Book Reviews: Literary Stew

The Messy Joys of Being Human
Despite the title, this is a self-help tome.
Even though my first thought as I plunged into this was “I’ve heard all of this before,” I couldn’t help noticing that it was transmitted differently.
I think the most admirable quality this author possesses is the ability to be optimistic despite everything that’s happened and continues to happen around us. On the other hand it’s got a light style that makes me wonder how much I’ll remember when I’m done.
I love that she’s a fellow grok. . . person. Someday we may share water.
Years ago this would have been called new age; now it just feels normal.

The Sign of the Serpent
This volume, second in the series, revolves around Marisol and her search for the killer of her father, as well as going after Mannix and Indra for killing the council or something.
For the most part it feels a lot like the first, which is mostly a good thing, but in the end I didn’t like this one as much. The ending was the problem, as while I enjoy puzzles, it’s only those I have a chance to solve, and I wasn’t given the opportunity here. There were simply too many switches: Is the bad guy good instead? Is the bad girl just a pawn? Mood whiplash.
As always I like Marisol, but she wasn’t nearly as smart in this one; clever, but being dumb at important times to service the plot. Annoyed by the cliffhanger ending.

Romancing the Rogue
The owner of a castle dies, having forgotten he’d taken charge of an orphan years ago. The new heir gives her a month to find a husband and move out. Her old crush shows up, but she wants nothing to do with him, whereas he realizes his mistake and wants her now.
This is an earlier book than most I’ve read by this author. It’s not as fabulous, but you can see the underpinnings of the technique and humor she would develop in her later series. Definitely worth the read.

Life, Death, and Cellos
Bad seafood leads to a corpulent conductor—I love alliteration—suffering a heart attack in the musical saddle. Then the orchestra’s problems really start. There’s a Strad involved. The new conductor is having an affair with more than one cellist.
There’s a lot of musical explanations, intended to teach us non-musicians, but even this is too technical, so it came across as boring. Listed as a mystery, but it really isn’t. Told in a tongue-in-cheek style that tries to be like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but despite some humor it’s nowhere near that level.
My fave characters are Erin and the cop who gets obsessed by the Strad. We’ll probably be seeing more of him in the sequels, which are sure to come.

Big Nate: Payback Time!
Collection #3000 or so of the long-running comic strip, featuring an almost-loveable grade school loser and his silly shenanigans.
As a former soccer goalie, I was a little insulted by the first plotline, but I’ll let it pass for now.
He wins more often than he has before, but Nate wouldn’t be Nate if he didn’t fall on his face all the time. But I like that he’s always optimistic, no matter how misplaced.
I’m so glad my father doesn’t watch YouTube. . .
Nate’s talking about how cool it would be to be a profiler while I’m watching Criminal Minds.
There isn’t much left to say. If you liked it before, you’ll like it now. If you’ve never seen it, it’s worth a try. Think of it as a slightly edgier Peanuts.

Book Learnin’
I’d read one of these comic collections, and gave it my highest rating, so of course I took a chance on this one.
The first section is on art, very little of it memorable. The best joke was on hat fashion.
“Giraffe pimp” snuck up on me.
A whale singing about big butts is just wrong.
Don’t tell anybody I laughed at the car/plane joke.
Do make copies of the certificate at the end.
Unfortunately this volume wasn’t anywhere near as good as the first. Even on its own it didn’t bring that many chuckles.

Lucy: Speak Out!
Is there really anything left to be said? They’re Peanuts comic strips. After doing collections loosely based on topics like dancing, these feature a certain character, though in this case Lucy is not in every plotline.
Funniest: Santa Claus and his rain gear.
I will never forgive for “barking up the wrong tree.” “Flaw in the ointment” wasn’t any better.
Never knew Marcie had a crush on Chuck.
Find out what happens when Lucy DOESN’T pull the football away. . .
At the end there’s a section on the author’s support of women’s sports.

