Book Reviews: Texas Island, Sci-fi Sex, East German Life

It’s okay that I thought “You’re a thirty thirty girl” when she told me it was her 30th birthday, but didn’t say it out loud. . . right?

Destined for Trouble
An FBI analyst—no one believes her when she says she’s not an agent and doesn’t carry a gun—goes through a breakup and decides to come home to a Texas island to rest and rethink life; good luck with that, considering her mom, an ex, and the requisite crazy girl from high school.
A local restaurateur is poisoned at her welcome-home party, but it isn’t till the reading of the will that things go crazy. The man leaves the restaurant to his favorite worker, who happens to be the main character’s bestie; the widow is furious, so motive, anyone? Not to these idiot hillbilly cops like the chief, who seems to be descended from a long line of such all the way back to Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. The deputy chief happens to be the aforementioned ex, the one cop who might be on her side, but as usual he wants her to keep her nose out of it. So of course she never tells him about the other suspects she’s uncovered. . . sheesh!
At what I thought was the ending I made a note: “Gotta say I’m a bit disappointed,” only to find there was one more twist left, which made things a little better, but it was kinda too little too late.

Star Trek Sex
Okay, that’s an intriguing enough title, especially for Trekkies. Yes, let’s enjoy an analysis of all the times Kirk, and once in a while the other crewmembers, enjoyed some happy bed time with fellow humans and/or aliens.
Sadly, that’s not close to what happens here. Instead we get a very lazy writer who figures he can sell this just from the title, which unhappily might be true.
Basically it’s a small list of episodes which feature some sort of physical coming together—and not always that—which allows him to pontificate on some tiny barely-related issue. Some of these are a stretch: mentioning that tribbles are born pregnant might fit in a very general sense, but come on.
The worst part is how uneven it is. Far too many episodes are completely ignored, the most egregious being “Shore Leave,” which was most likely the genesis of the Next Generation’s holodeck. Kirk rekindled a romance there, even if she wasn’t completely real, and McCoy was big-time flirting with a yeoman, so why isn’t this in the book? And speaking of those left out, what about Miramanee, Kirk’s only real relationship? She was pregnant when she got killed, so. . . yeah! How ‘bout the crazy Shakespearian actress?
He goes on to mention some actresses and characters from the other series, and while it took him long enough to get to Dax, he made absolutely no mention of 7 of 9. Huh?
The author must love cars; in a book entitled Star Trek Sex he includes a chapter on sexiest starships.
This was really disappointing. I would advise fans to stay away.

One More Chance
For most of the book I enjoyed both the writing and the characters, especially main heroine Ashley; I could see her as the type of girl I’d have a crush on in high school. She’s almost raped by the football hero cliché, only to be saved by the brooding musician hero cliché, who then makes a great impression on her taciturn dad until he finds out the guy’s name, at which point she is never to see him again.
By the time we get to the second half, fifteen years later, two more clichés of romance novels—misunderstandings and psycho chicks—have reared their ugly, heavily-made-up faces.
For me the best laugh was the auction scene that had the brothers discussing Disney princesses—although the whole thing started with Jessica Rabbit—but after Gabe pontificates on Elsa I felt outraged that Merida wasn’t included.
On the other hand, the worst moment came right out of the Writing Romances formula: everything is great, the happy couple is together. . . and then the writer makes circumstances that fuck everything up with another girl innocently where she shouldn’t be. WHY? WHY? Because it’s in the formula. And maybe the book wouldn’t have been long enough otherwise. That dropped my rating of a novel that features really good writing but less so on plot.

