Wednesday, December 31, 2008

American Theocracy



American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century
by Kevin Phillips

(Viking Press / 0-670-03486-X / March 2006 / 480 pages / $26.95 hardcover /$5.99 Amazon)

Although American Theocracy is Kevin Phillips’ thirteenth book, it is the first one I have read. In fact, I had never even heard of Mr. Phillips until I saw him on Charlie Rose a few years ago. That interview coincided with the release of American Theocracy, and I was spellbound by what the author was saying about the state of America at the beginning of 2006. Kevin Phillips had worked in The Reagan Administration, but long before that time, he had published his first book in 1966 about the coming Republican revolution in The South. After covering similar issues from various angles throughout his eleven books in between, American Theocracy spreads the history of the relationships among politics, religion, and economics across America’s kitchen table in a manner that leaves no stone unturned.

This book leaps back into the depths of previous world empires to make its case. If there is a flaw in Mr. Phillips’ prose, it is the overwhelming multitude of details that might bore a less than enthusiastic reader. If you didn’t enjoy World History in college at least a little bit, you might prefer to use this book as a hefty boat anchor. On the other hand, if you are one of those people who have been paying attention to the drip-drip-drip demise of the U. S. as the world’s leader in every field over the span of the baby boomer generation, you will wallow in the professorial professionalism of American Theocracy. That is a mouthful, isn’t it? With our current transition between administrations and the book at a special price at Amazon, there couldn’t be a more appropriate time to read Kevin Phillips’ in-depth analysis. Is it one of the most poignant, significant, timely, thought-provoking books I have ever read? Absolutely.

I have been watching the financial and housing sectors of our economy slowly implode for years. Mr. Phillips’ book was written in 2005, just months before housing bubble became a household phrase. The author speaks knowingly of the theocratic intent of the second Bush regime, a concept he saw coming back in ’66, yet even Mr. Phillips seems to have been appalled by the crushing results upon our economic position in the world. No matter how accurately Kevin Phillips has detailed the changes of the past forty years, the addition of certain recent events from the short span of American history since this book was released will send chills up the spine of any reader who takes the time to absorb this material. The author has done extensive research on the history of the oil industry, price and availability fluctuations, and the effects on the American way of life. He easily predicts the housing and credit crises, even though their big finale was yet to be exposed at the time of the book’s release. The final major component of Mr. Phillips’ thesis is the rise of evangelicalism in the Reagan and Bush eras, with particular emphasis on the theocratic point of view espoused by the current President.

If you tend to purchase your contemporary, sociological nonfiction by the pound, you will love this book. Kevin Phillips is one of the foremost experts in the field, and his history with The Reagan Administration provides an extra bit of credibility for certain parts of his presentation. If you are still an ostrich who thinks that by some strange set of circumstances originating from outer space that the free market experiment of the last thirty years has been an uncompromising, rousing success, then maybe you should seek reading material elsewhere. Kevin Phillips is probably the nation’s most prolific authority on evangelical Republicans, as presented from the point of view of a traditional, financial conservative Republican.

See Also: The BNN Review

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Far Place in Time


A Far Place in Time
by Lee Cross

(Cauldron of Dreams Books / 0-978-75960-5 / 978-0-978-75960-5 / September 2006 / 232 pages / $13.95 / $11.86 Amazon)
Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM

It seemed like the perfect job, for John Lander, an IT expert suddenly let go from a well-established and prosperous firm. He had gotten on well with the firm’s original founder, but when the old man retired and his daughter inherited the CEO’s office… well, John could see the writing on the wall. With a gambling problem and owing child support and alimony to a number of ex-wives, he desperately needed employment. An opportunity offered to him by old friend, Hank Martin seems just the ticket. Hank is a retired physics professor and he has a secret hobby. He is a man obsessed with the concept of traveling in time, and is working on a device to make it possible. Within a very short time, John begins to share that obsession. The present-day has little to hold him, so he does not mind being the guinea pig for Hanks’ test runs… which take him into Los Angeles of the early 1940s. While there, he is struck by the possibilities for raising funds necessary to continue Hank’s work. Why not buy memorabilia in the past, especially portable and ephemeral things like coins, comic books and trading cards, and bring it to the present for profitable resale? And knowing the results of sports events in the past – why not bet on them? A good idea, and John and Hank plan with care, down to every detail but one – a small but fatal detail overlooked, which eventually sends John, a 21st century man, on the run. He finds a refuge of sorts as a merchant seaman, on a ship in the middle of the Pacific, in the middle of a war.

Cleverly and classically, the book begins in the middle of the story, with John afloat on a raft with a handful of survivors, after his ship is torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. This permits the story to unfold in two directions from that point, with just enough in the way of tantalizing hints sprinkled here and there. Also unfolding – besides some tense-making thriller elements – is a subtler story of John developing from the man that he is in modern times, to a finer and more responsible person. The twist at the end might be anticipated by readers with a taste for time-travel adventures, but the set-up for it is impeccable.


