Tag Archives: Book Reviews

Flying Commas and Other Gramatical Anomalies

flyingcommas

When I was in high school, it seemed much easier to keep things like punctuation and syntax straight. Back then, teachers reviewed that stuff every few months. I don’t think I ever had time to forget it, and they had those handy posters on the classroom wall if I got stuck. It was also something that came easily for me. I never understood why some people had so much trouble with it. I would shake my head in disbelief when other students would do things like call apostrophes ‘those flying comma things.’ Let me just say: I get it now.

I don’t know if it’s the effects of having joined the texting world where, “lol u r sooo funny!!!  ttyl” is perfectly acceptable,

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or if it’s just that I have so much other crap taking up space in my head now. (Examples include, but are not limited to: car payments,  job security, taxes.)

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It’s not that I’m terrible with grammar and punctuation now, it’s just that things seem less clear-cut than they used to, and at a time when I’m expected to be more confident and competent in my writing.

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Having easy-to-use reference material that doesn’t make me feel like an idiot for having to use it is essential.

Here are some of my favorites that never leave the shelf above my writing desk:

elementsofstyle

Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White

The most concise, easiest to use, straightforward book on writing ever written, and it’s small enough to fit in a pocket (okay, maybe a big pocket, but still…) or a purse. It includes examples of common mistakes, not just in punctuation, also spelling, word usage, tense, etc., so you know what not to do. Then, it shows you how to fix them. This book has been a life saver throughout my college career, and when I edit my writing one last time, (and then twice more) before submitting it.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

She made punctuation interesting, even humorous and fun. I don’t know how she did it, and I don’t want to know. It’s like when a magician makes an elephant disappear. I don’t question it. I just stand with my mouth hanging open in disbelief, and applaud. I love the Punctuation Repair Kit that came with the book. The author encourages readers to become punctuation vigilantes who go around fixing signs that say things like, “50% off you’re favorite brands, prices so low you wont believe its real!”

I’ve started doing this. It’s incredibly geeky, good, clean fun… and a public service, if you ask me. (Just make sure you fix it when the managers aren’t looking. Otherwise, they try to take your punctuation stickers and chase you out of the store. Still fun, but more exercise.)

grammarsmart

Grammar Smart by the staff of The Princeton Review

A few years ago, my brother started coming to me with questions about prepositions and dependent clauses. I searched my internal memory- I had learned these things, so I must possess the answers- only to discover those files had been overwritten with the rules to beer pong and lyrics to Weird Al songs. Sad, but I guess that’s what happens when you go to college. I invested in this book to help answer his questions and refresh my memory. It was an excellent purchase. They cover everything from parts of speech to punctuation and even gender-neutral writing. (So you can be all politically correct.)

chicagomanualofstyle

The Chicago Manual of Style

I haven’t sprung for one of these yet, as they are on the spendy side, but, if you want to write professionally, I suggest at least putting it on your wish list. Most publishers I’ve talked to use the formatting and guidlines found here to evaluate submissions, so it can usually give you some insight as to whether your writing is clean and up-to-par.

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5 Infectiously Good Books: Non-Fiction

Alright, same drill as the last post, but for this one, it’s all true! How creepy is that?

In no particular order:

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1.) The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

The author of this book actually went inside level 4 (highest risk of infection) rooms at the CDC (Center for Disease Control) researching this book. You can’t even do that anymore! Anyone curious about how our government researches and prevents or controls diseases should give this one a look. And buy some hand sanitizer. The information on Ebola may give you some sleepless nights, but this book is worth it. Also look for Panic in Level 4, and The Demon in the Freezer, Preston’s other nonfiction works on the subject. All are fantastic.

spillover

2.) Spillover by David Quammen

Everything you didn’t know was fascinating about zoonoses (diseases that spread from animals to humans). This book gives an overview of several of these types of  diseases including  Bird Flu, Swine Flu, Ebola, HIV, and some I’d never heard of before. David Quammen traveled, did interviews, and thoroughly researched his subject. The first hand narrative about things like hiking through the jungles of Africa adds a depth and a personality that is often lacking in non fiction. I got to hear him read at Auntie’s and he even talked to me about my novel and signed my copy of his book. Nice guy. Awesome writer.

americanplague

3.) The American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosby

A well researched story told in a way that grabs and keeps your interest. The downside is that I now have a phobia of mosquitoes. Also check out her book, Asleep.

