, John Seabrook
In the Company of Bears: from Anchorage Press, Bill Sherwonit
The Rape of Appalachia: from Vanity Fair, Michael Shnayerson
First Soldier of the Gene Wars: from Archaeology, Meredith Small
A Plan to Keep Carbon in Check: from Scientific American, Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala
Delusions of Space Enthusiasts: from Natural History, Neil DeGrasse Tyson
DNA Is Not Destiny: from Discover, Ethan Watters
Contributors' Notes
Other Notable Science and Nature Writing of 2006


One of the joys of reading a collection like this is the opportunity to share the perspective of writers who take little for granted, who remind us that there is nothing ordinary about our world and that there is perhaps no better means for uncovering the unexpected than science. Tim Folger, foreword, pg. xi

I confess, I've been attracted to pieces in which the author displays a hint of obsession, especially if it involves a topic that's fresh, little known, or offbeat. Richard Preston, introduction, pg. xiii

Science is about not knowing and wanting badly to know. Science is about flawed and complicated human beings trying to use whatever tools they've got, along with their minds, to see something strange and new. In that sense, writing about science is just another way of writing about the human condition. Richard Preston, introduction, pg. xxii

Luca pushes his head into the sewer, inhales, and grins. "It doesn't smell so bad in the cloaca today," he says, dropping himself feet first into a dark hole in the middle of the Forum of Nerva. Paul Bennett, pg.1

Moore could not believe his eyes, Out here in this desolate place, the water was a stew of plastic crap. It was as though someone had taken the pristine seascape of his youth and swapped it for a landfill. Susan Casey, pg. 10

This is the head of the molecular gastronomy group in the College de France's Laboratory for the Chemistry of Molecular Interactions. That's a mouthful to describe a lab that studies something simple: how the process of cooking changes the structure and taste of food. Patricia Gadsby, pg. 43

But I was unprepared for the unmitigated ferocity of the Gryllacrididae - insects that look like a cross between a cricket and a grasshopper. Jeffrey Lockwood, pg. 115

Fear of bacteria has reached a feverish pitch recently, thanks in large part to the work of ever-industrious advertisers. In our efforts to eliminate there "germs" we have had devastating effects - not on the bacteria, but on ourselves. Lynn Margulis & Emily Case, pg.123

I've been invited to watch someone pull the guts from a dead man. The man has died, as they say, before his time. He was in his forties. Michael Perry, pg. 135

Thursday, June 17, 2010

In Cold Blood, movie

In Cold Blood (1967)

Director: Richard Brooks

Actors: Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Paul Stewart, Gerald S. O'Loughlin

TCM was showing the movie In Cold Blood yesterday and I decided to watch it because: 1. I had never watched it before and 2. I recently reread the book.

On TCM Robert Osborne commented that Brooks purposefully chose to not cast big stars in the roles of Perry and Dick. Filmed in black and white, Brooks took an approach that was almost like a documentary. He did almost all of the filming on location in the places where the events depicted occurred, including the same Kansas house in which the Cutter family was murdered. I think this gave the movie authenticity and a real sense of place. Naturally, Truman Capote's brilliant book is the better of the two, but the movie certainly did a fine job covering this horrific true crime.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Movie Book

The Movie Book
Phaidon Press, 1999
Hardcover, 512 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0714838472
highly recommended

From the Publisher:

The Movie Book is an A-Z guide to 500 celebrated individuals who have made a landmark contribution to the medium of film.

The entire industry is represented - from actors and directors to costume designers and special-effects wizards; from major movie moguls and pioneers of the silent screen to some of today's most worshipped idols. Packed with absorbing details and rich with history, all genres of cinema are included - from Hollywood blockbusters to French New Wave; from groundbreaking science-fiction films to animation classics; and from screwball comedies to film-noir thrillers.

Each entry is evocatively illustrated with a high-quality film still, photograph or cinematic sequence; each is also accompanied by an authoritative text that reveals the significance of each name within the history of film. In addition, The Movie Book uses a comprehensive cross-referencing system and glossary to guide the reader through the complexities of the motion-picture industry.

My Thoughts:

The Movie Book is not a comprehensive guide to everyone ever associated with the movie industry. What it is, however, is a selection of people associated with the cinema. Each page has a small amount of information about the person, but prominently features a large photo from a movie. The pictures from the movies are what makes the book interesting and fun. If you are looking for an encyclopedic index, this isn't for you. If I was going to be picky, there are some names that should have been included and others that could have been left out. All in all, though it is a marvelous coffee table book and suits that function well. (This was another used book store clearance bargain.) Highly Recommended

Monday, June 14, 2010

Four-Star Movies

Four-Star Movies: The 101 Greatest Films of All Time by Gail Kinn and Jim Piazza
Hardcover: 324 pages
Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2003

ISBN-13: 978-1579123154
highly recommended

A lavishly illustrated, fact-filled celebration of the 101 movies that have changed our lives.

