Monthly Archives: March 2013

The House at 844 1/2

The House at 844 1/2Unknown

by: Elizabeth Johnson Lee

self published


I enjoyed the House at 844 1/2.  It is a story about a woman approaching middle age who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome.  Most of the world is familiar with Tourette’s from the commercials on television.  This is an in-depth fictional account of life with the Tourette’s as it manifests slightly differently for the female protagonist and her son who has inherited the syndrome.

This book is an example of what I call Mythic Memoir.  By that I mean that this is the mythologized story of the writers life, what they would wish it to be.  I understand that much fiction is based in some sense of the author putting themselves into the protagonist role in their imagined universe.  Mythic memoir is evidenced by being just a little too close to the author’s real life.

We as writers are told repeatedly to write what we know, and we do.  But when we are too close to our subject matter we tend to make false assumptions about our readers.  Mythic memoir is at it’s most obvious when the writer is trying to make a point they are certain their audience will not understand.  Rather than allowing the reader to experience the definitive scene we are bombarded with multiple variations along with explanations to be sure we “get it.”

This does not imply bad writing or a bad story.  In fact it’s common to find this is with well established highly popular authors.  The problem is bad content editing. With highly successful writers, publishers “skip” this step deeming it unnecessary for sales.  With self published authors it’s a step that’s rarely considered.  Even when self published authors look for this kind of critique they are under no obligation to accept it.

Back to Elizabeth Johnson Lee and her book specifically it’s an easy read and she has a lot to say.  I think this could be better told in two or even three distinct stories in distinct genres.  There is the classic romance novel aspect to this story.  Even if we include the fantastical elements the story works much better without the issues her son is facing with Tourette’s.   The sex scenes are vivid but not compelling as romance.  They do point out the core relationship issues, but don’t need to be rehashed for the reader as our protagonist confides to her friend.

The women’s relationships and confidences are more in keeping with memoir.  Given more focus on those elements and the job history this could have been a very woman sympathetic piece.  The memoir element and living with Tourette’s syndrome would play better either without the fantasy element or entirely embodied in the fantasy element.  Elizabeth Moon does this brilliantly creating a fantasy world where she explores the real issues of living with autism in The Speed of Dark.

As a teen fiction novel, the story of the son and his struggle coping with Tourette’s would be fantastic if we remove any hint about his Mom having sex – with anybody!   The story line of his teenaged friend being under so much pressure to succeed was poignant.  I would have liked it more fully developed in a second book as devoted to exploring depression and teen suicide as this one is to living with Tourette’s.

In the case of 844 1/2 there are points at which I struggled with the story overall.  There is a spot where it appears it is the Tourette’s that allows the entry into the alternative world.  There is a spot where it seems that curing the Tourette’s is the only way to achieve a persons full potential.  There is a great deal of “preachiness” about the virtues of a vegetarian diet.  Aside from the vegetarianism, these issues resolve themselves as the story progresses.

Overall I find this to be a fun read.  There are some serious typos and other editorial errors, common in self published books, but not enough to become irritating.  I also would recommend this book to any adult dealing with Tourette’s Syndrome either in themselves, a spouse, a friend or with their children.  It’s always nice to know you are not alone.  It is also important that literature like this is out in the world expanding our awareness of both what is possible and what we take for granted in our own lives.

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Posted by on March 31, 2013 in Fantasy, Fiction, Romance


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by: Fern Michaels

Kensington Publishing Corp. New York, NY  2013

ISBN: 978-0-7582-6602-6

I find Fern Michaels to be an uneven writer.  Much of her early work is about battered women getting away from their abusive relationships and those themes continue in her current work.  What I appreciate most about her later writing is that her heroines don’t need to be 22.  Many of her Vigilantes (from the Sisterhood series) are in their late 60’s and 70’s.  She writes a strong grandmother figure.

I enjoy her Vigilantes the same way I enjoy the Punisher and for much the same reasons.  I am very much aware that our legal system is occasionally unfair and unjust.  Sometimes we have all fantasized that the true culprits get the comeuppance they deserve.  Just like the Punisher, the Vigilantes are graphically violent when meeting out that justice.  More like Batman than the Punisher, the Vigilantes get away with it because they are filthy rich, well respected in the community, and ultimately little old ladies.

This book is framed by the Vigilantes and so it is a part of that series.  I was rather confused though when the focus immediately shifted to our heroine (in her 50’s).  The plot centered on the heroine moves along much like a typical romance novel.  The allusions to the “hardship” which drew the Vigilantes attention are minimal and undefined.

A freak accident changes everything and again the focus is back with the Vigilantes finally showing up at our heroine’s door.  In the end this is indeed a Vigilante novel with the potential of romance rather than the romance novel it appeared to be.

The other interesting thing about this piece is the way the abuse figures into the story.  For once the abusive relationship is very mutual.  There is no interest in separating the woman from her abusive spouse or visa versa.  They’re both villains and come up against the Vigilante’s in full form.  This time the true victim redeemed is a child.  This minor character has a resilience and in spite of her exposure to the abuse seems to come through it all without a scratch to her psyche.

Fern Michaels also writes about dogs.  It’s clear she knows them and loves them.  It’s the dogs in the story, rescued from the pound, who have apparently suffered the trauma of abuse.  The secondary story allows us to watch the dogs find their way past their anxieties.  They also seem to find a purpose for themselves in their new and loving homes.

