Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Goodreads Description:

Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.

My Review

The Fault in Our Stars tells the heart-wrenching story of terminal cancer patient Hazel Grace Lancaster who finally acquiesces and joins a support group at the behest of her well-intentioned parents. There she meets the charming boy, Augustus Waters, in attendance to support his friend Isaac who is losing his sight to cancer. Hazel and Augustus hit it off immediately and he fills her bleak, numbered days with beauty and love.

I loved the romance between Hazel and Augustus.

“May I see you again?” he asked. There was an endearing nervousness in his voice.

I smiled. “Sure.”

“Tomorrow?” he asked.

“Patience, grasshopper,” I counseled. “You don’t want to seem overeager.

“Right, that’s why I said tomorrow,” he said. “I want to see you again tonight. But I’m willing to wait all night and much of tomorrow.” I rolled my eyes. “I’m serious,” he said.

“You don’t even know me,” I said. I grabbed the book from the center console. “How about I call you when I finish this?”

“But you don’t even have my phone number,” he said.

“I strongly suspect you wrote it in this book.”

He broke out into that goofy smile. “And you say we don’t know each other.”

I loved the humor in this book. Here is a bit of dialogue where Augustus and Hazel are talking with Augustus’ family:

“It’s just that most really good-looking people are stupid, so I exceed expectations.”

“Right, it’s primarily his hotness,” I said.

“It can be sort of blinding,” he said.

“It actually did blind our friend Isaac,” I said.

“Terrible tragedy, that. But can I help my own deadly beauty?”

“You cannot.”

“It is my burden, this beautiful face.”

“Not to mention your body.”

“Seriously, don’t even get me started on my hot bod. You don’t want to see me naked, Dave. Seeing me naked actually took Hazel Grace’s breath away,” he said, nodding toward the oxygen tank.

I loved the introspection.

“Without pain, how could we know joy? This is an old argument in the field of thinking about suffering and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not, in any way, affect the taste of chocolate.”

And finally, I loved how a finite number of days can turn into a little infinity when you spend it with someone you love.

“There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that. There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I’m likely to get… But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.”

I’ve seen a few reviews where the reader believes the language used by the teens in the book is too advanced for the characters to be believable. When I was a teen, intelligence and popularity seemed to have an inverse relationship. You risked being labeled a nerd if you were too smart. To fit in, I suspect many of us pretended to be less competent than we were. It’s sad, but true, at least from my experience. I applaud the way John Green created characters that were witty, erudite teens. Let’s give our young adults books that are intelligent and thought-provoking, books that may have them reaching for the dictionary, but I suspect our youth is far wiser than they sometimes let on.

I loved, loved, loved this book. It’s proof I don’t need a “happily ever after” to enjoy a book. After all, “the world is not a wish-granting factory.”

5 out of 5 stars

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From the Archives: Words of Wisdom on Writing from the King

To celebrate the one year anniversary of my blog (March 13th), I’m publishing select posts throughout the year under the title “From the Archives” for those who may have missed them the first time around. Next up…

Words of Wisdom on Writing from the King

Yesterday I published, Reading Fiction: Guilty Pleasure or Worthy Pursuit? In that post I stated that I only read fiction. Well it’s just one day later and I must retract that statement.

I received a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing in the mail yesterday afternoon. Yeah, it’s obviously not fiction but it’s a book on writing fiction so cut me some slack, okay? I’ve read several excerpts in the past but decided I needed to read the entire book. Well, I couldn’t put it down.

Cover of "On Writing:  A Memoir of the Cr...
Cover of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

It’s a book on writing but it doesn’t read like an instruction manual and that, is a lesson on writing right there. It felt like I had sat down with a wise, yet fun-loving uncle as he imparted nuggets of wisdom, but first hooked me in by sharing funny anecdotes from his childhood.

The section where he offered advice on writing is a must read for any aspiring author. There are many great tips but I’ll highlight just two (sorry, but you’ll have to buy the book to get the full benefit).

King believes “plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.” His advice was reassuring because I’m not big on plotting and I’d wondered if that was somehow a weakness. I have a general idea of the story I want to tell and create very detailed character bios, but they are mostly for my reference only. Once I’ve completed the character bios it’s almost as if I have breathed life into them. They become real and end up telling me what comes next and it’s often different from what I had originally imagined.

