Review: The Devil’s Sword

Several years ago, my former fencing coach gave me his copy of this Douglas E. Richard’s 2009 novel; I could tell by his relieved expression that I was doing him a favor by accepting it. On returning home from practice, I promptly buried the book on my bookshelf, until I finally decided that if I was going to write a novel about fencing, I should probably be familiar with the fencing fiction that’s already out there.

Having completed the novel, I understand why my coach felt it was worthy enough to share, but not keep. The Devil’s Sword is a fast-paced novel, aimed at young readers (not young adult, by any means; the tone is closer to the early Harry Potter novels than The Hate U Give). While the novel is engaging and has some wonderful descriptions of youth fencing, there are several streeeeeeetcher moments, passages which seem too unrealistic even given its genre.

The principal character, Kevin, begins fencing at the age of 12 and finds a sport that provides him with both enjoyment and success. After two years of local competition in San Diego, Kevin travels with his father and two fencing friends to a regional tournament at a military base near Las Vegas. In my years in the sport, I’ve met a lot of young people like Kevin, and their enthusiasm is one of the reasons I find fencing so fascinating. Richards’ novel does an excellent job of describing the rules, training, and tournament structure of the sport, which is why I recommend it for any pre-teen interested in fencing.

Upon arrival at the tournament, Kevin and his companions become involved in a scheme to steal a powerful weapon from the United States government. This parallel plot was added to provide dramatic tension, and given the fantastical nature of youth fiction, a bit of the unbelievable should be tolerated. Yet the would-be thieves, international arms smugglers supposedly too clever and resourceful to be captured by any of the world’s governments, devise a weapon-stealing plan that can best be described as cockamamie, and their execution of that plan is so utterly inept it’s a wonder they haven’t already been caught by Barney Fife or Paul Blart.

A particularly bizarre scene occurs when the thieves, all of whom have military training, first encounter Kevin and his friends by charging into their room with their guns drawn. Kevin responds by thrusting his foil at the lead gunman, who is not only surprised but also disarmed, the foil injuring and nearly breaking his hand. A trained killer being caught off guard by a kid is hard to believe, but can still be accepted given the nature of this genre; using a lightweight weapon with no sharp edge and a flat point not much larger than a nail’s head — a weapon designed exclusively for sport, not combat — to stop a man wielding a gun is such a preposterous notion that its inclusion in this novel seems almost irresponsible. Public Service Announcement: Do not come to a gun fight with a fencing foil.

Fortunately, scenes such as these are eclipsed by the narrative of Kevin’s joyful discovery of the sport of fencing. I’m not sure keeping about keeping this novel on my bookshelf much longer, but I do know plenty of pre-teens at my fencing club who might enjoy giving it a read.

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Review: The Children’s Blizzard

This image shows the front cover, which actually does have that cool ragged edge on the right

A book review seems like a great way to resume blogging regularly. At least it does now, so I’m going to write this before I change my mind.

The short prologue to David Laskin’s 2004 book sets the scene — on a January afternoon in 1888, a devastating and swift blizzard swept down the Dakota Territory and reached into the states of Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa. Hundreds of people were killed, many of them children walking home from school, the latter toll giving name to this natural disaster.

These opening pages are followed by a lengthy account of the settlers who populated the upper Midwest in the wake of the post-Civil War Homestead Acts. The meteorological conditions that produced the blizzard are then described with the detail and rhetoric of a scientific report; similar attention is given to the weather forecasting system of the era, which was run largely by the federal government, prone to bureaucratic in-fighting and inefficiency, and failed to give timely warning of the January 1888 storm. The blizzard does not strike until nearly half-way through the book, and while these opening chapters are rich with information (learning about the Fenian Raids of the 1860s was fascinating, even though they had nothing to do with the book’s topic), the pace at times can be ponderous.

