Thursday, January 24, 2013

Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith

Isabel is a single, twentysomething thrift-store shopper and collector of remnants, things cast off or left behind by others. [This book] follows Isabel through a day in her life in which work with damaged books in the basement of a library, unrequited love for the former soldier who fixes her computer, and dreams of the perfect vintage dress move over a backdrop of deteriorating urban architecture and the imminent loss of the glaciers she knew as a girl in Alaska.

Alexis Smith's debut novel unfolds internally, the action shaped by Isabel's sense of history, memory, and place. For Isabel, the fleeting moments of one day can reveal an entire life. While she contemplates loss and the intricate fissures it creates in our lives, she accumulates the stories - the remnants - of those around her, and she begins to tell her own story.

There's really not much I can say about the plot of this book, as it's pretty much exactly what the dust jacket states: a day in the life of Isabel. So I'll talk more about my overall impressions of this very slim work, if that's OK with you, dear reader.

The author has a nice way with words. For example, when describing Isabel's parents' impending divorce, the author writes: "When her parents were together, they had little to say to each other. The fissures in their family grew until the most important parts broke free and began to float away." When Isabel ruminates about her childhood dream of becoming a writer, the author tells us that her grandmother talked her out of it, saying "there was no market for being in love with words." It comes as no coincidence that our main character ends up working in preservation at a library, as it gives her a chance to save those very words that others write.

There are few characters here, and none of them are what I would call overly developed. There's Spoke, the war vet that Isabel crushes on at work (his real name is Thomas, and trust me when I tell you that even I had forgotten reading it the first and only time it appears - I had to skim back over the book to find it). His nickname does involve a bicycle, albeit in a round-about way, although it was a book that almost saved his life.

Isabel's older sister, Agnes, is mentioned but only in the flashbacks. Agnes is, of course, pretty and popular. Isabel describes herself as overweight, bordering on fat, but as a reader, I never really got that impression of her. Of course, many women think of themselves as "fat" when they're really just at a healthy weight, so perhaps that's the case here. My biggest reason for doubting Isabel's adult plumpness is that she shops in vintage shops, and as someone who has tried to do the same, I can't imagine her being able to buy anything is she was really that heavy. I'm not grossly obese or anything, but I have never been able to find a dress to fit me as such a shop. I see her as possibly curvy, but not fat.

This is a nice book with good writing, but ultimately it's not satisfying. Much like the postcard Isabel finds in first chapter of the book, the one of Amsterdam that has the message from M- to L- written on it, there's just enough to let the reader come up with some scenarios of his or her own. But not enough to know the whole story. Also, it's awfully short for a novel, especially as it's a smallish trade paperback with lots of white space on each page. If I had done a word count on it, I'm guessing it would come closer to being a novella. I will keep my eyes out for Smith's next work, though, as I think she shows real promise.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

John Dies at the End by David Wong

You should not have touched this book with your bare hands.
No, don't put it down. It's too late.
They're watching you.

My name is David Wong. My best friend is John. Those names are fake. You might want to change yours.

You might not want to know about the things you'll read on these pages, about the sauce, about Korrok, about the invasion, and the future. But it's too late. You touched the book. You're in the game. You're under the eye.

The only defense is knowledge. You need to read this book, to the end. Even the part with the bratwurst. Why? You just have to trust me.

  • The drug is called soy sauce, and it gives users a window into another dimension.
  • John and I never had the chance to say no.
  • You still do.
Unfortunately for us, if you make the right choice, we'll have a much harder time explaining how to fight off the otherworldly invasion currently threatening to enslave humanity. I'm sorry to have involved you in this, I really am. But as you read about these terrible events and the very dark epoch the world is about to enter as a result, it is crucial you keep one thing in mind:


Um, yeah. It really draws you in, doesn't it? The old "stop, wait, don't do it" - which just guarantees that you will, of course, open the book and read it to the end. Which I did. And now I'm trying to determine just how I feel about said book.

The writing isn't bad, although at times this really does read a bit stream-of-consciousness-y. OK, let's be blunt: it rambles. There are also jumps forward in time that had me a bit confused, as well as wondering what really happened. There are a lot of characters on the canvas, and I had trouble keeping up with them.

The biggest problem I had with this novel is that I'm still not sure what happened. Very disappointing when you finish a 466 some page book only to realize you're still not sure who the bad guys were and what really happened. Plus there's no real ending, per se. It just sort of stops.

