Book Review: Rambler: A family pushes through the fog of mental illness



Title: Rambler: A family pushes through the fog of mental illness

Author: Linda K. Schmitmeyer

Published: September 25, 2018

Pages: 374

Genre: Memoir/Nonfiction

Synopsis: When Steve, a successful young engineer, suddenly quits his job after a fight with his boss and begins exhibiting troubling signs of mental illness, a family’s seemingly idyllic middle-class life is thrown into chaos. Rambler takes the reader on an incredible 10-year quest of a family to stick together through the worst of his troubles and find answers from a medical community whose understanding of mental illness was lagging in the 1990s.



Final Thoughts:

In the realm of memoirs and nonfiction books based on medical issues, sometimes there are Important books, and there are Good Reads, and they do not always overlap. Many readers know the experience of trying to plod through an book just because they feel they should. The end result may be gratifying, but the doing is not. Or the act of reading a book whose narrative breezes along, but in the end, nothing of value remains.

This book is one of the fortunate few that exist in both spheres. Linda’s long career as a journalist and writing instructor is apparent, as events are presented in an engaging and easy-to-understand style. Despite the seriousness of a family struggling with the weight of bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, Linda is self-aware enough to find a dark humor in her life, through things like her husband’s idiosyncratic obsession with Rambler automobiles, and an odd sequence of events that led to the cover photo of Steve standing triumphantly atop a Rambler half-sunk in the middle of a pond.

These are counterbalanced by heart-rending details of events occurring while Steve was having an episode and the family’s ensuing struggle to cope with all of the chaos that entailed, emotionally, socially, medically, and financially. Steve’s personal battle would reach an apex when, after losing his engineering job, he was arrested and placed in a psychiatric hold during an engineering conference in Detroit, Michigan. Unfortunately, it would still be several years before the medical community caught up with Steve’s issues and figured out both an appropriate diagnosis and a mixture of medications that could quiet his mind. These years were a trying time for a family who had effectively lost their primary source of income, and for whom medical answers were not readily forthcoming.

Although the family very humanly experienced wistful despair and even anger at their situation, through all of the struggles is an undercurrent of love. Childrens’ love for their father. A wife’s love for her husband. A father’s love for his family. Each are strained to their limit in turn and for different reasons, but their resiliency and dedication to holding together as a unit is truly uplifting.

Rambler is a worthy companion to recent popular nonfiction books regarding mental illness, like Brain on Fire, by Susannah Calahan (encephalitis); and fictional entries like Still Alice, by Lisa Genova (Alzheimer’s). Especially given that this books offers something that many others do not: the first-person perspective of a family member.

The book is now available on Amazon, here.

On a final, personal note, I know the Schmitmeyer family, although not especially well. Linda and Steve were a part of a “card club” including my parents when I was growing up, and their children were a frequent part of the cast of characters at a pool belonging to a mutual neighborhood friend in the summers. Although much of the events of this book took place before I was in high school and thus my understanding of both mental illnesses and the family lives of others was extremely limited, I was very surprised upon reading at how much of the Schmitmeyer’s struggle was kept quiet within the neighborhood community. I knew Steve to be a charismatic and fun-loving person, who had a 1000-megawatt smile and an eager laugh. The family’s reasons for their reticence to share are eminently understandable: the stigmas surrounding mental illness are still very real, and even today’s relative state of enlightenment is a far cry from society’s general views in the late 90s. But, I think this is an important lesson; not that we should pry into the lives of others where it is not wanted, but that we should be aware that we may not know what our friends are going through at a particular time, and to do what we can to offer a hand or even an ear when we sense a need, because the issues may run far deeper than we realize.



Thanks for reading.

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Book Review: The Underland Chronicles (5-book series)

Series: The Underland Chronicles
Titles: Gregor the Overlander; Gregor and the Prophesy of Bane; Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods; Gregor and the Marks of Secret; Gregor and the Code of Claw

Author: Suzanne Collins

Published: 2003 – 2007

Pages: 336; 320; 304; 352; 416 (from Amazon data, but I think these are based on small pages with a large type-face)

Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy/Adventure

Kid Friendly Rating: 9+ Swearing and sexual content is basically non-existent, but the books get progressively scarier and more violent. Click here for the Common Sense Media Guide!

Synopsis:

Gregor is an ordinary 11-year-old boy who lives in a run-down apartment building in New York City with his mom. Gregor’s father disappeared from his life two years prior, leaving behind Gregor, his mom, and his two younger sisters, Lizzie (7), and Boots (2). As the oldest child, Gregor feels immense pressure to help his mother care for his sisters while he watches bills pile up and the family struggles to eat.

