I’ve posted a summary of The Third and the first three chapters online. You can read those chapters here to see if the book is something you’d be interested in reviewing.
Thanks in advance for your interest.
I’ve posted a summary of The Third and the first three chapters online. You can read those chapters here to see if the book is something you’d be interested in reviewing.
Thanks in advance for your interest.
A Series of Unfortuante Events #8: The Hostile Hosptial by Lemony Snicket
I've been reading this series of books to the kids before they go to bed every night. The first four or so seemed to be pretty much the same. However, they've been getting much better as the series goes on. This one was by far the best. And the older three are pretty much glued to the book when I read. Always a good sign. 4 starts out of 5.
Hour Game by David Baldacci
I like most of Baldacci's books but was disappointed in this one. Most of the characters felt flat and I had a hard time caring about them. A little more sexual tension King and Maxwell would have made their relationship more believable. And there were just some scenes (bullets colliding in midair) that seemed too far fetched. Baldacci's a good writer but I recommend checking out his other books first. 2 stars out of 5.
The Secret Knowledge by David Mamet
Like all of Mamet's works, this book isn't a light read. Like a rich dessert, It's best read (or re-read) a chapter at a time so you can absorb the material then come back to more when you're hungry. It's also the first politically themed book I've read that written in a stream of consciousness like way. The best part of the book was seeing ideas expressed through the prism of a reformed liberal. The chapter about him giving a lecture at a prominent university is especially revealing on what a complete failure liberal arts education has become. The only place I found the book lacking and would have enjoyed reading more was his personal journey from a liberal to a conservative. 4 starts out of 5.
Note: Be sure to read the Update/Correction below.
Most of my published author friends have a book or two that’s saved on their hard drive that will never see the light of day. They’re usually books that the author wrote early in their careers—usually before they had any kind of publishing contract. They could never find a publisher for the novel (or didn’t try) and moved on to other projects. Though the books were never published, they served as good learning experiences for the authors on what to do (or what not to do) when writing fiction.
I have one of these “learning” books on my hard drive. Between Room for Two and The Third, I wrote a novel titled Angel of Light. It was my first real attempt to write a novel and I’ll flat out admit that it sucks. However, writing Angel of Light was a good learning experience for me. It taught me that I write better with an outline, that I need to work on my dialogue, and that I do a decent job hooking the reader at the end of every chapter. Without putting effort into writing that book, odds are The Third would have never been good enough to find a publisher.
One of the lessons most these author friends have continually taught is not to be tempted to rewrite these books or resubmit them for publication no matter how much the author is in love with them. Why? Because making these books public generally drags down an author’s career not only in terms of sales but loyal readers. Once an author puts crap out there, he or she risks that it will be the first book a reader picks up. And if the book is awful, odds are they’re never going to touch another one of your books again. That’s why, aside from Marathon Girl, no one will ever read Angel of Light. I will never rewrite it or even attempt to have it published. It will remain on my computer until they pry it from my cold, dead fingers. (Even then I hope to have the presence of mind to nuke that part of the hard drive before I pass on.)
So it’s sad when a talented author like Harlan Coben makes this mistake with his novel Play Dead. I like Coben’s novels and have been reading them voraciously since I discovered his books last year. But Play Dead is a torture to read. The characters have no depth and the reader hardly cares about them. The dialogue sucks. The plot had enough big holes that a three 747s could easily fly through them. The only reason I kept reading the book was because I thought there was no way the book could get any worse.
I was wrong. It got worse. Way worse. When I done reading it, I felt like I had been forced to watch Glitter and Gigli at the same time! As a result there are hours of my life and a million brains cells that I’ll never get back.
Granted, Coben warns the reader at the beginning of the book that he hasn’t “read Play Dead in at least twenty years” and that “it’s exact book I wrote when I was in my early twenties, just a naive lad working in the travel industry….”He also accurately compares the book to “that essay you wrote when you were in school, the one that got you an A-plus on, the one your teacher called “inspired”—and one day you’re going through your drawer and you find it and you read it and your heart sinks and you say, ‘Man, what was I thinking?’”
My question to Coben is this: since you knew this book sucked, what were you thinking by publishing it? Play Dead reads just like one of those novels that never should have been published—EVER. Even you seem to know this but pushed it through anyway? Are you short on cash? Is someone blackmailng you?