Lee Cross is a member of the Independent Authors’ Guild.
See Also: Celia's BNN Review
The Author's Website

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Anna-Mae Mysteries


The Anna-Mae Mysteries:
The Golden Treasure

by L. S. Cauldwell

(Star Publish / 1-932-99398-3 / 978-1-932-99398-1 / October 2008 / 228 pages / Ages 9-12 / $15.95 / $12.44 Amazon)
Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM

Anna Mae Botts, the spunky heroine of the title, is at an awkward age – a bit more than a child, not quite a teenager, and burdened with slightly more than the average quantity of angst for her age. She has a tag-along younger brother Malcolm, and an eccentric grandmother who believes absolutely in ghosts, voo-doo and weird and smelly charms. She also has a best friend named Raul – who may become more than just a best friend, as Anna Mae grows up – as well as the enmity of the class bully and his circle at her middle school, who all insist that it was Anna Mae who set a fire which almost burned the whole school down. On top of it all, Anna Mae has a very personal haunt, a great black disembodied fist, which materializes at the very worst of times, and appears to be trying to direct Anna Mae on a quest. The quest is a search for a missing gold treasure, a fortune in gold ingots and coin, which vanished during the last days of the Confederacy. Led by Anna Mae’s visions, ably assisted by her little brother and Raul, and driven by her grandmother, at the wheel of a battered automobile which everyone admits is too much of a wreck for anyone to ever consider stealing, Anna Mae and her allies use every resource they have to track down and unearth the missing gold.

The charm of Anna Mae and her adventures are undeniable, launching as they are from a school experience that is as fraught as I recall my own being… except for the ghosts, the visions and the floating chalk scribbling messages on the blackboard. Anna Mae is relatively unflappable, brave and determined to get to the bottom of it all. Another of her charms is that she is stoutly assisted – and believed – by certain of the adults around here, which is a pleasant switch from the sort of story which often pitches a child hero or heroine against a wholly uncaring adult world.

L. S. Cauldwell is a member of the Independent Author’s Guild.

See Also: Celia's BNN Review

The Author's Website

The Author at Star Publish

Friday, December 26, 2008

40 Years


40 Years by Bernd Struben
(Strider Nolan Publishing, Inc. / 1-932-04502-3 / 978-1-932-04502-4 / December 2008 / 200 pages / $9.95)
Reviewed by Dianne Salerni for PODBRAM

When Captain Brink D’Mar awakes from his induced sleep in a cryogenic chamber, he finds exactly what he expects waiting for him: a world to conquer. D’Mar is a genetically enhanced soldier called an ACP (Augmented Combat Personnel). Born without parents, raised without families, educated and trained solely for the purpose of war, D’Mar’s battalion serves humanity’s cause in the Great Race for Space against the powerful, insect-like Pfrlanx. In an effort to claim as many habitable worlds as the growing human population needs, the ACP Battalion forges ahead of more conventional spacefarers to clear the way for human occupation. In this case, “clear the way” means conquering any indigenous populations and relocating them to remote corners of their own planets while humans grab up the most desirable property and begin to breed like rabbits.

D’Mar was not supposed to have a conscience, but he does. He finds comfort believing that subjugation by humans is a preferable fate for the aliens than allowing the Pfrlanx to claim the planet first. The insectoid race never bothers to subdue native populations, preferring to annihilate them from orbit. D’Mar says, “Even when I order the deaths of a million alien combatants, I can sleep at night knowing I’ve saved the lives of a billion others.” D’Mar’s men spend decades sleeping away the time between battles in cryogenic chambers. They wake, fight for a few days, subdue an alien race, and then return to their “coffins” to dreamlessly sleep away the journey to the next planet.

Until, that is, they reach the planet that humans have named “New Columbia” – a planet 40 years beyond the last outpost of humankind, a planet populated by a harmless-looking race called the Borrells. It is on this planet that D’Mar will face a brutal war against an enemy he cannot help but admire. “Surrender” is not a word known to the Borrells, but no other option has ever been given to an alien race by humans. D’Mar finds himself questioning his own choices, and he cannot help but remember that he is 40 years removed from any human reinforcement … or any retribution.

For the most part, 40 Years is a smooth read. Its greatest weakness may be its brevity, which does not allow for extensive character development. However, it can be argued that, since character is generally a product of family, upbringing, and experiences, these bio-engineered humans who sleep away years in between battles have never been permitted to develop much character. Their very shallowness is a function of who they are and who they will continue to be, unless a drastic change takes place. Change is inevitable – and hinted at perhaps too soon, in the first chapter. Thus, I was able to predict the ending early on, but I enjoyed the path to getting there. This is a promising new author with much to offer. I look forward to his future endeavors.