 

4.) Awakenings by Oliver Sacks

Behold the incredible mind f*&% that is Encephalitis Lethargica. You go to sleep, and you might wake up three days, three weeks, three months, or thirty years later! You might not wake up at all. Or it could have the opposite effect. You might not sleep ever again and just run around possessed by hyperactivity until you die of exhaustion. If you manage to A) survive, and B) regain consciousness, you’ll most likely be left with Parkinsons-like symptoms that rob you of the ability to walk, talk, care for yourself, you name it. The clincher? They still don’t know what causes it. I’ll be honest, this disease scares the living $#^& out of me. That’s why I decided to write about it. This book is written by another of one of my favorite authors. Oliver Sacks is a former neurologist, who now writes humorous, touching, and sometimes tragic memoirs and case studies.

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Oddly enough, this book was also made a movie staring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams. It’s actually very good, and mostly accurate.

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5.) The Little Book of Pandemics by Dr. Peter Moore

Gives a great overview with easy to read charts at the beginning of each chapter that list when and how each disease was discovered, its infectivity, the severity of the resulting illness, and the potential threat from each if they are used as a bioweapon. It’s been a go-to for me while I’ve been writing this book.

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5 Infectiously Good Books: Fiction

As many of you know, I’m writing a novel that has to do with an epidemic. (Those of you who don’t know, go read https://theoccasionalmeatcleaver.wordpress.com/2013/04/02/my-novel-giving-an-old-disease-new-life/)

That being the case, I thought I’d share some books on the subject of infectious disease that I found inspiring:

blindnessthebook

1.) Blindness by Jose Saramago

This is one of my favorite books of all time. His characters hardly ever have names, there are no dialogue attributions… Truth be told, his novels look like Gertrude Stein’s poetry, but that is said with affection because I love them both. If I tried to mimic their style, it would look like something written by a not-too-bright second grader. When they do it, somehow it’s brilliant. Still, it can be disorienting, so if you don’t feel up to the book, there is a movie version.

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 In my opinion, both are modern classics and not to be missed.

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[Be advised, both are very graphic, and not to be watched or read with children. And, really, that goes for everything on this post.]

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2.) The Stand by Stephen King

Apocalypse by government engineered flu virus, and that’s not a spoiler. That’s the first chapter. Does it get any better? This book is regarded by many as Stephen King’s best work. I’d certainly call it one of his best, but I find it difficult to play favorites with his books. This one is also a movie, but I can’t vouch for it as I haven’t seen it yet.

contagionbook

3.) Contagion by Robin Cook

Robin Cook’s mind is so twisted, his books make me shudder. Ah, how I envy him his disturbing imagination. Envy aside, this book will have you reading late into the night and avoiding hospitals. I guess that goes for all of his books, but this one in particular involves the 1918 flu, so it was of special interest to me.

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The reader should note that the movie Contagion has nothing to do with this book, and is a completely different story.

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4.) The First Horseman by John Case

I can’t stress enough how much I like this guy’s style. No frills, no self indulging tangents, just pure, edge-of-your-seat story. I love all of his books, but this one involved a cult trying to start a Spanish Flu epidemic, so it was good market research for me as well as a good read.

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5.) The Cobra Event by Richard Preston

Interesting villain? Check. Terrifying biological terrorism? Check. Images you wish you could get rid of, but can’t? Sooo many, but that’s part of a successful horror/thriller book. You know it’s good because it kinda makes you sick. Great, suspense-filled book.

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Drunk Monks and Mountain Climbing

clips in time

Last Saturday, I went to Julie Lilienkamp’s reading of Clips in Time: Emotionally Powerful, Organic, Adventure-Essays and Epic Poetry at Auntie’s Bookstore. I hadn’t actually read her work at that point, so I didn’t know what to expect.

I’m (perhaps unfairly) skeptical of unfamiliar authors who write about their own real experiences. I feel this way for the same reason I am periodically annoyed with Facebook, or people who try to strike up a conversation while standing in line at the grocery store: Many people either

1.) Just don’t have many stories that are interesting to people who don’t already know them.

or

2.) They aren’t very good at telling their interesting stories.