I only wish I had read the warning before I started reading chapter 1 because I never would have read it otherwise.
For readers, unless you’re looking for 101 class on how not to write a novel, avoid even touching Play Dead. Your brain cells will thank you for it.
Update/Correction: Harlan Coben came across this review and emailed me a correction that I’ll pass on. Apparently Play Dead was Coben’s first novel and was published back in 1990. The version I was reading is a 2010 reprint. It’s NOT a book that he pulled out of the drawer after 20 years and decided to push through the publishing mill.
This error was my mistake. After I finished reading Play Dead and seeing how it wasn’t even close to the quality of other Coben novels I’ve read, I flipped to the beginning of the novel where I read his author’s note. After reading that and seeing the 2010 copyright date, I wrongly assumed it was something he decided to publish after he had become a successful writer.
So, I apologize for the misunderstanding, Mr. Coben. I appreciate you taking the time to email me and offer the correction. So you know, I’ve enjoyed every other book of yours thus far and am looking forward to reading Live Wire when it’s released in March. Had I known this was your first novel when I was reading it, I would have been a bit more understanding as a reader. You’re a talented writer and have come a long way since Play Dead.
For readers, I retract the reasons behind the publication of Play Dead but stand by my review of the book. It isn’t Coben’s finest work.If you’re interested in reading his novels, I suggest starting with some of his standalone novels like Just One Look or Hold Tight. If you enjoy those, then check out his Myron Bolitar novels staring with Deal Breaker.
For a note about book reviews, click here.
Q: What do you get if you throw sci-fi, fantasy, history, and a smattering of theology together into a 300-page novel?
A: The Thorn by Daron Fraley.
When I first heard about The Thorn back in February, I was apprehensive about reading it because I worried that like many books with a religious theme, the theological ideas would overwhelm the plot, characters, and general storytelling. And though I’m fine with religious elements and characters in books, often they turn good novels and stories into sermons—something that I have a difficult time reading.
Thankfully The Thorn doesn’t fall into this trap. Though a religious idea is the starting point for the novel, Fraley does a good job of making the theology a subtle part of the story and does it in such a way that someone who doesn’t believe in the idea won’t be turned off by it.
The novel’s biggest strength is its descriptions of people and places. You can see the world of Gan, it’s towns and countryside as well as the people like you are watching a movie. In the descriptions you’ll also find a plethora of symbolism woven throughout. Each chapter was like going on your own little treasure hunt to see what symbols Fraley was hiding. The battle scenes were well done without being overly gruesome.
There are a few places where the narrative feels a bit forced in order for meet some of the theological aspects of the books and a few events that seemed a little too coincidental. But these are minor complaints for an otherwise enjoyable book.
Because The Thorn seamlessly blends several genres together it’s hard to classify let along say who I’d recommend it to. However, you should be able to read the first two or three chapters and get an idea of this book is something you’d enjoy. Fraley’s prose and descriptions are good enough that you should make it that far. You can read the first chapter of The Thorn here.
4 stars (out of 5) for The Thorn by Daron Fraley
Even though I love history, I rarely read historical fiction. The reason? I’d rather read a well-written historical account of real people than a book about made up people living during past events. But when asked if I was interested in an advance reader’s copy of Am I not a Man? The Dred Scott Story I agreed to read and review it since I was curious to see if Utah Attorney General, Mark Shurtleff, could pull off a compelling account of a real people and events and put them into novelized form.
Much to my surprise, Shurtleff did a good job of weaving his research with his storytelling abilities. The result is a compelling read that tells the story of Dred Scott while examining the complex issue of slavery in the United States.
(For those who need of a quick history refresher, Dred Scott was slave who sued for his freedom. The result was the infamous Dred Scott v. Stanford decision where the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that persons of African descent could not be considered citizens of the United States under the U.S. Constitution.)
Am I not a Man? gives a detailed and fascinating account of the life of Scott and his fight for freedom and equality. What makes the book worth reading isn’t just learning about Scott’s undying desire to become a free man, but the human face Shurtleff puts on Scott, his family, his supporters, and his enemies. People are always complex creatures and Shurtleff does a good job of making Scott and others come alive in the book.
