My Life as a Book Reviewer
By Dr. Wesley Britton
I don’t know for certain, but I’m pretty sure my first published book review came out in 1981 for Joseph P. Lash’s Helen and Teacher, the historian’s dual biography of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy. I forget the name of the periodical, but I recall it was a newspaper printed for the Dallas-based Association of Individuals with Disabilities.
In 1983, I became a graduate student in American Literature at the University of North Texas. Very quickly, I began hearing the oft-repeated mantra of “Publish or Perish.” That phrase sounds very simple, but not so fast.
Back in those days, unless you were part of a Creative Writing department, publishing “primary sources”—meaning any creative writing, poetry, short stories, or novels—didn’t count toward your career path. The research-oriented English departments wanted “secondary sources,” meaning scholarly studies of recognized classics or even short studies of other book-length scholarly studies. It was all about critical analysis. Your resume could also include book reviews, especially reviews of literary histories, biographies, or even more scholarly studies. With luck, you could present your non-paid-for articles at academic conventions where, of course, you paid your own way to attend.
Those conventions turned out to be goldmines in terms of networking, especially meeting editors of academic periodicals who gave out book review assignments. Especially for new scholarly editions written by and for academics in specific subject areas. These often-expensive tomes were nice items not to have to pay for.
Which lead to my earliest reviews for publications like Texas Books in Review, The Journal of American Studies of Texas, Southern Quarterly, and American Periodicals. In turn, this to me becoming the main reviewer for the then-new online list-serve, The Mark Twain Forum. For years, I wrote many reviews for them and I believe you can still see all of them today at the Forum’s archives. That was where I learned online periodicals didn’t have to worry about word counts, always an important consideration for print assignments.
After I earned my Ph.D., I had one quest in mind. Writing reviews for which I got paid. That didn’t always happen. For Choice Magazine, I was assigned titles for which I wrote very short reviews of around 300 words for librarians who had one question in mind—is this a book we should buy and shelve? That was another good example of knowing your audience—writing for a specific purpose with a very limited word count.
Then I did get paid work from Magill’s Book Reviews, Literary Annuals in between writing all manner of encyclopedia articles. During those years, my target audience was very broad and very non-academic. It was a very different approach from most everything I’d written before. It was very liberating.
By 1999 or so, I decided I was tired of writing short things. I wanted to write books and have reviewers review me. So began my four books on espionage in the media followed by my six book sci-fi series. But I kept my hand in book reviewing. For around a decade, I reviewed all manner of fiction and non-fiction for online sites devoted to spies in one guise or another. Once again, I had a very specific audience, readers already familiar with spy novels, TV shows, or films. If your audience is already knowledgeable in one subject area or another, then you pitch your approach to those who might know as much or more than you do about the topic.
Somewhere in all that, all manner of projects opened up for me. I don’t recall when or why, but editor Norm Goldman invited me to join his cadre of reviewers for BookPleasures.com. I still write for him. What really opened up was the range of books I could review—murder mysteries, histories, celebrity memoirs, espionage thrillers, sci-fi. And the assignments come in a variety of ways. Several times a week, Norm sends out blitzes of press releases from authors, publishers, and publicists seeking book reviews at BP. We reviewers than express our interest in whatever titles intrigue us, and Norm makes his assignments. These days, I also get press releases sent directly to me usually because a publisher or publicist likes something I wrote. They hope to interest me in other books by the same author or books of a similar nature.
Along the way, I also reviewed books, CDs, and DVDs for BlogCritics.org. What made them different was the meticulous nature of their editors. I have always treasured good editors, and BC had some excellent ones. I stopped writing for BC when they made changes in their submission format and really made reviewers work to post reviews with all sorts of hoops to leap through at their site. Well, since they weren’t paying anything, getting free books, CDs, and DVDs just wasn’t worth all the hassle.
So what have I learned over the decades and what can I pass along to you?
It seems pretty clear one key lesson is to know what audience you’re writing for as that frames so much of our reviews. It can determine length—especially for online sites—and the content—do you have a knowledgeable audience or are you addressing the general reader?
I’ve always felt the primary purpose of a reviewer is to give potential readers enough information so they can decide for themselves if they want to try a specific book or not. That’s one reason many reviewers mention the names of authors who are similar to the title being reviewed, giving readers a connection to familiar writers of the same genre.
Whether or not I like a specific title really isn’t the point. So in pretty much every review, I’ve ever written, I point out just what audiences would be most interested in a particular book. Just because I don’t like or am mildly responsive to a new book doesn’t mean there’s not a readership out there who would love it.
I admit, over the years, I’ve gotten my fair share of grumpy responses from authors. Mostly, they didn’t think a specific review was glowing enough. Or I didn’t praise enough one aspect or another of their effort. I don’t think I’ve written that many out-and-out bad reviews. I can think of two; one was simply a dishonest project, the other was supposedly a non-fiction study so personal that it was not worth the time of the subject’s fans.
