Book Reviews: UCLA Basketball, Great Sci-Fi, and Grammar

Usual conversation when I’m right:
“Shut up!”
“You support censorship?”

Dead Wrong
So after finishing the series and even starting the author’s semi-sequel, I finally got around to reading the one that started it all.
Having read the subsequent adventures of Calledine and Ruth and particularly Imogen, it was a bit of a relief to have the background story filled in. In this one they search for a serial killer who believes his victims shouldn’t have fingers, and in one case intestines, before they’re killed. Calledine’s cousin, his mother, the reporter he can’t stay away from, all come to greater clarity, and for the most part the story is told in the same well-thought-up style of the others.
But the one thing that makes me like this book less is that when the killer is revealed there had been no clue given by the author. Even the cops don’t figure it out; they see the perpetrator on a security video, and it’s the last person they were expecting. This is my foremost writing peeve, and has been mentioned by writers as famous as Larry Niven: Don’t cheat the audience. Had this been the first I read in the series I may not have continued, despite the writing being pretty good.

The Scoop on Good Grammar
This author does love her puns, as evidenced by the title: there’s a photo of a scoop of chocolate ice cream at the start of every chapter. Since I don’t like chocolate, good thing there’s other yummy treats too.
But despite the cuteness of the frame in each chapter—paintings, San Francisco, baseball, etc.—it’s just as dry as any other punctuation guide; it doesn’t take long to get to the point where I’d rather do something else than continue reading this, especially since I won’t be graded on it at the end of the term. I did use the link for the Rodin Museum, but the frames weren’t all that interesting in general. It’s certainly not worse than any other grammar guide, but with its (not it’s) publicity claiming “learning becomes enjoyable!” it sets expectations it doesn’t meet.

The Silver Ships
In a future where Earth has been used up and humanity has fled to the stars in giant colony ships—Firefly, anyone?—a tugboat captain who’s smarter than all the others rescues an alien vessel in distress. His life changes after that.
I found myself enjoying this right away, the writing style conversational except for the science-y parts. Even better are the characters, all of whom abound with humor. A whole civilization of French people? Well, at least the babes. I don’t know who I love more: Renee, Genevieve and Pia, Terese, Dr. Mallard, Andrea, or Major Tachenko. (I might give the edge to Terese because she’s a redhead and the sauciest of a saucy bunch.) Even the AI is amazing.
There’s a scene where they’re trying to convince the political leaders of New Terra to help, knowing one of them is an ass who will do anything to sabotage them. The way they take him down is more than just effective, it’s hilarious. There’s plenty of intriguing uses of psychology here: the media and how the New Terrans accept the “aliens,” the way both races bond over telepathic games, etc., and all are wonderful to read. I even love the names of the ships: a tanker named Thirst Quencher, a tug named Little Shove. This author has put a lot of thought into the little moments, and there isn’t one misstep in the entire book. That may change in the sequels, but this one is an example of simply excellent science fiction, the best I’ve read this year.

Back from the Dead
Being a UCLA alum it’s almost required reading to go through anything written by those famous who came before us, though mostly it’s written by or about Coach Wooden. I’ve read Kareem’s books too, so it’s only right I do the same to the other great of the many greats in UCLA basketball, Bill Walton.
In a flash I was through the first few chapters; it’s a surprisingly easy read.
The one glaring moment came about halfway through the book, where he’s made no mention of a girlfriend, let alone marriage. While I don’t need to know about such things, it’s a bit jarring when you suddenly come across a passage saying “Our first child was born.” Even if things didn’t work out, a simply mention of “I got married over the summer” would have made things a lot easier. There is mention of a second wife, but this is after the kids are born.
For me personally, the most difficult part was the chapter on Coach Wooden’s passing. I remember I was in Denmark when I first found out he was ill; I also remember tweeting, “Don’t go yet, Coach, the world still needs you.” More to the point, I was unaware of the memorial in Pauley and all the tributes until I read it here, which was rather heart-wrenching.
One note: this story is not the squeamish. While stated in matter-of-fact tones, some of the descriptions of Mr. Walton’s numerous injuries and especially the subsequent surgeries had me cringing and skipping ahead. But what struck me the most, though not until I was finished, was how modest Mr. Walton comes across. Though he lists his accomplishments as they happened, there’s no sense of the overwhelming success he’s had in both basketball and life. There’s no “Aw shucks” here, more of a straightforward retelling, though in no way boring. His time as a broadcaster, Deadhead, and cyclist among other things are full of humor, and is just as great reading as his triumphs in overcoming tremendous pain and bad people.


