April Books To Read Recap: The Scar Boys, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, Kurt Vonnegut

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I’ve started writing individual thoughts for books to read per week in my Weekly Updates posts. Look at those to stay on top of what I’m reading. At the end of the month, I’ll list all the books read here with a mini-review of each.

A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World: A Novel by Rachel Cantor

This is Cantor’s first novel. There is some serious potential here and I hope she continues writing. I am looking forward to what she comes up with next. With that said, there is definite room for improvement with story development.

The writing style and pacing is fantastic! But the plot device and elements were rather weak for me. Part of this is personal preference that I just can’t get into Jewish mysticism stories. Remember how much I disliked Yiddish Police Men’s Union?

At it’s heart, this is a fun, wacky time travel book. The main characters are kids but it’s not kid oriented. Cantor creates a world that could be very interesting but doesn’t develop it enough to really pull us in. I would have loved to know the actual reasons for the different factions and all the fighting. I kept waiting for an explanation but it never came.

The story also did this strange thing where it solved a problem that never existed. As is possible with time travel books but it was strange to put in. One of the characters “saved the world” before we saw that it ever needed saving.

I do recommend this book as a light, fun read. But mainly suggest you keep an eye out for Rachel Cantor in the future.

Author: Rachel Cantor
Genre: Time Travel/Sci Fi
Rating: 3/5
Summary: Strong writing, great style, undeveloped plot & world.

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

As an enjoyer of Vonnegut’s novels, I was looking forward to finally reading this one. His satire, as always, is on point. I loved how it was written in a “Welcome to the Western World” handbook style. However, towards the end of the book this grew tiresome. The illustrations also started out hilarious then just grew overboard. Yes, I understand that’s the point and Vonnegut does it well.

The humor never stops but I did find myself getting bored of the whole thing about three-quarters way through. The plot was too open, the characters too wacky, the satire too strong. Maybe this just wasn’t quite the Vonnegut book for me.

I did love that the plot revolves around a writer going to a festival. His works were mainly published in dirty magazines as filler. The descriptions of his stories were wonderful. I liked what should have been the plot. But then things unraveled pretty quickly toward the end and I just couldn’t keep up. So it goes.

Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Genre: Fiction; Satire
Rating: 3/5
Summary: Typical Vonnegut.

The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos

The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos

The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos

Also reviewed in my Weekly Updates.

Trust me, don’t let the words “coming of age” or “young adult” scare you. I loved this book. I read it in a day.

The beginning involves the main character being tied to a tree (kids!) then struck by lightning and practically burned to death. We get an insight into how difficult his life was afterwards, as he was literally scarred from the incident.

Then he makes a friend and they create “the greatest punk rock band you’ve never heard of”. This part of the story is predictable. The bassist is a girl, someone in the band sleeps with her (this isn’t a spoiler). There is some tension. Friendships end. Friendships rekindle. It’s typical and original all at the same time.

It’s setting was interesting for me, Westchester; suburbs of NYC. Since it is set in the 1970’s/1980’s time period, there were fun descriptions of the NYC punk scene during that time. The band, of course, goes to CBGB’s. They get their van illegally inspected in the Bronx. That stuff was fun for me.

The ending isn’t completely predictable but things do come full circle. Everyone grows but without a sappy, sentimental ending. It doesn’t quite end happy, but it ends as it should.

Author: Len Vlahos
Genre: Coming of age; Young Adult
Rating: 4/5
Summary: Lively coming of age story about high schooler’s who form a punk band. Oh yeah, the main character was struck by lightning and almost burned alive.

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

This is not a book I would typically read. But one of my favorite friends said it described motherhood very well, so I was curious. I actually enjoyed the depictions of a SAHM of two. It was subtle but weaved into the story well. As someone childless myself, I haven’t thought about how shopping for clothes would be different with a child with you.

Unfortunately, some of this made the main character come off as stuck up. Pretentious. Condescending. A downright bitch. Reading Sisterland reminded me a lot of reading Big Brother by Lionel Shriver . Both novels revolve around sibling tension. Both main characters have a sibling who is doing nothing with their life, though has lots of potential. This sibling is childless, single, selfish; essentially a train wreck. Oh, and of course both siblings are fat. Because, you know, if you’re fat then you definitely can’t have anything skinny people can have.

To be fair, the end of Sisterland puts a sort of balance to the fat shaming. But it wasn’t enough for me.

The plot device is the psychic powers the sisters have and their prediction of a major earthquake. It at least kept me interested in the story. However, it really is only a device because the story is essentially about the lives of these two sisters. The main character is just a terrible person all the way through. I mean, she’s supposed to be, but it made it a bit of a drab read.

Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
Genre: Fiction; Family
Rating: 2/5
Summary: Good writing, interesting ESP plot, weak characters

DNF’s

I started but did not finish Art of Happiness by Dalai Llama & Howard C. Cutler and Double Feature by Owen King. As I previously mentioned, these two just weren’t worth the time.

Art of Happiness is more of a memoir from an American psychiatrist. It’s mostly about his therapy, his life stories, and some case studies. With bits and pieces of his discussions with the Dalai Lama thrown in there for good measure.

My only caveat with Double Feature was it’s formatting. Also, I’m not a filmmaker. Much how Cormac McCarthy’s lack of quotation marks defines his style. Owen King’s style is defined by the lack of paragraph breaks; especially after dialogue. Maybe okay in theory, but in practice this creates large walls of text on every page. I just couldn’t do it.