I also admit I still have a hard time getting excited by Amazon reviews. Recently, I was part of a Facebook group’s debate over whether reviews posted at sites other than Amazon were equal to the usual short paragraphs posted on the Zon. Yes, most readers go to the Zon and perhaps nowhere else. On the other hand, many serious readers—and therefore potential buyers—go to other places to get more developed reviews than the often general and unedited paint-by-numbers Amazon reviews. Consider sites devoted to specific genres, for one example. Consider such reviews aren’t likely paid for or written by author friends or supporters. Consider the in-depth analysis places like BookPleasures.com or BlogCritics.org offer.
True, there are countless personal blogs that don’t have a lot of credibility. The lack of proper editing is one problem with such places. And credibility can be a valuable thing when publishers hunt for useful blurbs and quotes to promote books. After the reviewer’s name, the name of a reliable publication is not a bad thing at all. The Zon doesn’t count. So I’ very happy to see excerpts from my reviews included in other author’s media kits. Or reposted at places like The Midwest Book Review or The New Book Review Blog.
Writing book reviews can help build up your writing portfolio, especially if you can find ways to have your reviews posted at sites that have good reputations and a good-sized readership. These days, reposting our reviews is good for both the book authors and the reviewer. Getting published at a good site or periodical is the beginning, but then you can repost at Amazon, your personal blogs at Goodreads, Book Likes, or wherever, And at the book’s page at Goodreads. Normally, you should include where the review originally appeared so that publication can get credit. Like the authors we review, we too want to reach a wide readership.
Contact Wesley if you’re interested in a review exchange.
Dr. Wesley Britton,
Author, The Beta Earth Chronicles
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Blackbeard: The Birth of America
Print Length: 544 pages
Publisher: Mount Sopris Publishing (February 6, 2018)
Publication Date: February 6, 2018
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
Reviewed by Dr. Wesley Britton
Over the years, I’ve read a number of Samuel Marquis’s historical thrillers. I’ve become a fan who’s happy with pretty much every volume, many of which are set during World War II. Among the many surprises of his new Blackbeard is the time period the story is set in. I’ve never associated Marquis with the early decades of the 18th century or the seas of the Caribbean and the pirates that sailed on them circa 1716-1718.
Another major surprise is Marquis’s portrayal of Blackbeard, the privateer turned pirate. I was surprised to see the pirate always referred to as Edward Thatch and not Edward Teach, the surname I always associated with Blackbeard. Well, Google for both names and both names will come up in multiple entries. Whatever handle Marquis gives his character, few readers are likely to anticipate seeing Blackbeard painted in the most heroic portrait possible, at least for the first two/thirds of the book.
Marquis’s Blackbeard tries to avoid violence by only attacking ships that offer little resistance to minimize the carnage his crew might endure. He’s a giant figure, a charismatic leader able to use eloquence to sway his extremely democratic sea-farers to his point of view. The pirates operate within the rules of the “articles” that give every man an equal vote in important decisions and an equal share in any booty. There is no racism. We see this most evident in the character of Cesar, a former black slave now devoted to Blackbeard.
The pirates’ motives are in part economic, part political, and part a lust for the free life. At first, pirate captains have charters given to them by royal governors based in the New World to attack Spanish and French ships. But many dislike British King George from the House of Hanover and would prefer the crowning of James III from the House of Stuart. For such reasons, Blackbeard’s small but powerful flotilla start attacking British ships in part to rebel against those who are rich and abusive to the common man. The pirates start describing themselves as “Robin Hoods,” distributing wealth much more fairly than royal charters.
Another major character is Steede Bonnet, a Barbados plantation owner who throws it all away to become a pirate for the freedom of a life at sea despite his less than adequate knowledge of sea-going ways. Woven throughout the scenes set in the Caribbean and up the Atlantic coast, we also spend time on land with Alexander Spotswood, the despotic, vindictive and tyrannical lieutenant governor of Virginia. For Spotswood, capturing Blackbeard is a political move calculated to curry favor in England. Very unpopular with his colony’s citizens, he suppresses any desires brought to him from the Virginia House of Burgesses that might erode his powers. He despises the new term of “Americans” and, in many ways, embodies the complaints the founders of the United States would fight against in just over fifty years.
So the “Golden Age of Piracy” is portrayed as the precursor for the American Revolution with Blackbeard and his cohorts the real patriots, at least in their own opinion. In Marquis’s realm, these salty dogs never lacked for self-righteous self-justification. I suspect it’s my own preconceived notions, but I frequently found it difficult to accept the verisimilitude of these noble scalawags. I am perhaps a modern victim of the propaganda that cast Blackbeard as a vicious criminal in Boston newspapers of the time. I was also put off a bit by Marquis frequently repeating his points over and over which seemed like rather overdoing it. Padding?
The book never really builds up a head of steam, at least until the final third where Blackbeard realizes his flotilla has grown too large, that the British admiralty is about to end the age of freebooting piracy, and he makes some turning-point choices very different from what we’ve come to expect from him. Lots of surprises in this fast-moving section of the book.