Poetry Tuesday: Flirtation

Attributed to Li Ch’ing-chao, 1084-1151

After kicking on the swing
Lasciviously, I get up and rouge my palms.
Thick dew on a frail flower,
Perspiration soaks my thin dress.
A new guest enters.
My stockings come down
And my hairpins fall out.
Embarrassed, I run away,
And lean flirtatiously against the door,
Tasting a green plum.


Book Reviews: Photos and More Ellison

“If she was lost in a forest, she’d talk to the trees.”
“But it would have to be about her.”

Seven Continents: Photography of Mohan Bhasker
As expected from the title, the chapters are divided by continents; as a geography major oh so long ago, I approve of including both North and South as simply America. And as a photographer who’s been all over the world, it’s a joy to find there are still places I haven’t visited and shot. I even smiled in commiseration as he talked about crying when he finally got the perfect shot after four days of waiting for the weather to clear.
Like many people, I’ve taken that iconic Catalina sunset shot, but never with a purple sky. Same with Acapulco. The shot of the desert sunset in Brazil is prob my fave. But when he talks about his encounter with the hunters going after bears. . . um, did you forget about the BEAR part? Get out of there!
Some of the shots are very colorful but otherwise no big deal, technique-wise. What I particularly couldn’t stand is how casually he broke the law at Iguazu and Masai Mara, and repeating it in his book like he’s trying to show himself as some kind of badass. That kind of thing gives photographers a bad name, and will make it harder for the next guy who visits there and has no intention of breaking the law. Not cool; I can only hope you’re not an American dentist, dude.
As a vanity project, it’s not bad. There are some fabulous shots, others are pedestrian, most are in the middle.

This book is about an organization named Kamoinge—which means “people working together” in a Kenyan language—celebrating their 50th anniversary. This appears to be a collective of socially conscious photographers from several places in the world showing off their work.
In the forward it’s argued that photography can be thought of and enjoyed as music, which certainly has never occurred to me. One shot that stood out for me was of a little girl smirking into the camera, in a fancy lace dress, with sneakers marked “left” and “right.” On the other side of the world, there’s a photo in Dakar of a strangely shaped tree and a woman walking past it with the wind billowing her dress that seems very musical indeed.
After those shots comes a section of posters from gallery shows, featuring a history of the organization, followed by Founders’ Portfolios, most of which were difficult to understand; more like modern art painting than photography. Very few of them made any impression on me.
With its social aspect, you can’t expect huge technical prowess. Maybe I’ve been a photographer too long and I can’t get out of the way of that, but there were few photos here I liked.

The Paderborn Connection
Cop in England investigates murder, finds conspiracy involving smuggling, the military, and Germany.
This book contains excellent plotting and characters, especially the addition of the military cop who aids the investigation. To my surprise I enjoyed the subplot about the dying father; along with the wife, it humanizes the cop very well. There’s also a lot of great operational skill, as though this author was part of that world. The piece about what the victim had as his last meal was particularly brilliant.
Now for the bad news. From the very first sentence I could see this was written by someone with very little experience. The matter-of-fact style-less prose quickly grew boring; even the lack of commas and not knowing when to use or not use quotations became irritating in a big hurry. And this is not a case of an early uncorrected proof; this goes far beyond that. I don’t think this was edited at all; it has the feel of someone who only reads random postings on internet sites and hasn’t learned anything from actual books that go through a long process to be published.
So the gist of it is: 4/5 for plot and inner workings of the police; 1/5 for amateurish writing and lack of style, grammatical and punctuation errors. So 2.5/5

