Everything Matters! A Novel

April 9, 2011

Ron Currie, Jr.

Penguin Books, 2010

320 pages Fiction

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Junior Thibodeau knows the year he’ll die—the exact month and day, the precise moment of his death (along with the complete destruction of the earth) “thirty-six years, one hundred sixty-eight days, fourteen hours, and twenty-three seconds” from the day he’s born. All this information is given to him while in utero. With that kind of information, a person could view a life without hope—ultimately pretty depressing. It helps that Junior is “the fourth smartest person” who ever lived (but certainly not the wisest). It helps he has these unidentifiable voices to tell him pieces and shadows of the future—some of which he’s able to use to his benefit, but most often not. They’re just a damned nuisance, for the most part.

Initially, Junior immaturely uses the mysterious voices (are they angels, God, aliens?) to his advantage to navigate his youth, but later becomes depressed when his high school sweetheart dumps him because he unwisely tells her of his apocalyptic whispers of the future. Yet these voices are just helpful enough to warn Junior of things such as his older brother Rodney’s addiction to cocaine and his father’s premarital tryst with a Vietnamese prostitute while at war.

Junior’s discouraging future looms, continues to press in on him, and he even considers becoming an accomplice to a domestic terrorist plot (pre 9/11, of course).Without giving too much of the plot away, Junior reunites with many of those he loves and begins to see his future as a pretty scary thing. In other words, he gets his act together…but not fully.

Currie borrows from enough historical happenings of the 20th century to warrant this as a fun and epic period piece of sorts—culling nostalgia from familiar true-life events of the 70s, 80s and 90s. While journeying through the Thibodeau family saga, we experience Vietnam, the space shuttle Challenger disaster, various terrorist acts, and even secret governments plots.

While Junior is a sympathetic character to a degree, Junior’s father is the most sympathetic and often heroic character. He loves in the face of most of life’s challenges, even when those challenges come from his own stupid mistakes. In a sense, he knows his inevitable doom—somewhat better than Junior without the help— but does all that he can to love and care for his troubled and dysfunctional family, albeit imperfectly.

The novel succeeds because Currie delicately balances the looming doom with the hope of love and the joy of life. He shows us that a truly enjoyable life comes from finding ways to live, not avoiding death (and in this case horrible destruction). Yes, life isn’t so bad even when you know that death is close. The book has its ups and down, its slow moments and its absurdities, but ultimately we walk away from the last pages of this book mumbling to ourselves in a deep, philosophical manner that in life “everything matters”—really.

Everything Matters is available on Amazon.

Click here to visit the author’s website.

Reviewed by David Stucki, April 2011

 


Measure the Sea

April 1, 2011

Katherine Kellogg Heflin

Lulu, 2011

173 pages, Fiction

3 1/ 2 out of 5 stars

Here’s a new book by first time author Katherine Kellogg Heflin named Measure the Sea, a story about a colony of modern-day oracles struggling with their identity and the future of their colony. This is a quick read and the plot moves swiftly. Heflin never once forgets that she’s telling a story. We’re in the modern world, where a colony of oracles in Tennessee has become a sort of tourist trap. Outsiders visit the colony in droves and pay the staff of oracles for “listens” or for a prediction of the future. The listens have such a reputation for accuracy that even the President of the United States uses these oracles for advise on foreign policy.

But this thriving society has some secrets – what is making the aging oracles lose their memory? Is the traffic from the outside world polluting their colony and causing oracles to be sickened with disease? Can the leader of the society, a sage, Obi-Wanesque woman called the Pythian be trusted to protect the colony? One member of the enclave, a teenage girl named Emory is going to get to the bottom of it even if it means a life of exile.

The writing is sound and though the characters could be a little more developed, the significance of this book is how this fictional society reflects our own. They rely on technology to make a living, and exploit the marketplace to its full potential. They plan for their future by training a new generation of oracles yet when an oracle’s skills begin to decline  and they lose their memory, these elderly citizens are sequestered in a type of retirement home where they are quickly forgotten. It’s a world where the ideals of the young threaten to supplant the traditions of the old.