He also believes that factual information belongs in the background of your story unless you’d like your book to read like a user’s manual or history text. He mentioned a couple of authors who are a little heavy on the factual information and then made this statement:

“I sometimes think that these writers appeal to a large segment of the reading population who feel that fiction is somehow immoral, a low taste which can only be justified by saying, ‘Well, ahem, yes, I do read {Fill in the author’s name here}, but only on airplanes and in hotel rooms that don’t have CNN; also I learned a great deal about {Fill in appropriate subject here}.’

It’s interesting that I just published a post on this topic yesterday. I love it when that happens. It’s like the moon and stars are aligning for some future event.

At the end of the book he tells about an accident that occurred during the time he was writing it. While going on his afternoon walk, he was struck and almost killed by a reckless driver. This part was mesmerizing because I was almost killed in a car accident too. Then he said it occurred the third week in June. Hmm…my accident did too. What are the odds it was on the same day? Well, what do you know? We were both almost killed by drivers who couldn’t control their vehicles…on the same day, June 19th, but eleven years apart, mine occurring in 1988 and his in 1999. But there was another similarity: the driver who caused his accident was reaching behind his seat, trying to prevent a dog from opening a cooler full of meat and the driver who caused my accident was reaching behind his seat, trying to open a cooler for another beer.

As he talked about the long road to recovery, I recalled my own. Maybe I’ll write about it? No, not today.

Instead, I closed the book with a smile on my face and thought, “That was a good story. Thanks, Uncle Steve.”

Book Review: Call of the Wild by Jack London

the call of the wildThe Call of the Wild by Jack London

Goodreads Description: First published in 1903, The Call of the Wild is regarded as Jack London’s masterpiece. Based on London’s experiences as a gold prospector in the Canadian wilderness and his ideas about nature and the struggle for existence, The Call of the Wild is a tale about unbreakable spirit and the fight for survival in the frozen Alaskan Klondike.

Book Description: “There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.” THE CALL OF THE WILD is a novel by American author Jack London published in 1903. The story is set in the Yukon during the 19th-century Klondike Gold Rush—a period when strong sled dogs were in high demand. The novel’s central character is a dog named Buck, a domesticated dog living at a ranch in California as the story opens. Stolen from his home and sold into the brutal existence of an Alaskan sled dog, he reverts to atavistic traits. Buck is forced to adjust and survive cruel treatments, fight to dominate other dogs, and survive in a harsh climate. Eventually he sheds the veneer of civilization, relying on primordial instincts through lessons he learns, to emerge as a leader in the wild.

My Review:

The novel opens with the following epigraph:

“Old longings nomadic leap,

Chafing at custom’s chain;

Again from its brumal sleep

Wakens the ferine strain.”

After some digging, I discovered it was taken from the poem Atavism by John Myers O’Hara. For those that may not know (I didn’t), atavism means to revert to characteristics typical of an ancestral form.

The reader is given many clues (the title of the book, the epigraph, the name of the poem) as to the theme of the novel, and it’s one we can relate to. We all have a calling inside us, something that awakens the soul, and makes us feel alive.

The epigraph is followed by the sentence:

“Buck did not read the newspapers or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego.”

We immediately know the protagonist will go on a journey, literally and figuratively, that will cause him to return to the wild.

At the beginning of the book, Buck is enjoying a comfortable life with a wealthy family. He could easily have “lived the life of a sated aristocrat,” but “saved himself by not becoming a mere pampered house-dog”—a hint at the wild streak within. He was subservient to none. “And over this great demesne Buck ruled…king over all creeping, crawling, flying things of Judge Miller’s place, humans included.” While there are only a few pages dedicated to his relationship with the Miller family, you get the sense his attachment is superficial, his loyalty changeable based on those who care for him.

As the opening sentence suggests, “trouble is brewing” and Buck is plucked from a life of luxury and forced to work as a sled dog, suffering and witnessing cruelty from man and beast. He is no longer master of all, but must become subservient simply to survive. He eventually rises as the leader of the pack but still suffers man’s cruelty. He is rescued by a man and finally learns true love and loyalty. Eventually he learns to awaken the “ferine strain” and emerges as king of the beasts once again, but this time in the wild instead of civilization.

I liked this book better than I expected to. I wasn’t sure I would be able to connect with a dog as the main protagonist. Not that I don’t love dogs. I have two loyal companions sitting at my feet that would prove otherwise. I just wasn’t sure how genuine the character would feel to me. Would the main character, Buck, create the emotional attachment needed to propel me, the reader, through an entire novel? Surprisingly, he did and I even felt my eyes sting a little at the end.