But Laskin’s prose picks up momentum when the blizzard sweeps down from the Canadian Rockies, and people literally start running for their lives. The tales of miraculous survival are riveting, and the largely imagined depictions of fatal last steps are given the appropriate amount of pathos. Among the memorable stories is that of eight-year-old Walter Allen, who was picked up along with his school mates by a rescue team at the blizzard’s outset; remembering a cherished bottle he had left behind, Walter ran back into the schoolhouse — and faced an impassible wall of cold wind and snow when he ran back outside. (Spoiler alert: hours later, Walter’s older brother joins a rescue team which somehow finds him.) Laskin’s attention to detail does not falter in this section, as he digresses (for brief moments only, fortunately) on topics such as rewarming shock, a condition that can kill survivors of hypothermia.

Laskin’s writing style is professional and direct, yet he has some memorable passages. He describes the cold air mass accompanying the blizzard as “a glacier of sluggish gas.” An extended explanation of extreme cold’s effect on the body is also noteworthy:

It’s hard to find vocabulary for weather this cold. The senses become first sharp and then dulled. Objects etch themselves with hyperclarity on the dense air, but it’s hard to keep your eyes open to look at them steadily… After a breath or two, ice builds up on the hairs lining your nasal passages and the clear film bathing your eyeballs thickens… A dozen paces from the door, your throat begins to feel raw, your lips dry and crack, tears sting the corners of your eyes. The cold becomes at once a knife and, paradoxically, a flame, cutting and scorching exposed skin.

Quality writing such as this, combined with Laskin’s meticulous research, makes “The Children’s Blizzard” a solid work of non-fiction.

Review: All the Missing Girls

In literature, there’s a distinction between concept and gimmick. A concept is an overarching idea or structure that makes a novel unique and memorable, while a gimmick is a cheap hook designed to get the reader’s attention.

Megan Miranda’s 2016 novel has an intriguing structure — after the opening chapters sets the scene, introduces the characters, and presents the complication, the plot then progresses two weeks in reverse, each chapter devoted to the day before its previous. It’s a concept rooted in the philosophical belief, introduced in the novel by a quote from Kierkegaard: life must be understood backwards.

This concept only works if details are presented fairly — in other words, if a character uncovers information in day eight, that character should know that information three chapters earlier in day eleven. Unfortunately, the concept doesn’t work in the novel; too many times, I couldn’t help thinking if a character knew what we later learned she already knew, her later actions would be different. In other words, the structure of “All the Missing Girls” is more a gimmick than concept.

Which is unfortunate, because it is an engaging mystery, with characters who are likable because of their flaws. Nicolette, the first-person narrator, struggles to discover the fate of two missing friends while also coming to terms with her own past. The men in her life — her current boyfriend (Everett), former lover (Tyler), and brother (Daniel) — offer their assistance, yet also provide significant obstacles to her search. The author’s metaphors can be memorable at times (“People were like Russian nesting dolls — versions stacked inside the latest edition.”), and her suspenseful scenes are true page-turners. Miranda is a talented author, and I would definitely consider reading her subsequent novels.

I just wish “All the Missing Girls” had been told in a conventional format. Unfortunately, its gimmicky structure is a distraction.

Recharging the future

As the number of electric vehicles and other battery-operated machines increases, one significant question remains largely unanswered — what will happen to these batteries after they are no longer usable?

There’s general agreement that batteries, with their efficient yet toxic mix of minerals and chemicals, are not good candidates for landfills. Ideas are being pursued to re-use car batteries as stationary energy sources for charging stations and low-power devices such as street lights, but even optimistic estimates grant another decade or two of use for the batteries. Harvesting the battery components is certainly possible, although there is debate over the cost effectiveness of this process. In other words, by around 2030 there could be an enormous amount of batteries that will be neither usable nor disposal.

Or perhaps not. Industrialists, who tend to look at the profitability rather than environmental impacts of issues, see the income potential in the battery disposal/recycling market, if for no other reason than having plenty of material on hand. And while national governments in recent years have backed away from alternative energy investment, voters remain committed to the technology. My gut feeling is that within four or five years, innovative solutions will be developed to lessen, although not eliminate, the impact these dying batteries will have on the environment and the economy. This is one of the more significant technological challenges of our time, but I’m optimistic a solution will be found.

Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Call it the Principle of Uncommon Cognomen. If a book or movie (or in this case, both) has an unusual name, there can be no middle ground — it will either be as embarrassing as its title, or cool enough to justify its unique appellation.

