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October 2011 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

         
 

The Comedy Bible: The Complete Resource for Aspiring Comedians


by Brian McKim and Traci Skene

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Essentially “Standup for Dummies,” this book lays out theoretical and practical advice for those interested in making others laugh. Although there are chapters devoted to writing for television and the web, The Comedy Bible is mostly about standup comedy. The book doesn't tell you how two write a joke. It's purpose is to give readers “permission to try” comedy. There are lists of newbie errors (“The mic cord is not a lasso. Leave it alone.”), eight pages devoted to hecklers (including three comebacks for female comedians to use on hecklers who yell, “Show Us Your ...”), and an examination of prop comedy—which the authors do not condemn out of hand. McKim and Skene start with such practical advice as, “Expect to earn nothing,” and the importance of finding your own voice and being “scrupulously original.” They move onto the politics and structure of sketch comedy writing and improv, and, eventually, to matters of agents and promotion. The book is extensively indexed and contains a glossary of industry lingo (not just the obvious “kill,” but “hook” and “crowd work”, though the crucial “tight five” is missing), so you won't sound like an amateur as you hang out at the bar waiting your turn on open mic night. The book is heavily, sometimes distractingly, illustrated, but the fact that it’s bound in a spiral notebook comes in handy as you open it and read while practicing in the mirror. Anyone interested in being a comedian needs to first read Steve Martin's Born Standing Up (or, even better, listen to the audiobook read by the author). The Comedy Bible can then serve to reinforce and clarify many of Martin's lessons. This book lays the groundwork for people who have always wanted to try, but who have no idea how to start.

 

 

 

 

 
         
 

Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms


by Carmela Ciuraru

reviewed by Neal Swain

 

From the Brontës to Pauline Reàge, Carmela Ciuraru explores the lives of twenty-odd European and American writers who published under pseudonymous identities. Authors featured in this essay collection include George Orwell, Georges Simenon, and George Sand (a number of people seem drawn to the name George); but also O. Henry, Sylvia Plath, and James Tiptree Jr.

But Nom de Plume is more than a collection of biographical sketches. Ciuraru provides ample and interesting biographical detail, but more than that she focuses on their decisions to write behind pen names. And these decisions are for the most part complicated: authors like the Brontë sisters and George Sand were struggling to avoid the dismissal that came with being a woman writer; Sylvia Plath wanted a veil of anonymity that would let her write what she wanted about her family and acquaintances; O. Henry needed distance from a prison sentence; Pauline Reàge sought anonymity (and so did her American translator, who translated French erotica under fake name); George Orwell sought distance from his social class. And some writers, yes, embraced their names lightly, because they sounded more impressive or they thought it would be fun. These stories are fascinating and sometimes bewildering, and this book is an entertaining look into the lives of writers.

 

 

 

 
         
 

Becoming Ray Bradbury


by Jonathan R. Eller

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

This book bills itself as “the authoritative biography of Ray Bradbury's early years,” and it's certainly hard to imagine anything more complete. Becoming draws from unpublished writings and interviews, as well as agent, publisher, and university archives. It covers Bradbury's life from his birth in Waukegan, Illinois in 1920 to the publication of Fahrenheit 451 and his departure for Europe to work on John Huston's film of Moby Dick in 1953. Bradbury's family moved to Los Angeles when Ray was 13, and it was there that he made the acquaintance of various science fiction fan club members and began writing. Disqualified from serving in World War Two, he set about writing and submitting short stories at a rate of nearly one per week. When not writing, he was reading. An obsessive autodidact, Bradbury devoured contemporary science fiction and fantasy along with Sherwood Anderson, Eudora Welty, Somerset Maugham, and Ayn Rand; as well as history, philosophy, and the works of Sigmund Freud. We see how a trip to Mexico forever shaped his view of, and writing on, death. His memories of Illinois evolved into the stories that would eventually form Dandelion Wine. Becoming details Bradbury's evolution as a writer, but also provides a window into the publishing world of the time. Though there were specialty publishers, most were more homogeneous. This was a time when writers could place genre stories not just in Planet Stories or Weird Tales, but also McCalls and The New Yorker. Mademoiselle, unsure if Bradbury's now-classic “Homecoming” was right for them, decided to restructure its entire October 1946 issue so that it would work.

