Minor Characters

Sir Thomas the Hesitant and the Table of Less Valued Knights - Liam Perrin Remarkable.

There are different types of heroes. The most common is the hero who's brave and goes looking for opportunities to prove himself. Another is the hero who's not very brave (and he knows it) and perhaps not very skilled, but when he finds himself in a situation where something needs to be done, well, he does it. Not because he's brave, but because it's right.

Both kinds of heroes feature in Sir Thomas the Hesitant and the Table of Less Valued Knights, but our protagonist is Thomas.

And Thomas is the second type. He's sweet and bumbling and clever all at the same time, and he's determined to help. Our hero, like any good hero, is supported by his own heroic brand of misfits: the wise-cracking sidekick (oh, Philip, I have such a soft spot for him), the reformed evil wizard, the Giantess Formerly in Distress, and the beautiful, quick-witted love interest. And let's have a word about Marie, shall we? Because she is not the pretty but useless, sincere but dumb girl who tends to show up in these stories and only manages to cause more problems. She's smart, she's snarky, and she's firm where Sir Thomas the Hesitant is (shockingly) hesitant. Thank God for that, too, because one Mary Sue can blacken an entire book for me.

And this read was too good to be marred in such a way. The writing is light and witty, the tale is clever, the characters are well-sketched, the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. The story is epic in scope, interweaving with Arthurian legend, and yet Perrin keeps it acutely personal: Thomas isn't motivated by glory, he's motivated by family and by deep feelings for home. By having the story expand throughout and then retract to the focal point--home--for the climax, the effect resembles something like a punch to the gut when everything comes together.

And I mean that in the best possible way. The whole story is enthralling, engaging on an individual level, and I finished the book with a silly grin. I just felt so good after reading this, which is sorta the point, isn't it?

Also: the portrayal of Gawain during his brief appearances made me giggle. I honestly think I found them funnier than I really should have, but whatever. "I canna feel me rrrump. I didna leave it behind did I? That wouldna do at all." Cue giggling. Don't judge me.

So enough of my rambling. Here's the entire point: I loved this. So much.

Perrin's novel was my "I'm placing an order on Amazon anyway and hey, free shipping if I add a little more to the cart and sure, I'll take a chance on this item" read, one I saw originally on a GoodReads giveaway but was too late to enter. Sir Thomas the Hesitant and the Table of Less Valued Knights is easily the best "Hell, why not?" purchase I've made in recent memory.

Go read it. Thomas hesitates, but readers shouldn't.
The Gladiators: History's Most Deadly Sport - Fik Meijer, Liz  Waters Kudos to Mr. Meijer, for he did what I once thought impossible: he bored the hell out of me with a history about gladiators.
Alice in Zombieland (White Rabbit Chronicles) - Gena Showalter Though not particularly memorable, Alice in Zombieland is a fun read, a quick romp through the staples of the genre: teen angst, teen love affairs, dealing with family (or the lack thereof), good girls, bad boys, and fighting a little evil on the side.

Others have already mentioned that despite the title, there's very little relation to the original Alice in Wonderland, nothing more than the main character's name and the rabbit cloud that follows her about, warning of impending danger. The lack of Wonderland didn't particularly disappoint me, and I rather liked Showalter's version of zombies...

...well, I liked her take on zombies right up until the scene where they're caught in the spotlight: "...their skin was like chipped ice, glistening with onyx and sapphire undertones." (pg 317) I actually laughed out loud and couldn't help but think someone's been taking ill-advised lessons from another YA fantasy novelist. First sparkly vampires, and now zombies glistening like precious gems? Oh my mercy!

The romantic scenes (at least I'm assuming the kissing and groping and fantasies were supposed to be romantic) were ridiculous and laughable. On the other hand, certain interactions between characters were spot on, most notably the "I'm your best friend for life...unless you're dating or hanging out with them, in which case you're beneath me and I won't be your friend anymore" dynamic of a girls' high school clique. It seems ridiculous now, but as I read I remembered those days with a shudder.

Overall, Alice in Zombieland was good. Certainly not "blow your mind" great, although the book gets extra points for having a great cover. Would it be my first recommendation if someone asked for suggestions within this genre? Nope. Would I encourage someone to read it if they showed any interest? Yep. Definitely worth reading while kicking back in bed with a snack.

