Category Archives: book review

Books That Make You Hurt

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Yes, I read this book.  Yes, it scared the poop out of me.  Yes, it made me cry.  This is a uniquely horrific horror story that is so realistic that you know that it has actually happened in real life somewhere, sometime.  Only the names of the characters would be different.

I have a deep abiding respect for Richard Peck as a writer.  He earned that with his books A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way from Chicago.  Those books made me laugh so hard it blew chocolate milk out of my nose.  And, yes, I was drinking chocolate milk at the time.  They are so realistic because the people in those stories are real people.  I know those people personally.  Of course, they have different names in real life.

But Are You In the House Alone? is a very different book from those other two masterpieces.  It tears your heart out and eats your liver because it is a first person narrative in the voice of a high school girl being stalked by a sexual predator.  Everything that happens to Gail in the high school, at home, and at the house where she babysits is hyper-real with horror movie levels of attention to detail.  I don’t wish to be a spoiler for this well-written book, but the narrator does not die in the book and it definitely does not have a happy ending.  For anyone who has the amount of empathy I do, and in many ways becomes the narrator-character by reading, reading a book like this can physically hurt.  A teacher like me has lived through horrible things like this happening to students before, it even happened to me as a boy, and it adds the slings and arrows of those things being re-lived as you read.

This is not the only book that has ever done this sort of damage to my heart strings.  I remember the pain from the conclusion of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop.  You root for Little Nell and boo Daniel Quilp.  But the bad guy wins.  No happy ending can linger in the harp-strings of your memory-feeling song as long as a tragic outcome does.  I was there with Scout in that ridiculous costume in the dark when Bob Ewell was attacking her brother Jem in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  That story was filled with wise and laughable things, but the stark horror of that climactic moment nearly wiped all the good feelings away, if not for the heroics of ghostly Boo Radley whose timely intervention brings it all back before the novel ends.  It horrifies me to admit it, but I was there, too, in the moment when the boys all turn on Simon on the beach with their sharpened sticks in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.  They mistook him for the monster.  I still haven’t fully recovered from that reading trauma.

The thing about books that hurt to read which makes it essential that I never try to avoid them, is that they can add more depth and resonance to your soul than any light and fluffy piece ever could.  Life is much more like Lord of the Flies than it is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  I am sadder but wiser for having read Are You In the House Alone?  I am recommending it to other readers like me who don’t so much live to read as they read in order to live.  Not because it is easy and good to read, but because it is hard and essential to read.  It will hurt you.  But it will leave you like it leaves its narrator, damaged, but both alive and purely resolved to carry on.

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Unfinished Business

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This oil painting is called “The Unfinished Stag”

You never quite reach the end of the list of things you ought to do.  Some lazy days it is hard to even write the words you desperately need to write.  I have unfinished business in this life.  Not just the need to finish bankruptcy paperwork and finish my transition to poor retired English teacher on a fixed income.  Not just the never ending yard work and home maintenance and repair, some of which involves fines from the city for not completing.  I still have pictures to paint, cartoons to draw, and stories to tell.  That last part of me is probably the most important unfinished business, because it represents the legacy I will leave behind.  I know I am only a nobody novelist who has some mediocre art talent.  But it is the immortal part of me never-the-less.

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This is an unfinished illustration that ties into my vast pile of unfinished science fiction dreams.

I did just finish a book.  I reread Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven.

Here’s my Goodreads Review;  Five Stars

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Fiction as great art doesn’t get any more magical and soul-restoring than this book, perhaps the best that Mitch Albom ever wrote, and that’s saying a lot. The last line of this book is worth all the reading you’ve ever done in your life. You must read this book BEFORE you meet your five.

But you read to the end of a book like this, and you realize, you will never be truly finished with it.  For as long as you live you will be drawn back to it, remembering the story, remembering the feelings it evoked, the chances you will have to recommend it to others, and the way it informs the way you live your own life.  There is no way to ever finish a book like that… or like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, or Lord of the Flies by William Golding, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  I could do a whole book about books I will never be finished with.

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This too is an unfinished painting.  The black at the bottom was supposed to be something else, but I left it black and liked it that way. at least until I cropped it and cut the Dust Man’s legs off at the knees.

And so I have so much unfinished business to take care of, I really didn’t come up with a good idea for this essay.  So what will I write about today?  I guess I will just have to leave it… unfinished.