My Thoughts:

The movies Kinn and Piazza selected for their 101 Greatest Films of All Time cover a wide range of films. Each entry has a lot of information, including: the films ranking, a picture of the poster for the film, a plot summary, introductory comments about the film (including comments from both authors), photos, information about the director, a list of the cast, information about the main actors, film credits, academy award information (nominations for the film and the winners for that year), the great scene of the movie, a memorable quote from the movie, tidbits of information "Behind the Screen," a few choice quotes from critics, notable quotes from the actors, and if the film is included on nine other lists. As I said, it's a lot of information. It was also interesting and visually appealing.

Unfortunately the book needed better editing as there are also quite a few typos. I didn't flag all the spelling errors, but an easy one to find is in the authors comments about Star Wars where Obi Wan Kenobi is spelled "Kenobe." (Hey, even spell check wants to correct that to Kenobi.) There are also some factual errors. In the Star Wars comments about director George Lucas is this: "22 years later he made his comeback with Star Wars: Episode 1, The Empire Strikes Back." (pg. 169) Well, as we all know that should be Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace. Another factual error was when Kinn crediting Larry Gelbart with writing M*A*S*H in her comments (pg 249). He wrote the TV show. The actual writer of the movie, Ring Lardner, Jr. is listed in the credits section for the movie as the writer of the screen play and an academy award winner for M*A*S*H.

Obviously, this certainly isn't a definitive guide to the movies included. But setting aside typos and a few factual errors, it really is a fun book to read. It was interesting to see the 101 films chosen for their list and read why. It might be fun to see what my top 100 list would be. I know I wouldn't pick some of the films Kinn and Piazza did, but many would be on both lists. During a recent excursion to our local used book store, Just Me found this in the clearance section. It was worth the $2 we paid for it and I enjoyed reading it. Recommended, highly if you can overlook the errors


Compiling a definitive "Best List" is an audacious act - it's what separated mere movie-lovers from downright cinemaniacs. It requires endurance, Machiavellian negotiating skills, and the willingness to lose your best friends.....
Our particular narrowing-down of the universe of great films may seem arbitrary; but there is a reason behind every decision, whether or not you instantly agree. Introduction

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Ballantine Books, 1985
Massmarket paperback, 396 pages
ISBN 0449212602
Very Highly Recommended - reread

In the world of the near future, who will control women's bodies?
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable.
Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now....
Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid's Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force.
My Thoughts:

As I was unpacking books after our move I couldn't help but set aside A Handmaid's Tale to read again, especially considering how much I enjoyed re-reading Cat's Eye. The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopian novel that depicts a future society where religious fundamentalism has been taken to an absurd extreme. Woman are owned. The Handmaid's Tale is the sometimes rambling thoughts of a handmaid, Offred, describing her daily life as well as the memories she has of her life before, when she was a working wife and mother. It's interesting to note that The Handmaid's Tale is listed as one of the 100 "most frequently challenged books" from 1990 to 1999 on the American Library Association's website. While Atwood may have set The Handmaid's Tale in America, the truly chilling notion is not fighting over what religion or group inspired this cautionary tale but that it could happen, and surely has happened already, in some form or another in other countries, whether they be fundamentalist or fanatics.

No one can fault Atwood for her writing, because let's all face it, she is a phenomenal writer, so I suspect any criticism over The Handmaid's Tale is concerning the subject matter or perhaps the rather disjointed way Offred is telling us about her life. The way the story slowly unfolds, going back and forth through time, never bothered me and I think it fits the novel perfectly. This is a great dystopian novel. Let us all hope that we aren't working hard at living by ignoring what is going on around us. Very Highly Recommended, reread


We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair. Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light. opening

We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability? It was in the air; and it was still in the air, an afterthought, as we tried to sleep, in the army cots that had been set up in rows, with spaces between so we could not talk. We had flannelette sheets, like children's, and army-issue blankets, old ones that still said U.S. We folded our clothes neatly and laid them on the stools at the ends of the beds. The lights were turned down but not out. Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled; they had electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts. pg. 4

I know why there is no glass, in front of the watercolor picture of blue irises, and why the window opens only partly and why the glass in it is shatterproof. It isn't running away they're afraid of. We wouldn't get far. It's those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge. pg. 10

The Marthas know things, they talk among themselves, passing the unofficial news from house to house. Like me, they listen at doors, no doubt, and see things even with their eyes averted. I've heard them at it sometimes, caught whiffs of their private conversations. pg. 14