Unicorn Bowling: Phoebe and Her Unicorn Series Book 9
Another collection of my favorite comic strip.
Phoebe nails it when she says Dad is waxing nostalgic again. He does tend to do that a lot.
Oh lord, I’d forgotten how silly Marigold looks in a bowling shirt. Makes me miss the legwarmers. . . but not the bikini.
The best plot this time around is Phoebe joining Marigold at Unicorn Camp, which turns out to not be that different from human camp, especially with Sue showing up.
So, if you’re familiar with the strip, there’s nothing new here, and that’s a good thing. If you’ve never seen it, give it a try.


Book Reviews: Sci-fi, Mystery, and Other Necessities

The Bronze Skies
After fleshing out all corners and eras of her massive Skolian universe, Doctor Asaro goes back to the beginning in the second book in the Major Bhaajan series. The first was so amazing it’s gonna be a tough act to follow, though it just might have.
I was particularly excited when the blurb mentioned Jagernauts were involved, so I was really hoping Digjan was in this! Nope, Dr. Asaro is just teasing me as usual. Instead it’s a much more seasoned psychic warrior that’s on the warpath, so Bhaaj is called in to find her before she can make another attempt at murdering one of the most important people in the empire, leading into one of Dr. Asaro’s favorite subjects, AI. In what might be called a glut of “robots will rise up and take over” stories nowadays, this one stands out, even from her own previous books like the Alpha series.
Archaeology, anthropology, astronomy, sociology, and of course the inevitable high-level math and science are all happily present here. The best parts, however, are the small moments, especially when she’s helping her people: trying to get a permit for one to sell his wares aboveground, arranging a martial arts competition between her students and an academy, and so on. They really round out her character, making her more than just a detective. At the beginning of the first book she didn’t have much personality, though she grew throughout that story; here she’s even more human, to the point where she’s even telling jokes full of sexual innuendo. It’s a bit startling, considering how tightly wound up she was in the first one. Even more so, she finds out more about the powers she’d been afraid she had at the end of the first.
This story also expands the already large scope of the undercity, but also introduces the above world other than Cries, the legendary planet where human life was transported from Earth so long ago. In the scope of the three huge space empires it’s pretty insignificant, but somehow harder to grasp. I’d been hoping this would lead to finding out what alien race seeded the planet with humans in the first place, but despite the clues in what they left behind it didn’t go that far. It did give us an archaeological site that sounds like it came right out of a video game, and the special Jagernauts that guard it. I anticipate many more stories coming out of that.
So in the end Bhaaj—Calaj too—saved the universe every bit as much as Soz, but just like her, no one will ever know. . .

Beg for Mercy
Mercy went from growing up in a brothel to becoming an assassin, but retains enough humanity to chuck her assigned job when she finds a conspiracy that’s much bigger and more dangerous for what remains of the western United States. Along the way she gets involved with a legendary figure that shares a common enemy.
Yes, this is a dystopian romance/erotica, though that last part was minimal. Not unheard of, but definitely rare.
Not sure about this one. The many factions made it hard to follow, and Mercy was just too stubborn to root for. At one point she puts herself out as bait to catch the bad guy, having conveniently forgotten about the bounty on her. The action was realistic, but the sex scenes didn’t pack as much heat.

The Unity
A military leader in a sprawling authoritarian space empire questions his oath when his second-in-command tries to kill him. From there the story sprawls all over the galaxy, with a huge cast of characters and ships, far too many to keep track.
There are some nice moments, like the intro and background for Dr. Aravantis; short but sweet, and most importantly memorable. His creations were also a delight to get to know, but the negatives far outweighed them. I had huge problems with the conspiracy, and especially all the killing, alternatively making me annoyed or sad, and I don’t like that. Most of the circumstances were unnecessary, and the dead are hardly grieved over at all. In fact, the whole book seems devoid of emotion. It definitely didn’t make me want to read the sequel.