Wall Flower
Wow, was this ever difficult to read! And not just because I’m not a Hegel fan.
According to the translator, “She presents herself as a flower on the (Berlin) Wall. . .”  So there’s your title. A woman from West Berlin finds herself on the wrong side of the wall when it goes up and has to live in the DDR. For all those readers who grew up on the west side of the world, so to speak, this is where we all say, “Damn, that sucks. Too bad.” But she doesn’t quite see it that way.
At the start she’s a kid with a huge imagination for games, learning piano without having one around while she deals with a brutal father and apathetic mother, who tricks her into being in the east sector when the wall goes up, so she can no longer be with her singer grandmother in the west. She escapes so deeply into the music she goes crazy, so her parents say. After her release from the psych ward she won’t go back to her family, so she wanders around doing odd jobs; in the GDR it was apparently illegal to be homeless or jobless. Though she works nights at a light bulb factory, and takes a job at a butcher’s because she loves meat, she makes more money by being a thief.
When the rebellion inside her peters out she manages to get into the University of Liepzig to study philosophy, where I had a good laugh to find she liked the same stuff in symbolic logic that I did. Eventually she learns to play the system: when she sees the more pages written the better, she double spaces and makes more chapters. When she notices they count how many books you borrow from the library—the more the better—she takes suitcases of books home and earns the reputation she wants. Using her low blood pressure as an excuse, she pretends to faint and gets out of military training. She even marries a gay friend for a year, which worked out well for both of them; then they got divorced, and she marries the guy she’s been living with.
More importantly, she learned how to make people leave her alone. But by the end you can see that she learned to play the game at the cost of her soul. This comes into stark relief with her third marriage, an upright citizen who comes from a famous family, though she didn’t know that—or even met them!—before the wedding. She forces herself to become the dutiful politically correct wife, but eventually she realizes, “I had tried out the cynic’s way of life and could not endure it. . . ultimately I understood that I could not outwit the circumstances, even using the cunning of reason.” Yep, that’s how she thinks, and writes.
There’s a lot of funny quotes in her descriptions of the people around her and even herself. About her third husband she says, “His political standpoint did not matter to me, so long as he did not force it on me.” Of herself she mentions, “The role of political ‘dummy’ had its advantages.” In a moment of very dark humor she calls the Stasi the “Institute for Opinion Research.” And as for the people she was forced to hang around with, “The majority of socialist intellectuals found it distasteful that East Germans desired bananas, shower gel, and cars and not the complete works of Nietzsche or Trotsky.” Also “The great majority of East German intellectuals have totally disappeared, and hardly anyone misses them.” And as for the country itself, “For me East Germany had become a place to which, in the future, I wanted to return after my trips to the West in order to write in peace.”
She does have an interesting take on the Communist collapse: after saying that artists and writers had a lot of the same privileges as the politicians, she adds that the citizens were okay with that, because they loved their artists. “Only once they demanded for themselves what the artists had long been allowed. . . that the privileges be open to everyone equally, did the GDR collapse.”
And of course there can’t be a book on the Communist world without some mention of Pablo Neruda, who is introduced to her by her lover during her third husband; yep, girl got around. Even for an autobiographical piece, this just feels so self-indulgent; when I look back, I can’t help but think I should have enjoyed this more. There were too many philosophical ramblings, and judgments she made from them, that I didn’t understand, mostly because despite all this writing I couldn’t really get inside her head. Even the translator in his intro was kinda rambling.


Book Reviews: Choppers, Drummers, Be Kind to Books

Garrison Keillor once said, “Sex is good, but not as good as fresh sweet corn.”
I love corn, but I wonder how he feels about bacon. . .

Airwolf: Airstrikes
I’m gonna try to come at this as simply a book, albeit a graphic novel, but the thing is I was a huge fan of the TV show as a kid—probably would not have bothered reading this otherwise—so I can’t help comparing it.
The first thing is getting used to the changes, as this is technically a “reimagining,” as in Battlestar Galactica, definitely not a continuation. Santini is now young and black rather than old and an Italian cliché; it takes them quite a while to explain it’s his son, and then go further to say he was adopted. Also different is Archangel, now a beautiful young woman rather than an older one-eyed guy. However, since that’s more of a position than a name, and the guy shows up later, it isn’t as jarring. At one point I wondered if it was really Stringfellow or his brother, but thankfully that didn’t last long.
One thing I enjoyed was that, unlike a lot of graphic novels, this isn’t one overreaching arc, but rather each of the collected comics is a separate episode. We get our heroes saving a Pakistani scientist from prison; taking out some Indonesian bad guys; battling an Arab warlord in what looks to be Somalia but could be Qatar or such; rescuing a supposed teen drug lord. . . okay, that one stretched things a bit much.
They’re even going up against a militia on home soil who’s gotten their hands on a stealth aircraft; too bad about that brave female agent. This was most likely the weakest entry, as it featured the stealth in a dogfight with Airwolf, which is completely impossible, as anyone familiar with stealth technology would know. The writers might have some knowledge of military operations, but the use of an obsolete Warthog—the plane, not the animal—in Indonesia is also a miss. The Indonesian military guy uses the phrase “Crispy critters,” and I really do hope it was intentionally funny. In fact, all the foreign officers speak Big Word English.
As one would expect of a woman drawn in what is essentially a comic meant for men—or more likely teenaged boys—Archangel is drawn hot, but there’s a good reason nobody likes her. The writing is pedestrian, the plots simple. . . but then I don’t remember the original winning any writing Emmys either. The best line had to be: “Queen of Deceit in a kingdom of liars.”
For this fan, a bit disappointing. As an objectionable objective observer, it’s okay.