Paying for Media You Can Get For Free

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We should all pay for things to support those who made them so they continue to make them. And yes downloading media you didn’t pay for and don’t already own is illegal. Even if this doesn’t morally bother you, it may be a waste of your time regardless. Sometimes sifting through tons of free files just isn’t worth it when you could have spent $10 (or $10/mo) and found exactly what you wanted. I’ve previously written about how free is rarely worth it. Here are just some more examples.


Music

It’s been a long time since you could just download single songs from Napster. Now, you generally pay a dollar or so for a song from Amazon or iTunes.

Music can still be obtained from torrent sites of course, but it’s usually found there as entire discographies. That can be useful sometimes. But sometimes you just want to hear one song. And sometimes things are mislabeled. You can also use various online storage sites and search engines to find random music files. But this can be tedious and difficult to find more obscure things. At the end of the day, you get what you pay for.

While I have never bought individual tracks or albums digitally, I am currently paying monthly for Spotify. I love that it’s easy. When I want to hear a new band, I can instantly find their entire album history and pick & choose the songs I want to hear. I can see which of their songs are most popular. Find out more information by them. See related artists. And since I pay for it, I can also listen to Spotify music offline. This is perfect for my iPod Touch when I’m not on a wifi connection. And means I don’t have to use the horrendous piece of bloated software that is iTunes.

This isn’t a shill for Spotify, but for any music service. It took me a bit to be open to paying for digital music, when I could acquire it for free. I’ve found it to be more than worth it as far as selection and time-management goes.

Porn

It’s the Internet! Of course there’s free porn! There’s tons of pictures and videos available online all over.

Unfortunately, many of the free videos on websites are edited. While there are sites that have a whole library of free videos, most are usually bad. Bad quality in terms of video and actors. Although, if you prefer amateur stuff, this probably works for you. Many of these free videos don’t cover specific niches. And most are edited down to 10 minutes, or have commercial interruptions, enticing you to subscribe to see more.

The other free alternative is, again, torrenting. While you will get the full version here, mislabeling is a big issue. Or even if isn’t mislabeled, you just don’t know if you will like it. Downloading takes some time/energy, so if you don’t like any of them, it can be a waste.

For a year, I split a subscription with a friend, costing us $50 each total to a well-known site. (I was going through a serious Asa Akira phase.) For the price of Netflix, there was a huge selection of top quality full-length videos available. You could also download videos to keep forever. New videos were added all the time. It didn’t have commercial interruptions or the best parts edited out. I could even be notified when new videos featuring my favorite actors were added to the site. I didn’t have to sift through tons of files. Or be emotionally disturbed when a video turned out to be something completely different.

After that one year, my friend and I let the subscription run out. Although it was much better than dealing with free sources, it’s still a difficult cost (albeit low) to justify.

(I know there are other free sources and invite-only places but I’m not familiar enough with them).

Apps

Once upon a time, I had a jailbroken iPhone (2008). It was very useful as at the time it was the only way to disable all notifications. But jailbroken devices also allow you the opportunity to install paid apps for free. Sure, you’ll save a few bucks here and there. But unless you really know what you’re doing, jailbreaking can be a bit scary. Even with as simple as it is today, when going through it at one point I was certain I bricked my phone. Scary moment!

After one of the upgrades, I reformatted everything and just kept the native installation on there. Then I sucked it up and started paying for my apps. At least it made me think twice before just downloading something willy nilly.

Movies

Like the other media, you can download movies online for free. Sometimes while they’re still in theaters. Screeners (when someone videotapes a movie in the theater) are notoriously bad quality and definitely not worth it. Sometimes there are Award releases that are high quality. Either way, it’s generally a crapshoot until the dvd is released.

Even on the best torrent site, some obscure movies are impossible to find. Sometimes it is worth ponying up the ten bucks to just buy it in good quality.

Plus, with options like Netflix and Hulu Plus, it’s become less necessary to use other means to watch movies.


Time is a huge factor when thinking about getting certain things for free. Aside from media, most free giveaways, especially for food, end up costing you more in time than what you’re getting. I understand the allure of the word free (as does marketing departments everywhere). But most of the time, it’s worth spending ten bucks to get yourself a decent meal.


Books To Read Recap: Alex Versus the Universe, Anthony Marra, Allie Brosh

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I’ve started writing individual thoughts for books to read per week in my Weekly Updates posts. Look at those to stay on top of what I’m reading. At the end of the month, I’ll list all the books read here with a mini-review of each.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

universevsalexwoods

Also reviewed in my weekly updates.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods sounds like it would make for an interesting story. And the first hundred pages would you lead you to believe this as well. The first half of the story is strong, funny, and a really good read. Then the tone changes rather abruptly and the second half of the story goes in a completely different direction. The writing stays strong throughout. But the wit the book starts out on, gets lost as the plot becomes more and more serious.

Alex Woods was hit with a meteorite, lives with his eccentric mother, suffers from epilepsy, reads a lot, and gets bullied at school. This makes for a really interesting character and he is still a relate-able character for the reader. Extence’s description of school and bullying is on-point and hilarious. It just didn’t stick around in the story long enough.

