Book review: Great Zoo of China is clever tale

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In my review of Planet of the Dragons, I complained that there weren’t enough dragons.  Not so here.  The Great Zoo of China is bursting at the seams with dragons of every color and size.  Prince (horse-size), king (bus-size), and emperor (airplane-size) dragons.  Yellow, red-bellied blacks, swamp dragons, etc.  Possibly even too many dragons.  Chalk it up to being careful what you wish for!

Regarding the debate about whether this book is too similar to Jurassic Park, I would say that the first half was too reminiscent, but that wasn’t a deal killer for me any more so than The Land That Time Forgot capitalizing on the Lost World a hundred years ago.  Building on the popularity of another book isn’t a new development in the publishing industry.  But like TLTTF and Lost World, the predecessor was superior to the successor.

The explanation for the origins of dragons and why different cultures have their own dragon legends is superb.  It’s a truly great premise.  Coupling that with the military and cultural ambitions of modern China is even better.  My qualms are not with the fundamental story, but more so with the execution.

The writing in the book is uneven.  There are excessive explanations of exactly who is located where with exactly which groups.  It’s as if an attempt is being made to prove to the reader that the author hasn’t forgotten where all the characters are.  Too many times when Chinese people are speaking, the text reiterates that they spoke “in Mandarin.” That got old.  Generally, I assume the English speakers in the book are speaking English, and the Chinese ones are speaking Chinese.  The only time it’s somewhat helpful is when the main American character, CJ, speaks in Mandarin, but even then, it’s not always needed.  I didn’t really care what language anybody speaks as long as the book is in English.

The book was also marred by an awkward transition from happy albeit VIP tour of the dragon zoo to a nightmare.  One passage we’ve had a great experience learning about the exotic dragons.  We step inside for a nice lunch, and by the time we come out, the dragons have pulled off their electronic monitors and eat the humans.  It was too abrupt.

Another problem in the beginning and middle was a lack of suspense.  I guess I was supposed to sense that something would go terribly wrong, but I never got too worked up or engaged wondering what would happen next.  Maybe it was because the characters weren’t quite compelling enough, or because the foreshadowing was too subtle or non-existent.

But the book definitely picked up toward the end.  The various details gelled together and Frey presented several very clever ideas.  A great concept and a solid ending earn this book a favorable rating.

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Literary contest announces winners

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A novel that I’m writing has won second place in the Joanna Catherine Scott novel excerpt competition!  The prize is part of the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition, a global contest.

Judges based their decisions on the first twenty pages and a synopsis.  In my financial thriller, Coin Flight, a not-so-innocent salesman must stop his boss from pulling off a million dollar bitcoin scam.  I’ll post an excerpt from my manuscript at some point, but in the meantime a quick overview of my book is here.

All of the prizewinners are listed the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition’s website here including Ellen Herbert’s Paris in the Dark and James Kingston’s The City Island Messenger.  Congratulations to all, and I hope I get a chance to read their works.

Award winners are invited to read a sample of their work at a reception in San Francisco this March.  Although I probably won’t be able to make the trip, it’s an honor to be recognized.

The contest is named for Joanna Catherine Scott, author of Indochina’s Refugees: Oral Histories from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, among several well-regarded works.

Book review: The Ascendant satisfies

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First, the pacing. Good. Fast paced. This book had the right balance of plot, action, and switching between long scenes with our main character friends in the U.S. and shorter scenes with minor characters abroad.

The characters are colorful. Even if they feel like TV characters. There’s the title character, Garrett Reilly, a brilliant jerk who hates the military but ends up drafted. There’s another soldier who wants to die for his country but can’t get deployed because of a medical condition so he has to be a stateside desk analyst. There’s the beautiful but tough-as-nails love interest with leadership chops. Plus others, they make up a band of quirky geniuses who must unite to save the world.

From whom? With a clever twist, the novel has a wag-the-dog scenario but it’s precipitated by the China, not the U.S. The China scenes are handled a bit better than I would have expected. Especially being written by somebody without a foreign affairs or national security background.

