Book Review: Life Is Beautiful

Book Review: Life Is Beautiful by Sarah M. Johnson

In 2008, an airplane carrying humanitarian workers to a remote village in Guatemala, where they were to build a school, crashed and burned.  The crew and most of the passengers were killed; one young woman survived relatively unharmed, though she had lost half her family, and her mother was severely injured.  This is her story.

Life Is Beautiful

Sarah’s life had not been an easy one for some time before the crash.  Raised outside a small town in rural Wisconsin, Sarah’s family was socially and emotionally isolated.  Her father was a recovering meth addict, they’d recently lost a close relative to cancer, and what little social life Sarah had revolved around heavy drinking with her friends.

At college, Sarah met Jacob, a young man who introduced her to a stronger belief in God, but was dangerously flawed; in particular he reinforced her drinking habits.  A combination of alcoholism and depression made Sarah’s  college career a bust, and Jacob cheated on her, so she had to come home feeling a failure.  The Guatemala trip was meant to help mend the family’s fences.

As this book is in the “inspirational” sub-genre, you might expect that Sarah turned her life around after hitting rock bottom, and you would be correct.  When she finally accepted the help of a therapist (it isn’t directly stated, but her father’s apparent ability to quit meth cold turkey may have influenced her to try to handle everything solo), Sarah began to be able to process her grief and make progress on recovery from alcoholism.  (Finding sober friends and a welcoming church group also helped.)

From a writing perspective, this book is a good example of how real people are far more complex and messy than they generally are shown in fiction.  Jacob is a prime example, a fervent believer who introduces Sarah to a personal relationship with her “higher power” but prone to bouts of unwanted preaching and self-righteousness when drunk, and who is a toxic boyfriend for her.

One misstep is Sarah’s breakthrough moment with her therapist, when she can finally tell the story of the crash and its aftermath while allowing herself to feel the emotions associated with it.  While it would be a powerful moment if the facts had been concealed up to that point in the book, on paper it’s mostly a recitation of details already covered in the first chapters.  This is a short book, and a reader with a decent memory will find this bit redundant.

Recommended primarily to fans of inspirational literature, and older young adult readers who like non-fiction stories as Sarah’s life is of interest.  Not necessarily recommended to those currently undergoing the grieving process; Sarah mentions several books that helped her, and those would probably be better choices.

If you would like to purchase the book, please consider getting it new, as part of the proceeds go to Habitat for Humanity.

Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of this book to facilitate writing the review; no other compensation was offered or requested.

Book Review: The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds

Book Review: The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds by Selina Siak Chin Yoke

This is the life story of Chye Hoon, a Nyonya (Malaysian woman of Chinese heritage) who lives between 1878 and 1941, a time of great change in her homeland.  Initially a willful child who wants to break out of her culture’s tradition (why shouldn’t a girl get the chance to go to school like her brother?), Chye Hoon grows into a young woman whose reputation for temper and independent spirit seem to doom her prospects for marriage.

The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds

But an enterprising matchmaker brings her together with a Chinese immigrant named Wong Peng Choon.  Despite this being an arranged marriage and the pair never actually meeting until the wedding, things work out well.  Peng Choon appreciates Chye Hoon’s cleverness and unwillingness to be cheated, and in return is a good husband.  The young couple moves to Ipoh, a rapidly growing tin mining town.

The next decade or so is good to the couple; Peng Choon is much in demand as an accountant, and Chye Hoon has ten children!  But then Peng Choon must return to China to take care of some family business.  He perishes in that far-off land; while he was careful to make sure that Chye Hoon had enough capital for a couple of years, she knows that raising ten children will soon drain that, and jobs for widows with no formal education are few and low-paying.

Chye Hoon applies her cleverness and cooking skills to the problem, becoming an entrepreneur in the field of tasty kueh (Nyonya cakes of both sweet and savory varieties.)  There are many difficulties involved in making the business a success, but she and her servants make a go of it.

Meanwhile, Chye Hoon must also raise her children, facing times of joy, times of heartbreak and times of great frustration.  In this last category is the increasing  influence of the British over the Malay States as they take firmer control of the government, and increasingly the young people adopt Western ways.   Chye Hoon has become a traditionalist who fears that her people’s heritage will be forgotten in the rush to modernize.