4 out of 5 stars

 

I’ve been reading, or rereading, books on the Modern Library’s Top 100 list to see what I could learn from these highly praised works. The Call of the Wild is # 88 on the list. So what did I learn from reading this book? Here are a few writing “rules” that came to mind:

·         State the theme.

Masterfully done in the title, the epigraph, and the title of the poem the epigraph is quoted from.

·         Establish normal before you violate normal.

Buck was living an idyllic existence where he was doted on as the beloved pet of a wealthy family before he was plucked from his home and sold into a world of servitude and cruelty where he had to struggle to survive.  

·         Don’t use phonetics to emphasize dialogue.

At first I had difficulty reading the phonetic spelling of the dialogue given to the book’s human characters, but I adjusted to it fairly quickly. It provided a sharp contrast between the civilized world Buck had been stolen from and the savagery of the cruel world in which he had been placed.

·         The protagonist should be transformed over the course of the story (character arc).

London sends Buck on quite a journey, physically and emotionally, and he proves you can have a character arc when the main protagonist is an animal.

·         The final image should be the opposite of the opening image to show how much has changed.

The opening scene describes one where Buck is the master of his domain, a civilized animal among civilized people. The closing scene shows Buck as master once again but in a very different environment.  

 

Book Review: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse fiveSlaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Goodreads Description: Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut’s) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.

Don’t let the ease of reading fool you – Vonnegut’s isn’t a conventional, or simple, novel. He writes, “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.”

Slaughterhouse-Five is not only Vonnegut’s most powerful book, it is also as important as any written since 1945. Like Catch- 22, it fashions the author’s experiences in the Second World War into an eloquent and deeply funny plea against butchery in the service of authority. Slaughterhouse-Five boasts the same imagination, humanity, and gleeful appreciation of the absurd found in Vonnegut’s other works, but the book’s basis in rock-hard, tragic fact gives it a unique poignancy – and humor.

My Review:

I read this book in May 2013 (I really need to get better about posting timely reviews), and while it’s been criticized as being choppy, disjointed, all over the place, and unintelligible, I came away with a profound sense of the disastrous effects of war on the human psyche.

The book is based on Vonnegut’s own experience as a prisoner of war where he, by a strange twist of fate, survived the fire-bombing of Dresden during World War II.

The main character, Billy Pilgrim, was a prisoner of war held captive in an underground meat locker of a slaughter house, Slaughterhouse 5, that is.  In a reversal of fortune, his prison had become his salvation, delivering him from an apocalyptic scene of unimaginable destruction when the city of Dresden was almost obliterated from the earth. In the aftermath, his surviving captors forced him to perform the harrowing task of recovering and burning the bodies of the deceased.

The book isn’t written in chronological order. Instead, it jumps forward and backward in time, jarringly, to various periods in the main character’s life including time spent with aliens on the planet Tralfamadore. Yes, aliens.Was the character abducted by aliens? Did he become unstuck in time? Or were these just coping mechanisms in the aftermath of war?

Reading this book reminded me a little of someone who had experienced psychological trauma so severe that their personality split as a means to deal with reality. This condition, known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder) is a trauma-based disorder. It’s interesting that PTSD, common among war veterans, is also a trauma based disorder, and considering Vonnegut was a war veteran my perception of the novel may not be far off the mark. Vonnegut himself described the book as “so short and jumbled and jangled…because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”

When you’ve experienced atrocities so unimaginable, it’s hard to make sense of anything and it’s easy to understand how Billy Pilgrim became “unstuck in time” and found refuge in another world. And so it goes…

Opening Line:

“All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.”

Memorable quotes:

“- Why me?
– That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?
– Yes.
– Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

 “And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.”

“Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.”

4 of 5 stars

Book Review: The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon

I was interested in the book The Crowd; Study of the Popular Mind by Gustave Le Bon to gain an understanding of the psychology of crowds (doing a little research). What causes people to become acquiescent, and in many cases participate in the oppression of others?

Here are a couple of responses to that question Le Bon provided in his book:

“The crowd is always dominated by considerations of which it is unconscious—the disappearance of brain activity and the predominance of medullar activity—the lowering of intelligence and the complete transformation of the sentiments. The transformed sentiments may be better or worse than those of the individuals of which the crowd is composed. A crowd is as easily heroic as criminal.”

