Category Archives: book review

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night…

The title is taken directly from the poet Dylan Thomas. He was thinking about the death of his father. But, even though my father cannot last much longer either, it is my own mortality that has been weighing heavily on my mind.

I have been thinking a lot about death of late. I am now three years farther along into my retirement than I believed I would be when I retired in 2014. I honestly believed I would not live beyond 2017 with my six incurable diseases. Especially when Banco Americo sued me over medical bills and won, forcing me into bankruptcy, and leaving me to be unable to pay for insulin for my diabetes or mental health services for family members who needed them as a matter of life or death.

So, I suppose I can be forgiven for reading a lot of life-or-death stories lately, especially the kind that don’t have a happy ending.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 post-apocalyptic novel, ripped a good half to three quarters of my soul out. It is about two characters making their way along a road after some unnamed disaster has blasted away most of life on Earth, and that which is left is dying. There is no miracle nor any life-saving solution at the end of the novel. The only grace the reader is allowed is that the character who dies at the end lived for as long as was possible motivated only by love, and by dying, allowed the beloved other character to live beyond him. It is a hard, terrible story to read. But it achieves its goal. It touches your hopeless heart in ways only an award-winning novel can.

The book I just finished reading was a story I originally had to read for an Iowa State University class on Existentialism in Literature. The Nobel-Prize-winning author, Albert Camus’s book, The Stranger, is no easier to read than The Road. In fact, it may be even more depressing and dark than the first novel I mentioned. The main character lives as a stranger in a meaningless world and basically is sentenced to death by a jury because he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral. The story devastates your compassionate heart and shakes your belief in a benevolent God. And I read it the first time long before I was an atheist who believes in a different form of god. The story is itself cruel. But in the long view, it grants you a certain melancholy sort of peace that can only be had by coming to terms with your place in all of existence.

So, I admit it. I have been obsessing about the end of life far too much. The current pandemic that has us all on the ropes in the boxing match of life has brought me to grips with the fact that, even though the end of life is far closer to now than its beginning, living life is what still matters. I have been spending my shut-in days writing novels about life and love and laughter. I have also been talking to relatives by phone and connecting with people through social media, all of which can be done without risk of viral infection. Well… maybe a computer virus.

But I am alive now. And I am living in every manner I can still manage. For now. Because I can. And because it is the right thing to do.

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Slade House (a book by David Mitchell)

As a writer of novels, like all passable to good writers of novels, I read novels. Not just any novels. Novels that are the kind of novels I aspire to write myself.

David Mitchell is one of those novelists who can write the way I want to write. His stories are detailed and yet, compelling enough to follow wherever the story leads you. Characters are vivid and seem to have an actual life beyond the pages of the novel. And there is a chance that you will meet them again in another David Mitchell novel, even if they died in the previous David Mitchell novel you read. He writes across swaths of time and gives the story a sense of history.

Slade House is basically a haunted house story, a horror story about a house that is itself a sort of ghost. It can only be entered by a single small iron door that only appears in an alleyway every nine years. And every time it does appear, in October of 1979, 1988, 1997, 2006… , at least one somebody will go in and never come out again.

The story is side-linked to the masterpiece Mitchell novel, The Bone Clocks. It is also a plot less convoluted and multifaceted than Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas, so much easier to follow

David Mitchell is an author I study to learn about writing and storytelling. I don’t copy him. I do take note of his bag of tricks, his writer’s toolbox, so to speak, and I pick up and play with those same tools and magician’s secrets. I would like to suggest that if you truly wish to be a writer of fiction, you must put David Mitchell’s books on your must-read-before-I-die list. If you can’t put Mitchell on that list, then here are a few others on my list; Michael Crichton, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Louis L’Amour, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, H.P. Lovecraft, Steven King, Mark Twain, and J. K. Rowling. It should be obvious that these names are all on my list for different reasons. And if you don’t read David Mitchell, there are artisan’s techniques there you can get nowhere else. But you are the reader. And if you have chosen to read this far through this essay, then you are at least fool enough to want to know the things I am telling you in this book review.