Throughout, Marquis’s gifts for description and character development are on full display to take his readers to times and places that, in this case, are captured in ways few of us would expect. His closing end notes make it clear he sketched out most of this novel drawing from a wide spectrum of resources, many of them of rather recent vintage.
So, from page one to his appendices, unless you too are a Blackbeard scholar, Blackbeard: The Birth of America will be a constantly eye-opening series of surprises. You’ll feel certain you’re learning something as the story progresses. Pirates as the original American revolutionaries? Marquis builds a vivid and convincing case that is so.
This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com on March 20, 2018:
You get to choose which books you want to read. Make sure to pick up mine, Murder in the Canyon.
Kalma: Alnenia turned her cran to one side and looked thoughtful. "It's the fourth day," she said to herself. "It is finally seeming to work." Her face told that she had come to a decision. "Yes, it is the time for truth." She sat back and smiled. "Know you anything," she asked, "about the Ming-ti plant?"
"No, I know not," I told her cold. "What is the Ming-ti plant?"
She picked up a skol-stick and tapped it nervously on her desk. "It really should be Doret or Elsbeth to explain it. What I know, they told me. The Ming-ti plant is a heaf that grows not natural on the Old Continent. It's one Doret ordered seeds for from Menzia. It's a powerful, ah, ah, well, when its leaves are dried and cooked into foods as spices or ground into powder and put into nectars, it, ah, ah," she smiled broad, "considerably enflames our natural drive to be speared. It creates a strong need, very strong, in women for a man-stalk bonding. In your case, the results should be very, very interesting."
"Interesting!" I thundered. "You've poisoned me and call that interesting! What mean you?"
Alnenia looked hurt and shook her head. "Poisoned? Oh no, there is nothing toxic in Ming-ti. The only possible trouble you could have is, well, if you were unable to act on the stimulus inside you. But," her smile returned, "your acting on it is the point. It is long past time for Malcolm to part your legs with full thrusts in between."
I stood and paced before her desk. Questions filled me, and the first was obvious.
"Have you others taken this Ming-ti?"
"No," Alnenia admitted. "We knew nothing of it until Doret spoke of it after our visit to the Mother-Icealt. None of us, ah, have ever needed the stimulus. We thought of experimenting with it, naturally. For Doret, she'd probably only need a very small amount. Then again, all Malcolm has to do is reach his hand up her tunic, play with her nipples, and irresistible shockwaves, well, you know. Or soon will."
She laughed. "Joline is about your body weight although not as strongly built or muscled." She laughed again. "But, then again, you'd only have to show Joline the plant, tell her of its purpose, and its effect would be complete on sight."
I stared at her. "So, how much of this Ming-ti is in my blood?"
Her eyes lit up. "That's what is extraordinary! Very, very extraordinary! Again, Doret can better answer your questions. Normally, I understand, one meal only is sufficient. You've —." She paused and looked at me in wonder." You should, by now, be unable to do anything else but think of being speared. I'm tempted to alert Yil and tell him to clear all males out of —."
"You'll do no such thing!" I exclaimed with full power, pulling her door open. "I am sufficiently disciplined and self-controlled to fight this poison! I will go find Doret and find a cure for this mean trick!"
Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon
Hardcover: 260 pages
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (February 9, 2018)
Reviewed by Dr. Wesley Britton
Bill Kopp is far from the first rock critic to take on the legendary history of Pink Floyd, focusing on the formative years when band founder Syd Barrett captained the group’s first album to his departure and replacement by David Gilmour to the group’s various experimental projects up to the seminal release of the highly influential Dark Side of the Moon in 1973. I was intrigued to read Kopp’s introduction where he admits the Pink Floyd he knew best for many years was the period after Dark Side of the Moon with little awareness of what came before. That was exactly the reverse of my experience. Back in high school, we “heads”—to use the then prevalent term to describe those of us into non-mainstream music—usually owned at least one Pink Floyd album including The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, A Saucerful of Secrets, Umma Gumma, Atom Heart Mother or Meddle. Then and now, my favorite Floyd songs are “One of These Days,” “Interstellar Overdrive,” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” All are pre-Dark Side tunes.
So when Dark Side came out and took the world by storm two years after my high school graduation, I was rather bemused by all the new listeners the band earned. I could understand why. Dark Side was, as someone I don’t know observed, the Sgt. Pepper of the ‘70s. Still, perhaps it was simple snootiness when, for years, I maintained the pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd was the Real Pink Floyd.
I got over that sentiment a long time ago. Now, I really have no excuse for any snootiness after reading Kopp’s new critical analysis of Pink Floyd’s evolution from 1967 to 1973. While this book was far from the first history of the band I’ve read, I learned something new on pretty much every page. For my money, two things distinguish Reinventing Pink Floyd from what has been published before. For one key matter, Kopp goes beyond the usual process of interviewing participants and contemporary observers and draws from his own background as a musician to comment on and analyze the songs, albums, and live performances from a musician’s perspective. For another matter, Kopp benefited from the release of the extensive 2016 The Early Years box set, a package he refers to at least once on nearly every page.