 
         
 

Start Something that Matters


by Blake Mycoskie

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

The TOMS shoe company was founded on a simple principle—“one for one”—that runs counter to everything traditional for-profit companies stand for. For each pair of simple, stylish TOMS you buy, the company gives a pair to a child in need. Just five years later, Mycoskie has given over a million pairs of shoes to children around the world. It’s a stunning and moving accomplishment, and Mycoskie hopes to inspire other entrepreneurs to pursue similar goals of social awareness. 

The book is at its best when Mycoskie sticks close to home, telling how he started TOMS and kept it going with few resources until it became an amazing success story. Other charitable companies, some even inspired by TOMS’s short history, provide similar heartwarming stories demonstrating that you can be financially successful while also helping others.  

However, Mycoskie sometimes serves up feel-good cliches as advice without any fresh takes from his point of view. And when the man who encourages the use of whimsical job titles like “shoe giver” to break down the walls between worker and manager, and who talks about the importance of treating your workers right, also breezily mentions Sam Walton of Walmart as a great success story without any acknowledgment of the many criticisms of Walmart business practices, Mycoskie tarnishes his hip, nouveau capitalist persona. 

Despite these occasional blemishes, it’s a likable little book with some moving stories and, of course, for every copy that’s purchased the publisher will donate a book to a child in need.

 

 
         
 

Learning to Laugh When You Feel Like Crying: Embracing Life After Loss


by Allen Klein

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

Klein, a professional speaker on the therapeutic value of humor, has put together a brief (you can read it in a little over an hour) book on the process of grief. Like Dr. Kübler-Ross' famous five stages of death, Klein has assigned five stages to the grief process: Losing, Learning, Letting Go, and finally Laughing. For Klein, laughter is our best coping mechanism. Laughter is Okay. It doesn't mean you've forgotten. “It only means that you are ready to put your loss in the background for a while and let life unfold again.” To move through the earlier steps and to arrive at laughter is the ultimate indicator that you are healing because of the way our society emphasizes sadness. But Klein reminds us that, though death is inevitable, “we all have the power to laugh in the face of it and not let death take away our joy of living.” For all that, the book itself isn't funny. This isn't Seth Rogen's 50/50 or Julia Sweeney’s comedy routines about her brother's death and her own battle with cancer. Readers will have to find beauty and humor in the tiny aspects of their own lives. Klein examines each of his five stages through multiple aspects. Each section begins with a quote, his writers ranging from Buddah to Dale Carnegie to Robin Williams. Then, over just a page or two, Klein comments on and expands upon the advice offered. These bite-sized inspirations and motivations are just right for those who feel overwhelmed, and might not be able to handle anything particularly lengthy at that time. Although Klein speaks of grief mostly in terms of the death of a loved one, the book could be helpful for anyone experiencing the grief for the past that accompanies any major life-change, from divorce to job-loss to moving.

 

 

 
         
         
 Fiction

 

 
 

Half Past Dawn


by Richard Doetsch

reviewed by Jon Land

 

That’s the dilemma facing New York City District Attorney Jack Keeler who awakens beaten, battered and maybe even shot—with no memory, of course, of how all this came about.  While amnesia tales are nothing new (the brilliant Gregory Peck film Mirage being at the top of my list), in the blisteringly original hands of Richard Doetsch Half Past Dawn might as well be the first. 

Speaking of Mirage, Half Past Dawn actually feels like old-fashioned, hard-boiled film noir right down to a mysterious car crash, missing woman and truly fiendish bad guys.  As Keeler’s gradually recovers his memory, enabling him to piece the puzzle together, Doetsch once again interjects a mystical, quasi-paranormal element into the mix that turns the book truly creepy to the point where you literally don’t want to turn off the lights for fear of falling asleep.  Or worse. 

Doetsch never writes the same book twice and I never thought he’d top the uncanny The Thirteenth Hour from two years ago.  But Half Past Dawn does at least that as it defines everything a great thriller should be.  There are plenty of writers who sell more than Doetsch but none who satisfy so well every step and every page of the way.  Simply not to be missed.