Shurtleff also does an excellent job of describing the complex issue of slavery and the strong emotions it evoked in people on both sides of the debate. After reading Am I not a Man? it’s easier to understand why the issue tore families apart and let to the costliest war the United States has ever fought.
Since Shurtleff is an attorney, he does a great job of unraveling the reasons behind the Supreme Court’s decision and examining the legal and political consequences—the biggest one being the election of our nation’s greatest president—Abraham Lincoln. But even when talking about reasons for the decision, Shrutleff is able to telling them in such a way that the reader is seldom, if ever, bored.
My only complaint with the book is I wanted to know how much literary license Shrutleff took some of the characters and certain incidents in the book. Shurtleff does go out of his way to say that the book is historical fiction and based upon real people and his own research and that some liberties had to be taken—just not how much. (So, Mark, if you ever read this, I’d love to sit down with you and talk about how you weaved this story together. It’s more to satiate my own curiosity about the writing process.)
Despite this one issue, I found the book to be a worthwhile read and would recommended it not only to those who enjoy historical fiction but also to those who enjoy stories of people with unconquerable spirits to fight injustice and inequality.
The lessons of Am I not a Man? are just as relevant today as they were during Scott’s life. Freedom is something that is easily taken away but not easily regained. The fight for freedom is difficult to obtain and often takes a lifetime of blood, sweat, and tears to achieve. Scott’s story is a good reminder that freedom comes with a price and we should always be vigilant to protect it.
Four stars (out of five) for Am I not a Man? The Dred Scott Story by Mark Shurtleff.
UPDATE: The publisher is classifying Am I not a Man as an historical novel rather than historical fiction. The history is accurate but the literary license Shurtleff was in the dialogue.
Ever since the late wife died, I've had a hard time reading fiction where the main character is a widow or widower. Thought the authors try hard, most of them don't do a good job of capturing what it's like to lose a spouse. Oh sure, most of them do a good job describing the sense of loss and grief that accompanies the death of a spouse, but when it comes to the internal emptiness that comes with it, most of them fall short.
So when I learned that Gail Graham's latest novel, Sea Changes, was about a widow living in Australia who is struggling to move on with her life two years after her husband's death, I was tempted to pass on the book without even reading it. The last thing I wanted was wade through page after page of self-pity.
Thankfully, I decided to give the book a chance.
Sea Changes is about American expatriate Sarah Andrews. She lives alone in a small house. She's mostly estranged from her two children. Despite living in Australia for thirty-some-odd years she still hasn't adjusted to life in Sydney. She stays in Australia only because her daughter lives there. Sarah's only real human contact comes from weekly therapy sessions with a psychologist named Kahn. Despite seeing him for nearly two years, he's been of little help. Most of her therapy sessions involve her talking and Kahn saying very little and abruptly ending the sessions on time.
Thinking that life holds little purpose for her, Sarah decides to swim far enough out to sea that she'll be too tired to return and drown. But as her strength fails her, a girl names Bantryd appears and takes her to an underwater world. Later Sarah wakes up on the beach and wonders if everything she has just experienced was a dream. The incident prompts a change in Sarah. She begins to see more of a purpose in the world. She also is determined to find out if the underwater world she visited was real or simply her imagination.
Graham does a great job of capturing the feelings that come years after losing a spouse. However, she's smart enough not to make widowhood the focus of her story. Instead the story is really about the journey that comes when life suddenly changes. It's about rebirth and learning that even when we're left alone in the world, there are people and places waiting to be discovered if only we take a step out of our day-to-day routines.
In fact, the most satisfying part of the book was seeing how Sarah finally became her own woman and changed from a woman who saw no purpose in life to one where she wasn't going to let anyone tell her what to do. And the best part? The book had the one of the best ending to a novel that come across in years. It doesn't matter if you've never lost a spouse or never read a fantasy novel in your entire life. Graham has written a beautiful novel that will stay with me for years.
5 stars (out of five) for the unforgettable book Sea Changes.
One of the nice things about being a published author is that you get offers to read books before their available in bookstores. Sadly, I have to turn most of the book offers down simply because between working full time and trying to finish my novel, I don’t have as much time to read. Occasionally, a trusted friend recommends a book and I read it. Such is the case with Stacy Gooch Anderson’s The Santa Letters.