Even the most devoted Floyd fans are likely to learn tidbits they didn’t know before like the band’s first producer was Norman Smith who had worked on many of the Beatles albums. I knew about the existence of Pink Floyd film soundtracks, but not the details behind the creation of the usually experimental scores for the often-experimental films.
Fans who think of the post-Barrett Floyd as essentially the David Gilmour and the Roger Waters band with the late Richard Wright and Nick Mason as mere supporting players may well gain a new and deeper appreciation for the band’s keyboardist and drummer. Richard Wright aficionados, in particular, should appreciate reviewing in minute detail just how much he contributed to the music of this period of the band’s creative development.
Clearly, this is a book strictly for Pink Floyd fans, especially for readers who aren’t intimately familiar with the pre-Dark Side era. It would help to have some knowledge of musical terminology, especially the equipment and techniques used in the recording studio. In the end, Reinventing Pink Floyd is a treasure trove of musical history for a very particular audience. But it’s a worthy addition to any rock fan’s library.
This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com on March 11, 2018:
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Lou Reed: A Life
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (October 10, 2017)
Take a walk on the wild side.
Yes, the line above was the title of Lou Reed’s 1972 hit single, certainly his most famous, most popular song. The sentence can also serve as a succinct summation of the life of the singer/songwriter/ guitarist who spent many years immersed in New York’s wild side, especially during the 1970s. The line can also serve as a summary of rock critic and Reed confidante Anthony DeCurtis’s 2017 biography of a figure DeCurtis knew well for many years.
Speaking of many years, I’m happy to admit Reed got on my radar screen all the way back in 1967 when The Velvet Underground and Nico was released. I was apparently one of the 30,000 listeners who had a copy of the LP with the original Andy Warhol peel-off banana skin cover. Through the ‘70s, I was aware of Reed’s connections with the “glam rock” and punk-rock circles including David Bowie and Mick Ronson, of Reed’s close association with hard drugs, and his very public intimacy with the gender-benders of New York’s gay and trans-sexual populations. But I had only a surface awareness of these aspects of Reed’s public and private life, nothing like the detailed depths revealed in DeCurtis’s very surprising journalism.
While I owned some of Reed’s 20 solo albums released between 1972 and 2009, Rock and Roll Animal being my absolute favorite, I never had the depth of knowledge or insight into Reed’s music DeCurtis demonstrates on nearly every page of his biography. That’s because DeCurtis’s focus is on Reed’s musical legacy and much of his book is critical analysis of all those albums with a special emphasis on the more important songs, Reed’s musical development over the years, and the unique up and down pattern of Reed sometimes fighting commercial success, sometimes courting it.
I wasn’t really aware of Reed’s rejection of all the drug and sexual trappings in his life inspired by his second wife, Sylvia Morales, in the 1980s. That relationship is but one of many DeCurtis analyzes to show how both musical collaborators and personal friends and lovers could be close to Reed one minute and then exiled from his confidence the next whenever the thorny musician felt he had been slighted or misused. In some cases, it was simple pride or paranoia or insecurity that precluded Reed from accomplishing some goals, such as his insistence he be seen as the main motor of the Velvet Underground during the failed reunion attempts in the 1990s.
Gratefully, Anthony DeCurtis gives us a multi-dimensional portrait of Lou Reed, warts and all, as the expression goes. Wild warts, in this case. If you’re like me, after reading this book, you might be inspired to track down some of Reed’s work you didn’t explore before. Most music fans likely know about the mostly unsuccessful collaboration between Reed and Metallica and/or the romance between Reed and performance artist Laurie Anderson. I didn’t know about Reed’s staging of some of his earlier albums in the 21st century, his latter-day interest in martial arts and meditation, or his interest in sonic technology and photography. I didn’t know about the soft-skinned Reed many people saw when they met Reed during his final days with Anderson until his death in 2013.
Clearly, any reader picking up this title will be a fan wanting to learn more about Reed, the Velvet Underground, or the sub-genres of rock Reed contributed to or influenced. All such readers will be handsomely rewarded. Drawing from his own past experiences with Reed, interviews with Reed intimates, and more basic research, Anthony DeCurtis has given us what will certainly be the definitive retrospective of a significant figure in rock history.
This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com on March 7, 2018:
Paperback: 440 pages
Publisher: Independently published (February 7, 2018)
Bitten is one of those novels that’s very difficult to try to pigeonhole. Yes, it’s dystopian in that it’s set in the future when the consequences of global warming are affecting the earth. But much of the story has absolutely nothing to do with any normal science fiction trope. True, many passages can be best classified as horror. Others are best defined as belonging to the thriller genre. In short, many of the plot lines take us to places and down roads no reader could predict. I think that’s a good thing.
One major character is ecologist Claudia Mattioli, one of the world’s most important experts on mosquitoes. That’s a key role to play as climate change has produced a horrifying increase in the size and potency of all species of mosquitoes. Bearing all manner of deadly and incapacitating diseases, they’re attacking humans and animals in swarms that are eating up flesh in major cities all over Italy. At first, Claudia’s job is to gather samples of the types of mosquitoes in various regions before she’s asked to come up with a plan to eradicate them. Problem: Claudia doesn’t think humans should declare war on mosquitoes but rather find a way to live with them.