One day, while helping with laundry in the basement of the building with his baby sister Boots, Gregor observes that she is playing perilously close to an old air duct. Too late, he dives after her, and just like that, they both find themselves plummeting… but the fall lasts far longer than it should. At long last, Gregor and Boots arrive unharmed in a cave at some unknown depth. Before he can stop her, Boots sets off exploring, and she abruptly finds some very strange company. Before he can catch his breath, Gregor and Boots are caught up in the midst of a prophesy, with the fate of thousands hanging in the balance. And maybe, just maybe, the possibility of a reunion with his long lost father.

Gregor soon learns that he and Boots have landed in the Underland, a realm where cockroaches are nearly as big as humans, and rats are a great deal larger. Not to mention vicious. And they hate humans.

The Underland is home to a lost race of humans who have been underground for thousands of years. The humans have been at war with the rats on and off for generations. Upon arriving at the human kingdom, Gregor learns that the rats have a particular aversion to “Overlanders” due to an ancient prophesy predicting that one would essentially bring about the end of the rat kingdom.

When the human  leaders learn that Gregor’s father had mysteriously vanished two years prior, speculation abounds that his father had been captured by rats, which means that Gregor may be “The Warrior” referenced in the prophesy who could save the human race. An expedition is launched (owing much to The Fellowship of the Ring and The Hobbit) to find Gregor’s father, fulfill the prophesy, and save the Underland human race in the process.

Joining Gregor in his quest are Luxa, the young heiress to the human throne, her cousin Henry, their two bats Aurora and Ares (who are bonded to their human partners sort of like Han and Chewie, but in an official capacity), two cockroaches named Tick and Temp, and a gigantic rogue rat named Ripred.

Unfortunately for Gregor, his adventures in the Underland do not end with one simple quest. No sooner has he found himself home than he is drawn unexpectedly into further adventures, with ever more complications, as Gregor’s friendships and stature in the Underland both develop and deepen.

Final Thoughts:

While Suzanne Collins is now far better known for her popular dystopian Hunger Games series, she kicked off her published writing career with the Underland Chronicles back in 2003. This is a different type of story, but built on a framework with some obvious parallels.

Like Katniss, Gregor is constantly driven by his love for his family and his desire to protect them at all costs. Also like Katniss, Gregor’s extreme selflessness in furtherance of this goal sometimes lends him a mythical quality to those around him, even though his inward thoughts show his fear and innocence. Both characters have lost their father and felt the need to step up in his absence. Gregor is perhaps more reserved in his acceptance of violence as a means to an end. When Gregor discovers that he has a particular talent for fighting, he is sickened, literally, by the idea, and wants nothing to do with any prophesy that could refer to him as a “warrior.”

In the sarcastic and battle-toughened rat Ripred, we see perhaps an early template for Haymitch. In the cold and calculating human leader Solovet are shades of President Coin.

To me, where this series diverges sharply from Hunger Games is in world-building. Pan-Em was an almost completely abstract representation of society with its rigid lines defining zones with ultra-specific economic purposes. The Underland is not a post-apocalyptic vestige of mankind. It is a fully mature civilization existing alongside ours. While Underland areas are divided mostly by species, each species functions independently and apart from the others except for profitable trade exchanges. While the humans and rats appear perpetually at war with each other, creatures like the cockroaches spiders, and numerous others fall into something of a neutral territory. The idea of impartial observers in a global conflict is something that is generally absent in Hunger Games.

At times, Gregor’s indifference for his own well-being and efforts to help others belie his tender age and strain credulity. But, perhaps his years spent without a father have toughened him and forced him to mature far faster than an ordinary pre-teen. Again and again Gregor willingly throws himself into danger to save Boots, to help the rest of his family, and, later, to do right by his friends in the Underland. As an adult reader I could not help rolling my eyes at times when Gregor took on the aura of a superhero, and adults in the Underland willingly sent him into extreme danger for their benefit, as if no one at all is on hand to say, “Hey, isn’t this kid, you know, like 11 or 12? Maybe we should help… a little?” And yet, the earnestness with which Gregor engages in his adventures is constantly endearing, and makes this an appropriate venture for younger readers. We never lose sight of exactly why Gregor is doing what he is doing, and neither does Gregor waver from his sense of what is Right and Just in furtherance of his goals. It doesn’t make his decisions throughout seem terribly complex or weighty, but sometimes it’s nice to have a simple read, in a world of black and white.

Romance is almost completely absent in books 1-4, but it does make an appearance in book 5. Unfortunately, these passages are rushed and underdeveloped, and feel almost as if they were shoe-horned in to add some emotional stakes and provide some additional ties for Gregor to The Underland rather than his family. On the other hand, keeping in mind that Gregor is still only 12 at the conclusion of book 5, I’m not sure increasing the romance is the answer. Perhaps simply an unbreakable friendship would have worked better and developed more organically over the course of all 5 books.