Can & Can’tankerous
Harlan Ellison. You either love him or hate him. The same goes for his stories: it’s gonna be something you remember till your dying day or dismiss as soon as you finish it. This pattern continues here.
The plots are inventive as always: an extremely tiny man persecuted, an incredibly curious man receiving a weird fortune cookie, featuring the most humanlike alien ever, and so on. Not saying outright that the cop in the film-noir type store was female was brilliant, though that story had a weird and gruesome twist I wish I could forget. My favorite was either the modern take on Egyptian gods or the source of all those fantastical maps in adventure stories. The one set on Mars was appropriately strange, yet classic science fiction, but the last one, despite having an amazing title, went right over my head; oh well.
Between the stories and their intros are small pieces of how Ellison suffered a stroke, and at the end there’s some original typewritten versions of some of these stories, first done about 50 years or so ago. Too bad they’re too small to read in digital format.


Poetry Tuesday: Corinna in Vendome

Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585)

Darling, each morning a blooded rose
Lures the sunlight in, and shows
Her soft, moist and secret part.
See now, before you go to bed,
Her skirts replaced, her deeper red —
A colour much like yours, dear heart.

Alas, her petals will blow away,
Her beauties in a single day
Vanish like ashes on the wind.
O savage Time! that what we prize
Should flutter down before our eyes –
Who also, late or soon, descend.

Then scatter, darling, your caresses
While you may, and wear green dresses;
Gather roses, gather me –
Tomorrow, aching for your charms,
Death shall take you in his arms
And shatter your virginity.


Book Reviews: Smart Girls, Harlan Ellison, and Ancient Bees

“Were you the class clown?”
“Class clowns are more into physical comedy. I was a deadpan snarker.”

Smart Girl
Consistency is good.
This is the third of the series; so far we’ve had “Party Girl,” “Sweet Girl”—although that’s more about her pastry business then her actual demeanor—and now we get “Smart Girl,” and again that’s more due to her work than the way she handles her life and relationships. Despite the main character being mostly opposite of the previous two, this book has the same style, the same humor; it’s the same characters as before, but from a different point of view.
As stated, Miko is really a smartie, especially when compared to her best friends, but that’s just when she’s graphic designing. Her ridiculous plots to land Sweet Girl’s brother are bound to fail, but they’re also bound to be hilarious in their aftermath, which is exactly why I’m reading this. At one point I wrote, “Holy crap, this girl’s crazy! Serves her right if he doesn’t fall for it.” She’s neurotic dressed up as cute.
The scene that’s likely to stick in the reader’s memory is when she’s going to make herself sick in order to engage his gentleman sensibilities, sure he’ll take care of her. Of course he ends up taking the bad stuff instead, puking everywhere, and even though it was predictable I have to chastise myself for laughing so hard.
To put it succinctly, I don’t read this for the romance, I read it for the humor, and it’s another hit.
P.S. In the bio it says the writer is “so excited to be an author that she’d probably pee her pants if you actually brought it up on social media.” I suggest you take her up on this challenge. . . @msrachelhollis