Claudia’s much older lover is New York publisher and editor Scott Lee who wants to make a deal to produce high-quality art books of Italian painters. As author Moore spent twenty-five years as a publisher and considering many of the pleasures Lee enjoys in Bitten, it’s hard not to wonder if Lee’s experiences are a bit of wish-fulfillment for his creator. Whatever the case, Lee is on hand with Claudia threw a series of shocking adventures, including a human-set fire that destroys much of Venice. That’s before Lee is tempted to go over to the dark side by the alluring femme fatale, Francesca Maruichi.
A third important player is Lee’s friend, Lawrence Spencer, an Italian intelligence officer using the cover of being an art expert. He’s called on by the Mafia in Florence to certify whether or not a certain painting reputedly by Raphael is genuine or not. After all, the criminals are very familiar with the black market, arms smuggling, sales of plutonium to Iran, but not art reportedly stolen in World War II by the Russians. An ongoing mystery involves those who have the painting wanting to set up a silent auction without anyone actually seeing the merchandise before the stolen art is stolen again.
So what has all this intrigue in the art world have to do with climate change and the theme Moore tells us is the important purpose of his book, that of demonstrating how nature will have revenge on humanity in response to thousands of years of poor stewardship of the planet? Are mosquito swarms but the opening shots of Mother Nature giving humanity fair warning of what she can do?
I can’t answer that. I can say I was continually kept interested in the various plot twists and turns because of the engaging, well-sketched characters, the vividly described settings, and the surprises at the end of many of the passages. That sometimes-kinky wish fulfillment Scott, Claudia, and Francesca enjoy is a bonus for, at least, male readers until the kinkiness goes a bit over the edge. One genre Bitten doesn’t fit in is YA.
In addition, Moore adds verisimilitude with an obvious familiarity with colorful Italian cities, the process of authenticating Renaissance paintings, and gives his science credibility by occasionally referring us to the two non-fiction appendices at the end. Bitten is a book for readers who like the unexpected and who don’t need their stories defined by a particular genre. It’s a page-turner with Moore keeping reader interest with a fast pace and all the ingredients spelled out above.
This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com on March 1, 2018:
When Blindness Becomes a Writing Tool
By Dr. Wesley Britton
Last week, I had very different intentions about what I was going to say in this blog post. I planned to write about how my own disability, my blindness due to the genetic disease called retinitis pigmentosa, had helped shape my main protagonist of the Beta-Earth Chronicles, Malcolm Renbourn. After all, the launching point for the entire series was my wondering what would happen to a human who is blinded when he’s drug through a barrier separating the multi-verse and taken to an alternate earth. How could a blind man turned into a blind alien cope with a planet where he doesn’t understand the language, see anything at all around him, and adapt to a culture completely different from anything he has ever known?
But rather than delve into those matters today, I thought I’d share with you a writing lesson I learned this weekend. For my ghost-loving grandson, we went to see the movie Winchester for his birthday. Unless you’re blind yourself or have gone to the movies with someone who is blind, you probably don’t know about the headsets that provide audio descriptions of whatever movie you’re seeing.
I’ve been relying on audio descriptions for years, but at Winchester I was really struck with the depth of details I was hearing. Perhaps that’s because the mansion where the story is set is so strange that the audio track had to be very vivid. The narrator had to describe long hallways with boarded up rooms and staircases that went nowhere. He had to describe strange faces and appearances by spirits that weren’t human. Well, at least not alive.
But in addition to the weird, the narrator also had to describe normal curtains blowing in windows, what items were on tables or cabinets, what things were hung on the walls or dangled from the chandeliers. He had to describe what the characters looked like, what they were wearing, and what their expressions and movements conveyed to viewers. If they looked pensive, that’s the adjective he used. Or aggressive, resolute, all manner of terms on the emotional spectrum.
In the theatre, blind viewers got every scene and setting painted for us in colors, lighting, cleanliness, atmosphere, sizes, you name it. In short, the audio track had to do just what we authors need to do for readers on the printed page.
So I’m proposing that a useful exercise for authors is to pretend we’re creating a narration for an audio description when we’re creating our settings, characters, meals, movements, anything visual a reader would want to see in their minds. For a blind writer, this was a good lesson as I’m naturally not visually oriented. For all the things I needed to describe in my books, I had to rely on very old memories or emulate imagery from my reading.
Since my stories are set on a different planet, I didn’t have to try to capture any recognizable places. Instead, I had the challenge of world-building, that is, crafting settings largely from scratch. To make them believable, recognizable or not, the descriptions had to be vivid and multi-sensory. Whether I was successful or not, that’s your judgement to make. Whether you’re successful or not in your own writing, well, why not consider how a blind movie-goer would experience the time and place where your characters are doing their things?
