Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Last Horizon

The Last Horizon: Feminine Sexuality & The Class System by Floyd M. Orr
(iUniverse / 0-595-24472-6 / 978-0-595-24472-0 / August 2002 / 271 pages / $17.95 / Kindle $4.80)

Reviewed by Dianne K. Salerni for PODBRAM

In The Last Horizon: Feminine Sexuality & The Class System, non-fiction author Floyd M. Orr presents a new perspective on today’s middle class American society. Mr. Orr is not afraid to speak the blunt truth that we all know (but continue to deny): a person’s sexual attractiveness is the single most important factor for social success in America.

Mr. Orr’s theory is based not on empirical testing or psychobabble, but on his observations of American social structure over a lifetime. He has dubbed this structure The Class System-not to be confused with an economic class system based on income. Floyd Orr’s Class System is a pattern of behaviors that determine "a pecking order" in American social interaction. Family background, economic position, and education play their roles, but the most important factor is how physically attractive a person is.

The author proposes that The Class System is the product of a nation that, since the end of World War II, has not had to fear death on a grand scale from war or epidemics. With physical survival practically assured, Americans have been able to develop the most consumer-driven society in history. The important question asked by a typical American family is not "Will we survive this year?" but "What will we buy this year?"

The Last Horizon is written for women and is meant to be a guide for finding a mate who is more interested in his woman than his car or his favorite sports team. However, some female readers may be turned off by the author’s blunt language and obvious dislike for the shallow values of "the herd mentality" within The Class System. Almost by his own definition, the very women who could most benefit from his advice on choosing men are the ones who will be ideologically unprepared to accept it. Because of this-or perhaps because I already have a wonderful husband-I wish Mr. Orr had focused less on the applications for dating and more on his very interesting observations of society and the corporate world which perpetuates the system for its own benefit. Personally, I found these to be the most interesting parts of the book.

Once you read The Last Horizon, you can never un-read it. I have caught myself applying his Class System designations to people I know and the characters on my favorite TV shows. I have suddenly noticed how Disney Channel sitcoms tend to perpetuate the values of this system, and I’ve started asking my children to turn that channel off. In retrospect, I think The Lost Horizon explains my entire adolescence! But beware-before choosing to read this book-can you handle what you will learn?

See Also: The Horizon page at e-tabitha
Dianne's High Spirits review of Horizon
Dianne's B&N Review

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Reflections of a Khmer Soul

Reflections of a Khmer Soul
by Navy Phim
(Wheatmark /1-587-36861-7 / 978-1-587-36861-5 / August 2007 / 164 pages / $14.95)

Reviewed by Malcolm R. Campbell for PODBRAM

Navy Phim was born in Cambodia in April 1975 as the insurgent forces of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge seized control of the country bringing to an end a brutal civil war against the US-backed government of Lon Nol. However, the brutalities did not end with the war’s end: two million Cambodians would die at the hands of the Khmer Rouge during the next 45 months through starvation, execution and torture.

Pol Pot proclaimed 1975 as Year Zero and began his "purification" of the country, ridding it of city dwellers, capitalists, westerners, banks, stores, hospitals, churches and other purportedly unnecessary organizations, while forcing mass numbers of people into agrarian work camps. Those who did not survive the work and the torture, those who were often forced to dig their own shallow graves, ended up in what Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran called "the killing fields."

Reflections of a Khmer Soul is a collection of stories, "snippets," travels and contemplations representing Navy Phim’s inner and outer journey away from that Year Zero. Her outer journey began when her parents left Cambodia for Thailand for economic reasons in 1979. Swept up in a mass exodus of some 600,000 people, Phim’s life for the next four years was largely defined by refugee camps and the roads between them. 

At six years of age, Phim helped the family earn a living in the camps by selling bread at a marketplace stall and nearby neighborhoods. "When I returned to Cambodia and saw young merchants touting their produces," Phim writes, "I remembered my life as a peddler in the refugee camps and how much I hated walking around with my merchandise, being afraid of meeting Thai soldiers."

Finally, after a year in the Philippines in a refugee status, her family was sponsored to the United States, ultimately settling within the large Cambodian population of Long Beach, California. 