To be honest, I’m not much for Christmas-themed books. No, I’m not a Grinch, but I find a lot of Christmas the books to be pretty much the same in terms of message, story, and character. You know, someone finds the true meaning of Christmas and everyone lives happily ever after. However since a friend whose opinion I trust said I should read it, I agreed to review it.
The Santa Letters came and that night while I was writing, Marathon Girl asked if she could read it. I handed her the book and went back to my writing.
“Do you know what this book’s about?” Marathon Girl asked after reading the first two chapters.
“Santa Letters?” I said looking up from my computer.
Marathon Girl rolled her eyes. “No, I mean did you know about the main character? Is that why you agreed to review the book?”
“I don’t know anything about him,” I said.
“The main character’s a woman. Her name’s Emma Jensen.”
“What about Emma?”
“She’s a young widow with four kids.”
“Yeah, her husband was killed in a hit-and-run accident on Christmas Eve. The book takes place a year later. Basically her life’s fallen apart since her husband died and she’s hoping that her four kids will have a happy Christmas.”
I held my hand out and Marathon Girl handed me the book.
“It looks like I’m not going to see this book again until you’re done reading it,” Marathon Girl said picking up another book in her nightstand.
I nodded and started to read the book. Fair or not, I knew that I was going to judge the book by 1) how believable the widow character was and 2) whether or not she was able to get some sort of closure to her husband’s death and move on with her life.
*** Warning: Spoilers Follow ***
After reading the first few chapters, I was worried. Not only has Emma lost her husband and cry herself to sleep every night but just about everything that could go wrong in her life has gone wrong too. Can’t the fact that her husband died be enough? Do we have to put her just about every other imaginable hardship too? The Santa Letters was starting to read like an Upton Sinclair novel. (No, that’s not a good thing.)
Thankfully, the tone of The Santa Letters began to change once a mysterious visitor begins leaving packages on the family doorstep in the days leading up to Christmas. Instead of simply providing things that the family needs, each package contained things designed help Emma and her children heal from their loss and forgive the man responsible causing the death of their husband/father. Yes, each package comes with a letter “signed” Santa Claus but in reality, the directions and thoughts contained in each letter is one that individual family members need to follow in order to find happiness and peace.
The best part about The Santa Letters, however, is Emma. Anderson does a great job creating a realistic young widow character. Emma tries her best to maintain a strong face when she’s with her children but crumbles under the pressure of grief and providing for her family and when she’s alone. The scenes where Emma is forced to confront her anger about being left to raise the kids and wondering if she can last another day are real and poignant. But her true character is revealed when she has to make the decision whether or not she can truly forgive her the man who accidently took her husband’s life and move on.
From a plot perspective, the book doesn’t contain any unexpected turns or twists. It is a Christmas book, after all. But, thankfully, The Santa Letters it’s more than your standard Christmas book. It’s really a book about healing, forgiveness, and finding peace. It was well worth the read several months before Christmas.
While in Arizona, I had a chance to catch up on some reading – something I don’t as much as I’d like since I’m in the middle of writing another book. However, with the laptop at home, I was able to spend an hour or two reading while the kids slept. Back in February, Marathon Girl and I bought his latest book, The Watchman, on a whim and both really enjoyed it so I was glad to have another one of his books to read. Crias is a good writer and one I recommend if you haven’t tried his books already.
So while the kids were sleeping I read The Last Detective by Robert Crais. The Last Detective is a fun, page turner that centers on private investigator Elvis Cole’s attempt to locate his girlfriend’s son who was kidnapped from Cole’s house. Cole, with the aid of his partner Joe Pike, goes on three days of a no-sleep fueled mission to find the boy and return him safely to his mother. With an intriguing set of characters and a well developed and fast-paced plot, it’s a read and one that actually makes you cringe whenever you think the boy’s going to be hurt. Though I thought the “twist” in the book was a little too obvious, Crias shows his skill as a writer by delivering an emotional but realistic ending and that gave the book a satisfying conclusion.
As far as the detective fiction goes, I like Michael Connelly better – but not by much. Crais’s books (the two I’ve read anyway) are more testosterone charged then Connelly’s novels which makes them faster paced and a little more exciting. Connelly, however, does a better job on character development. But, like Connelly, Crais is an excellent writer and manages to keep his the plot moving forward while telling an engaging and fun-filled story.
