Book Review: "Cadillac Beach" by Tim Dorsey

"Cadillac Beach" by Tim Dorsey is another in Dorsey's series of novels that center on the psychotic Serge A. Storms and his band of wayward friends. This novel gives the reader a bit more of a glimpse into Serge's history than the other novels have afforded thus far. This is accomplished by making Serge's beloved grandfather one of the main characters via a series of flashbacks. What this teaches us about Serge Storms is both horrible and hilarious.

As always, Dorsey tosses in some real history with the antics of his insane, Florida history obsessed anti-hero. In this novel, the main historic focus is on a jewel heist that happened decades before, when Serge was just a little boy. As it happens, his grandfather was involved in the heist before his alleged suicide. The manic Serge decides to not only prove his grandfather did not commit suicide but also find the still missing jewels from the heist. Of course, he has some other unorthodox things, such as restoring the reputation of the CIA, on his to-do list.

Along the way, there is murder, mayhem, obsession, overt drug use, really weird intercourse, mob hits, mob plots, government stakeouts and much more. It is like a cornucopia of craziness. "Cadillac Beach" is definitely a good addition to the Serge A. Storms series. However, like the others, there is little to distinguish it from the rest. Tim Dorsey seems to have settled into a rut of novels that are practically cookie-cutters of one another. That is not so much of a complaint as an observation. "Cadillac Beach" is just as interesting as the others are, though one must wonder when the story will wear thin.

Shelly Barclay

Book Review: Departure Lounge by Chad Taylor

"Departure Lounge" by Chad Taylor is a dark novel with several intertwining seedy undertones. The style is nonlinear. The story is told from the largely apathetic perspective of a career criminal. The stories that make up Departure Lounge's plot are never fully told.

Chad Taylor manages to write a novel about moments, instances in several people's lives, without ever telling a story from start to finish. In this way, it is an interesting novel. However, it is not for everyone with its confusing chunks of life knitted together with snippets of a missing girl's impact on those she left behind.

"Departure Lounge" is essentially the story of two things, the disappearance of a teenage girl and the real life crash of a passenger plane into the side of a mountain. These two events tie all other events in the novel together. However, the girl, Caroline May, is hardly fleshed out as a character. The crash is sloppily tied to her disappearance, but it is never clear why anyone suspected it had anything to do with the girl or whether it actually did, in the end. The crash seems to be used simply as fodder for attention. It was a high-profile crash that could have easily been replaced in the novel as virtually any other made-up tragedy. The fact that it is completely non-essential to the story line that it be that crash or even a crash at all leaves little other explanation for it.

The only thing that keeps this novel from being akin to the jumbled thoughts of a flu-ridden migraine sufferer is the narrator. Mark is an ex-con who has a bad habit of breaking into places and stealing things. He also, inexplicably, spies on women a lot. Through his eyes, we see that he is relatively unemotional about the process. The descriptions of his exploits make the book worth reading. Still, he is slopped in with the other untied strings in the novel and the effect is supposed to be profound. Instead of providing the emotional moments that help a reader catch up to such emotional events, they are told piecemeal with only scant tendrils of emotion pulling the reader in. In short, it could have been better, given the topic matter.

Shelly Barclay

Book Review: "Atonement" by Ian McEwan

"Atonement" by Ian McEwan is a novel about a huge mistake a young girl made that haunted her into adulthood. It follows her mistake and the lasting impact it has on her life and that of her sister. In short, it is a book about confessing lies and cowardice, long after such a confession can make a difference.

Briony is the main character of the novel, though it centers on the story of her sister Cecilia and Robbie, the love of Cecilia's life. Briony is a particularly selfish individual, but the extent of her selfishness is not known until the end of the novel. She starts the novel as a young girl, hoping to impress with a play she has written for her family's enjoyment. The story focuses on her propensity for fabricating fantasies from snippets of reality. As a result, she is unable to see reality for what it is or accept it when she cannot understand or does not know what is really happening. Instead, she substitutes her fantastic daydreams and convinces herself she must be right.

The beginning of the novel also follows a series of interludes between Cecilia and Robbie, each of which Briony misunderstands. Because of Briony's misunderstandings and the inability of Cecilia and Robbie to vocalize the truth, Robbie is condemned for a crime he did not commit. Briony is his sole accuser and bears false witness against him. Cecilia knows Robbie is not guilty and abandons her family when they stand behind Briony's accusations.

All of this happens in the first part of "Atonement." Unfortunately, Ian McEwan drags his feet a bit here. He is overly descriptive, making it possible to remove much of the first part and still tell the story successfully. In a funny turn, he later attributes the same overuse of prose to his main character. It almost seems as though this is his confession to his readers. It seems like a way of saying, "Yes, I know that I am wordy. Please bear with me, as my story has merit." He is right, if that is really what he is saying. The book is certainly worth reading. It just takes a little perseverance to wade through some of the more descriptive parts.

Most of the rest of "Atonement" follows Briony through nursing school in the midst of World War II, Robbie's experience as a soldier in World War II and the love Cecilia and Robbie have for each other. Briony eventually comes to realize the impact of her mistake, hoping to fix it. Without giving away too much, suffice it to say that her "Atonement" follows the same pattern as her mistake itself. The reader wants to encourage Briony to do the right thing. It is natural to want Cecilia and Robbie to have the life they deserve together. Apparently, it is what Briony wants too. The ending clears up any misconceptions the reader has about Briony, however. It is impossible to say any more without giving away the best part of the novel -- the true nature of Briony's "Atonement."

Shelly Barclay

Crossing the NaNoWriMo Finish Line

On November 1, 2011, I stood at a starting line where hundreds of thousands of authors have stood before me. I had spontaneously decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo for short. I'll be honest; like any other self-loathing writer, I had dark plans of starting a novel, having real life interfere, going through a downward spiral of anger and junk food, tossing out the book idea and coming out with a story about how hard it is to write a novel in a month. Instead, I managed my regular writing schedule -- which is more than 40 hours of work a week -- and gave up most of my sleep to crank out a novel in 19 days. Who says you need a month to write a book?

Okay, so I did not come out of NaNoWriMo with a masterpiece. In fact, if I were to write a Cracked Spines review of my book right now, I would warn you to never even so much as borrow it from the library. Such is the state of my first draft, but I am still proud of it. I crossed the finish line ahead of the pack and can now get back to my regularly scheduled work. Will I ever do it again? Well, I already have an outline for next month's first draft of horrors.

Now that I am done with the book, I will be back to reading regularly. Right now, I am working on "Atonement" by Ian McEwan. You can expect a review within a few days. I hope you are looking forward to it, wherever you are, whoever you are, if there is anyone even listening. For those of you out there still chugging along on your novels, best of luck. The trick is to think like that annoying Ellen fish from Finding Nemo, but instead of swimming, you want to write. You may also want to switch the cutesy cartoon voice for something more like a personal trainer on steroids.

Shelly Barclay

Review of "A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" is the second novel by acclaimed writer Khaled Hosseini. It is a novel that, much like his first novel "The Kite Runner" pulls the reader in and does not stop pulling until long after the novel ends. Hosseini's cleverness and insight into romantic relationships, friendships, Afghan culture and the complicated lives of women ring through on every page.

The novel follows two Afghan women, Mariam and Laila. In the first two parts, it tells two very different stories. The first story is that of Mariam, an illegitimate child whose father is insincere and whose mother is mentally abusive, but loving in her own way. Mariam's world is torn apart one day and she finds herself in a situation that many Afghan women find themselves in, though it is not the rule. For the sake of leaving the story a mystery for those who have not read it, the details will not be divulged here.

The second part tells the story of a well rounded, relatively well off, Laila, whose love for her best friend becomes the center of her world as war tears apart her family. Laila too has a day that destroys her life as she knows it and she comes to be a part of Mariam's life. From there, the two women struggle with animosity, guilt, regret and a deeply loving friendship that forms the heart of the "A Thousand Splendid Suns."

The way the story is written, it gives snippets of happiness, mixed with disillusionment, grief and despair, only to bring you back around to happiness again. The rare moments of joy the characters feel are made more intense by the sense of impending doom that hovers over much of the plot. Khaled skillfully makes his readers feel anxiety, hope and triumph for and with his characters. Every aspect of "A Thousand Splendid Suns" is skillfully done. He erects no cultural barriers between his readers and the Afghanistan of his novel, just as he did with "The Kite Runner." Several reviews will say that "A Thousand Splendid Suns" is the better novel. In truth, there is no comparing the two. They are both excellent stories in their own right.

Shelly Barclay

Dear Readers: Novel Writing, My Absence and Writing Too Much

Dear Readers,

On the off chance that anyone regularly reads my book-related gibberish, I thought it prudent to write and inform you, whoever you elusive readers are, that I will be absent for the month of November. I may find time to read something and tell you how good or awful it was, but the chances are pretty slim. You see, this month is National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo. I, your humble and not horribly articulate book reviewer, am trying my hand for the very first time. Therefore, I am writing a novel of at least 50,000 words in 30 days. I will be back, hopefully a winner, on the first of December.

