Category Reviews

“Creating Fiction” Review

3-star rating

My first contact with Creating Fiction, edited by Julie Checkoway, was in one of my “Writing the Novel” classes while I was earning my master’s degree in English. As so often happens in an academic setting, we did not read all of the essays in the book, so I thought that, over 10 years later, it would be a good idea to reread the ones I had read before and read the rest for the first time.

While I’m not sorry I did, some things became clear as I read it.

The most important point is that the book is not really written for the working writer. The nearly two dozen essays were written by writers who also teach at colleges or universities around the country, all of which are members of the Associated Writing Programs...

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“The Lady of the Lake” Review

3-star rating

“The Lady of the Lake” is Sir Walter Scott’s epic poetic tale of two, or possibly three, men who seek the hand of Ellen Douglas, the beautiful daughter of a Scottish nobleman (?). She lives with her father and retainers on a remote island on Loch Katrine, a lake in southwestern Scotland. One of the men, Malcolm Graeme, has been wooing her for a while; the second, James Fitz-James, is presented as a hunter who discovers Ellen and the isle after getting lost while chasing a deer; and the possible third suitor, Roderick Dhu, is the chief of a rebellious Scottish clan.

Conflict ensues between the men, of course, while at the same time Dhu is making trouble for the English king at Stirling Castle, not far away...

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“Seven Arrows” Review

4.5 star rating
Seven Arrows book cover

Hyemeyohsts Storm’s 1972 book Seven Arrows is a very unusual work, a cross between historical fiction and an exegesis of the religious beliefs of the Native American people we now think of as being the tribes of the northern high plains of the United States, specifically the Cheyenne, the Sioux, and the Crow. Storm takes pains at the beginning to provide the names these tribes used for themselves: the Painted Arrow, the Brother People, and the Little Black Eagle. (These names may not be in the same order as the first list.) The only book in my experience that similarly combines a historical record with religious philosophy is the Judeo-Christian Bible. However, Seven Arrows weaves the two together, while the Bible’s historical parts are largely in the Old Testament.

Seven A...

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“The Big Schnitzel” Review

3-star rating

The Big Schnitzel is the final installment of Steve Smith’s 3-part autobiography of his 22 months “in” the U.S. Army in the late 1950s. I put that first “in” in quotes because, as I’ve noted in my reviews of the first two books, while Smith was in the Army, he was never really a part of it, a reality he wore with more than a little pride.

But Book 3 is lacking something that Book 1 (Single Striper) and Book 2 (Close Enough for Jazz) had. That something is conflict, specifically conflict that involves Smith.

Let’s step back for a minute. In Book 1, Smith resists and avoids the Army’s best efforts to turn him into a soldier and then into a radio operator. He and his fellow junior enlistees then face and largely frustrate petty tyrant Staff Sergeant Billie C...

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Russka Review

3.5 star rating

I have mixed feelings about this book. Certainly, Edward Rutherfurd’s 760 page doorstop of a novel has its good points, but ultimately I came away unsatisfied.

“Ambitious” is a good way to describe the effort. After all, in order to tell “The Novel of Russia,” as the book is subtitled, Rutherfurd chose to cover the period from 180 A.D. to 1990. To make this Michener-esque task manageable, he follows generations of the Bobrov family (and a few others) through each major historical period of this vast country. Of course, that means that he also ends up with a vast, Game of Thrones-size cast. Generally, he handles this well: the major characters are all well developed and distinctive, which is no small task. More on the characters later.

The book starts slowly, and by...

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“Close Enough for Jazz” Review

4 star rating
"Close Enough for Jazz" cover

When last we left our hero, author Steve Smith, he had just escaped the fell clutches of a tyrannical Staff Sergeant for the idyllic life of a trumpeter in the Kitzingen Area Band.

And at first, life was indeed idyllic. The band was, in a word, untouchable. No morning PT (physical training), no onerous details, no inspections. All the band members had to do was practice and play, welcoming the 5th Artillery Division’s Commanding General when he arrived on post each morning, conducting a “rouser march” to get the other soldiers’ day going, and playing gigs off post to keep up good relations with the local community.

The band had been formed at the General’s insistence, and one of the junior members of the band had grown up next door to then-President Dwight D...

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“The Everything Screenwriting Book” Review

Of all the books out there on screenwriting, this on one not to waste your money on.

Because it was published in 2003, it contains a lot of unavoidable “errors.” For example, author Robert Pollock could not have foreseen the death of the video rental store or the rise of video streaming or social media. We can forgive and ignore these and other things and move on to the more serious problems with the book.

First, it’s easy to wonder why Pollock was hired to write the book in the first place. He has only one screenplay that was turned into a movie to his credit, a generally panned 1981 film called “Loophole...

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“Faeries” Review

5-star rating

I don’t remember when I got this book, probably not many years after its 1978 publication, yet until recently I’d hardly ever cracked it, much less sat down to read it. My loss, absolutely.

The book has two components: the artwork and the prose. The prose is surprisingly academic, very readable but a straight-up discussion of the various stories and legends about the many varieties of faeries. Most come from the British Isles, but there are a few from northwestern Europe: Iceland, Scandinavia, and Germany. Authors Brian Froud and Alan Lee relate some of these legends without themselves becoming too mystical or too analytical. They even kindly provide pronunciation guides to the Gaelic terms sprinkled throughout the work...

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“Single Striper” Review

3-star rating
"Single Striper" book cover

Having read some of Steve Smith’s previous work, I was looking forward to a wild and wacky account of the first part of his two year hitch in the post-Korean War Army of the late 1950s. That expectation was only partially met.

My overall impression is that Smith was deeply disappointed in this part of his Army experience. Rather than a time of adventure and challenge leading to wisdom and maturity, he found it to be a time of boredom and drudgery, interrupted by pointless meanness, sometimes bordering on cruelty. It’s not clear when he adopted the draftee’s cynical distrust of officers, sergeants, and “lifers” generally—that is, the soldiers who were serving beyond their initial enlistment—but it’s clear that he did.

That’s not to say that this distrust was u...

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“The Elements of Grammar for Writers” Review

3-star rating
"The Elements of Grammar for Writers" book cover

This little book is outdated in some ways, yet it has certain charms and retains some value.

Written in 8 BG (“Before Google”)—that is, in 1990, when BG still referred to the Brothers Gibb, personal computers were a new thing, and the internet was mostly a gleam in technologists’ eyes—it’s amusing to see references to hand-written student papers and reminders to make sure you use a new typewriter ribbon when getting a paper ready to turn in.

It was also clearly written primarily for college student writers facing the near-future prospect of having to write papers for employers, not just professors...

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