Ah, well, but I am nitpicking here, because I did greatly enjoy my time with Gregor in the Underland, and I would gladly venture back if ever Collins opens the door to return. I read the series over a couple months and found it to be a fun and refreshing diversion from more serious novels. I give the series 3.5* out of 5 stars.

Have you read this series? Let me know your thoughts!

 

 

*For reference, I’d have given Hunger Games a 4.

Book Review: Starship Troopers

Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets

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Title: Starship Troopers

Author: Robert Heinlein

Published: 1959

Pages: 263

Genre: Science Fiction

Kid Friendly Rating: 13+ The inner workings of outer space warfare might be a little advanced for younger readers, but Heinlein goes easy on the gory details.

Synopsis:

In a flimsily-justified effort to “be his own man,” Juan “Johnnie” Rico turns his back on his father’s successful business and joins the Federation military for a contractual two-year term of service. However, as tensions mount between the Federation and the “Bug” species, Rico finds himself drawn further into military life than he ever intended.

Final Thoughts:

Most people today are probably more familiar with the 1997 movie of the same name… Oh, god. I’ve just had a thought. That was almost 20 years ago. Are you younger Millennials out there even aware of this movie? That is depressing.

Anyway, it was a movie directed by Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Robocop, Basic Instinct), starring Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer, and Dougie Howser Barney Stinson Neil Patrick Harris. I saw it in theaters at an outrageously inappropriate 11 years old, and it was completely full of swearing, blood, violence, and nudity. It was incredible.

Fast-forward 19 years, and I still remember it fondly, although I do respect that it is not the masterpiece of modern cinema that I once believed. It’s got sort of a small cult status now. I see memes and gifs pop up periodically, ironically or not.

 

 

In the interest of rounding out this review, I watched the movie again this week, and I did not feel let down. Possibly the single most remarkable thing about this movie, nearly twenty years on, is that the special effects actually hold up pretty well. Many sci-fi movies from the 90’s are burdened by an over-reliance on under-developed CGI effects, but this movie, either through the use of scale models and animatronics, clever lighting, or just well-thought-out usage of CGI, has largely managed to avoid that.

This is not to say you’ll think you’re watching a movie that was released yesterday. Scene transitions and some effects, particularly those used for outer space scenes, do show a bit of their age. I’d put the effects about on par with a well-produced HBO show, like Game of Thrones.

This should also go without saying, but please don’t go into this movie expecting an Oscar winner. This is a fun sci-fi action movie. Full stop. It does have a little tongue-in-cheek social and political commentary to class up the place, but the thrust of the movie is Man vs. Bug. If you can get behind that, you’re in.

If I were to register a single complaint, it would be, man, Casper Van Dien was the best they could come up with for Johnnie Rico? His acting is a little, ah, wooden. To be completely fair to Van Dien, I think the script somewhat calls for it. Johnnie Rico is a painfully earnest and rah-rah character, very much in the vein of Chris Evans’ Captain America. And boy, Van Dien sure is purdy to look at.

Now, as for the book. I did not know this book existed until a few years ago, and even after learning about it, I was not especially interested. I liked the movie. Why should I need to re-hash it in literary form? I could just watch the movie that I like again. Well, much like the lark that took Rico into military service, I finally gave it a shot, and found a surprising number of differences.

The movie was not a standard book-to-script adaptation. The love triangle between Rico, Carmen, and Dizzy which provides the narrative thrust of the movie is really nowhere to be found. Carmen exists, but only as a distant friend rather than a love interest, and Dizzy is merely a fellow male boot camp cadet who plays a minuscule role.

The movie is largely an action movie split between the perspectives of Rico and Carmen, but the book is entirely Rico’s first person narrative, and combat scenes, while present, account for a very small percentage of the book. Much of the novel focuses on Rico’s various experiences in boot camp and beyond that serve to shape him into the person and soldier he will become. The novel really doesn’t read like an action story, or even a largely sci-fi story, despite the exotic settings. With the detailed descriptions of boot camp proceedings and how infantry rankings are assigned either by recommendation, officer training, and necessity in the field, it reads almost like a real historical war account.