But I envy the Commander's Wife her knitting. It's good to have small goals that can be easily attained. pg. 17

They can hit us, there's Scriptural precedent. But not with any implement. Only with their hands. pg. 21

We aren't allowed to go there except in twos. This is supposed to be for out protection, though the notion is absurd: we are well protected already. The truth is that she is my spy, as I am hers. If either of us slips through the net because of something that happens on one of our daily walks, the other will be accountable. pg. 25-26

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. pg. 33

They haven't fiddled with the gravestones, or the church either. It's only the more recent history that offends them. pg. 41

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn't the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. pg. 74

Friday, June 11, 2010


Fierce: A Memoir by Barbara Robinette Moss
Simon & Schuster October 2004
Hardcover, 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9780743229456
nonfiction, memoir
highly recommended

From the Publisher:
[A] compelling memoir about a single mother determined to break the patterns that she has been taught.
Barbara Robinette Moss grew up in the red clay hills of Alabama, the fourth of eight children, in a childhood defined by close sibling alliances, staggering poverty, and uncommon abuse at the hands of her wild-eyed, charismatic, alcoholic father. In Fierce, Moss looks at what happens when a child of such a family grows up [...and] paints a vivid, moving portrait of her persistent quest to reinvent her life and rebel against the rural indigence, addiction, and broken dreams she inherited from her parents.
With warmth, insight, and candor, Moss tells the poignant story of finally leaving everything she knew in Alabama to fulfill her ambition to become an artist.... As with many other children of alcoholics, the legacy of her father's alcoholism catches up with Moss, and an abusive relationship — an inheritance and addiction of its own sort — threatens to destroy all that she has accomplished. Ultimately, Fierce is a warm, honest, and triumphant story, from a writer celebrated for her Southern lyricism, about a woman determined to make it on her own — to shrug off the handicaps of her childhood and raise her son responsibly and well.
My Thoughts:

I haven't read Moss' previous memoir, Change Me Into Zeus's Daughter, which apparently provides more back story about her childhood and is more highly acclaimed than this follow-up work. Fierce does stand alone, however, and you needn't read the first to appreciate the second. Even though her life circumstances could lead many people to self pity, Moss never goes there and keeps the tone matter-of-fact. Several events are memorable. (I appreciated the garbage can story. For many readers, the neighbors involved will resemble a strict home owner's association and people like that are found all over.)
The writing is not complex. There were times when the sharing of her story felt a bit disjointed, as if she hadn't quite reached a truly deep understanding of some of the events in her life or perhaps therapy and healing has softened some of the hard details in the re-telling. Many of the stories of her childhood seemed to be in sharper focus than the more recent events. This could be simply the difference of looking through the eyes of a child versus an adult. It could even be that after writing the first book which dealt with her childhood, this second part of her memoir lost some of the immediacy and drive to share her life history. I did struggle a bit with really understanding Moss' choices (her attraction to abusive men) but that's due to my background. Adult children of alcoholics will perhaps appreciate Moss more and have a greater understanding of her poor choices. It was nice to know that her life has reached a place of healing from her past and she is in a healthy relationship.
Highly Recommended, but it might be better to read her first book before this one


I thought about the night before. Dad had come home from the bar at 3 A.M. and gotten everybody out of bed to clean up the house and cut the grass. The police came and made my brother Stewart shut off the lawn mower. After they left, Dad yelled at Mother for not making Stewart cut the grass earlier that day. pg. 5

We got married at the chapel out at Fort McClellan. Dad was supposed to give the bride away, but the military police at the front gate arrested him for public intoxication. pg.14

He escorted me up the stairs to our second floor apartment, unlocked the dead bolt on the door, let me in, and locked it again. Through the door, he said, "I'll be back tonight. Late. Don't wait up." pg. 16

Instead he snatched the clothes out of my hand and tossed them to the ground, then grabbed my upper arms and shook me as hard as he could, snapping my head back and forth. "What did you think you were doing?" he shouted. "I've told you a thousand times! Never leave without my permission, and nobody comes in the house when I'm not home! Who else has been there?" pg. 23

Her eyes drifted to my swollen belly, to the bruises on my arms, and then back to my red-streaked face. "Why don't you go home to your mama?" pg. 25

Dad worked hard all week and celebrated every Friday night at the American Legion. Weekends felt like war zones. pg 35

I should have left a dozen times over, but I couldn't afford to. As the years passed, the transgressions grew. Like the TV evangelists, Clayton had such a special relationship with God that he was exempt from the strict code of moral behavior he imposed on the rest of us. By the time my second marriage ended, I felt so diminished that the spark in my own soul was in mortal danger. pg. 44

