Tag Archives: ARC

Epicureans and Pirates: a surprisingly enjoyable combination

I almost didn’t make it through Eli Brown’s new novel Cinnamon and Gunpowder. But I persevered and ended up falling for this pirate tale of abduction, tyranny, love, and of course, food.

cinnamon and gunpowderThe year is 1819, and the protagonist Owen Wedgwood is enjoying the safe and comfortable life as the personal chef for a shipping magnate, when one night his employer is brutally murdered by the ruthless pirate Mad Hannah Mabbot, who then takes poor Owen prisoner.

Owen secretly records his story in the journal he hides away in his small quarters aboard Mabbot’s ship.  He writes that his only option, if he values his life, is to cook a delicious meal for Mabbot once a week.  His resources are scant afloat on the ocean, and his inclination to oblige is equally small.  But oblige he does.  And in his more honest moments, he confesses that the challenge of creating delicacies against such adverse conditions is refreshing.  His love for food translates into mouth watering descriptions.  Placed against the salty, and barren backdrop of the wide ocean, Owen’s recipes become as much a salve to the reader as his meals do for Mad Mabbot.

This story is a swashbuckling ocean adventure where the pirates fight for treasure and kill for fun.  And just as Mabbot draws Owen deeper and deeper into her world, so too, did this book draw me in.  What initially was annoying to me (Owen’s diction), became endearing.  In fact, some of his musings were downright insightful.  My favorite is when he considers the depths of man’s depravity: “God dug no deeper pit that a man’s skull.”  And by the end, I was thoroughly enjoying my time aboard The Flying Rose, with its eclectic gathering of pirates.

This book is one for the beach, which is perfect, since summer is just about here.

Celebrate Lincoln

Looking for a way to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday by actually thinking about the 16th POTUS?  Don’t get me wrong, enjoying the holiday as a day off is a nice perk.  But by reading about this man, and learning a lot at the same time, I will be able to enjoy the BBQ in his honor a little more because it will mean more.  Taking the day for granted is easy.  Forgetting the details of history is a shame.  Exploring history through reading is a refreshing joy, and so I encourage you to spend a little time in Lincoln study by reading The Hour of Peril.

Hour of PerilThe Hour of Peril, by Daniel Stashower, is a non-fiction historical crime thriller.  John Wilkes Booth became famous for assassinating Lincoln, but what this book expertly reports is that there was a serious conspiracy to murder Abraham Lincoln years earlier.

Despite its historically grounded content, this book reads like a face paced fiction.  As Lincoln speeds across the union to the capitol for his first inauguration, Allan Pinkerton (and his team of undercover sleuths)  is creeping in the shadows ferreting out the plot details and identifying the conspirators.

In fact, the mini-biography of Allan Pinkerton and the story of how his work made him the first and foremost private detective in America is a joy unto itself.  I felt that the rest of the murder plot was a bonus to Pinkerton’s heroics.

My one complaint about this book reveals my lack of knowledge more than anything else.  Essentially, the union of the United States is on the brink of collapse and Lincoln has been elected President.  Before he is even able to take over his new post, the threats of the southern states are so strong that the civil war seems inevitable.  So Lincoln is trying to tenuously hold the nation together, and therefore is willing to expose himself to dangers by traveling openly across the country, reaching out the his fellow Americans.  What t he book doesn’t do is to provide a clear explanation of what states were friendly to the union, and thus to Lincoln, and what states were in favor of succession, and thus a threat to Lincoln. In other words, something as simple as a map delineating the north and south would have been extremely helpful for me.  But since this was truly my first foray into the study of the Civil War, there is so much that I did not know going in that it is hardly fair to hold this book responsible for my ignorance.

In all, I’d liken this book to Devil in the White City and Destiny of the Republic, both excellent historical non-fictions.

This book doesn’t fly

I have been away for a while.  This summer, I started a M.A. program in literature at UC Irvine.  So, even though I haven’t been blogging, I sure have been doing a lot of reading.  Over the 8 weeks of classes this summer, I was reading close to 6 hours a day.  Poems, short stories, novels, research articles; I was reading all of it and when it ended I was a little burned out on reading.  I took a few weeks off where I didn’t touch a book (despite being tired of reading, it was much harder to not read than I would have thought).  But now I am back and am reading regularly.  With that said, here is my latest review.

A great title.

A great concept.

A poorly executed story.
A Once Crowded Sky by Tom King is a disappointment.