I am happy to tell you that my first day was a 3100 word success. This, on top of my regular, work-related writing, has left my hands feeling as if I am a full time cook again. However, I am proud of myself, as novels are my greatest fear. I have written a few that no one, save me, has ever read and that were only possible through the help of copious amounts of hard liquor. I no longer imbibe, so I thought I might find myself stumped. I didn't. I am still not sure what tomorrow will bring, but I am off to a good start.

Whoever you are, if you are out there, wish me luck. I'm going to need it.

Shelly Barclay

Amir from "The Kite Runner" Character Analysis

The main character and narrator of "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini is a boy named Amir, who becomes a man during the time span of the novel. He is a Pashtun Afghan boy from Kabul who later escapes to America when Kabul becomes dangerous after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. "The Kite Runner" itself is a wonderful novel that has received enough praise and criticism to make it one of the most popular novels of the past ten years. The story is fraught with political and emotion upheaval. However, it is the characters that make the novel the masterpiece that it is and Amir is the character who ties them all together.

At first glance, Amir's life is privileged. He lives in a big house, has servants and does not lack for essentials and material things. However, as the reader gets to know Amir, it becomes clear that those things do not make his life easier, but only serve to make his complicated young life even more difficult. His mother died giving birth to him and he seems to be more like his mother than his father, who appears ashamed and dismissive of Amir. Amir develops relationships with a young servant boy Hassan, Hassan's father and his own father's business partner to make up for his lack of connection to a parent. However, none of these things fill the void in his life. He becomes somewhat bitter and tests his most important relationship -- that with Hassan -- often.

Amir sees things in Hassan that he does not see in himself -- all traits that his father possesses. Hassan is unerringly brave and loyal. Amir is not as confident in himself and tests Hassan's loyalty, seemingly testing his own loyalty to Hassan at the same time. He frequently makes mention of the difference in status between himself and Hassan and seems to ponder what this really means. In the end, the difference is made clear to him and he is forced to make a choice. It is a choice that many boys would make out of fear, but Amir is ashamed of himself and allows a tragedy to change the course of his friendship with Hassan. Much of the novel is centered on Amir's shame for not being the son his father wanted and for not being the friend Hassan deserved.

The question that "The Kite Runner" poses to the reader concerning Amir is whether he is inherently selfish, cowardly and sometimes mean. Snippets of his inner dialogue reveal otherwise. Amir is wracked with shame, but does nothing to change his behavior or remedy his mistakes. Yes, he is something of a coward. However, he feels empathy for Hassan. He feels ashamed of himself. As one character in the book points out, those who are truly bad do not feel shame. So what makes Amir behave in a way that goes against his own nature?

It seems that Amir's life and actions are strongly influenced by a sense of inferiority he feels when compared to his brave and generous father. He feels a lack of affection from that outstanding man and comes to assume the superficial difference between himself and his father, such as Amir's love of writing and his father's love of sports, is evidence that he is a bad person while his father is a good person. In a way, it is a self-fulfilling prophesy. I am not as strong as him, so I cannot be strong. I am not as brave as he is, so I am not brave at all. Yes, there is one point where Amir's actions seem driven solely by fear, but his later reactions clearly stem from a need to cover up "the bad person" inside. It takes learning that his father was not perfect for Amir to find his own type of strength.

It is easy to harbor disdain for Amir in the first half of "The Kite Runner." However, it would appear that Khaled does not want the reader to hate Amir, but rather to hate the true evil in the world that did not give Amir enough time to find himself before presenting itself to him. Khaled shows that Amir's mistakes are the forgivable kind. He is just an average boy and then an average man. However, even in redemption, his guilt never leaves him.

Shelly Barclay

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini Book Review

Khaled Hosseini

"The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini is one of the rare books that leave a mark on you long after you are finished. It is the kind of book you rush to suggest to friends and sing the praises of any time the topic of fiction literature comes up. It has everything -- tragedy, comedy, friendship, love, irony, literary mentions, heroes, villains and the complex in-betweens that are average human lives. It would be impossible for me to review this book without simply gushing about it, so consider yourself forewarned.

Khaled Hosseini made his literary debut with this book. Since that time, it has been slammed, revered, adapted for film and enjoyed by countless readers. The topic matter is controversial, but not as bad as some critics would have you believe.

"The Kite Runner" is written from the perspective of Amir -- a Pashtun Afghan who lost his mother at birth. Amir has a love of literature that he apparently got from his mother, but that seems to disgust his father. His father is a seemingly heroic figure. He is the patron of the needy and the defender of the victim. However, he is also very distant with Amir, something that is later explained, but that I will not give away here. His relationship with his father seems to shape his decisions, though one other relationship is much more important, that which he has with his Hazara servant.

Hassan is a boy who was born not long after Amir. He is a servant who lives in a hut behind Amir's house, but who is much beloved by Amir's father. Amir loves him too, but is too ruled by his own demons to see this love for what it is. He makes a huge mistake in dealing with Hassan, allowing a tragedy to befall him. This mistake colors the rest of Amir's life. It is a demon that haunts him. Hassan appears to handle his misfortune better than Amir handles his own cowardice.

Later in "The Kite Runner," perhaps the most important character emerges in a young boy who ties Amir and Hassan together again. His name is Sohrab. The book is riddled with the tragedy of war torn Afghanistan. However, the tragedy reaches a crescendo that is entirely unexpected with this boy. There is hope beyond it, as in any good novel, but the shock of it was like being punched in the stomach. That is no mean feat given that more than three-quarters of the emotion-laden novel was already consumed by then.

There is a certain level of horror present in "The Kite Runner." There is one very bad man in particular that raised the hackles of many a critic. Who or what does this man represent? How rude to have him represent Afghanistan or the Taliban. The truth of the matter is that this bad man does not represent Afghanistan or the Taliban, at least to my mind. In fact, Afghanistan is spoken of quite lovingly in "The Kite Runner." The Taliban are not, of course, but they are not represented by this one horrible man. What he represents to this reader is the monster of war that targets children. Let's face it; war is cruel to children. They are already helpless. In any country, in any war, there are wolves that descend on the children. Hosseini created one that is gruesome to the last, but who is not unrealistic and only shows that bad men lurk in every society waiting for chaos to emerge and allow them to take their thrones.

Shelly Barclay

More Shakespeare Quotes Translated

Awhile back, Cracked Spines had a post about translated Shakespeare quotes. For the most part, the post was a gag, though the translations were essentially correct. There seems to be a demand for Shakespeare quote translations, so here we go again. The quotes are broken up by which piece they appeared in. Unfortunately, we cannot translate everything, so here are some of the more famous quotes from the most popular Shakespeare pieces.

Romeo & Juliet Quotes Translated

"These violent delights have violent ends and in their triumph die like fire and powder, which as they kiss consume." ~ Friar Laurence

Here, Friar Laurence is giving Romeo advice about his quick and passionate love of Juliet. Given the context of the quote, it seems that the Friar is telling Romeo not to move too fast or too hard in love. Perhaps his fervor does not bode well for the relationship as it can make the love that is there burn out quickly. If he could love calmly and tamely, he would be safer. The word violent here seems to mean passionate. However, the word does foreshadow the violent end of the lovers' lives.

"A plague on both your houses!" ~ Mercutio

In this scene, Mercutio is cursing the Capulets and the Montagues. The violence and animosity between the two families has torn both of the families apart. So, when he says "A plague on both your houses." he means to curse the two families, not literally their houses.

"A greater power than we can contradict hath thwarted our plans." ~ Friar Laurence

This is the Friar's way of telling Juliet that their plans are ruined and Romeo is dead. It is unclear whether he speaks of a god or fate here, but he is clearly saying that a power that they are helpless against has messed up their plans to fake Juliet's death and bring the two lovers together again in life.

"O happy dagger! This is they sheath; there rust and let me die." ~ Juliet

Here, Juliet is not saying so much that the dagger is happy; but that she is happy it is there. This is the scene in which she sees her husband lying dead and decides to take her own life. The sheath she speaks of is her chest. So, she is saying, I am thrilled there is a dagger here, I am going to plunge it into myself and hope that it will rot there and succeed in killing me.

"But soft. What light through yonder window breaks?" ~ Romeo

In this scene, Romeo is speaking to himself. He is essentially saying, "Be quiet, a light is coming on in that window. I wonder who it is?" He later realizes it is Juliet.

"O I am fortune's fool." ~ Romeo

Romeo says this after the scene where he is driven to kill Tybalt to save himself. He is saying that he is a victim of fate, that he has been played a crappy hand by fate. In short, he is saying "That really sucks."

Macbeth Quote Translations

"Present fears are less than horrible imaginings." ~ Macbeth

In this scene, Macbeth fears for the future. This line is essentially him telling himself that what he is thinking is not worth fear for he does not know what the outcome will be. What he is afraid of in his mine are just thoughts.

"Come what come may. Time and hour run through the roughest day." ~ Macbeth

Taken in context, this is one of several mentions in this scene of leaving the future to chance. Macbeth does not want to worry, so he says, let what will happen, happen. Time goes by no matter how hard or happy the day.

"Screw your courage to the sticking place and we'll not fail." ~ Lady Macbeth

This is Lady Macbeth bullying her husband, essentially. He has misgivings about murdering Duncan. She is essentially saying, if you find your courage and hang on to it, we will succeed in this murder.