I read some reviews on Amazon, just to see if I was the only one who closed this sucker and went "Huh????" I'm not. In fact, it would appear that you either love this book or hate it with the passion of a thousand suns (or some such thing). I find myself sitting firmly on the fence. I really did like some of the characters, and as I said, I thought some of the writing itself was pretty good. Wong, or should I say, Jason Pargin (the author's real name), has a way with words. But I felt like there were way too many words for this story. Tighter editing might have kept the story line on track better, which might not have left me scratching my head as much.

I guess the best way to give a rating/review of this book is to let you know there's a sequel out. But I'm not interested in checking it out. And that, in my humble opinion, speaks volumes.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Worth It...Not Worth It? Simple & Profitable Answers to Life's Tough Financial Questions by Jack Otter

Credit union or bank? Rent or buy a house? Buy or lease a car? Take or decline the rental car insurance? Renovate the kitchen or finish the basement? Buy stocks or a mutual fund? Every day we are forced to make financial decisions, but the right answers all seem to require complicated, mind-numbing research. And who has time for homework when you're paying for a bag of Fritos at 7-Eleven? Or filling out a benefits form on the first day of a new job? Thankfully, there's WORTH IT...NOT WORTH IT? [This book] demystifies complex, real-world dilemmas and breaks the answers down into simple, do this, not that solutions. Organized around six basic topics - Getting Started, Shelter, Automotive, Investing, Family Matters, and Retirement - this handy book is the Swiss Army knife  of personal finance.

I love finding little books like this, something simple that will hopefully give me the sort of help/advice I'm looking for. Sadly, while it looks good on the surface, this book doesn't really fit the bill.

Oh, there's good advice here, such as choosing the credit union over the bank, using your credit card over your debit card for things like gas (anyone who has ever been burned by the "hold" they place on your account has learned that lesson the painful way) and major purchases (fraud and damage protection), buy & hold over timing the market.

But for much of the rest of the advice here, there's one thing you need first: money. Otter advises buying over renting, pretty much what every other financial advisor will tell you. And that's fine, but it's almost worthless advice if you don't have money in the first place. I dare you to tell someone that you know for a fact is living paycheck-to-paycheck that they're crazy for renting, that they should take advantage of the low, low rates and bargains on houses right now. And I find it funny that the author advises buying, then turns right around and also says you should go with the 30/20 rule, that is, a 30-yr fixed-rate mortgage with 20% as a down-payment. OK, if I had that sort of money in the first place, would I have picked up this kind of book? Yeah, probably not. And what Otter and every other financial advisor seem to forget is that it's not just the mortgage. Sure, I could probably swing paying a mortgage payment right now, especially if we were able to find a house/mortgage that would have us paying approximately the same amount we pay right now where we rent. But there's also the increased costs to think about, too: the insurance for the home, the utilities, the taxes, the incidentals you have to purchase to care for said home (like a lawn mower). Once you factor in those costs, it's a bit of a different picture, one that isn't often discussed.

The section on investing has the basic advice I expected, but again, you have to have the money to invest in the first place. If I'm barely able to put food on the table, I have no business worrying about whether I should be stocks or get into a mutual fund. It's that sort of thing that a lot of advisers miss out on, the do you or do you not already have some money? I don't think one needs to be rich to start taking some of this advice, but yes, one does need to have some discretionary income at best. And let's face it, a lot of people these days are just not in that boat. Many are still licking their wounds from the Great Recession, still trying to keep their heads above water.

Short and simple, which I'll admit is nice. But disappointing overall.

Monday, January 7, 2013

I Could Pee on This and Other Poems by Cats by Francesco Marciuliano

No need to introduce this. It's exactly what it says it is: a book of poems "written" by cats. Divided into four simple chapters (Family, Work, Play, Existence), this adorable work also has gorgeous pictures of cats big and small throughout. Having officially been owned by a cat for just about a year now (and unofficially for a few more than that), I think this little book is just super-cute and captures the feline spirit of love and destruction quite well.

My favorite poem is probably "Closed Door", which I'm going to share with you, my readers, since it's so very perfect in describing my own Surr Purr (who happens to be an indoor/outdoor kitty).