“The individual forming part of a crowd acquires, solely from numerical considerations, a sentiment of invincible power which allows him to yield to instincts which, had he been alone, he would perforce have kept under restraint. He will be the less disposed to check himself from the consideration that, a crowd being anonymous, and in consequence irresponsible, the sentiment of responsibility which always controls individuals disappears entirely.”

I chose this book expecting to read an objective study into crowd psychology, and while the book contains some interesting, even frightful, insights that are worth studying, I wasn’t prepared for the elitist, racist, and misogynistic statements made by the author.

Regarding the classification of crowds:

“It’s most inferior form is met with when the multitude is composed of individuals of different races…On a higher level than these multitudes composed of different races are those which under certain influences have acquired common characteristics, and have ended by forming a single race.”

“It will be remarked that among the special characteristics of crowds there are several…which are almost always observed in beings belonging to inferior forms of evolution—in women, savages, and children, for instance.”

According to him the notions of the aforementioned groups do not have merit. Sounds a little like oppression, doesn’t it? He also had this to say about religion:

“Tiberius, Ghengis Khan, and Napoleon were assuredly redoubtable tyrants, but from the depth of their graves Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Mahomet have exerted on the human soul a far profounder despotism.”

W-what? It’s true that horrible atrocities have been committed in the name of religion (The Thirty Years War, the Crusades, etc.), but does the following sound like the words of a despot?

“A new commandment I give to you: love one another. As I have loved you, you are also to love one another.” ~John 13:34

Le Bon’s “study” of the psychology of crowds is so littered with personal prejudices, presented as scientific research on the psychology of others, that it’s difficult to look beyond his narrow-minded and pessimistic view of the world. If anything, it seems to be a manual on how to rise to power as a dictator through psychological manipulation. It’s not surprising that Hitler was known to have studied the book and apparently deployed its ideas with great success.  Hitler was quoted as saying, “by the skillful and sustained use of propaganda, one can make a people see even heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise.”

Le Bon also believed “it is the need, not of liberty, but of servitude, that is always predominant in the soul of crowds. They are so bent on obedience that they instinctively submit to whoever declares himself their master.”

I believe self-preservation —one of the strongest basic human instincts—is what predominates, followed closely by freedom. Evil can rise to power when the masses are in a depressed economic state. People can blindly turn to the voice of a gifted orator that plays on the self-preservation instinct with promises of prosperity. They are so caught up in the story they fail to see the truth of what is happening until it can no longer be denied. At that point, they are controlled by fear of death as the self-preservation instinct becomes firmly rooted.

The temper of a crowd is fickle. As Le Bon said, just “as easily heroic as criminal.” But if one person has the intestinal fortitude to speak out against injustice, the fear among the crowd can give way to courage and spark a revolution. The world is fortunate to have known the likes of those who do not follow the crowd when it is silent about injustice.

I wonder what Le Bon would have had to say about Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Nelson Mandela?

2 out of 5 stars

Book Review: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

brave new worldBrave New World by Aldous Huxley

Goodreads Description: Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s prophetic novel of natural man in an unnatural world, is one of the twentieth century’s most profound and terrifying evocations of the future. This story of life in a streamlined Eden describes a civilization in which contemporary concepts of freedom and morality have become obsolete.

Modern Library Top 100 Rank: 5

My Review:

The book, written in 1931, is incredibly prophetic beginning with its description of human life created in a lab. No doubt it had seemed like a radical idea at the time, but less than fifty years later the first human would be conceived in a test tube within a sterile environment similar to one Huxley described. It’s a process known as IVF (In Vitro Fertilization), and it has fulfilled the dreams of many couples who couldn’t conceive naturally. With IVF, conception occurs outside the womb with the fertilized egg being returned to the mother’s uterus to develop as nature intended. I applaud science for finding a way to bring hope to couples who have had trouble conceiving, but I hope I don’t live to see a world where a BOKANOVSKY type process comes to fruition. Huxley’s novel takes the process to a terrifying level with its Hatchery and Conditioning center.

First Sentence: “A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and in a shield, the World State’s motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.”

