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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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: 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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Book review: 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love

2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love by Rachel Aaron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book I’ve read recently about how to greatly increase the volume of your writing. I note with some irony that both books have been very slim.

I was surprised that 2K to 10K had so little overlap with 5,000 Words Per Hour, so in a way the two books complement each other nicely.

Rachel Aaron offers some very specific advice that can be distilled down to two words: plan everything. And two more bonus words: track everything. She strongly advocates outlining a novel before diving in as the key to being more productive in your writing and boosting your daily word count. Unlike Chris Fox’s book, Aaron draws repeatedly from her own work to illustrate her tips, and it works to good effect, while also adding a more personal touch to the advice.

Like Fox, she is clearly enamored of her methods and the success they have brought her, and that enthusiasm is just as infectious here as it is in 5,000 Words Per Hour. You want to immediately dive in and follow the approach she advocates.

The second half of the book is a bit more of a traditional how-to, covering (and endorsing) the classic three-act structure, going over techniques on editing–here I find it interesting that she doesn’t let her beta readers look at her story until she is done with it, arguing that it’s not fair to have them offer feedback on what is still a work-in-progress.

There are no exercises here, unlike 5,000 Words, so the expectation is to take the advice and run with it.

Overall, a quick read and well worth it for both new writers or those who find themselves struggling with the process of simply getting words down in a regular, consistent manner.

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Book review: Seriously…I’m Kidding

Seriously... I'm KiddingSeriously… I’m Kidding by Ellen DeGeneres
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you liked DeGeneres’s previous two books, you’ll like this third volume as well. Like the others it’s a collection of oddball riffs and ransom thoughts, a pleasantly weird collection of stories both fictional and real, with recurring themes playing throughout. Like eating almonds in a casino and how you should never, ever do it. The affection for her partner Portia also shines through.

It’s also relatively short. The chapters are only a few pages, so if a joke doesn’t quite grab you, there’s little time to lament the fact before she’s moved on to something else. There’s also a coloring section for kids. Very thoughtful. A bit tricky for the audio book version, though.

What I like most is just how nice DeGeneres is, without sacrificing any of the humor as a consequence. A lot of the anecdotes and observation had me giggling. The whole thing is just kind of adorable.

If you’re looking for serious observations on life made easier to digest through the use of humor, you’ll want to give this book a pass. If you delight in the absurd, this is an entirely delightful way to spend a few hours.

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Book review: 5,000 Words Per Hour: Write Faster, Write Smarter

5,000 Words Per Hour: Write Faster, Write Smarter5,000 Words Per Hour: Write Faster, Write Smarter by Chris Fox
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This very short book provides some basic advice for how to crank out more words for writing. Some of it may come off as the “well, duh” variety, but it’s presented earnestly, enthusiastically, and with no filler.

And that’s my biggest criticism of the book. Fox deliberately eschews providing personal anecdotes to fill out the book and it feels unnecessarily lean as a result. There are a few references to the neuroscience behind some of the techniques discussed, but little else. Still, for someone struggling to write more and to write more consistently, you can’t go wrong with the advice, which comes down to:

  • Write in sprints. This is something that is strongly encouraged for National Novel Writing Month (which Fox mentions), where your goal is to write without stopping to edit or even fix typos. If your writing sprint is 20 minutes, you write for 20 minutes, always pushing ahead, never going back. That comes when you specifically go back to edit, which Fox himself only does after finishing the complete manuscript.
  • Write sprints regularly, preferably daily and for at least an hour.
  • Track sprints using a spreadsheet (Fox links to one he created if you are not inclined to create your own).
  • Avoid all distractions when writing. Fox suggests indulging/checking things like email before beginning your sprint.
  • Create a space for your writing. This is not just a physical space, but a time and place where you will not be disturbed, such as very early in the morning when all sensible people are still in bed.
  • Develop a positive mindset, allowing yourself to see the possibilities of what accomplishing your goals will look like. Also, improve your life beyond writing to boost your overall frame of mind.
  • Learn to type faster. This is probably the main “Well, duh” piece of advice, but he makes a valid point. Typing 5,000 words per hour amounts to 83 words per minute. If your typing speed maxes out at 50 WPM, you have a problem there.
  • Do your fingers fail you (mine certainly do)? He also suggests dictation software for writing, noting that most people can speak much faster than they can type, and as sprints aren’t intended for editing, it’s a perfect fit for cranking out great loads of words. I’ve seen dictation software mentioned before by other authors, and am now intrigued enough to consider testing it.

Overall, despite its slim size, this is a good book full of sensible advice and tips. Recommended.

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Book review: Strangers to Superfans: A Marketing Guide to the Reader Journey

Strangers To Superfans: A Marketing Guide to the Reader JourneyStrangers To Superfans: A Marketing Guide to the Reader Journey by David Gaughran
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a good book. It’s a short book. You should read it.

The End.

Okay, I should probably elaborate a bit. If you’ve read David Gaughran’s two other books on self-publishing, Let’s Get Digital and Amazon Decoded, then Strangers to Superfans will nicely complete the trilogy, and unlike some trilogies, the Shire doesn’t get burned to the ground in the process.