Girl, Wash Your Face
I picked this up because I’m a huge fan of Rachel Hollis, though that’s her fiction rather than her lifestyle website. So this work of self-help was new territory for me, but I was quickly relieved to find her amazing humor was still there.
This book feels like a bunch of blog posts, which for all I know is true. At the beginning there’s a section on the true but tired platitude of taking care of yourself before you help others, which by now is so overused it’s hardly a new concept. She does manage to weave several points together, which does help.
This would have been just as good without all the religious stuff thrown in. I feel the earnestness; I don’t believe anything written here is less than genuine. But I can’t be sure if that belief is there because I’m a big fan of her previous works. Nevertheless, it’s more than worthwhile reading for those who aren’t familiar with her Girl series and have no preconceived notions.

Egyptian Enigma
Having enjoyed this author’s previous works, taking place mostly in Australia with fictionalized history tours to the old civilizations of Mesoamerica, this entry tackles Egypt, possibly the only place that would have even more fodder for stories like these. Though it follows the pattern of trying to solve an old archaeological mystery, this book has less in the way of modern conundrums. Most of the story involves who’s in the sarcophagus, but other than a stolen notebook and a break-in, there’s no real mystery until the end, and that’s only a setup for the next book.
The one thing I love the most about this character is her memory palace, and the way it works as a library. If she wants to remember something, it comes up as though brought to her by a librarian. Pretty cool. Just as fun is her amazingly diverse family, if you don’t count all the cats.
It’s funny that the author takes the time to write out the Welsh dialogue, as it’s never pronounced like it’s spelled.
Despite liking Egyptian archaeology very much, I’m not enjoying this nearly as much as I did the previous books, with the flashbacks in Mesoamerica. But if nothing else, this book rekindled my interest in the 18th and 19th dynasties of Egypt. And all the references to Buffy, Firefly, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. . . seriously, this writer is from my tribe.
Long recipes and glossary at end, along with dedications. Wait, my archaeological crush Dr. Kara Cooney was in there and I missed her? Ouch. Please don’t tell her.
There was one point I disliked. In one of the sections taking place in ancient Egypt, the rulers tasks her scribe to check the records to “seek guidance from the ancients.” He does find something similar in the past, but it never occurred to the ruler that, in this time where anyone could be a suspect in the conspiracy, this guy could make up anything he wanted. . .

The Treachery of Russian Nesting Dolls
I do hate coming to a series late—this is the fourth—but it sounded too intriguing to pass up. It starts with a bang in the red-light district of Amsterdam, and the most unusual foot chase you’ll ever read.
The main character is intriguing, which is more than I can say for the plot, which did not invest me at all. The mystery-solving had its bright spots, but then the writer ruined it by not giving me a chance to solve the case; the clue that did it was not given to the audience till after. Not fun.
Second off, I didn’t like the roller coaster ending, mostly because I didn’t see the point of it. Maybe there was something in the previous books that led to that big moment, but it doesn’t seem likely. The author has an agenda we’re not privy to, other than his obvious hatred for the latest Russian baddie in power.

The Telling Image: Shapes of Changing Times
This is a picture book that wants to be more than that.
The first part reads like Intro to Human Anthropology. There’s an intriguing observation about shapes, the round and the square in Liberia shown as examples. One gorgeous photo brought good memories of Stonehenge, before it was fenced off. The Big Dipper-Great Bear-laptop thing was a bit forced, though that was quickly overshadowed by the most beautiful shot of a spiderweb ever.
This is definitely not something you should read in one sitting, with numerous philosophical discussions that will make you pause to think. This isn’t a coffeetable book that gets opened to look at pretty pictures; the photos here serve to highlight the text.

Love and Laughter
Right at the start, when the author introduces herself, she writes, “In the pages that follow, we’ll talk frankly (because I don’t know how to be anything else!). . . My name is Beth Liebling, and I’m a sappy, emotional, hopelessly optimistic romantic. I believe in happy fairy tales and forever love.” She also mentions that she’s a divorce lawyer. . .
A very conversational intro leads to exactly the same in the main part of the book. It’s important to go into this expecting it to be fun rather than a serious discussion about sex, though the title should have been enough of a clue. At one point she compares romance to going to the theater, then being in a play with your partner. It’s a little trite, but her enthusiasm is infectious.
There’s artwork, sometimes small shots of lingerie as chapter headers, but other times full drawings that seem cartoonish, which works in this setting. Some of the jokes are hokey, and sometimes she goes out of her way for a joke that isn’t really there, but on the other hand I prefer earnestness to sullen any day.
And that’s it exactly. More than just fun, it’s optimistic. I can easily imagine her responding the exact same way in person at her shop.