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Another Danged Good Book I Read

Little Altars Everywhere 
by Rebecca Wells (Goodreads Author)

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Michael Beyer‘s review

Aug 04, 2017


Rebecca Wells is a writing chameleon, a shape-changer like blessed few other writers can manage. She creates the world of Thornton, Louisiana by story-telling through the eyes of eight different characters. Each voice is distinct and exquisitely crafted with a unique and individual personality. And yet, the plot is in no way fractured by the various viewpoints of the action. It is the story of all the love, violence, anger, resentment, ugliness, and beauty that takes a family of six from 1963 to 1991, from childhood to adulthood, from ignorance and pain, to grudging maturity and acceptance.
I can’t begin to recount the story without spoiling it for you. It is the story of Siddalee Walker and her family as they grow up on Pecan Grove cotton plantation. And it is a marvelous kaleidoscopic picture of the difficulties and complexities of living life and learning wisdom the way they used to do in Louisiana. Wells makes me laugh and makes me cry going back and forth between emotions in the space of a few pages. You know, the way brilliant authors usually do. I recommend you read this book. I loved it, and if you love reading too, you will not be disappointed.
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The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto (a book review)

 

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The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto: A Novel
by Mitch Albom (Goodreads Author)

Michael Beyer‘s review

Jul 23, 2017

 

It was amazing!

This book is a miracle. It makes words into music and fills your imagination with some of the most beautiful guitar music ever played. It introduces you not only to a very convincing portrait of a fictional musician and Rock and Roll icon, but a vast array of very real musicians and show people who agreed to be used as a part of the story, approved the sections about them, and even helped Mitch Albom to compose it. These include notable music makers like Lyle Lovett, Darlene Love, Tony Bennett, Paul Stanley, and Burt Bacharach. The story itself transcends its fictional form, giving us a look at a musical history whose scope goes from the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s to Woodstock, and on to the present day. It even gives us glimpses into the distant musical past, framing the story with the song Lágrima by the classical guitarist Francisco Tárrega. And all this music the book fills your mind with is actually performed only in your imagination and memory. Albom proves again with this book how his mastery of language makes him an absolute master story-teller.

 

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And now, here is me trying to make sense out of a reading experience that made my figurative heart grow wings and soar into the clouds in ways brought forth only by the strains of a sweet, classical Spanish guitar.

Stories like this one make a unique music in the mind, and though it is all fiction, occurring silently in the theater of your mind, you hear the music in your heart.  This story elicited the music of Rodrigo’s Adagio throughout, a piece I know intimately.  I myself have never written a musical book the way this fiction book was written.  But I know now that I have to try.  Poetry becomes song lyrics, right?  There is a connection between a good archetypal story about life and love and laughter, and the bittersweet strains of music on a Spanish guitar.

I truly and utterly fell in love with this beautiful book.  Mitch Albom is a genius… for a Detroit Tigers baseball fan.  And I would not risk telling you anything that might spoil such a beautiful story.  All I can say is, don’t read it… listen to it as you would a piece of beautiful music.  Listen to it and love it.

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Raising Steam… a book by Terry Pratchett

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Raising Steam 
by Terry Pratchett

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Michael Beyer‘s review

Jul 12, 2017  
Iwas amazing!


Terry Pratchett is always a good choice if you like laughs, thrills, and satire. Raising Steam does not disappoint. It uses familiar characters like Moist Von Lipwig from Going Postal and Commander Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork city watch along with new characters like the engineer Dick Simnel and the goblin Of The Twilight The Darkness (Yes, they like you to use the whole name).

The plot centers around the introduction of steam-powered railroads to the Discworld (the fantasy-world satire series that made Pratchett both a famous best-selling author, and a knight) and a schism between the dwarves who love the old ways of the deep, dark mines and the dwarves who love the new ways of living above ground in the light.

The usual mix of plot complications and themes of science versus magic are thrown about like fireballs to keep the story interesting, and one dark and foggy night aboard the train on a rickety bridge with the deposed king of the dwarves on board headed back to his kingdom sums up the sheer magic of Terry Pratchett’s gift for story-telling.

I recommend this book with six thumbs up… except I wasn’t supposed to reveal the existence of my extra arms.

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Books are Life, and Life is Books

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I just finished reading David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, his novel from 2014.  Just, WOW!  I guess this post is technically a book review… but not really.  I have to talk about so much more than just the book.

You can see in my initial illustration that I read this book to pieces.  Literally.  (And I was an English Major in college, so I LITERALLY know what literally means!)

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Look at this face.  Can you stop looking at the beautiful eyes?  I can’t.