Mad About Mystery: 100 Wonderful Television Mysteries from the Seventies
Donna Marie Nowak
With an Introduction by Stefanie Powers
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: BearManor Media (February 1, 2018)
Reviewed by Dr. Wesley Britton
Like Cesar’s Gaul, Donna Marie Nowak’s Mad About Mystery is divided into three parts.
Part One is a lengthy collection of profiles of made-for-TV mystery movies from the ‘70s. Happily, Nowak doesn’t simply give readers a mere plot summary with some production details for each film. She also economically gives us quick critiques and analysis of the merits, or lack thereof, of each offering. As the title of her book implies, she’s “Mad About Mysteries,” so she is mainly complimentary about each film from The Adventures of Nick Carter to Get Christie Love to The Legend of Lizzie Borden to Salem’s Lot.
The same is true for part two of the book which provides overviews of many TV detective series of the era, like the most famous from Cannon to The Rockford Files to hart to Hart to Columbo. I admit being puzzled by some of her choices. Why Wonder Woman and not the other super-powered champions for law and order like the bionic pair or David McCallum’s Invisible man? Scooby-Doo Mysteries?
My favorite section of the book is part three which includes a string of very insightful interviews with participants who were there including actors, writers, producers, and a stuntman including Sharon Farrell, Peter Fisher, Robert Herron, and the always magnetic Diana Muldaur. Without question, any reader interested in how television films and shows were made will pick up tidbits and lore they never knew before. And not just about the ‘70s—one of the questions Nowak posed to everyone is what changes have they seen in the industry over the years?
Nowak’s overview is told from the point-of-view of a knowledgeable and enthusiastic fan who, again, lives up to her book’s title on nearly every page. I suspect her most interested audience will be fellow Baby Boomers who will have seen most, if not all, of the movies and series she discusses when they first aired. If you watched TV in the ‘70s, this book is a romp down memory lane with many spotlights on cultural events and popular moments for those of us who watched TV when we had three, maybe four channels to choose from. Beyond the favorites we can recall off the tops of our heads, Nowak brings alive shows we might have once loved but forgotten over the years. Me, for example, well I’d forgotten Kolchak: The Night Stalker was both a pair of TV movies as well as a series I watched religiously. As many of these series and movies have been syndicated and rebroadcast countless times in the decades after their initial airings, no doubt there are younger readers who will also enjoy this collection. I’d wager there is no shortage of Columbo or Charlie’s Angels fans who weren’t around when Peter Falk, James Garner, Lynda Carter, and Farrah Fawcett (then Fawcett-Majors) were seriously major stars.
This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com on Feb. 22, 2016:
Scheherazade's Last Night and Other Plays Jules Verne
Paperback: 246 pages
Publisher: BearManor Media (January 11, 2018)
ISBN-10: 162933197X ISBN-13: 978-1629331973
Reviewed by Dr. Wesley Britton
For many years now, the North American Jules Verne Society has been offering English-speaking readers long overdue translations of Verne works previously only available in the author’s native French. Of course, many potential readers of these translations know Verne best for his ground-breaking sci fi adventures like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, The Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon or other high-adventure novels like Around the World in Eighty Days, The Mysterious Island, or Five Weeks in a Balloon. As a result, most of the 11 volumes of the Society’s Palik Series are full of material likely to interest Verne scholars and aficionados, but probably few general readers. This is especially true as most of the plays and stories were written in Verne’s youth and are more traditional fare of the era. Then again, the series has given us, so far, the long overdue translation of the 1874 stage version of Around the World in Eighty Days. Volume 2 of the series, “Shipwrecked Family: Marooned with Uncle Robinson” morphed into Mysterious Island. In Volume Seven, Bandits and Rebels, Verne’s “San Carlos” presents a Spanish smuggler who used a submersible to evade authorities a decade before Captain Nemo piloted The Nautilus in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Now, the eleventh publication in the series presents three Verne plays translated by Peter Schulman. Each have their own charms for those looking to possibly find insights and foreshadowings into Verne’s more substantial works. I’m not familiar enough with the Verne canon to see direct lines between any of these plays and Verne’s later fiction, but those in the know may well find elements from these early plays that are developed in the more mature novels. “An Excursion at Sea,” for example, is certainly reminiscent of similar romps from Gilbert and Sullivan, most notably “The Pirates of Penzanze.” There’s a healthy streak of humor in Verne’s story of two lovers, a character in disguise, and a ship of would-be pirates and smugglers. Hmm, maybe the links between this play and Captain Nemo and company are more overt than I first suspected. The collection’s title story, “The Thousand and Second Night” is a character study of a stubborn Sultan who insists on yet another bedtime story even as his storyteller has hit a potentially fatal writer’s block. Is there some unexpected plot twist that will let Scheherazade live? For my money, the most interesting play in the trio is “Le Guimard,” in which we meet an artist involved in an art contest in Rome. He’s in love with a seductive but crafty model while a dancer has her eye on him. In this love triangle, we hear some rather interesting dialogue on the meaning of art and life. After all, dialogue is what these plays are all about as we get minimal description beyond the scant stage instructions. Again, these plays are mainly going to entertain Verne experts and likely scholars of 19th century French literature, especially drama. Peter Schulman’s introduction is clearly written for the most serious of readers, the sorts of folks who want their footnotes and scholarly apparatus reliable and thorough. Sci fi buffs aren’t going to see much that would connect this collection with that particular genre, but it is interesting for us non-specialists to learn about the depth and breadth of Verne’s creative scope. And, as many previous reviewers have noted, these plays also demonstrate Verne’s humorous side in ways we didn’t see in the more popular novels. Verne can still entertain us without putting us in hot air balloons, submarines, or rocket ships to the moon.
