Thursday, May 31, 2018

Review: The Amazon


The Amazon
I don't read and review picture books often, but here goes. This is a children's non-fiction book about the Amazon. it's full of bright, beautiful photos of the plants, people, and critters of the Amazon rain forest. It touches on a little of the history and myths of the indigenous people and also talks briefly about the Spanish and Portuguese explorers. I liked that it had a fairly large section on the dangers faced by the rain forest today and talked about ways to preserve the forest while still allowing its residents to earn a living.

One quick fact that stood out to me was the following: "If crops are grown beneath the trees - a system called agroforestry - an area of the Amazon rain forest can make 42 times more profit than if it were cleared for pasture."

Since most people are motivated more by immediate needs and self-interest than they are by long-term preservation, this is the kind of information that might actually help save the rain forest from destruction.

I read this book to help research South America for a book I'm trying to write. It was a good overview of the area and helpful in getting a quick feel for the sights and life contained within. I'm not the target audience, but I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone interested in a quick peek at the Amazon - not just for children.

Five mossy green stars.

Review: Rock Your Plot


Rock Your Plot:
A Simple System for Plotting Your Novel
4/20/2015 - The author has done a great job condensing and distilling information about the writing process and I'm inspired to give her method a try.

5/31/2018 - This is my second time through this book and it's well worth a second listen. I keep promising myself that I'll get the e-book and do the exercises but haven't done so, yet. As the author admits, this isn't full of earth-shattering ideas. Instead, she boils down what she's learned after many years of writing and reading about writing. It is a nice primer for people like me who struggle with plotting. It makes the process seem a lot less mysterious and a little more achievable. Maybe this time I will actually get the e-book and put it to the test. If I do, I'll report back.

Review: Living with a SEAL


Living with a SEAL: 31 Days
Training with the Toughest Man on the Planet
The premise is interesting and the execution was okay, but I am definitely not the target audience for this book. For one thing, there is a lot of raw and raunchy language and I found that jarring and annoying. One or two f-bombs a chapter is more than enough, I don't need dozens. I don't care how true to life the swearing is, I don't enjoy hearing it. It just doesn't add anything to the story or the experience - nothing for me, anyway. That was the problem throughout the book, I felt like an intruder into boy land. I'm not a super girly girl and I read lots of books that are written primarily for a male audience, but not many books put me off as much as this one did. I just don't care about the things, people, and activities this man does. I'm not that into wealth, I am not an entrepreneur and can't relate to someone who is. The author revels in risky behavior that I not only wouldn't want to do, I can't imagine why anyone would want to. It's one thing to break your body down and risk injury and death when your life and others depends on it, but to do it just to prove you can? Nonsense.

I might have liked the book better if I had cared at all about the author and the people in his story. Jesse Itzler comes off as an arrogant butthole and the Seal is paranoid and unfit for civilian life. Itzler's wife and child rarely get a mention and everyone else barely pings on the author's radar. Also, I listened to this on audio - is their kid's name Laser or did I mishear it?

Look, some people will enjoy this - it's mildly entertaining and competently written, it's just not for me.

3 reluctant stars because it's not fair to give a bad rating to a book just because it's not your cup of tea.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Review: It Takes Two: Our Story


It Takes Two: Our Story
For some reason I seem to be on a non-fiction kick lately. To continue this trend I chose It Takes Two: Our Story by the Scott brothers. It came up on sale on Audible the other day and I like Property Brothers and Brother VS. Brother, plus I enjoy a quick memoir if it's not too salacious. This was exactly the kind of memoir you would expect from Drew and Jonathan. Their lives are so intertwined that it should come as no surprise that their prose is the same way. They take turns narrating each chapter with comments from the non-narrating brother inserted. It is very organic and feels like they are chatting with you rather than reading a book.

This is not a book about Hollywood shenanigans and sexual romps. It's the story of two hard-working brothers who come from a loving family and have a hefty work ethic. Assuming they're not blowing smoke, their private lives seem to line up perfectly with their image onscreen. I admire the fact that they didn't dish any dirt or tell tales out of school. Even when Jonathan talked about his divorce (I think it's Jonathan who got divorced, it's hard to keep them straight even here) he was respectful and kind about his ex-wife.

It's hard to trust anyone in entertainment with all of the current scandals involving people I used to admire, but it sounds like the brothers are genuinely nice guys who care about their family and friends and try to do their best in everything they do. I remember reading a criticism about them and their shows, saying that the twins are never there actually doing any work. After reading this, I understand why that might be true. They are beyond overbooked and it's amazing they get anything done. I just hope they get to slow down and enjoy their success at some point. It seems like they deserve it.

Four stars for a solid, entertaining read.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Review: Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong


Barking Up the Wrong Tree:
The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything
You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong
For a book that claims to be surprising, there wasn't much new here. I'll say this, it is entertaining and he does tell a good story. The most surprising part of the book was the examples he chose for you to emulate - pirates, gang members, and raccoons for example. There are good tips here and I especially liked the stuff on work-life balance. To give you context, I am back in college after many years away and so thoughts of my future and what I want to do with it are looming large and I am fascinated by any book that purports to tell me how to proceed.

This book doesn't fail to do that, it just wasn't as surprising as it advertised itself to be. Maybe if they hadn't oversold it so heavily it would have felt more suprising than it actually was. Was it useful? I think so. Did it bring anything new or different to the table? Well, the writing style was fresh and the examples were clever, but I'm not sure I learned anything I didn't already know. Was it worth the read? For me it was, but I'm a sucker for all things psychology. If you're not as fascinated as I am by psychology, maybe it won't be as much fun for you.

I will say that I'm sick to death of titles that read like a prologue. Seriously, how many words does one title really need? In this case it actually set the book up for failure since it couldn't deliver on the promise.

I give it three and a half stars from an ex psychology major but your mileage may differ.

Review: Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time


Turn Right at Machu Picchu:
Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time
I am planning a time travel story set at Machu Picchu and wanted to do some preliminary research about the site and its history. Searching on the library website turned up this book and so I gave it a listen. During the reading of it I happened to listen to the Judge John Hodgman podcast and he just happened to mention this book which is apropos of nothing but I thought it was an odd coincidence.

The book failed to capture my imagination and fell flat as both a descriptive book and a historical one. I wanted to know more about the Incas and their reasons and purpose behind Machu Picchu and I wanted a feel for what the surrounding area looked and felt like. The author spent more time describing his adventures with diahrrea and its aftermath than he did the sights, sounds, and smells of the area. Once he finally got to Machu Picchu it felt really anti-climactic and I wasn't even sure that he was actually there. Then, he was suddenly home in New York. I confess I got a little whiplash there.

It's an entertaining enough book and the writer seems like a good guy but I didn't care for the focus on Bingham and the lack of description. I wanted to be transported and I wasn't.

3 1/2 lackluster stars.

Review: Million Dollar Outlines


Million Dollar Outlines
I have got to stop listening to self-help books on audio instead of reading them. So much of the advice given is lost on me as I try to keep up with the narration while folding socks or commuting or whatever and I struggle to retain any of the information presented. That is probably the main reason I have so few take-aways from this book. It was full of solid advice but I don't have much confidence that it will affect my writing much. How much of that is the fault of the book and how much of it is the result of the way I accessed that book is hard to say.

Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells have talked about David Farland multiple times on their wonderful podcast, Writing Excuses. Both of them credit him for much of their early success and have encouraged their listeners to take classes from him whenever possible. After listening to this book I can see why because the advice is no-nonsense, practical, and success-directed. There is no concern for art for art's sake. It is a book about making your writing commercial and successful, not about making yourself an artiste. Thank goodness, because I hate pretentious literary crap and I would never want to write it, so this is definitely a good approach for someone like me. He had good advice, what I can remember of it, about how to write for your audience and he breaks down the main interests of that audience by gender and age. I didn't agree with his points 100% and thought he was more than a little sexist but, political correctness aside, he's not far off the mark.

One place I thought he was a little gender-blind was when he said that women and girls prefer to read about female characters but never acknowledged that women are much more willing to read across genders because they have almost no choice in the matter. There is a reason that J.K. Rowling used initials to hide her gender and wrote about Harry Potter and not Hermione - girls will read boy books but boys will emphatically NOT read girl books. But that's a subject for another day and another rant.

For a book that calls itself Million Dollar Outlines, there was very little practical advice about how to outline. Most of the book was spent breaking down what makes a movie successful and much less time was spent in giving step by step advice for how to write an outline. The audio book really suffered from the lack of visuals, too. There should have been an accompanying PDF to show the reader/listener the charts and so on from the book.

I'm sure this book will be useful for people in a certain place in their writing trajectory, but for someone like me who can't plot at all, it was more entertaining then helpful. I liked the parts about character development the most but wish I had been able to glean more ideas for how to plot and outline. Maybe I should get the print version and give it another try. Not all books work well as audio books and that's not the fault of the book but the format. I would be willing to come back to it again in print.

Judging by audio alone, it's a 3 1/2 star listen.

Review: The Necklace


The Necklace
Today was my first day in Introduction to Literature, an online class I'm taking for my Associate's degree. Our first assigned story was one I read a year or so ago but never reviewed. I don't often review short stories because there just isn't that much to say about them and I always feel a little guilty adding them to my Goodreads challenge because it feels like cheating. This time around, though, I had to think deeply about this one for class so you're getting a review here whether you want one or not.

The character in this story is an idiot, let's just get that out there. She is born into "poverty" but she isn't really poor, she just isn't wealthy. She has a maid, for heaven's sake. However, she dreams of diamonds and silks and thinks she's made for better things. When her poor husband comes home with an invitation to a fancy party she throws a tantrum and insists on a new dress. He unselfishly gives her everything he has saved for his own pleasure so she can have the dress. Then she frets because she won't have any nice jewels to wear. He suggests she borrow some from her rich friend and she does and they go to the party and she's the belle of the ball. After the party, however, she realizes she's lost the necklace. Instead of coming clean to her friend, she has her husband mortgage his life and soul to buy a replacement. They then spend the next ten years of life in ruinous debt and real poverty.

I had no sympathy for the woman in this story. I thought she was shallow, frivolous, and ridiculous. On the other hand, my heart went out to her poor husband who didn't deserve the ruin his wife brought on him and yet he never complains or abandons her. This is one of those stories where you are screaming at the characters to just talk out their problems instead of ruining their lives with desperate acts. It's a good story and I can see why it's a classic, but I also think it's a bit heavy-handed. The theme, as far as I can tell, by the way, is that life is too short to waste on material goods and you should be satisfied with what you've got and not go chasing after riches. Or maybe it's just don't reach above your station. Then again, you could say it's a cautionary tale about coming clean and not trying to hide your mistakes. Whatever, I'm terrible at finding the themes in a story. All I know is that, if I had been that idiot's husband, she would have been my ex-wife as fast as I could manage it. The poor guy deserved better.

Review: Your Inner Critic Is a Big Jerk: And Other Truths About Being Creative


Your Inner Critic Is a Big Jerk:
And Other Truths About Being Creative
Last semester I took an online class in public speaking. (I had to make a bunch of videos - it wasn't pretty.) For my last speech I had to choose from a list of character traits and values. I chose creativity because it's something that fascinates me, mostly because I have to keep convincing myself that it's something I possess despite my lack of demonstrable artistic ability. In my speech I made the claim that A) Everyone is creative and B) Creativity is important for everyone, including accountants and C) You can increase your creativity with a few simple tips. The funny thing is that I knew that's what I believed long before I did a lick of research. When I did my research it turned out that I was 100% right, not something I get to say very often. Turns out that this book said much the same thing but with more words.

The major takeaway from this book is that you are creative and you better stop saying you're not. Thanks, Danielle, for backing me up because that's exactly what I said! She has some great ideas for taming your inner critic and finding time and room to nurture your creative side. It's a book I'd like to return to once in a while to remind myself that I deserve to be creative and I don't need to be a great painter like my mom or a genius like my dad to qualify for my creativity badge.

If I have one complaint about the book is its focus on the arts, especially visual mediums. Not all art is creative and not all creativity is art. You can be a creative ditch digger or CEO and you can be an uncreative painter. Creativity is a trait separate from its outlet. Some accountants are more creative than some musicians, and not always in a bad way. I lean heavily on creativity in my programming and database development. The author does mention once or twice that creativity isn't just about art and writing, but most of her examples came back to those, probably because that's where she excels. It's not her fault that some of us are more creative in Excel than we are with paint.

It's a good book, much better than my speech, and I recommend it. Four rainbow glitter stars.

Review: South America (A True Book)


South America (A True Book)
Talk about a quick read! This was a book I ordered through inter-library loan when I started thinking about writing Tarzan fan fiction set in South America. I had no idea it was less than 50 pages long and filled with pictures. Say what you will about kid's books, they're a good way to get a quick overview of an area. This one helped me get a general feeling for the South American continent and helped me pinpoint areas I would like to explore in more detail.

I am ashamed to admit that I know less about our neighboring continent to the south than I do any other continent on the planet. It's like I have this huge blind spot just south of Mexico. For instance, I had never heard of the Atacama Desert, the world's driest desert. It gets less than half an inch of rain a year! That makes the Mojave look like a rain forest in comparison. Speaking of rain forests, that was one thing I knew was in South America, but I guess I forgot that's not all that's down there. Along with plains and waterfalls and so on, there is also a place called Patagonia. I had heard the name, but had no idea where it was. It's like Antarctica crept onto the South American continent and took up residence.

For such a small book, I learned a lot and now I know more about what I don't know and I'm motivated to learn more. See, sometimes it's worth reading a kid's book on a subject. At least it doesn't drag on and on and on.

Four gold stars.

Review: Mind Tryst


Mind Tryst
I have read quite a few Robyn Carr books over the years and find her to be a consistently good author of contemporary romance. As often happens I discovered her in an Christmas romance anthology and liked her writing so much that I sought out more of her books and then shared them with my mom. We have enjoyed many of her romances and I'm always happy to return to her books when I am in the mood for a well-written story.

