Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Black's Beach Shuffle by Corey Lynn Fayman

I had the opportunity to meet with Corey Fayman one afternoon. We sat at a small cafe in Little Italy and talked about books (duh)  and writing. I was interested in knowing how someone just *decides* to self-publish a book...or two. I was also curious about what, if anything, lay on the horizon for Rolly Waters.

Waters is a private investigator living in San Diego. When he's not searching down runaway teenagers or spying on cheating spouses, he's playing gigs at local events with his band. When his latest gig ends with a body floating in a pool, Waters finds himself involved in a case more far reaching than his usual PI repertoire.

If on its face this book is a whodunnit, at its heart it is a peek into Fayman's love of music and San Diego. It's clear Fayman lives in San Diego, based on details throughout the book, from where Waters drives to what he's eating at two in the morning. Being an SD native myself, I knew exactly who Waters was, his scene, and how he lived. The SD references are so detailed, I wondered at times if it would alienate some readers, but ultimately, it's something that makes Fayman's writing unique.

Fayman also doesn't hold back with the music references. Not only is he a San Diegan, but he's a musician as well, as is clear from his characters' hobbies to their names. If you're a music fan, you'll get a kick finding all the little eggs Fayman has hidden.

While mystery isn't really my genre of choice, the book was a quick read and kept me entertained. Extra bonus points for giving it an SD noir feel. Kinda unexpected. I think I'll give his second book, Border Field Blues, a try.







Sunday, August 31, 2014

Smile by Jenny Matula

Okay, this is a tough one for me. Quite simply, I know the author and I'm not sure I can give this book a rave review. Despite this, the book is intriguing and evoked strong emotions in me. I'm just not sure they're the emotions the author was hoping to elicit.

Smile is the autobiography of Jenny Matula, who was raised in the Philippines. Because English is not her first language, the book is rife with grammatical errors. For me, it was endearing, because it simply reminded me of her. I think for others, however, it might just come across as poor editing (the book was actually self-published with minimal editing help through WestBow Press). If you're thinking a mistake here or there, like you're reading a self-published kindle book (or my blog), no, it's much worse.

If the grammar issues can be forgiven, well then you have to deal with the Jesus talk. Woah, woah! I'm not opposed to Jesus talk. Hell, I grew up going to church every Sunday. I even went on other days of the week voluntarily! I went on missions trips in other countries, memorized books (yes ENTIRE BOOKS) of the bible FOR FUN, and basically grew up doing churchy stuff all the time. I remember being on my way to Mexico for a week to do a vacation bible school with "Jesus Freak" blaring on the radio. Yes, instead of listening to Coolio, I was rocking to DC Talk because this gangsta's paradise isn't an earthly one. And until I get there, I'm gonna scream my way to Mexico for Jesus because I'm a JESUS FREAK.

So I've settled down since then.

I have retained many of my religious beliefs, but they've evolved since high school. And I don't attend church anymore. I think just by writing this, some of my old church friends might be concerned that I've fallen away, or backslidden (is that a word?  It is in church). Which is why writing this review is difficult. For many reasons.

But back to my point about the Jesus talk. There are portions of Jenny's narrative, especially in the very beginning, that are pretty much just verses from the Bible verbatum. Some people have a...gift...for speaking this way. I think for someone who is seeking comfort in the Bible, this can be beneficial. But I think to people who don't share the same views as she, it will be heavy-handed.  

After some introductory housekeeping points, Jenny goes into her life story, which is tough. Her parents divorced when she was young, which also separated her from two of her siblings. Also when she was young, her mother left her and her brother alone on a farm to work while she went to the city to work and save enough money to bring them with her. I don't know what age came to mind when I said "young" but Jenny was something like 7 and her brother even younger. That's annoyingly, dangerously, irresponsibly, flipping young. The farmer, who was an asshole, would visit them once a week and treated them horribly when he did. Are we surprised by this? I'm not. I'm more surprised that Jenny's mother didn't see this coming.

Eventually her mother came back but sent her and her brother to an orphanage, again, while she worked. It sounds like this was (is?) a somewhat normal thing to do over there. Again, Jenny was eventually reunited with her mother, who had since remarried. Jenny's stepfather abused her, and when she told her mother, the mother sided with the stepfather.  