The book manages to be remarkably prescient for a book authored in 1959, although it is also a book of its times. One of the most strikingly dated things about the book is the treatment of female characters, along with Rico’s general viewpoints on women. Heinlein manages to be both forward-looking and endearingly chivalrous. On one hand, he has placed the majority of the female characters in his book in leadership roles within the military. By Rico’s words, women have faster reflexes and reaction times, and their superior scores in math make them prime candidates for space naval pilot and officer positions. On the other hand, Heinlein did not write a single female character placed in the Mobile Infantry, the implication being that it is the job of strong men to stand on the front lines and sacrifice themselves to protect the women. It’s sort of a dichotomy, right? Of course, one could also argue that Rico made it clear that the M.I. was his absolute last choice for military assignments, so if there were no women there, perhaps it was because they simply scored out of it.

The film treated men and women soldiers as equals without fanfare or commentary, both in the navy and within the mobile infantry, although it should be said that the majority of M.I. troopers remained men. One thing even more interesting to me about the book’s gender setup is another sharp departure from the movie. In the book, the M.I. enters combat zones within fully equipped power armor, which more or less renders the wearer’s physical strength moot (although it is reinforced several times that a soldier who is compromised physically through sickness or weariness is of no use to his fellow soldiers, power armor or not). It is interesting that even though this power armor should have theoretically leveled the playing field for all body types, the film’s depiction of lightly armored traditional ground troopers had far more diversity.

The book also seems a bit dated in its conception of soldier motivation, as Rico at one point opines that there is no greater motivation for a group of M.I.s than knowing that on every combat drop, a ship full of women is waiting behind, both depending on them and watching their backs. The idea of a female M.I., or even an M.I. who is not particularly interested in the affections of a woman, is really not even contemplated.

But, when I read a book from another time period, I believe that it is healthier to both a) accept that the book exists as a manifestation of the time period in which it was written, and b) the author’s view points are not my own, and that is OK. I understand that this particular book was controversial even when it was released for some social ideas suggested throughout the narrative, including military sovereignty in government and the nobility self-sacrifice for the betterment of society. I take these ideas as the suggestions of the characters in the book, nothing more.

In other small negatives, some readers may turned off by relatively dry passages explaining the complexities of Federation military organization and the operation of the M.I. power armor. I personally found the military rankings a bit dense hard to follow, and I consider myself somewhat interested in the subject (although I am also fairly unschooled in general real-world military rankings and procedures).

In sum, I think this was a really interesting read. I give it 4/5 stars!

Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

 

Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets

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Title: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Series: Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children (Book 1)

Author: Ransom Riggs

Published: 2011

Pages: 382

Genre: Horror/Adventure

Kid Friendly Rating: 14+ Lots of spooky monsters and some adult subjects that may be just a little bit inappropriate for younger children. Click here for the Common Sense Media Guide!

Synopsis:

When Jacob Portman was a small child, his grandfather often regaled him with tales of the orphanage that “saved his life” during World War II. Abraham Portman’s stories were colorful, to say the least. They were populated by amazing children with special talents, like a girl who could float like a balloon on a string, and a boy who was so strong that he could toss a boulder as easily as a basketball. Jacob listened with awe to his grandfather’s stories as a young boy, but with the passing of time came a growing cynicism. Eventually, Jacob dismissed the stories as mere fairy tales, and they fell into the dark recesses of his mind, alongside Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

At the age of 16, a gruesome discovery at Jacob’s grandfather’s home shakes Jacob to the very core, and he is forced to challenge his beliefs regarding reality and fantasy. The discovery sets Jacob off on a mission to investigate the site of his grandfather’s former orphanage. He soon realizes that his grandfather’s stories were far more literal than he ever expected.

Final Thoughts:

Well, here I am at 30 years old and reading yet another Young Adult novel. You know what? It’s fine. 30 is still pretty young for an adult. I don’t feel like an adult. Why should I read like one all the time?

A Young Adult novel is comforting. Themes and conflicts are simple and easy to understand. You rarely need to check the dictionary when you read the sentences. It’s nice. If that’s what you want, Miss Peregrine is probably for you.

If it sounds like I’m qualifying my praise, it’s because I am. For me, there was just something missing in this book. I’m not quite sure I can put my finger on it, but I’m briefly going to try.

Perhaps the main thing is the ending. I’m not going to heavily divulge spoilers here, but suffice to say that it is unsatisfying. I have nothing against cliffhanger endings. Love them, in fact. There is nothing that makes me want to keep reading more than a final couple chapters that blister my fingers as I read them only to have the rug pulled out from under me. It’s exhilarating.

But when the book builds slowly but surely, and then, just, meh… Oh my god, is that disappointing or what? It’s criminal. I feel victimized!

I get that Riggs was setting up for a series of books, and he has since continued the story, but this particular book peters out in such an unsatisfying way that I really have no desire to find out what happens. There is no culminating moment to make me feel, “Okay, I’m really glad I read this.” It’s not that the stakes are low. The world is basically at stake (isn’t it always?), but there is something missing.