What I didn't know was that Ms. Carr had written a suspense novel, Mind Tryst, released in 1992. I don't remember buying this book, but it showed up in my Audible library so I must have done so. I have been trying to catch up on my older Audible purchases so I grabbed this one as a quick stand-alone while I decide on what I want to listen to next.

It was challenging at first, mostly because I never looked at the book's summary before listening to it, so I was expecting a romance and not a psychological thriller. I kept thinking, I don't like these people very much and this isn't very romantic. I especially disliked Tom and thought poor Jackie's background was awfully depressing for a romance, too. Finally, I looked at the summary and got on board with the genre. Now, don't get me wrong, I love a good thriller or suspense novel, the problem was, this wasn't a good one.

The book was slow to build and then topped out and dropped down into a long slide. I checked and the book was barely halfway through. It kind of muddled around for quite a long time without any contact between Jackie and Tom. There are endless pages of investigation but no real mystery. There is only one suspect for the villain in this book and he's not very engaging or excessively scary.

Things finally come to a close, but the pacing was bizarre and the ending came on with a long-drawn-out sigh rather than a bang. I got the impression the author was as bored with the story as I was and couldn't figure out how to end it. It just kept rolling on and on and on without any momentum. I remember when I was a college student I was waiting for a drive in movie to open so I was killing time. I pulled onto a deserted street and pointed my car down the road and took my foot off the gas. I wanted to see how long it would take for the car to come to a stop. Turns out, it doesn't. Unless you aim it uphill or put on the brake, the car gets just enough gas to keep it creeping forward. That's how this book felt. It just wouldn't die.

I don't like writing tough reviews for authors I admire, but this isn't a good book. It's barely a mediocre book. I wouldn't recommend it and I gave it three generous stars.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Friday Check In

I have been enjoying writing and posting my book reviews here. This poor blog was so neglected for so long that it has been a joy resurrecting it. It has also given me a reason to think more deeply and write with more analysis about the books I read and listen to and that is, generally, a good thing. I hope you find the reviews at least a little entertaining and useful.

As much fun as the book reviews are, it does leave my blog a little flat on personal details, though, so I thought that maybe I should check in every once in a while, maybe every Friday or maybe less, and fill you in on what's going on in my life. It has been years since I have posted anything here, so let me bring you up to speed on me and my loved ones.

Mom and Dad in 2016
First, and most important, I have lost several people over the last few years. My oldest sister, Pat, lost her battle with cancer and then my Dad's mom died at the age of 96. Most recently, my dad fell and suffered head trauma which accelerated his already advanced Alzheimer's and we lost him in January after five months of intensive nursing at home. My mom and I are still trying to find our way without him. He wasn't the father I grew up with for several years before his accident so the grieving process has been skewed. I am relieved that he is no longer dealing with the degradation of the disease, especially the last five months, but I am just now beginning to truly grieve the loss that was spread over such a long time. You can see his memorial page at DonShiles.com.

My mom and I are closer than ever and I can't imagine my life without her. She is still providing daily doggy day care for my dogs on top of managing her own horde of three rat terriers and one Siamese cat. I think the last time I wrote here I had three rat terriers, Harley, Scooter, and Pixie. Almost two years ago I added a rat terrier, chihuahua rescue who I named Pooka. She came to us from a pet hoarding/puppy mill home where she churned out so many puppies that it took a huge toll on her mind and body. Soon after she came to us she broke her jaw and we spent over $5,000 saving her life. This was only possible because of the kindness of friends and strangers who supported her GoFundMe campaign. I'm happy to report that Pooka is happy and healthy and a holy terror who bullies Scooter and adores me. I understand the first, but not sure about the second. It's okay, though, I adore her right back. She may not have many years left since she was about 11 when she came to us, but we'll take whatever we can get.

Scooter and her half-size nemesis, Pooka
I'm still working at Kelly Press and learning new skills as we branch into e-learning. I have been experiencing e-learning from the other side, too, as I have been working on my associate's degree online thanks to my union. I'm going to finish that up in December and then I start on my bachelor's degree at University of Maryland University College which, despite its highly redundant name, has a good reputation. Dad used to teach Psychology for it in Germany and it has the advantage of being an online program so I can finish more quickly than I would if I had to go to classes.

If you've gotten this far, do me a favor and leave a comment. I like to think there is someone out there, listening. If you're here just for the reviews, that's cool, I promise to get back to them soon. I just thought that maybe you'd like to hear a little about me once in a while, too.

Review: You Are More Than Enough - You Are Magnificent


You Are More Than Enough - You Are Magnificent
I recently took a public speaking class and one of the other students did a speech on self compassion. She talked about how we attack and hurt ourselves in ways that we would never do to friends, families, and strangers. While I think she underestimated my willingness to be rude to others, she is right in that I am even meaner to myself. I am constantly and even obsessively self-critical: questioning every decision, agonizing over looking and sounding stupid to others, and beating myself up over my weight and appearance. It is very difficult for me to be kind to myself and that makes it hard for me to be kind to others.

In this book, the author reminds women that they are not the failures and miscreants they think they are. In fact, she makes a good case for loving yourself in your imperfections while continuing to strive to be more. It can be difficult to reconcile the two. It's hard to find the balance between self compassion and complacency - to keep working to improve while being patient and even proud of where we are right now. My instinct is to argue back and say, "I'm not enough, and I'm definitely not magnificent," but that's the point of the book, isn't it? Many, if not most, people find it hard to forgive themselves for even minor mistakes and struggle with a distorted self-image.

I have family members who are narcissistic and incapable of seeing faults in themselves but masterful at seeing faults in others. I have spent decades trying to recover from toxic relationships with these people - being told daily all of the ways I failed to measure up. So many years of being told that I was worthless took its toll and I still struggle to see myself clearly. It's like spiritual and emotional anorexia. I see myself one way and others, presumably, see me another. I need a better mirror.

The message of this book was exactly the balm my spirit needed, especially at this time when I'm going back to college. I loved the stories she shared of women who refused to recognize their own value while others could see it so clearly. I especially appreciated the story of the plaster Buddha statue. In 1955 people were trying to move a 600 year old plaster statue of Buddha. A rope broke and the statue crashed to the ground, cracking it. On examination they discovered gold hidden within the plaster. The statue was solid gold and its true value would never have been discovered if it hadn't been dropped. The analogies to our lives of adversity exposing our true selves was apt and something I will remember long after I've forgotten other messages from this book. You can read more about it here.

I found this book to be encouraging and inspirational and I recommend it. Five stars.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Review: How do I Know If I Know?


How Do I Know If I Know
John Bytheway, besides having the cutest name since Picabo Street, is a fantastic speaker on LDS matters. No matter what subject he tackles he always inspires and uplifts his readers/listeners. I have been away from the church for quite awhile and so my testimony is shaky. I have been reading books on faith and questioning everything I believe. Some of the books I've read during this time have been full of information and were valuable for expanding my world view. Others were solid books on doctrine and belief. None of them made me feel as much as this little book for teenagers seeking to know if they have a testimony or not. I guess I'm just a teenager at heart because I got more out of this book than all of the others combined.