A Midsummer's Night Dream Quote Translations

"I'll put a girdle round about the earth in 40 minutes." ~ Puck

With this line, Puck (the troublemaker elf of the play) is saying he can travel around the entire world in 40 minutes.

"And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays." ~ Bottom

The meaning in this quote is rather clear, but it is a popular quote, so those who do not know the context may need to find the meaning. Here, the character Bottom is saying that people in love do not behave reasonably more often than not and vice versa.

"And those things do best please me that do befall preposterously." ~ Puck

Puck is saying here that he is happiest when ridiculous things happen. Order does not suit him.

So, here are a scant few popular Shakespeare quotes translated. Please feel free to leave comments in the comments section for other quotes you would like to see translated. However, there is no guarantee that the humor will be left out next time.

Shelly Barclay

"Suzanne's Diary for Nicholas" by James Patterson Book Review

"Suzanne's Diary for Nicholas" is a 2001 novel by James Patterson chronicling the life and tragedies of Matt Harrison through the eyes of the two women who love him. It is a romance novel, but it contains all of the suspense that Patterson fans have come to expect. Furthermore, it is more than just a romance novel. At the core, it is about how romance can bring about a greater love -- the love parents have for their children. It is also a book about grief and how difficult it is to overcome it.

The format of "Suzanne's Diary for Nicholas" is a diary written by a loving mother for her son coupled with flashes to the woman who is reading the diary. The woman reading the diary is the lover of the diary writer's husband. James Patterson starts the novel by implanting a series of questions. Is Matt Harrison still married? Is he hiding his infidelity from his wife? Where is his child?

James Patterson, of course, does a lovely job of writing this story. It really deserves all of the praise it has received over the years. However, I will say this: The ending was tres predictable. You can see it coming a mile away. Nevertheless, it is easy to get emotionally caught up in it once you see it on paper. Reading this novel is an emotional task -- one that can be undertaken in one sitting. I would recommend it to anyone who loves stories about family, love, hope and loss.

Shelly Barclay

"The Somnambulist" by Jonathan Barnes Twists, Turns and Disgusts: An Excellent Read

I just had the worthwhile experience of cracking the spine of a singular book by Jonathan Barnes -- The Somnambulist. This, Barnes' first novel, takes place in a fictional (ish) London, nearly 100 years ago. The characters are seamy. The setting is a city well greased with the oils of corruption and zealotry. The plot is full of half-mad heroes, unexpected villains, horrid murders and even more horrid sexual acts (though I may be being a bit judgmental here). It has an air of historical fiction, though it is clearly straight, fanciful, completely fabricated fiction. In short, it was just my type of book. 

Okay, I might have fibbed in that last bit. Much like the narrator of The Somnambulist, I have to qualify things to make them completely clear at times. I said Jonathan Barnes' book was a completely fabricated fiction. That is not entirely true and he does rather transparently borrow from other weavers of fine fiction. There are some mentions of true historical characters, mostly writers. There are also some nods to writers such as Mary Shelley and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The former is not mentioned, but her ideas are part of Barnes' plot. It's less idea theft than it is a compliment, I should think. The latter is merely mentioned and it seems the title character is fashioned somewhat after Sherlock Holmes, though his powers of discernment fall short of the mark. 

I have to admit that The Somnambulist got off to a slow start. Not a bad one, just one that failed to hook me right in. The name is theatrical, the events in the first chapters strange and gory enough, it was the wish to know what happened next that was lacking. Nonetheless, it came. Eventually, there were so many characters and twists that I couldn't keep track, but I really wanted to know what was happening. I was combining characters together just so I didn't have to pause so often to remember which unexceptional British surname belonged to which Mister. The characters that do stand out are those at the center of the story. There is no mistaking them, as their features stand out. Oddly enough, The Somnambulist is not the main character, but he is by far the most interesting. Much of the time, I kept reading to figure out where the title character gets the significance that landed him in the title. 

Okay, I'm done giving you the boring details of my experience. Overall, I think Jonathan Barnes did an excellent job. His story reminded me strongly of "The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack" by Mark Hodder, which I also enjoyed. It's worth a read, if you don't mind a few commonly offensive fictional events. 

Shelly Barclay

Book Review: "The Hot Zone" by Richard Preston

If someone were to ask me what the most horrifying book I have ever read is, she might be surprised. Having read books like "The Exorcist" by William Peter Blatty and "The Stand" by Stephen King, among countless other horror novels, you might think that I would choose an obvious horror fiction novel. That is not the case. The most horrifying book I have ever read is a true story about the scariest thing on Earth. That book is "The Hot Zone" by Richard Preston and it is about viruses that produce hemorrhagic fever-- particularly Marburg and Ebola.

The way Richard Preston wrote "The Hot Zone" was unusual, even now, nearly 20 years since its release. He interviewed people involved in the true events, reviewed what is known about them and meticulously reconstructed everything that takes place in the book. Sure, you might say this is not that unusual. People write non-fiction books in story format all the time. Yeah, they do, but they rarely do it with integrity, and Preston did. He took an extremely dramatic tale and somehow managed not to dramatize it further or embellish, as far as I can tell. Most "non-fiction" books written in story format are at least part fiction, in my experience. (Truman Capote, anyone?) That is after taking into account that people do not always give the author accurate recollections of true stories. At any rate, I had never read anything so true to reality yet told like it was virtually fiction until I read "The Hot Zone."

My astonishment at the slick way Preston presented a non-fiction novel is not the only reason I loved his book "The Hot Zone." What I loved about it most is that it gave me an in-depth perspective on something with which I was already loosely familiar. This novel took me from knowing that Marburg and Ebola exist, where they come from and what they do to people to understanding all of these things. I learned about how experts handle outbreaks of these viruses, how handling these killers makes them feel and how helpless even the most seasoned virus hunter can feel against these viruses. I learned exactly what they do to the body, not just what is visible on the outside, which is horrifying enough. During all of this learning, I was also told a story that I knew, but that I did not know as well as Richard did. By the end, I got the feeling that Preston was more familiar with the story he was telling than any individual in it, despite them having lived it.

Now for the horrifying part. I have no method of describing these horrors that could trump or even paraphrase how Preston so cleanly put it. You have to read the book for yourself. However, I only suggest this if you have can stomach understanding that the most horrifying things in the world are not in Stephen King novels. They are in the bloodstreams of the animals and people around you. They are waiting to find their way into yours. If they get in, they will brutalize you worse than any monster ever dreamt up by an overactive imagination. The worst part is that there is nothing an army of heroic doctors can do about it, which is a point "The Hot Zone" makes startlingly clear.

Shelly Barclay

"The Five People You Meet in Heaven" by Mitch Albom Book Review

"The Five People You Meet in Heaven" by Mitch Albom is the touching story of an old man whose death begins a journey to discover the meaning of his life. Yes, the story is about heaven, but even atheists, such as myself, can appreciate the message behind Mitch Albom's story, which seems to be that not everything in life is what is seems. Sometimes we are right when we think we are wrong and vice versa. In the end, you only have to answer to yourself -- in Mitch's version of heaven, anyway.

Eddie -- the main character of the story -- is still uncertain of his life, things he did and things that were done to him, when the moment of his death arrives. He dies suddenly, so he has no time to reflect on these things until he reaches heaven, where he meets five people who shed light on his life for him. As the reader gets deeper into "The Five People You Meet in Heaven," it becomes clear that, despite Eddie's seeming ordinariness, he has not led an ordinary life.

Even without the supernatural twist -- heaven -- in Mitch Albom's not surprisingly popular story, it is quite moving. Albom incorporates deep love, dysfunctional parent/child relationships, war, regret, loss and heroism into humble Eddie's story. Reading it, it is impossible not to sympathize with even the bad choices people make in "The Five People You Meet in Heaven."

This novel really makes you think about harboring negative feelings when life only provides us a single perspective. Mitch Albom unknowingly (or knowingly) asks the question, "Is there something you missed in life that could have changed your mind about something and potentially changed your life?" No matter your religion or perspective on heaven, this book is a must read. It is short, so you can forgive me the time taken if you don't like it, which I highly doubt will be the case.

Shelly Barclay

Difference Between the Novel "Eclipse" by Stephenie Meyer and the Film

Eclipse is the third novel in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. Like every other book that has a film based on it, there are noticeable differences between the written version and the movie version. The first part of the last film -- Breaking Dawn -- is due out in November of 2011. With that in mind, remember that some of the things that are missing from this novel and others may appear in the final film. It is doubtful, but since the film has not been released, we do not want to make any assumptions. So, if there is something in this article that appears later, forgive me for my inability to read the future.

Warning: Book and Movie Spoilers Ahead

In Eclipse, Charlie ungrounds Bella, who was grounded at the end of the novel before it -- New Moon. In the book, this moment happens in the kitchen after Charlie attempts to cook dinner and fails. In the film, it happens in the living room after Bella walks into the house. In both, Bella is released from being grounded and Charlie asks her to spend time with more people than just the Cullens.

One of the major themes of the first half of Eclipse is Bella missing Jacob, but Edward forbidding her to see him. In the novel, this drama begins in the Swan kitchen. Edward tells her it is not safe. She later tries to leave the house and finds her truck is disabled. In the film, the conversation about her safety does not happen until after Edward disables her truck.