This beautiful, well-written book also explores Phim’s inner journey, one concerned to a large degree with identity. She asks questions and tries to understand how and why Khmer could kill Khmer. Phim lives within the very long shadow of the Killing Fields and the near-requisite negative connotations for the word "Khmer." While that shadow is real and persistent, Phim did not see, much less know about, the Killing Fields as a child in the late 1970s.
"To think of myself as a survivor of the Killing Fields is strange," writes Phim. "I did not live through the Killing Fields per se, but I am trying to understand the pain, loss, dehumanization and post-traumatic syndrome that lingered in the minds of many survivors."

Some people assume that because she was born in Cambodia, Phim is Khmer Rouge or that her parents were Khmer Rouge. It’s as though an entire people have become tainted in some way or held to be complicit in the actions of Pol Pot’s political party. Phim’s inner journey brings her to the realization that while she does not carry shame for being born when and where she was, "being Cambodian requires a lot of explanation."

Phim’s journey took her back to Srok Khmer, the country of Khmer, the motherland, four times. She writes that the "kind of love, heartache, and pain I feel for Srok Khmer is deeply imbedded within my soul; these feelings are suffused with glorious memories and stories that are real, even if they are stories and distant memories that may not even be mine."

Reflections of a Khmer Soul is a rich tapestry of memories, dreams and reflections of the tragic yet wondrous Srok Khmer into which Phim was born on Year Zero and the America where she grew up and makes her home. Phim’s soul is "poetically Khmer," and this book shows us that she has found joy and hope and peace in that ultimate reality of her world.

See Also: Malcolm's B&N Review
Malcolm Campbell's
March of Books
Navy Phim's Website
Malcolm's Round Table

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Twelve Dreams of Laima

by Lee Cross
(Virginia City Publishing: Cauldron of Dreams Books / 0-978-75961-3 / 978-0-978-75961-2 / September 2000 / 244 pages / $13.95)
Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM
The Twelve Dreams of Laima is a dreamy, mystical odyssey through history, told though the lives of twelve different people. All but one are incarnations, previous lives of the same man, Art Zemaitis, a professor of history with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. His quest for insights into history leads him from America, back to his native Lithuania, on a folklore research project to interview that handful of rural elderly who retain some knowledge of the old ways. He finds the old woman named Laima, living in an ancient old-growth forest in a tiny wattle and daub hut. Who is Laima and what is she to Art? That she is someone of significance and possesses mysterious powers is plain – but what is she to him, personally?

As it turns out, she has the ability to grant him his deepest wish. “More than anything, I crave to know what it was like in times gone by.” He tells her – and to his astonishment she calmly replies that she has the ability to help him do this, to embark on a voyage of discovery, of all his past lives.

Each chapter tells of one of those lives, hop-scotching across time and the new and old worlds, through lives that are sometimes happy, long and successful as their world counts such things, and sometimes short and ending suddenly in fire, violence and war. In several lives Art lived as a woman: a priestess of Cybele in ancient times, as a medieval woman accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake, and in his most significant but shortest incarnation, a little girl in modern America. More usually he is a man and frequently a warrior of some sort: a prince of the Goths, a sailor on the USS Arizona in 1941, an Australian bush-ranger, a warrior chief of the Scythians, a refugee Druid from Roman-era Britain, a Confederate blockage runner, a soldier in the American Revolution, or a Special Forces soldier in Vietnam. Each of these chapter-episodes is a tiny, condensed novel unto itself, reduced to its essence of experience in a world quite violently different from each of the others – and yet each would make a satisfactory novel itself if expanded to full length. But that is not the authors’ purpose, and Laima’s purpose does not come clear, until the last of Art’s lives is lived and ends – and that is a twist that the reader may not see coming.

Mr. Cross’s prose is lyrical and precise, suitable to each character in his or her time and place. Any criticism I may make is limited to noting that the transition as Art moves between his past lives and his present one are sometimes awkwardly devised, as the narration jumping abruptly between first person and third. This is especially noted in the first couple of pages – perhaps the first person narration was meant to be in italics?
Celia's Blogger News Review
The Author's Website
Review of Lee Cross's Pandemonium in 2012
Review of Lee Cross's A Far Place in Time