This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com on Feb. 21: http://1clickurls.com/NS4bnw2
My Days: Happy and Otherwise
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Kensington (March 27, 2018)
Reviewed by Dr. Wesley Britton
89-year-old marion Ross clearly understood anyone wanting to read her memoirs would do so because of her years starring as Marion Cunningham on the ABC television hit, Happy Days. As a result, Ross’s descriptions of her life before the series and the decades afterward in My Days essentially bookend a very detailed overview of her time as Mrs. C from her point-of-view as well as most of the other cast members as interviewed by Ross’s collaborator, entertainment reporter David Laurell.
For most readers, Ross’s overviews of her early years demonstrate how a woman with drive and determination can make it in a very competitive business if one is willing to dedicate themselves to learning their craft and putting their working life ahead of everything else. This work ethic kept her working continuously from 1953 on, beginning with her first film role in that year’s Forever Female starring Ginger Rogers and William Holden. In the same year, she played the Irish maid on the TV series, Life With Father. Until Happy Days, Ross was rarely not on a film or television lot but never as a break-out star or marquee headliner.
Yes, this section of the book has its fair share of name-dropping but not to the extent of many other celebrity autobiographies. It’s a very fast read that really fills in the background, character, attitudes, and the reasoning behind why Ross did what she did, notably staying in a pointless marriage long after it was clearly dead. The actress’s unhappiest days occurred during her 1951-1969 marriage to alcoholic, unmotivated would-be actor Freeman Meskimen. As she reminds us many times, in those days alcoholism wasn’t treated like the disease it is today but rather something to be accepted as part of normal life. That was one reason ending that marriage took as long as it did. In fact, that relationship is about the only part of the book that can be labeled “unhappy days.”
Then, we hear the oft-told story of how Ross was cast as Mrs. C and how life went for the largely happy cast of Happy Days. The only discordant note is her brief discussion of how Tom Bosley wasn’t the cheeriest of co-stars who took some time to accept Ross on an equal footing. In fact, Bosley’s presence is rather slight in the book compared with Ross’s descriptions of the rest of the cast followed by Laurell’s interviews with Ron Howard, Anson Williams, Donnie Most, Henry Winkler, Scott Baio, and the late Erin Moran. To each, Laurell posed many of the same questions, mostly what the actors had to say about Ross, how they interacted with her on and off the set, and their relationships after the show’s cancellation. Uniformly, all the younger players said Ross was an important ingredient in keeping the set free of rancor, was a reliable source of good council and wisdom, was a literal good sport in Garry Marshall’s Happy Days softball team, and remained a steady friend in the decades after the demise of Happy Days. Strangely, neither Ross nor any of her co-stars mentioned the 2011 lawsuit they brought against CBS for contracted royalties they were due for Happy Days merchandising, especially on gambling machines. Perhaps this was for legal reasons? Or perhaps an unhappy afternote to much happier memories wouldn’t have fit the book’s thematic flow.
Ross asked Laurell to not only interview her TV family, but her two actual children as well, Jim Meskimen and Ellen Kreamer. After all, many fans want to know how Marion Ross the mother compared to Marion Cunningham the mother. Well, the two women were quite different but the children of Marion Ross seem perfectly happy with the mother that raised them.
In many ways, the story of Marion Ross is the story of a pioneer who was an independent working woman long before that status was acceptable or encouraged in Hollywood or anywhere else for that matter. She was a woman whose success didn’t come until her 40s and who didn’t have a fulfilling romance until she met Paul Michael when she was 60.
So, again, this is a book essentially for Happy Days fans. I’d say it would also be a good, very fast read for those who like positive, upbeat tales of successful women who, from the early days of their lives, determine what they want to do and what they want to become and go for it, full throttle and resolute.
This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com on Feb. 19, 2018:
One of the most asked questions many authors hear is what books inspired us to join the community of writers? In the case of the Beta-Earth Chronicles, the most important influence in terms of the first four books’ structures is, surprise, surprise, The Beatles’ print version of their Anthology.
In fact, not just the Anthology but pretty much every oral history I’ve ever read, mostly about rock bands. That’s because such histories usually alternate from narrator to narrator giving a variety of voices the opportunity to tell their version of their own stories.