But the U.S. government isn’t blameless in this book either. Garrett’s brother was killed in action, but the details of his death were covered up by the military. And even though the government recruits and trains Garrett, elements of the government turn on him. When he doesn’t answer their questions, they waterboard him. A bit sudden and extreme? Yes, and it doesn’t quite work. It’s the weakest and most paranoid part of the book.

Three out of five stars.

A quick summary which is a spoiler appears below/after the jump. Continue reading

Throwback Thursday: A book review of Planet of the Dragons

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Choose Your Own Adventure book #75

Although I read dozens of Choose Your Own Adventure books growing up, this is one of the few whose contents I remember.  The evocative title, Planet of the Dragons, appeals to me as much today as it did as a youngster.  While rummaging through a box of old books in the attic (literally), what choice did I have but to rescue this volume from storage and re-live the old adventure?

Your escape pod crash lands on Tambor, hundreds of light years from Earth.  You crawl out.  Smoke rises from the plains—a sign of battle.  Do you venture in that direction, or take to the hills?  The choices you make will determine the story unfolds for you.

Broadly speaking, there are three main potential storylines in this book, each involving a mysterious race of mechanical dragons which are not native to Tambor.  In one plotline, you meet a human girl named Millie who is worried but knowledgeable about the dragons.  If you choose differently, you never meet Millie, but you meet a strange race of Hyskos, humanoid creatures with bird faces who live on giant bubbles in the sky.  They are threatened by the dragons, and they would be thrilled to come up with a way to defeat them.  The third big story involves the Derns, a hobbit-like terrestrial race that is scared of the Hyskos and of the dragons, but has scientific knowledge that could be useful in the fight.

The various sub-stories involved with Millie are probably the most relatable and fun with some of the better endings in the book.  The interactions with the Hyskos can go well or badly, and they are a vivid species that I think captured my imagination as a young reader.  I don’t remember the Derns when I first read this book, and now I realize that may have been because the Derns bore me.  Their story takes up a lot of the book’s 117 pages.

The common thread is the threat of the dragons.  This creates a sense of wonder, suspense, and doom, and some neat artwork, but the fact that the dragons are mechanical devices is a letdown.  Also, there are a few storylines where you never encounter the dragons at all.  Additionally, you never really figure out the origins of the space dragons either, despite foreshadowing about “the Taurans, an evil race” on the first page of the book.

The natives of Tambor tell you that there is a race of indigenous dragons who are different from the evil machines.  But the native dragons were driven into hiding when the space dragons attacked.  As near as I could tell, there is only one single sub-storyline that leads you to meet the native dragons, and they are only described for barely one page.  I felt that was a missed opportunity.  I would have loved to see some storylines where you end up joining forces with the local, genuine dragons against the invading robot dragons!

Anyway, I loved the overall concept, obviously enough to read it and enjoy it at two distinct times in my life.  The options you get to choose from are reasonable, and the endings are fair, as in, “Okay, my choices didn’t end well for me, but that was still fun,” or “Yes, I made the right choice!”  I feel this book is a very good example of the series.  But I would have chosen more flesh-and-blood fire breathing dragons!

Book review: The Whistler

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The Whistler by John Grisham

I enjoyed this legal thriller.  I figured that lawyers investigating a corrupt judge would be an interesting angle on the legal profession, and it was.

The judicial conduct investigators are Lacy and Hugo.  As they near the truth, their lives are in danger from a shadowy Gulf Coast syndicate.

I complain when books have too many characters.  The Whistler had many characters, but for some reason this was not a problem for me this time.  It may be because Grisham’s writing style is very lucid.  I never felt confused by who he was talking about.  The characters were crisply drawn, and the scenes and their motives were well defined, so the characters didn’t blur together.  One character in particular was very colorful—Lacy’s pugnacious real estate investor brother, Gunther.

That being said, there is probably one character that could have been cut.  Feeding information to Lacy and Hugo are three layers of snitches.  There is a mole, an intermediary, and an ex-con lawyer conveying information from the intermediary.  I was never quite sold on the need for three characters to be involved, when this could have been condensed fairly easily into two characters.