What starts out as a strange and light-hearted story about a young boy in highschool, quickly turns into a Tuesdays With Morrie style plot. It’s not nearly as syrupy but gets pretty close. The story turns on a dime when Alex begins spending time with an elderly neighbor. This starts out as penance for destroying his property. But then they become friends. Of course the elderly man typically kept to himself and wasn’t fond of Alex right away but then he grew to like him quite well. Of course the elderly man lived alone and Alex soon began taking care of him. Of course the man is dying of some incurable disease. Of course Alex thinks he can save him and learn from him, etc. Any other predictable stereotypes you can think of for a teen + elderly platonic emotional relationship, it’s there.

I’d suggest knowing more about the story before going into it. If you’re looking for a witty uplifting story about a teen learning life lessons from the elderly, this is your book. Oh! There is also a quirky addition of Kurt Vonnegut. All of his books get discussed and summarized. I’m guessing the author is a fan? That helped to cut out some of the sugariness from the Tuesdays With Morrie part.

Author: Gavin Extence
Genre: Coming of Age
Rating: 3/5
Summary: Strong writing, witty first half, sappy second half.

save_yourself

Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet (DNF)

Being honest here, this book is a DNF for me. Did Not Finish. There wasn’t any reason in particular why I bailed on it. It was more so the combination of teenage-style writing, mediocre characters, and an obvious plot device. After 100 pages, I simply didn’t care what happened in the story or to the characters. There wasn’t a connection to any of them. I’m not even sure the book was about anything. There was a lot of rambling. And a lot of stereotypical character traits.

I won’t rate DNF books. Just because I bailed doesn’t always mean the book was bad. But it does mean I didn’t feel any desire to continue reading the author’s reading style or learn more about the characters. So take that as you will.

Author: Kelly Braffet
Genre: Fiction
Rating: DNF
Summary: Simplistic writing, mundane characters, obvious plot

Have You Found Her? A memoir by Janice Erlbaum

Have You Found Her? by Janice Erlbaum

Also reviewed in my weekly updates.

Just because I finished this book in one sitting (four hours) doesn’t mean it was good. Often I lose interest in predictable stories. And this one was predictable from the get go. But every time I thought the reveal was going to happen, things just continued. To the point where I thought that maybe my cynical thoughts were wrong. For that reason alone, I kept reading. However, I did consider bailing to look up the ending on line. Instead I trudged through it.

Don’t get me wrong, the story is interesting. Stories of manipulation are always fascinating for an outsider to see. The problem with the story is the pretentiousness of the author. This is a memoir from Erlbaum but is about her relationship with a young girl she met in a women’s shelter in Manhattan. Erlbaum’s ego is too big to hide. She really thinks she is saving the world by “helping” this girl. She really thinks she is a saint. Sometimes she becomes self-aware of this. For maybe half a sentence. But then goes right back to thinking she did something amazing.

Even by writing a story about how she was completely duped, she still manages to turn it into how much she sacrificed for someone she didn’t know at all. She details all of her good intentions even if things didn’t work out in the end. No apologies for these mild spoilers because the ending is completely obvious less than fifty pages in.

Author: Janice Erlbaum
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 2/5
Summary: Strong writing, pretentious attitude, obvious ending

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh

I’ve known for a long time that I don’t have a sense of humor. If you ever doubted me on that, this review will confirm it. The Hyperbole and a Half book was fine. It was an enjoyable read. Eh. It’s difficult because I’ve seen some of the drawings before. Sure, they’re still funny and entertaining, but it did take away from the book for me.

I couldn’t tell what the book was trying to do. The organization was strange, especially the latter half. The beginning started out silly. Clearly her letters to herself and the self-deprecation those included were supposed to be funny. The second half featured her drawings on depression. These are great. But then right in the middle of these serious thoughts, was a funny piece, then it went back to serious mode. Not much new was added.

It seemed like she was trying to put herself out there then changed her mind mid-way and pulled back. Or was trying to please two groups of people. It just doesn’t work.

Allie Brosh is loved by lots so I realize this will be an unpopular opinion. Seriously, I just don’t have a sense of humor at all.

Author: Allie Brosh
Genre: Comics/Auto-Biographical
Rating: 3/5
Summary: Cop-out autobiography, drawings you’ve already seen

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra (DNF)

This novel has some truly beautiful writing. Unfortunately, the jumpy story makes it difficult to keep track of and care about the characters. Flashbacks in time, between characters, and between story lines happened far too frequently. Just as you’re getting back into the voice of one character, you get jumped to another.

With all that said, the writing is absolutely wonderful. Beautiful prose, descriptions that are magical. Anthony Marra takes a horrific subject and makes everything sound romantic and graceful.

For example, here is the most beautiful paragraph you will ever read about a man trying to take a shit:

The Silver Mkarov pistol was all Ramzan thought about for the two weeks preceding Dokka’s disappearance, in which he failed to produce a single bowel movement. Each morning, venturing into the cold in nothing but a robe and lambskin boots, he turned the corner of the house, passed icicles filling the gutter’s missing segments, passed the frostbitten fingers of fallen birch limbs, and waded down the sharp incline to the scattered pine cones that had amassed into an ankle-deep mound at the outhouse door. Inside, he sat with his elbows burrowed into his knees, a full-bodied clench that left him red-faced and winded. Snow flurries fell through the roof’s missing half, landing on the back of his neck, and melted into sweat. His scrotum was an empty coin purse flattened between his legs. He was enable to father even a soft dollop of excrement.