That approach is one of the first things I wanted to emulate when I began The Blind Alien. For one thing, this allowed the 7 principal characters the opportunity to reveal their own back-stories and express their own feelings, opinions, and thoughts about the unfolding events they participate in. I gather I wasn’t as successful in a related effort like I hoped, or at least no reader has commented on it yet.
And that’s my desire to allow the main characters’ personalities to be demonstrated in their speech patterns and word choice. For example, I thought I could show how the lesser-educated characters like Lorei and Elsbeth would sound slightly different from the college-educated wives like Joline and Alnenia. For example, the most simple of the women, Elsbeth Renbourn, uses verbs like “be” instead of “am”—“I be very uncomfortable talking about all these things, but I will tell my story with my sisters. I be the quiet one, and have always been that way.”
On the other hand, what nearly every reader has commented on is the “Beta-speak” dialect I created for all but one of the characters, that being, of course, Malcolm Renbourn who came from our planet. Again, I had several reasons for this. First, in science fiction we always have to create new vocabulary for locations, characters, technology, you name it. I thought I could make the Betans more distinctive by giving them a different grammar as well.
In addition, I created this dialect thinking about tightening up sentences and cutting down little words. This helped quicken the pace as well. For example, I created active verbs to cut down on passive verb phrases. Instead of “It was possible,” Betans say “It possibled.” “I stunned, “not “I was stunned.” Instead of “I don’t think,” they say “I think not.” In addition, I gave the Betans idioms like the first two words in the book, “True said, I was raised not to do the things I have done.” I also created new verbs, not just nouns, like “skol” for writing.
Some reviewers feel these structures remind them of old English, at least the English spoken during or near the time of Shakespeare. (I always thought “Old English” meant the period in which Beowulf was composed, not King Lear.) I have no problem with that observation, but admit I didn’t think of that at all when composing The Blind Alien.
What surprises me most is some reactions from readers who find the Beta-dialect especially challenging. I honestly thought by mainly tinkering with verb phrases and simple idioms—“simple said”—most readers could quickly get into the new cadences, the new rhythms quite easily. And many do. Others find the dialect something that takes time to adapt to. Well, I hope that time is worth the effort.
After all, science fiction should be, if not challenging, at least surprising and fresh. I’ve done my level best to be original and distinctive. Admit it—that doesn’t happen every day.
Truth be known, book six of the Beta-Earth Chronicles, Return to Alpha, is a book I never intended to write. Truth be known, the same is the story for book five, The Third Earth.
So what inspired their creations?
To set the stage for these tales, we've got to go back just about twenty years when most of my writing energies were focused on researching and writing my first four non-fiction books, Spy Television (2003), Beyond Bond: Spies in Fiction and Film (2005), Onscreen and Undercover: The Ultimate Book of Movie Espionage (2006), and The Encyclopedia of TV Spies (2009). Along the way, I generated so many articles, essays, reviews, and interviews that my first website, www.spywise.net, contains enough material for several books as well. I’m still proud of that website and encourage all spy buffs—whether of literary spies, historical spies, or spies on TV or film to check it out.
At the same time, I had a job where I had too many empty hours to burn in my office at Harrisburg Area Community College. I don’t remember exactly when, but one afternoon, I began to daydream and let my mind drift to stories set on an alternate earth. To be honest, I thought I was just entertaining myself. I thought I had no gift for writing fiction. I had no intention of writing down my fantasies.
Still, the Chronicles began when I posed two questions to myself. What, I wondered, would happen to an ordinary man who suddenly finds himself captive on an alternate earth after his captors have blinded him? How could a blind man adapt and survive when he understands nothing he hears, feels, or experiences after losing his sight?
My imagination expanded from this starting point when I started thinking about what the blind alien might go through on this new planet. I wondered what might make him so valuable that scientists and world leaders might want to forever ensure his captivity? It couldn’t be anything he brought with him from our planet. His captors could simply take any object from him. Could he have special knowledge? Perhaps, although I admit I couldn’t think of anything.
Then it struck me—the Plague-With-No-Name, an ancient disease that kills three out of every four babies their first year on Beta-Earth. This might mean my character’s DNA could be of special interest. Might his body contain the cure to a plague that defined a world?
Then the idea came to me to start spinning out a tale that ultimately filled out a 20-year arc over four books. I knew I needed more than the plague to keep keeping my main character, Malcolm Renbourn, off balance. From the disaster at crater Bergarten in book 1, to conflicts with international leaders in books 2, 3, and 4, not to mention conflicts within the polygamous Renbourn tribe throughout, as well as inner turmoils within a man who slowly, very slowly came to accept new customs and ways of being, I threw everything I could think of at Malcolm and his family. After all, I wanted to blunt accusations that a man with so many wives was little more than an elaborate male fantasy. Considering what happens to Malcolm over the years, I suspect many male readers would think very long and very hard before deciding they’d like to trade places with Malcolm Renbourn of Alpha-Earth.
Of course, converting a long, elaborate daydream into stories that would hopefully interest readers took quite a few other levels of creativity to make it happen. I’ll get into that in part two of this blog’s anatomy of the Beta-Earth Chronicles.