And yes, I'll be reading the sequel when it comes out later this year. Because it's certainly enjoyable enough to develop a bit of loyalty towards.
A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness - Nassir Ghaemi The Good

A First-Rate Madness has a fascinating premise: that in times of crisis, mentally abnormal leaders are more effective than mentally healthy ones. For various reasons, many of which are included in this book, I actually tend to agree with the author, and even if I didn't, his theory would be intriguing food for thought. Additionally, Ghaemi writes well and is consistently engaging, keeping his work from becoming dry as one reads.

The Bad

I have extreme reservations about the evidence Ghaemi gives to support his claims. There's a lot of cherry picking, both of subjects and of symptoms. Clearly no book can cover every major world leader, but he's chosen to highlight only a very few when simply shortening the sections on each would've made room for a larger, more varied sample size. Additionally, any studies that don't agree with the theme are brushed aside, and the symptoms he focuses on in the case of each leader are clearly cherry-picked from often limited available information. One suspected incident of depression does not a depressive or bipolar make; half-hearted juvenile attempts at suicide do not denote a suicidal or depressed adult. Beyond even that, there's a lot of assumptions made and only the flimsiest of contexts given, which makes me wary of putting much stock in the "examples" on which Ghaemi basis his ideas.

I think the idea is good and deserves major study, and I would love to read the result of one. Unfortunately, this isn't it.

The "What the Hell?" Moment

So I was nearing the end of the book and all was going pretty well, I was disappointed but still intrigued, and while I hadn't yet settled on my rating (since I hadn't yet finished reading), I figured things would hold steady until the end. And then I reached the top of page 257 and, as Ghaemi is discussing the negative stigma attached to mental illness, he writes this:

"This stigma is the basis, I think, for most of the intuitively negative reactions that readers may have to this book's theme."

Passive aggressive attempt to foist any failures of the book onto the reader? Sorta seems that way. It's not the theme that gets a negative reaction, sir, but the sparse study and supporting information. Perhaps he meant it innocently (I'm sure many will agree that he did), but for me it shows a distinct lack of faith, either in his work or his readership, neither one of which is forgivable. So really, Nassir Ghaemi, what the hell?

The Summary

An excellent theory, intriguing and deserving of further work, but the book itself fails to deliver on its premise and makes the factual, scientific side of me squirm uneasily. Take it or leave it, the book doesn't make much of a difference either way.
The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories - Maggie Stiefvater, Brenna Yovanoff, Tessa Gratton I'll admit it: I'm a Maggie Stiefvater fangirl.

So yes, I was drawn in to The Curiosities by the promise of Stiefvater story-genius, but as soon as I started reading, I found myself falling--and falling hard--for both Brenna Yovanoff and Tessa Gratton. All three women contribute beautiful stories and giggle-worthy notations, and when reviewing the entire collection, they all shine equally.

Certain stories seem polished while others feel more raw. And I do not mean raw in the "unedited" sense but rather as more emotional and less bound by any stringent ideas of storytelling. I mean this as the utmost compliment, because these are the stories that get under your skin and make you remember them later.

Some offerings in this collection are flashes of one or two thousand words, epitomizing the "short" in short story, while others are significantly longer. Both styles are equally satisfying, although you've been warned: much of the time, upon reaching the end, there's a rush of frustration that there isn't more. These three writers world build and sketch out characters so well, so deeply, within the space of a few sentences that when one comes to the end of the tale, you find yourself wanting much, much more. Or at least I did. My outbursts of, "Wait, that's it? What the hell!?" were not shouts of offense but desperate cries for more of that story, because there's always more even if the writer never puts it on paper (and I want to read it, damn it!).

Also, because I really, really enjoyed some of these stories and, much like a child trying to get just one more bedtime story, I'm greedy and prone to hissy fits.

The introductions to each story are insightful, giving peeks into how that particular writer developed her story, where it came from and why. And while others may find the annotations in the margins distracting, I loved them. I felt the commentary added an additional depth, sometimes serious in the way of pointing out key thoughts or moments, sometimes amusing additions that give the whole book a warmer feel.

Also, I'm a big fan of snark, and there's quite a bit to be found in those margins. And when some of the stories have such bittersweet or the kind of endings that aren't quite sad but still stick with you long after you've finished, a little humorous snark is always appreciated.

A must read for lovers of short stories, fans of any or all of the three authors, or writers looking for insight into story creation. And while the majority are, in fact, fantasy stories, many others are not, so don't let the genre push you away from picking up The Curiosities.