See Also: Dianne's B&N Review
The High Spirits Review
The Publisher's Website

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Breeni Interview

Blog Name: POD Book Reviews & More (PODBRAM)
Blog URL: http://podbram.blogspot.com/
Blog Owner: Floyd M. Orr

1. What motivated you to create a book review blog?
After learning how to market my own four POD books over a five year period, spending sizable funds and enormous quantities of time and effort, I thought it might be rewarding to try to help other deserving new authors. I tend to be very meticulous instead of prolific, in both my writing and in everything else I do, so I set out to make PODBRAM the best of its kind. We don’t review the most books, and we certainly do not dole out gushingly positive reviews like bubblegum. All our review team members are mature, experienced writers moonlighting as true book critics. We try to be the premiere free, legitimate POD review site on the web.

2. What do you find most rewarding about book reviewing?
Receiving nice e-mail messages and comments on the site from authors and readers who appreciate the effort we put into PODBRAM. Seeing our names on authors’ book jackets, in their Acknowledgments, and on their websites is always fun, too!

3. What types of books do you review?
We actively seek out mature, qualified, writers who are dedicated to their craft. We want to compose thoughtful, honest reviews, and the duds of the self-publishing universe drag down our mood and our purpose. Look over some of the books we have reviewed at PODBRAM and you will see a very eclectic pattern. We are far more concerned with quality than genre. We have little interest in children’s books, poetry or religious zealotry. We aren’t too thrilled with reading the same old formulaic tripe in the romance, horror, or scifi genres, either.

4. In what genre do you consider yourself to have the most expertise?
Nonfiction in general, particularly that of a social, contemporary, or political nature, light social commentary, horror, thrillers, and mysteries. Other reviewers on our team specialize in historical fiction, science fiction, military, espionage, history, comedy, and other genres.

5. Is there any type of book that you absolutely will not review?
The authors I refer to as cheaters are the main ones I refuse to review. These subjects include get-rich-quick schemes, celebrity trash, and other titles that are all too easy to sell to morons. We at PODBRAM generally have no interest in children’s books, poetry or pornography, either. We are looking for serious books by authors who are serious about writing, and that particularly means editing and proofreading.

6. Do you accept submissions from self-published authors?
Absolutely. We review books from all publishers except Lulu. Those are referred to our associates at The Lulu Book Review.

7. Do you accept PDF versions or e-books for review?
No.

8. Can an author guest blog for you?
No.

9. Do you host book giveaways?
No.

10. Do you interview authors?
Yes, we offer very extensive, detailed interviews of accomplished authors who particularly have something of value to offer to our readers. Visit the website to see exactly what I mean by extensive and detailed.

11. Do you ever host stops on an organized book tour?
No.

12. What is the average turnaround time for a review, from the time the book arrives in your mailbox until the review is posted?
The timeframe is subject to how busy we are at the time. We have five reviewers, and usually your book will be selected by the reviewer who feels he or she can most likely read and review your book promptly. You will be notified at the time if the wait is longer than a few weeks. Often the turnaround is within a few days.

13. Do you cross-post reviews to Amazon or other sites?
According to the reviewer, we post reviews at various other sites. All reviews are posted at PODBRAM and Amazon, and in some cases, these are individually composed reviews. In addition, we have reviewers that post to their own review sites or to Blogger News Network.

14. Will you notify an author by email when a review is posted?
Absolutely. We offer the best personal service available. An author selected for review will receive notification when his book has been received, as well as when his reviews have been completed. See our website for more detailed information.

15. Do you have any specific requirements for review submission?
All an author has to do is to ask nicely. Be sure to mention the title of your book, your website, and your contact e-mail address. I will promptly research you and your book online to see what sort of author you seem to be. If I immediately discover numerous errors of editing or proofreading in your book, I shall let you know that your book has not been accepted for review at PODBRAM. If your book fits into what I call the cheating category, or there seem to be other careless discrepancies in your credentials as a serious author, you will be promptly dismissed. If you pass these two hurdles, and I am either not interested in or too busy for your book, then I send your information out to the other team members. If one or more of them requests your book, the one who seems to want it more will be selected and you will be notified immediately of the address of the reviewer. This whole process can take as little as ten minutes or as long as 48 hours. Most authors are notified as accepted or rejected either the same day or the next.