Cultural Repercussions
First of all, great title for a study on a drummer (icymi, re-percussions).
And yet the emphasis here is not on Neil Peart’s drumming, but rather a chronological history of his life with an emphasis on his lyrics. The author is as much a fanboy as me and everyone else reading this, which is refreshing, but for the most part he still manages to make this sound somewhat scholarly. There’s a lot more philosophical ramblings than I think anyone has ever tried to make of the lyrics, especially the Stoic school, as he breaks the career of Rush into parts according to when one era of music stopped and another started; I do that too, but mine don’t quite mesh with his.
There’s quite a bit here that reminds me of the documentary made of the band, with special attention given to all the famous musicians they’ve inspired. I don’t think this broke any new ground other than the philosophical musings mentioned above, but it’s still an interesting addition for those who have to have everything Rush-ian.

Tips, Tools, and Tactics For Getting Your Book Reviewed
I’m not looking to be a published author, so I came into this with a different mindset. It amazed me how many suggestions mentioned here have been used on me, and I had no idea that listing a book on NetGalley could be so expensive.
As the title implies, this is more for authors than reviewers, but I nevertheless found some interesting things. The main body is about the different ways authors can get reviewed—again, there’s the title—and classifies them according to how much effort it’ll take, average results, potential results, and secondary benefits.
On the downside, especially at the beginning, there were small chapters with plenty of facing blank pages, no doubt in order to pad what is already a thin book anyway. It’s more probable the publisher did that, but annoying that they think readers won’t figure that out.
My favorite intriguing note is a direct quote: “I know when I was blogging, I was always hesitant to leave below a three-star review for an author I had interacted with directly. I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings—but maybe I was being too Canadian about the whole thing.” Since I am a born and bred Southern Californian who thinks of himself as an honorary Canadian—just gotta ace the test—I could see where she was coming from, because the very same day I read this I went through the same thing.
The most important takeaway here is that the author is earnest and genuinely seems to want to help, which I found refreshing. This more than anything, as I wouldn’t be trying out the suggestions, is what sold me on this book.

Kindness on a Budget
A lady writes about all the encounters she has in a regular day and how easy it is to make even a stranger’s life a little brighter, if only momentarily.
It’s hard for me to say anything negative here, as I really believe in the message of this book and some of the ideas she puts forth. Still, I would be remiss if I did not mention she’s at least middle class if not upper middle-class; even though she rents her home, it has a pool and hot tub. Not everything done here is within the reach of a lot of people, and I don’t particularly mean monetarily. In addition, since she doesn’t have a regular job—yet manages to fly all over the place—she has a lot of time to do crafty things at home and run errands; people who have to deal with rush hour and then go to the market might be too tired and frazzled to pay attention to the niceties as she suggests.
Despite that caveat, there’s plenty here to like and emulate.


Poetry Tuesday: Reconciliation


WORD over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead.
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near,
Bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.


Theater Review: Antigone at A Noise Within

A semi-honest agent: “This could be big for your career, I don’t mind lying.”