A Few of My Favorite Curiosities:

The Vampire Box (Gratton)
Date With a Dragon Slayer (Gratton)
Puddles (Gratton)
The Bone-Tender (Yovanoff)
The Last Day of Spring (Stiefvater)
Council of Youth (Stiefvater)
Heart-Shaped Box (Stiefvater)
Berserk (Gratton)
Henry Miller on Writing - Henry Miller, Thomas H. Moore I'm standing basically alone here, judging from other reviewers, but Henry Miller on Writing did very little for me. No spark for me, no engagement. Maybe my experience comes from having read many of his other works, thus meaning I've already read many of the pieces contained in this one.
The Screwtape Letters - C.S. Lewis There's positively nothing I can add to what other reviewers have already said much better than I ever could. So I'll just toss in my agreement.

This is a beautiful little book, artfully written and an example of masterful satire. It makes you think while you read, and what's more, you're aware that you're thinking about all these things C.S. Lewis is presenting. Many books make you think, but this goes above and beyond. A good thing, really, considering the subject matter is basically good versus evil.

Unfortunately, Screwtape is also kind of dull. A worthwhile read, you'll be better off for it, your brain will thank you...but don't be surprised if you yawn a time or two. Kind of like attending church, actually...

(Relax, that last bit was a joke. You know, one of those "funny because it's true" jokes.)
Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie - Maggie Stiefvater Oh, James.

I'm happy sighing all over the place. James gets the attention he deserves in this sequel to Lament, as for me he was the most appealing character in the first book, and now I adore this cocky, empathetic, lovelorn boy all the more. This book is simple yet multifaceted, beautiful and eerie, and ultimately satisfying in a way that makes you close the cover, place the novel on your lap, and sigh with happiness, grinning the entire time like an idiot.

Peel back my 28-year-old exterior and you'll find an inner adolescent who read Ballad in one sitting, just like I'd previously done with Lament. And that inner adolescent loved this book in a way that made even my adult self adore it, too, so much so that at this point I have to admit to being a shameless fangirl, not a reviewer. So please, go read it and happy sigh with me, and I'll end by saying:

Oh, James.
Make Good Art - Chip Kidd, Neil Gaiman Four stars for the content itself, I saw the speech previously and it is, of course, awesome. Worth having this around, and thank goodness Gaiman's speech is actually why I bought this, because...

...no damn stars for the awful layout and design of the pages. Some are upside down, others have the print too small, and others are designed so they're extremely difficult to read. I've heard Kidd is excellent on other projects, but this one resembles the creativity of a 12-year-old girl back in the heyday of Geocities and Angelfire webpages (I know because, many many years ago, I was one of those girls). Very disappointing on that score.
God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian - Neil Gaiman, Kurt Vonnegut God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian is a wee book, less than 100 pages, and as this is typical Vonnegut style with the quick, punchy writing and expanded formatting, I read the entire thing in one go while sitting in the waiting room of my dentist's office. If you're looking for something short with a deeper message and a few laughs, this is for you.

I'm almost positive I read this several years ago in an earlier edition, but I don't remember it at all. Doesn't say much for the book's overall impact, unfortunately. Hopefully it sticks with me this time.
Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life - Howard Sounes Solid and informative, Howard Sounes' biography of Bukowski gets the job done. You'll learn about the man, his experiences, his women, and his writing, but when the title utilizes the word "crazy," there's an expectation the book will live up to its name. This one did not.

With such a dynamic man as the focus, this biography should've been intriguing. The fault is not with the subject but with his biographer: Bukowski's life and controversial writing give plenty of material, but the author wastes it in rote play-by-plays that feed the reader a flat laundry list. I've read other work by Sounes that proved far better than this, so I'm not sure what happened while he was working on this project. Maybe he was as bored as I was at times.

If you've read Bukowski's works, especially Ham on Rye and Women, large chunks of this biography will already be familiar. Not just in the "oh, that sounds familiar" sort of way but in the "Sounes quotes entire passages from the novels and then regurgitates them for the next four pages" kind of way. Repetitive and rote, this biography doesn't do justice to the man on the cover.

But like I said, this is a solid read and does exactly what it's supposed to: give a lifelong account of the man behind the poetry. You'll learn everything you expect to learn from a biography, from birth to death, loves and losses, and Sounes leaves nothing out. I just wish the final product proved more engaging.
The Folly of the World - Jesse Bullington Here's the thing about The Folly of the World: the story was underwhelming, yet the book only made me love Jesse Bullington's writing even more.

After reading (and loving) his previous work, this one wasn't quite on par. Still good, still worth a read, and by an author without the impressive catalog Bullington has, I would've been more hooked. So definitely go and read this, mortals, and enjoy it. And then if you haven't already, go read The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, because that novel kicks some serious ass.