There’s 384 pages of that. It’s beautiful, don’t get me wrong. And it is this beautiful writing that keeps you from feeling absolutely horrible after reading such a sad story. This is a story about wars, and lost lives, and lost people. It is sad. Yet the writing is beautiful and flow and descriptive and it felt like I was floating while reading it. I would love to read a linear story by Marra.

Author: Anthony Marra
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: DNF
Summary: Chechnyan War, Flashbacks, most beautiful prose

Netflix Instant Picks: Jumanji, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Click

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Jumanji (1995) / Family Adventure

Netflix Instant Picks Jumaji Robin Williams

Not only is this a fair adaptation of the book but after nine years it still holds up. Sure, the movie is predictable but it’s a family film at heart. The special affects also hold up when comparing to today’s visuals. They do a good job presenting the past and the future and making sure both are separate.

The story of Jumanji tells of a board game about the jungle that actually comes to life. You can actually be taken into the jungle. Lions can appear in your bedroom. You can turn into a monkey. The movie shows all these things very well without it coming off as too hokey. There are times things are forced and silly. Remember, family movie.

Besides, Kirsten Dunst is adorable.

Starring: Robin Williams, Kirsten Dunst
Runtime: 103 min
Leslie Rating: 4/5
Summary: A game about the jungle that becomes real life.


Click (2006) / Comedy

Netflix Instant Picks Click Adam Sandler

I remember watching this movie at the theater, in some mall in South Jersey. I was with some friends, two of whom might have been on a date. I don’t quite remember. The movie hadn’t sounded interesting to me but I went with the group anyway.

Turns out, when given the power to control your life with a remote, being able to pause and fast forward and rewind, not fun things happen. Click starts off with the basic use of the remote having Adam Sandler fast forward until he receives a promotion. He thinks he will get it within the next few months but it actually takes several years. Of course in that time he has missed part of his family’s lives.

Then it gets weird. And it’s not funny at any point. We’ve seen this story before… he sees how his selfish ways are ruining his family then he gets a chance at a do-over. Predictable and boring.

And that’s all I have to say on the topic of malls in south jersey.

Starring: Adam Sandler, Kate Beckinsale, Christopher Walken
Runtime: 107 min
Leslie Rating: 2/5
Summary: Being able to control life as though it’s a movie isn’t as great as it seems.


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) / Foreign Action

Netflix Instant Picks Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

It took me a while to warm up to foreign martial arts films but now I can’t get enough of them. This is definitely in my top three for the choreography alone. It’s not just people fighting each other.

These are beautifully choreographed fighting scenes. Dances almost. It’s about skills not just strength. Really beautiful to watch.

Among the eye-catching action scenes is a very strong story. The plot revolves around Chow Yun-Fat attempting to avenge his master’s death. With a tasteful side of romance thrown in. This film is beautiful and should be seen by everyone.

Starring: Yun-Fat Chow
Runtime: 120 min
Leslie Rating: 5/5
Summary: Beautifully choreographed martial arts movie to supplement a story of romance.


Netflix Instant Picks: Gattaca, Taxi Driver, Men in Black II

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Gattaca (1997) / Sci-Fi

Netflix Instant Gattaca

Gattaca, starring the talented combination of Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, and Uma Thurman, is in my top 5 list of best sci-fi movies.

A world where all babies are genetically engineered. No diseases. No imperfections. But some were born off the grid, In-Valids. Ethan Hawke’s character is one of these imperfects and is seen as weak by society.

The plot revolves around Ethan Hawke trying to assume the identity of someone who was genetically engineered. There are plenty of close-calls and suspense. Some parts are cringe-worthy as becoming someone else includes leg lengthening to match their height.

The take on genetic engineering is interesting and everyone plays their parts, perfectly.

Bonus: This is Jude Law’s first major movie role.

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law
Runtime: 106 min
Leslie Rating: 4/5
Summary: The lengths people go to for perfection.


Men In Black II (2002) / Sci-Fi Comedy

Netflix Instant Picks Men in Black Sequel

Taking a good concept and keeping it going, Men in Black II, is really more of the same. This isn’t bad but don’t expect a whole different story or anything. Will Smith’s character is still strong. And the aliens are still silly.

Starring: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones
Runtime: 88 min
Leslie Rating: 3/5
Summary: Strong follow-up with more silly alien antics and Will Smith.


Taxi Driver (1976) / Classic Drama

Netflix Instant Picks Taxi Driver

Watching Taxi Driver for the first time in a New York City theater was strange experience. The movie’s atmosphere was perfectly gritty and creepy. De Niro’s character is perfectly delusional.

The movie is very New York. I would say it is one of the most quintessential New York movies. Everything about the feelings it portrays is accurate including characters, neighborhoods, and caricatures.

There are many memorable lines from the movie (you looking at me?) and a killer ending. For a movie from the 1970’s this definitely holds up and I can’t recommend it enough. .

Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster
Runtime: 114 min
Leslie Rating: 4/5
Summary: An intense look at someone becoming psychotic.



Books to Read in March: Horns by Joe Hill plus Warren Ellis & Leo Babauta

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I’ve started writing individual thoughts for each book I read per week in my Weekly Updates posts. Look at those to stay on top of what I’m reading. At the end of the month, I’ll list all the books read here with a mini-review of each.

Top Pick: Horns by Joe Hill

Joe Hill's Horns

Joe Hill’s Horns

Also reviewed in my weekly updates.

If you’re looking for books to read in March, start right here with Horns by Joe Hill. This is one of the more intriguing and well-balanced novels I’ve read in a while.