It was true that Stewart drank like Dad, much worse really, but I thought that maybe it was the heartache he'd inherited more than alcoholism. I recognized the heartache because I inherited it too; I didn't know how to soothe mine either. pg. 82

Thursday, June 10, 2010


It is with a wee bit of embarrassment and consternation that I am going to admit I recently discovered the following:
I love Cro
They aren't even real Crocs but some inexpensive knock-off. I know, I know... I have come late to this party - way too late. All the other guests have gone home and there's only the confetti left on the floor. You can't even easily find the knock-offs anymore. I avoided Crocs like the plague when they were the rage and found everywhere, easily available in a rainbow of colors and assorted sizes in every store. See, I thought they were ugly and stupid looking so I never even considered trying on a pair. I most certainly never thought I'd wear a pair. I have only very recently realized the error of my ways and embraced fake-Crocs.

It went down like this...
We were packing to move and Just Me had an almost new dark blue pair from several years ago. She was going to just toss them out or into the give-away bag. Instead, I tried them on and... oh....oh my.... the love was almost instantaneous. They are roomy and cushy-soft. I've been wearing them whenever possible for a month now. You can hose them down, for goodness sakes. If you go through a puddle, they won't become sopping wet. They can be easily slipped on and off. Just Me laughed at me when she realized how often I was wearing them. They are still ugly and stupid looking, but I don't care. They sort of remind me of Earth Shoes. The last time I loved shoes like this was back in the seventies when I had a real thing for Dr. Scholl's exercise sandals, the original wooden ones, but even those were never immediately comfortable.

It's probably for the best that the craze for Crocs has come and gone. I know I won't be replacing these when they wear out - unless I can find some very inexpensive source for fake-Crocs. I certainly won't pay much for a pair of "foam" shoes, even if they have all sorts of great attributes. But, if I'm honest, I have to admit that they are so very, very comfortable.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Backseat Saints

Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson
Grand Central Publishing, June 8, 2010
Advanced Reading Copy, 324 pages
ISBN-13: 9780446582346
Very Highly Recommended

Rose Mae Lolley is a fierce and dirty girl, long-suppressed under flowery skirts and bow-trimmed ballet flats. As "Mrs. Ro Grandee" she's trapped in a marriage that's thick with love and sick with abuse. Her true self has been bound in the chains of marital bliss in rural Texas, letting "Ro" make eggs, iron shirts, and take her punches. She seems doomed to spend the rest of her life battered outside by her husband and inside by her former self, until fate throws her in the path of an airport gypsy---one who shares her past and knows her future. The tarot cards foretell that Rose's beautiful, abusive husband is going to kill her. Unless she kills him first.

Hot-blooded Rose Mae escapes from under Ro's perky compliance and emerges with a gun and a plan to beat the hand she's been dealt. Following messages that her long-missing mother has left hidden for her in graffiti and behind paintings, Rose and her dog Gretel set out from Amarillo, TX back to her hometown of Fruiton, AL, and then on to California, unearthing a host of family secrets as she goes. Running for her life, she realizes that she must face her past in order to overcome her fate---death by marriage---and become a girl who is strong enough to save herself from the one who loves her best.
My Thoughts:

As a long time fan and avid reader of Joshilyn Jackson's blog, I knew before even opening the cover of Backseat Saints that I was in for a good story. I knew this because Jackson is a great story teller. She has a quirky way with words, a gift of describing events that are sometimes horrifying, sometimes titillating, but always honest and truthful. Often she does this with an amazing twist of phrase. How Jackson manages to add hilarity in many of her descriptions while telling a serious story is a gift and gives her a truly unique voice. The subject matter is dark, a young woman who suffered abuse as a child subsequently marries a man who abuses her. She knows, even before the airport gypsy told her, that her husband, Thom, is going to end up killing her if she doesn't kill him first. Between the abuse and sex, as Jackson herself would note to younger members of her family, there's a lot of adult material so it's not for their eyes.

The basic story, an abused child becomes an abused woman and subsequently tries to leave her abuser, has been told before. Where Jackson shines is in the unique way she tells the story, in her descriptions, the insights she has her characters voice. I absolutely did not guess what would happen at the end. Without giving away any spoilers, I had a few minor problems with the novel: the gypsy was a stretch for me and I had a hard time understanding Rose's acceptance of the beatings, knowing the fight we see in her personality.
All in all, though, Backseat Saints is Very Highly Recommended.

Many thanks to Hachette Books and Henry Choi for providing me with this ARC.