Part science fiction, part teen adventure, with an activist heroine that reminds you oddly of Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games books (only not as annoying), Measure the Sea is an admirable first book from Heflin. I’ve heard through the rumor mill that a sequel is underway, which is necessary because the book ends with a few story threads unresolved. Whether this be accidental or intentional, Heflin succeeds in leaving the reader wanting more.

Measure the Sea is available in paperback or download from Lulu.

Reviewed by Mark McGinty, April 2011.

Mark McGinty is the award winning author of The Cigar Maker and Elvis and the Blue Moon Conspiracy. His work has appeared in Cigar City Magazine and La Gaceta.


Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom

February 26, 2011

(With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way)

Sue Macy

National Geographic, 2011

96 pages, Young Adult

4 1/2 out of 5 stars

The celebration of International Women’s Day 2011, a global day to recognize the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future, is perhaps a perfect time to look at how the bicycle changed women’s lives in the late 19th Century and helped them ride to freedom. Sue Macy and National Geographic bring us Wheels of Change, an excellent full-color book on the history of the bicycle’s impact on society and the lives of women. To men, the bicycle was a toy but to women it was “a steed upon which they rode to a new world.”

Filled with black and white photographs, full color paintings and advertisements from the day and a wonderful eye-catching design, Wheels of Change reads more like a magazine than a history book. Your eyes flash across the page, from an anecdotal narrative to the vivid pictures inserted seemingly on every page, to the poems, songs and newspaper articles from the day, all celebrating (and often times challenging) how the women of the time embraced the bicycle.

But history it is. Rich in detail, both educational and humorous, with a tone that is always upbeat and positive. These glossy pages are a reminder of where we’ve been, a reflection on the present. This is the type of book that leaves you enlightened by the past, optimistic about the world, and empowered for the future. Should we expect anything less from National Geographic?

The bicycle was not always just for transportation, exercise or leisure. To this day, in some parts of the world, the bicycle brings children to school, transports goods to the market, takes the sick to clinics, and imports medicine to places that need it. It saves lives. And in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the bicycle saved women from the constraints they had always faced.

The book is filled with amusing stories about the female celebrity cyclists of the day, lessons on cycling slang, bicycling songs and poems, and advertisements portraying how women embraced the bicycle. From the early velocipede to the rubber-tired steel-framed high-wheeler, to the modern version with two wheels of equal size and tires filled with compressed air, we learn the evolution of the bicycle along with the evolution of fashion, industry and advertising. As women switched from skirts to bloomers, and riding become more popular, the consumer culture reacted and soon repair shops were opened, manufacturers began making bicycle bells and lights, bike paths were constructed and bicycles were modified to suit a female rider. Did you know women once rode side-saddled with both legs on the same side of the bicycle? This reviewer didn’t.

We learn about Annie Oakley, who could ride her bike no-handed while shooting at targets, and Belva Lockwood the first women to appear on an official ballot for U.S. President who rode a tricycle to work. Then there’s a great story about Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, who attempted to ride her bicycle around the world in order to settle a bet….and get this: she didn’t know how to ride a bicycle! And there was another catch – she was challenged to start with $0 and return with $5,000, a fortune for that day and age. Did she make it? How much money did she raise? It’s worth picking up Wheels of Change to find out!

Like nearly every social craze, cycling by females met the usual opposition. Denounced as the downfall of women’s health and morality, the medical community quickly recognized the benefits to health but warned women: no racing! And did the women of the day pay attention? Of course not. We are rewarded with a wonderful section on female bicycle racing and how they used to race on an indoor track in front of thousands of spectators (mostly women). In an effort to settle the growing popularity of the bicycle, The Omaha Daily Bee presented women with a list of bicycling Don’ts. Don’t carry a flask. Don’t stop at road houses. Don’t wear clothes that don’t fit (this one still applies!) and most importantly: Don’t powder your face on the road.

The worries over women’s health and detriment to religious devotion were unfounded and the bicycle gave women increased independence, better health, freedom from restrictive clothing and even helped them gain the right to vote. But don’t take it from me. Sue Macy’s Wheels of Change is diligently researched, flawlessly designed and expertly executed. A wonderful book on all counts.

Wheels of Change is now available on Amazon.com.