First there’s the plot. Main character Ig woke up after a long night of drinking with a hangover and horns on growing of his head. Yes, like devil horns. Along with the horns comes the ability to see into someone’s mind at just a touch. Along with other’s telling him their sins. Both things are more of a boon than a gift.

On top of this, is the real meat behind the story. About a year ago, Ig had been accused of raping & killing his girlfriend after they had a loud public break-up. He was never charged nor cleared. Using his new-found ability to see people’s memories at just a touch, he is able to go back in time and discover what happened that night.

Hill technique of writing different perspectives from different characters works very well. Some characters are left in the dust but that can’t be helped. Everyone in the book is terrible. Except Ig and his girlfriend I guess. I suppose we would all sound terrible if you only knew us by our sins.

The book doesn’t go too supernatural or too horror at all. It is curious and adventurous. You really start to feel for the main character which is a strange emotional conflict because at the same time he is turning into a devil. The ending was all that I hoped it to be. No letdown. No soft ending.

I haven’t read any other of his novels but am certainly looking forward to what Hill brings us in the future.

I recommend Horns if you like light supernatural or light mystery novels.

Author: Joe Hill
Genre: Supernatural
Rating: 4/5
Summary: One morning Ig woke up with a hangover and horns growing out of his head.




The Signal and The Noise by Nate Silver

Economics & Forecasting; Nate Silver's The Signal and The Noise"

Economics & Statistics; Nate Silver’s The Signal and The Noise”

As a web analyst and someone who likes numbers & spreadsheets, I thought this would be more interesting than it was. Silver stays to his argument pretty well, which is that forecasts should be flexible to various environmental changes (whether that’s biological or economical).

Unfortunately, his writing and multiple examples muddle this argument throughout the entire book. He is very long-winded and repetitive. For a book on numbers, there are far too many words.

His examples are good, following the recent economical recession, baseball, and the weather. The weather section was the most interesting for me, probably because it directly affects me most regularly. With that said, reading this did motivate me to watch Moneyball, which I recommend. In fact, I suggest watching that movie over reading this book – something I don’t do very often.

I recommend The Signal and The Noise if you like economics.

Author: Nate Silver
Genre: Economics
Rating: 3/5
Summary: Long-winded argument about flexible predictions using plenty of examples




Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

Detective Novel; Warren Ellis' Gun Machine

Detective Novel; Warren Ellis’ Gun Machine

Warren Ellis is known as a comic book writer and that is very clear in the novel Gun Machine. It is also clear that without the support of illustrations, Ellis cannot tell a complete story.

I absolutely loved this story right up until the end. Seriously, the last 5 pages were SO BAD that it completely ruined everything before that. Which is a shame because boy were the first parts good!

Ellis does a great job setting a scene and atmosphere. Since the story is set in NYC (kind of in this world, kind of not), there were definitely times that I felt creeped out reading this in my apartment alone. There is a real sense of fear, dread, and mystery built around the killer. Unfortunately, what starts out as brilliantly ominous turns into a joke by the end of the book.

I recommend Gun Machine, if you like comics, detective stories, and creepy atmosphere’s. With that said, be prepared for a shallow ending.

Author: Warren Ellis
Genre: Crime/Detective
Rating: 3/5
Summary: Crime novel set in nyc with very strong beginning and horribly weak ending




Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town by Kelly McMasters

Kelly McMasters' Welcome to Shirley

Kelly McMasters’ Welcome to Shirley

Also reviewed in my weekly updates.

This part memoir-part environmentalism story works surprisingly well. This is the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tried to be. McMaster’s grew up in the Long Island town she writes about, providing the reader with a unique and emotional perspective of growing up in a town where the near-by national laboratory happens to have a leaky reactor. The juxtaposition between her warm childhood memories in the first part of the book, with the sudden change in tone when the community starts getting sick is a perfect balance.

The second part of the book involves more of her research and discussions on activism within the community. The first part is straight-forward memoir. I could complain that the research is a bit soft but it’s actually perfect for the type of story she is trying to tell. Being able to see the experience through the eyes of someone who lived through it and just as important as reading legal transcripts and government reports.

I recommend Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town if you like memoirs, like Long Island area stories, like reading about the health impact of toxins released into the environment.

Author: Kelly McMasters
Genre: Memoir / Environmental
Rating: 4/5
Summary: Part memoir, part environmental essay on a town in Long Island with a nuclear reactor in their back yard.




Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

Butcher's Crossing by John Williams

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams (not that John Williams) is a tricky one. The writing is great as to be expected. The plot is very western as it’s about buffalo hunting and exploring the wild west. It is West in the sense that the only female characters in the book are whores. And the novel focuses on four men. One man in particular reminds me of the gruff western characters in True Grit. Then another man is softer, fresh from an Ivy League school on the east coast wanting to explore the new wild country. This should be a coming-of-age tale but falls a bit short.

The middle section of the book is pretty dry and I almost gave up on it, thinking I already knew the ending. But Williams surprised me. The ending was not quite what I expected and actually pulled everything together very well. But first, you have to get through some pretty gruesome buffalo hunting scenes involving killing animals for hide (and leaving the rest of them to rot). Williams also goes into detail on the skinning process. It was a little bit graphic and I have no idea if it was accurate.

There is kind of a lesson told in the story but again falls short there too. After some thought, I’m really not sure what the story was supposed to tell. A lot of it was predictable and then nothing really happened afterward. This is the second Williams book I’ve read so I might wait some time before checking out another one.