Arcadia City, a typical metropolis, is the beneficiary of a plethora of superheroes.  The ultimate fighter of the group is none other than the metal man Ultimate.  His mechanical body makes him the perfect, indestructible, enemy of all things evil.  His sidekick, Penultimate, is an orphaned boy whose fatal wounds were healed when Ultimate fixed him with his own super-powered wires.

But when an evil force requires the ultimate sacrifice, Penultimate becomes the most powerful man on earth.  The trouble is, he isn’t sure he wants the responsibility.  He really just wants an ordinary life with his wife; he is through with the whole superhero business.

The premise is intriguing.  Strange blasts start destroying the city and the superheroes must join together in one last fight, otherwise evil will destroy everything.

The presentation is just as intriguing.  The story occasionally switches from prose to graphic novel style storyboards.  The art is top-notch, and I loved the idea of combining the two story telling styles.  But this book suffers from a very undeveloped plot.  The characters are flat and the conflict is convoluted and confusing.  The unique story telling can’t carry this book, and though I had great hope for it, I can’t recommend this book.

So many books so little time

I have just recently been sent copies of two books that I think look very interesting.  I will be excited to read them.  Unfortunately, I won’t be able to get to them for quite some time.  I will be starting my Master’s of Literature at UC Irvine this summer and I will be doing an incredible amount of reading.  So, check these books out and let me know what you think:

A Hundred Flowers by Gail Tsukiyama







and A Once Crowded Sky by Tom King

There are Very Bad Men in this world…

and their stories make for very good books.

Becoming an avid reader has introduced me to so many books I don’t think I would have otherwise taken an interest in.  Very Bad Men by Harry Dolan is one of those.  The cover is of an ace of diamonds dripping with a little blood against a gray background.  It is dark, mysterious, kinda gross, and frankly-a little boring.  Not the kind of book I would normally be drawn to.

Which is why I’m glad I gave this book a try.  It was a highly entertaining crime thriller.  It was fast paced, action packed, and believable.  David Loogan is not a cop.  He is an editor of a small crime magazine called Gray Streets but he finds himself being drawn into serial killer Anthony Lark’s world.

Loogan’s involvement begins when he finds a manuscript outside his office door.  The story is about three murders and begins with “I killed Henry Kormoran.”  The difference between this and many other stories is that this manuscript wasn’t fiction.  And so the manhunt begins.

This book is being sold as a sequel to Harry Dolan’s best-selling Bad Things Happen.  And while I haven’t read that one, and don’t think the plot line is impaired as a result, I will look forward to going back and reading it at some point.

Excellent suspense, Page-turning Adventure

While reading The Mullah’s Storm, by Thomas Young, images of my brother-in-law playing his Xbox kept circling through my head.  He enjoys playing first person shooters where a black ops, gun toting, knife wielding, bomb defusing, carnage creating hero blasts his way through obstacle after obstacle, while also being quiet enough to snipe an enemy at 1,100 yards in the middle of a storm.  And because of that I believe that this is a book he, and other military-adventure loving readers, would really enjoy.  It took on the tone, speed, and non-stop action of a war game and was a lot of fun to read.

In the first few pages a US military aircraft is taking off with very important cargo, a high ranking mullah.  [I have been surprised in the last few days that a few well informed, well educated people did not know what a mullah is; it is an Islamic religious teacher.]  The plane is leaving Afghanistan to take this prisoner somewhere very secure when it is shot out of the sky and crashes into the snow covered Hindu Kush, Afghanistan’s mountainous wilderness.  The co-pilot, Michael Parson, and Master Sergeant Gold, take the prisoner and flee into a storm the Americans call a 100 year storm since they haven’t ever seen it this bad.  The mullah claims this storm is an answer to his prayers, a way for Allah to protect him and bring vengeance on the Americans. 

But Parson and Gold are determined to keep their prisoner and stay alive.  Part of the adventure is the conflict with man, in this case the Taliban searching for their mullah.  The other conflict, nature, offers just as much excitement and drama. 

Young, a new novelist, tells his story like a pro.  He uses military terms with skill, making them sound natural while providing the needed context for ignorants like me.  The geographical descriptions are sufficient to get a clear picture of the immense battle Parson and Gold are up against.  And he does an excellent job of steering clear of the politics of the war.  In this story, the war simply is, the characters and survival are all that matter.  He doesn’t drag his story down by dwelling on the intricacies of war or the philosophical and religious reasons motivating the war.  He hints at these issues just enough with a broad swath that the characters are real and believable but not overly complex.  The deepest he gets is this (which I found to be a poignant reminder): “With all that’s riding on this mission, [Parson] realized, exhaustion is just another field condition.  One more thing to overcome in the protection of civilians sleeping soundly, warm, well-fed, and oblivious.”

