Thursday, August 26, 2010

Review: Risen by Jan Strnad

Risen is one of a growing genre of 'self-published' books which had previous life as a print release from a traditional publisher. This re-release by the author is under his real name (Pinnacle Books published it under the byline of 'J. Knight') and includes some bonus short stories.

'Risen' a fun, fast horror tale. In a small town called Anderson, a long-suffering woman kills her scumbag husband---quite definitively---and is shocked when he comes back to life again, seemingly fitter and happier than before. But he's not the only one...

A reporter and his local cub, a troubled lad named Tom who has own demons, pursue the truth in classic horror-tale fashion. The depiction of small-town life was excellent, but most of the characters proved a little too cardboard after a time. This is definitely a plot-and-action centered story. It reminded me a little of early Dean Koontz---not the depth of some of his classier stuff, necessarily, but good old adventure stories with evil forces and out-of-their-depth Everypeople trying to fight them. Not the sorts of books you remember for the ages, but fun reads for what they are.

I have been asked to comment on formatting---I generally don't notice it, but I did find the formatting a bit sloppy on this book. The chapter headings all had a larger font to distinguish them, but there was no extra spacing to indicate a break. It just ran together a little. An extra paragraph break at the end of the chapter would have made this book look a lot nicer.

I save my 5/5 for books with a little more staying power than this one. But for what it is---a good old-fashioned genre read---it was very good. I give it a 4/5 and my strong recommendation.

1001 Kids Books to Read Before You Grow Up

I came across a book by this name at Indigo the other day, and had no trouble finding a list of the thousand books mentioned. Some of them were predictable. Some of them were titles I had never heard of. And almost 100 of them are in the public domain. I put together a clickable list of these below for your enjoyment. Happy reading!

Works of Beatrix Potter by Beatrix Potter

Grimms's Fairy Tales by the Grimm Brothers

A Visit from Saint Nicholas by Clement C. Moore

Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen

Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear

Max and Maurice by Heinrich Busch

The Magic Fishbone by Charles Dickens

A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Blue Fairy Book by Andrew Lang

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

Perez the Mouse by Luis Coloma

Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling

The Dutch Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins

The Adventures of Maya the Bee by Waldemar Bonsels

The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsey

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett

Aesop's Fables by Aesop

Arabian Nights by Unknown

Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb

The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

The Cuckoo Clock by Mrs. Molesworth

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

Nobody's Boy by Hector Malot

Uncle Remus Stories by Joel Harris

The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain

Pinocchio by Carlo Collidi

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde

The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde

Moonfleet by J. Meade Falkner

The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Five children and It by E. Nesbit

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin

The Bobbsey Twins by Laura Lee Hope

A Little Princess by Francis Hodgson Burnett

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M. Barrie

Cautionary Tales of Children by Hilarie Belloc

Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-Burglar by Maruice Leblanc

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Pollyana by Eleanor H. Porter

The Young Visiters by Daisy Ashford

The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting

Just William by Richmal Crompton

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas

The Children of the New Forest by Frederick Marryat

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Rose and the Ring by William Makepeace Thackeray

Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes

The Coral Island by Robert Ballantyne

Eric, or Little by Little by Frederic Farrar

Captain Fracasse by Theophile Gautier

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

The Fifth Form at St. Dominics by Talbot Reed

With Clive in India by George Henty

Kidnapped by Robert L. Stevenson

Heart by Edmondo de Amicis

Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

White Fang by Jack London

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

The Fortunes of Philippa by Angela Brazil

Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

A Girl of The Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter

Emily Climbs by L. M. Montgomery

See also: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Review: Prestwick by David Hough

Prestwick by David Hough is decently-written adventure novel. Two planes collide in mid-air---a passenger 747 with 400 people, and a military plane. Neither can land at Prestwick, the nearest airport, because a top-secret experimental vessel is having an emergency too...

Hough clearly knows his plane jargon, and he describes the technicalities well for the layperson reader. But the book---well-written though it is---was a tad long for me. I felt like we were witnessing the same conversations over and over again. If I saw one more chapter where the pilot radios his rescue plane, states that he must land at Prestwick and is told he may not (and in subsequent conversations, that he 'still' may not) I was ready to scream. We get it. We got it the last three times we read it too. The novel could have benefited from a tiny bit more editing.

And on another pacing note, a sub-plot about a murdered stewardess got off to an intriguing start and then fizzled. We know who had done it too early on. It would have been better, plot-wise, if Hough had allowed his investigator character to flesh out those events via mid-flight investigating, rather than through flashbacks, as he did. But again, that is a judgment call. Hough was clearly not aiming to write a detective novel---it may have been a better read, for me, if he had been, but that would have been a somewhat different story.