In the Eclipse film, Edward lets go of his weariness of Bella going to spend time with werewolves much faster. After she comes home from a visit with her mother, Jacob shows up at the school and Bella leaves with him. In the book, Bella does not leave with him at that time. In fact, she is even taken hostage, in a way, by Alice when Edward goes hunting so that she cannot go see Jacob. She eventually escapes when she sneaks off work to visit him. Jacob also shows up at the school later while Edward is hunting and Bella makes a run for it with him.

In Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer, Jacob calls the Swan residence repeatedly while Bella is in Florida. The reason is that he is not sure if Edward is off turning her into a vampire. In the film, Jacob finds out when he was at the school, not over the phone and there is no mention of the phone calls he was making to the house.

Part of Charlie's condition for Bella being ungrounded is that she spend time with her friends. She does this by offering to help Angela with her graduation invitations. This does not happen in the movie. The friendship between Angela and Bella is played down in the films, while her friendship with Jessica is played up.

In the book, Edward mentions to Charlie that Bella has tickets for them to go to Florida that expire soon. Edward mentioned it against Bella's wishes. It causes a fight between Charlie and Bella, but Edward gets his way and the two go to Florida. In the film, he mentions it to Charlie outside of the police station and there is some discontent, but no argument.

In the book, there is a conversation between Bella and Edward that takes place in Edward's room, on his bed, when he gets a night alone at his house with Bella. The conversation is split in two in the Eclipse movie. Half of it takes place on the bed; the other half takes place in the meadow at the very beginning of the film.

While Bella is being babysat by Alice in the Eclipse novel, Rosalie enters Edward's room and tells Bella about how she became a vampire. She tells Bella about Emmett's history as well, but that history is not in the film. In the film, this conversation takes place on a balcony at the Cullen home after Bella has her hand treated for a sprain. Another difference is that the sprain is a break in the book.

On graduation day in the book, Alice brings Bella an outfit for graduation because she knows Bella has nothing to wear. This does not happen in the movie. It is at that time that Bella figured out the army needed her scent because they were coming to get her. In the movie, this discovery is made later, at the party.

In the book, Eric is the valedictorian at the Forks High graduation. In the movie, it is Jessica Stanley. Another difference is that Eric is Angela's boyfriend in the movie, but her boyfriend is a boy named Ben in the book.

At the end of the book, Bella tells Alice she can plan the entire wedding. Alice reacts by showing her a wedding dress that she already purchased. This scene is not in the film. However, it may be in the next film, given that the movie stopped short of the end of the Eclipse novel.

Shelly Barclay

Plot Holes in Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

As one quick Google search will attest, Stephenie Meyer is notorious for her plot holes that could easily be explained away by magic, but which she chooses to explain with science, amateurishly. Of course, all of these "scientific" explanations come after her books publish, not in the books themselves, not that they are ever satisfying anyway. The first book in her series is not as bad as some of her later books, but it is not exempt from Meyers' plot faux pas. The following are a few of the major ones I personally spotted. Remember, these are just from the first book -- Twilight. I have left out plot holes that are later satisfactorily explained in the three subsequent books.

One of the first things that gave me pause in Twilight by Stephenie Meyer was the selective use of Bella's fainting fits brought on by blood. She faints in her biology class when they do blood typing because she can't stand the smell of blood -- yes, she can smell blood *sigh.* Earlier, she is in a car accident with a boy who winds up next to her in the hospital with "soiled" bandages on his head. There is no mention of nausea or fainting there. This selective use of Bella's weakness continues throughout the series. One can only presume that Stephenie wanted to add that Bella could smell blood and her fainting was the only way she could think of to do it, but it eventually became inconvenient.

One plot hole that I do not blame Stephenie Meyer for excluding is Bella's period -- and every other girl's period at Forks High School. Shouldn't that have had the vampires in a frenzy? Stephenie Meyer tried to explain this one away by calling menstrual blood "dead blood" or so I heard. She could have just said she found the subject distasteful, but she had to say something that makes absolutely no sense. From what I have learned of the subject, menstrual blood -- at least at the beginning of a period -- is not "dead" or "old" at all. It is just mixed with uterine tissue and eggs. It would still smell like blood to a vampire. Weak explanation is weak, Stephenie.

Speaking of blood, where the heck do the vampires store all of the blood they drink? Edward mentions he does not go to the bathroom. The only thing he mentions regurgitating is a bite of pizza. No mention is made of sweat and Myers' vampires are said to be unable to cry. I am seriously disappointed with this one. The vampires in this book should look like tick versions of Jabba the Hutt.

Okay, most people know by now that Stephenie Meyers' vampires light up like disco balls in sunlight. That is wonderful for fairy loving teens and I will not argue the silliness of that right now. What I will argue is their ability to come out in Forks because of the clouds. Mist, clouds and fog do not deter the sun's rays. You can get sunburn in a thunderstorm if it is daytime. Let us say that the UV rays are not the problem, but rather the bright light. Well, that would explain it, if the vampires did not hang out in a school cafeteria, which is presumably well lit, without any glowing effect whatsoever.

The last plot holes in the Twilight novel involve the same part of the story. There is a bit where a vampire intent on killing Bella calls her while she is at a hotel with two other vampires. The vampire that hands her the phone -- Alice -- does not notice the fact that Bella is speaking to said murderous vampire. This is odd given Stephenie Meyers' emphasis on the vampires' acute senses. Later, Bella runs away from two vampires that are protecting her to meet up with the aforementioned murderous vampire. The problem with this is that one of the vampires protecting Bella can see the future the moment someone makes a decision, but she did not stop Bella, despite presumed foreknowledge of Bella's escape.

There is no denying that Stephenie did indeed leave a lot open for scrutiny in her novels. However, these plot holes have not hurt her popularity or her wallet, so I doubt she feels the slightest twinge of regret.

Shelly Barclay

"The Dark Half" by Stephen King Book Review

"The Dark Half" by Stephen King is a paranormal horror novel about a writer and the dark part of him that writes crime fiction. In this novel, the dark half of Thad Beaumont's imagination comes to life and terrorizes Thad and everyone involved in Thad's attempt to write the novels that he wants to write -- not the crime novels of his dark half's choosing. The story is filled with Stephen King's signature gross outs and small town personalities. Overall, the effect is memorable. Though "The Dark Half" is not King's best novel, it is far from being a flop.

At the start of the novel, the reader is introduced to the 11-year-old version of Thad Beaumont. He is a nice boy who aspires to be a writer. However, soon after he begins writing, he hears the phantom sound of a huge flock of sparrows. He also has headaches and, eventually, a seizure. His concerned mother takes him to a doctor while his distant and crude father wonders what healing his son is going to do to his wallet. A neurologist tells them that Thad has a brain tumor. When he operates, he finds what the reader later learns are the physical remnants of Thad's dark half -- an eyeball, some teeth and other scraps of a twin that Thad fused with in utero.

Thad Beaumont does grow up to be a writer and completely overcomes his neurological health issues. He marries, writes a string of successful novels and has two children -- twins. Everything is going okay until Thad decides to do an interview during which he declares his pen name -- George Stark -- dead. He no longer wants to write novels under that name as he and his wife find George's writing process unhealthy and far removed from Thad's own writing process. As "The Dark Half" develops, a string of murders, all connected to that magazine interview begins. The Beaumonts and their associates are terrorized by what Thad is convinced is the supernatural incarnation of his pseudonym.

As most Stephen King fans know, King once wrote under a pseudonym of his own -- Richard Bachmann. This was in the early years of King's career, but he certainly wrote some of his best novels under his pen name. He also killed off his pseudonym so he could "come out" as a writer. Therefore, in a way, "The Dark Half" is semi autobiographical. The connection Thad feels to his Stark novels, among other things, clearly come from King's experience. However, the truck stops there. As far as we know, King didn't cannibalize his twin in his mother's uterus and he was never haunted by the ghost of his pen name, as Thad was in "The Dark Half," at least not in the literal sense. Nonetheless, his own experiences as a career author give him a great perspective on the life of a writer, so we cannot help but see a bit of King in Beaumont. Of course, you cannot help but see a bit of King in George Stark, either.

As far as recommending "The Dark Half" by Stephen King, I would only recommend it to someone who has already read and enjoyed another King novel. It is a not a starter Stephen King, so to speak. You have to have an appreciation for Stephen King to have an appreciation for "The Dark Half." For those who are just wandering into the horror genre, I would recommend starting with a commercially successful King work, such as "The Green Mile," "Shawshank Redemption," or "The Body." Those readers who enjoy their spooks and icks, I would recommend, "It," "Salem's Lot," "The Stand" or "Pet Sematary." If you want to get the crap scared out of you, go with the latter. Then, work your way to "The Dark Half."

Shelly Barclay

"The Devil of Nanking" by Mo Hayder Book Review

"They Devil of Nanking" by Mo Hayder is a surprise of a novel. In many ways, this is a good thing. In other ways, it was unpleasant. Mo Hayder is an excellent writer and apparently does her research. However, "The Devil of Nanking" was handled a little oddly.

