Book review: In Such Good Company

In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the SandboxIn Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox by Carol Burnett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I would feel bad rating this book lower than four stars because it is an adorable, gushing and heartfelt love letter to the show Carol Burnett put on for 11 years.

If you are looking for behind-the-scenes dirt, you’ll find none here, save for one brief mention of a troublesome guest star who walked out. Apparently high at the time, Burnett only goes so far as to allude the person was “on something.” Even with the worst guest ever she pulls her punches because she is just that sweet.

Her reminisce does touch on some negative aspects of the era in which The Carol Burnett Show ran, though (1967-1978), particularly the sexism that allowed men to be “commanding” and take charge on their shows, where women were expected to keep quiet and know their place. Burnett, to her regret, played along, finding the absolute nicest ways to raise any criticism when she thought the writing of a sketch was weak, or a particular bit just wasn’t working.

The majority of the book, though, are reminisces of Burnett’s favorite episodes, sketches, characters, musical numbers and guest stars. She lavishes praise on her own cast and the many people who appeared on the show and you can’t help but come away with how incredibly kind and generous she is. It made me want to go back in time to be on the show. Especially if I could go back in age, as well. :P

I was 14 when the series ended in 1978, but I watched the last four seasons or so and loved it nearly as much as Burnett herself (though I was a little impatient with the musical numbers and I didn’t catch a lot of the references in their movie parodies–though I still clearly remember the trampoline in their Airport ’75 spoof).

There are a surprising number of photos included (Carol watched every episode as research for the book) and while they are screen grabs, they immediately took me back to the 70s (the contemporary fashions are as tacky as you’d expect), the nostalgia hit immense and satisfying. If you read the ebook on a tablet, the photos are in color as a bonus.

If you expect deep insights or as I mentioned earlier, dirt, you may come away disappointed, but Burnett walks the reader through the entire production of the show from first script reading to taping, with lots of amusing bits sprinkled in. In the end, this was what I expected–a fond look back at Carol Burnett’s favorite part of her long career, showcasing her own personal highlights from her show–and it is the warmest, friendliest book I’ve read in a long time.

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Book review: Crawlspace

Crawlspace: Dark Gory HorrorCrawlspace: Dark Gory Horror by Dan Padavona
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Spoilers in this review after the next paragraph, so be warned.

Crawlspace is a fairly standard “psycho killer(s) on the loose” story, but there are areas where I feel it falls short, bringing down the overall experience.

First, the author may find himself surprised when he turns 50 and discovers that everyone does not turn into haggard, out of shape old people as soon as they hit the half century mark. Every observation about an older character in the story would convince you otherwise. This is a common issue with younger authors and even Stephen King bungled middle-aged or older folks in his early novels. Still, it’s 2018, not 1718. People live past their 30s now and can actually stay in shape. :P

The biggest problem with the story is the protagonist. Jerry Laymon has bad judgment, a bad temper, a bad attitude, regularly makes impulsive and irrational choices, and claims he’s not all about sex while constantly describing the physical characteristics of every female character (that isn’t a decrepit 50-year old) in lurid detail. He is, in a word, a schmuck. And he narrates the story, so you don’t even get the satisfaction of him nobly sacrificing himself at the end.

The main issue with the character, though, isn’t that he’s actively unlikable, though at times he is, it’s that his odd decisions are needed to drive the plot forward and as always this remains my least favorite thing authors do in their stories. When the plot drives the characters, you are unlikely to engage readers or make them care much about the characters. They become pieces being moved across a game board, except in this case the game board is covered in plastic to catch all the blood of the victims of the wife and husband team of Satanic and occasional serial killers.

Also, there is a weird anti-university thing going on that gets played up a lot in the first half of the book that feels more like the author’s personal politics being injected than anything that actually serves the story. Laymon views all other students as entitled and spoiled, wasting their time while they acquire debt. The professors are terrible people who live in mansions and protect each other at the expense of the student body. The townfolk also apparently hate the university and all who attend it, leading to clashes–literal clashes, like fistfights and such–between the university crowd and the “townies.” It all seems a bit odd, but maybe I’ve just lived in nicer cities.

Anyway, the last chapter is a drawn-out fight between the haggard/old/in their 50s Satanic killers, Jerry, Kelli (his girlfriend) and Charlotte (his next girlfriend) and it mostly takes place in near or total darkness so there’s lots of wondering who’s where and what’s what. It all feels very conventional after the build-up to a possibly supernatural pair of murderous killers who move seamlessly through time to kill and kill again. No, they just use the crawlspace.