I’m looking forward to reading more of his books as soon as I’m done with my novel.
With all the other writing I’m doing, I never have time to write reviews of the books I read. I will try to do better. Please note I’ve changed from four star reviews to five star reviews so they match up with my ratings at GoodReads. (And if you like books, get your butt over to goodreads.com, set up an account, and start sharing your thoughts about books you love and hate with friends. You can also see what books I’ve read so far this year, what I’m currently reading, and what’s on my shelf to read.)
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Generally I find books that win prestigious prizes either 1) boring and/or 2) a bunch of literary drivel. The only reason I bothered to read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction) was because it came recommended by a friend whose opinion I trust.
I’m glad I did. This book had me riveted from beginning to end.
The book is about a father and young son who journey through a post-apocalyptic world (North America?) trying to survive in a world that is seemingly without plant or animal life of any kind. Cities are empty. Food is scarce. The only other people are those who are also trying to survive. The survivors they encounter will do anything to keep surviving.
Even without learning the names of a single character, where they are traveling to (the California coast?), and what caused the world as we know it to end (nuclear war?), McCarthy creates vivid portraits of two people trying to survive in a dangerous and dreary world. The father’s constant pursuit of finding a better place – one where they can survive – is driven by his love for his son and the hopes that his son can, one day, have a better life. In a world where everyone else has lost their humanity, the father does his best to keep some sort of civilized quality to their meager existence.
McCarthy’s writing is short and to the point but carries a strong poetic quality to it. He’s also able to paint a picture of a truly lifeless world in such a way that’s very haunting. Two months after I read it, I still think back to certain passages where he described the dead world and shudder. And even though the book paints a bleak portrait of humanity’s future, it does leave the reader with home that life will continue despite the awful world the characters find themselves in.
If you want a well-written, moving book without the literary pretense that comes with most award-winning books, then you’ll enjoy The Road.
Five stars (out of five) for a page-turning and unforgettable book.
My good friend Ryan has been razzing me for sometime over my absolute hatred of the ending I Am Legend (the book, not the movie). In the comments of a recent post where I named I Am Legend, the worst read of 2007 he wrote:
“I would speculate that this novelette written over 50 years ago, holds up better than 95% of the genre written in its time…. You said yourself that you enjoyed the read, but hated the ending. I think you really need to revisit the story. This is speculative fiction at its finest.”
Well, I don't think it’s bad speculative fiction though I don’t know if it’s the finest example that speculative fiction has to offer. It is, however, a very good one.
In any case, I’m going to detail my problem with the ending of the book and contrast it with the ending of the movie and explain why I listed it as the worst read last year.
Warning: Spoilers for both the book and the movie follow.
The general plot of the book centers on a character named Robert Neville who is the last human on the planet. The rest of humanity has been afflicted by a virus that has changed them all into vampire/zombie creatures. Neville spends his nights inside his vampire-proof house while the undead creatures roam around his house attempting to find a way in. During the day scavenges for supplies, repairs damage to his house, and looks for any other human survivors.
During the course of the novel we learn about Neville and start to care about him. He’s lost a wife and a child to this virus, hasn’t had any human contact for years, and at night tries to drown out the sounds of the vampire/zombie creatures that lurk outside.
One of the things he does to pass the time is hunt for these creatures during daylight hours. Unlike the movie, these creatures are languid and passive during the day so Neville never encounters a problem when he goes into homes or buildings to kill them with a stake through the heart. During the course of the novel he racks up an impressive kill count.
Then after an afternoon of creature killing, he spots a woman walking through a field in broad daylight. He chases her down and takes her back to his place. Later we find out that this woman is an anvanced type of vampire creature sent to spy on him. Through their own scientific inquiries, some of these vampires have found a way to be active and alive during daylight hours and are starting a new society and Neville is a threat to that society.
One night they arrive at his place, break down the door and take him captive. At the end of the book, Neville sits in prison and learns that he’s going to be executed. However, the vampire creature that was sent to spy on him takes pity and gives him some pills to end his life. He looks out the window at a street full of vampire/zombie creates. They are first are startled when they see him then stare at him silently.