Note: This was an ARC (advanced reading copy) so I'm not supposed to quote from it. Normally there is usually a first chapter of a book online that I can use for quotes under these circumstances (which doesn't hamper me because I try to limit quotes to the first 50 pages or so of a book), but, alas, not in this case. Since direct quotes are an important part of my reviews (they give you a good feel for the author's style), I'm going to include a few forewarning you that the quotes are from an ARC. And oh, please tell me that the last one made it into the book...

It was an airport gypsy who told me that I had to kill my husband. She may have been the first to say the words out loud, but she was only giving voice to a thing I'd been trying not to know for a long, long time. opening

I'd been pinned, limbs flailing helpless sideways, while he ran four fast punches down one side of my back. then he'd let me go and I'd slid down the wall into a heap and he'd say, "Lord, Ro, why do you push me like that?" pg 4

Thirty seconds after the front door shut, I was butt-up under the kitchen sink, digging my Pawpy's old .45 revolver out from the stack of rags behind my cleaning products. pg. 6

Ten minutes after she came into a place, Rose learned, was the best time to steal things.
Not to keep. It was more about moving things, getting objects to the place they most belonged. Rose had an eye, even then, for what went where. pg. 32

....a drunken barn cat could fart out better advice than I would expect to hear coming out of the other end of that man. pg. 141

Monday, June 7, 2010

Guest House

Guest House by Barbara K. Richardson
Bay Tree Publishing, March 2010
Trade Paperback, 218 pages
ISBN-13: 9780981957715
highly recommended

Driving home from work on a summer afternoon, Melba Burns witnesses a nightmare collision. The wreck ends her pursuit of success at any cost—Melba parks her car, quits her job and stops driving. She retreats into her beloved old farmhouse, yearning for a simpler peace.
But peace and Melba’s new roommate, JoLee Garry, have never met. A shallow, self-absorbed stunner, JoLee magnetizes messes and trouble. She brings boyfriends, booze and a tag-along son with her—a series of unexpected guests who transform Melba’s solo life into something different, daring and richer.
My Thoughts:

Guest House is a beautifully written debut novel by Barbara K. Richardson. The title is taken from Rumi: “This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival…” I'll admit that I approached Guest House with a wee bit of trepidation. I accepted a review copy because I thought I would enjoy it from the description, but I was nervous it would be too chick-lit for me. Those worries were soon negated. You know what? Guest House is a really good book. I'm surprised I haven't read more reviews raving about it. This was the perfect choice to read after the last novel.

This is the story of a woman redefining her life, a dysfunctional family disintegrating, and what happens when their lives converge. Richardson's characters are realistic, flawed, and struggling in some way. I swear I know a few of these characters. Each character clearly has an individual voice and point of view. I sympathisized with Melba and wanted her to get her confidence back. My heart broke for Matt. I wanted to slap JoLee. Gene needed a good talking too. In the end I appreciated the message about love. The best recommendation could be that I stayed up late to finish reading it since I knew I could not sleep until I knew the outcome. Richardson is an author to watch. I expect big things from her in the future.
Highly Recommended

My review copy was courtesy of Anne Staszalek from The Book Report Network. I must thank her for introducing me to an exciting new author to follow.

Melba Burns did not mean to buy the boxy old farmhouse on one-quarter acre in the worst neighborhood in Portland. She’d simply driven down Simpson Street ogling its tall trees and seen the For Sale by Owner sign and stopped. Wading through shin-high grass, Melba laughed. The dirty windows. The gabled roof. She felt the tilting rush the ocean gives when tides are going out, taking your footing with them, and life seems stupendously fine. Melba turned, attempting professional distance. opening

Melba wrote her offer inside the Volvo, sweaty as a kid bearing her testimony in church. She knew her business partners would be appalled. Her friend Ellie would laugh out loud. The move would uproot her urban life, gut her grueling work schedule. Somehow that was the beauty of it.

So Melba Burns—a highly realized woman of independent means--stood on the broad front porch with the spider nests and squashed newspapers looking at the neighbor’s tarped RV, feeling both dizzy and drunk. An idiot might have resisted. Melba knew houses. This house chose her. This house and these neglected grounds. pg. 2-3

Matthew Anderson Garry had spent ten years observing the habits of parentus nondomesticus, and it seemed he would never be manly enough to make his dad proud. pg. 5

HeShe said nothing as usual. Invisible sidekicks were great that way. Matt knew what a fall his dad had taken, driving the Wonder van around Portland for a living. Two years of full time humiliation. Humiliation was one of the creepiest requirements of love. pg. 6

He did it for love. But having her husband home full time made JoLee even crazier than having him gone. pg. 9

Bus routes became familiar in the two weeks since Melba had sidelined her car, quit her job, comforted her partners at their loss, said good-bye to paychecks, to her social life, night life, travel. One event could knock you off your life path, if you let it. That one event, for Melba, was the cyclist's death. pg. 13