Because here's the other thing: when Bullington writes, he kicks ass, takes names, and clearly enjoys it.

And there's something awesome about a writer whose writing exudes the fact that he's having fun, having a damn good time putting those words on paper and playing God and writing a story he'd want to read. If the writer is having fun then so are you, and Bullington's work is an excellent example of how its easy to get caught up in the author's enthusiasm.

Is his style to everyone's taste? Hell no. He gets dirty, sometimes to the point of seeming to be dirty for the sake of being shockingly so. He's sarcastic and harsh. There's grit, sex, bodily functions of the type your sweet grandma won't even acknowledge exists, and much, much profanity. Oh my, the profanity! Now I'm someone who curses with such skill it puts sailors to shame, so I'm in no way offended by the language in Bullington's novels; I will even admit to being somewhat pleased by it. However, I do realize that's not everyone's cup of tea, especially in such liberal doses, and we're not talking about a few uses of damn, hell, bitch, and shit. Fuck is common, and if one takes issue with "the C word" (as many justifiably do, I'll admit), then one should probably just walk away and save themselves the 500+ pages of being offended. To each their own.

But Bullington wrote what he wanted to write and, just as importantly, how he wanted to write it. And the joy of doing that infuses every paragraph; it's infectious. While I was reading, I had the distinct impression of a man who still loves writing and hasn't forgotten why writers often start writing in the first place: because it's fucking fun. He seems to write for himself; we just have the pleasure of enjoying it, too.

So yeah. That's that. I guess this was less a review of The Folly of the World and more a review of Jesse Bullington, Writer, but whatever. You read it anyway, didn't you?
Steppenwolf - Basil Creighton, Hermann Hesse Steppenwolf came to me by way of a friend's dramatic drunken recommendation during a night at my very favorite bar. Passionately he insisted I read it and then, when perhaps I didn't seem interested enough, he proceeded to tell me all about it in the way that drunk folks do, by which I mean incoherently. Not exactly what I fancied discussing over my bloody Mary, but I went out the next day and tracked down a copy, anyway.

I'm glad I did, for I liked it. I didn't love it, this was in no way a life-changing read, but it certainly affirmed certain aspects of duality and personality in ways I could only dream of writing. Thought-provoking and at times intense, Hesse's story of the Steppenwolf is an earnest and eerily prescient read. (His descriptions of interwar Germany and the impending storm--one that hadn't yet hit at the time of the book's writing--is unnerving. When he used the word holocaust in reference to the oncoming disaster, I actually shuddered.)

As a tale of identity, self-examination, and humanizing influences, Steppenwolf is effective and moving. Or, to put it another way: this is the story of a man who never quite left the teenage angst behind. The entire book is heavy on the "Oh, I'm a special snowflake and my life is so difficult, so much more than everyone else's, and the world just doesn't understand!" There's a narrative reason for this and thus it didn't irritate me like normally it would, especially since its dead on. They didn't call it emo back in the days of Hesse, but still...emo. I offer this line to support my statement:

"...self-hate is really the same thing as sheer egoism, and in the long run breeds the same cruel isolation and despair."

Furthermore, and this is not a complaint, the only true, well-developed character is the Steppenwolf. Hermine, Pablo, Maria...they're all cardboard cutouts used only as contrasts to the Steppenwolf's views and as drivers of the plot and main character's final revelations. For a man so invested in his own brilliance and self-perceived difference from others, these one-dimensional presentations are appropriate and completely effective. He seems to view others only as he wishes to see them and interact with them only as he wishes to utilize them. Often they are devices to him, not necessarily living beings with depth and brilliance of their own.

Steppenwolf is like many of the most intelligent, deeply philosophical people I've had the pleasure of meeting: he's so busy having ideas and then having more ideas about those original ideas that, at some point, he's forgotten to actually live. Being inside your own head is fine, examining the world around you and searching for answers is a sign of an active mind, but eventually you have to get off your ass, go out in the world, and actually live, or none of those ideas and thoughts mean a damn thing. Brilliantly done on Hesse's part.


Oh my word, this is a tad bit pretentious, isn't it? And when I say "a tad bit" I of course mean: holy hell, this is bloody fucking pretentious. The more smug college population and hipsters the world over must explode with joy upon discovering this one, no doubt carrying around a conspicuously placed copy to prove how "deep" they are. God help me, there were parts that nearly made me gag.