And this is how the book ends:
Robert Neville looked out over the new people of the earth. He knew he did not belong to them; he knew that, like the vampires, he was anathema and black terror to be destroyed. And, abruptly, the concept came, amusing to him even in pain.
A coughing chuckle filled his throat. He turned and leaned against the wall while he swallowed the pills. Full circle, he thought while final lethargy crept into his limbs. Full circle. A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.
I am legend.
Is that a great ending or what? Our hero turns out to be the bad guy in this new world. Because he’s killed so many of these vampire creatures, he’s going to be the monster that these new creatures tell their children stories about. Neville is going to be the creature that gives vampire children nightmares. His legend is going to be one of death and terror.
Sure, it’s a creative ending and it’s not the imagination of Richard Matheson I have a problem with. The reason I hated the ending is because he took a character I somewhat cared about and gave him an ignominious death.
Death by suicide just as he realizes how these vampire/zombie creatures view him? Oh, please. That’ s no way for our hero or a monstrous “legend” to go. What’s the point in creating a character that the reader just might care about only to have him go out with a whimper? That’s what I call a big letdown.
At least in the movie when Neville dies, he dies for a cause and there’s a hope – albeit a small one – that humanity might continue and that these creatures might be turned back into humans. And the Neville character takes out as many of the creatures as he can when he dies in a fiery explosion. Now that’s the way to make an exit and the way the book should have ended as well.
By far the most common subject that fills my email box is from women who are dating widowers who, for one reason or another, refuse to give the girlfriend the love and affection she wants or are reluctant to commit to a more serious relationship.
It's usually assumed that the reason for his lack of commitment or affection is because the man is a widower and still grieving over the late wife. While that may be the case for one out of 20 emails, for the most part the widower is simply using his late wife death as an excuse to behave badly or their seemingly unwillingness to appreciate, value, and love these women. In reality, it doesn't matter how long the wife's been dead, if the widower truly loves another woman, he won't let anything hold him back from moving the relationship forward and treating the woman like she wants (and deserves) to be treated.
While my advice to these women is usually to end relationships that aren't going anywhere, it's been frustrating not having a good resource that I can recommend that can them identify relationships that aren't going anywhere or may be abusive before they become too emotionally involved with that person.
Fortunately, there's now a book that does just that.
Want to Marry A Good Man? Here's How! by Alisa Goodwin Snell is a complete guide to having the confidence to find a good man while being able to identify potentially abusive and how to know if a relationship is going anywhere within the first few weeks of dating someone.
(Full disclosure: I had Snell, a licensed marriage and family therapist, on my former radio show several times and read and provided feedback on early drafts of the book.)
Snell does an excellent job of identifying warning sings to watch for when you date someone and provides some good timelines to avoid rushing into a bad relationship. She also provides some excellent tips for flirting, acting confident when out on a date -- even if you're feeling insecure -- and making the man work for your love and the relationship instead of just giving it to him. Snell also provides great insight to the male mind and nails what men value in a relationship -- something a lot of women don't seem to know or act on.
Part of the reason I liked this book so much was because I thought a lot about my relationship with Marathon Girl while I was reading it -- especially the things that she did right that helped our relationship move forward. For example, after Marathon Girl decided she was willing to date a widower, she knew the importance of making me work for her love and prove to her that I was willing to form a new relationship with her instead of letting my love for the late wife hold me back. (For those who have read my book, contrast Marathon Girl's behavior with the girl I dated who basically threw herself at me.)
This book was also revelatory to me as it showed the commonality between Marathon Girl and my late wife and why I fell head over heels for her. (This will all be detailed in my next blog post.)
Want to Marry A Good Man doesn't contain the trite advice you'll find in most relationship books. Snell knows what she's talking about. As a guy I can tell you she knows what men like in women and how they think. Using this book as a guide can get women past the losers and jerks and on the right course to finding someone that will truly love them.
I highly recommend Want to Marry A Good Man not only to women who are dating widowers but any single women who are looking for a good man to have a lasting, long term relationship with (read: marriage).
This book was just released last month and, like my book, is still making its way to bookstores. Your best bet for purchasing a copy is via Amazon or other online bookstores such as Barnes & Noble though you can probably walk into any bookstore and ask them to order one.