Melba took that boy's death like a Teleflorist delivery from God. She would make his death count. pg. 36

She had heard, once, that the secret to any relationship was finding the right distance. Melba felt great empathy for couples, even awe. She'd seen firsthand that partnering was nearly impossible.
The heart is a garden, Melba believed. She happily weeded and pruned hers alone. pg. 112

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The War after Armageddon

The War after Armageddon by Ralph Peters
Tom Doherty Associates, September 2009
Hardcover, 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780765323552
highly recommended

Publishers Weekly:
Military strategist Peters applies the predictions of his nonfiction Wars of Blood and Faith to this outstanding cautionary tale of a near-future war set in the Middle East. Lt. Gen. Gary “Flintlock” Harris commands troops hitting the beaches of what was once Israel before it was nuked into total destruction. Muslim extremists have exploded dirty bombs in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and most of the major European cities in an attempt to bring about “the Great Jihad.” America reacts by voting in a radical Christian government and reorganizing the National Guard as the Military Order of the Brothers in Christ (MOBIC). The fighting most resembles that of WWII as electronic jamming equipment cancels out the high-tech weaponry of each side, reducing the level of combat to suicide attacks and bayonet charges. Compelling characters, thrilling small-unit battle scenes and the terrifying possibility that it could all come true make this a must read. Copyright © Reed Business Information
My Thoughts:

This powerful cautionary tale is chilling simply because there are so many elements of truth in the background that lead to the "final" battle it depicts. Peters is masterful at portraying the complexities of battle scenes where the military finds itself essentially limited to hand to hand combat. Personally, I originally was disappointed that this isn't really as much of a science fiction selection as I hoped and had a legitimate concern that the actually plot was not as well developed and broad in scope as it could have been. However, once I started reading I could see that Peters deliberately chose to deliver his message through his novel exactly as it is written. I think fans of military fiction are especially going to appreciate the accuracy in Peters' story as it stands. Peters certainly has the background and expertise to accurately and realistically portray this scenario with a great deal of insight. In the end this novel delivers a very powerful message that overrides any little quibbles I might have over the plot.
highly recommended, especially for fans of military fiction

I could be jailed for writing this. But I am old and must set down the truth. opening.

Lieutenant General Gary "Flintlock" Harris was no traitor. That is a lie. There. I have written it. In black ink. And I will say more: He was not only a magnificent soldier, but a better Christian than those who brought him down. pg. 15

Science had undone itself. Harris tried to visualize the wild electronic war playing out in the darkness, with each side canceling the other’s capabilities with hyperjammers, signal leeches, and computer plagues. Only a handful of his country’s satellites remained aloft, and the devastating effects of electromagnetic- pulse simulators destroyed every electronic system with the least gap in its shielding. pg. 18

The simultaneous detonation of dirty bombs in Berlin, Hamburg, and Frankfurt, as well as in Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Milan, Rome, London, and Manchester, had been the signal for the Great Jihad. Muslim radicals told their kind that Europe had lost its will, that it needed only a push to topple and leave a new caliphate standing.

It had been all madness. The Islamists hadn’t had the numbers. The majority of their fellow Muslims in Europe wanted no part of the violence. But enough rose up to seal the fate of the 20

Within a month, the counterattacks on Europe’s Muslims spread so widely and grew so brutal that the United States led the world in demanding that Europe’s governments end it. But the governments answered to the people, and the people wanted blood. Mobs ruled, even in parliaments. It was as if the rebellion had broken a dam behind which decades of fury had been rising. pg. 21

They opened the door. And the stench hit everyone like a fist. Even the Germans winced.

The corpses rose almost to the middle of the car’s interior. Men.Women. Children. Stiff. Wide- eyed. Mouths agape. pg. 23

So much had happened in the five years since he looked into that boxcar that the world in which he now led troops to war seemed unrecognizable. Dreamers had changed the world, but their dreams were grim. The great American effort to evacuate Europe’s Muslims had turned into a debacle. None of the states from which their ancestors had come would accept the refugees. Islamist firebrands declared that all that had transpired in Europe had been an American plot to oppress Muslims. Overcrowded ships lay at anchor in the Mediterranean or in the smack- down heat of the Persian Gulf. Arab governments took their cue to blame Washington for the suffering, unwilling to welcome Muslims who had lived in Europe amid liberal ideas. American counterarguments were mocked. The global media accused the United States of making pawns of the refugees. When a riot aboard a converted cruise ship turned deadly, the Europe an pogroms were forgotten as if they had been an embarrassing soccer match. All agreed that Washington was the true enemy of Islam. pg. 26

At that fateful moment, Iran launched a barrage of nuclear missiles at Israel, killing two million people. On the same day, nuclear devices exploded in downtown Los Angeles and on the Vegas Strip. pg. 27

With bewildering speed, the Military Order of the Brothers in Christ and their supporters had gotten their crusade against Islam, an invasion to retake the Biblical heartlands from the infidel. And as the favored MOBIC forces battled toward Jerusalem, Lieutenant General Flintlock Harris had the mission of taking Damascus with what remained of the Army and Marines. pg. 28

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Aliens vs. Avatar and Zombies

We watched two movies for Movie Dude weekend.