The centre is a place where humans are artificially conceived and bottled in jars during gestation. Many are preselected at conception for a lower class, a process known as “bokanovskification”, where they are treated like a commodity and mass-produced in an assembly line of sorts, subjected to substandard environmental conditions at the embryonic stage to cause arrested development in mental and physical acuity, and conditioned via Pavlovian methods after “birth” to be suited and satisfied with their position in life.

Because of this, the family structure no longer exists. “Parent” is a foreign concept along with all the emotional ties of that familial bond. If you are a parent, think of the first time you heard your child say “Mama” or “Dada.” For me, it is one of the most beautiful words in the human language because of the depth of emotion and protective instinct that is tied to it. It stirs up feelings in me that I cannot even begin to put into words.

By artificially controlling the natural development of humans, we lose everything that makes each of us unique and suppress the potential for great ideas and innovation. By disallowing natural bonds to form like parent/child, husband/wife, we destroy the concepts of unconditional love, loyalty, and devotion.  

In the book, the leaders of society have created a utopia where everyone is content. A person’s purpose is manufactured through conditioning for the benefit of the community. Even a person’s emotions can be manufactured by popping a pill called Soma if they are depressed or having a VPS (Violent Passion Surrogate) treatment to stimulate the adrenals.

“What you need,” the Savage went on, “is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here.

Exposing what is mortal and unsure to all that fortune, death and danger, even for an eggshell. Isn’t there something in that?” he asked, looking up at Mustapha Mond. “Quite apart from God—though of course God would be a reason for it. Isn’t there something in living dangerously?”

“There’s a great deal in it,” the Controller replied. “Men and women must have their adrenals stimulated from time to time.”

“What?” questioned the Savage, uncomprehending.

“It’s one of the conditions of perfect health. That’s why we’ve made the V.P.S. treatments compulsory.”

“V.P.S.?”

“Violent Passion Surrogate. Regularly once a month. We flood the whole system with adrenin. It’s the complete physiological equivalent of fear and rage. All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello, without any of the inconveniences.”

“But I like the inconveniences.”

“We don’t,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

It’s frightening how prophetic this book is when you think about it. Don’t think so? Let’s name a few mood altering drugs on the market today: Zoloft, Xanax, and Prozac. They’re really not too different from Soma, are they? I haven’t taken any of them, but I’ve heard acquaintances gush about how wonderful they are because they don’t worry about anything. They are just so happy, albeit a “manufactured” happy. What about adrenal stimulation? Video games, anyone? Especially combat games where the threat of death is simulated. The same can be said of horror or action movies.

These things may seem innocuous. After all, antidepressants aid people suffering from depression, video games improve hand-eye coordination, reaction time and decision-making, and movies create empathy; but when we partake in such large doses and they prevent us from dealing with reality, it becomes an issue.  

Yes, Huxley’s Brave New World is frightening indeed, and when I think of the state of morality as displayed by many celebrities, people on reality TV, and society in general, I wonder how far we are from it, really.

4 of 5 stars

Book Review: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

of mice and menOf Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Back Cover Blurb: They are an unlikely pair: George is “small and quick and dark of face”; Lennie, a man of tremendous size, has the mind of a young child. Yet they have formed a “family,” clinging together in the face of loneliness and alienation.

Laborers in California’s dusty vegetable fields, they hustle work when they can, living a hand-to-mouth existence. For George and Lennie have a plan: to own an acre of land and a shack they can call their own. When they land jobs on a ranch in the Salinas Valley, the fulfillment of their dream seems to be within their grasp. But even George cannot guard Lennie from the provocations of a flirtatious woman, nor predict the consequences of Lennie’s unswerving obedience to the things George taught him.

Goodreads Description: Of Mice and Men takes us into the lives of George and Lennie, two farm workers set out to find their way to a new life. In true Steinbeck form, this short novel explores both loyalty and the transient nature of mankind.

I hadn’t read this book since high school. I won’t say exactly how long ago that was, but it’s been a while. I read it again in April 2013, armed with new knowledge of writing rules, to see if I could understand what makes this book a classic.

What writing rules came to mind during my second read of this book?

 Don’t phoneticize regional or cultural dialects. And yet, I can’t imagine reading this without the phonetic dialogue. “We’re going to live off of the fat of the land, George,” doesn’t have the same effect as: “We’re gonna live offa the fatta the lan’, George.” It not only shows that Lennie is mentally challenged, but I can even hear the innocence, in his voice.