Mark McGinty is the award winning author of The Cigar Maker and Elvis and the Blue Moon Conspiracy. His work has appeared in Cigar City Magazine and La Gaceta.


Bitter Boy’s Guide to Love

October 23, 2010

Kyle Field

Chris Lyons

Mechanical Mariner

4 1/2 out of 5 stars

So you just got dumped by your girlfriend of 12 months and now you’re looking ahead to 2-6 months of spirit-raping loneliness? Well, you won’t believe what Kyle Fields and Chris Lyons have in store for you! Bitter Boy’s Guide to Love is your jocular guide to recovery that will put you on the fast track to sanity – as the authors declare on the book’s first page – “no more swimming in vodka’s sleepy waters!”

A follow up to Adventures in Paying Rent, Bitter Boy’s Guide to Love is an activity book filled with the fun and games you enjoyed as a kid – usually during a long road trip or airplane flight. Crossword puzzles, connect the dots, riddles, word puzzles, only instead of tame, G-rated kid stuff, these puzzles are completely R-rated – and hilarious!

Instead of searching for boring words like “apple” or “pumpkin” in the book’s opening word find, you’re tasked with identifying phrases that warn of certain breakup like smothering, need time to think, and needy. The connect-the-dots on the following page turns out appropriately to be a bottle pouring liquid into a cocktail glass – you can use your crayons to color the drink the warming amber of whiskey, or leave it uncolored for vodka or gin! Isn’t this fun?!

There’s a challenging maze, where you must get from Start to Sleep without running into such perils as the bar, the gun store, the pawn shop or your ex’s house!  There’s a Pill Spill, where you must sort through a mess of spilled Xanex, Vicodin and Quaaludes to find (and color) three matching pairs.

I love the Draw Her Tits exercise, where you’re given the outline of a female torso with missing boobies and instructed to draw your ex’s perfect chest (I was fortunate to see that my wife had already completed this exercise).

There’s a great touch-up game simply titled You Look Awful where you’re given a picture of a dejected, down-and-out loser and asked to fix him up by removing the 5 o’clock shadow, giving him a fancy new haircut and slapping a smile on that pathetic never-getting-laid-again face.

Along with these soul-repairing stunts are pages and pages of fun including a Drunk Text game, a word puzzle called Where Did I Go Wrong and a page of riddles called Cheaper Than Therapy. The artwork is crisp, the puzzles are funny and sad at the same time but best of all are the instructions for each puzzle. As one of them says, “As you try fruitlessly to fall asleep, can you pinpoint all the ways you foolishly squandered her affection?” You then find yourself decoding sets of numbers to reveal words like clingy, time hog and too many texts. At the end of the whole thing, there’s a Certificate of Completion, with a perforation so you can detach it and hang it on your wall as a reminder that you are well on your way to recovery, and hopefully (but don’t kid yourself) no longer depressed.

As I was reading through this book, admiring the artwork and laughing at the puzzles I came to realize that this stuff might actually work! These puzzles are so honest and cutthroat that they would actually aid someone going through a tough breakup. They would force you to laugh at your misery, to embrace your pain and find something to enjoy amid those dark hours of loneliness and self-doubt. We’ve all been there, and now, in Bitter Boy’s Guide to Love, Kyle Fields and Chris Lyons have given us comfort. A coping mechanism that is cheaper than therapy.

Reviewed by Mark McGinty, October 2010


Let’s Play Ball (a novel)

October 8, 2010

Linda Gould

iUniverse, 2010

248 pages, Fiction

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

 

A world of political and international intrigue set against the backdrop of Major League Baseball. Kidnappings, secret missions to Cuba, backroom deals between heads of governments, and the World Series. Sounds like a great recipe for a vivid, high-stakes political thriller. When a Cuban-born professional baseball player is kidnapped and shows up on Cuban television, an international crisis begins and Miranda, an American government bureaucrat is stuck in the middle.

In Let’s Play Ball, author Linda Gould has created a fictional world layered upon our existing system. We have Major League Baseball, but instead of the New York Yankees, we have the New York Broadways. Instead of the Washington Nationals, it’s the Filibusters.  Castro is mentioned, having lost power after 45 years, which would place the story in the year 2004, but the line between reality and fiction in warped.