Having never read a military styled novel, I was surprised at how thoroughly I enjoyed this quick read.  There is infrequent use of language, including the Big Ef, but none distracting from the story or unnecessary to the grittiness of the situation.  I gladly recommend this book.  It is for fans of military novels and anyone looking for an exciting adventure.


My memories of cold, winter nights growing up are colored in a warm glow.  I can hear the wind howling outside but the warmth from the fire erases all fears of wild weather.  And I remember playing chess with my dad. 

I used to love playing chess with my dad.  I don’t remember if we actually played all that often, but they were fond times to me.  I don’t remember if we were any good.  Who am I kidding?  I’m sure we were terrible and I’m sure that the only reason my dad won was because I was an impatient 11 year old.  The phase was short lived.  We must have gotten bored, and when the days warmed and lengthened we probably found other activities to fill the time.  I did try to play the chess game on my dad’s computer for a while, but loss after loss quickly turned me away.  And thus ended my experiences with chess…

until I read this new book, Endgame, by Frank Brady.  It is a biography of Bobby Fischer and it was surprisingly engaging.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Starting off, I only had the vaguest idea of who Bobby was-I knew he was a chess legend, I knew he was eccentric, I knew he was an outlaw, and I knew that someone in some movie was searching for him.  It turns out that pretty accurately sums him up. 

But this book thrives on the details of Bobby’s life.  It moves from his humble childhood in Brooklyn to his self-banishment from America to his neurotic end in Iceland.  It is in these details that Bobby becomes a much more likeable, sympathetic, though often pitiable person. 

As a boy, Bobby was recognized as a chess prodigy very early on.   At 13 he played a game that became known as “The Game of the Century.”  He quickly gained status as a Master (the youngest ever to do so) and established himself as a chess legend.  Yet the title of “The World Chess Champion” was not easily won and far too easily relinquished.  Bobby became a singular figure in America and spurred great interest in chess.  He even bordered on an American hero during the Cold War as he fought the Russians across a black and white board.  His personality, though, often overshadowed his chess prowess.

He was extremely demanding, meaning he made extreme demands, and then went to extremes to get his way.  He would sever friendships over simple issues.  He also bounced between Skid Row resident to multi-millionaire.  At times he seemed cold, mean, and psychotic.  But this biography also reveals the deeper details of his paradoxical life, which paint him in a much gentler way.  Bobby did have friends, many who remained loyal his whole life.  He fell in love and married.  He could be generous.  He was reported to be quite loving and fatherly to a girl he just might have fathered.  Ultimately, unfortunately, there was no redemption for Bobby.  He declined to near madness, making outrageous racist claims, hateful, anti-American proclamations, and alienating many of his friends.  And that really is the tragedy of Bobby, that he was crazy.

All this is given to the reader against the backdrop of Bobby’s fascination, obsession, and domination of chess.  Do not fear, however, if you are ignorant of the game.  I know very little and that lack of knowledge did not hinder my enjoyment of the book.  There were many names that I wasn’t familiar with but the main players grew quickly familiar.  

The facts concerning the game, the play, and prize money, and how a chess match was described as a boxing bout are all surprising and thrilling.  I believe that something on every page captivated me.  Really, captivated me.  Though I would most likely never have picked up this book, I’m very glad I did.

The one place where this book falls short is in the epilogue.  When Bobby died he still had a couple million which inevitably became an object of desire and contention between those with ties to Bobby. Oh, and the IRS wants its cut of the pie, too.    But we aren’t given any resolution.  2008 was apparently the last news on the issue.  This lack of detail really really irritated me. 

Don’t let that deter your from this book.  Chess lovers and chess neophytes alike will enjoy this original biography.  Checkmate.

(Okay, that checkmate doesn’t really go with anything I just felt it appropriate to say it once in a chess review.)

Ever wish you were a Beatle?

Just recently, The Beatles have added their music to iTunes.  This is important because now those kids who walk around everywhere with earphones crammed into their skulls will be able to continue to ignore great music. 

The truth is many high schoolers have heard of The Beatles (I took informal polls in my classes) and some will even admit to liking their music.  So when I received The Girl Who Became a Beatle as an ARC I thought I’d get some interested readers.  Not one bite. 