I thought the dialogue was brilliant. There was so much lying under the surface of what was spoken. Candy, the elderly, crippled handyman on the farm where Lennie and George work had this to say of his aging, crippled, sheep herding dog:

I ought to of shot that dog myself, George. I shouldn’t ought to of let no stranger shoot my dog.

After my second read, I still agree with its ranking as a classic. What makes it so? A classic is defined as something that retains its worth over time, and where literature is concerned, a classic addresses a theme of timeless quality. The themes of friendship, loneliness, and the pursuit of a dream are universal and will resonate with readers.

We all dream of our own little slice of heaven on earth, and whether that is a few acres of land or a little reading nook matters not, as long as it’s a place where the harsh realities of a cruel world cannot reach.

This is a heart-wrenching story of an unlikely friendship between a pair of migrant farm workers. George and Lennie are physical and intellectual opposites, but incredibly loyal to each other.  Lennie is a contradiction beginning with his last name: Small. Physically, he is anything but small, but mentally he is limited. He has the mind of a young child, and like a young child he has an overabundance of innocence and loyalty. George is the brains of the duo, and although he is much smaller in stature he is the protector. He makes it his mission to buy a farm where the two of them can live, independent of the outside world and unexposed to its merciless nature.

The title of the book is derived from the poem To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough written by Robert Burns in 1786. It’s an apology to the mouse for destroying her home. In relation to Steinbeck’s book, two stanzas of the poem stand out in particular.

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee
startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow-mortal!

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane [you aren’t alone]
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy.

Although George and Lennie are unlikely companions, opposites in almost every aspect, they share this dream of owning their own land. It is the possibility of achieving that dream that bonds them together, but even the best laid plans often go awry.

 4 of 5 stars

Book Review: We Are Not Alone by Kristin Lamb

We Are Not Alone by Kristin Lamb

Goodreads Description:

Forward written by NY Times Best-Selling Author and Co-Creator of Who Dares Wins Publishing Bob Mayer “I wished there had been a step-by-step guide for writers on how to not only do it technically, but do it content-wise. This book is the answer to that wish.” Social Media is more popular than ever. As society becomes more and more technologically advanced, people are seeking new ways to interact. Humans are social creatures. Relationships and community are vital to our survival and our mental and emotional health. Writers, published and unpublished, fiction and non-fiction are hearing words like platform and brand with increasing frequency as the publishing paradigm shifts into the 21st century. The world around us is changing faster than ever, and publishing is certainly not immune. There are more opportunities for a new author today than there has been in the entirety of human history. Yet, the flip side of that reality is, with thousands and thousands of authors with books and blogs, how can a writer ever hope to stand apart let alone succeed? This book will show you how. There are countless social media experts, but Kristen’s system is specifically designed to meet the unique needs of a writer. Take charge of your future today. You have great books to write, and don’t have time for rookie mistakes that can cost you years of rebuilding your name, brand, and platform. Kristen’s method is simple, effective, and helps you harness that same creativity you apply to your writing and harness it to build you social media platform. Best part is you don’t even have to be a computer expert or know anything about sales. This system is designed to change the writer’s approach, not the writer’s personality. And the best part is you have help. Remember, We Are Not Alone.

My Review:

I read this book shortly after I started blogging in March of this year. The most valuable advice that I gleaned from it was the importance of branding your own name. If you’re a writer, don’t use a moniker for your social media platforms. Readers will have difficulty finding your book if the author name is rarely mentioned. She also advised that authors avoid using the title of their book as their name/identifier in social media platforms unless they plan to write just that one book. And what if you change the title of your book before publishing? She recommends that you use your name or the name you will be writing under for all social media platforms.

This was eye opening for me. When I started my blog, I wasn’t sure what name to use. I remember coming across all these creative social media monikers, but I couldn’t come up with one that I thought I’d want to stick with permanently, so I just used my name. By sheer dumb luck, I did exactly as the author recommends. Well, it’s more than a recommendation. To her, it’s a must.

“…it is absolutely crucial for you to brand your name over and over and over and it is always associated with your content, that is like a non-stop commercial pitching your work every single day. This is why a moniker can absolutely KILL your platform.

When you use anything other than the name that will be printed across your book, you give up your most valuable marketing real estate…the top of mind.”

The book is a bit dated, but considering it covers the ever-changing world of social media and was published in 2010, that’s not surprising. Still, it contains useful information for those who are new to social media and with the author’s sense of humor mixed in, it’s a very enjoyable read.