I recommend Butcher’s Crossing if you’re interested in westerns, men’s men, and hunting.

Author: John Wiliams
Genre: Western
Rating: 3/5
Summary: Four men explore the western territory for Colorado to find a mythical valley of buffalo.




The Power of Less by Leo Babauta

The Power of Less by Leo Babauta

The Power of Less by Leo Babauta

I love Zen Habits but really did not enjoy this book. Leo Babauta has a great personality, a good life story, and excellent writing style. Zen Habits is very easy to read and never comes off preachy. This book would have been better as a collection of his essays or even an autobiography type of story.

Unfortunately, it is straight-forward self-help which really leaves little explanation of how to do anything. Babauta can write too well to be using bullet points.

I recommend subscribing to Zen Habits for motivation and productivity. Skip the book.

Author: Leo Babauta
Genre: Productivity / Self-Help
Rating: 2/5
Summary: Typical self-help topics that are better written on the author’s blog.


Using New York City Libraries

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The main branch of the New York Public Library

The main branch of the New York Public Library

New York City Libraries

There are three separate new york city library systems that run independently from each other. The New York Public Library (NYPL) serves Manhattan, Bronx, and Staten Island. The Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) only serves Brooklyn and the Queens Library (QL) only serves Queens.

Combined, these three systems have 209 branches total with 63 million items in their collections.

Library cards at all of the library systems are free and you will need a separate card for each system. Check online for your local branch hours as they are pretty limited. Donate to your local branch! Maybe someday they’ll have Sunday hours!

NYPL: New York Public Library

The NYPL is the second largest public library in the US with 53 million items. Their collections span from books to maps to historical documents. Many of these items can only viewed in the building but you are welcome to schedule a viewing for free.

The main branch of NYPL, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, does not allow any books to be taken out of it. Go here for beautiful architecture and use a different branch to read and take out books.

NYPL consists of 77 neighborhood branches in the three boroughs of Manhattan, Bronx, and Staten Island. This means you can get books from any of these branches transferred to your near-by branch. That is a near endless selection of books!

BPL: Brooklyn Public Library

If NYPL’s branches aren’t enough, you can also take out from the Brooklyn Public Library‘s 58 neighborhood branches.

You do not need to live in Brooklyn to get a library card from here. But you do need to hold residence or employment in NYC. BPL library card holders can get linked to NYPL and take out books using the same card. However, books must be returned to a branch within their system. And you cannot request books from out of a library system. BPL stays within BPL.

QL: Queens Library

If you still can’t find what you need, the Queens Library system has 62 neighborhood branches. You must get a separate QL card to take out from any of these branches. You cannot take out books from any other system using this card.


Putting Books on Hold

As an avid reader, I love exploring the numerous independent bookstores NYC has to offer. Unfortunately, this can quickly become an expensive habit. I didn’t right away think of going to the library because I thought my local branch might not have what I was looking for. Then I learned about putting books on hold. And my life was changed forever.

Since there are so many branches in all of the systems, your local branch may not have the specific book you’re looking for. No worries, just get yourself to an Internet device and go the library website.

I’ll use NYPL for this example as that’s the system I frequently use. I recommend registering as soon as you get a card.

Search results & putting a book on hold on NYPL.org

Search results & putting a book on hold on NYPL.org

On their website, search for the book you want to read. At the search results, find the format you want it in. Many libraries offer e-book and audiobook versions, along with paper. Right on the search screen, it shows you which locations the book is available to take out and how many other folks are waiting for the book.

If you don’t mind the wait, click “Place A Hold.” Then select which branch you would like it sent to. Now, when a copy becomes available, it will be automatically transferred to your local branch!

Popular books have a long wait, but how can you complain about free?

Popular books have a long wait, but how can you complain about free?

Putting books on hold is fun! It’s like adding items to a shopping cart except your total is zero every time.

And with the free price tag, you do have to wait days/weeks/months sometimes for a popular or rare book. If you really want to read it so bad, no one is stopping you from buying it. Besides, I like when a book on hold suddenly becomes available to me. It’s like a little surprise birthday present!

NPYL will email you when any of the books on your hold list become available at your local branch. You will then have about two weeks to pick it up before it gets put back in circulation.

Books on hold are usually on shelves in the front of each branch with printed numbers on pieces of paper on each side. For NYPL, these are the last four numbers on your library card. BPL is different. Ask your librarian the first time if you need assistance.

You can continuously check your hold list (as I do) to see where you are on the wait list. The status will also change when a book you requested is in transit.

With my love for libraries exposed, I want to add that I do still buy books! If a book I read from the library was amazing, I will go buy it. If I want to keep a book for reference, I will go buy it. Using the library for books saves me money on books I would not want to buy. Books that I heard were good but I did not enjoy. There’s plenty of them out there.


Your local library is a great resource for a quiet place to study

Your local library is a great resource for a quiet place to study

Things Other Than Free Books

Since libraries are in desperate need of funding I wanted to highlight some other useful things libraries do other than loan out free books! All of the NYPL branches of free wi-fi. There are often tables and chairs for reading, studying, working. Some branches of tables and outlets to use as laptop workstations. These resources are all free. No coffee purchase required.

There are also classes, book groups, tax help, and more offered. Take a look at the bulletin board at your local branch to see all upcoming events.