Aliens (1986)

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn, Lance Henriksen, Paul Reiser
Director: James Cameron

We actually watched Alien a couple weeks ago and wanted to continue the series. While we all enjoyed Aliens, the second film in the series (OK, I hide my face and didn't watch some parts, but I'm a known whimp), what really became quite apparent to all of us after recently also watching Avatar was the similarities between Aliens and Avatar. James Cameron directed them both but you'd expect some new ideas, right? (Or is that just us?) Anyway, we sat down and all started listing the very obvious tie ins between the two movies.

Obviously, in Avatar, Cameron is beating us over the head with his message. He's more subtle in Aliens. He doesn't explore the idea that the aliens could be sentient beings in Aliens, but makes it quite clear that the Na'vi are sentient (and preferable) in Avatar. The two movies appear almost, but not quite, polar opposites in their message. The aliens destroying the human settlement is bad in Aliens, good in Avatar. Destroying the alien hive is good in Aliens, bad in Avatar. Very simply humans have opposite roles; they are, very basically, good in Aliens and bad in Avatar.

The design of all human structures and technology is analogous. The ship design and interior seemed interchangeable in both movies. The military scenes were parallel, practically indistinguishable in spots, as were the weapons and military shuttles. The mecha suit/robotic walker was a startling, almost identical connection between the two movies. The final battle was practically the same. No wonder we all felt we had watched Avatar before, thinking it was just the noble savage storyline at the time when the actual root of this feeling goes much deeper and far reaching.

Both movies involve a corporation (bad, greedy) planning to use a planet for it's resources. The company is always bad and is acting only in its best interests. The military is depicted as short sighted in both movies. Another obvious connection is the casting of Sigourney Weaver in a tough woman role in both movies. We noticed other casting choices for recent roles in Avatar that seemed to correspond with choices Cameron previously made in casting Aliens.

Clearly the roots of Avatar are found in Aliens. Then, when looking around to see if anyone else noticed the obvious connections between the two movies, I read that visually Avatar and the Halo games are quite similar and that Halo borrows from Cameron’s Aliens. When asked about this, Cameron claims since he originated it, he's allowed to reference it, or recycle it, depending on your point of view. Apparently Cameron has a little problem coming up with new, original ideas and other people have also noticed that Avatar uses many recycled concepts from his Aliens film. Interesting...

I Am Omega (2007)

The Asylum movie
Starring: Mark Dacascos, Geoff Meed Jennifer Lee Wiggins
Directed by Griff Furst

This is another last man on earth, Omega Man movie based on Richard Matheson's book I am Legend. Originally a SciFi channel movie, the most obvious weakness of I Am Omega is a lack of character development, but we weren't watching it for the plot or character development. There are some great zombies in this movie. Mark Dacascos is a martial arts master (and the Chairman on Iron Chef America) so he fights zombies with weapons, as well as roundhouse kicks and nunchuks. Dacascos is actually a decent actor, so he elevates this B movie. We liked it, but you know us...

Movie Dude: If you pee on a zombie does it die?

Lori: I'd like to think that, at least for a little bit, we could all fight our way through a zombie hoard.

Friday, June 4, 2010

House Rules

House Rules by Jodi Picoult
Simon & Schuster, March 2010
Hardcover, 532 pages
ISBN-13: 9780743296434
Recommended for fans

Library Journal
In life some things are never to be broken—especially if you are an autistic child who takes "everything" literally. For example, some things that can't be broken are the house rules: tell the truth, brush your teeth, and, most important, take care of your brother; he's the only one you've got. In this 18th novel from Picoult (My Sister's Keeper), Jacob Hunt is a teenager with Asperger's syndrome and a morbid fascination with forensic science. He can recite all the intricacies of fingerprint analysis and recall the episode and number of his favorite TV crime show, but he can't feel your pain or emotions. For emotional intelligence Jacob has a tutor—until the tutor is found murdered. When Jacob is questioned, the same hallmark signs of his Asperger's that made him quirky also make him look very guilty—even to those who love him. VERDICT Picoult has many fans, and they won't be disappointed here. She is the master of telling a story that at first glance seems predictable but seldom is.—Marike Zemke, Commerce Twp. Community Lib., MI