Jenny's story continues with more trials, but also triumphs. She has a few stories that even gave me goosebumps. Her overall point being that through it all, God was with her and she was able to be strengthened through her adversity. I suppose the fact I am angered by her story means I'm missing the point entirely. Jenny was able to forgive and rise above her past. But there were too many things I read that completely disgusted me. Sure, she forgave her mother, but she also made excuses for her. And although her mother's actions may have been forgivable, they were definitely inexcusable.  

Maybe there are cultural differences at work here, but I also had a major problem with how often children were separated from parents. I don't understand why her parents split up siblings never to see each other again. Then there was the farm, the orphanage, and even Jenny herslef was separated from her own child as well. I just don't understand that.

So call me a heathen, a reprobate, or what you will. But I didn't respond well to Jenny's message. And it's hard for me to admit, because Jenny is such a genuine person. I don't want to take away from what she has to offer and the amazing ways God has worked in her life. Maybe I'm just not ready to hear her message. Maybe my heart has been hardened by the devil. Maybe I'm culturally insensitive. Whatever it is, this book was a pill swallowed with no water. While I'm happy she wrote it, as I'm sure her story will benefit others, it's just not for me, not now.


Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green


I reluctantly put this book on hold at the library more out of a sense of duty as a book blogger, rather than a real desire to read it. Much like my 9 year old niece's attitude to the Harry Potter series, I was reluctant to grab my board and join the wave of popularity that surrounded this book (my niece is totally wrong, by the way, but that doesn't mean I am).

I was something like 116th in line at the library. So I figured I wouldn't get my hands on it for at least 10 years. Since I'd heard so many good things about it, I was prepared to be disappointed by the hype anyway and felt I could afford to wait. But damn it if it didn't come just a few months later. Stupid public libraries with half decent book selections and somewhat plentiful stock.

The story is straightforward. Hazel has cancer and lives her life despite cancer's life interrupting side effects like exhaustion, hospital stays, oh, and death. In addition to the cancer, she deals with things like overly loving parents and support group, which she attends more for her parents' benefit than her own. At support group, she meets Augustus, a cancer survivor, and they soon become friends. Okay, they become more than friends eventually, but somehow the word "boyfriend" seems to cheapen their relationship.

Hazel introduces Augustus to her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, written by Peter van Houten. Hazel obsesses over the ending of the book, which follows a vein similar to The Sopranos' Finale. Hazel writes van Houten seeking answers to the fates of the book's characters. But her letters seem ignored, until Augustus writes van Houten...and gets a response.

I'd say more, but it really isn't the story itself that is the main draw for me with this book. It's the writing.  Green's narrative had me smiling from the first few pages. Hazel and Augustus are both smart, sharp, and funny. I liked seeing the world through Hazel's eyes, especially. I suppose even without the great writing, Hazel and Augustus' search for answers from van Houten was intriguing enough. But what brings this book from three stars to four is Green's fresh and fun writing.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Technology in Action by Evans, Martin, and Poatsy

Ummmmm...this is a textbook.  Wait!  Don't stop reading! Okay, okay, the textbook wasn't SO AWESOME I had to review it.  It was more like, "I'm reading this entire book for a class and damn right I'm gonna get credit on my CBR for it."  It kept me away from other books for EIGHT WEEKS for crying out loud.

It's not like I'm computer illiterate.  I grew up in a house that always had at least one computer.  I remember using DOS at my high school job as a telemarketer (not sure if that helps or hinders my argument here). And I sit at a computer hours a day at my job. But I haven't had any formal instruction on what a computer actually is and how it works.  And I know for a fact that (old lady voice commence) kids these days (end) are programming in elementary school (despite this, I still have a suspicion they couldn't program a remote control like the rest of us).

My tech naivete came to a head at Starbucks one morning.  The conversation somehow prompted me to declare, "hashtag TBT!"  I was really proud of myself for throwing down a popular twitterism, especially since I've tweeted all of zero times.  My friend called me out for using the hashtag incorrectly.  So we decided to ask the young, hip barista what it actually meant.  She settled the disagreement in my friend's favor and served me my short decaf in a tall cup.