4 out of 5 stars

Kristin has recently released an updated book titled Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World. It’s been getting rave reviews and is on my TBR list.

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Ocean at the end of the laneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Goodreads Description: Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly’s wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.

My Review:

Opening sentence:

“Nobody came to my seventh birthday party.”

Why had no one gone to his birthday party? Was he new to the area? Was he shy? Was he a social outcast because he was somehow different? What was it? I had only read the first sentence when I began to empathize with the protagonist. I recalled the times in my childhood where I’d felt out-of-place, a little misfit. Neil Gaiman does a remarkable job of stirring those childhood memories to create a connection with the reader.

“Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.”

This story will take you back to your childhood as quickly as the aroma of your mother’s homemade Christmas cookies wafting through the air. Only, it isn’t the pleasant memories that come to mind. You will recall the times you heard or saw things that weren’t evident to adults.

“Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences. I was a child, which meant that I knew a dozen different ways of getting out of our property and into the lane, ways that would not involve walking down our drive.”

I often wonder if, as a child, I was more in tune with the metaphysical world, with the unexplained, the things that go bump in the night. It was the time before I learned to put the world in a neat little box where every odd occurrence could be reasoned with a logical explanation. What about the toy that begins to play in the middle of the night? Oh it’s just a malfunction in the mechanism. What about the trinket that falls off the shelf? Surely it had been accidentally shifted by a person’s touch during the day and finally succumbed to gravity.  What was the flash of light across the bedroom wall? Oh, it was the reflection of a passing car. What was the shadow you saw in your peripheral vision? Well, of course it was just your imagination.

“I saw the world I had walked since my birth, and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.”

Reading this book will cause you to relive that paralyzing childhood fear when you were certain something was lurking under your bed or in your closet, but somehow hiding under your covers provided a magical layer of protection from anything sinister. You will believe that there are invisible forces at work. While evil lurks in the shadows, there is a benevolent force, like Lettie, that will cover you like that warm blanket from childhood. And quite possibly you will wonder if there really is an ocean at the end of the lane.

Memorable quotes:

“It’s hard enough being alive, trying to survive in the world and find your place in it, to do the things you need to do to get by, without wondering if the thing you just did, whatever it was, was worth someone having…if not died, then having given up her life.”

“How can you be happy in this world? You have a hole in your heart. You have a gateway inside you to lands beyond the world you know. They will call you, as you grow.”

4 of 5 stars

Book Review: 1984 by George Orwell

photo credit: creativereview.co.uk

1984 by George Orwell

Back Cover Blurb: The world of 1984 is one in which eternal warfare is the price of bleak prosperity, in which the Party keeps itself in power by complete control over man’s actions and his thoughts. As the lovers Winston Smith and Julia learn when they try to evade the Thought Police, and then join the underground opposition, the Party can smash the last impulse of love, the last flicker of individuality.

But let the reader beware: 1984 is more than a satire of totalitarian barbarism. “It means us, too.” says Erich Fromm in his Afterword. It is not merely a political novel but also a diagnosis of the deepest alienation in the mind of Organization Man.

George Orwell writes with a swift clean style that has come down from Defoe. Like Defoe, he creates an imaginary world that is completely convincing–from the first sentence to the last four words…words which might stand as the epitaph of the twentieth century.

Goodreads Description: Written in 1948, 1984 was George Orwell’s chilling prophecy about the future. And while the year 1984 has come and gone, Orwell’s narrative is timelier than ever. 1984 presents a startling and haunting vision of the world, so powerful that it is completely convincing from start to finish. No one can deny the power of this novel, its hold on the imaginations of multiple generations of readers, or the resiliency of its admonitions. A legacy that seems only to grow with the passage of time.

My Review

1st sentence: “It was a cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Thirteen? Clocks don’t strike thirteen, at least not in the world I live in. This is a brilliant opening sentence. You immediately know something is off, the world has changed. And if you suffer from triskaidekaphobia then you already have little warning bells sounding in your head.

The world Orwell created is divided into three super states that came to power after a global war: Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. The novel takes place in Oceania which is comprised of three social classes:

  • The Elite (Inner Party) – 2% of the population,
  • The Middle (Outer Party) – 13% of the population, and
  • The Low (Proletarians or Proles) – the remaining 85% of the population.