Chye Hoon is based loosely on the author’s own great-grandmother, and apparently many family stories were woven into the narrative.  The parts of the book that give a sense of the time and place are fascinating.  Less helpful is that quite a few of the large cast are underdeveloped or vanish from the story–a couple of the sons get brief mentions at times just to remind us they’re still alive but not doing anything relevant.

The author has made some interesting stylistic choices; uneducated characters use traditional Malayan syntax, while those with formal schooling speak British English.   (Even when they’re clearly not using that language.)  There’s also frequent usage of traditional Malayan filler words and interjections, and the author has chosen to use the older transliteration of some words, as well as some language that is now considered pejorative.  In places, this works well, and in other places it becomes intrusive.  (It also kind of raises the question of just who Chye Hoon is telling this story to at the end.)

The story ends just before the Japanese invasion during World War Two, which gives a pretty obvious cue for a sequel with the surviving family members.

Worth checking out if you are into family saga stories, and especially if you are curious about Malaysian history and culture.

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine July 2016

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine July 2016 edited by Janet Hutchings

Frederick Dannay, who along with Manfred B. Lee wrote the Ellery Queen mystery stories, was asked by Mercury Press to be the editor of a new magazine that would print a higher class of detective stories than the general run of pulps, with the first issue of EQMM coming out in 1941.  At first it was a reprint magazine, featuring classic tales by writers like Agatha Christie and Cornell Woolrich.  But by the seventh issue, new stories began to appear, and one, “The Bow Street Runner” by Samuel Duff, was that author’s first professional sale.

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine July 2016

Over the years, Mr. Dannay sought out new writers to appear in “The Department of First Stories”, many of whom went on to great success.  His successors have carried on that tradition, and as part of the magazine’s 75th Anniversary celebration, the July issue #898 features new stories by authors who got their start in EQMM.

“The Staff of Asclepius” by Stephen Saylor features his Roman sleuth Gordianus the Finder.  This one is set in his youth, when Gordianus and a friend were on a trip to see the Seven Wonders of the World.  They winter in Rhodes, home of the fabled Colossus.  During their enforced idleness, Gordianus learns of a shipping magnate named Rhosander who has suffered several bouts of illness, then miraculously recovered due to wacky cures he dreamed of in the temple of the healing god.  Perhaps these episodes are the symptoms of some underlying illness…but they could also be slow poison.  The illustration has male rear nudity, which is germane to the story.

“Department of First Stories: A History” by Marvin Lachman reveals the material I cited at the beginning of this review, but in much, much more detail, including a list of some of the most famous writers to debut in the magazine and their accomplishments.

“The Granite Kitchen” by David Morrell is a monologue to a real estate agent by a woman selling her home.  She’s obsessed with making her homes just so, always moving on to a bigger project once she has it right.  And either she has the unluckiest bunch of family and friends I have ever seen, or….  Chilling.

“Blog Bytes” by Bill Crider is a regular column of mystery-related internet sites; this time focusing on fans of the Ellery Queen stories.

“The Jury Box” by Steve Steinbock is a more traditional book review column.  Among other works, this month it mentions several novels starring famous writers as the detectives, including A Riot Most Uncouth by Daniel Friedman, which I reviewed a while back.

“Get Them Out” by Nancy Pickard has a homeless man kicked out of a shelter for making a disturbance.  The new janitor at an apartment building offers him a place to sleep in the basement, but his motives may not be altruistic.  Ends on an ambiguous note.

“Black Monday” by John H. Sherman is a first story.  Howard, a lab technician at a hospital, has been having problems with alcohol and painkiller addiction, and has missing time.  His dreams of swimming have gone dark, and he can’t remember what he did last night.

“The Red Tattoo” by Percy Spurlark Parker is a noirish tale featuring Las Vegas private eye Trevor Oaks.  He’s hired to find a man’s missing identical twin; the only clue is that the twin was seen in LV with a woman who had a red tattoo.

“The Hangman” by David Dean is the story of a cops-and-robbers game gone south, and the years later sequel.  Depressing.