Some characters were very well-realized. And Hough had a deft hand with the technicalities of the mid-air emergency and with making the reader feel they were right up there with those pilots in that dramatic situation. For that reason, I give the book a 3/5 and put it above some of the other books I've read. Had I been the editor, I might have tightened things up a little and removed some of the redundant scenes. And I might have encouraged Hough to play up the mystery novel aspect a little more. But the book, as it is, is still a half-decent adventure.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The ebook drinking game

This is too good not to share...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Review: Tied in by Lee Goldberg

Happy weekend, everyone! Time for another Smashwords review. Tied in: The Business, History and Craft of Media Tie-in Writing edited by Lee Goldberg is a non-fiction title I found via a thread on Mobile Read. It's a collection of essays from authors who write media tie-in novels. As someone who has read such novels, mostly of the Star Trek and Buffy sort, some of the names of the contributors were already familiar to me, and I was curious to learn more about how these books get written.

As with most anthologies, some of the chapters were better than others. There were several standout essays. The first, by Max Allan Collins, dealt with a movie tie-in he wrote in which the movie was based on one of his own novels. It proved to be a frustrating experience for him because he had to show fidelity to the movie and his status as creator of the original property did not afford him any special privileges. He found it frustrating to try and flesh out the movie script based on his own insider knowledge only to have the producers of the movie reject some of his unscripted material.

Another standout chapter was a lengthy roundtable discussion that featured several of the many contributors answering questions as a group. They discussed all aspects of plotting and writing media tie-in novels. One observation I found interesting was a discussion on original characters. As a reader, I have sometimes found such characters boring; you buy the book to read about the Star Trek people, or the Buffy people or whomever. But since the tie-in authors are for obvious reasons constrained from killing off a major character or otherwise introducing a major change in them, an original character is often their only chance to spotlight any sort of character growth during a story. So for them, these original characters serve an important function in the book which, as a reader, I had not considered.

Other excellent chapters included Elizabeth Massie writing about her 'The Tudors' novels; Donald Bain on his 'Murder, She Wrote' series; Nancy Holder on her 'Buffy' experiences And Alina Adams on writing soap opera tie-ins, including in website form.

Overall, I give this book only four stars because some of the chapters were not quite up to par for me. This is the risk you run with any multi-author collection! If you have ever written fanfic or read Star Trek novels or been curious as to how this interesting sub-genre works, this is the book for you. It's a quick, light read with some food for thought for anyone who enjoys these types of books.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Why a blog? And an FAQ answer...

A question came up at Mobile Read asking me why I am blogging these reviews instead of simply posting them at Smashwords. Here was my reply:

1) Smashwords is a huge site to browse and not all the books have reviews (in fact, most of them do not). I wanted to create a convenient aggregator of ONLY books with reviews to narrow the field and make people feel less like they are wading through the world's biggest slushpile. I am in essence creating a curated sub-collection of only reviewed books.

2) Many of the reviews on Smashwords that do exist are not detailed, objective or critical. I am aiming to write 'proper' reviews, not just one-liners, shills or only positive comments. I am doing this to help *customers* buy and choose books, so I am not interested on posting reviews just because I know an author or have any stake in the books myself.

3) Doing it as a blog allows people to immediately see if there is new content by subscribing to an RSS feed. Smashwords does not have an RSS feed for new reviews. And, as I said, a lot of the reviews on Smashwords, when they do exist, are not helpful. And a lot of readers feel frustrated with having to wade through the massive, massive slog that is Smashwords just to find a few books that do have reviews or are of acceptable quality.

4) Other efforts I have seen to 'promote' indie authors are pretty much vehicles for self-promotion. My blog is different because I do personally read and review every book (i.e. I don't just post press releases) and because I am not affiliated with any authors.

I appreciate that Smashwords does offer the capability to leave reviews, and I do plan to leave a rating and short comment for every book I read. But my goal is to separate out the books I review, not to just have them exist as part of this larger set. I am creating a curated collection of books I have personally reviewed.

Now, on to one other FAQ-ish matter, there have been a few authors who have left comments saying 'I appreciate you may not post this since you moderate the comments, but can I send you a code for my book?' Yes, you can, and I will happily read it if it interests me. But please do not be offended if I say 'no thanks' should the summary twig my radar that your book might not be my style, and please do not get impatient of the review takes some time appearing. I have a massive TBR pile and am just dipping in and choosing what strikes my mood. It may take some time before I get to everything!