16. Where can authors submit review queries and to whom should they be addressed?
Contact Floyd M. Orr at ice9 at nctv dot com or comment on any post. PODBRAM used to be known as iUniverse Book Reviews (iUBR). The name was changed to PODBRAM when I decided to set up a team of reviewers and open up the submissions to all publishers, both traditional and POD. The URL has been left as it was simply because of the many links to the site already set up all over the web. We still probably review more books from iU than any other publisher, but we have no business relationship with the company other than as authors. Although it was not covered in this interview, PODBRAM offers a wealth of helpful information about the POD publishing and marketing experience, in addition to the book reviews.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Breeni List

Sabrina Williams at the Breeni Books blog has been featuring interviews with online book reviewers for the past several weeks. An identical set of questions has been made available on the site for the proprietor of any review site to answer. Sabrina has been posting one interview per day, and today is PODBRAM's day. Go over and read the inteview, send Sabrina a nice thank-you e-mail message for the service she is providing to authors, and browse through the list of past interviews. In a manner similar to the DeFacto POD Review Ring featured at PODBRAM, Sabrina is actively rounding up reviewers and making their attrinutes and requirements available to authors. Unlike the list at PODBRAM, hers is much longer and more up to date; however, only a portion of them accept POD or self-published books. As a shortcut, the list in tiny type in the left margin shows all the reviewers who accept POD books. Maybe you will find one that suits your style and subject matter.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mission Accomplished: Stop the Clock


Stop the Clock
by Muriel P. Engelman
(iUniverse / 0-595-48110-8 / 978-0-595-48110-1 / August 2008 / 365 pages / $23.95)
Reviewed by Malcolm R. Campbell for PODBRAM

Muriel P. Engelman is having a wonderful life, and she writes about it with vibrant clarity in her personal memoir Mission Accomplished: Stop the Clock.

Organized into three parts with photographs from Engelman’s personal collection, the majority of the book focuses on pre-war, depression-era memories and post war anecdotes about family life. However, the 45-page section about Engelman’s experiences as a World War II Army nurse serving in England, Belgium and France is the memoir’s highly noteworthy, though far too short, Pièce de résistance.

After Engelman finished nursing school in Boston followed by six months of Army training at Ft. Devens, MA, her general hospital unit was shipped overseas via a convoy of troop ships in December 1943. For security reasons, the nurses weren’t told they were headed for the European Theater until they were underway.

The unit first served at a thousand-bed hospital in North Wales. Then it was transferred to France several weeks after the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

“A former luxury liner, now converted to troop transport was our transportation across the English channel,” writes Engelman. “The staterooms allotted to the nurses were heavily infested with thousands of bloodsucking insects known as bedbugs, so we fled to the upper deck, where we spent the next three nights sleeping on the bare deck.”

Conditions ashore weren’t an improvement. The truck convoy carrying the nurses through bombed-out villages and rough back roads got lost. The drivers unceremoniously left the unit in a dark cow pasture for the night while they left to get better directions. The nurses were left to fend for themselves among the cows until the next morning.

Recently, authors such as Jeff Shaara have focused on World War II battles, strategies and politics, and filmmaker Ken Burns has taken viewers into the heat of conflict. Engelman, though, provides a perspective we see less often, by showing us the dedicated efforts of Army nurses working under near-impossible conditions, sometimes under fire.

While serving in Liège, Belgium in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge, Engelman and her roommate opened their gifts early because they thought they might be dead or captured by the Germans before Christmas day.

In a letter home, she wrote that if there was no relief from daily buzz bomb attacks on their hospital a mere ten miles from the front lines, she wouldn’t have to worry about making any postwar plans.

“We’ve been lucky so far,” she told her mother, “having had some narrow squeaks, but it can’t last. It’s the most awful feeling in the world when you hear the motor of the bomb stop almost above you and then wait a few seconds for the explosion.”

Engelman’s mother saved these letters, and the inclusion of excerpts in the book enhances the time-machine-like quality of the wartime accounts. Engelman’s fluid prose, then and now, easily sweeps readers back to the scene 64 years ago for rare look at the war from an Army nurse’s perspective.

In part three of the memoir, Engelman writes of her adjustments to civilian life, her marriage, her husband’s career as a dentist, her children, her causes and her travels, and these accounts will probably bring many readers to say, “I wish Muriel and Mel had lived next door to me.” Her memories of the worst landlady on the planet (“who was not God’s gift to humanity”), of sympathetically dealing with Mel’s mother’s Alzheimer’s, and of life with a housekeeper who worked for the family for 28 years are especially fascinating and dear.

Nonetheless, as a reader interested in World War II history, I am disappointed in the decision—noted in the preface—to expand this volume into a lifelong memoir rather than focusing more time and space, if not the entire book, on Engelman’s nursing experiences in France and Belgium. An opportunity has been lost here to provide greater detail, including profiles of others in her unit, closer-in accounts of caring for the wounded and dying, and more of the flavor of the off-hours life of women working on the doorstep of war.

While I came to know and admire Muriel P. Engelman through her well-written prose, I feel that the book falls short of the expectations I had from the title and cover photograph. I wanted more of the best that the memoir has to offer, the part that begins with, “It was a cold, bleak late-December day when we boarded our ship, the USS E. B. Alexander, in Boston Harbor.”