“Flight” by Trina Corey is set in a nursing home during the Vietnam War era (I suspect to avoid easy fixes by technology.)  Rachel is crippled by multiple sclerosis, unable to speak or write.  Perhaps that’s why a murderer has taken to coming into her room at night to gloat, knowing that she can’t tell anyone.  But Rachel still has her mind, and there’s a young nurse that hasn’t lost her ability to care yet, and maybe there’s a way to stop the killer.

“The Man from Away” by Brendan DuBois takes place in New Hampshire and Boston.  People tell Amos Wilson he’s too gullible, that his estranged wife is a gold digger he’s better off without.  But when she is accidentally killed by tourists who then vanish, Amos feels obligated to do something about it.  He may be long-suffering, but he’s not stupid.  Satisfying.

“Consuming Passion” by Martin Edwards is about two old friends, one a master chef, the other a restaurant critic, having dinner together.  It does not end well.

“The Peter Rabbit Killers” by Laura Benedict closes out the issue with a little girl whose mother has an obsession with cleanliness, and a neighbor girl who is bullying and not at all clean.   Another creepy tale.

Overall, a strong issue with many fine stories.  I liked “Flight” the best, while “Black Monday” and “The Hangman” were less well done.  This issue is certainly worth picking up while the anniversary celebration is still on.

Comic Book Review: Jacked

Comic Book Review: Jacked written by Eric Kripke, art by John Higgins.

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Josh Jaffe is hitting a mid-life crisis.  His body is beginning to fall apart, he doesn’t really talk to his wife much any more, and his entire job field was rendered obsolete by new technology, so he’s been unemployed for the last six months.  Nothing has turned out like he’d imagined it would as a kid, or even as a teenager.  Josh’s dentist brother recommends nootropic supplements, “smart drugs” that supposedly improve cognitive function.  Sounds kind of shady, but while surfing the web, Josh finds an ad for “Jacked,” which seems to speak to him.

Jacked

Josh orders a supply of Jacked, and discovers that the ad was perhaps underselling the product.  He can think more clearly (other than the hallucinations), has energy to spare (especially in bed), his aches and pains vanish…and he can pull a car door right off the hinges.  Josh’s formerly unimpressed son starts looking up to him again!  This is the good stuff.

But then Josh discovers that his next door neighbor Damon is a drug dealer that’s been beating his girlfriend Jessica.  The outcome of that encounter puts Josh and Jessica on the wrong(er) side of some very bad people.  Worse, the nastier side effects of Jacked start coming to the fore, and what if Josh runs out of the drug before the bad guys run out of bullets?  And how will this affect Josh’s wife and child?

Eric Kripke is probably best known as the creator of the popular television series Supernatural.  According to the introduction of the collected volume, he had his own mid-life crisis a couple of years ago, and his musings on that led to him proposing this comic book series to Vertigo Comics.  He mentions that writing for comic books is a whole different kind of hard than writing for television, and gives much credit to John Higgins for making the script actually work on page.

One of the themes of the story is that Josh doesn’t live in a superhero world, so even though he gets some low-level superpowers, things tend not to work out as they would in a traditional superhero story.  Even when he dons a costume, it only makes him look ridiculous.  In the end, it’s his human abilities and connections that give Josh the ability to resolve the situation.  (We do get cameos by a few classic DC heroes, and a reference to obscure series Electric Warrior.)

This is listed as for “mature readers” and has some nudity, non-graphic sex scenes, a lot of gory violence, body function humor and even more vulgar language than is called for by the plot and setting.  I suspect Mr. Kripke may have gone overboard on that last one because of having had to work to TV’s broadcast standards.

One of the features I really liked was that most issues’ last pages were flash-forwards to the next issue that weren’t quite the same as the depiction in that later story.  Also, all the points that were important at the climax were properly set up earlier in the series.

Josh does a fair bit of self-absorbed whining at the beginning of the series, and it takes a while for him to get his head out of his own funk.  I do like that while Josh and Jessica do team up against the drug gang, it’s all about survival (and revenge on Jessica’s part) with no attraction between them at all.  Josh loves his wife, and much of his motivation is being a better husband for her, even if he doesn’t understand the best way to do that.

The main villain is Damon’s brother Ray, who has a rather narrowly defined sense of morality.  He takes care of family, but everyone else is fair game.

Recommended for fans of the “ordinary schlub gets superpowers and screws up big time” type of plot.

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