Friday, December 30, 2011

Review of Welcome Home, Sir

Welcome Home, Sir takes the reader into three realms that may well be unfamiliar territory: the biochemistry lab, Israel's Golan Heights, and the world of hypochondria. The main character, Doctor Ethan Meyer, has served in Israel's military, and key experiences show up in frequent brief flashbacks. Now he runs an American university lab and deals with the inevitable politics that turn vicious and may destroy a career almost before it begins. Privately, he worries that every twitch, every variation in his pulse is the first sign of a terminal disease. He knows he's a hypochondriac and sees a doctor to help him struggle against it.

All of this makes for a good premise. The idea is that Meyer's hypochondria stems from his military experience, but that doesn't come through clearly enough in the novel. The chapters are too short and need development. As far as it goes, the novel is well-written and enjoyable, but it literally falls short. I recommend the novel for its insights into new territory, but it really needs to be at least twice as long.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Review of The Stasi File

The Stasi File impresses on several levels: author Peter Bernhardt knows Germany, he knows opera, and he knows how to write a solid thriller.

The time is the early 1990s, and Communism is crumbling. The Berlin Wall has fallen. East Germany is a failed state with an uncertain future. Will it even remain independent, or will West Germany absorb it? Some fear a resurgent, powerful Germany, while others see reunification as crucial to the future health and stability of Europe.

The Stasi, the newly defunct East German secret police, hate and fear the prospect of reunification. Attorney Rolf Keller is sent from America to Berlin to obtain a secret Stasi file that may be critical to the West. Meanwhile, the opera singer Sylvia Mazzoni has a past that embroils her in a dangerous game of espionage, whether she likes it or not. She sings a key role in Bizet's Carmen. What is in store for her? A bright career, arrest, or death? Keller and Mazzoni have to work together, but can they trust each other? And what is the real threat?

The Stasi File reads smoothly as Bernhardt builds the tension from multiple viewpoints and brings the story to an exciting and satisfying conclusion. This is the work of a pro that deserves a wide audience.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review of The Power of Validation

How can parents raise a child who has the confidence to avoid peer pressure, deal with bullies, avoid self-harm, and get a proper grip on emotions? That is the goal of The Power of Validation, a practical, commonsense book on child-rearing that many readers may wish their own parents had known about.

What is validation? It's "the recognition and acceptance that your child has feelings and thoughts that are true and real to him regardless of logic or whether it makes sense to anyone else," the authors write. No, it doesn't mean giving in to their demands or necessarily agreeing with their feelings. It might well mean "Yes, I understand that this is what you want to do, but we're doing something else right now."

This book shows that validation promotes a healthy, well-deserved self esteem that is based on children fulfilling their potential. Parents learn how to deal not only with children's worry, anger, fear, and jealousy, but with happiness, joy, and having fun. "The idea is to allow independence, interests, and imperfection while recognizing and accepting your child's weaknesses and strengths," the authors write.

The book has occasional exercises that help readers try out the principles themselves, and they are all easy to understand.

If only I could, I would travel back in time with two copies of The Power of Validation. One would go to my parents when they had their first child, and the other would be for when I became a parent.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Review of Totally Buzzed

Totally Buzzed is a lively murder mystery that's full of humor and potential.

A body turns up in the crawl space underneath a Wisconsin farmhouse, and the vic turns out to be a local woman named Carole Graff. Who killed the poor woman, and why? Luckily, retired investigator Buzz Miller takes on the case. She's smart but a little crazy, just like the friends and family who get mixed up in the case.

The story has all the elements of an intriguing mystery and contains plenty of interesting detail about forensics. There is no problem with the plot.

The question that comes to mind, though, is this: Is Totally Buzzed a murder mystery that happens to be funny, or is it a comedy that happens to include a murder? At times it's hard to tell as the story pauses for a joke or for some totally unhinged silliness that may or may not advance the plot. Buzz, who is fifty-something, has a sister Margaret, whom she regularly calls "Maggot." That's the talk of a twelve-year-old, and much of the dialog is laced with mild profanity. That is fine for establishing a character trait or for showing how a person talks in certain situations, but it's greatly overdone here. And for the family dog to pass gas once might be cute--and is probably enough. Humor can be tough, because not everyone laughs at the same things. As a general rule, though, not many people laugh at the same clever line or funny event twice.