Oh, uh, hello
I did not expect an answer
I did not expect an entrance
I did not expect this room to be
  so unbelievably dull
So, uh, goodbye

The perfect gift book for the feline book lover!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing by Mayra Calvani and Ann K. Edwards

If you're an experienced reviewer, [this book] will serve as an excellent reference tool and amalgam of resources. If you're a beginner, this book will show you hot to write a well-written, honest, objective and professional book review. It will also teach you:
  • How to read critically
  • How to differentiate the various types of reviews
  • How to rate books
  • How to prevent amateurish mistakes
  • How to deal with the ethics and legalities of reviewing
  • How to start your own review site
  • How to publish your reviews on dozens of sites and even make money while you're at it, and much more.
If you're an author, publisher, publicist, bookseller, librarian, or reader, this book will also bring to light the importance and influence of book reviews within a wider spectrum.

I'm sure you're asking why I, The Bookbabe, would pick up a book about writing reviews. After all, if you're reading this blog, then you already know that I write reviews. And that this isn't my first review. So, am I looking for a way to "make money" doing this? Am I thinking of a career change? (And would it really be a change, or sort of an obvious evolution?)

None of the above.

I believe that no matter what you do for a living, or even for a hobby, you can always do it better. And that's why I picked up this book: I want to write better reviews. The good news is that I'm already doing a lot of things right, such as being objective and never attacking the author. The bad news is that I still have much room for improvement, at least, according to the rules the authors lay out.

This book does have a lot of good advice about the basics of writing a review, although the majority of the advice is slanted toward the person wishing to do this professionally. They recommend focusing on things I usually try to do anyway: plot, pacing, character development, editing, etc. One of the things I very much appreciated was the advice to be honest yet tactful. Look, as should be obvious to pretty much anyone who reads, not all books are great. A lot of them aren't even good. But rather than post a review that simply says "This is the worst book I ever read! Don't waste your time!", you (the reviewer) need to be able to cite concrete examples of why the book isn't good. And keep in mind that "good" is a subjective term; what I love to read may not be your cup of tea and vice versa.

The authors include advice on things like how to set yourself a schedule, how to respond to emails/phone calls regarding negative reviews, how to start your own review site, how to contact established review sites to submit freelance work, and much, much more. In fact, I was surprised at just how much information they were able to pack into this very slim work (it clocks in at just 190 pages, including the appendices and the index). I will admit I skimmed some of this information, as I'm not interested in doing this professionally, nor do I have any wish to set up my own review site (I'm very happy with my little blog, thank you very much). They even include advice on how to handle the situation of "overload" - what to do if you suddenly realize that your hobby has become a full-time job and is no longer enjoyable.

There are a few problems, though. I was amazed at how often the authors contradict themselves. For example, they talk a lot about the major book review publications, such as Booklist, Library Journal, Publishers' Weekly, etc, and how those reviews are generally considered legitimate; they also talk about how most do not consider reader reviews on sites such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble to be on equal footing. And yet, they often talk about posting reviews on those same sites. So should or shouldn't you post reviews on such online sites? It's never very clear.

What also surprised me is that the blurb on the back of the back mentions being able to "make money" by writing and submitting reviews. And yet, in the page/chapter titled "Is There Any Money In It?", the very first sentence seems to state the exact opposite: "The sad reality is that, unless you work as a permanent staff reviewer for a major newspaper or publication, there's little chance of making any money reviewing." The authors do point out that you can make a few bucks if you get the right sites to accept your work, but pretty much, you're going to be doing this out of your love for books and your desire to share that love. Sorry, but to me, this is bordering on false advertising. If the authors want me to be honest in my reviews, then I'm gonna call them out on this money thing.

My biggest disappointment was a simple sentence in the chapter regarding the influence of reviews on readers. Obviously, most readers are going to be reading other readers' reviews, not professional publications. Or they're going to be going off what they've seen on TV (authors out promoting their works), what their friends are reading, etc. In speaking of how readers go about finding out what's out there and what's worth reading, the authors state: "In this age of computers when almost every person has a PC at home, it's easy for booklovers to access the Internet and read book reviews." WRONG. I work in a public library, as many of you know, and I can state that the authors are off base on this. "Almost every person" does not have a PC at home, and many who do often do not have that computer hooked up to the Internet. Granted, this book was written in 2008, and perhaps the authors were projecting forward, thinking that the economy would keep moving forward (although there were already signs that the crash was coming), but this is exactly the sort of thinking that has many libraries frustrated. There are hundreds of thousands of people, if not more,  who must rely on public access computers at libraries for Internet access. As such, they are not usually sitting around reading book reviews; they are trying to stay in contact with friends and family, applying for work, updating unemployment information, filing taxes, and the like. When people assume that everyone has Internet access, it really hurts those that don't - in the form of budget cuts, which results in the loss of public service hours, and often, library positions, finally resulting in complete closures. I would respectfully ask the authors to do a little more research next time (perhaps consulting a librarian).