Some of the scenes moving through the titular crawlspace are actually fairly well-done, and the writing is always decent, if sometimes melodramatic. But this story is just a little too weird in the wrong ways to really recommend.

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Book review: Him Standing

Him StandingHim Standing by Richard Wagamese
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novella has one of the most delightfully creepy covers I’ve seen in recent years. A quick glance at the premise–a young Ojibway man carver is asked to make a spirit mask by a mysterious stranger, with possibly dire consequences–and I was in.

Him standing is one of those stories that doesn’t surprise in any way, but it achieves everything it sets out to do, making the time you spend with the amiable and slightly goofy protagonist Lucas Smoke perfectly enjoyable. Smoke’s ability to capture a person’s likeness, their essential essence, in wood attracts the attention of a vaguely menacing stranger who conscripts him to make a spirit mask for what turns out to be a Very Bad Reason. Hijinks follow involving shaman both good and evil, alive and not-exactly-alive, the dream world and more.

Richard Wagamese does a nice job of capturing the voice of Smoke, a charming, uncomplicated man whose core decency is as much a part of what saves him as is his ability to tap into mystical abilities he never knew he had. While his fight against the stranger–identified later as Gareth Knight, a modern-day shaman, is predictable, it’s a fun little ride, peppered with quirky touches, like Knight’s apparent obsession with different hats.

Him Standing is a solid read that does justice to its subject matter without descending into hokum.

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Book review: Time Was

Time WasTime Was by Ian McDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This time travel novella zips along, taking the sorts of twists one often expects in stories of time travel, and McDonald’s facility with language elevates it. At the same time the brevity of the piece undermines the story to a degree, leaving some characters more as sketches than feeling like real, living people.

And like most time travel stories, if you pull at a thread you’re likely to unravel the entire thing.

The story takes place in the present, with Emmett Leigh, a book collector, coming across a mysterious collection of poems called Time Was. The volumes (there are multiple copies, though they come without any information regarding publication or any other kind of record) contain letters written by one lover to another during World War I. And World War II. And the conflict in Bosnia and so on. Emmett comes to believe they are jumping through time and becomes obsessed with learning all he can about them.

The two lovers, Ben and Tom, are featured both through the letters, and in separate scenes, with the story jumping between different eras and the present. McDonald does fairly well with the protagonist and the present-day characters but Ben and Tom never feel particularly real, perhaps in part due to the way they are presented in the story. This also happens to contradict the marketing push for the novella, which sells it as a love story. It’s more a mystery and the focus is very much on Emmett Leigh, not Ben and Tom.

Still, McDonald has tremendous fun with his prose and it buoys the story beyond the wobbly time travel shenanigans and thin characterizations. It’s a solid, if flawed, read, but one I’d still recommend to those who are suckers for time travel adventures (as I am).

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Book review: Snowblind

SnowblindSnowblind by Christopher Golden
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Snowblind is like a reliable sedan–it safely gets you where you want to go, and with no real surprises along the way, unpleasant or otherwise. But like that reliable sedan, you’re not likely to long remember the trip riding in it, either.

Having now broken my solemn vow to never use analogies, there is one odd bit I will remember and it has nothing to do with the story per se. Christopher Golden really likes the word “bitch.” He uses it (32 times) both as a verb and a descriptor, and every time he does it stands out in the same way that unironically using the word “groovy” to describe something in positive terms would. It was kind of distracting.

The Stephen King blurb on the cover promises Snowblind will be “deeply scary” but I didn’t find it scary at all–and I don’t even like snow! Or demons. Or snow demons, which Snowblind features, with icicle teeth and bottomless dark eyes filled with cruel intelligence (though they actually seem kind of dumb when it’s time to put plans into action). But not being scary is perfectly fine with me. A horror novel doesn’t have to make me want to keep the lights on, it just has to tell a good story within the milieu of horror.

While I was okay with the premise–otherworldly demons ride in on blizzards and attack the living–and thought the framing device of having them attack, then leave survivors to deal with their return when another monster blizzard strikes a dozen years later–was also interesting, there were aspects of the story that didn’t hold together as well as they might have, diminishing the overall experience.