I loved that Bytheway (still loving that name) talks about the logic and not just the emotions of faith. Over the years I have come to recognize that I may never have a burning in the bosom or some great sense of spiritual matters. I can be intuitive, but I prefer knowledge over emotion. Since I live with depression and anxiety I know that emotions are iffy things that can have little connection with concrete reality. I have learned, because of my depression, not to trust what I feel because my brain chemistry loves to mess with me. However, if I can learn facts and use that as a basis for faith, then I'm a lot happier, and this book validates that as a perfectly acceptable approach.

I came away from this book reassured and encouraged. You can't ask for more in a book of this type. Five grateful stars.

Review: Head On


Head On
Some authors write good books once in awhile with clunkers in between. Anne McCaffrey, for instance, with all of her brilliance, still managed to pump out some really bad fiction. I'm looking at you Petaybee. Then there are the authors you can rely on to be entertaining, thought-provoking, and talented. Tamora Pierce and Brandon Sanderson are two of those authors, and so is John Scalzi.

The first Scalzi book I came across was Redshirts, which I read in line at Baltimore's Comic Con, waiting to meet Stan Lee. It was the first book I ever read on a tablet, by the way. I have since read and enjoyed several Scalzi books including Fuzzy Nation and Lock In. The latter is far and away my favorite of his books, so far. That's why I was so glad when I got my hands on the audio book for the sequel, Head On.

Once upon a time I was a psychology major and, ever since, I have been fascinated by the way our minds work and how our minds affect our bodies. In locked in syndrome the patient has no access to the outside world but can be completely conscious and aware. I wish that Scalzi had invented this disease for the book but it is a real condition. After reading Lock In I stumbled across Ghost Boy: My Miraculous Escape from a Life Locked Inside My Own Body, the true story of a real-world survivor of this condition. As I read it I kept wishing that the solution in Lock In had been available for Martin. That's where fiction is better than reality.

Scalzi takes this condition and finds a way for the patients to escape the bonds of their frozen bodies with neural implants. They can exist in a kind of virtual reality or they can interact with the "meat" world with robot/android bodies known as threeps (derived from C3-PO). The hero of the first book, Chris Shane, is back. He is an adult survivor who was once the poster boy for the disease. He works as an FBI agent and this time around he's investigating a death of a player of a threep sport involving war hammers, swords, and decapitations.

Just like in the first one, the mystery in the book is secondary to the exploration of what it means to be human, how should people of different physical and mental abilities be treated, and how much does our physical body matter in comparison to our mind. These are heady topics but Scalzi weaves them together with skill and without ever climbing on a soapbox.

I devoured this book in just one day and I hope there will be a sequel sooner rather than later. 5 enthusiastic stars.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Review: Wait, What?: And Life's Other Essential Questions


Wait, What?: And Life's Other Essential Questions
I'm a sucker for inspirational, self-help books, especially those with a practical approach. This one hit nicely in that sweet spot between helpful and entertaining. This started as a graduation speech the author made at the Harvard School of Education. As so often happens, the video went viral and publishers came calling. They convinced him to expand his speech into a book and he did a good job with fairly thin material.

The strength of the book was in the author's personal experiences. I learned more from his stories than I did from his advice. The advice itself is not earth-shattering, but the most profound answers are usually the simplest ones. It's like at church where the answer to almost every question about how to better know doctrine, change your life, or deal with a tough issue is to pray and read the scriptures. It's simple, but covers a lot of territory. The same thing is true here.

While we know that curiosity is important, do we actually practice it? Do we ask ourselves and others the questions we need to understand? I'm often guilty of complacency and being too willing to accept the status quo. Recently I have returned to college after 30 years away and have realized just how set in my ways I've gotten and how unhappy that has been making me. I do need to ask more questions, and the ones outlined in this book are a good place to start.

Five stars for practicality and readablity.

Review: Dungeon Calamity


Dungeon Calamity
The second book in this series was the strongest. The first book suffered from excessive world-building but in the second one, the author found his footing and really got things moving. He built up great momentum and introduced a credible threat that challenged both the dungeon and the adventurers, bringing them together to fight a common enemy. Then, all he had to do was hold onto that momentum and build on it in the third book. Unfortunately, he failed in large part in achieving that.

It's as if he had so many fun ideas he wanted to explore that he just threw them all in this book in one last-ditch effort to use them all up. There is the Asgard subplot which made little sense. There was the harbinger of justice pitted against the embodiment of insanity that never went anywhere. It felt like the author was afraid he'd never get another chance to write another book and wanted to use every idea in this one without really considering how they fit into the larger whole. Because of that, the book stalled for most of its length and then torpedoed to the end at such a breakneck pace that I lost track of who did what and where. The confrontation with the big bad was anticlimactic and the ending was not nearly as surprising as he wanted it to be since I figured it out in the first book.

Don't get me wrong, this was still a lot of fun and I'm glad I read the series. I would recommend it to geeks everywhere with a high tolerance for a focus on world building over character development. Just don't expect any gender balance or depth. It is what it is, an exploration of what would it mean if dungeons were sentient and deliberately trying to kill you, but not too much. After all, if it kills everyone off no one is going to come back. Talk about exhausting your customer base.

3 1/2 stars for a fun, if uneven, ride.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Review: Dungeon Madness


Dungeon Madness
So often the second book in a series is a let-down and you realize the author didn't have more than one idea to explore. Other times the second book picks up where the first one left off and is even better. This book is one of the latter.

Instead of endless conversations between two barely formed characters about how to grow the perfect dungeon, we actually have living, breathing characters who interact in fun and interesting ways. Dale has grown into a really likeable guy and his relationship with Hans and Tom is especially good. Cal has developed a sense of self and a sense of humor in equal measure and the entire book is funnier.

This time around the dungeon and its adventurers are plagued by magical zombies and have to join forces to survive. It was fun seeing Dale and Cal working together instead of against each other and the action was a lot more compelling than in the first book.

There is one glaring problem with this book and that is its treatment of women, or lack thereof. There are basically three women in the book - the mage in charge of portals, the grandmother who runs The Pleasure House eating establishment, and Rose - the half-elf ranger in Dale's party. Rose gets no character development. She's defined solely by her race, her gender, and her annoyance with male behavior. We know who Hans is and how he sees the world. Tom, the barbarian, is clearly drawn if a little flat. Who is Rose? Who cares, she's the girl - that's the message we get clear as day. She is there for Hans to flirt with and annoy and that's it. She is so generic as to be invisible. I am so sick of the token female character. If authors spent half the time thinking about a female's background, wants, and needs as they do about their wardrobe and hair color, maybe we would have women characters that were more than cardboard cutouts.

To be fair, in the audio version at least, the wisp is presented as female and so that brings the named females in the book to a solid four. However, in a book this size, with this many characters, that's a pitiful showing. Why, for instance did Dale only recruit one female for his hunting party? One out of five is terrible odds.