I discovered Mitchell as a writer when I happened onto the book and movie pair of Cloud Atlas.  It enthralled me.  I read the book, a complex fantasy about time and connections, about as deeply and intricately as any book that I have ever read.  I fell in love.  It was a love as deep and wide as my love of Dickens or my love of Twain… even my love of Terry Pratchett.

It is like the picture on the left.  I can’t stop looking into it and seeing more and more.  It is plotted and put together like a finely crafted jeweled timepiece.

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And this new book is almost exactly like that.  It is a first- person narrative in six parts with five different narrators.  Holly Sykes, the central character, is the narrator of the first and last parts, in the past in the 1980’s, and in the future in 2043.  The titular metaphor of the bone clocks is about the human body and how it measures time from youth to old age.  And it is pictured as a clock ticking in practically all it’s forms, from a child who is snuffed out at eight years of age to horologists who have lived for a thousand years by being reincarnated with past lives intact.

Fantasy and photographic realism intertwine and filigree this book like a vast kaleidoscope of many colors, peoples, societies, and places.  At one point David Mitchell even inserts himself into the narrative cleverly as the narrator of part four, Crispin Hershey, the popular English novelist struggling to stay on top of the literary world.  He even indulges every writer’s fantasy and murders himself in the course of the story.

David Mitchell is the reason I have to read voraciously and write endlessly.  His works seem to contain an entire universe of ideas and portraits and events and predictions and wisdoms. And he clearly shows me that his universe is not the only one that needs to be written before the world ends.  Books are life, and life is in books.  And when the world as we know it is indeed gone, then they will be the most important thing we ever did.  Even if no one is left to read them.

And so, I read this book until it fell into pieces, its spine broken and its back cover lost.  To be fair, I bought it at a used book store, and the paperback copy was obviously read by previous owners cover to cover.  The pages were already dog eared with some pages having their corners turned down to show where someone left off and picked up reading before me.  But that, too, is significant.  I am not the only one who devoured this book and its life-sustaining stories.  Know that, if you do decide to read and love this book, you are definitely not the only one.  I’d lend you my copy.  But… well, it’s already in pieces.

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Three Books at Once

No, this isn’t some kind of multiple-book book review.  This is an ungodly silly claim that I can actually read three books at once.  Silly, but true.

Now I don’t claim to be a three-armed mutant with six eyes or anything.  And I am relatively sure I only have one brain.  But, remember, I was a school teacher who could successfully maintain a lesson thread through discussions that were supposed to be about a story by Mark Twain, but ventured off to the left into whether or not donuts were really invented by a guy who piloted a ship and stuck his pastries on the handles of the ships’ wheel, thus making the first donut holes, and then got briefly lost in the woods of a discussion about whether or not there were pirates on the Mississippi River, and who Jean Lafitte really was, and why he was not the barefoot pirate who stole Cap’n Crunch’s cereal, but finally got to the point of what the story was really trying to say.  (How’s that for mastery of the compound sentence?)  (Oh, so you could better?  Really?  You were in my class once, weren’t you.)  I am quite capable of tracking more than one plot at the same time.  And I am not slavishly devoted to finishing one book before I pick up the next.

I like reading things the way I eat a Sunday dinner… a little meatloaf is followed by a fork-full of mashed potatoes, then back to meat, and some green peas after that…  until the whole plate is clean.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson is the meatloaf.  I have read it before, just as I have probably had more meatloaf in my Iowegian/Texican  lifetime than any other meat dish.  It’s pretty much a middle-America thing.  And Treasure Island is the second book I ever read.  So you can understand how easy a re-read would be.  I am reading it mostly while I am sitting in the high school parking lot waiting to pick up the Princess after school is out.

fbofw1Lynn Johnston’s For Better or Worse is also an old friend.  I used to read it in the newspaper practically every day.  I watched those kids grow up and have adventures almost as if they were members of my own family.  So the mashed potatoes part of the meal is easy to digest too.

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So that brings me to the green peas.  Green peas are good for you.  They are filled with niacin and folic acid and other green stuff that makes you healthier, even though when the green peas get mashed a bit and mix together with the potatoes, they look like boogers, and when you are a kid, you really can’t be sure.  Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter wrote this book The Long War together.  And while I love everything Terry Pratchett does, including the book he wrote with Neil Gaiman, I am having a hard time getting into this one.  Parts of it seem disjointed and hard to follow, at least at the beginning.  It takes work to choke down some of it.  Peas and potatoes and boogers, you know.

But this isn’t the first time I have ever read multiple books at the same time.  In fact, I don’t remember the last time I finished a book and the next one wasn’t at least halfway finished too.  So it can be done.  Even by sane people.

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