I Couldn’t Leave It on the Shelf (Crygender by Thomas T. Thomas)

April 19, 2011

(Thomas) CrygenderI bought this book solely because of the cover. How could I leave it on the shelf? I’ve seen other copies in other stores and I was tempted to buy those copies too.  I read part of it, but haven’t finished it. I may never finish it.

I didn’t crop this image too much because the cover is the entire point. In real life, the colors are even more intense.

You know, I might even frame it.

My tall roommate thinks the middle “T” in the author’s name stands for ‘Thomas’. (It doesn’t actually, but I like that explanation).

Cover art is credited to Stephen Hickman.

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Lost Moon (Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell & Jeffrey Kluger)

September 19, 2010

There was a period of about a year/18 months when I read every book about the space programs I could get my hands on. I even read a book about the Soviet effort (written before the Iron Curtain fell) and one authored by Gus Grissom (who gets excited about the space program that would kill him). Since I left that phase, I  have less patience with engineering explanations.

I’ll make an exception for Apollo 13. Apollo 13 reads like a thriller. The pacing is magnetic, and easy to read. Though the reader already knows the outcome, the drama is riveting. Part of the spacecraft has exploded, and will they get home without any lasting damage? It’s a true story that could have gone horribly awry, except for all the people working their asses off trying to get these men back the planet. It’s told from multiple points of view — NASA Controllers and Engineers, both the astronauts involved and on the ground, wives children, mothers. The tension is palpable and the explanations don’t detract from the pacing.

The only real thing is the weird continuity in the beginning. The narrative jumps around a bit. First we are in the spacecraft just after it is crippled. Then, after a detour to TV, who are going to break the news,  we are four years earlier, at the White House when Lovell and co. get news of the Apollo 1 fire. Then forward two years as Bill Anders, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell orbit the moon for the first time. Then we jump back to Lovell’s youth. Following? The narrative stops leaping about after a few chapters, and the extra information enriches the rest of the story.  These leaps were mostly left out of the movie, probably because it’s all a bit disorienting at first.

The narrative could’ve turned into a large complicated mess, but remains immediate and clear throughout. Just don’t expect to keep everyone straight. Even the technical stuff is pretty clear and doesn’t get in the way of the drama.

Verdict: Worth finding new if interested in Space Exploration, but just as thrilling used.

Romance and Egotism (‘This Side of Paradise’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

September 6, 2010

This Side of Paradise cover imageOne of my favorite books is The Great Gatsby, so it followed that I should read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s other books. I read his half-finished Love of the Last Tycoon, the book still in progress when he died (which would have been excellent if Fitzgerald hadn’t left off just when things were heating up). Then I went back to the beginning and purchased This Side of Paradise, his first novel. The writing certainly held my interest, and I read it quickly.

In his preface, James L. W. West III notes that Fitzgerald began the work when he was twenty one, it underwent some fairly drastic revisions — which may explain why the plot rambles. It is, West puts it, ‘an inspired job of cut-and-paste improvisation.’ It might go somewhere if the events were followed up on. Like the death of a friend, which is remarked upon and then largely ignored.

Amory Blaine himself becomes less and less likable as the book goes on. He even describes himself as “Selfish and ambitionless.” He’s affected with a penchant for quoting poetry. It may have been attractive in the 19th century. Now he is just an ass. In the beginning there is hope because maybe ‘The Egotist’ can outgrow it, but I still didn’t like him by the book’s end. The woman who Amory is attracted to are vain. It ends where it began – at Princeton, but I’m not sure I care, because I’m not sure I care about Amory Blaine at this point.

Fitzgerald’s prose saves the book. Sometimes there is too much telling, even though it’s fluid. The episodes are lively and fun, even if the character at the center doesn’t have the humanity of Fitzgerald’s other work. The writer is obviously talented – his writing shows potential here which is realized in later books. It would tighten up and would blossom with the likes of Mr. Jay Gatsby and Monroe Stahr.

Verdict: Complete your collection of F. Scott Fitgerald if you must.

Hey Surfer Girl! (‘Gidget’ by Frederick Kohner)

April 28, 2010

Gidget: Proving that unrequited puppy love, messing with your therapist, and underage drinking are nothing new. ‘Franzie’ makes friends with a bunch of surfers on the Malibu beach. She gets the nickname ‘Gidget’ (‘girl + midget) and pesters them to teach her to surf — largely a male pastime. Of course her parents are worried, and Gidget falls in love and finds she is in way over head.

This is the original: a fictionalized account of Kohner’s daughter’s adventures with the surf bums in Malibu. Kohner wrote a couple sequels and several other movies (besides the ‘Gidget’ based off the book starring Sandra Dee) were made as well.

This is a quick read, not very long and moves quickly. It may feel too quick sometimes. It isn’t really fluff, for all that it  is light reading and it retains a certain gravity — though it would probably be found in the YA section.  It has all the teenage angst and trouble that I mentioned above, before teenagers were considered deviant and criminal for doing that stuff. If you like coming of age stories, especially ones set during a summer, or fixed amount of time. American Graffiti and Grease come to mind — this is was written in the same decade it happened though

This review is based on a 2001 reprint of the original.

Verdict: If surfer girls, teenagers at the beach, 1959 are all of interest for you, get yourself a copy.

Underworld, Deep and Cold (“Underground London,” by Stephen Smith)

April 4, 2010

There is no doubt that London has a lot underneath it. Even if no one ever dug  tunnels under it,  the layers of history would still be substantial. It makes sense that someone would explore down there and write about it. In Underground London, Stephen Smith has taken it upon himself to be that person. He travels to basements, talks to the people who inspect the Tube each night and the caretakers of ruined abbeys, amongst other adventures.