Fortunately, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a solid film. Based on a 2008 historical novel, the movie takes place during the 1940s on the island of Guernsey, located in the English Channel and occupied by Germany in the second world war. Juliet Ashton, a writer who achieved fame during the war, visits the island and its oddly named literary society in 1946 after being contacted by one of its members. Ashton learns the society served as a resistance to the Germans, and discovers a secret the society would rather not have her reveal.

The film works on a number of levels. As historical fiction, it sheds light on an obscure theater of World War II, and creates empathy for the island residents who chose not to evacuate in advance of the Germans. Ashton, adroitly played by Lily Adams, is an engaging character who functions well as the audience’s guide to Guernsey and its mysteries. She also struggles with her recent engagement, and while the audience can see the resolution to this storyline early in the second act, Adams is a strong enough actress to make this part of the film seem genuine.

The film was released in theaters in Great Britain, but evidently believing American audiences were adverse to characters speaking in British accents, it is only available on Netflix in the United States. That’s a shame, because the wide shots of the Guernsey coastline are best appreciated on a large silver screen. But even when restricted to the narrower width of your home television screen, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” demonstrates that a film with the most unusual of titles can still be unusually good.

Don’t be a fool

The following post should be entirely unnecessary, as its message is obvious, the equivalent of statements such as Look both ways before crossing a street, or Diversify your retirement portfolio, or Twitter sucks.

But a friend of mine, whose intellect I respect, today went on Facebook (which also sucks) and posted a quote that can be proven, with less than five minutes of Internet research, to be false.

I guess even the most basic lessons need reiteration.

Nope — he didn’t say it

Let’s start with a different quote, one that I have to refute about twice a year. I’m no fan of The Fraud, and I’m more than a little disgusted with the GOP’s response to his regime, but I’ll never be satisfied with the tease of dishonesty, no matter how much it may flatter. This quote needs to go away, forever, although I’m pretty certain it will continue showing up in my Facebook feed from time to time, like a recurring outbreak of a dormant virus.

She didn’t say this either

Time to move on to today’s subject, a less egregious distortion but still a deliberate lie. For those who don’t know her, Brooke Baldwin is a journalist for the American news network CNN. In 2015, during a live interview on the subject of police training, she made the following statement:

A lot of young people — and I love our nation’s veterans, but some of them are coming back from war, they don’t know the communities, and they’re ready to do battle.

Baldwin was criticized for this remark about veterans, and the following day she apologized, on air as well as online. To summarize: she made an error, acknowledged her mistake, and issued an apology. Sorry folks — nothing more to see here.

But then, three years later… “Don’t hire veterans!” And five minutes of my life lost to research, and another hour writing this post.

It’s not that I’m against paraphrasing, but enclosing a misleading paraphrase in quotes is inexcusable. Let me walk through an example, using a famous aphorism that’s entirely appropriate for today’s subject:

Now THIS, he actually said

“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Abraham Lincoln

Let’s paraphrase the quote as follows:

 

Not entirely accurate, but close enough

Abraham Lincoln believed Americans were gullible.

You could argue this strays from Lincoln’s intended meaning (for one thing, he doesn’t specifically address his countrymen), but there’s still a close enough connection to his original words to justify the paraphrase. And by not using quotation marks, the paraphraser acknowledges going beyond Lincoln’s words to make a related, but not identical, comment.

Now let’s take it to the extreme that’s become the norm these days, and the place my friend went today by forwarding the Brooke Baldwin fake quote — distort the original words beyond recognition, and give the fabrication an unwarranted air of authenticity by using quotation marks:

I’m going to hell for this, aren’t I?

“Americans are a bunch of fucking idiots.”

Abraham Lincoln

I didn’t enjoy calling out my friend today, but I also believed I wouldn’t be doing her any favor by letting her foolish mistake (five minutes of research! really!) go unchallenged. Truth matters, and by playing loose with accuracy for the sake of bolstering our arguments — and by forwarding quotes that can be easily proven to be fake — we only serve to embarrass ourselves.