Netflix Instant Picks: Say Anything, Heartbreakers, Leap of Faith

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Say Anything (1989) / Teen Comedy

Netflix Instant Picks Say Anything with John Cusack

One of the better 1980’s teen Cusack films about a guy, Lloyd Dobbler, who loves a girl, Diane Court. It’s that simple. He loves her more than anything. It’s not romantic as much as it’s a fact. This is what he does. He loves Diane. What is he going to do with his life? Love Diane.

“Say Anything” is a bit of a departure from the Molly Ringwald John Hughes teen movies from the 1980’s. It’s a little simpler and a little less hokey.

Starring: John Cusack
Runtime: 100 min
Leslie Rating: 3/5
Summary: “What I really want to do with my life – what I want to do for a living – is I want to be with your daughter. I’m good at it.”


Heartbreakers (2001) / Comedy

Netflix Instant Picks Heartbreakers with Jennifer Love Hewitt

1) Marry a rich man
2) Send in daughter to seduce new husband
3) Catch him in an affair with “another woman”
4) Divorce him and take all his $$

Sigourney Weaver and daughter Jennifer Love Hewitt have this plan down to a science. But what will happen when one of them actually falls for someone? Who knows! But I bet Jason Lee is going to find out.

Look, the plot is corny as hell but the movie knows what it is. Plus, the chemistry between the actor’s really helps to save things. All in all, Heartbreakers is better than it sounds, I promise.

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jason Lee, Gene Hackman
Runtime: 122 min
Leslie Rating: 3/5
Summary: Cheesy gold-digger plot but Hewitt and Lee’s interactions save the film


Leap of Faith (1992) / Satire Comedy

Netflix Instant Picks Leap of Faith with Steve Martin Philip seymour hoffman on netflix

Here’s a small tip of the hat to Philip Seymour Hoffman in a lesser role.

For those of you who want to learn the art of manipulation, you only need to do two things: 1) Read “How to Win Friends & Influence People” and 2) Watch “Leap of Faith”

Steve Martin plays Jonas Nightingale, an evangelist preacher who puts on a big show and will happily take all your donations. The plot revolves around them getting stuck in downtrodden Rustwater, Kansas so they make the best of it and put on a big show. There’s some cheesy subplots where one of his crew falls in love with Liam Neeson in 3 days. Neeson, by the way, is the sherriff of this small town though there is no explanation of his background. Okay.

Meat Loaf and Philip Seymour Hoffman play as two members of the Nightingale crew. There’s a cute scene where Steve Martin is rocking out to “Paradise By The Dashboard Light”. Otherwise, Meat Loaf plays organ the whole time while Hoffman flirts with teen moms.

This is a Steve Martin film in the sense it’s not quite the feel-good story it could be. And it works just fine that way.

Starring: Steve Martin, Liam Neeson, Meat Loaf, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Runtime: 107 min
Leslie Rating: 3/5
Summary: A satirical look at con-men evangelists and small town hopes.



Netflix Instant Picks: Price of Gold, Spaghetti Westerns, Airplane!

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30 for 30: The Price of Gold (2014) / Documentary

Netflix Instant Picks 30 for 30: the price of gold

I wrote more about this in my weekly updates.

ESPN’s 30 for 30 series is pretty great all around. I’ve seen a few others, most notably “Broke”, exploring how athletes lose their millions. “The Price of Gold” is just as interesting as we learn Harding’s side of the Tonya Harding v Nancy Kerrigan debacle that happened 20 years ago.

To this day, Harding is sticking to her story that she had no prior knowledge of the event. The editing comes off slightly skewed but without an obvious bias. Though there is a funny edit where she says “that wasn’t my handwriting” and a press interview clip says “we found Harding’s handwriting”.

Editing aside, we get to learn a lot about Tonya Harding. I knew nothing about her past but was aware of her “athleticism” in contrast to Kerrington’s “ice princess” quality. Harding’s tale is pretty tragic. She grew up in an abusive home, married an abusive husband, and poured her heart into skating. There may not be sympathy felt for her, but at least understanding. An understanding of her tragic need to win. The entire episode is sad for everyone involved.

In celebration of the Olympics, this look into one of the more famous Olympic scandals is definitely worth watching.

Starring: Tonya Harding
Runtime: 60 min
Leslie Rating: 4/5
Summary: The infamous Tonya Harding & Nancy Kerrigan scandal told from Harding’s point of view


The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) / Western

Netflix Instant Picks The Good The Bad The Ugly

This is my absolute favorite movie. And I mean it. It’s #1 in my top ten. I wrote a paper on the soundtrack.

The “Man With No Name” trilogy was directed in Italy by Sergio Leone, hence them being coined ‘spaghetti westerns.’ The dialogue is terse with Ennio Morricone’s score filling each scene, providing all the emotion you need.

Clint Eastwood’s character, the man with no name, is played perfectly as an anti-hero. Despite the name, there are few ‘good’ guys in this movie. Eastwood certainly isn’t one of them. Yet you’ll end up rooting for him anyway.

Starring: Clint Eastwood
Runtime: 179 min
Leslie Rating: 5/5
Summary: Director Sergio Leone and composer Ennio Morricone create a brilliant end to this trilogy


Airplane! (1980) / Satire Comedy

Netflix Instant Picks Airplane!

Surely, you’ve already seen this. (Don’t call me Shirley). If you haven’t seen this movie, you should just so every few seconds you can go “oh! that’s where that joke came from.”