Given the name, one would think that most, if not all, of the sadism in "The Devil of Nanking" would take place in 1937 Nanking, China, but that is not the case. The book alternates between Tokyo, Japan in 1990 and Nanking, China in 1937. In Mo Hayder's version of Tokyo, there are sadists around every corner and there is a great deal of sexual violence and implied sexual violence. The violence that takes place in Nanking is only hinted at until the latter half of the novel. While the Nanking violence is expected, given historical accounts of the events that took place in Nanking, the Tokyo violence is a little much. I am not opposed to violence, be it sexual or otherwise, in my novels, but I found it out of place in a novel about Nanking. In fact, and you will rarely hear me say this, I found it distasteful given the subject matter of the book. It takes away from the history, which is the sole reason I picked up the book.

With the above being said, Mo Hayder did not do a bad job with the direction she decided to take the book. It is over the top, but it is well written. In fact, I initially thought I would not want to finish the book. Despite my unwillingness to read about a group of tortuous sexual sadists and a naive girl lost in the midst of them, I found myself pulled into the story. Any writer who leaves answers dangling until later in the book can do this to me. I am one of those readers who has to know. If you are the same, you will find yourself whizzing through "The Devil of Nanking." I read it in a single night.

As for Hayder's handling of the Nanking parts of the book, I found them interesting, for the most part. Of course, she went a little over the top, which was unnecessary. One does not need to stray from fact to make the events of the Rape of Nanking horrifying. Nonetheless, most of it was the struggle of a man and wife trying to survive hidden in their home in Nanking. That was touching and did much to redeem the otherwise B-movie caliber violence in the novel.

Would I suggest this book to someone else? Yes, I know people whose tastes run to the poorly done macabre. I also think the novel is worth reading, just not worth reading twice for me. I prefer my modern senseless violence to be crammed into a book like "A Clockwork Orange." I also prefer my books on Holocaust level violence in history to be respectful of the subject matter. There is no need to embellish, but that is exactly what Mo Hayder did.

Shelly Barclay

Summary and Review of "The Jaunt" by Stephen King

"The Jaunt" by Stephen King is my personal favorite short story from him. It has elements of both horror and science fiction. In it, Stephen King takes the well-known science fiction concept of teleportation and turns it into a futuristic horror story. A lot of what is the "horror" in this story is left to the imagination, but what we do know of that horror is so mind boggling that it is one of the most powerful concepts King has ever come up with.

The name of the story comes from the name teleportation is given in "The Jaunt." The story begins as a man, his wife and their two children are getting ready to teleport or "jaunt" from the Earth to Mars. The man has done this several times, but his children are new to it and so he decides to tell them the history of the jaunt. King takes the reader back to the 1980s and a fictional Earth where resources are dangerously low and starvation is spreading like an epidemic across the globe. An old, eccentric scientist is trying to develop a means of teleportation to solve all of these problems and he is successful. However, there is a problem.

When the scientist puts his test mice through his teleportation device, they come back dead or near dead. The ones that come back near death exhibit strange behavior. As the story progresses, the reader learns that the body teleports in mere seconds, but those seconds are an eternity to the mind. The problem is fixed by putting anything that is jaunting alive to sleep before teleportation, including humans. The father knows horror stories of humans coming through the jaunt awake, but he keeps the sordid details from the children, allowing only the reader to know just how horrible the jaunt truly is.

*Spoiler ahead

Finally, as they wait to jaunt, the attendants come around to put the family to sleep. After a few moments, the father wakes up in Mars to the sound of his wife screaming. He goes to where his wife was pointing to see his son laying there with yellowed eyes and white hair. The boy yells to his father that he faked taking the gas to sleep and that it is longer than eternity in the jaunt before screaming and tearing at his eyeballs. The father refers to the boy as an old "it" inside of his son's body. King's description of this moment has stuck with me since the first time I read it so many years ago.

Shelly Barclay

Review of "Cain Rose Up" by Stephen King

"Cain Rose Up" is a short (very short) story in Stephen King's "Skeleton Crew" anthology. It is the story of a young man who decides to go on a killing spree from the window of his college dorm. He uses a rifle that he snuck into the school. The interesting thing about King's rendering of the topic, and a common theme with this topic and Stephen King, is that the story does not drag you into the horror and sadness of victims. It brings you into the world of the killer, who you must presume is something of a victim himself.

The main character of "Cain Rose Up," Curt Garrish, says goodbye to some of his dorm mates, as it is the end of the year, makes some internal observations about them, locks his door, gets his gun and starts shooting out of the window. It really is that short of a story. In the end, you do not even know how far Curt eventually goes, though you know he already has a few victims. It takes a minute after reading the story to realize that it was a good story. It is so brief that you have so many questions, but then you find yourself answering all of those questions from experience. Unfortunately, college killing sprees are not fiction.

One of the main questions "Cain Rose Up" poses to the reader is why did Curt do it? People seem to want to talk to him, as evidenced by the dialogue in the story. He has a father who buys him things and he has good grades. His inner dialogue and visions are somewhat disturbing, but the reason for this and the reason he manifests them outside of his mind is never mentioned. This leaves the reader with the interesting opportunity to fill in the blanks.

Was Curt like Charles Whitman who had psychological issues, a brain tumor and a drug problem? Was he like Seung-Hui Cho, who had been rejected by girls and who had nursed his own psychological problems under his school's radar? You just do not know in this story. Like Lionel Shriver's "We Need to Talk about Kevin," "Cain Rose Up" reminds us that homicidal youths have a tendency to slip through the cracks.

Shelly Barclay

The Mist by Stephen King Review

"The Mist" by Stephen King is a novella found in his short story anthology "Skeleton Crew." It is the story of a small town in Maine that is overcome by a storm one evening. The following morning, as residents begin to clean up and rebuild, a mist begins to creep toward the town. It is a mist like none of them have ever seen and it makes a few residents, particularly our protagonist David Drayton, uneasy. When the mist hits the town, residents both indoors and outdoors realize that not only is the mist an unknown, but untold numbers of nightmarish creatures live in the mist and are waiting for their human prey to wander outside or give them a way in.

Like so many other Stephen King stories and novels, "The Mist" reads like a gripping study in human behavior. King has keen insight into the emotions of all the character types he uses -- from the worried, protective father and hero in disguise types to the loud mouth coward and charismatic yet crazy leader types. "The Mist" is no exception. From the word go in this novella, Stephen King is developing characters and character histories that lead the reader to a culmination of each character's inner person, so to speak. As the horror begins to engulf the town, David Drayton is trapped in a grocery store with his son and dozens of others. As the horror of what is outside begins to make cracks in everyone's sanity, we see extreme religiosity, charisma, foolishness, despair, desperation and bravery. It all unfolds in such a way that the reader can see his or her neighbors among the victims. This is how Mr. Smith would react, etc. That is the beauty of some of Stephen King's work. The surroundings or antagonists are impossible and horrible, but there is something very realistic and earthy about his characters.

The entire book is told from David Drayton's perspective, so where he goes, the reader goes. This is good because most other characters either go to their deaths or stay stuffed into a grocery store. David is worried about his wife at home, who is most likely dead, and the son beside him, who is rapidly losing the innocence of childhood. David is the quintessential good guy, trying to do the right thing, even if he is sometimes wrong. He is met with some serious opposition in the book, namely a crazed woman who wants to murder someone to please god. However, he is one of the few characters who do not give into a gimmick to ease his fear. This makes the read a little less horrible than it could have been, considering the reader does not have to be along for the ride in the mind of an insane person.

Sometimes in horror, the writer only touches on what is horrible about the story. They use methods that leave the readers to their imaginations. These are quite effective methods. However, Stephen King rarely does this. He drags his readers straight into the sh*t with him. In "The Mist", we have a little bit of both. The size of the mist is unknown and no one can see what is there until he gets close, which is often too late. Therefore, the reader knows that there are horrors lurking in the mist. The evidence is in the creatures that get close enough to kill. This is when Stephen King drags you in the shi*t. He introduces you to dinosaur-sized gray masses, dog-sized spiders, tentacles that lead off into the mist and flying insectile creatures that are too large and evil looking. However, you are still left to wonder what else is out there in the mist. It is a very enjoyable mix of two writing methods.

When it comes to the horror genre Stephen King is among the most prolific, talented and popular novelists of all time. Stories like "The Mist" show exactly why this is. King has a way of keeping widespread disaster from becoming grandiose. He has a way of bringing readers the small town characters that they may recognize from their own lives, thus making them wonder what the people around them would do in a Kingesque situation.

Shelly Barclay

Review of "The Monkey" by Stephen King

In "The Monkey" from "Skeleton Crew," Stephen King takes on the evil toy come to life genre with finesse. From films like Child's Play to stories like Algernon Blackwood's "The Doll," the idea of children's toys coming to life to terrorize their innocent owners is, well, horrifying. This may be because of the vulnerability of children and good parents' tendency to imagine the worst of even the most minor threats. It could also be because their lifeless eyes and mirthless grins haunt us from childhood. Whatever the reason, toys with faces are scary and no one does scary better than Stephen King.

The antagonist in "The Monkey" is, predictably, a toy monkey. You know the kind, the straight from the underworld mangy faces with the oval eyes, toothy grins and cacophonous clanging cymbals. King hints that this monkey started just like any other horrible gift idea of a toy monkey, but somewhere along the line, somehow, it took on a life and personality of its own. Without describing much more than its unwilling owner's perspective of the monkey, Stephen King manages to convey to the reader that the toy monkey is ruthless and insane. It enjoys horrifying a little boy and the man he becomes.