The last half of this book was engrossing and the action was exciting. I had a hard time putting it down and ultimately stayed up late to finish it. When the author finally gets tired of world building and moves into action, he does a great job. I do wonder if he is a fan of the Bobiverse books, by the way. I wouldn't be at all surprised.

I enjoyed this book and I'm happy to recommend it, but the author really needs to remember that a well-rounded female character needs more than a shapely figure. 4 stars

Monday, May 21, 2018

Review: Dungeon Born


Dungeon Born
Are you a 12-14 year old boy who loves sitting on Grandma's old couch in Mom's basement munching on Doritos, arguing about how to build the perfect dungeon? Have you ever thought, wow, this is so much fun, I should write a book about it? Not the adventures someone would have in the dungeon, at least not for at least 1/3 of the book. No, let's write a book about the decision-making process for building the perfect dungeon. Oh, and while we're at it, let's throw in lots of adverbs, because who doesn't love adverbs describing exactly how someone says something. What could be more fun?

Root canals, root canals would be more fun.

I sat through this book while playing Skyrim for hours so you know I'm a fan of this kind of game. I haven't ever done tabletop games like D&D but I've played plenty of RPGs and my time in a mud was legendary (literally.) If I hadn't been distracted by the killing in Skyrim I probably would have quit this book about two chapters in when I realized nothing was going to happen for a while. The adverbs were just the cherry on the poop cake.

Then, about halfway through the book, it started to improve thanks to the introduction of actual adventurers into the story. Dale, specifically, was a good character to follow as he has the steepest hill to climb from murderer to land-owner. To be clear, I hated Dale at first and it was a long time before I didn't, but he did mostly win me over eventually.

I sat through the entire book and moved onto the second one, so it did get better. I'm just not sure why we had to be subjected to chapter after chapter after chapter of exposition and dungeon building. That kind of discussion belongs in Mom's basement, not in a published novel.

3 1/2 reluctant stars.

Review: Painting Kisses


Painting Kisses
Lia Carswell is an Artist with a capital "A." She's not your average dabbler, no, she's an artiste! I got really tired of hearing how she paints what she feels and everyone who sees her paintings practically faints with admiration. She's the kind of painter that describes her artistic process like she's painting with angel feathers - the kind of artist that makes me want to throw something. I'm allergic to artists who act like what they do is something mystical and magical and not just putting paint on canvas so I had a hard time with that aspect of this book, but if that's probably just me.

Other than the artiste stuff, this is a solid book. It's my least favorite book so far by Melanie Jacobson but it's still a good read. The romance was interesting and the stuff with the niece was good but it relied too heavily on the art and on one pretty crazy coincidence. I would have preferred it if the big conflict in the past hadn't been a bad experience with a man. I just think that was a little bit cliche.

This is a good, solid book, but not nearly as much fun as I have come to expect from this author. 4 1/2 stars.

Review: Not My Type: A Single Girl's Guide to Doing It All Wrong


Not My Type
Pepper Spicer is about 20% jerk and 80% loser when we first meet her. She throws a fit when her family refuses to ignore her birthday and, gasp, make her a chocolate cake. This heinous act shall not stand and our heroine flips the cake over onto the floor. Do you know what my parents would have done if I had done something when I was her age (23)? Forget it, do you know what my mom would do to me if I did that now in my fifties? Hint, it wouldn't have involved kind counseling and calm voices. Besides, who doesn't love chocolate cake?

It took me a long time to like Pepper, and not just for the cake incident. She's not very likeable and she's so self-centered and mopey that there wasn't much to like at first. It doesn't help that she's the exact opposite of me with her taste in music, clothing, and men. If I hadn't read other books by this author, I might have given up, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt and hung in there and I'm glad I did.

Pepper gets to be a lot more interesting when she starts making changes for the better and once she gets her column, "Dating in the City," she turns out to be pretty funny. I liked that the parents in this book are supportive and likeable, if a little unrealistic, and they provide some nice moments of clarity for Pepper.

The book is fun but, like Pepper's column, it's funniest when Pepper is the butt of the joke. I think she redeems herself nicely by the end and the romance was healthy and honest. So many romances and chick lit have unhealthy relationships between the hero and heroine, but this one avoided that. It was a refreshing change.

Fun book and lots of humor. Five happy stars.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Review: Tarzan and the Madman


Tarzan and the Madman
And so I face the final curtain...

It has been a long, sometimes bumpy, road from Tarzan of the Apes to Tarzan and the Madman. Along the way, especially around the Tarzan and the Ant Men mark, I wondered if I would ever get through, but I persevered and rediscovered my love for this character and his world. Yes, the books are racist, sexist, and dated, but Tarzan rises above it all and has stayed firmly lodged in my heart.

Now that I have finished the last of the original Tarzan books and am left with nothing but tales told by other authors, I find myself more melancholy than relieved. It reminds me of when I read the series for the first time in 1975. I finished the last book and immediately started over with book one and read all the way through to the end again. Then I went back and read the first six about four more times each. I'm too old and busy to do that now, but I understand the impulse. I don't want to leave Tarzan's company, life is just richer with him in it.

Enough fangirling, let me talk a little bit about this book. Tarzan and the Madman gives us yet another Tarzan imposter. This time around he doesn't look much like Tarzan but he runs around clad in a g-string and carrying Tarzan's weapons while accompanied by the great apes. This Tarzan isn't a good guy, however, he's stealing women and children and carrying them off into the jungle never to be seen again. By the time Tarzan learns of this imposter's antics he has stolen a white girl from her father's safari. Tarzan sets out to kill the imposter and rescue the white girl. As was sadly typical of ERB, he ignores the fate of the black captives and only concerns himself with the white prisoners. There are evil white men, heroic white men, and a helpless white woman whom every male wants, even the apes. What is with the apes and their desire for white girls? There is something very weird about that.

I won't spoil the ending for you but I'm reminded of a lesson learned in earlier ERB books, be careful who you fall in love with because if there are two of you in love with the same girl, one of you will definitely die. It's not possible for you to go off and love another, you must win the love race or croak, those are your only options.

Let's talk about something else that happens over and over again in ERB's books. If you are a woman and you are about to be dishonored (no one in an ERB book would use the word rape) you are honor-bound to kill yourself. They don't call it a fate worse than death for nothing. Talk about blaming the victim! It's probably the second-most problematic feature of this author, right after the horrid racism. I'm not saying that chastity and morality have no meaning, but I'm so glad we have evolved away from the idea that your sexual purity is more important than your life.

This is not a great book, it's probably not even a good book, but there are good moments in it and a nice comeuppance for some bad guys. There are glaring plot holes, including the reason for why the imposter can talk to the apes, that are never explained. The ends get tied up much too neatly even for an ERB novel and Tarzan doesn't get much chance to shine in this one. It's worth reading if you are, like me, a completist and a Tarzan fan, but it won't hurt you to miss it if you can't get your hands on a copy.

I'm giving it four stars, mostly because I'm so sad the series is over. Don't judge me!