In Ms. Lilienkamp’s case, I need not have worried. She has had the kind of life that leads to tales worth telling. (The adventurous sort.) I also have to give props to anyone brilliant enough to take the experience of climbing a mountain and seeing a monk who’d had too much to drink that morning, (Yes, that morning.) and think to write a poem about it. I bought a copy right away and asked her to sign it. (Which she did, with a very thoughtful personal inscription.)

She also allowed me to take a picture, so I wouldn’t have a repeat of the Patrick McManus reading. (Neither of us was really photo ready, so please judge- or don’t- accordingly. I’m the tall geeky one with the glasses.)

julielilienkamp

The only negative thing I can say about this book is that I wish I’d written it myself, but I don’t climb mountains. I stay home and type. That’s why I mostly write fiction.

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So… about last night…

I know I promised to post every day in April. For yesterday’s post, I’d planned to attend the Patrick McManus reading and then do a post about it when I got home.

Let me explain what happened:

I woke up at 5AM yesterday morning, went to college as usual for my (gag) math class,

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Did my homework,

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Checked my blog to see if there were comments that needed approving,

Worked on my novel for so long that I forgot to eat lunch,

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Met up with my parents and my brother, got an early dinner and coffee,

Coffee

and went to Auntie’s for the reading…

Aunties

Which it turned out had an open bar courtesy of Sante, the restaurant next door…

wine

Now, I know what you’re thinking, but I only had one small glass.

Still… I may have ‘got lit’ in more than one sense. heh heh

(See Get Ready to GetLit! if you don’t get the reference.)

Patrick McManus was great, and I got my copy of his latest Bo Tully mystery signed. Awesome!

patrickmcmanus

Also, my mom was friends with one of his daughters growing up, and they’re going to reconnect,

so it was a great event no matter how you look at it.

BUT, although I maybe slow at math, I now know that

me+no lunch+caffine+wine= incessant giggling

giggling

and forgetting to take a picture at the reading for my blog

and falling asleep after my mom drives me home instead of posting… yeah..

So now I know. Please, no shouting in the comments section.

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PS- I will be posting again today. I’m counting this as yesterday’s post.

 

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It’s Criminal Part 1: Death & Destruction in the Pacific Northwest

[Author’s Note]

I had so many mystery/thrillers I wanted to discuss, I’m breaking this post into sections. Today: Death and Destruction in the Pacific Northwest. Why? Because I live here. And it has become a popular setting for this kind of story. For example:

Spokane, Washington was supposed to be where the remake of Red Dawn took place,

Red Dawn 2012

(Although most of it was actually filmed in Michigan. Same thing, right?)

Idaho and Spokane have both been used as settings for episodes of Criminal Minds,

Criminal Minds

and the mystery books set in this area are many and varied, but read the actual post for more on that. So, to sum up my post today: Local authors, local settings, great reads.

Again, please comment. I am always looking for new books for my reading list, and if you disagree with my assessments, I’d like to know why. Questions? Comments? Concerns about my mental health? If you’re thinking it, post it!

rivercity

The River City Books by Frank Zafiro- He’s from right here in Spokane, Washington, and he writes the most authentic crime fiction you will ever read. Mix that gritty realism with a diverse cast of believeable characters, brilliant dialogue, a good dose of humor (dark and otherwise), and you have a recipe for success. Bloody, sometimes tragic, can’t-put-it-down success. [BTW, if you take the time to pick out the landmarks in the stories, you’ll notice that the setting is local as well. 😉 You didn’t hear that from me.]

heartsick

Heartsick (and sequels) by Chelsea Cain- This series is set in Portland, Oregon, and written by an author who lives there. She ranks second only to Frank Zafiro for authenticity. You need a strong stomach to read these books, let alone enjoy them. You’ve been warned. But, her characters are addictive, and she actually keeps me guessing, which isn’t easy to do.

fatdetective

The Fat Detective by John Soennichsen- Technically, this is a spoof, but it’s one of my favorite spoofs, and it was written by another Spokanite, which is always fun for me. Whether you’re a fan of old noir detective stories or a fan of making fun of noir, or you just want something funny, this one’s great.

botully

The Sheriff Bo Tully Mysteries by Patrick F. McManus- We can’t forget Idaho! Patrick McManus is a favorite author of mine, and has been for years. I was thrilled to learn he’d started writing fictional mysteries in addition to his tall tales about hunting and camping, which never fail to crack me up.