It’s become a running gag that whenever I go to see theater it’s over 100 degrees; unfortunately Mother Nature is the only one laughing. As always I’m in my explorer hat, with the flap down the back, necessary because I get sunburned on the back of my neck after about ten seconds, but luckily the bus stop is shaded and I can take it off. . . only to burn my fingers with how hot it has become just crossing the street. And of course the air conditioning on the bus is ice-cold in comparison. At least the driver is cheery.
On the way north up Rosemead Blvd. there’s the Greek church once again holding GreekFest! Why did no one tell me? Your PR guys suck. Okay, I’m not about to go in this heat, but I’ve had fun there before, might have handled a few minutes of looking for archaeology souvenirs. . . as in t-shirts of the Acropolis, not actual artifacts; don’t buy them, they fund terrorists.
Off the bus into the cavernous parking lot cum transportation station, where I simply have to cross one access road and then walk a somewhat shady path for about ten seconds to get to the back door of A Noise Within.  Yes, so lucky that an excellent theater company is located where all I have to do is cross the street from my apartment, catch a bus for 5-10 minutes (depending on traffic), and walk for fifteen seconds.
Since I’m at the mercy of the bus schedules I’m early as always, so I hunker down by a hidden couch next to the balcony entrance and peruse the program, then my phone. I’m probably the only person who actually turns off their phone before being told, though this time there’s a beautiful female voice telling you to do so before the show begins; gotta find out who that is.
Also gotta remember next time to take some photos of this unusual yet intriguing building. I have no idea if they maintained the original design of the lobby, but since it fits with the scheme of the exterior, I’m giving it a doubtful benefit. Research tells me it used to be the Stuart Pharmaceutical Building, a midcentury modern landmark designed by architect Edward Durell Stone; for you architecture buffs, here’s a small article on the building’s history until I can photographically dazzle you next time.
As you approach the staircase going down into the theater—I took the elevator—there’s a sign saying that this season of theater works is dedicated to Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard, which became a lot less surprising when in the above-mentioned research I found he was instrumental in bringing the company to its new home, after years in Glendale.
Okay, down in my usual aisle seat and chatting with the woman seated next to me while trying not to listen to the inane patter of some rich matrons behind me. To my surprise, Glen Miller is the house music as we’re waiting for the play to start; to everyone’s shock, I named those tunes: Little Brown Jug and String of Pearls.
Okay, on to the play, or I should say the first preview of the play. In the publicity it’s said this is the first authorized translation from the modern French version of Sophocles’ classic by Jean Anouilh, so that’s cool. The basic plot is that in Ancient Greece it was important that a body be buried so their soul can be free or some such; there has never been a time in human history when a majority of people didn’t believe in something silly, goes the famous quote. And said rites have to be done by a woman. More specific to this play, two brothers were in a war to rule Thebes and killed each other—I picture a Wild West shootout—leaving Creon—who I think is their uncle, but with Oedipus as part of the family, who knows?—as king. He kinda arbitrarily decides that one of the brothers should be thought of as a hero and the other a villain, and so declares that the bad guy should not be buried, just left there to stink up the place until the scavengers harvest him. Antigone, sister of the two as well as daughter of Oedipus, thinks her uncle is being a meanie and goes out in the middle of the night to bury her brother anyway, despite knowing she’ll be put to death for it.
We start with a Greek chorus of one, a lady dressed in a style that makes me think of the 50s, but since when do I know anything about fashion? With great humor and plenty of gravitas—not at the same time—she tells us what’s up, even introduces the characters as the actors stand still on stage. Since this isn’t a particularly famous play with the general public, it seems like a good idea.