In this world, Cuba is a communist country with a dictator named Ramirez, and the U.S. has a Bush-like president who laments tyranny while threatening shock and awe against the tiny, relatively defenseless island. But these world leaders are motivated by jealousy and hurt feelings instead of global and economic politics.

In this world we have a MLB owner who vows to rescue the Cuban people, opposing players who drink champagne in the winning team’s locker room and then accuse the world champs of cheating (providing no evidence whatsoever). There is a professional sports league filled with racism and petty squabbles – okay that’s not much of a stretch.

I struggled with a lot of the choices the author made in designing her fictional based-on-real world. One wonders if the author knows there is no Cuban Embassy on U.S. soil? And if she does, it makes sense to put one in the book to avoid explaining why. After all, this is not a book about Cuban-American politics. The idea of going to war with Cuba – real war, a shock and awe military engagement is ludicrous even in 2004. Calling Cubans terrorists is a bit of a stretch. The frequent reference to spicy Cuban food made this Cuban (yes, this reviewer is ½ Cuban) wonder if the author has ever had Cuban cuisine (Cuban food is not spicy!) or was simply confusing Cuban food with Mexican food (yes, there is a big difference!).

She refers to small ball as “little ball” but we don’t know if this is accidental, or part of her alternate reality. And what is Oprah Winfrey doing in the middle of all this??

Perhaps the biggest problem is that the author gives us no character to root for – no one we can identify with. The protagonist, Miranda, cheats on her husband and we’re supposed to like her. She’s emotional, sobbing and wanting to be loved – but pregnant by another man. Her husband is cheating on her too – and the woman he’s cheating with? She’s cheating! Miranda is a dishonest person who routinely spies on her husband by reading his email, and gets aroused at the sight of her sister’s husband. It’s impossible to cheer for a character like that.

The author creates such a tenuous web of gossip, unfaithfulness, conspiracy, politics and baseball that you need Glenn Beck to draw it all out on a chalkboard. So many conspiracy theories are tossed around that it’s hard to remember what is really going on.  The flaw is that we’re never in the middle of the action – we are constantly relying on second-hand rumor and speculation from dishonest characters – we never actually see any of these deals go down.

It becomes a book about pregnancy, fidelity and trust, with more hormones than intrigue. A bitter tone, with constant bickering centering around the fate of a self-proclaimed “horny bastard” who hates Spics. What begin as a Clancy story becomes more like Days of Our Lives. What starts out as a high-stakes political thriller becomes nothing more than two sisters passing rumors and gossip.

The biggest flaw is that the book does not feel finished. It ends decisively, but it feels like a second draft. Not polished.  It needs a fact check, and a chance to flush out the most interesting parts of the story: the kidnappings, the conspiracy, the secret mission…we need to see these things! We’re told later, after the fact. Through rumor and speculation. A classic mistake of telling vs. showing.

Imagine a movie where Luke Skywalker tells Yoda about everything that happened on the Death Star. Wouldn’t it be more exciting to actually see those events unfold? To experience them for yourself? That’s what’s lacking.

I struggled with the score 2 ½ stars feels generous – but Gould has fine command of the language. She writes well but in this case, failed to tell a compelling story.

Let’s Play Ball is available from Amazon.

Reviewed by Mark McGinty, October 2010.


Who Stopped the Sale?

August 22, 2010

Who Stopped the Sale?

Richard F. Libin

CreateSpace, 2010

4 out of 5 stars

Richard Libin successfully asks tough questions of those who work in both the customer service and sales industries. He’s not about to let anyone in the business merely coast. Yet, ironically, while imploring salespersons and service reps everywhere to strive for quality in their work, his book shows need for improvement. However, as you read on, you hear the wisdom of his 30 plus years of customer service and sales experience, and the content begins to resonant, ring true—rising above what may be lacking in ascetics, excellence and charm. That is truly the gift of this book. This is real stuff. The voice of an experienced professional.