I do think this book has some good information and advice. I just wish the authors had been a little more clear on some issues and hadn't used commonly held beliefs for others.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

"Geek Girls Unite" by Leslie Simon

What do Amy Poehler, Bjork, Felicia Day, Martha Stewart, Miranda July, and Zooey Deschanel have in common? They're just a few of the amazing women proving that "geek" is no longer a four-letter word.

In recent years, male geeks have taken the world by storm. But what about their female counterparts? After all, fangirls are just like fanboys - they put on their Imperial Stormtrooper Lycra pants one leg at a time. [This book] is a call to arms for every girl who has ever obsessed over music, comics, film, comedy, books, crafts, fashion, or anything else under the Death Star. Music geek girl Leslie Simon offers an overview of the geek elite by covering groundbreaking women, hall-of-famers, ultimate love matches, and potential frenemies, along with her top picks for playlists, books, movies, and websites. This smart and hilarious tour through girl geekdom is a must-have for any woman who has ever wondered where her sassy rebel sisters have been hiding.

I've always considered myself a geek. A nerd. An uncool person. I wasn't popular in high school or college. I've never had what I would consider "a ton" of friends. When I saw this book in the library, I was instantly drawn to it, thinking I'd found my bible of sorts. Well, I was wrong.

According to Simon's definitions (because you must first define what a geek is, especially as there are concerns that a geek and a nerd are really the same thing), a geek is "a person who is wildly passionate about an activity, interest, or scientific field and strives to be an expert in said avocation." She then goes on to provide some geek girl archetypes, such as the The Fangirl Geek, The Literary Geek, The Film Geek, The Music Geek, The Funny-Girl Geek, and The Domestic Goddess Geek.

Each chapter begins with a short quiz, as you test your geek knowledge of each subject. (Hint, the answer is always "C".) Simon gives a brief overview of what the subject is, what the typical geek girl is like, some historical geek girls in said subject, what to watch for in frenemies, and finally, a list of best websites, books, music, films, etc that relate to each subject. There are cute and funny footnotes along the way, as well as quotes from famous and average geek girls in the side margins.

So why the disappointment, you ask? Well, I'm not stupid. I knew I wouldn't fit into most of the categories here, but I had expected to find soul sisters in the Literary Geek Girl chapter. Evidently, though, the author means "literary" in the strictest sense; there aren't any authors/works mentioned that are, what I would call, ordinary. Look, I love books and reading. I mean, I LOVE them. But I'm not a literary snob, and that's what I took away from this book. I have no interest in reading David Foster Wallace or Jonathan Franzen. I did read Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five but wasn't overly impressed (I probably just didn't "get it"). I enjoy reading lots of different types of books, including what I consider "fluff" - Regency romance or humor or just plain silly. I found myself thinking that I just didn't relate to the Literary Geek Girl after all.

Imagine my surprise when I got to the chapter "Miscellaneous Geek" and read the following: "Much of being a geek is feeling like you don't quite fit in, so it's only natural that this book should include a chapter for geekettes who didn't find kindred spirit in any of the above caricatures." (emphasis is mine here). AHA! Perhaps this is why I found myself skimming the last two or three chapters of this book; the descriptions just felt too over-the-top/fake/hipster-centric! (And keep in mind that this book is less than 200 pages...)

I went back to the definitions at the beginning of the book, and after re-reading them, I think it's safe to say that I am not a geek. I am, however, a nerd, "a person who excels academically and who thrives on such educationally induced pastimes as memorizing UNIX manuals and correcting your grammar. Such persons may not possess the most advanced social skills, but they are armed with a huge heart and an even bigger brain." Yeah, that sounds much more like me - well, except that I have no interest in programming, and I actually have mad social skills.

Overall, this book is OK. But keep in mind, as the author finally admits, that these are caricatures. Don't take anything in this book as gospel, and you'll be just fine.