Creon is dressed in a business suit, which completely fits the type of ruler he is. Other than a few pieces of broken temple masonry on stage, there’s no attempt to make it feel like it takes place in Ancient Greece; there’s a radio and bombs going off, so it’s definitely a modern setting. Since this is a translation of the French version which was written in the 1940s, all this makes sense, but only if you think about it. . . or don’t bother to think about it.
The most colorful of the characters is the sentry, dressed in an overdone army uniform, not exactly ceremonial but not what anyone on duty would wear either; in fact he looks more like General McArthur than any mere soldier or guard. His clipped speech and manner is over the top and also reminiscent of WW2 movies, done for comedy, which worked for me.
Without revealing any more of the plot, I have to sat this was pretty intense and discomforting, but then that’s what tragedy’s supposed to be. The hardest part was adjusting expectations; people had different belief systems thousands of years ago, and things that seem inconsequential to us were life and death to them. Even knowing that, it was still tremendously difficult to follow along as to why certain things were so important, especially to Antigone and Creon.
At some points it felt like Antigone had a death wish, or perhaps wants to be a martyr; she basically forces Creon to put her to death. Seems like a really high price to pay just to throw some dirt over a dead body. But there’s a director’s note in the program that made this better for me: “None of us here tonight believes that Antigone’s brother will never rest until she throws some dirt on the corpse. Yet we listen, and we believe in her, although she neither knows nor cares what we believe.”
There’s quite a few philosophical ramblings between Antigone and Creon, such as civil disobedience, the nature of happiness, and the burden of being in charge; considering how tyrannical Creon becomes, that’s definitely not out of place here. There’s a line toward the end that I perversely enjoyed, maybe too much: “They will rot well.” But the best moment for me was when Creon made an Oedipus joke about the famous tragic figure being called a certain insult that actually, unlike everyone else, does fit him; I was the only one who laughed. (In case you didn’t get that, it’s frequently shortened to mofo.)
With all that said, the acting was as superb as usual whenever I see this company. The main character basically has to carry the play, and Emily James does so without any unnecessary flash or ego, yet still enjoying the hell out of her rare impassioned lines. Eric Curtis Johnson as Creon—whom I saw in Dance of Death but didn’t come close to recognizing—brought an air of pomposity, though thankfully not too much, to a character who is by turns sympathetic and hated. Lorna Raver as the maid did a good job of lightening the mood at the beginning, where she starts off the play alone for a good five minutes. As mentioned before, the guard—as thespian’d by Stephen Weingartner—also brought some much needed comic relief to the heaviness and ultimate despair inherit in the work. The direction was sparse, which is not strange considering the stage is never changed, and I think the play is better for it. My fave part of the staging is the inclusion of a small water source behind some ruins, just big enough to dip some fingers and wet your face, but with a light positioned perfectly to see the reflection of small shimmering waves on the whiteness.
Since it had worked for me before, I had skipped lunch in favor of some snacks before the two o’clock show, so by the time we were let out around four I was hungry but not starving. This all works out because across the street is Hook Burger, which has rapidly become my second fave after In-N-Out. . . plus they have bacon! Rather than having girls bring your food to the table they have switched to a pager coaster system, which was a shame because I enjoyed talking to those ladies. As I finally get to munch I check the app and find my bus is coming in 5 minutes, with the next one an hour later. So with a rueful gesture at having to leave the air conditioning, I wrap my half-burger up and stuff it in my pocket—I love these shorts, so many pockets!—and swig from the bottle of orange cream soda as I hustle across the street to the bus stop, trying to ignore the even more incredibly intense heat. The orange drink is proving ineffective in regulating my temperature, though it sure brings it taste-wise.
When I got home I ate the second half of the burger while watching a documentary on Mayan glyphs on Netflix.