Also there are lots of cliches and some repetition, for example "Dead bodies piss me off," followed later by "As I said, dead bodies piss me off."

This looks like a good first draft. Fix some typos and get rid of most cliches. Give the reader an occasional rest from the nonstop daffiness, and try to incorporate more of the humor into the story itself, to keep things moving. Cut the repetition. There's no need to call the same person a "rat-bastard" three times.

The crime detail is good, and the story as a whole can be fun after it gets a little TLC.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Review of I'm Not Muhammad

I'm Not Muhammad attempts to show what it is like to be a Muslim in post-9/11 America. Based on what I have gleaned from reading non-fiction books on the Middle East, author Jason Trask's details seem to be quite accurate.

Yusuf Alsawari is a devout Muslim and a native-born American living in New York City with his wife, Ruth. The crisis begins when at her mother's deathbed Ruth declares herself a born-again Christian, renouncing Islam. Yusuf is mortified and decides to leave her. The World Trade Center attacks provide a seemingly good cover for him to simply disappear, pretending to have perished in the rubble. He re-emerges as Muhammad Muhammad, determined to lead a new life.

But then he is kidnapped--hooded, whisked away, and imprisoned without explanation. As an Arab he is automatically suspect, though no one tells him what crime he is thought to have committed as Muhammad Muhammad. Meanwhile, no one misses him because Yusuf is presumed to be dead. Despite his protestations that "I'm not Muhammad," he is placed in a jumpsuit for days on end, not even allowed to use a toilet. The consequences are described in cringe-worthy detail several times, whereas once would have served well enough.

Yusuf's imprisonment without trial forms the core of the story. Will he remain a prisoner forever? Will he ever see Ruth again? What will happen to his faith in Allah?

Jason Trask's novel is well-written and well-researched, and offers a useful glimpse into Islam and some of the darker corners of American security. There are, though, a couple of problems with the story. A good fictional struggle should have both a protagonist and an antagonist where there is some hope for a fair fight. Here the antagonist is an impersonal, crushing system represented by no one in particular, and Yusuf never has a chance. His only hope is that Allah will rescue him. The other problem is that the resolution comes too soon. For the last ten percent of the novel, the tension is gone.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Books, books, books

There is a stack of books on my desk, bookcases behind me, a Kindle and an iPad with more TBR. Where to start? How about the books I'm being paid to read for Kirkus? And then the books I've promised friends or acquaintances I'd read, such as Karyn Hall's The Power of Validation or Jason Trask's I'm Not Muhammad? Most of the books that arrive in the mail from publishers go back out to reviewers for the Internet Review of Books, unless I can't find a willing reader--Taliban: The Unknown Enemy, anyone? That one's been sitting in my office for months, serving no other purpose than to hold down the stack of papers I haven't looked at in just as long.

But this isn't a complaint, not really. After wife and family, books are my first love. If there is too much on my TBR list, so be it. May I die many years from now with a book in my lap. The trouble is, that Taliban book deserves a review while there are still any Taliban left, and the pages may be yellow before I get to it.

Now, come on. Who wouldn't want to read a book about the Taliban?

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Mystery & Me: When Pigs Fly

I couldn't resist reposting this review by Allene Reynolds. Basically positive, but ...

Mystery & Me: When Pigs Fly: When Pigs Fly , by Bob Sanchez, is the most unorthodox book I've ever read. I'm not referring to the religious connotations of unorthodox, ...

NaNo Lite wrapup

For years I avoided NaNoWriMo because pouring out words quickly has never been my style. And all those other items on my to-do list clamored for too much of my time. Not this year, though. Fifty thousand words just was unrealistic, unless my goal was producing gibberish. So I set out to write 1,000 words per day and kept an old-fashioned log on my desk to track progress. Oh, and my project was to continue a novel in progress, so I began at about 39,000.

How did I do? Well, there was that 12-day Thanksgiving break followed by some 600-word days, so November wrapped up with about 13,000 words added, bringing me up to 52 k. Now let's see. A thousand words a day every day in December, and the first draft of my 70k mystery is done. Voilà! (Or viola, for the musically inclined)

Huh? Who's kidding whom here? The distractions haven't disappeared, and my internal editor is knocking on my skull and demanding to be let back into my brain. My first draft may not be finished by New Year's Eve, but the important thing is the steady progress.