I felt there were a few too many characters and switching back and forth between different groups didn’t really add much to the story, it just left me feeling less invested in everyone’s fate. This was exacerbated by some of the characters being rather shallow. I didn’t feel connected to them and at times it felt more like they were moving to help the plot rather than acting naturally (probably my biggest pet peeve when it comes to fiction).

There are predictable turns–the noble sacrifice is set up early, so by the time it arrives all I could do was let out a small sigh and keep reading–but for the most part these don’t actively detract from the story, but neither do they enhance it. The prose is straightforward, perhaps setting a low bar, but also easily clearing it. This may sound like damning with faint praise, but there is something to be said for authors not journeying deep into their navels when trying to tell a simple story.

However, the actual demon-things are presented in a way that makes them not so much menacing as cartoonishly evil, and this undercuts much of what Golden has built. Whenever they showed up I found myself imagining more effective ways of depicting them. And while the framing device of splitting the story into two storms separated by twelve years is not a bad one, it leads to a lot of not much happening between the blizzards. The characters go about their lives and things happen, but none of it is especially compelling.

This paragraph contains a spoiler on the ending. Read at your peril! (Apologies if the spoiler tags don’t work.) (view spoiler)

Despite what I’ve written, I don’t think Snowblind is a bad book, it’s just ordinary, a story that has all the right pieces, but doesn’t do anything to elevate what’s there into something better than just serviceable.

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Book review: Mateguas Island

Mateguas Island: A Novel of Horror and Suspense (Mateguas Island, #1)Mateguas Island: A Novel of Horror and Suspense by Linda Watkins
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I should note that this is not a review of the full book, so keep that in mind, as I only made it 20% of the way through before abandoning it.

It is rare that I pick up a book and then not finish it. I will usually push to the end just for the sense of completion, but I could not keep going here.

The last few years I’ve been taking advantage of sales to explore new authors and I’ve found a few new favorites, some I’ve enjoyed but don’t necessarily feel compelled to keep following and a few that I’ve made a point to never investigate again.

Unfortunately the latter is the case here. Mateguas Island feels like a project where someone misread what not to do in creative writing and did all of those things instead of avoiding them.

There are pages and pages of backstory for every character, even to the point that the first meeting between the wife and husband is played out in separate chapters from each character’s perspective. Exposition is lengthy and explicit, the characters thoughts are carefully laid out for the reader in detail, often bracketed by even more exposition. Motivations are not revealed through actions or dialogue, but through the author stating them.

On top of this, all of the characters are unlikable, either shrill and manipulative, or weak and fumbling, or “flawed” in ways that make you kind of hate them. And they are always so very transparent to themselves (through those endless internal monologues) and to everyone else. Maybe the big reveal later is all the characters have telepathy.

In the first 20% of the story, nothing happens. The “precocious” twins, who speak more like pod people than actual children, find a slim locked box. One of them has a vague bad dream. It rains. There is alleged tension in the relationship of the husband and wife, but the characters are so unpleasant I was hoping the mouth to Hell would open and swallow them up, but no such luck.

If the author had started the action a lot sooner I probably would have kept muddling through to see what happens, but after my 20% investment it was easy to close the book and not give a whit.

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The Writer’s Guide to Training Your Dragon

The Writer's Guide to Training Your Dragon: Using Speech Recognition Software to Dictate Your Book and Supercharge Your Writing Workflow (Dictation Mastery for PC and Mac)The Writer’s Guide to Training Your Dragon: Using Speech Recognition Software to Dictate Your Book and Supercharge Your Writing Workflow by Scott Baker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that sets out to do one thing, in this case guide you through using voice dictation with Nuance’s Dragon software to improve your writing output. And author Scott Baker succeeds in providing a concise, clear and confident set of advice, covering everything from set up to hardware recommendations, the common pitfalls to avoid and more.

A lot of the advice also applies in general terms to using any kind of voice dictation, though Baker as much admits that Dragon is the only credible option for the best results (and is more expensive now that the Premium version has been discontinued in favor of the pricier Professional version). Dictation has the potential to dramatically improve your writing speed on first drafts–Baker advises against using it for editing, as do other authors I’ve read who are otherwise strong advocates of dictation–and Baker encourages the reader/writer to use it whenever they can.