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Adelsverein: The Harvesting


Adelsverein: The Harvesting
by Celia Hayes
Book Three of the Adelsverein Trilogy (Booklocker / 500 pages / $19.95 / Kindle $8.76)

The Harvesting is currently available direct from the publisher. Here is what Dr. Al Past had to say about this final book in the series:

The Harvesting sees the once-struggling settlements becoming towns and beginning to prosper. The extended Steinmetz family moves into a number of business ventures, enjoying successes despite the occasional disaster.

Editor's Note: All cover photography on The Adelsverein Trilogy by Dr. Al Past

Adelsverein: The Sowing


Adelsverein: The Sowing
by Celia Hayes

Book Two of the Adelsverein Trilogy
(Booklocker / 1-932-04522-8 / 978-1-932-04522-2 / December 2008 / 420 pages / $18.95 / Kindle $7.96)


Celia Hayes' second volume in The Adelsverein Trilogy continues where the first book left off. Dr. Al Past states in his review:

The Sowing takes the family, friends, and community through the period leading up to the Civil War, then through the trying war years, to their painful conclusion.


Read an excerpt from The Sowing.



Adelsverein: The Gathering



Adelsverein: The Gathering

by Celia Hayes
Book One of the Adelsverein Trilogy (Booklocker / 1-932-04517-1 / 978-1-932-04517-8 / December 2008 / 384 pages / $17.95 / Kindle $7.16)

Reviewed by Dr. Al Past for PODBRAM

Note: The Gathering is the first book in The Adelsverein Trilogy. Dr. Past has read all three books in the trilogy, however, this review covers only volume one in detail. More information on Books One & Two follows this post.

Is there anything better than a good book? Better than a book that tells an absorbing story, that's peopled with characters you care about, living through exciting times, set among real events, and that leaves you with a better understanding as well as thoroughly entertained?

Of course there is something better: two books like that. And even better still, three. The Adelsverein Trilogy, by Celia Hayes, is such a trilogy. What The Leopard does for Italy and Gone With the Wind does for the American South, The Adelsverein Trilogy does for Texas, and does it in style.

Briefly, book one, The Gathering, recounts the adventures of the Steinmetz family as they and several other families emigrate from Germany in the 1840s to the wilds of Texas. The narrative generally follows one of the daughters, Magda Vogel, a spunky, engaging young woman, as the families endure an arduous sea voyage only to find themselves put ashore at a desolate spot on the Texas coast, to be led to an unprepared, disorganized, and under-funded German settlement area in the hill country (the "Adelsverein" of the title). On the way they happen upon a company of men under Jack Hays (later a renowned Texas Ranger), on their way to the Mexican War. Magda briefly meets one of his men, Carl "Dutch" Becker, one of the few survivors of the Goliad massacre, before her family resumes its trek to to New Braunfels. From there they travel to Friedrichsburg (modern-day Fredericksburg), and struggle to find shelter and make lives for themselves. Not to spoil things, let it simply be said that the rest of The Gathering brings the return of the wounded Carl Becker, the beginning of a business and farm for the Vogel/Steinmetz family, the wooing of Maggie by several appealing suitors, her eventual marriage, a cholera epidemic, and much more.

Book two, The Sowing, takes the family, friends, and community through the period leading up to the Civil War, then through the trying war years, to their painful conclusion.

Book three, The Harvesting, sees the once-struggling settlements becoming towns and beginning to prosper. The extended Steinmetz family moves into a number of business ventures, enjoying successes despite the occasional disaster.

Taken all together, The Adelsverein Trilogy provides a terrifically enjoyable and satisfying read. The characters come alive immediately, and as the pages fly by we get to see them grow, mature, and deal with the joys and tribulations of life. We are left with a wonderfully complete picture of an era, and unforgettable memories of the engaging and sturdy families whose type formed the backbone of this nation.

Any person who's had history in school, (and paid attention) will know the basic events of the era, but probably not how those events were received in the Texas German hill country. The great strength of the trilogy is that we experience those events not on the battlefield or in distant places, but on the home front. We all read in class of generals, strategies, marching armies and blockades and battles and dates and so forth, but it's so much more compelling to live the events through the eyes of people we like, in person. However much we know today about the Civil War, to the Steinmetz family the news was minimal and late, and there were no guarantees of anything: disaster was an ever-present possibility. Random events could (and did) upset everything at any time. No matter what, the housework had to be done; the animals and crops had to be tended, and the family had to be raised. Such is life, and such is the power of literature.

This is not to say that larger events are overlooked. The story gracefully works in encounters with Sam Houston, Jack Hays, early San Antonio, Austin, New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, Comanche raids, truce negotiations, agriculture, cattle drives, illnesses, 19th century medicine, the handling of firearms, race relations, business practices--the full context of daily life at the time. The author's historical accuracy is meticulous, her writing clean and true: she brings an entire era to marvelous life. If you don't know the Texas hill country, you will after you read The Adelsverein Trilogy. I thought I knew it, but the Texas hill country will never look the same to me now.