That being said, I place this book firmly above what I experienced in Veronica Roth’s Divergent universe. The romance in particular, which is still light and somewhat juvenile, is a bit more nuanced. Oh, who am I kidding? Hey guys, this book is not another shameless ripoff of Hunger Games (which is itself an amalgamation of other work)!

So it’s better! But honestly, if you’re treading around in this genre and you haven’t read The Giver, just go do that, OK? That’s the one you need.

Let’s see here… some other positives. The world Riggs builds is really a pretty original and interesting one. We get into a bit of light time travel, which is always good for some fish-out-of-water fun, by way of Marty McFly.

Riggs does a great job with descriptive passages. You can really feel the claustrophobically secluded atmosphere and the damp countryside soaking your bones. Given the disparate settings within the book, the story seems to take on different ambient temperatures throughout.

Overall, I thought this was a fine diversion. While I’m not sold on reading the sequels as of yet, I think Riggs has created an interesting mythology and cast of characters, and it is an easy read. I give it 3/5 stars.

Have you read this book? Let us know what you think!

MIss Peregrine is currently scheduled to hit theaters on September 30, 2016. Directed by Tim Burton, the movie stars Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Ella Purnell, and Samuel L. Jackson. So, read the book now so you can watch it come to life this fall!

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Book Review: Tarzan of the Apes

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Title: Tarzan of the Apes

Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs

Published: 1914

Pages: 279

Genre: Action/Adventure

Kid Friendly Rating: 11+ Parents may (or may not be) surprised to learn that the original work contains considerably more violence and racism than expected for a pop-culture touchstone. Click here for the Common Sense Media Guide!

Synopsis:

A cruel twist of fate cursed the English lord John Clayton and his pregnant wife to be stranded in the wild jungle of the southern African coast, with little hope of rescue. Miraculously, the young couple gives birth to a healthy baby boy, but further tragedy strikes, and the child is left alone, abandoned and parent-less.

When a grieving mother ape happens upon the young boy, she adopts him as her own, names him Tarzan, and raises him among the ape tribe. As Tarzan grows both in stature and intelligence, he begins to question his place in the world. In his adulthood, a chance meeting with a marooned group of English people sets Tarzan upon a course of self-discovery, heroism, and romance.

Final Thoughts:

Typically, I would hesitate to write a review for a hundred-year-old book, but as I read this one, I couldn’t help but notice that this book either directly or indirectly inspired many of the massive summer blockbusters and comic books of today. Tarzan of the Apes predates the late 1930’s debuts of popular DC comics like Superman and Batman by over a quarter century. While he is not the first “superhero,” having been predated at least by Spring-heeled Jack, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Burroughs’ own John Carter of Mars, he is certainly among the earliest and most enduring literary hero figures.

But is Tarzan truly a superhero in the traditional sense? The answer, to me, is unequivocally yes. Tarzan’s abilities manifest at two different levels, depending on his company. Among the apes, he is physically outmatched, but he is as quick and agile as any ape due to both his quick reflexes and his ability to process information quickly. His advanced mental acuity saves him from several sticky situations with rival apes. This first occurs when, as a child, he teaches himself how to swim, to the astonishment of other apes who are typically afraid of water. The divide between man and ape irrevocably widens when Tarzan discovers knives and rope, and quickly becomes the most fearsome hunter in the jungle.

It takes other humans to arrive in the jungle for Tarzan and the reader to realize his superiority over fellow man. While Tarzan’s intellect and intuition still appears remarkably strong (although raw) among other humans, his real advantage over other people is his prodigious strength, coupled with his intimate knowledge of the jungle animals and tribes. Fellow characters observe Tarzan’s incredible strength and grace with awe, as Tarzan rescues people time and again. At one point, Captain Dufranne, a hardened sailor in his own right, refers to Tarzan as a “superman,” long before this word entered the popular lexicon.

Of course, as with any superhero story, there are moments that defy logic for the benefit of the narrative. Tarzan rather improbably teaches himself to read, progressing from observing “little bugs” in children’s books he finds to becoming a rather adept reader before he ever meets an Englishman. Despite being unable to understand spoken English, he somehow manages to piece together how to spell “Tarzan,” the name given him by his ape mother.

Nevertheless, it is very easy to overlook these little details for what is a very readable and interesting story. Burroughs excels at describing tense moments of action in vivid detail. Tarzan’s jungle fights are violent, bloody, and merciless. As action abounds throughout the story, it is mostly fast-paced, although it takes a few chapters for the narrative to really hit its stride.