The premise is that a high school girl, the leader of the band called The Caverns, has a really bad day. Regina is her name and she knows that the band’s demise is imminent.  So she makes one last push to get a gig, the school’s dance.  Rejection.  Then two dissatisfied members quit on her.  And so she feels her world is crashing down around her.  In this stressful moment she makes an offhanded remark about wanting to be as famous as The Beatles. 

When she wakes up the next morning she is. 

Well, not exactly.  A little bit of Freaky Friday and Big magic take place.  She wakes up to find that The Caverns have replaced The Beatles.  All of John and Paul’s great hits are now hers.  There are Caverns dolls, albums like Meet the Caverns, and an MTV crew to film her every, exciting, move. 

Suddenly, Regina is thrust into the limelight, dating a TV hunk, rolling in a stretch hummer, rocking sold out crowds, doing bits on late shows, and winning Grammys. 

The book is the silly fun of a dream world.  Regina gets to do incredible things but has to deal with keeping, well first finding, then keeping her identity.  Being a rock hero like The Beatles would be fun, but it loses something when you don’t earn it and haven’t worked for it.  And this is the struggle Regina has to go through. 

It is written at an easy high school level.  The references are current and hip (like I really know what hip is) and the lingo is stream of consciousness at times, very much like kids these days.  I think many teens will enjoy the flow and pace of the book.  I just don’t know how many will really buy into the whole Beatles connection.  How many teens these days have seen A Hard Days Night?  How many know the lyrics or Beatles songs, or of their more obscure B sides that are referenced in this book?  It’s a fine book, I just don’t know how many teens out there will really give it a try, though one girl just picked it up and started it on Friday, so I might be wrong about this one.

*This book will be released Feb. 15th.

Like sitting in a classroom

Roger Rosenblatt has written a surprisingly enjoyable book on the subject of writing.  Just don’t try to categorize it. 

It isn’t nonfiction, but it isn’t fiction.  Not a how-to manual, though he does, at times, lend great advice for writing.  Nor is it a theoretical exploration on writing but it does discuss writing theories. 

Reading Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing is akin to sitting in a college creative writing workshop.  Or so I imagine.  Having never been in a college level CW class I’d expect it to be something like this.  If it wasn’t I would be entirely disappointed. 

Rosenblatt took one semester of his creative writing class and fictionalized it.  Here’s how he explains it:

What I present as a word-for-word account of the conversations [in my class] is fiction, top to bottom…but the ideas expressed here were expressed there.  The samples of student writings are genuine.  And the students themselves were just as gifted, lovable, and annoying as I have drawn them.

And so, the dialogue takes on a very fast, fun shape.  It is friendly banter that moves the story through the joys and frustrations of writing.  The students struggle and challenge.  The teacher teaches, explains, prods, questions, and challenges in return.  The engaging style of this book really made me feel like I was a part of this class, and it was a joy. 

The discussions move from essay writing to prose to poetry to novels.  And though the author is not telling how to be successful at any one of these forms, he is describing the writing process that one goes through when engaging in any form and showing that being successful is due to focused, hard work. 

The narration is really Rosenblatt writing out a perfect lecture that he would give to his students.  His students become his characters that he uses to prove his point.  But he also uses them to show he is only one man with his ability, and others are just as capable of matching or surpassing him.  He maintains a very likable, approachable tone, even as he asserts his authority as the professor and as the New York Times bestselling author.

There are times when I feel so very depressed with the overwhelmingly difficult task I face of trying to teach my students to write basic paragraphs.  As I read this book, it seemed like such a distant dream to be able to discuss the philosophical merits of writing with my students.  Instead, I have to constantly remind them to capitalize names and use and apostrophe with I’m.  Still, his small little book was inspirational.  Though I may not sit around with my students and argue form over function, I can still help them find their voice.  This book was a great encouragement towards that end.

Who is this book for?  It is for the writer.  It is also for teachers that teach writing.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who is looking for inspiration to pick up a pen and begin composing.  Quicker than a semester long class, this book (155 pages) is fun and easy to get through.

The few criticisms I have of this book are short and rather insignificant.  He makes many references to east coast places that I had no clue about.  He also makes many references to books and authors that I don’t know about.  I imagine that if I were to read those books with this book, though, I would get a complete creative writing education.

This book will be released January 4th, and would make for a great pre-order gift for the writer in your family.