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Vampires: The Good, The Bad, & The Sparkly

fangs

About ten years ago, I made my first serious attempt at a novel, (at least it seemed serious at the time). It was about teenage vampires. I was fourteen and didn’t know any better. I am happy to report that, unlike some authors, I had the decency to scrap it before it could see the light of day.

I love vampires. When they’re done well, I find them very entertaining, but I want to stress that you can’t just slap together a story, throw in vampiric stock characters and expect me to buy it and sing your praises. Not gonna happen.

Reading vampire books is probably the closest thing I’ve done to speed dating. Every now and then, you find a gem that will remain a favorite. More often, you find shallow characters, contrived plots, and dialogue that makes you wonder whether the author was smoking an illegal substance, or if they’d recently sustained a serious head injury. I’m willing to save all you lucky readers a step and tell you which of them are worth your time and the purchase price.

Please comment. Did I miss one of your favorites? Disagree with how I categorized some of the books? Think I’m totally off my rocker? I want to know!

 

The Good:

Draculabook

1. Dracula by Bram Stoker- The ultimate vampire classic. One of my favorite things about this book is that the vampires are beautiful, but not romanticized. If you fall for one, you will not have a happy ending. I find that refreshing.

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2. ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King-  As always, interesting characters, a plot that will keep you up at night, and an original villain who will have you looking over your shoulder for at least a week.

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3. Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice – I know this will probably be a more controversial choice for this list. People tend to either love this book or hate it.  I enjoy it for its seemless blend of philosophical and moral dilemmas, complex characters, vivid historical settings, and healthy doses of gore and terror. Not everyone likes her characters, but here’s the good news: you don’t have to. Another thing I like about her books is that there are almost never clear-cut good guys and bad guys. The characters don’t read that way. They read like actual people with strengths and flaws, which is a depressingly rare quality to find in a book.

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4. I am Legend by Richard Matheson- A modern take on the vampire. It doesn’t ignore the old vampire myths, rather it uses modern science and technology to explain the unexplainable. Plus, it will keep you guessing right up ’til the end.

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5. Rulers of Darkness by Steven Spruill- Okay, so this one’s a little goofy, and not my favorite, but it’s got good bones. I found the characters engaging and, although I had seen many aspects of this story before, (Vampiric police detective, Vampire who doesn’t feed on humans hunting down other vampires, Doctor seeks to cure vampires of their condition, Vampire father hunts down his vampire son when he gets completely out of control, etc.), I’d never seen them in this combination or blended this well. I still think it’s a fun read.

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6. Necroscope by Brian Lumley-  How many vampire novels also have a soviet spy organization and a high school kid whose math tutor is a dead guy? I only know of this one. Heard about this one from a family friend, and loved it. It ranks among the Stephen King and Anne Rice books for that feeling you get when you finish it. You know the one I mean, “Okay, that was fun, but can anyone give me the name of a good therapist? What? No, I’m fine. Really.”

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7. The Vampyre by John William Polidori- This is the grandfather of all vampire books, the work that brought these creatures of the night out of folk tales and into the literary world. It was written around the same time as Frankenstein, and if you enjoy Victorian literature you should definitely check this one out.

The Bad:

I tried to stay away from YA and Romance novels because I felt like the people reading those probably have different criteria for what’s good and what isn’t. Books from those categories were only included if the author had problems writing on a basic level.

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1. Sunshine by Robin McKinley- The premise is interesting enough, although it’s one I’ve heard before. (Human society is surprised to find that vampires, werewolves, demons, etc. are real. Chaos and tension ensue as society attempts to regulate their activity, and/or exterminate them.)  I enjoyed the style. I liked the world the story was set in.