Some readers may be turned off by a few racist passages, particularly regarding Jane Porter’s servant Esmeralda, and the African tribe that frequently runs afoul of Tarzan in his adventures, but the story is not aggressively racist. These brief moments largely seem to be a product of the less-enlightened time in which the book was written.

Overall, I found this book to be a truly enjoyable read. For me, this was the type of surprise, in terms of the readability and action, that keeps me returning to well-known older books periodically. These books are just sitting out there, waiting to be read, for free! You never know what you might fall in love with.

I give it 4/5 stars.

The book is available to read for free at Project Gutenberg; free Audiobook versions at Gutenberg and Librivox; and if you have a Kindle or the Kindle reader, you can find a free no-hassle version onAmazon.

Tarzan of the Apes is set for yet another movie adaptation, this one a live-action release scheduled for July 1, 2016, starring Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, and Christoph Waltz. Read the original work now so you can watch it come to life!

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Book Review: The BFG

Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets

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Title: The BFG

Author: Roald Dahl

Published: 1982

Pages: 240

Genre: Fairy Tale/Adventure

Kid Friendly Rating: 6+ Click here for the Common Sense Media guide! The book may be a bit violent by current kid’s book standards considering the Giants’ general habit of eating humans, but it is not any more grisly than many traditional fairy tales.

Synopsis:

Sophie’s life as an orphan meets an abrupt change when she spot a massive figure roaming the streets at night outside her orphanage. Fearing for his own discovery, the figure takes Sophie hostage and transports her to a far-off land, where Giants roam.

Fortunately for Sophie, she learns that she’s been captured by the world’s only “friendly” giant. After learning a great deal about each other, Sophie and the Giant hatch out a plan to rid the world of the evil, man-eating Giants, once and for all.

Final Thoughts:

Whenever I talk about this book, I like to tell people that I literally read the cover off of my copy as a kid. Which is true. I loved the book so much that I read it several times, and eventually both the front and back covers took so much abuse that they simply fell off. It may say more about the age of the copy and my cavalier treatment of it than my readership, but I still think it says something. And there really is no doubt that I loved this book.

And still do. I was very happy to discover upon re-opening it this week, that the book still contains some of the magic that I so thoroughly enjoyed as a young reader. What’s more, some of Roald Dahl’s clever jokes, which undoubtedly flew right over my head as a kid, are now right on target. For instance, the BFG informs Sophie that Giants travel to Wellington to eat humans for their “booty” flavor, and to Panama when they want a taste of hats.

The BFG’s manner of speaking is endearingly mixed-up and silly, which is also fun for kids as well as adults, like when the BFG refers to humans as “human beans” and his favorite author as “Dahl’s Chickens.” He also has a favorite soda-like drink called “frobscottle” with upside down bubbles that induce a certain silly bodily function that the BFG gleefully refers to as “whizzpoppers.”

The BFG’s hobby is to catch and categorize dreams. He has a collection of many thousands of dreams in jars which he enjoys blowing into the bedrooms of young children at night. Sophie is very curious about the dreams, and both she and the reader will find a lot of fun in reading the BFG’s descriptions of the dreams he has caught. It is this very hobby that led to Sophie’s discovery of the Giant, and ultimately gives rise to their plan to do away with the evil Giant brethren that torture the BFG when they are not hunting abroad for dinner.

Near the end of the book, there is a very funny fish-out-of-water scene in which the BFG meets the Queen of England, and her butler becomes increasingly exasperated in his attempts to accommodate the BFG while maintaining his proper royal butler dignity.

All in all, I give it 5/5 stars, regardless of age!

Note: This book is set to be released as a live-action Disney movie on July 1, 2016. Directed by Stephen Spielberg, the movie will star Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Bill Hader, and Jemaine Clement. Watch the first trailer, below!

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Book Review: Joyland, Stephen King

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Title: Joyland

Author: Stephen King

Published: June 4, 2013

Pages: 288

Genre: Mystery/Crime

Kid Friendly Rating: 12+ Like most Stephen King novels, the book contains some adult themes and situations, but it doesn’t stray very far into adult territory.

Synopsis: 

 

Devin Jones is a college student in 1973 who takes a summer job as a carny at a run-down theme park in North Carolina, Joyland. As an employee at the park, Devin discovers he has the dubious honor of a special talent for “wearing the fur” (playing the park mascot, Howie the Hound), and further earns the trust and respect of park management by saving a girl from choking on a hot dog.

Over the course of the summer, Devin learns about a grisly murder mystery that occurred years ago in the park’s haunted house. To this date, rumors swirl that the victim’s ghost is sometimes seen walking the grounds. Devin’s curiosity gets the best of him, and he can’t resist attempting to piece together the crime and solve the mystery of the alleged ghost.