Review: Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook

This collection of essays from Belt Publishing travels the diverse range of communities within and adjacent to Cleveland, a city with a legacy that elicits both pride and remorse. Its septuagenarian residents can recall a time when Cleveland was considered one of America’s top ten cities, and the city’s broad thoroughfares retain evidence of a municipality designed to accommodate over a million people. But like many cities in the Great Lakes region, Cleveland relied on industries that began cratering fifty years ago; civic unrest in the 1960s hit the city particularly hard, and when interstate highways opened the doors to the suburbs, the city’s population fell to levels not seen since 1900.

To their credit, the editors of Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook decided not to overlook the devastation caused by the city’s depopulation. The anthology includes a frightening account of one young couple’s disastrous attempt to settle in a crime-stricken neighborhood, and there are a few odes to industrial sections that are little more than ghost towns. Mixed in with these sobering tales are a few too many panegyrics to areas where urban pioneers have established thriving communities; written in a voice resembling an over-enthusiastic Chamber of Commerce spokesperson. Given the typically distorted view of Cleveland in the media, such ebullience is understandable, even if if makes for poor writing, but fortunately there’s more than enough quality work in the anthology to overcome its occasional flaws.

If you’re not a current or former resident of northeast Ohio, this book probably isn’t for you — the essays rely on a civic memory that a reader from outside the area simply won’t have. But if you’re looking to gain more knowledge of the city of Cleveland, this book will be insightful.

***

This review is a milestone of sorts. Last December, I attended a holiday party for a Cleveland literary group and was fortunate enough to win a raffle for six books from local authors. I vowed that evening to review each of those works, and over the past several months I’ve blogged about a bildungsroman, an autobiography about a harrowing crime, a detective novel, a collection of plays and monologues, another novel that deserved to be better than it turned it — and with today’s review, I’ve completed my obligation. Fortunately, I attended a book swap last week for the same group, and was able to exchange most of those books for a new collection, which will be the source for future reviews.

Review: Lies Will Take You Somewhere

I am a lazy reader. I’d actually do fine by any quantitive measure of reading (words/pages/books read, time spent reading, rate), but it’s absurd to evaluate the activity by a productivity yardstick, like you would for running or splitting logs. Reading is better evaluated in qualitative measures, such as how well the reader constructs meaning from a text, and its in this regard that, for as much education I have and as much time I spend reading, I believe I fall short. I don’t want to work too hard when I read; I have no interest in figuring out the hidden meaning of a character’s name, I get irritated when a conversation becomes so obtuse that I can’t figure out who is speaking, and if a story can only be appreciated by someone with an extensive knowledge of some discipline (take your pick — medicine, military history, philosophy), I don’t see why I should bother with it.

And I really hate plot holes, and unresolved mysteries.

Which brings me to Lies Will Take You Somewhere, the only novel published by the late Sheila Schwartz. The language of this novel rises to the level of poetry at times, and I can understand why Schwartz won numerous awards for her short stories. Whether she’s describing a character’s mood, showing a physical action, setting a scene, or even telling a joke, Schwartz can evoke a powerful visual image through her words:

This place is what Saul calls a monoculture, which to Jane has always sounded like yogurt, but she knows what he means.

She gasps as he tugs himself out of her without warning — the thick rope of him flopped against her inner thigh.

… the glasses smudged like he breathed all over, and his breath never dried.

… the lava of his anger cooling to stone.

… books sprawled face down on the carpet as if thrown there and concussed, barely breathing, …

The central conflict of the novel — a troubled marriage made more complicated through layers of deceit woven by both husband and wife — is also compelling, and while the plot twists are perhaps overly dramatic, the characters respond in ways that are very believable, and quite moving. I agree with her husband, novelist Dan Chaon, in his review of the novel: “Her fiction walks this incredible thin line between hilarity and despair, between the absurd and the tragic, between detachment and compassion.”

Yes, I enjoyed this novel. I just wish it didn’t irritate me so much.

I can’t describe what bothers me without revealing major plot details, so if you don’t appreciate spoilers, now’s the time to check out. Early in the novel, the wife (Jane) flies down to Florida to take care of her late mother’s estate. While there, she discovers several oddities, one of the most significant being the disappearance of a piano treasured by Jane’s mother. Meanwhile, her husband (Saul) receives the latest in a series of cryptic letters by someone claiming to be his mother, who disappeared when Saul was a child. Saul also is told about an affair Jane had chosen to keep hidden from him, and calls her in anger; when Jane attempts to purchase a plane ticket to return to Philadelphia, she discovers all of her credit cards have been locked.