As a storyteller, David Mitchell is Rumpelstiltskin. He weaves straw into gold. And if you are canny and careful enough of a reader, you can gain some of that value from his work without giving up your firstborn.

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When Readers Respond

I recently got my very first unsolicited review on a book I had written when Mr. Ted Bun, one of the leaders of the nudist writer group on Twitter gave me a five star review on Recipes for Gingerbread Children.

I was grateful and reviewed one of his books on Twitter in return.

But it was totally unsolicited. I didn’t even know any of my book promotions had penetrated such an odd corner of the internet. The story does have nudists in it, but that is not what the book is really about. Mr. Bun acknowledged that much in his review, and still liked it and called it well-written.

My first Amazon book promotion, offering the Kindle version of Snow Babies for free, produced the same kind of fruit. I started by sending a paperback copy to the girl I grew up with that I named the main character after. Valerie read the book to her grandchildren and then sent me this message;

Valerie– Hi Michael! I wanted to let you know that I finished reading your book a couple of days ago, and that I thought it was really good! You used so many colorful descriptions of the characters, that I felt like I could really picture the whole scene! I also enjoyed how you used several people’s names and surrounding towns from our past that brought back good memories. It kept my interest and made me excited to keep reading to see how things turned out! I appreciated how you ended it, too! Thanks again, so much for sharing it with me. I plan to share it with a friend of mine to read and then return to me! Do the Rowan and Belmond libraries have copies of your books? I would be happy to talk to the Belmond library about it, if you haven’t already! I will spread the word, and keep writing! Val

Me– I donated a couple of books to Rowan and one to Belmond.  But I have written a lot more since

They don’t have Snow Babies.   I am so glad you liked the book.  It is one of the best things I have ever written.

Valerie– You can be proud of your hard work! Next time I’m in the library, I will take Snow Babies with me and show them. I know they like to support local authors! 🙂

Me– Thank you for the help. I really appreciate it.

Then I find this tweet on Twitter from a fellow author who responded to my book promotion week.

She read Snow Babies and loved it and shared this review with me before she posted it on Amazon.

Headline: This book has a potential to become a classic

The story takes you to Norwall, a secluded midwestern town where people are expecting a snow blizzard to arrive in couple of hours. Among strangers coming to the town during the blizzard are four very special boys, a hobo, a bus driver, a drunken old lady, a stupid salesman, a couple of newly-weds and a lady following the four boys. Each of them, as well as the local people, has their own interesting story and their stories start to intertwine while the town gets buried in snow.

Some from the locals and the newcomers start to see white naked kids in the snow. In the course of events, they learn that those white kids are so called “snow babies”. According to what people say, those who see snow babies, are supposed to die during the blizzard.

The author has a talent for depicting situations in an impressive manner, so they can be humorous and touching at the same time.  His mature narrative style enables you to learn deeply but in a light way about individual characters and understand their motives. Interesting are the hobo´s droppings of philosophical reflections and life wisdoms from Walt Whitman’s book. Simultaneously, in connection with snow babies, the author keeps you in suspense until the end. The story is not predictable, and the ending left me smiling and absorbed in thought. 

I honestly fell in love with this book from the first page. It is like a fresh breeze compared to a number of today’s books written in similar patterns.

*****

I am amazed that people are beginning to read my books and like them… even love them. I wasn’t expecting that to happen until after I was dead. It is a good feeling that took me by surprise.

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Filed under book review, humor, novel, NOVEL WRITING, Paffooney, publishing

A Stellar Review from the UK

Mr. Ted Bun’s review of Recipes for Gingerbread Children is found at this website http://tvhost.co.uk/reading-writing-and-posting

Recipes for Gingerbread Children

Recipes for Gingerbread Children by [Beyer, Michael]

by Michael Beyer

A very clever book. It is easier to describe in terms of ‘Not’

  • It is not a children’s book
  • It is not an adventure story
  • It is not a light and fluffy fairy tale
  • It is not a piece of naturist fiction.