Stephen King’s status as one of the world’s preeminent horror fiction writers is virtually unquestioned, but one of the interesting things about his writing, to me, is that he puts out some really fantastic work when he strays slightly from the familiar pure-horror genres. The Body (aka Stand by Me), Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Hearts in Atlantis and The Green Mile stand among some of his most interesting titles. Although each of these stories still have one foot in horror or the supernatural, each seem a good deal more sentimental than King’s norm.

My wife (who is also an avid reader of Stephen King) and I have also lamented to each other that sometimes King seems to drive his own stories off the rails by doing what we call, “and then there were aliens.” From a Buick 8 and The Tommyknockers come to mind. Nothing against alien/monster stories, mind you. It just feels like low-hanging fruit at times to inject some type of mythical creature when the narrative is strong enough without it.

With all of this in mind, I was immediately interested to find that King was taking a stab at sort of a pulp-crime novel, and I was not disappointed.

The book contains shades of The Body’s coming-of-age themes, as Devin enters as an uncertain college kid trying to keep his mind off the girlfriend who chose a summer job in Boston with a friend over him. As his relationship with his girlfriend further deteriorates, Devin becomes immersed in the culture of Joyland, and grows into his role, both as an employee, and an individual young man.

King has noted Canobie Lake Park in Salem, NH, as one of the main sources of inspiration for Joyland as a theme park, but it stands as sort of a embodiment of many old-time local theme parks around the United States. Readers will probably find lots of parallels between this place and the familiar haunts of their youth. I myself was reminded constantly of Kennywood in Pittsburgh, Pa.

While the book winds down to a somewhat predictable conclusion, this did not greatly affect my overall enjoyment. As they say, the fun is in the journey, not the destination. King paces the story very quickly, and at only 288 pages, it’s over a bit too soon, if only because I would have liked to spend more time reading it.

Final thoughts:

This should be a fun, quick diversion for any longtime fans of Stephen King, or fans of mystery/crime novels, generally. I give it 4/5 stars.

(Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets)

Book Review: The Authorities

(Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets)

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Title: The Authorities

Author: Scott Meyer

Published: September 28, 2015

Pages: 328

Genre: Mystery/Comedy

Kid Friendly Rating: 12+ The book opens with a non-sexual scene involving an adult toy, but it is mostly PG-PG-13 on balance. Contains some violence, mostly in the form of suspects resisting arrest.

Synopsis: Sinclair Rutherford is a fastidious young officer in the Seattle police department. His brown-nosing and generally over-eager manner have made him the subject of scorn and ridicule among senior members of the force. After a high-profile arrest involving an inappropriate object lands Rutherford in his Captain’s doghouse, Rutherford is recruited for a dream job by a local billionaire assembling his own crack team of crime-solving experts.

Over the course of his first investigation with his new team, Rutherford finds himself in a series of varying levels of uncomfortable situations. Rutherford does his best to save his dignity while finding his footing with his new team and following leads on a notorious murder case.

Scott Meyer is quickly becoming one of my favorite comical fiction writers. For information on a few of his other works, you can check out my review of his hilarious Master of Formalities , or Sarindre’s review of the equally funny and creative Off to be the Wizard (book 1 of an entertaining ongoing series).

If the cover of this book evokes the classic crest of the old TV show and 1987’s movie Dragnet, it’s probably not by accident.

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While this book is not so much a “buddy cup” comedy, it definitely draws a lot of comedic value from the fish-out-of-water scenario presented by an officer suddenly forced to work very closely with partners who have personalities and talents extremely at odds with his own. Side note: if you somehow missed the  movie Dragnet, starring a young Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd, it’s a great “bad-80’s-movie.”

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Getting back to Rutherford, it’s a fun read, watching Rutherford grow within his own team, even as his frustration at his position mounts. His team has a, let’s say “unique,” set of abilities that both add to the comedy, while also serving to drive the story forward, including a keeper of trained bees, an ex-Dutch special agent, and a mysterious ninja.

Final Thoughts:

If you’re a fan of Meyer’s other work, or of cop comedies like Dragnet, Starsky, and Hutch, Tango and Cash, Beverly Hills Cop, and so on, this book may be worth your time. I give it 3.5/5 stars!

Book Review: Master of Formalities

(Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets)

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Title: Master of Formalities

Author: Scott Meyer

Published: July 7, 2015

Pages: 448

Genre: Science Fiction/Comedy

Kid Friendly Rating: 10+ The book includes some details about an ongoing war, but descriptions of the violence are not especially gruesome or realistic.

Synopsis: Wollard is Master of Formalities for House Jakabitus, one of two major families in the galaxy (along with House Hahn) whose planets have been deadlocked in conflict for centuries, although the reasons for the war have become vague.