Night and the Enemy
A reissue of a graphic novel from 1987—before they were called graphic novels—this takes six Harlan Ellison stories and turns them into visual art. Other than a framing device to tie them all together, and since I haven’t seen the previous edition, I don’t know if anything has been changed in this new version.
It’s difficult to figure out how to review this: should it be just the artwork, or should I include the stories, even though they were previously published without preeeety pictures? Finally I realized most people aren’t as huge Harlan Ellison fans as me, and aren’t familiar with these stories, so I went with the latter.
Run For The Stars: Druggie gets bomb planted inside him as insurance while humans evacuate an invaded planet. Improbably he survives. For night scenes, there is an incredible amount of detail; at one point it felt like I was looking at this through thermal goggles, it was so oversaturated, yet very effective.
Life Hutch: A fighter pilot is marooned on a small planet, where he finds the refuge the military has set up for exactly these kinds of situations. Unfortunately there’s a malfunctioning robot trying to kill him, and his only hope for survival is a trick often used on cats. This started out with the same look as the previous, but turned into a very grainy black and white, with occasional forays back to the original, giving it a totally different vibe. This wasn’t so much a typical graphic novel entry as an illustrated version of the original story, if you can tell the difference as easily as I can in my head.
The Untouchable Adolescents: A young race—somehow an entire species is written as teenagers—don’t want help when their world is about to be destroyed. Not that the humans are that much smarter: “Shouldn’t have any trouble getting through to them.” Sure, tempt fate. This was easily the most visual story, with very little prose; I don’t remember reading it, so I don’t know if it was a VERY short story, but this was the best example of the pictures telling the plot.
Trojan Hearse: Short and sweet and excellent, from the title on down, with the humans stealing the plans of their enemies and finding a poetic solution to the attack. This was the opposite of the previous, with the entire story printed and some ambient paintings not showing much of anything; as great as the story was, it’s a poor selection for a graphic novel, since there’s basically no “graphic.”
Sleeping Dogs: Gung-ho human commander ignores advice and scorches an entire planet, only to be met by a power far beyond his ability to fight. This was the perfect combination of graphics and prose, though I found the story not all that great, or rather the plot typical.
The Few The Proud: The last words of a soldier at his court-martial. Once again a story that’s just words and no pictures; despite the plot, there were plenty of opportunities for visuals. . . except the one about the enemy going up in flame, which I imagine is a clear reference to Vietnam. A wasted opportunity.
There’s some behind-the-scenes illustrations at the end, plus the afterwards from the 1987 edition.
Just to make it clear, despite the unevenness of the whole, there’s a lot to enjoy here.

The Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt
I was expecting a quick easy read from this book that is so short it would have been called a novella had it been fiction. It proved to be neither quick nor easy.
I like to think of myself as an amateur Egyptologist, though that might be pushing it; it’s one thing to memorize the gods, but to remember every pharaoh and hieroglyph seems silly. The problem here is the author assumes the reader does know all that, so I had to keep looking through other books and/or the internet to understand the context. It’s really too scholarly to enjoy, reading like a grad school paper; most lay people would probably be bored quickly. The most interesting part was the chapter on the honeybee hieroglyph, which was completely unexpected. Can’t help but wonder if this actually was some grad school term paper where someone had the bright idea of selling it to the public without revisions.
1/10th of this already short book is bibliography.

Murder, Mystery & Dating Mayhem
A simple easy breezy mystery that I got through in a couple of hours.
I’m loving the main character, but at the start she’s far too much of a butt monkey: speed dating, accidental mooning on a date, death in the family. In real life we’d be offering sympathy while trying not to laugh, but in a manufactured character it feels like too much. There’s also the hard-to-fathom relationship with her new boyfriend, who is a total Neanderthal alpha male cop, and though she shows signs of finding this unacceptable, it seems she’s so desperate for some intimacy that she put up with it; I lost some respect for her there.
The mystery involves a death which everyone calls natural causes, except there’s a few things that don’t seem right; first it’s the victim’s old friends, but eventually they manage to convince her to investigate, and she ropes said boyfriend into it too. At a certain point the plot turns environmental, but the villain is decidedly minor league and the ending is a letdown. It’s fluffy and airy and there’s not much meat here, but it did succeed in its major point: it made me laugh.
Bonus: each chapter, some of them really short, is a song title, most of which I’d never heard.


Book Reviews: Music and Sci-Fi Shorts

Drowsing after sex
“I’m almost afraid to get off this bed, for fear it really is Cloud 9 and I’ll fall back to earth.”
I truly am a romance ninja. . .