Brilliantly, Stephen King initially leaves the truth of the monkey's "personality" ambiguous. Is it the boy's imagination, a sane person has to wonder? However, by the end, our protagonist has proven himself to the reader and is now in a race to save the next generation of monkey owners from a mean spirited toy. In the end, the reader has a brief sense of relief. Our protagonist has won! Wait . . . is the monkey still making its deadly music? If not, what has become of the evil that lived inside of it?

Shelly Barclay

Here There Be Tygers by Stephen King: Short Story Review

"Here There Be Tygers" is a short -- very short -- story from Stephen King's "Skeleton Crew." To be honest, I think the story is meant to speak to men and their boyhood journeys to the boys' bathroom in school. I say that because I can only imagine that there was something about the boys' bathroom that led Stephen King to write this unlikely story in which the antagonists are a teacher and a tiger.

A few things about this story are relatable. 1. The teacher knowingly embarrasses a child in front of the entire class. 2. The child is afraid to ask to go to the bathroom. 3. The child's inner dialogue switches between panic and inappropriate names for his mean teacher. All of these things are instantly recognizable from most of our childhoods. There were also a few things that were not quite understandable. 1. Is the boy confusing basement with bathroom or is he obsessing over the basement while going to the bathroom? 2. Is the boy's imagination overactive or are the of this world, but really odd events in the story actually taking place?

"Here There By Tygers" is so short and encased in such a wonderful short story anthology that one barely has time to question Stephen King before moving on to "The Monkey," which has haunted me since my teenage years. However, once you get the chance to sit back and think of it, assuming you remembered it after poring through the rest of "Skeleton Crew," you can't help but wonder about deeper meaning. I mean, there has to be a deeper meaning, right or did that just really happen in a school bathroom?!?!?!?! At least, was King trying to convey that it really happened or was he masking some kind of . . . Oh, forget it. One can only speculate. It will only take two minutes. Read it yourself and please tell me what you think.

Shelly Barclay

Review of "The Queen's Governess" by Karen Harper

"The Queen's Governess" by Karen Harper is another in a long list of historical fiction novels about the life of Anne Boleyn. Some of these novels are good; some are horrible. Harper's novel falls into the former portion. This novel is from a relatively fresh perspective and is intriguing while doing justice to the lives of a number of historical figures.

Katherine Ashley is the woman who practically raised Queen Elizabeth I or "The Virgin Queen." While her life was interesting, living amongst the insane and powerful Tudors, she is often overshadowed by the figures that lived in her lifetime. There is, of course, King Henry VIII and his drove of murdered and divorced wives. Anne Boleyn, the royal slut or victim of a King's lust, depending on how you look at it. There is Queen Mary or "Bloody Mary," half sister of Elizabeth. Others include Lady Jane Grey, Kathryn Howard, Thomas Seymour and a barrage of other shocking, scheming, victimized or otherwise dramatic people. Karen Harper manages to do Katherine's life justice in "The Queen's Governess" as well as the myriad of courtiers surrounding her. The novel is told from her perspective.

There are a number of places in the novel where Howard clearly needs to resort to choosing the most reliable gossip or to filling in gaps. She must also choose which theories are the most likely in many cases, as in with the identity of Katherine Ashley's family. However, her adherence to the truth is nearly unheard of in such a novel with such a "backburner" narrator. She rarely embellishes to a distracting point.

For those readers who are not familiar with this point in the Tudor history, "The Queen's Governess" is intriguing enough and the history itself is intriguing enough to reel them in. My suggestion would be to keep a notebook handy so the names of unknown characters can be written down and researched a little later. The story goes so far beyond what a single book can contain, so readers are bound to be interested the spiderweb of drama that reaches out from the core of Karen Harper's story.

Shelly Barclay

Book Review: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

"The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane" by Katherine Howe, apart from having an enticing title, is a historical fiction novel about a family of female witches that takes place in various towns near Salem, Massachusetts. Yes, the clichés are just oozing out of this one. However, I have to say that Katherine Howe did passing well on this book, despite the obvious issue of writing on a topic that is so overdone as to be inedible. Her saving grace is her adherence to history, as well as her glimpses into the past.

In the interest of being honest, it must be said that some parts of this novel, especially near the beginning/middle, seem a little forced. Some parts are overly descriptive. Some parts are generic -- especially the romantic bits. It must also be said that the identity of the antagonist, though presumably obscured by Katherine Howe, is rather obvious from the beginning. Not a bit of this book was surprising in the slightest. However, it really did have its pleasant points.

The setting of this novel, while cliché, is unerringly charming. New England is the setting for a great many books for a good reason. Katherine Howe displays a working knowledge of the area and its aesthetic. Some of the characters are cutesy or are as cliché as the story of a family of female witches from Salem, but they also belong in a story like this, to an extent. What is great about this novel are the references to real history. Not to mention the flashbacks to the Colonial times in Massachusetts history. Katherine Howe shines during these chapters and her expertise is obvious. Had the whole book been based in that period, I would have had nary a complaint about it. That is a bit of a bummer, considering the fact that the modern pieces seem to be an attempt at originality in a played out story.

Overall, Katherine Howe's "The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane" is a slightly better than average witch story. I sincerely hope to see something along the same lines, but with more willingness to delve completely into historical fiction, as her knack for colonial attitudes far exceeds her knack for developing modern college age characters.

Shelly Barclay

Book Review: "The Talisman" by Stephen King and Peter Straub

The Talisman by Peter Straub and Stephen King is a 644-page novel about a boy's journey across the country. Of course, if you know anything about these authors, you know that the novel is not as simple as I just made it sound.  

The Talisman revolves around a world that is mostly King's creation. Fans will recognize underlying tones from his other novels, particularly the Dark Tower series. Sure, the flavor of The Talisman is King, but that's not to say Straub's style is overpowered at all. It's a nice blend that is ultimately one of my favorites.

Jack is a boy of 12 who is somehow the keeper of two worlds that are connected, but somehow different. These two worlds are the world we know and the Territories. He must save both worlds and his mothers in both worlds from an evil man named Morgan. Morgan Sloat here, Morgan of Orris there. He is to achieve these heroic acts by finding the item on which all worlds, many more than these two, rely. This item is the Talisman and it is kept a country away from Jack within an evil castle/hotel that will try to stop him from retrieving his prize.

Peter Straub and Stephen King manage to weave a world that is both horrific and beautiful in the Territories. They also manage to remind us of what is horrific and what is beautiful in our own world. The reader cannot help but become engrossed in Jack's journey as we see him travel his way through both worlds, faltering at times, but always full of inner strength. Like a good fantasy novel, The Talisman has heroes of unlikely sorts and evils beyond comprehension. It is gripping, it is gruesome, it is sweet and it is charming in all of its complexity. Really, it is a damn good book.

Are there lengthy passages in the book that could probably be skimmed over or cut out completely? Of course there are. Stephen King is verbose after all. However, the book should not be discarded out of an unwillingness to read the unnecessary bits. The meat of the story is in there and it is worth chomping through some word salad to get to it. There is a sequel as well. It is called The Black House. We'll get to that shortly. I have to give it a reread before I tell you all about it, but I can tell you now that I liked it the first time I read it and that probably won't change, so if you get a chance to read both books before I get back to you, go for it. Don't wait around for me to tell you that a pair of novels by two masters is worth reading.

Shelly Barclay

Book Review: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain is an unforgiving look at the restaurant industry and the unsavory individuals that hide behind the scenes. This book is brutal, it is alarming, but most of all, it is beautiful and honest. It is the story of one chef's love of food and the gnarly people who cook it. This may not be the best book for folks outside of the business, but those who are "in the know" are bound to spend the entire time they are reading this novel nodding their heads in agreement. Bourdain just knows how to describe kitchens in a way that most cooks/chefs do not. (Hey, not all cooks or former cooks can write or even speak properly, but that magic on a plate needs no translation.)

Okay, to be fair, there is no plot to this novel. There is no page-turning suspense. There is no hero. There is only one master villain and his army of lesser villains marching from restaurant to restaurant, leaving no menu unchanged and no drug un-(well, you get the idea). Kitchen Confidential is no "Tale of Two Cities" and Anthony Bourdain is not Charles Dickens, by a long shot (though I doubt that would bother him in the slightest). What this book is would be lost on anyone who has not slaved in a 90-degree kitchen while listening to heavy metal, screaming at the other cooks to stay off your station . . ., and loved it. This is not a cookbook. It is a cook's book.

Anthony Bourdain has given cooks a book to pass around and say, "Dude, you have to read this." with Kitchen Confidential. In fact, that is how I came across it. Another female cook who I spent most of my cooking career with or around gave me the book and said, "Please read it. I need to talk to someone about it." I felt the same way when I had finished. I spent a lot of time feeling as if my kitchens were unique little secret hideaways that no outsider could understand. Terms like "radar love" were created for my use and the use of the cooks I came across. When I saw that in Bourdain's book, I said to my book-giving friend, "Didn't we make that up?" Her expression said, "Apparently not." In this way, Kitchen Confidential turned my one shimmering thread in the cooking world into a web.