As Master of Formalities, Wollard wears many hats. He serves as official advisor to the House matriarch on issues of good form and interplanetary relations, he serves as a sort a household head butler, and he also reports to the Arbiters, and impartial interplanetary governing authority who appoint Masters of Authority to each ruling House.

When the Hahn ruler’s only son is taken as a prisoner of war, Wollard suggests a course of action that he believes could bring an end to the war, once and for all. Under Wollard’s advisement, the Hahn prince is held as a ward of House Jakabitus.

Wollard has engendered a great deal of respect in his role as Master of Formalities, but his goodwill and position are quickly put under a great deal of strain when plans don’t go exactly as expected.

Wollard is a sympathetic figure, as he clearly values his position, and is loved by his colleagues, but his respect for his job can sometimes lead him to make decisions that are not necessarily in his own best interests. It is very interesting to watch him balance his position with his will to give proper advice as pressure mounts.

Scott Meyer, currently better known for his popular “Magic 2.0” series (Sarindre previously reviewed book 1 of this fun series here), took a break from time-traveling wizards to write this one. I’ve greatly enjoyed that series, and would have happily read another, so I decided to give this book a try. I’m really happy I did.

Meyer turns down the magic and turns his dry and witty sense of humor to 11.

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This book doesn’t have a lot of one-liners or memorable jokes, but Meyer is such a clever writer, with really great grasp of the humor inherent in bizarre or awkward situations, that I found myself laughing aloud several times. I was especially reminded of Douglas Adams’ fantastic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, both in the science fiction setting, and the off-kilter sense of humor. Like Adams’ series, however, this story is really weird. If you prefer non-fiction or realistic fiction, this may not be the book for you.

Final Thoughts: I have to say, I’m looking forward to the next story in this series even more than the next installment in Magic 2.0. I give it 4/5 stars. If you love Hitchhiker or Spaceballs, give it a shot.

Book Review: The Martian

Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets

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Title: The Martian

Author: Andy Weir

Published: 2011 (e-book); March 2013 (audiobook); February 2014 (hardcover)

Pages: 369

Genre: Science Fiction/Thriller

Kid Friendly Rating: 13+ for some coarse language; however, there is enough realistic science in the book that I would hesitate to discourage any mature science-minded kids from reading it.

Synopsis: Astronaut Mark Watney was part of a NASA crew performing science experiments on the surface of Mars. Gravely injured in a freak sandstorm that forced an emergency evacuation of the crew, Watney was mistakenly left for dead. With his crew thousands of miles from the planet and unaware of his survival, Watney must use every ounce of his knowledge and resourcefulness to hold out for a rescue.

One of my favorite science-fiction authors is Arthur C. Clarke. In my mind, it’s not so much his exhilarating prose; it’s his thought-provoking ideas coupled with a solid grasp of current science and theoretical physics. Keeping one leg firmly rooted in the familiar, or at least moderately believable, adds extra layers to the story. Ah! How crazy would it be if I was seeing this on the news? What if it was me!? In a sense, Weir owes a debt of gratitude to Apollo 13. We don’t even have to wonder if something like this could happen. It already has happened, albeit on a much smaller scale. But where Weir could have done everything wrong, and instead hit the mark so well, is in the details.

First, Watney. Watney is an everyman. Instantly relatable as your wisecracking friend who is just a little bit off-kilter, but loveable for it. We follow Watney as he weaves his way through a cavalcade of obstacles, attacking each with MacGyver-like ingenuity.

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Almost every problem seems plausible, and his solutions feel realistic, from generating/maintaining food, to replenishing oxygen, to attempts to communicate with NASA, to efforts to secure his rescue.

Don’t let the science deter you, though! This is an edge-of-your-seat page-turner in every aspect. The stakes are high, the prognosis is grim. It starts out with a bang, almost literally, and from there it is a rollercoaster ride of near-death experiences from front to back, with a gripping climax. Weir balances the stakes with Watney’s irreverent sense of humor for a really fun read.

An added benefit to reading this book now: It’s coming to theaters soon! Really soon. Like, October 2015 soon. So get reading, and see your new favorite book come to life! With Maaatt Daamon. No, he’s okay, right? He’s pretty good. Just forget that he was recently in space in Interstellar. And Elysium. He’s done other things, you guys.

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If previews can be relied on, it looks like Hollywood has caught on to some of the more positive aspects of the book, as Damon’s Watney intones, “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.”

Final Thoughts: I enjoyed this book thoroughly, and I’ve encouraged many of my friends and family to give it a read. I have yet to hear a poor review! It rivals Dune and The Martian Chronicles for my favorite Mars-based book. I give it 4/5 stars.