My Thoughts:
Jodi, Jodi, Jodi, you know I normally enjoy your books and although House Rules was no exception, it did stretch believability with me a bit because I have a close relative with Asperger's who is, admittedly, very highly functioning - much more so than your character, Jacob. In some ways I saw the aspie traits you tried to so carefully introduce but in other ways you gave him so many symptoms (some of them seemed more autistic) and then made them all extreme. Additionally you seemed to imply that all people with Asperger's are going to have extreme traits. Sorry - it just isn't the case. While reading I silently said, "Yes, that is believable" or alternately muttered, "Come on. Does he have to have all of these extremely debilitating traits?" On the other hand I think there was quite a bit of truth in the description of a family living with AS.

The story itself wasn't quite as tightly plotted and suspenseful as most of Jodi Picoult's books are. The continuity was not as carefully followed either. (For example, Jacob is described as having a color for every day, foods and clothes need to be that day's color, yet she also says, as seen below in the quotes, that he might not change his shirt daily. Yes, the not changing a shirt daily can be an aspie trait but he can't have that trait AND follow his day of the week color rule. A choice needs to be made. He was also described as not good at math and then suddenly was good at math. There were some other examples but I don't want to get close to any spoilers.) As in many of her other books, we again heard the story through several characters, which I enjoy. This time I knew the twist almost immediately. Basically, House Rules seemed to follow what has recently become a formulaic, predictable plot for Picoult, which is a shame because Picoult is a very talented writer who most certainly can do better. I enjoyed House Rules and would recommend it, especially for fans of Picoult, but would caution that it is not, perhaps, one of her better novels.
Recommended, compared to other Picoult books, especially for fans.

Everywhere I look, there are signs of a struggle. The mail has been scattered all over the kitchen floor; the stools are overturned. The phone has been knocked off its pedestal, its battery pack hanging loose from an umbilicus of wires. There's one single faint footprint at the threshold of the living room, pointing toward the dead body of my son, Jacob. pg. 3

"Seriously, Mom, a kindergartner could have solved this case," Jacob says, jumping to his feet. Fake blood drips down the side of his face, but he doesn't notice; when he is intensely focused on crime scene analysis,
I think a nuclear bomb could detonate beside him and he'd never flinch. pg. 4

I follow Jacob into the kitchen and watch him back into a corner.
"What we got here," Jacob mutters, his voice a sudden drawl, "is ... failure to communicate." He crouches down, hugging his knees.
When he cannot find the words for how he feels, he borrows someone else's. These come from Cool Hand Luke; Jacob remembers the dialogue from every movie he's ever seen.
I've met so many parents of kids who are on the low end of the autism spectrum, kids who are diametrically opposed to Jacob, with his Asperger's. They tell me I'm lucky to have a son who's so verbal, who is blisteringly intelligent, who can take apart the broken microwave and have it working again an hour later. They think there is no greater hell than having a son who is locked in his own world, unaware that there's a wider one to explore. But try having a son who is locked in his own world and still wants to make a connection. A son who tries to be like everyone else but truly doesn't know how. pg. 5

There's a lot of fuss about whether or not Asperger's is on the autism spectrum, but to be honest, it doesn't matter. It's a term we use to get Jacob the accommodations he needs in school, not a label to explain who he is. If you met him now, the first thing you'd notice is that he might have forgotten to change his shirt from yesterday or to brush his hair. If you talk to him, you'll have to be the one to start the conversation. He won't look you in the eye. And if you pause to speak to someone else for a brief moment, you might turn back to find that Jacob's left the room. pg. 7

I am supposed to make exceptions for Jacob; it's one of our unwritten house rules. So when we need to take a detour away from a detour sign (how ironic is that?) since it's orange and freaks Jacob out, that trumps the fact that I'm ten minutes late for school. pg. 12

I was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome long before it became the mental health order du jour, overused by parents to describe their bratty kids so that people think they're supergeniuses instead of simply antisocial. pg. 17

I just don't get the social hints that other people do. So if I'm talking to someone in class and he says, "Man, is it one o'clock already?" I look at the clock and tell him that yes, it is one o'clock already, when in reality he is trying to find a polite way to get away from me. pg. 19

Isolation. A fixation on one particular subject. An inability to connect socially.
Jacob was the one diagnosed, but I might as well have Asperger's, too. pg. 42

"Consider it a new house rule. You are not to sneak out of here unless you tell me first."
"Technically, that wouldn't be sneaking," he points out. pg 45