I was not a lone mercenary cook beating some sense into the helpless newbs that were placed at my feet more often than I care to remember. I was part of an army that was heretofore invisible to me. Anthony Bourdain also taught me that I had "martyr syndrome." He is a jerk, but I love him for it.

Shelly Barclay

The Ten Thousand by Michael Curtis Ford: review and summary

The Ten Thousand by Michael Curtis Ford is a fictional telling of a true, though very old, story. It is the story of Xenophon told through the eyes of his slave -- Themistogenes of Syracuse or Theo. A man of the same name writes the non-fiction and ancient telling of this story, though this man was mostly likely Xenophon himself. Theo, as he appears in this novel, is a construct of Ford's imagination.

The focus of this novel, which covers the span of Xenophon and Theo's lives, is their inclusion in the "Ten Thousand." This is a true story, aside from Theo's part in it, which rivals the true story of "The 300." In 401 BCE, Xenophon, a student of Socrates, decides to join the army of Cyrus. Cyrus is the younger brother of the Persian king Artaxerxes II. He amasses a mercenary army under the pretext that they will be quelling an unsavory Persian governor, though his real goal is to bring the army against the Persian king himself.

Xenophon and Theo join the army of 10,000 Greeks, including some unsavory Spartans, who have not lost any of their ferocity in the hundred years that have passed since the stand of the 300 against the Persians. When they learn of Cyrus' true intentions, they stay on and do a decent job of embarrassing Artaxerxes' army at the Battle of Cunaxa. However, Cyrus is killed in the battle. To add insult to injury, the very governor whom they initially came to fight breaks a truce with them, kills their leaders and dogs their departure from the Persian Empire. Unfortunately, they have come a long way from home and cannot go back from whence they came, for fear of dying in the desert.

The story of the Ten Thousand thus far would be dramatic enough in itself without the embellishments of Michael Curtis Ford. However, he lends a depth to Xenophon through his friendship with Theo. He even throws in a love story for good measure. He is true to as many historical details as it seems possible and is obviously knowledgeable in the clothing, fighting style, weapons, history and terrain of this ancient confrontation, but this is not even the start of it. Now, the Ten Thousand must go north through mountains filled with hostile "barbarians" and where the lack of food is nothing compared to the freezing, deadly cold weather.

Michael Curtis Ford leaves nothing to the reader's imagination as he drags you through bloody skirmishes, disease and death with these struggling Ten Thousand men. Xenophon becomes one of their leaders, but finds himself a cheerleader against death near the end of it all, encouraging dying men to walk through bitter cold and to fight against all odds to get through these hostile lands. Theo relates horrifying injuries, including those of men whose skin is sloughed off after jumping from the intense cold into the heat of a hot spring without thinking of the consequences. One year after they set out, the men stagger back home with missing fingers, toes, limbs and sanity, in some cases. Ford chose an excellent story to relate in a new light. He certainly would not have needed to add anything to the story to make it interesting, but what he did add was seamlessly woven into the story.

Anyone who enjoys the story of the 300 Spartans and their king Leonidas will enjoy the Ten Thousand. The tale is equally thrilling and filled with equally brave men and equally moving camaraderie. The only difference is the scale and the fact that some of them lived to tell the tale, but I will not say who because I want you to read this book and go back to a time when men marched to war through countries, anticipating the battle for months or even years while walking with other soldiers. It is hard to imagine this intensity of patriotism. Ford can help you with that.

Shelly Barclay

Summary of Pater Caninus by Ray Bradbury

Pater Caninus is a short story in Ray Bradybury's We'll Always Have Paris. This short story sticks out among the rest as a story that looks deep into the self importance of human beings and the patience of our canine friends. It also sheds light on the men who dole out confessions to sinners and whether they have a monopoly on such things or not.

Pater Caninus is a simple story. The entire story takes place in one part of a presumably Catholic hospital that is apparently run by priests. The story begins when one priest points out to another priest that a dog who typically accompanies one of the fathers is at the hospital alone. The two men follow the dog and find that he is giving confession to the patients. He sits patiently and quietly while they confess their sins to him. When each patient is done, the dog puts his paw on their beds and goes to the next room.

The first priest is fascinated by this dog. He merely wanted to share the amazing canine with the other priest. However, the second priest is infuriated by the impression that the dog is somehow usurping his position as priest. He follows the dog to the door of the hospital and threatens to bring damnation upon the dog should it return. This mortifies the first priest, who points out that the dog was only doing what they themselves do. The second priest reiterates his sentiments.

On the suggestion of the first priest, the pair goes to see if what the dog was doing did any harm to their patients. He had not. In fact, the entire area had a feeling of peace. The second priest becomes ashamed of himself and sits in his office. Moments later, Pater Caninus walks into the room and the egotistical priest willfully confesses his sin in treating the dog as he had. That is the end of the story.

What is interesting about this story is that the dog appears to simply be mimicking the rounds of his master, who is a priest, but the effect that he has on the patients is the same. It is also quite true that a Catholic priest would find the idea of a dog giving confession to be offensive, as dogs reportedly do not have souls. The god of Catholics puts people on a pedestal above all other animals. However, this does not stop Ray Bradbury from creating a pair of priests who could see the goodness in the dog and the benefit that could be reaped by his company. Of course, Bradbury very well could have intended that this dog be taken as a priest of god, not just a dog spreading happiness and mimicking his master, but that is how I saw it. I saw it as a lesson in the importance of other creatures and in the importance of being humble, no matter how in with god you think you are.

Shelly Barclay

Short Story Review: The Visit by Ray Bradbury

The Visit by Ray Bradbury is the second short story in the We'll Always Have Paris anthology. Having finished reading it just a moment ago, three words stick in my mind. Those words are marvelous, intuitive and heart warming. This short story digs right to the core of motherhood, loss and life in a most unexpected way.

The gist of this story, and I hope not to give away too much because this is the type of story that I hope you will be compelled to read, whoever you are, is that a woman goes to the home of a young man who is a stranger to her. Their meeting is awkward and stilted, but it has a great purpose and both of them know what that purpose is. They are connected in a way that is intangible to the outsider, but vividly clear to both of them. The woman has lost something very dear to her and the young man has a part of it.

The Visit will take you a maximum of ten minutes to read, if you are a regular reader. Take that time and indulge in this masterful story by one of the best writers of our time. Ray Bradbury has taken an event that he just so happened to catch a brief glimpse of and turned it into a story with which any person can sympathize. We are, after all, the sum, not of our parts, but of the people who touch our lives.

Shelly Barclay

Short Story Review: The Murder by Ray Bradbury

The Murder by Ray Bradbury is an interesting suspense short story that borders on horror. It is far too short to say much about the plot without giving it away. However, suffice it to say that it is like a brief version of Poe's The Telltale Heart.

Like Edgar Allen Poe, Ray Bradbury uses the sense of dread and horror that all of us feel when confronted with something we see as supernaturally different. You almost have to assume that there is something supernatural happening in the story, though pretty much everything is left to the reader's imagination. Those of you who have sufficient imagination to fill in the gap that is presumably the torment of a kind man should read this story at your earliest convenience. In fact, you should just read Ray Bradbury's We'll Always Have Paris, which contains this story and others, and spare yourself having to read my sporadic reviews on the stories in it worth reviewing.

Shelly Barclay

Short Story Review: Massinello Pietro by Ray Bradbury

Photo by Alan Light
Massinello Pietro by Ray Bradbury is a short story in his anthology We'll Always Have Paris. It is the first story in the anthology and an odd one. It is all about the spirit (as in attitude, not soul) of a seemingly insane old man who keeps a menagerie of pets in what we can assume is a small apartment of sorts in a very nosy neighborhood.

Massinello Pietro is a man who loves animals, music and dancing. His love for these things is unswayed by complaints from his disgruntled neighbors and even threats from the police. He keeps far too many pets that make a lot of noise. He plays his music at all times of the night, much to the chagrin of the neighborhood. He refuses to stop, no matter how many complaints he gets. His reasoning is that it makes him happy. As the story wears on, the reader comes to realize that he is not so much being inconsiderate of others as he is being considerate of himself. He is tired of the unhappiness that life can bring, so he resolves to suck himself out of the mire of the human condition and make his own condition.

In Massinello Pietro Ray Bradbury keeps this story short, simple and pleasant, if you enjoy nutty characters. He gives the reader an eccentric, likable and pitiable character. He gives us page after page of validation for the complaints of the man's neighbors, but then he gives us validation for the man himself. He also shows us that, in the end, the polite, happy go lucky man was actually of worth to those who were annoyed by him. In the end, his presence had been normalcy to them. Without him, things were wrong.

Shelly Barclay

Short Story Review: Pa's Darling by Louis Auchincloss

After cracking the spine of the 2007 edition of "The Best American Short Stories," the first story to greet me, after two introductions by the editors, was Pa's Darling by Louis Auchincloss. It was a thankfully brief 13 pages of well-written, if unmoving, narrative. Stopping short of being too critical, because the story does not deserve a heaping load of criticism, all that can be said is that the story lacks the emotional or societal scope that makes a short story really cling to you.