Thankfully, Libin presents industry truisms without attempting to package them as the “latest sales secrets.” You quickly discern that the author walks the proverbial walk. For example, he skillfully exposes the victim mentality permeating the current sales and customer service cultures and encourages professionals to avoid this harmful mentality in every way. It’s all about the customer. Above all, he champions for the always-essential positive attitude, the need to make meaningful connections with customers, and taking ownership of sales–or the lack thereof. His approach is less about the importance of products and services and more about people—the human connection necessary for success.

As mentioned, some of the sales and service advice is basic but still worthy of repeating. In many ways, the truths aren’t repeated enough, and Libin confirms our need to hear them again. Libin’s ultimate point is that if someone who doesn’t understand the basics of sales and customer service, there is no need to show him the secrets. He won’t get it no matter what. (Moreover, that person shouldn’t even be in the business of working face to face with customers. Keep him away from the public altogether!) Being in the retail/sales/customer service business for over 25 years myself, I mined the book searching for some hidden gems from the 30-year veteran, but I should have known better. There are few secrets. Libin wisely touches on customer service basics, which truly are the secrets.

Where Libin truly succeeds is with the book’s readability and ultimate practicality. Using the easy-to-read format to that of The One Minute Manager and The One Minute Sale Person books, he gives those willing to learn, quick tidbits for success. Now, if he could only sell enough of his book, it’s possible he could start a much need revolution among customer service and sales professionals! God knows we need it.

Visit Libin’s website.

Also available from Amazon.com.

Reviewed by David Stucki, August 2010


The Art of Failing Buddhism

August 8, 2010

Ryan Dow

Create Space, 2010

204 pages, comic

4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Ryan Dow’s The Art of Failing Buddhism is not a comic filled with skintight spandex people slugging it out above giant cities but is about the quiet heroism of maintaining a positive outlook in a world that seems Hell-bent on growing more grim with each hour. This good-natured collection of shorts brings our subconscious to the forefront as it follows an average, everyday man who prefers the solitude of his thoughts to the mass media and clogged city streets of daily life. This quiet and deeply personal series of introspective comics is a winner.

Despite the title, it is not a book about Buddhism but about a man on a journey to discover who he is but to do it at his own pace, with no urgency. When it’s ready to happen, it will happen. Throughout the journey, our hero is flanked by L’il Buddha, a watchful voice of reason. The angel on our shoulder. Like the spirit of Obi-Wan that advises Luke Skywalker, L’il Buddha hovers above our hero and alternates between being a gentle sage to a relentless nag. The funny and light-hearted exchanges between these two characters creates a philosophical base where it is more important to be at peace with yourself than to accumulate wealth or increase your number of Facebook friends.

Ryan explores the simple things in life, like learning how to cook and cleaning an apartment. As he sifts through desk drawers, he is confronted with past disappointments like an old speed-dating scorecard, and remembers the past anxiety of an old student loan statement. And throughout the book he meditates, plays video games and drives an injured, destitute woman to the hospital and then feels guilty because he did not do enough.

It’s hard not to like this character, or this story. We understand his desire to be a better cook, or a better artist. We watch thoughtfully as he contemplates religion, social media, limited liability insurance, public transportation and the times in which we live. The way that we live. How we set money aside for an emergency, preparing for failure. This is a man who is easy to root for, because he confronts what we all confront. In rooting for him to find peace, we are rooting for our own contentment.

Some of these vignettes are quick, just six panels on a single page. Some are longer and unfold in series, like when Ryan is confronted with a planned layoff. In nearly every story, he is at a crossroads, as we all seem to be at nearly every moment, where no matter which decision we make, nothing will ever be the same. Our hero realizes this, and is nonetheless almost completely at peace.

This is a very easy and a very quick read, filled with amusing scenarios (How to Make a BBQ Donut is hilarious is its absurdity). But above all the awkward (and actual) situations Ryan finds himself in this is a book about satisfying that inner Buddha and quieting that nag, at least for a few minutes a day. This is a book about a man who feels like a spectator of the world, but not a part of it, and is completely okay with that. A book that says that as we go through life, we may fail and fail again, but reminds us that failure is not permanent.

The Art of Failing Buddhism is available at Ryan Dow’s Comic Book Shop. Be sure to visit Ryan’s site to see more of his great artwork.

Reviewed by Mark McGinty, August 2010


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