He also addresses a problem people generally have with voice technology, whether it’s dictating or just speaking a command to your smart phone–it can feel somewhat embarrassing to do in public. Baker gamely insists people won’t care and my transit rides suggest he may be right, but he provides solutions ranging from dictating in your car on the ride in to work, to dictating as you leave the train and head to the office. With the increased speed of dictation over writing, even 10 or 15 minutes can yield great results.

Baker’s website also includes video tutorials for buyers of the book, as well as a blog where he regularly reviews microphones and other hardware, as well as provides a useful bunch of links to resources ranging from books, microphones, software and other accessories.

In all, this slim volume is an excellent way to acquaint yourself with Dragon dictation software, but more than that, it’s a good primer on why dictation is worthwhile to begin with, full of practical advice and good tips.

Recommended.

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Book review: Disappearance at Devil’s Rock

Disappearance at Devil's RockDisappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

By turns suspenseful, creepy and sad, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock is a simple story that centers around how easily decent people can do terrible things.

Framed around the disappearance of a teenage boy at a state park, the story shifts between events leading up to the disappearance of Tommy Sanderson, and the aftermath of the disappearance, with the search, police investigation and the mother, Elizabeth, and younger sister Kate, trying to cope.

Tremblay, who has a short essay about the story at the end of the novel, makes reference to his work as generally ambiguous, but I would describe what he does here not so much as deliberate ambiguity, but more a technique to create a specific mood, even if it ultimately has no payout for the story itself. Tremblay is, in a way, tricking the reader into believing things in order to spook them.

Much like his previous novel, A Head Full of Ghosts, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock presents seemingly supernatural occurrences, some of which are explained, others of which are not. The problem with this approach is twofold–the unexplained events do add to the atmosphere of the story, but do not materially add to the story beyond that, and as Tremblay has used this technique in two consecutive novels, it risks becoming a predictable shtick. As I progressed through Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, it became clear the supernatural aspects would have no bearing on the overall story or its outcome and at that point those elements almost became irritants that distracted from the real story of how three teenage boys came under the spell of a disturbed young man in his early 20s.

Surprisingly, the breaking of writing rules didn’t bother me at all. Tremblay frequently shifts the POV from one character to another, often in the same scene. There are police interviews that are literally presented as transcripts, though the story overall is not written as an epistolary. Journal notes are presented as huge walls of text.

I was also surprised at how unaffected by Elizabeth and Kate’s emotional suffering. I sympathized over their loss, but didn’t feel much else, and I can’t say exactly why. Tremblay writes well, but there is something in the prose here that created distance and pushed me away instead of pulling me in.

Overall, I did enjoy the story, but don’t be fooled by the pretense to supernatural or non-psychological horror elements. They don’t really inform the story, and act more as decoration around the edges, even if they are presented in a skillful and evocative way.

Also, Tremblay clearly did his homework on Minecraft. :P

Recommended if the premise and central theme interests you, but not a must-read. A Head Full of Ghosts does a lot of what this book does, but with a fresher take on its subject.

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Book review: Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World

Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the WorldPost-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World by James Ball
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The biggest issue with Post-Truth is that the people who could most benefit from it will never read it. In fact, they’d likely just disregard it as more “fake news.” For someone like myself, there is little in here that is revelatory. I am only too aware of the rise of not just fake news (both real and imagined) but also what author James Ball calls “bad news,” which is not to say someone is calling to tell you your pet hamster Binky just had a very unfortunate accident, but is rather a description of news that is poorly researched and presented, or otherwise fails to meet the standards one would expect from a reputable news source.

Ball does devote a chapter at the end on ways to combat the rise of BS, but it is, perhaps by design, a combination of the obvious (“if you want to be trusted, be trustworthy,” “try not to succumb to conspiratorial thinking”), the somewhat depressing (entreaties to essentially dumb things down, wear your biases openly, and try to look anti-establishment even if you aren’t, because the tide has turned against the establishment) to the exceedingly unlikely (like asking people to go outside their bubbles. While on the surface it makes sense to step beyond your proverbial echo chamber–Ball advises following “thoughtful people” on the other side–it entirely skips over how one addresses or interacts with the more problematic people at the fringes that are driving so much of the BS into the mainstream. How does one even find a “thoughtful” racist, much less engage them meaningfully?).

Some of the suggestions are appealing, though. I particularly like the concept of the tech giants funding an independent news organization as a way to combat the death of newspapers and other news media. But even if such an organization existed, you would still have plenty of news media that are more interested in pushing an extremist agenda propped up by lies and distortion.