And finally, if you are an author and you do want to comment on any of the posts here, please be respectful that this blog is not a venue for self-promotion. A sig line indicating that you have a book yourself is fine, but the content of your comment should be about the review in question (for example, if you too read the book and have something to say about it) and not about your own book. Comments such as 'great review, love your blog, and check out my book, here is the link' will not be posted :) I am trying to strike a fair balance here---I am all for promoting the indie cause, but the purpose behind the Smashwords pledge is to honestly review a sample of the Smashwords collection as one reader to another. It's for the readers, in other words. Have a sig line if you want to, but please show respect and do not engage in author promos here. If you want to send a press release or promo to me personally, you may do so, as I outlined above.

Review: Learn me Good by John Pearson

Welcome to my second Smashwords review! Today's book is Learn me Good by John Person and unfortunately, it's not as glowing as my last one. The premise seemed promising enough: an engineer-turned-teacher recounts his exploits in the classroom to a former colleague in a series of 'humourous' emails. There is one positive review up on Smashwords already, from somebody who found the book hilarious, but adds that she does not work with kids and does not read in this genre.

Well, I do work with kids, and I do read in this genre. And while I can't fault Mr. Pearson for his grammar and overall polish, I have to admit that I just didn't find most of his stories very funny. A lot of what he recounts is fairly standard teacher stuff: a new kid joins the class mid-year and clashes with a child who is already there. A new kid joins the class who has a funny name. A kid does something wrong and lies to your face about it, or lies to their parent's face about it, or lies to your face about what they told their parent's face and so on. A kid gives a 'creative' answer when you ask them something.

Meh. I keep a blog about teaching, mostly as a means of sharing self-created lessons with other teachers using the same curriculum program as me, and most of my stories are the same, or better. And I found his relentless leanings to the cutesy tiresome---'clever' nicknames about, and there are puns everywhere. It was just too much. And it was especially too much when there was no plot to speak of and all you had to look forward to was an endless parade of sameness about kids with funny names giving you smart answers to the sorts of questions which populate a third-grade standardized test.

If you don't work with kids, this might not all sound so run of the mill to you. But as a teacher who sees all of this stuff on a routine basis, none of what he writes about here was terribly unique or interesting. This book needed a stronger narrative drive, a serious toning down of the cutesy, and just overall better content. I give this a 3/5, and in my opinion, that is generous. If you want to read two really excellent books on children and teaching, I recommend this one and this one instead.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Review: Radium Halos by Shelley Stout

"A whole person's life is something like a war. After you fight in a war, you can't help but be different in some way, but folks change just from living through hardships and sorrows and angers too. Also, like a war, nobody really wins, but life goes on anyway."
---Radium Halos by Shelley Stout

Welcome to my first Smashwords book of the week. Radium Halos by Shelley Stout is a historical fiction novel based on the true story of the Radium Girls---factory workers from the 1920s who were hired to paint the dials of clocks and watches with luminous radium paint to make them glow in the dark. The girls were coached to lick the brushes in order to get a finer point, and many became ill from the radium paint they ingested.

The narrator of this fictional novel is Helen, a sweet but slow woman who worked in the factory as a teenager with a friend and with her sister Violet. A terrible accident occurred during that fateful summer which swore the girls into a pact of silence about even the fact that they were there, a pact which persisted through the deaths of both Violet and her friend Clara over the intervening years. The now-widowed and childless Helen is 65 and lives a rootless life, moving back and forth between a mental hospital and the home of her sour niece Pearl, who has learned about the radium dial factory and is trying to uncover the 'truth' about her mother's death.

The novel is polished and well-written, and full of interesting characters. Pearl manages to be both disagreeable and ultimately sympathetic; Helen wavers between sweetly naive and trenchantly observant. Adrienne, on-again-off-again sweetheart to Pearl's disagreeable son Tony, offers a whiff of girl power to the struggling Helen at an opportune time. The feeble Benjamin, son to Clara, shows different sides of himself to all three of the central women. And driving the narrative are Helen's memories of that summer at the factory. Minor characters such as Pearl's fiance and son, are less developed; I think Stout does better with the women.

Helen narrates in a sort of simple person's dialect that might be wearying for those who don't enjoy such things, but the voice is consistently maintained and definitely not gratuitous. The author appears to have done her research on the historical details and thankfully glosses over aspects of the story that would have bogged the narrative down (for example, the court cases the women fought to get their medical treatment paid for is mentioned but not covered in great detail). I felt that the real star of the story was Helen though. She as a character will stick with me more than the over-riding story of the Radium Girls.

High marks for a Smashwords novel! I definitely recommend this one, without hesitation. A great start to my year of Smashwords reading!