 

 

 
         
 

Heat Rises


by Richard Castle

reviewed by Jeff Ayers

 

 

My favorite television series right now is Castle.  It airs Monday nights at 10:00 on ABC and chronicles a writer named Richard Castle who follows a detective named Kate Beckett, and helps her solve crimes.   Using her as a muse, Castle has written three novels based on their cases on the show.  Those three novels have also been published in the real world.  The latest, HEAT RISES, finds Nikki Heat investigating the murder of a priest in a house of ill repute.  Heat and her team consistently hit roadblocks from witnesses and even her captain when they try to dig deep.  Heat enlists the help of her journalist lover, Jameson Rook to use every source at his disposal to uncover the truth.  HEAT RISES is a terrific thriller with great characters that will even appeal to readers not familiar with the show.  Fans of the series will enjoy the great in-jokes and nods to its inspiration.

 

 

 

 

 

 
         
 

Richard Castle’s Storm Front


by Richard Castle

reviewed by Jeff Ayers

 

 

On the show, Richard Castle had written several books before he decided to write about detective Beckett.  Castle’s first series on the show was about CIA agent Derrick Storm.  Now that first novel, mentioned numerous times on the show, has been adapted in the real world in graphic novel form.  That has to be a first.  Derrick Storm is hired by a distraught wife to find her missing husband.  He soon discovers the guy alive and well in the arms of another woman.  Before he can deliver his report, he has several guns in his face.  And then the wife disappears.  I don’t read graphic novels that often, but this one sings.  The art is terrific, and the storyline is taut and complex.  In a nutshell, everything a reader expects from a Richard Castle novel.  There were more Storm books and hopefully the real world will get to read them. 

 

 

 

 

 
         
 

The Affair


by Lee Child

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

It was Tuesday, the eleventh of March, 1997, and it was the last day I walked into [the Pentagon] as a legal employee of the people who built it. 

While that might mark Jack Reacher’s final foray into the military’s hallowed halls, it also marks the beginning of his journey to becoming an iconic literary hero.  The American James Bond.  And the wonder of The Affair lies in its retro approach to Reacher, showing us exactly how and why he became the nomadic loner with only a toothbrush as baggage. 

But this debut adventure finds him with plenty of baggage, and not just the kind you carry either, when he gets embroiled in the Mississippi murder of a young woman that leads to all manner of cover-up and corruption.  You can almost see his upper lip curl at the mere mention of those words, banes to the existence of the ever-noble Reacher.  The Affair also gives him a strong love interest in the equally incorruptible sheriff Elizabeth Deveraux, even as he battles bad guys both in and out of the military. 

Child, already as great a novelist as he is a storyteller, reaches new heights here in a richly atmospheric tale that evokes memories of John Ball’s classic In the Heat of the Night or the equally seminal Spencer Tracy film Bad Day at Black Rock.  Those, too, featured loner heroes standing up against enemies and the odds. And watching Reacher become Reacher is like witnessing a Picasso gaining shape and texture.  A rare treat in a flat-out brilliant book.

 

 
         
 Young Adult

 

     
 

Anna Dressed in Blood


by Kendare Blake

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

Though billed as a YA novel, this cool and creepy ghost story is definitely for those closer to the adult end of the spectrum. Theseus Cassio (call him “Cas”) Lowood is a high school student who is also a ghost hunter (don't call him a “Ghostbuster”). When he wields the athame, an ancient blade, he becomes more than just your average kid. He can put an end to malevolent ghosts that kill people. Where their spirits go, he doesn't know, but after Cas is done with them, they're no longer around to slay the innocent. Cas moves from high school to high school, as he and his mother, a low-level white witch, travel North America on the hunt. He's just come to a small town in Canada to put an end to Anna Dressed in Blood, the murderous shade of teen-aged girl who was brutally killed half a century ago on her way to a dance. But when he confronts her before he's ready, and she clearly has the advantage, she declines to kill him. Could there be more to her story than the popular legend says? And might the death of the previous owner of athame, Cas' father, have anything to do with this? 

Fans of Buffy the Vampire the Slayer will see that this is clearly designed to be a boy version of that property. The ending sets us up for a sequel, complete with a Scooby gang. There's even a shadowy council and a Giles-like mentor, though they don't make much of an appearance. I suspect there will be plenty of time for them later, if this volume sells well. Despite its occasionally formulaic plot, there are moments that echo the best of Stephen King. And I doubt anyone who reads the first couple of pages will be able to put it down without at least finishing the first chapter.

 

 
         
 

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