See Also: The Author's Website

The Adelsverein Wikipedia Page

Read an excerpt from The Gathering.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Facing Reality Backwards


There is a certain discussion subject that continues to surface at the IAG Yahoo Group. It just won't go away. The reason it isn't going away is that it is the Achilles heel of the POD publishing explosion of the past decade. There are no longer any reasons for anybody to sit on the bench. Anybody and everybody can play. Yes, the corporate control empowered by short-term profits has destroyed the traditional publishing industry, absorbing its soul and relentlessly pushing it toward eventual bankruptcy. That does not mean that the opposite strategy is the answer, either. Most of the consumer public has finally realized the folly of its ways. Now that the financial debacle is on the news every day, everyone seems to finally be paying attention. It's too late to turn back the clock. The changes to our marketed lifestyles have already been decided. Now the only choice we have is to work within the parameters set out for us by the controlling corporations, and by these I mean both iUniverse and Random House.

We must face the fact that the race to the bottom is both real and relentless, and this is why America is going down the tubes. The quality of both our publishing and our reading is just one little drop in a very large bucket. American citizens are being purposely devalued. Job has become the dirtiest word in our language. The payment to a person for a job well done has become an anachronistic concept. This is the point from which we must begin this discussion if we want to be grounded in reality.

Everyone has a different opinion as to what exactly defines a bad book, one that is below the reader's particular standards. Is it fun to read? Is it grammatically correct? Was it adequately proofread? Is the subject matter popular? Has the book sold well? Is it a particularly poignant subject for its time? Was it edited correctly? Can the author spell? Was the storyline interesting? Were the characters realistically developed? Did it make you laugh or cry? Do you wish to recommend this book to someone you like? Was the plot accurately developed? Was the presentation and point of view consistent throughout the book? I could go on with this list of questions, but I shall stop because I know you get the point.

Let's move on to the factors that have predetermined the answers to most of these questions. We are going to face this reality in the reverse order that you might expect; however, this is probably the most accurate way to examine the issues. Not coincidentally, one of the founding concepts that I had in mind when I started PODBRAM in July 2006 was to communicate my knowledge of this particular subject to authors and future authors. You could call this the pinnacle of my personal publishing soapbox. I think that if more aspiring and unknown authors out there would take this concept to heart, everyone would benefit. On with the show!

A book sells well because a significant number of readers wish to part with their cash to read it. They are fascinated by the subject matter, and a book communicates that subject matter to them from the cover, the blurbs, the advertising, or whatever. You could say that many of them are obsessed with that subject. You could say that some will buy that book no matter what the cost. Some will buy it no matter how poorly it has been composed, edited, or proofread. Some will buy it just because they will buy anything that seems to appeal to their obsession. Basically, I am saying that due to what both the traditional and POD industries have done to the market, book sales are relatively meaningless as definers of the quality of a book. I read a book a few years ago that in my opinion offered an interesting, original premise and plotline, but the overall compositional quality was nothing more than average. That book was The Da Vinci Code and it has sold sixty million copies, and that was as of 2006! Two of the best selling POD authors I have reviewed at PODBRAM hold the records for the most proofreading errors. The ringleader in sales is also clearly the ringleader in errors, by a wide margin.

The next step in our backward progression is the issue of proofreading. Do all you clowns out there who think you are authors not realize that this is one of the key reasons that the race to the bottom has so affected the publishing industry? Do you not realize that proofreading is one of those tedious, time-consuming, low-paying, labor-intensive jobs that traditional publishers have been working so diligently to minimalize? I refer to the job cutting that has so obviously been done in this field. Why do you think the errors in traditional books have increased in recent years? Do you think all the idiocy we deal with in our everyday lives has simply bypassed the publishing industry? Of course it hasn't. The traditional publishers want to pay as few proofreaders as possible. They want to pay the ones they do employ as little as possible and work them as hard as possible. Why would any POD company employ proofreaders, except as servicers of the small number of clients who have chosen to pay the enormous cost of this optional service? You, the authors, must do your own proofreading, you must teach yourself to do it well, and you must care enough about your readers to do it, even when they choose to buy your books anyway.

Before you can proofread, you have to edit. This is the point at which you have to make sure you stay in the right tense for the concept you are presenting. You have to be certain that your story makes sense to the reader. You have to avoid babbling on about something that you had never intended to take over your subject. You have to make sure that the information you have provided is complete enough to communicate your message. You must make it fun or enjoyable in some way for the reader. You have to make the text flow like a river. You have to make your book memorable in a positive manner.