A number of Goodreads reviewers have suggested that the writing is good and the plot is fine, but that there’s a “missing spark” in this book, although they can’t put their finger on what it is.  I’d venture to say that it may have to do with a lack of conflict among the main, “good” characters.  Lacy and Hugo never bump heads.  Lacy and her boss Geismar have different approaches on how the investigation should proceed, but they never have a major difference.  Lacy’s love life is totally vanilla and progresses without fireworks toward the second half.  All the conflict is on the side of the villains/antagonists.  I think that the lack of a conflict or a personal transformation in Lacy’s life is probably how the air leaked out of this book’s balloon.

As usual, Grisham serves up various flavors of the South, with scenes in different cities throughout Florida, but also Mobile, Valdosta, and Mississippi.  Comments about race, real estate development, management of Indian casinos, and how organized crime in the South are all included.

Without spoiling anything, I would say that the ending was satisfying enough and brought closure to most of the plot elements.  However, there is a related case in the book about a wrongfully convicted inmate.  How things end up for him doesn’t really get spelled out.

The Whistler is nothing too deep, and everything comes together a bit too smoothly in the end, but it is still a pleasurable read with justice served.

Book review of Writer’s Market 2015

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Guide to getting published

Writer’s Market is a great resource to writers.  Similar to other editions, the 2015 edition included articles on publishing your work and reference listings of book agents, publishers, and periodicals.

The section entitled “Query Letter Clinic” is a highlight.  I regard Writer’s Market as the gold standard reference for how to format queries and manuscripts if the agent or publisher hasn’t specified anything different.  Writer’s Market 2015 has very good query advice including clear examples of what to do and what not to do.  To me, this is the most useful part of the book.  There’s lots of “free” advice from other sources online about writing query letters, but you get what you pay for.

That being said, although many Writer’s Market buyers are probably aspiring novelists, the articles within the book are geared more so toward freelance magazine article writers.  That’s where a typical writer can actually make income.  Unfortunately, the articles become repetitive.  The contributors must not have known what other contributors were covering, or the editors didn’t really care that so many of the same topics were being covered three or four times, or both.

The writing style of the articles is very bold and almost “in your face.”  Some of the articles read more like blog posts by individuals who are very experienced and knowledgeable about the publishing world but who are also extremely opinionated and didactic.

The listing of publishers is must have been a perfect resource in the days before the internet.  The deluxe edition of Writer’s Market provides access to the information on the web (for which 2015 access has expired).  But a lot of information about publishers and agents is available online for free.

I found the section on contests to be eye-opening.  Pursuing awards is not something I have given a lot of thought, but contests can be a good way to get feedback and advance your craft.  Reading through the different contests and their submission guidelines gave me helpful ideas about what to do with some of my projects apart from the usual pitches and queries.

Every writer should get an edition of Writer’s Market at least once as a reference.  But these days, once may be enough, and in other years you can buy other books about publishing that are more specific to your genre.

Book review of “LinkedIn for Military”

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LinkedIn for Military: A Warrior's Guide for Changing Careers

LinkedIn for Military: A Warrior’s Guide for Changing Careers provides tips on using the business social network LinkedIn tailored for veterans as they transition from military to civilian employment.  It covers how to convey your career experience in LinkedIn, writing your profile summary, avoiding military acronyms, how to use your contacts to expand your LinkedIn following, and tips on joining LinkedIn groups.

The surprising thing about this book is how short it is.  At 32 pages with 14 point font with generous spacing, this is really an article in book format.  Not that a book on best practices for LinkedIn needs to be very long, but I was expecting something more substantive.

For example, “chapter” 2 is about crafting a powerful LinkedIn summary for your profile.  There are helpful suggestions on how to go about having an elevator pitch for yourself and using your career highlights in your LinkedIn profile.  But it would have been even more helpful if the book included additional examples of strong summaries and bad ones.  Instead, each chapter only includes one or two examples, and they’re almost always Air Force examples.

One area that the book does not get into is how to share updates or posts with your LinkedIn network.  Posting information to LinkedIn periodically about your field can help reinforce your expertise and drive engagement within your business network.

The best tip in the book is that you should get some people to read your LinkedIn profile and tell you what they think.  That’s always good advice, and I would add onto it by saying you should try to get somebody without military experience to read it to make sure your military jargon is readable, and try to get somebody outside of your family to read it for an objective critique.

I liked the concept of a short book advising veterans about proper use of LinkedIn, but this book left me very underwhelmed.