The problem lies in the author’s addiction to narration and exposition. A lot could have been gained by revealing more information through dialog or action. I kept getting lost in the main character’s thoughts. Very distracting. With better editing and some brevity it could have had a feel of Ray Bradbury meets Janet Evanovich’s Lizzie and Diesel novels, but the main character’s inner monologue is unending.  Combine that with long and strangely structured sentences, and you lose my attention. If the narrative and exposition  had been broken up, pared down, and interlaced with action for better flow, I would have liked this book. Also, I suggest the author read Elements of Style by Strunk and White, specifically the section titled “Omit Needless Words.” As it stands, I can’t recommend it.

bloodyredbaron

2. The Bloody Red Baron by Kim Newman- I could be wrong about this one. If I am, will someone with a superior attention span please let me know? I wanted to like this book. It has tons of historical detail, a classic representation of Dracula, and Mycroft Holms (Sherlock’s  brother) is in the Diogenes Club, fighting The Terror. (Whatever that means. It sounds badass, but I was so confused by the number of characters and plot lines, that I gave up before I could figure it out.)

50 pages into the book, I was still unclear about who was fighting whom and why. It had something to do with Dracula, of course, and maybe WWI? And the Allies? And a war committee of vampires? And… Huns? Edgar Allen Poe makes an appearance, so do Franz Kafka and Winston Churchill. I’d like to give this one another try when I have more time to keep track of everything going on in this book. Maybe make a chart…

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3. The Vampire Files Series by P.N. Elrod- Every vampire cliché, and every private investigator cliché rolled into one. Pass.

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4.Thirst by Christopher Pike- I accidentally picked up the second book in this series, so I suspected I might have some issues catching up with who the characters were, what they were doing and why. I didn’t think I’d care so little. The opening scene, the big hook to draw the reader in, was a snobby vampire’s birthday party. (WTF? Who knew vampires even celebrated birthdays?) That may sound boring, but wait! There’s more. The snobby vampire’s friends have no taste! The main character is forced to open tacky gift after tacky gift and respond politely! Now, can’t you just feel the tension? The drama? The suspense? Me neither.

The Sparkly:

twilight

1. (and only) The Twilight Saga by Stephanie Meyer- This series is only part of this post because it’s such a phenomenon that everyone would be asking me why I excluded it if it wasn’t here. Why would I be tempted to exclude it? Because I don’t count these books as vampire novels! I have read the books. My friends loved them. I read them with the sincere hope that I would like them too. I don’t.

My biggest problem with these books is that I didn’t care about the plot at all because I couldn’t bring myself to care what happened to the characters. The Cullen vampires were the only characters who seemed to have back stories at all, and even theirs were sparse at best. I trudged my way through the first book and started the second because Twilight seemed to hint that perhaps Bella did have a personality, and we just weren’t seeing much of it right now. It gave me hope that I would get to know her and the other characters more. I chalked the delay up to it being the author’s first novel and decided to give her another chance.

After starting New Moon, I was about to give up hope. All Bella did was talk and think about Edward. All Edward did was sulk. Then Edward took off and I thought, “Finally, a light at the end of the tunnel. Now Bella can experience some personal growth. We can find out who she is apart from her love interest! Learn about her family, her past, her likes, dislikes, thoughts, hopes!” I turned the page… nothing happens in September… nothing happens in October… are you kidding me?  Okay, I remind myself, this guy has been everything to her for a year. Maybe she just needs some time… A motorcycle? That’s different. Seems like a start… Wait. Who’s selling her the motorcycle? Jacob? The runner-up hot dude? YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS! I put the book down. I stopped myself from throwing it only because it was borrowed from a friend. I felt as though Stephanie Meyer was laughing at me, pointing and saying, “Gotcha!” Like I’d been hit in the face with a pie. I was almost hoping Ashton Kutcher would jump out and tell me I’d been punked. At that point, I was done with this series forever.

I like my vampires frightening, mysterious, and complete with personality and back story.  If an author strays from tradition, I’m fine with that- as long as the changes make the end result better. Otherwise you might as well forget the vampire idea and just call it something else. I don’t view sparkly skin, melodrama, teenage angst, tiny or non-existent fangs (depending on whether you’re going by the book or the movie*), a recreational baseball league, or trading in black Harleys and Ferraris for a silver Volvo as improvements. Call me crazy, but I’m sticking to that.

Ultimately, all that is beside the point. This book is not well written. It is clumsy, pandering, and two-dimensional. Not only is Stephanie Meyer an unskilled author, she shows no signs of wanting to improve. Why should she, really, when she keeps ending up on the bestseller list?

*Yes, I saw the first movie with my previously mentioned friends. My therapist and I are hopeful about my recovery.

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