Let's just jump into the review.

I took a beginning Computer Science class this summer and this is the textbook.  The book was WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY better than the class.  But don't get me started on that. TIA has chapters devoted entirely to things like computer hardware, the internet, software, programming, and networking.  If your eyes are already glazing over, it's probably fine if you have no interaction with computers, ever.  But you're reading this, so...

Basically, this book will help you understand how computers work, even how to purchase the right one.  You'll know the basic components of a computing system and learn how networks operate.  There is also really practical information on computer and internet safety and security.

So, while you probably won't go out and buy this book (because, duh! The Internet), I'm glad I read it.  It's raised my computer awareness from clueless to I-don't-remember-but-I-know-I-read-about-it-once-in-a-book.  I'll just contact Starbucks tech support for any other questions I might have.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Mama's Boy: The True Story of A Serial Killer and His Mother by Richard Penciak

This is a book from my guilty pleasure genre: true crime.  It was a random pick from my work library (as it usually is).  While there are many things unique to the case of Eric Napoletano, I'm not sure it's the most interesting True Crime I've ever read.

Napoletano had a close relationship with his mother, Carolyn.  By close, I mean strangely close.  Eric and Carolyn spoke several times a day and argued like brother and sister.  When Eric was only 11, he met a 48-year-old man whom Carolyn was content to let Eric visit and eventually live with.  Although Carolyn didn't care for "Uncle Al," they had their unique devotion to Erin in common.

Carolyn never felt any of the women in his life were worthy of him.  Eric had a penchant for minority women, whom Carolyn despised and referred to with racial slurs.  She even refused to attend his weddings.  Eric's pattern with women would begin with infatuation and doting, and progress to isolation, abuse, and even death.  Because of Eric's close but antagonistic relationship with his mother, it's difficult to imagine she had no idea of the toxicity of his relationships.

In 1984, Eric's girlfriend Marilyn Coludro was found dead, having been stabbed several times.  About a year later, Eric had moved on and gotten married.  When things went sour in the marriage and his wife left him, his mother-in-law, Gladys Matos, was shot dead on a street corner.  And in 1990, when police came to Eric looking for his missing wife, Eric and his mother went to the station only to complain about the police harassing him.  Myra Acevedo was later found dead by strangulation.

It wasn't until Acevedo's murder, which fell under the jurisdiction of a New Jersey Detective, that Eric's past began to be scrutinized.  Although Eric lived in New York, which had previously investigated him, those efforts were hindered, in part by Carolyn, who worked for the New York City Police Department.  Her position enabled her access to Eric's investigation in which she abused her position.  Her questionable actions while working were either ignored or avoided by transferring Carolyn to other positions, still within the department.  Carolyn also provided alibis for Eric and even filed a complaint against a detective investigating the Matos murder.

Although seemingly cooperative at times, "Uncle Al" appeared to know more about Eric's relationships than he let on.  FBI wiretaps into Al's, Carolyn's, and Eric's phones was the first federal wiretap used in a serial homicide case.  The wiretaps were crucial in showing that not only was Eric a participant in these crimes, but so were his mother and "Uncle Al."  Although the degree of their involvement was never really made clear.

To make things more complicated, Eric had two sons.  One of whom, Eric Jr., was struggling with behavioral problems.  It seemed the parent-child cycle of dysfunctional behavior was repeating itself.  And based on the circumstances of Acevedo's murder, it was possible Eric's sons were potential witnesses to the events surrounding Myra's disappearance.

The story is interesting, but I think one of the most compelling aspects, Eric's relationship with his mother, wasn't fully realized.  Penciak used excerpts from interviews with Carolyn throughout the book which provided her chilling and infuriating perspective on Eric and his crimes.  But I wanted to know more about their dynamic, perhaps more antecdotes from when he was younger.  The narrative in general was also a bit bland.  But the story itself was interesting enough to keep me reading, although I'm ready to move on to another book.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

If you're not familiar with Allie Brosh, she is a blogger, whose crude drawings and random stories might just make you laugh out loud.  She uses Paintbrush (similar to MSPaint) to draw cartoons about memorable incidents in her life.  Although her drawings are simple, she has a great way of showing a range of emotions in her characters, which are biographical.  Her stories are either funny-because-it's-true, or just completely non-sequitur (which I love too).