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Review: What Da Vinci Didn't Know: An LDS Perspective


What Da Vinci Didn't Know: an LDS Perspective
I read The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown against my better judgment and despite the advice from many intelligent people I respect. Honestly, if no one had told me how popular it was I would have assumed it was a bargain basement mystery novel. To be fair, that's exactly what it was. If the author hadn't drummed up interest by throwing in a lot of crazy anti-Christian conspiracies no one but his mom would have read it. The writing is incredibly bad on its own - no need to argue about his ridiculous theories.

So, why read this one? Good question. It's not like I felt Brown needed any rebuttal any more than Bigfoot nuts or alien abductees do. I just thought the authors of this book might have something interesting to say about the subject and it was included in my Deseret Book Plus membership and it was short. Okay, maybe that last factor was the biggest draw. I was in the mood for something that wouldn't take more than a minute and this one fit the bill.

This is not technically a book, not in the format I consumed, anyway. It's actually a recording of three LDS scholars who chat about the problems with The Da Vinci Code and their rebuttals for Brown's theories. It was an entertaining, informative, and short listen and did a great job with what they set out to do, outlining the LDS perspective. If you are LDS and thought Brown had any credibility, then give this a listen. Otherwise, it just gives more attention to a thoroughly forgettable, third-rate novel. The biggest mystery about The Da Vinci Code is how it got so popular. C'mon people, we can do better.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Review: Stress and Your Body

Stress and Your Body
5/15/2018 - I'm not done with this, yet, and there will be a complete review later, but I had to complain about something that really bugs me. This series of lectures is presented by a professor with multiple advanced degrees, including at least one in psychology, yet he said that positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement are essentially reward and punishment.

People, stop making this mistake! This is not rocket science, and it's a lot more basic than the neuroscience that makes up the majority of these lectures, so why spread misinformation? It makes me wonder what else he got wrong.

Once and for all, let's get it straight. Positive reinforcement = reward. No one gets these confused. With me so far? Punishment = punishment. Duh. Negative reinforcement is its own thing, it is NOT punishment! ::mutter::

Definitions.

Positive reinforcement - a stimulus which, when applied after a behavior, makes it more likely for the behavior to recur. In simple terms - you do something I like, I give you a cookie... a warm, gooey, chocolate chip cookie with a glass of ice cold milk.

Punishment - a stimulus which, when applied after a behavior, makes it less likely for the behavior to occur. You do something I don't like, and I smack your hand. I told you to stop groping me, but you wouldn't listen. Assuming you don't like your hand smacked, you are less likely to grope me in the future.

Negative reinforcement - a stimulus which, when removed after a behavior, makes it more likely for the behavior to recur. Your dryer starts buzzing when the clothing is dry and doesn't stop until you open the door. It doesn't reward you for folding the laundry and putting it away, that's on you, it just wants you to open that darn door.

You see, with a negative reinforcer, you don't like the buzzing so you are more likely to open the door to make the buzzing stop. The removal of the buzzing happens after the behavior and rewards you for taking action.

By the way, there is such a thing as positive and negative punishment, but almost no one makes the distinction. Negative punishment would be the removal of something after a behavior which would discourage that behavior in the future. Your kid doesn't do his homework so you turn off the WiFi and he can no longer play Dota 2. Next time you tell him to do his homework he would, presumably, be more likely to perform the desired behavior. On a side note, punishment is a lot less effective in changing behavior than reward. In fact, many behaviorists in the field have stopped using punishment entirely. It's an exciting trend.

Back to the explanation. It's all about timing and intent. A positive reinforcement and punishment always come after the behavior while a negative reinforcer starts before the behavior and ends when the behavior is performed. The reason it's called negative is because the stimulus is removed not added. Its intent, however, is to increase the behavior, just like with a positive reinforcer. A punishment is always intended to decrease the behavior. Do you see why the two are not the same? If not, just ask, I'll talk about this nonsense for hours.

5/16/2018 - Feeling stressed and depressed? Yeah, well, don't listen to this, it will just make you feel worse. I can sum it up for you in just two words, "stress sucks." There is a lot of science here, much of which I have heard from other sources.

What I was hoping for was not all of the bio-mechanics or neuroscience of stress, but some insight into how to mitigate the effects. There are 24 chapters/lectures here and only one of them offers any advice, more as an afterthought than a serious attempt to help. Of that advice the only thing I remember is that exercise is good for stress relief, but only if it's exercise you like. Forget forcing yourself to go to the gym, if it's not fun it will just make your stress worse. Oh, and that old stand-by, meditation? Nope, won't help you unless you love it.

Now, if only I could get back the hours I wasted listening to this and spend it reading a book I enjoyed or playing Skyrim, that would be a better use of my time and might actually do something to reduce my stress.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Review: I Can't Make This Up


I Can't Make This Up
I didn't know what to expect going into this. Kevin Hart didn't make it on my radar until a couple of years ago and I still really had no idea who he was until I saw Central Intelligence with Dwayne Johnson and then Jumanji, again with Dwayne Johnson. As an actor, he comes across as shrill and hysterical but still likeable. His performance in Central Intelligence hearkened back (in a good way) to the Alan Arkin role in the original version of The In-Laws with Peter Falk.

I saw this on sale on Audible and thought I'd give it a try. The one thing I figured I'd get was a lot of swearing. Boy was I right, there is a LOT of swearing in this book. If you've got an allergy to raunchy language, avoid this one. I powered through and found the story entertaining and worth the read/listen. I'm glad I got the audio version because the improv and silly riffs made the experience a lot of fun. I enjoyed the arguments Hart had with himself about things like chapter titles and the right spelling for words like desert/dessert. I don't know how much of the text was from the original, but I liked how his personality came through.

I wouldn't go so far as to say this is an inspirational book but it does illustrate the power of persistence. I came away more than a little concerned about his drinking and won't be surprised if we hear about Kevin Hart going into rehab one of these days. Listening to the stories about his marriage were hard. His treatment of his wife was not excusable no matter how awful she was to him. To be fair, he didn't sugarcoat it and made few excuses for himself. I also wasn't thrilled by the flippant way he handled his DUI. This is no afterschool special and he has no responsibility to be an object lesson, but I thought he let himself off a little too easily for that and a few other mistakes he has made.

On a positive note, this is not a tell-all book. There are almost no Hollywood stories and no backstage gossip. Other than talking about smoking marijuana with Snoop Dog, which is hardly news, very little is said about his costars. I would love to have gotten some behind-the-scenes stories about people like the Rock, but I'm glad he didn't share any embarrassing stories about them, either.

More than anything else, this is a story about Hart's younger years and difficulties making it in show business. It's amazing that he succeeded at all with the father that he had. I also came away with a strong dislike of this mother although it's clear that he loved her very much. Anyone who beats their child as much as she did is not doing parenting well. I'm glad that he chooses to see it in a positive light but that's messed up.

The book is entertaining, especially with Kevin Hart's narration. I would recommend it to anyone with a strong tolerance for swearing and an interest in learning about people who claw their way to success. It's not a path I would want to tread, but it was fun to retrace his steps with him. 

Four stars for entertainment value alone.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Review: Echo in Time


Echo in Time
I won a copy of the audio book on the author's blog and I wanted to thank her by hurrying to get this review out. I picked up the first book in the series, Erasing Time, and listened to it first. You can read that review on Goodreads or on my blog. I liked that one but I liked this one even more.