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Legend of the Dark Messiah

Legend of the Dark Messiah:
The Mask and the Sword

by J. Johnson Higgins
(iUniverse / 0-595-47215-X / 978-0-595-47215-4 / December 2007 / 204 pages / $14.95) 
Reviewed by Ron Baxley for PODBRAM
Comic masks, in the modern theater, are often symbolic of comedy itself and go back to ancient Greek drama. Wearing a projected comic mask, President Dmitri von Calvin in J. Johnson Higgins’ suspenseful Legend of the Dark Messiah in actuality creates tragedy on his home planet of I-Star, a fantastical planet that blends magic and technology. One would find a match for President Calvin if suddenly Big Brother and Rowling’s Minister of Magic and Lord Voldemort had merged under an illusory version of the Guy Fawkes mask from V is for Vendetta. It seems at first that the villains do always get the best development and concepts in fantasies but Higgins soon proves even this old saw rusty. After all, Cassidy, the intriguing main character of his book, can magically see through his mask and becomes involved in what could be a tragedy of her own. Keeping potential tragedy under a mask of his own is part of Higgins’ skill.

The suspense of what could be a tragedy is the highlight of this book as Cassidy is shown in a prologue battling an evil force and surrounded by dragons. The dragons are part of the suspense as one begins to wonder what her connection is to them. Perhaps more clues could have been given, but this would have hindered the author’s mastery of suspense. Cassidy is soon encased in a kind of magic cryogenic chamber of ice and, upon escape, finds herself on the modern world of I-Star.

I-Star is a technological, highly political world with some magic users, but Higgins, among his politicians, who are a blend of the Jedi-like and the Empire, does not get bogged down into too many political discussions like one of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels. With too much politics and not enough suspense, readers will not be engaged with speculative worlds. However, Higgins engages the reader, leaving him wondering what the connection is between Cassidy and the aforementioned president.

Eventually, after Cassidy discusses with a spy how something should be done about the area’s big landmark, a gigantic clock tower, she is sought out by President Calvin to bring a clock tower to its former glory. Little does Cassidy know that President Calvin is a dark figure from her past. Irony abounds as the reader grows aware of this while Cassidy is skillfully kept unaware by the author.

Hindering the suspense is some of the dialogue, which focuses on mundane aspects of life. True, modern people have many mundane tasks that they engage in, but the author need not create verisimilitude in a fantasy book by having the characters harp on about the minutia of life.

The author creates more excitement with the dialogue and plot surrounding Cassidy’s magic powers. Soon, Cassidy discovers that she has them, powers that also connect her to her past. She, much like popular culture characters like Phoenix and the little girl from Firestarter, realizes that she has trouble controlling her powers and often times they are based in anger. She also begins to realize her connection to President Calvin and seeks him out with some friends with adventurous gusto. Some of her realization occurs through a little too much exposition from minor characters and the antagonist.
Though the author could have kept more of the potential tragedy more skillfully hidden under the mask, Higgins does a good job keeping most of it incognito. Probably the weakest element in Legend of the Dark Messiah is that the author could have displayed somewhat more of the storyline’s depth through a show, don’t tell methodology instead of a narrated back-story from other characters. Details could have been expanded to increase the narrative. Higgins also has great potential for future books because many of his characters have a secret connection that will have to be experienced to be believed. What Higgins ends up with in this slim volume is a comedy in the oldest sense of the word, an adventurous romp with a happy ending. This first novel displays a commendable level of taut editing and clean proofreading, too. The excitement and suspense of the basic plotline will keep the reader turning the pages. J. Johnson Higgins has composed a promising first effort.

See Also: Ron's B&N Review
J. Johnson Higgins' website

Sunday, June 08, 2008

More Link Madness

I want to continue what I started with Writer's Blogroll last month. Whereas the first blogroll listed mostly bloggers and reviewers, this second installment mostly concerns the marketing of POD books. Some of these are paid (sometimes even costly) operations, but many are free or nearly free. Let the advertising begin!