In the end this is a bleak book because, though Ball never explicitly says so, you are left with the impression that most people are easily-snookered idiots, and that perhaps we have only made it so far as a civilization because a strong minority has pushed against the ignorant masses. But for now the ignorant masses seem to be winning–or rather, allowing the autocrats they adore to win.

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Book review: Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration: Learn to Nurture a Lifestyle of Creativity

Conquering Writer's Block and Summoning Inspiration: Learn to Nurture a Lifestyle of Creativity (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 5)Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration: Learn to Nurture a Lifestyle of Creativity by K.M. Weiland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love short books on writing, it’s so easy to blast through them and then apply their lessons–provided they include advice on overcoming procrastination, of course.

Weiland’s slim how-to covers everything from cultivating the mindset for ideas, establishing good habits and how to deal with the inevitable feelings of “my writing sucks now and forever more.”

The specific tips for avoiding writer’s block itself are copious and for the most part familiar to anyone who may have read similar guides, ranging from the easy to follow (“Take a break”) to the may-need-a-few-tries-to-work (“Show up every day” and “Just start typing”).

This is another perfectly fine book for a new author to peruse, or for anyone who yearns to write but is unhappy with both the quality and quantity of their output. There’s nothing revelatory, but Weiland’s writing style is light, engaging and the brevity of the work (and use of lists) makes it serve as a handy reference you can return to time and again

Recommended.

Now I just need to write something other than reviews on writing books. :P

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Book review: Plot Gardening: Write Faster, Write Smarter

Plot Gardening: Write Faster, Write SmarterPlot Gardening: Write Faster, Write Smarter by Chris Fox
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a perfectly cromulent book on outlining a novel and Fox goes into detail on two popular methods, the traditional three-act approach and the perhaps less-familiar story circle.

Running with the gardening metaphor, Fox provides step-by-step instructions and illustrates them with examples from several popular movies (relying primarily on Star Wars) and also drawing from his own work–including examples where he failed, and then learned from the failure.

Each chapter has exercises to follow at the end and Fox knows a lot of people will just read straight through, so he has thoughtfully included all exercises again at the end of the book.

Overall, there’s not much more you could ask for in a book about outlining a novel. Fox explains everything in a clear manner, provides examples, and even throws in a bit of neuroscience here and there. Despite all this, I never found the book overly engaging, perhaps because I’ve always resisted outlining my stories–and I can’t claim they’ve been better for this lack, either.

Still, don’t let my own indifference sway you–this is a well-constructed template on how to outline a novel and would serve any new novel writer well.

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Book review: Confessions of an Alien Hunter

Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist's Search for Extraterrestrial IntelligenceConfessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence by Seth Shostak
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a fun read and my biggest complaint is that it came out in 2009 (just as the Kepler space observatory launched) and hasn’t been updated, so there’s a lot of near-future discussion about systems that have since come online.

Conversely, we still haven’t detected extraterrestrial intelligence since then, either. :P

Some might be put off by Seth Shostak’s breezy writing style, peppered with puns and humor, but I felt he always pulled back just in time to let the hard science and sober speculation take over. And if you’ve seen Shostak on TV–having more than a casual interest in astronomy, aliens or some combination thereof makes it likely, as he’s not just SETI’s senior astronomer, he’s also their main go-to for interacting with the media–then the light tone is not surprising. He is passionate about his work, but he is a wonderfully droll person. I suppose that may help when you’re willing to offer straightforward commentary on episodes of Ancient Aliens.

Despite being nearly a decade old at the time of this review, the book remains a thorough examination of SETI’s history, its goals, and its then-current operations. Shostak brackets the nuts and bolts of SETI with his own background leading up to joining the group, and offers tidbits from his work as an advisor on films like Contact and the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (he helped them make the scientists sound more like real people and less like jargonbots).

A lot of the book centers around the inevitable questions arising from SETI–what would SETI do if a signal was confirmed? How might the public react? What would aliens look like? How long will it take to scan the visible galaxy? Is it all just a goofy waste of time?

People who favor the “waste of time” side may not be moved by Shostak’s arguments, but most others are likely to come away with an appreciation of SETI’s work, and perhaps even a sense of hope in the continuing search for signs of intelligent life somewhere out in space.

Recommended. (But an updated version would be spiffy.)

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