But it is all of these things at times as Grandma Gretel weaves her tales for the children that come to her cottage for cookies and stories.

This book is most certainly well written. It delivers moral judgements with all the force of the Brothers Grimm.

Five Stars and the Read of the Month

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Learning from Bad Writing

So, I just finished reading this book from my leftover pile of classroom reading books that represent my time as a public school reading teacher.

This is book six in the best-selling Charlie Bone series. I didn’t read the previous five books. I have a copy of book one somewhere, but this one is one I picked up for my reading fix last week.

Let me begin by saying, as an obvious Harry Potter imitation, it is a very inventive and enjoyable story.

I read the whole book even though I had difficulty with several things that I have come to recognize as glaring, reader-tripping problems.

Now, to be completely honest about my assessments, Jenny Nimmo, the author of the Charley Bone books, has an impressive resume. She has not only been an English teacher, but she worked for the BBC as well as an editor, director, and other creative endeavors. And her books, unlike mine, are best-seller enough to be picked up by Scholastic Books, a major publisher. She has undoubtedly made a lot more money with her books than I have with mine. And, I confess, I find the story entertaining.

But the story is guilty of writing sins that I am familiar with by having overcome them in my own writing.

Most noticeable is the lack of a sense of a focus character. It is done as a third-person omniscient narrative that goes in and out of different characters’ heads telling what they think and feel. It will go from Charlie Bone’s main-character-thoughts to his nemesis Dagbert Endless’s feelings to the thoughts of the dog that lives in the school and then veers into the bird that is actually Emma, one of Charlie’s female friends with special “gifts of magic” handed down from their common ancestor, the Red King. You end up, as a reader, trying to keep things separate in your awareness about too many characters with too many mental reveals to keep straight. And who all knows what about whom? In one scene a character seems to know already what another character said and did in a previous scene that the knowing character wasn’t present for and hasn’t been told about.

This focus problem is compounded by having too many characters with too little development in the current story. I get it that we are supposed to have met the characters in previous books in the series. But it has to have a more stand-alone quality about it to even work as a separate book. The writer has to keep in mind that readers won’t know everything about every character in previous books because they have either forgotten, or the author has only assumed they would know without being told.

And the scenes and chapters in this book are way too ranging and free-form. A scene that begins in the end of chapter two rambles across to the beginning of chapter three without really concluding and then morphs into another scene entirely when the narrative follows a single character from the conversation in one room into an encounter in the next room. There is a lack of chapter structure to rationalize why those words belong in that chapter rather than the next.

And numerous plot lines are just left hanging at the end of the book, seemingly forgotten rather than set up for the probable sequel. The book does not end with a sense that it is the final end of the saga.

So it is a book that both Hemingway and Dickens would’ve cringed to have written. Never-the-less, I did like this book. The old uncritical critic, you know. I would’ve neither finished reading it, nor written this essay about it if I didn’t find merit in the story. I learned things by reading it. Things to avoid, things to correct when I find them in my own stories, and things that make me go, “Hmmm… I’d like to try that myself.”

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Peculiar Books

The gentleman writer pictured above is a successful creator of innovative and engaging fiction.  As a 1979 vintage, he was still a toddler when I began my teaching career in 1981.  Like John Green, another author I admire who was only a small child when I began teaching, he cut his writer’s teeth by writing for Mental Floss the humor-centric publisher of puzzles, facts, and trivia.  While I do, in fact, envy his success, I do not in any way take it lightly.  He is a capable, highly-intelligent story-teller whose books I have grown to dearly love.