The Shared Self Publishing Experience - This is quite an unusual new concept premiered by successful screenwriter Steve Barancik. An author is encouraged to post his personal story of exactly how he entered the foray of self-publishing. No direct book promotion is allowed on the site. Steve has an interesting background and there is a legitimacy here that is rare among POD marketing sites.
Foner Books - Morris Rosenthal's site is a legend in the POD industry. The page I have linked here is the one everybody and his bobcat wants to read, the explanation of Amazon's sales rankings, but this is far from the only valuable page on Mr. Rosenthal's site.
Authors and Experts - I spent a year listed with this costly site that did absolutely nothing for me, but your results may differ. Consider this a negative recommendation if you want. I have no animosity toward the site. It could be simply that no one wants to read my books.
Page One Lit - This is an early pioneer in the take the money from the naive POD author sweepstakes. I have been listed here for years, but I doubt that much has resulted from it. The biggest negative with this site is that it takes all damn day to load! Otherwise, in the founder's positive column is that he at least does what he says he will do, your page stays online forever, and you get to rub virtual elbows with real authors!
National Pen Company - For promotional materials, especially pens, of course, I highly recommend this company that has been around for many years. I have utilized their services several times with no complaints. Once you get on their mailing list, they will periodically send you especially good deals by snail mail. Like iUniverse, don't order until they send you a pitch you particularly like!
PR Web - Although I personally have had a difference of opinion with these guys, and I shall probably never use them again, you should know that they are probably the most successful of the many web press release services out there.
Free Press Release - I have linked to my own Timeline of America free press release on this site so you can see exactly how your press release might look. Although not up to the standard of PR Web, this one is, indeed, free.
Google - In the Beyond Obvious Department, we have the submission of an author's website to Google. If you haven't done this, do it right now, before returning to PODBRAM.
Yahoo - Ditto the Google submission.
Real Book Reviews - This is an unusual site that I have discovered that features only audio reviews. I am not sure what it's appeal may be, but check it out. Maybe it's a gimmick you have been seeking.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Echo Five

Echo Five by David Chacko
(Foremost Press / 0-978-97047-0 / 978-0-978-97047-5 / January 2008 / 280 pages / $14.97) 

Reviewed by Dr. Al Past for PODBRAM

When it comes to a book I'm going to review, I generally avoid reading other reviews and promotional material. I would rather approach the book fresh, and let it make its own impressions. Thus it was that some number of pages into Echo Five I was surprised to find I was reading a different type of book than I had expected from the early signs. What I had thought would be a contemporary war-against-terrorists military thriller turned out instead to be a murder mystery, and a rather good one at that.

Jason Ender, a senior-level interrogator of prisoners of the Guantanamo type, is sent to a godforsaken base in the horn of Africa to help determine which, if any, of several prisoners might be a key enemy leader. When he arrives he finds that the main interrogator he was to work with, an attractive lieutenant, has committed suicide only hours earlier, and for no obvious reason. Suspicions aroused, he finds loads of suspects, leads, and possible evidence indicating her death might not have been an accident. The story becomes Ender's efforts to find the cause of the lieutenant's death and those responsible (and why). There is no need to provide details here and plenty reason not to: the story is a murder mystery and generally observes the expected form, including a twist or two at the end.

At the same time, the mystery is indeed set within the exquisitely named GWOT (the global war on terror), complete with multiple levels of bureaucracy, military personnel and civilians with different agendas, and endlessly complex and perplexing tactical and strategic milieus. For fans of such stuff the book would be satisfying for these reasons alone. To this lay reader, the author convincingly depicts all these variables, down to the mind-set and speech characteristics of the people involved.

The text is cleanly written with almost no typos or grammar glitches, but I must insert a personal gripe about the style. The characters' motivations, actions, and words are well thought out, but in fact they all speak in pretty much the same overwrought manner. Even the uneducated lowlifes make statements that they then glibly elaborate in the manner of Oscar Wilde, had he only been in the U.S. military. Furthermore, these quips are all too often completely opaque, requiring me, for one, to have to go back and read them again, sometimes more than once. Some may call this high style; I call it poor editing.

Take, for example, the blurb on the back of the book:

Ender had seen their influence in operation. Control behind the wire ran to civilians, but Intelligence in Kuwait or Headquarters NIC could look over an interrogator’s shoulder as he questioned a detainee and do everything but bring him down with a hard right. They usually did not intervene unless it was an urgent matter and their input could make a difference. But they were there for that and other intervention, too.

Ender had become aware of a third level – a parallel level – that should not have functioned. It was occupied by Shrubsole, and overhead like Nan. He had been to this camp twice when zero would have been the understandable number. Although answering to the government, the Donner Party – and other companies that supplied expertise – could paper any position while they worked the angles with soft words and handshakes. Usually benign, the process could turn rogue. It had.

Blurbs are hard to write, but this one, which was mostly lifted verbatim from passages in the book, makes almost no sense at all. There was too much of this throughout the book for my taste. Those who find the blurb no problem should enjoy Echo Five with no qualification.

See Also: Dr. Past's B&N Review
David Chacko's website

Chacko & Kulcsar's Gone Over
Review of David Chacko's Devil's Feathers
Chacko & Kulcsar's The Brimstone Papers