Brosh writes a lot about her childhood.  One of my favorite stories is how she and her sister had a toy parrot that would record whatever they would say.  They used it to drive their mother crazy, like any respectable siblings would do.













I also love stories about her dogs.



















Despite their simplicity, Brosh has used her illustrations to express some pretty complex emotions.  Specifically depression.  The blend of her silly drawings and at times disturbing narratives of how she has suffered with depression is powerful.  You want to cry, and laugh at the same time.  You realize that this person drawing some of the funniest cartoons you've seen is actually...a person.  It's like realizing your favorite comedian isn't always cracking fart jokes all day.

I remember when a friend of mine first told me about Brosh's blog.  I checked it out.  It was pretty funny, so I periodically checked in on it.  But the posts slowed, and shortly after an excited "I'm writing a book!" post, Brosh posted "Adventures in Depression."  She struggled, and it was apparent.  Not just from the lack of posts on her site, but also from her posts themselves.  But her openness about her struggles just made me love her even more, and hopefully, if you don't already, her book or blog will make you love her too.

Click here to view Allie Brosh's blog, Hyperbole and a Half.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

"If there really were vampires, what would they do for a living?"  That is a question that this book became the unexpected answer to, according to the author on her blog.  As for me, although I've read that Harkness hasn't read the popular YA series, I'd dare say this book could be considered a Twilight for adults.  Compliment?  Or criticism?  You decide.  But at its simplest, there are vampires, witches, and daemons.  (If you're not sure what a daemon is...think borderline insane, ADHD, wildly creative person...beyond that, I haven't figured it out in terms of superpowers or anything).

Here's what I like about the book, and it mostly concerns the author.  Harkness is a historian.  She has several degrees and teaches at USC and has extensively studied the history of magic and science in Europe from 1500-1700.  If you, like me, have ever wondered why classes like this exist beyond giving history buffs something random to chew on, maybe this novel is one.  Harkness' love for these things is obvious from reading A Discovery of Witches, which is a historical work of fiction.  There are all kinds of allusions, most of which were lost on me, to scientists, authors, and novels.  The story spans a range of geography and time, and Harkness seems comfortable with it all.  At times, I feel our 1500 year-old, well-learned vampire Matthew can get a bit pretentious, but understanding Harkness' love for history forgives that for me.

The story begins with Diana, an alchemical history professor at Oxford university (if there is such a thing at Oxford, I wasn't able to figure it out from their website).  Diana is descended from a prominent line of witches, but has shunned her magical ability, at least to the degree it's possible (WHY!?!?!).  During her studies, she is able to recall an old, long-thought-lost volume of magic called Ashmole 782, and this draws the attention of not just her fellow witches, but other supernatural creatures as well.  While Diana doesn't realize the significance of her finding, it sets in motion a series of events that make magic an inevitable part of her life.  As she becomes entrenched in the mystery of Ashmole 782 (which you can read about on Harkness' blog), Diana meets Matthew, a geneticist (and also a vampire).  Why would a vampire be interested in an old book of magic?  Is there something extraordinary about Diana that Matthew sees?  How could Diana's find be the catalyst for a war between witches and vampires?

These are the questions A Discovery of Witches begins to answer, BUT...and here's where other reviewers and I agree, the pacing is slow.  In fact, it took me several months (if not a year) to get through this book as it was a between-book-read.  But I felt, by the end, Harkness had really laid out her premise and introduced her characters fully.  It also helped that the book picked up steam near the end and left off on a cliff-hanger that makes me really curious to see how she handles book two (yes, this is a trilogy...and yes, there is a movie in the making).

So, to be honest, this was a book I almost gave up on.  But in desperation for something to read, I finished it and now want to read the second book.  Probably not for everyone, but if I had you at "vampires" or "Twilight," then we already know you'll want to read it.