Superfans is less nuts and bolts than the other books, discussing some of the intangibles of self-publishing, focusing on the potential pitfalls (the failure matrix, as Gaughran calls it) in trying to capture and hold readers, then turn them into willing promoters of your work. In this sense, the book is going to be more useful to those with one or more books ready to be set loose into the sea of millions of other self-published efforts. Amazon is once again the focal point of discussion and rightly so, as it utterly dominates the ebook market, but Gaughran doesn’t ignore other markets, and even highlights how they can present unique opportunities given their smaller size.

And while there may be fewer specifics in this book compared to his others, there is still plenty of sensible advice on advertising (he is a strong advocate on newsletters), positioning and categorizing your books, along with tips on how to hook the reader at the end to keep them engaged and wanting more.

Overall, anyone thinking of self-publishing would do well to read all three of Gaughran’s books, in the order of release: Let’s Get Digital, Amazon Decoded, and Strangers to Superfans. There’s no guarantee his advice will make you rich, but your odds will certainly be better. As a bonus, his writing style is so utterly friendly and engaging you can’t help but feel more excited to self-publish afterward.

Recommended.

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Book review: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Thinking, Fast and SlowThinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thinking, Fast and Slow, is in a small way a depressing read, in that author Daniel Kahneman explains–as documented by years of research and studies–just how susceptible we are to leaping to the wrong conclusion, making clearly unwise choices and falling victim to blatant manipulation.

On a more positive note, Kahneman also shows how we can at least be aware of both how our brains work when making decisions and the ways it which our brains can be manipulated, whether through deliberate action or side effect.

The book lays out its essential premise, then builds on it in citing the many studies Kahneman and others conducted. The premise is that our brains run on two main systems, System 1 being fast, driven by emotion and intuitive, while System 2 is more deliberate, logical, but also kind of lazy, often letting System 1 win because doing all the background checks on what we impulsively think is right is just too much work. To our benefit, it turns out that System 1 is right most of the time.

The bulk of the book goes into detail about various ways we filter the world and how these two systems deal with what we find, whether it’s making a seemingly safe but sub-optimal choice due to loss aversion (we feel loss much more than we feel gains, something that can be used by companies or other agencies to steer us toward the choices they want us to make), or letting the last memory of an experience shape our desire to go through it again, even if that last memory is not representative of the experience overall.

This is a thorough book and the author does at times belabor the points being made. A few edits would keep all of the ideas presented intact while only losing some redundancy, but Kahneman’s writing style is completely accessible, so the difficulty is entirely in the length and not in the prose.

Recommended.

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Book review: Paperbacks from Hell

Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror FictionPaperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction by Grady Hendrix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Equal parts snarky and respectful, this look back on the paperback horror novels of the 1970s and 80s is a gruesomely delightful trip down memory lane.

Hendrix’s language in describing the outlandish stories moves beyond colorful and into tasteless at times, but I could never decide if it was in keeping with the spirit of the books described or if he was trying (and perhaps failing) to adopt the presence of a guy at a bar sharing some whacked-out stories with you. It doesn’t come up a lot and I suspect it won’t be an issue for most people attracted to this book, but be warned all the same.

How you read this book will greatly affect your enjoyment of it. This is not something to read on a Kindle or Kobo ereader. If you are not in possession of a paper copy, you owe it to yourself to read this on a larger tablet, all the better to take in the dozens of gaudy, gory and inevitably skeleton-filled book covers. I recognized a few here and there, but even as a fan of horror in the 80s, a lot of these were new to me.

Did I mention the skeleton covers? Skeletons were very popular.

When you’re not drinking in the bloody book covers, Hendrix provides a somewhat truncated overview of the period, dividing the chapters into different themes such as Hail Satan, Creepy Kids, Weird Science and so on. For everyone who scrunched up their toes at that scene in Stephen King’s IT (hint: it involves sex and kids), Hendrix lays out stuff that is far worse here, stuff that layers on one outrageous, offensive, gory, horrible, disgusting thing on another, then slices them all in half with a machete and serves them up for dinner, with the boiled blood of babies as the gravy. I’m probably underselling some of these novels on how gruesome they are–and this is before Hendrix even gets to the actual splatterpunk sub-genre.

In a way, Paperbacks from Hell is sad, as it chronicles the rise of popular horror fiction that began after Rosemary’s Baby became a hit in the late 60s, and follows along as it sputters out in the early 90s. This is when horror proper gave way to thrillers (aka a million variations on “killer on the loose” stories). While Grady doesn’t talk about contemporary horror, a visit to any decent-sized bookstore (those that remain) will reveal that not much has changed. Horror is again a niche, and in some ways worse (or better, depending on your perspective), with endless series based on zombie apocalypses, other apocalypses, or zombie apocalypses mixed in with other apocalypses. If you like zombies, though, you pretty much have a lifetime smorgasbord already waiting for you.

In the end, though, it’s the lurid full color book covers that make Paperbacks From Hell worth looking through. There is enough here to keep a Ridiculous Book Cover blog going for years.

Recommended for fans of horror or fans of paperback art who don’t mind the occasionally gruesome work. And lots of skeletons.

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