Louis Auchincloss has just the right amount of average and pretentious in her writing style to reach a wide audience with the right story. Unfortunately, this was not it. The characters were okay. The story was okay and the setting was, well, practically non-existent. She gave herself a wonderful opportunity by setting her tale between the 30s and the 60s. The only moving cultural reference to this tumultuous era is the death of the narrator's husband in World War II, which is very underplayed.

The title character, who was not as darling as Pa liked to tell everyone she was, is essentially complaining about her father and her two husbands. She even gets a dig at her mother. That is the beginning, middle and end. There is a little precedence for it. However, her complaints are hardly fetching. There is nothing about her story that hits the reader hard. Perhaps that is simply what I want from a short story -- thought-provoking brevity. I want to be moved or made to ponder concepts familiar or unfamiliar to me. Pa's Darling could not do that with its unfortunate lack of climax or purpose. There is a complete lack of tangible climax, for the reader and the narrator's father.

With all of the above being said, Pa's Darling was simply not for me. Perhaps it would be better for someone who can relate to a the ponderings of a rich girl who is not content with the level of her father's love, the just barely sordid secrets of her mother and the shortcomings of her two hard-working and polite husbands. For me, I will take a more powerful, earthy and realistic antagonist than a pompous, but outwardly loving father any day. As for the protagonist, I would hardly call an ungrateful rich girl that.

Shelly Barclay

Anonymous Quotes on Life and Relationships by an Unfamous Author

We usually do book reviews, talk about authors and other randomness. Therefore, I figured a little more randomness on Cracked Spines couldn't hurt. Here are some random anonymous quotes from an anonymous author. You know who you are and thanks for the quotes.

"Pain makes you selfish. You react to things in a way you normally would not when you are in pain. The problem is, loved ones who hurt you never see that and think that your selfishness is the root of the problem, not the pain that they cause."

"Marriage is like taking a professional dive from a high diving board. You either fully commit to the jump and land safely in the water, stop short and look like an idiot or flop as you leap and wind up bleeding and amnesiac on the way down. Nonetheless, it is better to look like an idiot than to get all the way to the end and have to figure out who you are all over again."

"When you love someone and that person betrays you, you go on loving that person, but acting like you hate him, so no one knows how much it hurt or you pretend like nothing happened. Either way, you look and feel like an ass."

"I never understood why so many writers kill themselves. If they are ever pissed off, sad or feeling crazy, they can just write stories in which they kill everyone that pisses them off, have a happy life and ramble on like a lunatic. They should always take great pains to ensure no one reads those stories, though, lest they get arrested or put in a loony bin. Still, it beats offing yourself. That being said, I am a writer, so I contemplate killing myself on a daily basis. In fact, my obsession with suicide is why I am writing this."

"Having a bad day at work does not make you depressed. Having a poorly functioning brain does."

"Inspiration is a cruel thing. When it is fantastic, it is either fleeting or it engulfs your entire life. When it is not so good, it convinces you that a piece of crap is brilliant."

"The people with the worst lives give the best advice, so quit knocking hypocrites. They know their sh*t."

Well, there have it, some uninspirational quotes from an unfamous, anonymous author. That is all for now.

Shelly Barclay

Book Review: The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder is a historical fiction novel that weaves an incredible story around the lives of some historical figures and one historical mystery. It is an interesting tale of a past that is suspiciously like how a science fiction writer would imagine the future . . . and with good reason. A mixture of true historical explorers, scientists and more coupled with time travel, genetic experimentation and technological advances makes The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack a must read for anyone who knows anything about Victorian era history, though there is hardly anything truly historic about it.

Most historical fiction novels are based more on fact than fiction. They may throw in the life of a fictional character or a fictional occurrence or two, but, for the most part, they tend to stick to things or people as they truly were while adding some embellishments for our reading pleasure. Such is not the case with The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack. This book has a few accounts that are true to history. For the most part, the events that take place are purely fictional and the people who exist in the book never did most of what the book has them doing. Of course, Mark Hodder clearly states this. This is intended to provide twists to history and it does.

What is great about Hodder's book is that he makes adequate, though far fetched, explanations for the deviances between true history and what occurs in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack. What we know of as history was destroyed by a time traveler who goes back in time to save his family name. He unintentionally changed the course of history and introduced ideas into the past that were not supposed to be introduced until later. Thus, he creates a Victorian age filled with polluting contraptions, genetically altered creatures and genetically altered people. The time traveler is none other than London's mysterious "Spring Heeled Jack."

Readers who are into romantic or epic-style historical fiction should look elsewhere. Those who enjoy mystery, suspense, intrigue, cheap thrills and science fiction mixed with their history should look no further. The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack should appease any such reader.

Shelly Barclay

Themes in The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway is an American literary icon. His simplistic, ruggedly masculine novels are easy to read and yet hard to define, much like himself. The Old Man and the Sea is no exception. It is quintessential Hemingway, through and through.

The Old Man and the Sea takes us on a fishing trip with an old man who takes his small fishing boat (little bigger than a rowboat) out to sea everyday. The man is on a bad run of luck at the start of the novel. He is determined to take a fish the day the reader goes out to sea with him. As the novel progresses, his bad luck and determination only get stronger.

The two main themes in The Old Man and the Sea, and the only two worth talking about, are respect and perseverance. Both appear particularly concerning the natural world, but there is also a significant respectful relationship between the fisherman and a fisherboy. This relationship plays a large role in the book, though the boy is absent for the main part of it.

Nearly the entire book is about the man fighting with a monstrous marlin in the Gulf of Mexico. He does not have enough food, strong enough tools to ward off predators and an assistant. All alone, he allows the fish to drag him for days, while still determined to catch him. His hands and back are wounded by fishing line, but he catches the fish, only to be plagued by sharks on the return trip. The sharks eat his marlin, but kills as many of them as he can, even when he knows the struggle is lost. In his mind, he is apologizing to the fish for killing it only to have eaten by sharks.

This brings us to respect in The Old Man and the Sea. There seems to be a reason Hemingway did not name it The Old Man and the Marlin. Much of the book's narrative is the Old Man's thoughts. His thoughts convey a great respect for the sea and the creatures that live in and around it, including the fish that is giving him so much trouble.

The Old Man and the Sea is a quick, but memorable, read. It is also appropriate for all ages.

Shelly Barclay

A Random, Opinionated and Incomplete List of Dickens Characters

In my early twenties, I went through a phase where I thought Charles Dickens was the only author worth reading. I admired his work greatly for its humor, insight and, yes, even its redundancy. He knew how to write a novel that was like real life - incomplete, heartbreaking and funny. Yes, I had read Charles Dickens before my early twenties, but I had not delved into David Copperfield, which would become one of my favorite novels.

I read a biography of Charles Dickens at the height of my Dickensian fervor. It robbed me of my hero worship because he really was just another man. A man with flaws and way of treating women both worshipfully and with disregard. I still love his work, though and the following characters. These characters come immediately to my mind when I think of Dickens. I will restrict this list to just those few because they are the few that I think my readers (yes, I have a scant few readers) will appreciate. Find them in a dusty old library and hang out with them when you get the chance.

David Copperfield

David Copperfield appears in the novel of the same name. The novel starts with his birth. It then follows him through a life that aspires beyond its means. Copperfield's life is fraught with difficulty -- brought on by the cruelty of others, bad luck and his own poor choices. What is best about David as a character is how he interacts with other characters, many of whom are either pitiably loony, unerringly sweet or the epitome of cruel. David draws together this motley crew and, through Dickens' skill, forms a life of bonds that spread out further and further throughout the novel. The novel ends, not with David's death, but with his life finally coming together.

Philip Pirrip or "Pip"

Pip appears in what most people would consider the greatest Dickens novel - Great Expectations. Pip is the main character whose admirable honesty, faithfulness and ability to love bring him to both ruin and prosperity. He is a quite kicked around character. One cannot help but feel terribly sorry for Pip and I could not help but love him, as much as one can love a figment of another's imagination, which turns out to be a great deal. (If you scoffed just then, you have never read a good book.) In turn, I hated his love interest -- Estella Havisham -- for treating him like a flea-ridden lap dog. However, Pip is also selfish at times. I suppose the draw is that he was quite single-minded in his devotion to a girl. That is something every girl loves in a male character.

Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist appears in the novel of the same name, like David Copperfield. The character Oliver Twist is representative of all the children who suffered in workhouses in the 1800's. The character and novel are huge successes, even to this day. Why are they successful? Well, I cannot speak for the masses, but it is hard for me not to love fictionally factual novels, which is exactly what Oliver Twist was and I had watched the movie before I read the book, so there was an adorable, yet very unlucky, orphan in my mind the whole time. Who can resist?

Ebenezer Scrooge

Before you ask, yes, I realize that the characters that come to mind for me are also popular Dickens characters from movies, cartoons, plays, yada, yada. If you have not done so yet, read the books these people appear in, A Christmas Carol, in Scrooge's case. I like Scrooge because he is realistic for a Dickens' character. He is not overly sweet or overly evil. He is not unbelievably naive, or almost funny in his simplicity. He is both sides of the coin. Refreshing if you have been reading too much Dickens.

Well, that is all I have for now. As I write, more pop into my mind and I realize I need to include some Pickwick people, some Bleak inhabitants and some Curious shoppers. If you come back for more, I will be sure there are more waiting for you.

Shelly Barclay