I understand this is a presentation of Hesse's philosophy. However, there are ways to expound upon philosophy without using huge chunks of the narrative to lecture the reader under the guise of guidance. If you want me to buy what you're selling, you probably shouldn't make my eyes glaze over in that "Oh my God, why are you still talking about this?" way. Seriously: I got it. Let's move on.

Overall a good read. Excellent questions are posed about human nature and if the answers even matter. Excruciatingly pretentious, which hurt its rating with me (would've been a four if he would've stopped repeating himself every five pages). If you're hardy and want to expand your horizons, I recommend reading Steppenwolf. If you read for fun and couldn't give a fuck less about the philosophical rantings of a dead man, then skip it. No one will blame you.
The Steampunk Gazette - Major Tinker Obviously this is a niche book, one that those not interested in the steampunk culture will likely never pick up. Those heavily involved in steampunk or with just a passing interest, however, will find this a fun, fantastical read.

And yet even those who couldn't care less about the movement will do a double take when they pass it on the shelf, because if nothing else this book is gorgeous. From the slick cover to the abundance of pictures inside, The Steampunk Gazette is eye candy on a grand, theatrical scale. Glossy pages, magazine-style formatting, high quality pictures of every aspect of steampunk you can imagine...breathtakingly beautiful.

Beyond the pictures, the reading material is also quite nice. No entry goes particularly in depth, but that doesn't seem the be the point of the book. This is an overview, a flavorful, eclectic introduction to steampunk, that touches on varied facets and focuses just long enough to catch a reader's interest. What's offered in these pages is just enough information that, should the fancy strike, the reader can take it and run, delve deeper by researching elsewhere. A good thing, too, considering the encouragement of creativity in steampunk culture.

An excellent choice for the discerning reader.
And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life - Charles J. Shields And So It Goes... is an in-depth biography in which Charles Shields does a solid job of humanizing a literary icon, exhaustively researched. This is the man, not just the writer, and that's a key difference to mark because this isn't about the work but the human being, in all his glory and failures, behind the work that made such an impact on 20th century literature.

I was in middle school when I first encountered Vonnegut: an uncle gave me a copy of Breakfast for Champions one Christmas and it was like a bomb exploded. This is what books could be like! Not too long ago a friend asked which author affected me most as a writer (not necessarily my actual writing but simply my horizons), and I answered without hesitation. Kurt Vonnegut.

In this biography, Shields doesn't shy away from the dark and dirty. Not only is the story of Vonnegut's life a rather depressing one, it turns out he was also kind of a dick. Would I have loved the chance to sit down and have a beer with him? Absolutely! Would I have wanted to be related to him or a close friend? Eh, probably not so much. Writers (and artists in general) are notoriously difficult people, often not the most stable or happiest people you'll encounter in the world, and yet while it's clear from this reading that Vonnegut was a difficult man beset by demons, there are many examples of the heart beneath the surface and, alas, the hurt that comes with it.

Shields' book is a good study of Vonnegut's life, delving deep and unflinching. Drawbacks exist, of course. For one, the narrative never really gains momentum and the whole book seems to plod along despite the wealth of material. There's a lack of intensity at times, which is a bit odd. Second, the ending is abrupt; Vonnegut's final days are given less than two pages and the last of the biography is simply the date he passed away. I remember where I was and what I was doing the day Kurt Vonnegut died, so while the man has gone, his influence remains; a few final words would've helped smooth out the ending.

Overall a great read for Vonnegut enthusiasts and likely a good choice for literary, history, and cultural enthusiasts. Recommended.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking - Susan Cain An interesting and in depth study of introverts, their behavior, and their thought processes. In some respects Susan Cain nailed her descriptions of introversion, especially in the brief passages concerning individuals who seem to behave like extroverts while still needing plenty of time alone to re-center themselves and recharge after the energy drain that is socializing in groups. However, I feel some of the studies and professional opinions she references can be viewed with some suspicion, for saying things like "many experts think" or "some studies suggest" are often flags for misinformation. While reading, note her favored use of words like "many", "some", and "often". How many? Three or three hundred? How often? These things are never clarified, often no names are given in relation to studies or even opinion, and I worry this leads to misguided assumptions. Additionally, she begins to lose focus in the final quarter of the book, which is intriguing but not entirely on task.

Overall a good read, quick and anecdotal. For introverts (or even introverted extroverts), this might be a good book to hand over to a close friend or significant other who doesn't quite "get" the mindset and the specialized needs of an introverted individual.

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