The compositional style is a complex concept. Let me try to explain by describing the style I know best, my own. My style has been inspired from several particular angles by certain authors that have consistently impressed me with reading material I deeply, memorably enjoyed. Jean Shepherd amazed me with his uncanny ability to wring poignant memorabilia out of anything. Anne Rice astounds me with her stories that take the reader backward through time, covering centuries of history as seen through the eyes of very memorable characters. Al Franken writes about politics as only an SNL alumnus could, with truth splattered beneath the parody. Peter Egan speaks on my level about motorized machines, as if they were all in my garage right now. Kurt Vonnegut could take me to places only he could imagine, yet these magical worlds were eerie reflections of our own. If you step back from the pages of my books and squint just right, you can see the ghosts of these famous authors hiding between the lines. These are the authors who have made me step back and say, Wow! These are the writers I want to emulate. I want to channel them like a spiritualist. I want my words to be as memorable as theirs. Every writer has to find his niche. He has to write until the epiphany arrives. When it does, you will know that you have been shot between the eyes. Until then... keep writing.

We all must write what we know. If you try to write anything else, you are just wasting your own time and that of your readers. I used my own experience in my description of compositional style to show you what I know. These are the writers and the subject matter that interest me, so I have read a lot by these authors, as well as a lot of similar material by others. Do I like to write about politics, motorhead stuff, sex, psychology, sociology, music, culture, consumerism, comedy, trivia, and other stuff emitted from my wildest imagination? Of course. I don't write about sports because I don't give a rat's ass about sports. I'm a nerd, I'll always be a nerd, and I write like a nerd.

The marketing of books is the hard part. Anyone who tells you otherwise, for whatever reason, does not know what he is talking about. Long before you begin publishing a book, you need to formulate, at least within your own mind, exactly what the book is and who is going to read it. You must spend at least some effort in creating a title and a cover, and then picture who is going to see that title and cover combination and what they might think the first moment they see it. Since I write in multiple genres, I planned from the beginning for all my books to have a certain look that I hope appears as nostalgic, psychedelic, and professional, all at the same time. Although my professional career, as well as my lifestyle, was the most satisfying in The Eighties, the period between 1955 and 1975 is what I fondly cherish. This is precisely what makes my books very difficult to market, but if I wrote anything else, I would not be writing what I know and what I am passionate about. I am obsessed with the fact that I think America took an incorrect right turn in 1970, and this is the story I want to communicate to my readers. I want to entertain and inform. If you wish to do only one or the other as an author, you have it easy. If the subject matter of your book is easy to describe and understand, you have it even easier. Was it fun to write? Did it offer anything really different from the other million titles in your genre? Only you can answer the first question and only your readers can answer the second.

The question pondered by the thoughtful authors at IAG cannot be answered in exactly the same way by any two authors. You know what they say: opinions are like the holes that everyone has. A bad book to one person means the proofreading was lax. To another, it means the editing was incompetent. To yet another, it means the plot was a stinker. Another person might say the storyline was too derivative of a thousand others like it. We cannot even discuss this issue accurately among ourselves without difficulty because our own individual use of the language is too diverse. We don't really know at what stage the author failed in his mission. Did he write a wonderful book, but he was just too darn lazy or impatient to proofread his manuscript completely? Has he not read enough books in his genre to know that that subject has been written to death already? Does he simply lack an adequate grasp of spelling and grammar? I could go on with these questions, but as stated above, there is no point. You get the picture.

I have never claimed to have all the answers. After all, I am a closet psychologist. That's what I should have been when I long ago got derailed by the financial services industry. Don't psychologists love to answer a question with another question? It should be obvious that I side with the team who thinks we cannot succeed at any marketing endeavor without properly vetting our authors, yet I know that at some level we have to let everybody in the tent. I feel much the same way about all the current bailout mess. There is no easy answer, nowhere, nohow.

Friday, December 05, 2008

To the Ends of the Earth




To the Ends of the Earth: The Last Journey of Lewis & Clark

by Frances Hunter

(Blind Rabbit Press / 0-977-76362-5 / 978-0-977-76362-7 / September 2006 / 392 pages / $20 / $19.60 Amazon)

Reviewed by Dianne Salerni for PODBRAM

In 1809, three years after returning from the greatest adventure of their lives, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark find themselves serving politically appointed positions in St. Louis. Clark, at least, has established a family, having married the girl of his dreams and grown accustomed to a more settled life. Lewis, however, has languished in his new role as Governor of the Louisiana Territory. More suited to the rugged life of an explorer than to political intrigue, Lewis makes an enemy of the wrong man and is subsequently compelled to travel to Federal City, where he hopes to defend his actions to the Secretary of War. This will be the last journey of Lewis’s life, a terrible trek across treacherous lands where he will endure hostile companions, fight off attack by assassins, and face his own inner demons. A few days travel behind him follows his faithful friend William Clark, called out from the haven of his home by a desperate plea – striving to catch up to Lewis in time to save him.