Starring: Robert Hayes, Leslie Nielsen
Runtime: 87 min
Leslie Rating: 3/5
Summary: Spoof comedy at it’s finest



January Books: Colum McCann, Bill Bryson, David B.

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I’ve started writing individual thoughts for each book I read per week in my Weekly Updates posts. Look at those to stay on top of what I’m reading. At the end of the month, I’ll list all the books read here with a mini-review of each.

Pick of the Month: One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson's One Summer: America, 1927 is like reading Wikipedia

Book of the Month: Soft Non-Fiction; Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927

Also reviewed in my weekly updates.

If you’re looking for interesting non-fiction books to read in February, start with this one. I have been calling this the “wikipedia book” because that’s how it felt reading it. I would start getting really interested in one story, then Bryson would go into another story that is related yet different. Fifty pages later I found myself learning about Mount Rushmore from what started with Babe Ruth.

This topic jostling isn’t a complaint thought. It is amazing how thoroughly Bryson is able to pack so much into this little book. Breaking down a year in this way is very fascinating. How many exciting American years could be written about in such detail? Probably many! But 1927 is a year that not too many of us think about and he ties everything together very well.

I appreciate that he never strayed from the year. He talked of factors building up to the Great Depression and actions that resulted in later wins, but Bryson stays on the path of 1927 even though it may have been tempting to talk of the topic in a later time.

The first half of the book is more coherent than the second half. There is a point where he just starts jamming facts & stories into the text for what seems like little purpose. And while his humor is usually on point, it feels very forced in this story. By the time I was a third way through, I was beginning to roll my eyes at some of his obvious witticisms and superfluous descriptions.

This is the second Bryson book I have read, the first being “A Walk in the Woods”. I enjoyed Bryson talking about himself better. I thought his humor came through better that way. Trying to make witty jokes about history just didn’t come across as well. However, as a storyteller, learning about history from him is very fascinating and rarely boring. There were only a few rambling topics.

Lovers of history, light-non-fiction, and Bill Bryson will certainly enjoy “One Summer: America, 1927″.

Author: Bill Bryson
Genre: Historical Non-Fiction
Source: NYPL
Rating: 3/5
Summary: Wikipedia narrated by Bill Bryson




Transatlantic by Colum McCann

Colum McCann

Historical Fiction; Transatlantic by Colum McCann

Also reviewed in my weekly updates.

There was something very interesting about reading Bill Bryson’s “One Summer” and Colum McCann’s “Transatlantic” in the same month. Coincidentally, both books start out exactly the same way. Both begin with the story of the first transatlantic flight. And both authors tell the story differently. And both use the story in different ways.

Bryson uses the story to segue into Lindbergh’s famous flight, a topic which takes up most of the book. McCann uses the story to subtly introduce main characters and begin the multi-generational storyline. His telling of the story was slightly exaggerated/modified given this is historical fiction and all.

Unfortunately, this opening was the only part of Transatlantic that I really enjoyed. It was a beautifully written introduction to the story and it was disappointing that these characters barely came back into the story. It was an exciting adventure and told in an exciting way. But this was not the continued tone of the book.

The book follows multiple-storylines and multiple-characters through generations. Just as in “Let the Great World Spin”, each character and event is loosely tied together. Characters & references show up pages later in the story. The historical fictional theme continues as well as famous leaders like Frederick Douglass is used as a main character for one section.

I wish I could put my finger on exactly why, but I didn’t like the story. However, I still enjoyed reading it because McCann’s writing is beautiful. The prose flows and never feels forced – although the plot does at times. Descriptions are on-spot and I was able to build the world he created. The story didn’t flow as well for me because of it being split up. I didn’t find the connections to be strong enough. Or sometimes not obvious enough.

Reading “Transatlantic” reminded me of two other similar stories, Philipp Meyer’s “The Son” and E. L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime”. The latter also being historical fiction including famous names in a less-coherent storyline. But very enjoyable and I recommend it over “Transatlantic.”

Author: Colum McCann
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: NYPL
Rating: 3/5
Summary: A multi-character story line spanning generations isn’t as interesting or seamless as it could be.




Incidents in the Night Vol 1: N by David B

Graphic Novel; Incidents in the Night Vol. 1: N by David B

Graphic Novel; Incidents in the Night Vol. 1: N by David B

This multi-volume graphic novel series from French illustrator David B. brings out some of my favorite aspects of his drawing and least favorite aspects of his storytelling.

This is a story involving David B as the main character on a hunt for a newspaper printed years ago that turns into a conspiracy as the newspaper creator, long-dead, comes back for revenge. But this isn’t a scary ghost tale, it is an adventure tale about bookstores, letters, and history.

The world David B creates is rich, imaginative, and dark. I enjoyed the darkness & depth of his drawings in “Epileptic”. I still enjoy them here.

The art makes the story come alive and allows you to explore this world of history & books. Though there are some parts of the storytelling where the drawings don’t further the story at all. This happens so often that I almost would prefer this to be a novel. I’m not sure if his writing is strong enough for it but this story seems better suited for it.

I will read the other volumes to finish up the storyline. Fans of David B will enjoy this. If you’re new to him, I suggest starting with his past graphic novels.

Author: David B
Genre: Graphic Novel
Source: Bought at Brooklyn Book Festival
Rating: 3/5
Summary: Beautiful dark art & world of books with story line that may or may not hold up in the rest of the series