Book Reviews: The Constitution, The Past, and Brain Stuff

While ordering at the restaurant, she smirked, “You are a man of simple pleasures.”
“Are you a simple pleasure?”
“No comment.” But you could tell her face was saying Oh shit!

Shuttered Life
A woman returns to the ancestral home to confront the family she broke from when her father died. One of her cousins, uncles, or aunt wants her gone, or dead, possible because she looks like her mother.
Beside the protagonist in first person, there’s a different first person narrative in italics, and this mystery is what the reader had to figure out. There’s lots of flashbacks, mostly to give motive to the bunch of suspects; every so often I would change my mind as to who I thought was the bad guy. At one point it’s seemed pretty clear it was a woman, but I didn’t figure it out until one page before the big reveal.
This doesn’t read like a typical mystery, but that’s not a criticism; it feels a lot more like a slice of this woman’s life as we get to know her through her memories and her reactions to how her long-lost family treats her. There isn’t that much plot, but the writing is good enough to keep it from getting boring.

The Constitution of the United States
The blurb says this important document has been updated and simplified so that everyone can understand it. The main differences are that the amendments had been integrated into where they would go if they’d been included in the original, and that obsolete parts have been taken out and tossed into the heap at the end. There’s also modern terminology at the end of each section, like you see in Shakespeare’s modern versions.
To someone who hasn’t read the constitution in a very long time—maybe since college—I don’t feel like this changes much. I assume for a scholar like the author his changes, particularly putting the amendments in contextual order, would seem like a big step that clarifies a lot, but I simply didn’t feel that way. Definitely nothing wrong with it, but not sure how much of an improvement it is.

Dying to Remember
Like in several movies, the protagonist here has lost his short-term memory; he can remember almost everything before the bad seafood that put him in a coma, but he’s unable to make new long-term memories. Oddly enough, this book is set in the past, and I kept waiting for it to tie into the present, but it never did.
Chapter 8 starts with a huge wham line about his wife, and the dog too. There’s plenty of suspects and motives, which I liked, because it lets my imagination run wild, trying to figure out who the bad guy is.
As one might expect, there’s a lot of repetition here; every few chapters, especially when it’s the next day, the guy has to read his notes and realize once again what happened, which is rather disheartening. If there’s a good thing about what happened to him, it’s that the disease has made him a much better person, or at least less of an asshole. In the end I was a little underwhelmed by who the bad guy turned out to be, but before that I was definitely happy with the plotting and especially the psychology behind his disease and his attempts to overcome it.

Activate Your Brain
At first glance it seems this is going to be yet another motivational tome, and in a way it is, but it wanders to a lot of places I would not have expected. For example, there’s a bit on neurology near the beginning, as if to show that this is not your average self-help book. Another thing it tells you at the start is that this book is most focused on the brains of businesspeople.
But for the most part it is like others I’ve read in this genre. Each chapter covers something specific, such as sleep, rest, food; there’s even a piece on ego, which as it turns out is not completely bad for you. Also typical are all the personal stories, some better than others. One I clearly remember is about a friend of the author’s learning to ski. The man makes it clear that gathering the courage to go down the same run as his friends wasn’t about comparing himself to anyone, but simply telling himself he could do it. I find this to be a bad example for the simple reason that most wrong choices won’t get you killed, and a beginner skier going down an expert slope is definitely a wrong choice.
Every chapter has activations, small suggestions for the reader to do which will reinforce the lessons of the chapter. But some of these feel too much like homework, while others are rather obvious, common sense. There’s even a paragraph about yawning (which of course made me yawn). There’s some good stuff here, but of course it all depends on how much the reader is willing to do.