Author Frances Hunter (in truth, two sisters writing under one name) has pried the famous duo of Lewis and Clark off the pages of history and breathed true life into them. Between the pages of this stunning book, we meet two real men, fully realized and believable characters who just happen to be the most famous explorers in American history. Although we first meet Lewis as a broken and tormented has-been with a ruined reputation, readers get periodic glimpses of the man he once was, the heroic and seemingly indestructible leader of the Corps of Discovery of the Northwest Territory. His stalwart friend William Clark is almost larger than life, but unmistakably human in his faults – particularly in the way he overlooks his friend’s shortcomings and in the way he treats his slaves. York is present, too, and although many modern history texts tend to sanitize reality by describing York as a valued member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Frances Hunter reminds us that even after that valiant accomplishment, he was still Clark’s slave. Other characters brought to life include Lewis’s faithful dog Seaman and the mysterious Major Neelly, whose secret loyalties and possible role in Lewis’s death remain uncertain until the end.

To the Ends of the Earth is an example of independent publishing at its finest. Impeccable editing, compelling writing, and a believable interpretation of a famous historical mystery make this one of the best independently published novels I have read. I admit that the first couple of chapters, heavily weighted in political intrigue, moved a bit slowly for me, but by the time the author introduced York, I was hooked. Periodic flashbacks describe vivid moments of the original Lewis and Clark Expedition, while events in this, their last journey, move inexorably toward the climax. Although I knew the fate of Lewis in advance, I was still not ready for it when it happened, and I was, like York in the novel, struck by horror and disbelief: “Captain Lewis couldn’t be dead! Oh, many times on the Expedition he’d come close – why, he’d been chased by a grizzly bear! He’d almost fallen off a cliff! Hell, he’d even been shot through the ass! Seemed like folks were always giving Captain Lewis up for dead. But it was impossible!” Impossible, maybe, but it was as true and strange as only history can be. For fans of historical fiction and American history, To the Ends of the Earth is a novel that should not be missed.

See Also: Dianne's High Spirits Review

The Author's Website

The Fairest Portion of the Globe

Monday, December 01, 2008

Dolphins Under My Bed



Dolphins Under My Bed

by Sandra Clayton

(Wheatmark / 1-587-36816-1 / 978-1-587-36816-5 / January 2008 / 292 pages / $21.95 / Amazon $16.46)

Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM

According to the author’s website, this is the first of a trilogy of accounts, covering the adventures of a fifty-something couple, both fairly-well paid professionals but unenthusiastic about that last long stretch of slogging through the workday before retirement. In addition to that, the weather in England’s midlands where they lived and worked seemed to be getting viler by the winter, and husband David’s allergies were getting worse… the chance to chuck it all and run away to sea had more appeal every day.

And so they did. Many people dream of this sort of adventure, living on a small boat and heading out to the South Pacific, around the world… and in The Clayton’s case, lighting out for the comparatively warmer, sunnier and more welcoming Mediterranean; specifically, Spain’s Balearic Islands – which we know better as Majorca and Minorca. (Ibiza is part of that chain, too.) There are also all kinds of good reasons not to do something so drastic; they could have whiled away the years in a tiny cottage in Provence, or along the Costa Brava, looking at sunsets and enjoying the local wine. But that did not appeal to David, who loved sailing, the out-of-doors, and braving the rude elements at sea and ashore. Sandra was much less keen on that, cheerfully admitting that she hated to be tossed around the tiny cabin, whenever a bigger, faster boat passing by kicked up a big wake… and didn’t much really care for sailing. But she and David agreed that they had to go and have their adventure whilst they still could – and by luck, happened to settle on the purchase of a sturdy, 40-foot catamaran, just large enough to live on, but small enough for the two of them to manage. On a dreary and unpromising day, they set sail from a mud-bank in Chichester Harbor, in search of warmer climes and a happily stripped-down life. This account takes them as far as the journey across the Channel, across the Bay of Biscay, around Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean. This could be a rather tedious, dry account of miles traveled, under sail or motor, or storms and what they had for dinner and the wildly varying accounts of reception at various small yacht basins all the way along, but it is enlivened with a wonderful eye for surroundings and scenery and a nice sense of comedy. The description of Sandra wrestling with the Velcro of her foul-weather gear is self-deprecating and comic. She also has genuine, unflagging interest in all the places and people they encounter on their wandering journey. Yes indeed, Spanish supermarkets and post offices are exactly as described, the spectacularly scenic (or squalid) old and the weirdly dysfunctional new exist in uneasy juxtaposition, all along the coasts of Spain and Portugal.

The only thing lacking is pictures. I would have loved to have seen some of the pictures that are on the website in the book, as well as some pictures of the Voyager itself. A few interesting recipes would have been a charming addition, as well. How does one cook any sort of meal in a tiny place like the galley of a 40-foot catamaran? Perhaps the next two books will give away that secret.

See Also: Celia's BNN Review

Sandra Clayton's Website

Sandra's Wheatmark Page