The Subtitle is “Travels Beneath the City Streets” and that is what this book is. It’s less about the history of what lies underneath the face of London, than about Smith’s exploration there. Sometimes he is like a schoolboy on a holiday — impishly imagining all sorts of pomp and circumstance surrounding recieving his Freedom from the City of London (in the chapter “Voyage to the Bottom of the See” about Medieval London). He is rudely disappointed when it turns out to be a routine ceremony. His travels are extensive though, and takes in a broad spectrum of the history of London — so can be pardoned if he skips about a bit.

The book is organized into chapters by time period. Some time period, like Roman and Victorian, have more to offer in terms of research, others like Saxon are less well preserved. Still, Smith tries to stretch what he has of each era into an entire chapter with mixed results. Sometimes an era with cover more than one chapter — the Victorians are featured in more than one, including a chapter on Victorian burials. The entire first chapter is about the buried rivers of London, which have been turned into sewers. Of course, he has to go down to investigate these sewers and tell the reader all the effluent details. It does become less stinky if the reader can get through that first chapter.

Since much of the history (and to be fair there is more London history than could ever fit comfortably in one book) is glossed over, it helps to be a bit familiar with London. I have been to London myself, so I know where Blackfriars is for example, and the Embankment and I remember the edge of the Roman amphitheater in my travels. But Merton Abbey? Smith makes references that I’m sure a Briton or Londoner would get, but anyone with only a passing acquaintance with Britain or London would be at sea.

Since this book has such broad subject — what is underneath London covers a lot of time and ground — interesting subjects are touched on but not delved into. Perhaps I simply didn’t read the cover closely enough and expected a more scholarly book. The subject is interesting and perhaps a good starting place for a history buff.

Verdict: Get it from the Library if at interested. If not, find a different, more in depth book.

(If the cover looks a bit wonky, it’s because I removed the library’s barcode with Photoshop).

Death and Space (“Rogue Moon” by Algis Budrys)

March 28, 2010

Budrys, Rogue Moon Cover This is one of the books I got at a brown paper bag sale. When I read the back the “There was something on the moon” in big maroon letters was interesting and the spacesuit on the cover had pincers instead of hands. You can make decisions like that at a bag sale — I bought the whole bag of books for two dollars.

The description and cover was a bit misleading. This book is less about space travel and exploration than it is about death. The entire premise of the story revolves around the exploration of a formation on the moon that tends to kill all who enter. In order to get people to the moon the earthbound scientists (and one scientist in particular — Edward Hawks) construct a machine that replicates the explorer — like two paths diverging — on their moon base near the formation. Since the explorer is expected to die, the original goes about his life on earth as if nothing happened. The new person goes into the formation and while he gets a little farther each time, he then comes upon another puzzle and perishes.

Even though this was published in 1960, the science fiction part isn’t really dated, because nothing has surpassed it. It’s not about computers or space flight, or living on a space station. The story is mostly about death and how to die and death’s balance to life.  Since the formation at the heart of the story kills the character almost every time, death is a constant subject of conversation.

Nobody questions the ethics of taking apart the formation, which is part of the goal of the project. The whole question of ‘who left this thing, and can we mess with it because it doesn’t really belong to us’ is ignored. While it certainly floated through my mind on several occasions, it isn’t central to the book (though I’m sure it would be if the book were written more recently), and can be passed over.

Most of the information about the character comes from their action and dialogue. This makes the characters a bit distant to the reader. The distance makes for a feeling of strangeness in the story, and a couple unsympathetic characters. Some of this may come from the time period in which the book was written, but for a book that seems to center on death the humanity of the characters seems surface in fits.

In all, a bizarre little book (and hard to describe, it turns out).

Verdict: Get the book from a book sale if this sounds interesting, or at the library.

Piracy, that Dreadful Trade (‘Treasure Island’, By Robert Louis Stevenson)

March 6, 2010

Several people told me they read Treasure Island more than once, or the book was one of their favorites. With recommendations like that, what could I do but pull my copy off the shelf and read it? I’ve  had the book for more than ten years and my sister had it before me. I always meant to read it before now.

The narrative opens at the Admiral Benbow Inn in the south of England run by the Hawkinses. When an old sailor dies at the inn, Young Jim Hawkins and his companions are plunged into an adventure that brings them face to face with the treacherous Long John Silver.

The nice thing that seems to be missing from many adventure books, are the real characters. The main characters are fleshed out and changeable and in the case of Silver, morally ambiguous. Is he really the bad guy or is it the other pirates?

The real culprit may lie at the center of the novel: the greed for treasure. The ruthlessness which the Silver and his men go about finding the treasure motivates the central conflict between the sympathetic  forces of Jim and his compatriots, and the opposing pirates. Even Jim and co. give in to the temptation that sets the adventure off. The pirates want it, a certain man chose to be marooned for it and in the back story, six pirates died trying to hide it.

Aside from the deeper themes at the center of the novel, this is a gripping adventure. Unlike other books of the genre, I can see why this is classified as a young-adult novel.  Like all good adventure stories it has elements for more sophisticated readers as well.

Verdict: Get yourself a nice copy

The Brown Paper Bag of Books

March 4, 2010

The Brown Paper Book Review will feature book that I have read recently, and my honest opinions of each. Since much of my book collection I bought at brown bag book sales (the ones where you get to pick out a shopping bag of books for $2), I’m calling it the Brown Paper Book Review.

I hope to help people find those hidden gems that go for a few dollars, but are worth every penny (or more).