So far, so good; the foundation for a intriguing tale has been laid. But then Saul calls again, and demands Jane return home — which she can’t, because Saul has frozen her credit cards, by his own admission. Has Saul lost his mind, or is he tormenting her? His motivation never becomes clear. In addition, no explanation is provided for the piano’s disappearance, or for the letters from Saul’s “mother.” These major plot developments are left as mysteries.

Did the author provide hints that a reader more astute than I would have perceived? That’s a definite possibility, but again, I’m a lazy reader, and when an author presents me with a significant mystery, I want a resolution that’s equally prominent. More plausible, though, is that these ambiguities are a message from the author about life’s uncertainty. We don’t get all our questions answered in life, the author appears to be saying, so why should I provide them here? If that’s the author’s message, I find it dissatisfying. Fiction is not mimetic; we have different expectations as readers than we do when acting in the dramas of our reality. True, fiction is also not mere escapism, but the insights it provides us should be a little more compelling. Life’s uncertain, so fiction should be as well — that’s an OK sentiment if you’re an avant-garde artiste, but it doesn’t work well for a storyteller.

The above ruminations may just be the frustrated sentiments of a lazy reader; I’ve been called worse. That being said, I believe “Lies Will Take You Somewhere” suffers from clear technical flaws that distract from its obvious literary qualities.

Review: How to Make a Living with Your Writing

Joanna Penn’s book was one of the first I read when I began to investigate writing professionally seriously. It was refreshing to review my notes from last year for this review, and realize how much of its practical advice I’ve been able to carry with me as I made my career decision. How to Make a Living with Your Writing didn’t convince me to go down this path, but it did help me realize my ambition, while difficult, could be realized.

There are a number of ways I could summarize this book, but I’ll go with a list of its most salient advice for novice writers like myself:

  • Develop multiple streams of income — Penn earns her writing income from multiple sources — blogging, article writing, nonfiction and fiction book sales, and public speaking, among others. At any one time, one or more of her revenue streams will run dry, yet other streams will help alleviate the drought. Of particular interest is her discussion of scalable and non-scalable income; work for hire (such as magazine and technical writing) pays only once and is non-scalable, while a nonfiction book or novel will generate revenue over the course of many months, even years. Penn states her writing income was 0% scalable at the start of her career, and a decade later had increased that portion of her income to 80%. That’s a career progression that’s ambitious yet attainable.
  • Nurture good work habits — as in any endeavor, its important to act like a writer before one can have success in the industry. Penn describes a number of habits that can lead to success — scheduling time to write, having a dedicated writing space, obtaining the right equipment, honing researching skills, joining writers’ communities, developing resilience to and appreciation of criticism. And my personal favorite, getting enough sleep. Over the past year, I’ve been dismayed at the number of times I’ve been advised (often by people with no involvement in the writing profession) that I need to get up at the crack of dawn every day and start writing if I wanted to make this profession work for me. That’s not how I operate; I can push on to way past midnight, but if I have to get up early to make a living, I might as well return to my somnambulant career in corporate IT. It is refreshing to read a successful author such as Penn argue that individual writers need to identify their own best working hours.
  • Come up with your own definition of success — Penn identifies many types of criteria for success — literary or commercial fame, genre fiction or literature, traditional book and magazine publishing or their online equivalents, working with agents and publishing houses or self-publishing. Penn has a clear preference for digital media and independent publishing, and argues the profession of writing is headed towards these trends, yet she also presents a convincing case for traditional publishing. Penn also describes a hybrid approach to book publishing: beginning as an independent, building your resume and readership, and then looking to get an agent and pursue traditional publishing. Penn lists the opportunities and challenges available to the writer, then lets the reader decide which to chose — or as she puts it, “your publishing choice is more a question of the outcome that you want to achieve and your definition of success.”

I’ve read several books about writing both before and after my first read of this, and I can’t say I’ve been more inspired by any other. In fact, I think it’s time for a second reading.