Poetry Tuesday: Properties of a Good Greyhound

By Dame Juliana Berners (b. 1388)
Do you wonder if they dressed up their dogs and put them in strollers back then too?

A greyhound should be headed like a Snake,
And necked like a Drake,
Footed like a Cat,
Tailed liked a Rat,
Sided like a Team,
Chined like a Beam.

The first year he must learn to feed,
The second year to field him lead,
The third year he is fellow-like,
The fourth year there is none sike,
The fifth year he is good enough,
The sixth year he shall hold the plough,
The seventh year he will avail
Great bitches for to assail,
The eighth year lick ladle,
The ninth year cart saddle,
And when he is comen to that year
Have him to the tanner,
For the best hound that ever bitch had
At nine year he is full bad.


Book Reviews: Hawaii, New Mexico, The South, and Neurotica

Some people take exception when I say a face devoid of makeup is a “naked face.”
Some people are assholes.

The Cypress Trap
How sad would your life be if everything depended on a good-luck charm?
After a prologue of kids jumping into a watering hole somewhere in the South, we’re taken to a failing marriage on a fishing vacation, with both still trying to recover from the death of their child. It’s been said that in such situations it’s more likely for the couple to split up rather than stay together, and though she’s trying her hardest, it looks like this is heading that way. . . which confuses me, because this protagonist is no great prize. He calls his recent life “an extraordinarily atrocious run of bad luck,” when in reality it’s more like incredible stupidity and stubbornness.
The couple and their friend are chased by bad teens, though no one believes them. Finally the sheriff helps her out, except we never find out what happens to him, other than the implication he was killed by the bad teens. I was feeling sympathy for her, but now she seems as dumb and self-centered as her husband. Unfortunately the sheriff’s simply forgotten and we’ll never know.
There are some reasons a dog might change allegiances, even a brutal attack dog. Being hit on the head is not one of them.
Because there had to be a reason for the prologue, I wasn’t surprised when that person showed up; still, I think the author cheated a little with that. Hard to believe someone could get so hung up on a good-luck charm, but then there’s plenty of crazy to go around.
The worst part for me was how the main character’s injury left his leg too shredded to walk, and yet without any medical care later in the book he’s able to fight off some bad guys and survive being thrown in the lake. Or perhaps the worst part is at the end I really wasn’t shook up at all about the deaths.
Though the writing was enjoyable, these several huge inconsistencies in the plot mentioned above doomed it for me.

A Bundle of Neurotica
A collection of six short stories featuring a young college professor and her evil twin, who wants to make her sister’s life better by showing her how to have fun—or taking her place to protect her from the arrogant jerks around her—and only makes things worse.
I was sadly surprised by how bored I was despite the fun premise. There isn’t even that much erotica in it, except for some spankings and the evil twin picking up some anonymous guy in a bar. The only thing that kept it interesting enough for me to make it to the end was the evil twin’s snark.
At one point I actually wondered if, instead of an evil twin, she had a split personality, but no, the evil gal is real. . . I think.
All in all, pretty disappointing.

Tropical Judgments
A local—as in Hawaiian—musical legend is killed in a mugging, and a black kid who’s led the most heartbreaking life you’ve ever heard, as well as suffering from fainting spells, is accused. A local lawyer, himself the victim of fainting spells, is forced to defend him in a story that’s part detective and part courtroom drama.
This was a surprisingly easy read, with a flow that kept me going for far longer than I would have thought, once I glanced at the clock. The Hawaii setting—anything but a paradise—was intriguing, especially the racism. I found the characters well-drawn and distinctive, except for there being too many people to keep track of in the crime family.
Not that it was perfect, though. The one bad guy’s excuse of “family” sounded particularly false, considering he was betraying his real blood relatives. At one point the prosecutor, who up to then had been a relatively good guy, uses the “if the criminal didn’t do this, he probably did something” crap, which surprised the hell out of me, and disappointed me as much as the defense lawyer. The dif is I was disappointed in the author for scuttling the character. And as far as the writing, smooth as it was, there were too many chapters for how short it was.
Some questions remained. Did the police—corrupt as they are—try to trace the death threat phone call? What about the witness who saw the bad cop with the real killer? Perhaps those will be explained in the next book.

Spectre Black
A female cop in New Mexico is chased out of her home in the middle of the night; then the scene switches to a guy in San Clemente, California. Quick introductions, though that might be understandable considering this is not the first book in this series.
Rushing to New Mexico at her SOS, the protagonist finds himself quickly immersed in all the nefarious activities of the small town where she was a detective. Before he knows it he’s being seduced by a black widow of an FBI agent—how the hell was she posted so close to home?—and set up for murder, thrown into jail where he’s fully expected to be killed.
And then somewhere in the middle the plot turns into something much different; how the heck is it suddenly about cloaking technology? And then our bright hero, with the help of a friend, decides the smart thing to do is go undercover with a militia; yeah, that’ll end well.
Just to confirm their evilness, the half-siblings—the obviously schizophrenic youngster and the FBI agent—are in an incestuous relationship.
When the main character finds the cop he came to save alive and well and living it up on a houseboat, the fast pace slows down dramatically, almost like a whole new book. They plot to take down the bad guys in numerous ways, none of them very convincing. What could have been a very good story gets bogged down in a plot too intricate to really enjoy.


Poetry Tuesday: Here Lies Archeanassa

By Asclepiades (c. 275-265 BCE). Some things never change.

Here Lies Archeanassa
the courtesan from Colophon
whose old and wrinkled body
was still Love’s proud domain.

you lovers who knew her youth
in its sweet piercing splendor
and plucked those early blooms–
through what a flame you passed!