The first book in the peculiar series, also the first book I snagged at Half-Price Books and then devoured in a week (I bought a second copy to read after foolishly eating the first), is the peculiar tome pictured above.  In these stories, the peculiar author presents numerous old black-and-white photographs from the days when stereopticons stood in for televisions because the so-called boob-tubes hadn’t had the decency to be invented yet.  Most of these photos are bizarre in some way like the one used on his first cover.  And the pictures become the story.  The girl on the cover of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children becomes Olive, a young girl whose peculiar power is to float in the air.  In fact, she has to wear lead shoes to keep from floating off into the sky.  

Ransom Riggs as a wight, the vampire-like villains of the series of peculiar books.

Peculiars are menaced by, and have to be protected from wights, former peculiars who eat the souls of their own kind to become white-eyed powerful villains who wish to rule and eat all peculiar people.

The peculiar children have to be protected by creatures called Ymbrynes, women who were originally peculiar birds that found they could turn into human women, and not only that, could loop time in ways that provided pockets of protection from those who would persecute them where time never passed.

Emma, a peculiar girl who can generate fire from her bare hands.

The protagonist-narrator of the entire trilogy is Jacob Portman, a Florida boy who learns that he has inherited a one-of-a-kind peculiar power from his grandfather (turning it into a two-of–kind thing).  And when his grandfather is killed by wights, he learns of a place he must go to take his grandfather’s former place guarding Miss Peregrine’s troop of peculiat children, including Emma, pictured here, (a hot chick in more than one way).

I will not tell you any more of the story of the trilogy.  I hate to spoil anything from another author’s work.  I found that the discovery of every delicious detail and oddity along the way was the tastiest feature of the fiction.  (I do have to break that bad habit of eating books.  Gustatory learning, my peculiar ability and my curse.)  I will, rather, merely recommend that you discover the peculiar charms of these peculiar books for yourself.  (And try not to discover them by eating them.  Books have too much fiber and too little protein to be used like that.)

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Filed under artists I admire, book review, humor, old books

Winsor McCay

One work of comic strip art stands alone as having earned the artist, Winsor McCay, a full-fledged exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  Little Nemo in Slumberland is a one-of-a-kind achievement in fantasy art.

Winsor McCay lived from his birth in Michigan in 1869 to his finale in Brooklyn in 1934.  In that time he created volumes full of his fine-art pages of full-page color newspaper cartoons, most in the four-color process.  

The New Year’s page 1909

As a boy, he pursued art from very early on, before he was twenty creating paintings turned into advertising and circus posters.  He spent his early manhood doing amazingly detailed half-page political cartoons built around the editorials of Arthur Brisbane,  He then became a staff artist for the Cincinnati Times Star Newspaper, illustrating fires, accidents, meetings, and notable events.  He worked in the newspaper business with American artists like Winslow Homer and Frederick Remington who also developed their art skills through newspaper illustration.  He moved into newspaper comics with numerous series strips that included Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland.  And he followed that massive amount of work up by becoming the “Father of the Animated Cartoon” with Gertie the Dinosaur, with whom he toured the US giving public performances as illustrated in the silent film below; 

The truly amazing thing about his great volume of work was the intricate detail of every single panel and page.  It represents a fantastic amount of work hours poured into the creation of art with an intense love of drawing.  You can see in the many pages of Little Nemo how great he was as a draftsman, doing architectural renderings that rivaled any gifted architect.  His fantasy artwork rendered the totally unbelievable and the creatively absurd in ways that made them completely believable.

I bought my copy of Nostalgia Press’s Little Nemo collection in the middle 70’s and have studied it more than the Bible in the intervening years.  Winsor McCay taught me many art tricks and design flourishes that I still copy and steal to this very day.

No amount of negative criticism could ever change my faith in the talents of McCay.  But since I have never seen a harsh word written against him, I have to think that problem will never come up.

My only regret is that the wonders of Winsor McCay, being over a hundred years old, will not be appreciated by a more modern generation to whom these glorious cartoon artworks are not generally available. 

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