The first book focused on Sheridan and Echo. This time around it's Taylor and Echo's turn. The plot revolves around an attempt to destroy the time machine for good. Things go wrong when an attempt to fix something in the past causes unforeseen consequences in the present. Have these people never read a time travel book? Of course it does! Taylor has to race against the clock to save Sheridan from the villain of the first book and she does it with Echo's help. Despite her best intentions, Taylor finds herself attracted to Echo but no worries, this is not one of those dreaded love triangles.

The character growth in this book is stronger than in the first one and both Taylor and Echo have further to go than Sheridan and Echo did in the first one. There are more complications and a ton of action but you still feel like you're going on a journey with the characters and that makes for a better book than the first one in the series. I enjoyed the ride.

I give this one an enthusiastic five stars and I'm sorry there are no more books in the series.

Review: Erasing Time


Erasing Time
I took a quick break from Tarzan to listen to and review this book and its sequel after winning a copy of the sequel in audio form. I had never read any books released by the author under this name but I'm a big fan of the books she's written as Janette Rallison. Her Rallison books are light, fluffy, and funny fantasies for young adults. Since I'm a big fan of light, fluffy, and funny, those books are right up my alley. Luckily, I also like darker books about how the world can (and probably will) go wrong. Throw in time travel and I'm good to go.

Sheridan and Taylor are identical twins, but only on the surface. Sheridan is a pretty typical 17-year-old: worried about her grades, pleasing her parents, and getting along with her twin sister. The latter can take some effort because Taylor is a bit of a rebel who gets her sister into situations she doesn't want to be in. Oh, and she's a top-notch genius who graduated from high school years ago and is now running around with the college crowd. The story begins with Taylor trying to get Sheridan to cover for her so she can go out with an older boy, something her minister father does not approve of, when the twins are suddenly thrown 400 years into the future.

This is no Disneyland Tomorrowland, personal freedoms are gone, the government controls everything, and the world is composed of many domed cities which are at perpetual war with each other. Here they find out that they have been pulled into the future by accident, the government had been looking for a scientist to give them an edge against their enemies. They certainly never planned on teenage girls. Because language evolves, English is almost unrecognizable to the girls so a couple of translators are called in. The father and son team are "experts" in 21st century English and are able to communicate with the girls even if they don't understand many of the idioms from our time.

The younger of the translators, Echo, is also a twin, something very rare in the future. He and Sheridan bond over shared losses. She's grieving for her parents and two brothers, dead for 400 years, and he's grieving the recent loss of his twin brother and girlfriend. The sisters are on a collision course with the oppressive government regime who want to wipe their memories and they will need Echo's help to survive, but can they trust him when he has secrets of his own?

Let's talk about what works. The characters are well-done. Sheridan is the good daughter, the loving and kind one who thinks about others but feels inferior to her prodigal twin sister. Taylor is brilliant but tougher and less friendly than her sister. The two play off of each other really well. Echo is an interesting guy and we know from the get-go that he's not happy and wants to get the heck out of Dodge. The mystery about what happened to his brother and girlfriend drive the plot at least as much as the question of how to keep the twins alive and with their memories intact. The author made it clear from the beginning that there would be no return to the past and I would have liked a little more grieving from the girls about that. The pace of the story is a little fast, however, and doesn't leave much time for reflection. That's not a bad thing, and the intended audience probably won't care, but I can't imagine shrugging off the loss of everything and everyone I love as quickly as these girls do.

The world-building is a little sketchy sometimes, with some interesting ideas but some not as well thought out. I liked the idea of the rank badges, for instance, but thought there was too little thought put into what would be happening in entertainment and day to day life. The author throws out references to VR but that's already current technology in our time. I would have liked a more original take on how people spend their leisure time.

One of the biggest changes in the future is the complete abolishment of religion. I get why the author did it, but religion is one of only a few cultural universals and it has always defied attempts to eradicate it. It plays a big part in the plot and was handled respectfully, however, so I can roll with it.

Overall, I liked the book quite a bit. It's fast-paced with good characters and an intriguing plot. I just thought the world-building could have used some work. I would be happy to read more like this from the author.

I gave it four stars because I really enjoyed it, but I didn't adore it.

Review: Tarzan and the Tarzan Twins with Jad-bal-ja the Golden Lion

Tarzan and the Tarzan Twins with Jad-bal-ja the Golden Lion
The title is almost longer than the story, and a little more interesting, to be honest. I wasn't a big fan of The Tarzan Twins so I didn't have big hopes for the sequel, which turned out to be just as well.

Dick and Doc are back in action. After their rescue by Tarzan in the previous book they are hanging out at his estate. Tarzan introduces them to Jad-bal-ja, the Golden Lion, and takes them out into the jungle. The boys get separated from Tarzan in the middle of a fierce storm. During their adventure they run into some rogue Oparians and a requisite damsel in distress. This time around the girl, Gretchen von Harben, is a 12-year-old girl whom the Oparians have kidnapped for the purpose of making her their priestess. The boys perform almost Tarzan-like feats and mount a rescue mission.

I'm not saying this is a bad book, it's fine. It was written for boys in their young teens and probably appealed to them when it came out. However, it has almost no Tarzan and I never like seeing anyone else pretending to be Tarzan (except Korak, of course.) I raced through it and can remember very little about it despite finishing it only a couple of days ago. It's not good when the best thing you can say about a Tarzan book is that it's better than Tarzan and the Ant Men.

I gave it only three meh stars even with the Tarzan bump.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Review: The Tarzan Twins

The Tarzan Twins
I'm about 90% sure I never read this one and I wasn't missing much. This was written just a few years before the appearance of the first comic book sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder, and it was probably meant to serve the same purpose. Sidekicks like Robin were introduced to comic books to give a younger audience a character they could identify with. It was thought that kids would be more interested in comics if there was a kid in the comic and it would bring younger readers in. (A similar thought process led to the inclusion of Captain Stubing's daughter, Vickie, on the Love Boat. If you don't know what I'm talking about, ask your parents - or grandparents.)

In this case, two first cousins are called the Tarzan twins for rather tortured reasons. It seems their mothers were twin sisters and one married an American and stayed in the States while the other one married a distant cousin of Lord Greystoke and settled in England. The sisters had sons on the same day but on different continents. One is blond and one is dark and one is named Doc and the other is Dick but don't ask me which is which. They're pretty interchangeable.

When they go to school together their schoolmates dub them the Tarzan twins due to the distant connection to Tarzan and their resemblance to one another. To try to live up to the name they learn to climb trees and participate in athletics to make themselves strong and fit. When the chance comes to travel to Africa to visit the Greystokes at the age of 14, they jump at it. Of course they get lost in the jungle and are captured by cannibals.

There isn't anything new or particularly memorable about this one other than the introduction of mini Tarzans, something we never asked for and didn't need. We already have a much better example with Korak - Son of Tarzan - and I found these boys annoying to the extreme. It's nice and short at least, but there's another one coming up behind it so I'm not quite done with these two, unfortunately. I have to give this one 3 stars just because Tarzan appears, but it's really a 2 star book at best.