Punk Rock Princess
Can’t help but think this title would have been great for an outside-the-box romance novel, but thankfully it’s not that. Instead it’s an autobiography of a clean-cut suburban gal who turns her love of punk rock into a journalism career, chronicling her college years and how she met so many now-famous musicians, and the interviews she did for publications after that.
If you have a picture in your head of how a punk fan looks like, brain-scrub it, because the photos in this book are completely opposite of what you’d expect. It’s actually a bit hard to believe this teen was in the clubs headbanging and such, and later went face to face with some of the biggest egomaniac jerks in the music world, but that just makes it all the better. The stories are fascinating, especially when you find a musician you’re familiar with whom she describes as a nice guy, contrary to their reputation.

Dark Murder
I’ve reviewed this same author recently, two books out of three in a series about a group of English cops. This new entry follows a character introduced in the last one, with his own squad and mysteries to solve.
Liked this a little less than the others; perhaps it’s due to the writer needing to include a lot of background on the characters; I haven’t read the first in the other series, so who knows if that happened there too. What I did find here is a lot of extraneous material, for example a scene featuring a long talk between a suspect and his girlfriend, for no reason I could discern. The characters here simply aren’t as likeable as the other squad’s, except for the female detective with the kid.
There’s nothing wrong with it though, and without the previous readings I might have liked it a little more.

Anthology I
A very common title for a collection of eight uncommon science fiction short stories of varying levels of quality.
In the first entry, a teenage girl’s consciousness merges with a ship; something other than hilarity ensues. Okay, she merged when she was younger, but she’s teenaged when this story takes place. This one was really good, 4.5/5
A being not quite human and not quite android does a film noir first person monologue—wait, that’s redundant. Also good, 4/5.
15-year-old girl and dad flee London for the Scottish Highlands to escape a gambling debt, or so he says. At one point I wondered if she was a robot, only to find at the end that I was half right. (If you read this story, you’ll find what I just wrote hilarious.) Good story, but not enough meat on it. 3.5/5
In a Muslim country, albeit a permissive one, in the future, a girl runs away from her rich upbringing and telepathic control. Not sure what to think of that one.
A telepathic hunting hawk is shot, its owner wants revenge, but ends up leaving the killer alive. Unless it was making a point about mercy, this one didn’t have much to it.
There’s an entry told from the point of view of a magic wand. Now THAT’S how you write a story! 5/5
Didn’t care for the next story from the start, with golf, rich old white guys, and then tribes of pygmies. 2/5
The last one. . . don’t even remember reading it.

The Record Store of the Mind
The owner of an independent record label reminisces about some of his favorite musicians, mostly those he’s worked with and reissued on his label. There’s some intriguing stories about how he meets them or is introduced to them, and if you follow on his website he’s got a playlist of the songs he mentions.
After the first chapter I have to say this author’s musical tastes are way different than mine. He talks about modern singer-songwriters lacking “authenticity,” whatever that means, but so far I find his selections lacking spirit. He calls his choices “simple” like it’s a good thing. Our tastes in vocals also differ. It’s different when he’s talking about more famous people, the first—getting his own chapter—being Eric Clapton. He makes Syosset, Long Island with Billy Joel and Lou Reed sound like Jersey must’ve been with Springsteen. There’s also a piece on his friendship with Judd Apatow.
Throughout the book I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t going to review his music picks; just because his taste is different than mine, especially in vocalists, didn’t mean this isn’t a great book full of reminiscences about real musicians, those who make music rather than a spectacle on stage. Still, I had been hoping to make some discoveries, but since I didn’t, I forced myself to concentrate on thinking of this as a biography. For instance, there’s a hilarious note about the author with a musician visiting a dilapidated venue where he’d played over 50 years ago. When they see an old bathroom they muse “Elvis likely pissed in there.”
There are some chapters at the end that might be better described as appendixes. When he’s talking about concerts he’d attended and reached the indie part, I was hopeful he might mention some I knew; didn’t happen. I did find some commonality on more famous acts we’ve both seen live, like Rush, The Police, Tom Petty, and U2. And I happen to be wearing an Alice in Chains shirt when he mentions working with them. . .
There’s a great chapter at the end on why you should—really shouldn’t—have your own label. He’s also a huge proponent of naps.