The Elite control every aspect of society through the elimination of personal freedoms, fear, and mind control, but according to the Elite this control is necessary to maintain the safety and security of the greater good. The Middle carries out the orders of the Elite. The Proles are viewed as mindless cattle that work, eat, sleep, and procreate. They’re just a commodity to the Party.

Even the language is controlled. It’s continually being simplified. Words are being eradicated or concatenated into a language known as Newspeak. The idea is that if there is not a word for it, then it does not exist. Reading and expressing your own views (verbally or in writing) are outlawed. Individualism is not allowed.

“To do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous. There was a word for it in Newspeak: ownlife, it was called, meaning individualism and eccentricity.”

The masses are under constant surveillance through telescreens, wiretapping and hidden cameras. The only time they have alone is when they are sleeping, and even then a word uttered against the Party could have one arrested by the Thought Police for a thoughtcrime.

BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.”

The government of Oceania established four ministries to maintain control over the people. The names reflect the brainwashing methods of the Inner Party:

1. Ministry of Truth (news)

The Party controls the media and thereby controls the “truth.” The past is continually being rewritten (fabrication, not truth) to reflect favorably on the Party, and any evidence to the contrary is eradicated.

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

2. Ministry of Peace (war),

Oceania is constantly at war (not at peace) with one of the other superpowers.  This endless war is a means to keep the people under control. The angst felt at the loss of their personal freedoms is directed, or rather misdirected, at one of the other superpowers. They are too busy preparing for or thinking about war to believe otherwise.

“Heavy physical work, the care of the home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer, and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.”

3. Ministry of Plenty (economic affairs),

Basic human needs like food and water are under the control of the Party. Food is scarce, not plenty. The Party employs self-preservation as a powerful influence over the masses.

4. Ministry of Love (law and order)

Psychological and physical torture (not love) is used to punish any acts of rebellion against the Party. The Ministry of Love is located in a building where there are no windows. It’s continually bathed in light. Since one cannot distinguish between night and day, the passage of time is unknown. The following sentence appears early in the novel and gives the reader a feeling of hope, but by the end it is evident that it refers to something completely different.

“We shall meet in the place where this is no darkness.”

The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a member of the Outer Party who works for the Ministry of Truth where he rewrites history to cast a favorable light on the Party. He seems to be the everyman hero at the beginning of the novel. There is nothing unique about him other than his desire to write down his own thoughts, to dream of a better life, but in this Orwellian society those desires are quite extraordinary. He purchases a journal in secret and writes his thoughts in it with his back to the telescreen. That act alone could have him arrested by the Thought Police, but he goes further with the declaration of “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” at great personal risk of being “vaporized” (eradicated from existence). Readers will immediately root for him.

Orwell created a world so believable and prophetic that it is actually quite frightening. Don’t think so? We only have to look at the recent past, the era just prior to the time the book was written, for an answer. It happened during the Third Reich with the rise of Hitler. An entire nation was brainwashed through propaganda into dehumanizing the Jewish population, and we know the unspeakable atrocities that followed. Who says it cannot happen again?

It is often beneficial to reread books. You gain new insights based on your own life experiences since that first reading or you may make odd connections like I did. When I read the following sentence, I shook my head in disbelief. I’ll explain why in a moment. First, the sentence:

“He had been appointed to a sub-committee of a sub-committee which had sprouted from one of the innumerable committees dealing with minor difficulties that arose in the compilation of the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak dictionary.”

What is so compelling about this passage? For most of you, probably not much, but for me it could have been taken from a scene in my life. When I was working in the financial services industry, I received an e-mail from my boss letting me know that I had been appointed to the subcommittee of the committee to report on reportable events and would need to take part in a weekly conference (paraphrased except the words in italics which are verbatim, yes really). I wish I had a copy of the e-mail as proof, but it only exists in my mind (readers of the book will appreciate the reference here). I thought my boss was playing a joke on me, so I sent a reply to him saying as much. But, the subcommittee of the committee was, in fact, real. I had to sit through a meeting (via conference call with members in other cities) and listen as the other twenty plus members droned into the phone, “I have nothing to report.” Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.

This novel is complex and thought-provoking. Although it was written in 1948 about the future, and 1984 has long since passed, it is still relevant today. I believe the author intended it to be a warning of what could be. It will leave you with a feeling of deep concern about the danger inherent in giving up too much personal freedom. I highly recommend this book.

5 of 5 stars