Review: Tarzan and the Foreign Legion

Tarzan and the Foreign Legion
I was expecting desert and Frenchmen but what I got was a bunch of Americans, a Dutch girl, and a smattering of others, and Tarzan. I got Tarzan so no complaints. Still, this takes place in Sumatra and it puts Tarzan into a new jungle with tigers instead of lions. It also takes place during World War II which made it a darker and more grounded book than most Tarzan tales. I found the juxtaposition of Tarzan against a more realistic foe jarring and hard to reconcile. I much prefer Tarzan in Africa even if the stories get a little repetitive.

This time around, Tarzan starts the book in the guise of his alter ego, Lieutenant John Clayton, Lord Greystoke. He is in a plane that is shot down over Sumatra and he and the surviving airmen get involved with a Dutch girl who has been orphaned by the Japanese invaders. She's brave, tough, and resourceful and manages to win over this bunch of misogynists.

The treatment of women in this book is actually quite good but the attitude towards the Japanese is appalling. However, Edgar Rice Burroughs was not an outlier for his time. His attitudes and beliefs about "Japs" was typical for his place in time and needs to be understood in that context. I don't have to like it, however, and it was hard to overlook.

The action is typical Tarzan with a lot of captures, escapes, and recaptures. Tarzan gets to save the day again and again and just be Tarzan, and that's all I need.

There is one moment that delighted me. Up to this moment Tarzan's companions have no idea who he really is. To him, he's just a big Englishman who is unaccountably comfortable in the jungle. Then this happens:

And the man rose and put a foot upon it and, raising his face to the heavens, voiced a horrid cry —the victory cry of the bull ape. Corrie was suddenly terrified of this man who had always seemed so civilized and cultured. Even the men were shocked.

Suddenly recognition lighted the eyes of Jerry Lucas. "John Clayton," he said, "Lord Greystoke— Tarzan of the Apes!"

Shrimp's jaw dropped. "Is dat Johnny Weissmuller?" he demanded.

What other author has so unironically referenced the real life movies made about his fictional universe? It's almost Inception-like in its self-reference. It would be like Jack Reacher making a comment about Tom Cruise being too short to be authentic or James Bond mentioning Sean Connery's Scottish accent. It was done without a touch of satire, just very straight and it made me laugh out loud.

Speaking of laughing, there's a lot of humor in this one. The men in the party wrangle back and forth and it makes for some light moments in a book that could have been very dark. The romances are also well done and, for a very big change, there is even a multi-racial relationship.

I wouldn't say this is the best of the Tarzan books but it's more original than most of the slush in the latter half of the series. I give it 3 1/2  to 4 stars.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Review: Tarzan and the Castaways

Tarzan and the Castaways
Based on other reviews I've read of this book, part of it may have been dropped from the Kindle version I own. I will review what I read and check the print copy later to see if I did, indeed, miss something. I can't miss any Tarzan, that's not happening.

I went back to the print copy and found the two missing stories. Their reviews have been added at the end of this one.

Tarzan and the Castaways

I have already established in other reviews that Tarzan has suffered too many blows to the head for anyone's mental health. This kind of injury takes its toll as many boxers and football players can tell you. It isn't clear what happened this time, but Tarzan hasn't lost his memories for a change. This time around he has aphasia and has lost the ability to produce or understand language. An evil Arab convinces Krause, a German, to buy him and take him to America where he can exhibit him as a wild man. Just as we know that a blow to the head will induce temporary amnesia (or aphasia) or that half the men in Europe look exactly like Tarzan, we know that a ship traveling to or from Africa will eventually be taken over by pirates or mutineers. In this case it's both as mutineers take over the ship and then turn pirate.

This was written around the beginning of World War II so the Germans are firmly in place as the villains once more and they capture a English pleasure yacht. This introduces one of the worst and funniest characters of all Edgar Rice Burroughs books, Aunt Penelope. She is a snobbish American who takes umbrage at Tarzan's nudity and takes every opportunity to denigrate him. It's partially his fault because he and another captive, a young girl who has been thrust into his cage hoping he would ravish and/or eat her, convince her that he's eating human remains. Still, the woman is over-the-top and ridiculous and deliciously stupid and I loved it. I spent half the book waiting for her to find out that Tarzan is also John Clayton, Lord Greystoke. I should mention that Tarzan spontaneously regains his use of language without the need for another blow to the head so he could have defended himself, but he can't be bothered and that just makes it all that much more fun.

The entire crew - good, bad, and Tarzan - all end up castaway on an uncharted island. The previous occupants, a lost Mayan civilization, take exception to this intrusion and Tarzan gets involved with a woman who was meant to be sacrificed. Some of the Mayans think he is Che, the forest god, and others think he has profaned against Che and needs to be killed - not the best start for new neighbors. Mutineers, Mayans, and a bunch of captive carnivores that Tarzan insisted on letting loose on the island make for a lot of conflict and adventure.

As I mentioned in the review of Tarzan and the Forbidden City, Tarzan keeps running into women who fall for him and he doesn't do nearly enough to discourage him. I find myself indignant on Jane's behalf and wonder what was happening in ERB's life while he was writing these later books. I know he got divorced in 1935 and married his best friend and business partner's wife and then divorced her 9 years later, so I can't imagine his relationship with women was very healthy. Maybe that's why we keep seeing this kind of not-so-honorable behavior in Tarzan. I don't remember noticing this when I was a young teen, but as an adult I just want him to wear a wedding ring or something.

Three stars - one extra for the harpy, she really did make me laugh.

​Tarzan and the Champion

In this short story, found in the book, Tarzan and The Castaways, Tarzan encounters a Sylvester-Stallone-style boxer who is arrogant, mouthy, and ridiculous. The champion decides to head to Africa and kill a bunch of animals with a machine gun. Naturally enough, Tarzan objects and tells him to get out of his country. Before he can enforce his dictum, the champion and he are both captured by cannibals and Tarzan has to rise to the occasion and rescue the champion and his manager. It's a very short story but it's also quite funny and I enjoyed it. Maybe ERB should have written more short stories because this forced him to focus on small moments and not have long drawn-out rescues, recaptures, and more rescues. It made for a nice, tight plot.

Four stars - I thought moments of this were laugh-aloud funny and the story was tight and never lagged.

Tarzan and the Jungle Murders

The third of three stories in Tarzan and the Castaways, this one is more of a mystery than an adventure. Tarzan stumbles across a couple of downed airplanes and we are shown in flashback the events leading up to the crashes. I was shocked by one of the deaths in the story - it was very much out of character for ERB to kill this person off. It served to focus the story on mystery rather than adventure, so it probably worked as intended, but it still felt wrong. It should come as no surprise that Tarzan is an excellent detective, he's good at everything, but the story is not one of my favorites. There are too many flashbacks and not enough focus on the present. I think it's a good thing that ERB stuck to adventure instead of mystery, this is not his forte.

Three stars - Tarzan should stick to jungle swinging and leave detective work to Sherlock Holmes.