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Posted by on March 28, 2013 in Romance


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The Alchemyst

The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas FlamelUnknown

by: Michael Scott

Delecort Press New York, NY  2007


This is the first in a long series of fictional books about the Immortal Nicholas Flamel.  Nicholas Flamel and his wife Perenelle are historical characters.   Nicholas Flamel was born in Paris in 1330 and the records show that he and his wife died in 1418.  He was an alchemist of note and his tomb was raided for his “secrets”.  The tomb was found empty.

Dr. John Dee is also a historical character.  He was the magician/advisor to Queen Elizabeth I.  He would have been familiar with Nicholas Flamel and probably had many of Flamel’s works in his extensive library.  In these novels Dee serves as the counterpoint to Flamel and they battle over whether or not to encourage the return of the Elder Race to power in the world.

The premise is that all of our myths and religions, all of mankind’s Deities had some initial source in reality.  The truth of the novels being that the world and humanity are much older than we ever imagined.  It is clear that Scott knows his mythology and he draws from a wide range of myths and legends to people his otherworldly characters.  I did have some question about how they line up on either Dee’s or Flamel’s side of the argument.

The story is framed as good against evil.  The prophecy that the story fulfills is a little more ambiguous.  I suspect my confusion about which Gods and Heros line up on who’s side indicates that the viewpoint of good vs evil is more truthfully Flamel’s interpretation of the best outcome vs Dee’s.

The story involves two teenage twins.  The reason this series didn’t take off the way Rick Riordan’s series or even the Harry Potter books is clearly because the primary point of view is not the teens’, but Flamel’s.  In fact the teens are not particularly well written.  I’m kind of hoping they grow into adults quickly in the series as I suspect that will make them more interesting.  This book also ended with a little too much undone to truly stand alone.

I am going to work my way through the rest of the series.  The premise intrigues me and I am contented with Flamel’s point of view rather than that of the teens.  I think the series has promise and I enjoy this kind of modern exploration of mythology.  I don’t know that you’ll get reviews of every book, but I will try to remember to write a review of the entire series when I finish.   This series is already written so I don’t have to wait for the next book.  My favorite kind!


Posted by on March 22, 2013 in Fantasy, Teen Fiction


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Ender’s Game

Ender’s GameUnknown

Orson Scott Card

Tom Doherty Associates, LLC  NY, NY  1977,1985,1991


Orson Scott Card has been in the news recently due to his strong anti-gay bias.  I read someone making the suggestion that in the seminal work Ender’s Game, the author was not to be associated with the compassionate Ender but instead with the psychopathic brother Peter.  It was enough to entice me to read (reread, but it’s been SOOOOOO long) the book, and form my own opinion.

Ender’s Game is classically science based science fiction.  The primary science being explored seems to be the science of psychology and warfare.  Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s the idea of children being taught warfare from video games was a stretch.  There was Pong (1972), and then Donkey Kong (released 1981) neither of which looked anything like Halo which begins to resemble the games Ender is being trained on.

The shocking part of the story, even now, is that these are exceptionally bright children.  Ender (and his siblings) are studied for recruitment until they are 6 years old.  If they pass, they are taken away by the I.F. (International Fleet).  They don’t see their families again for 10 years, when they are 16.  The I.F. controls all contact and in Ender’s case isolates him allowing no communication to or from his family.

Ender is being recruited for fleet commander in an interstellar war against an alien species that attempted an invasion (twice) before he was born.  The general public is led to believe this training program is to prevent a third wave.  The truth is that the human commanders have chosen to take the fight to the aliens.  They need a commander in place when the troops are scheduled to arrive.  They’ve been looking for the right person for 20 years.  If Ender doesn’t fit the bill there is no more time to look.

Peter, the oldest brother, was also screened for this service.  He was rejected because of his pathology towards violence.  Peter, it was thought, had no capacity for empathy.  He enjoyed torturing the weak and everything he did was in his own self interest.  Valentine, the older sister, was also screened.  She was determined to be too compassionate.  She was the defender of the weak, and specifically the defender of her younger brother Ender against the vicious Peter.

Ender is stubborn enough to be not like Peter that he feels remorse when he is pushed to the point of fighting.  Still, when pushed, Ender is capable of extreme force.  He only wants to fight once.  He also has the vision of Valentine that allows him to understand interpersonal dynamics in a way that makes him a very effective commander.

The aliens, strange as they may be, are not quite as alien as originally thought.  They share our DNA.  They may have originated on Earth.  They have a hive mind and that instantaneous telepathy is their advantage and their week spot.  It doesn’t occur to the aliens that there is any need for communication.  Likewise the human generals don’t see any communication among the aliens and assume communication is impossible.

Ender eventually happens upon a third alternative and that leads to the subsequent book Speaker for the Dead.

In terms of Orson Scott Card I suspect that Valentine says it best.  “Two faces of the same coin.  And I am the metal in between.”  All three characters have their vision, their blind spots, and their great flaws.  They all make an impact on humanity and human culture.  They all fight against their natures and it is that struggle that brings them to greatness.  Don’t we all.

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Posted by on March 13, 2013 in Science Fiction


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by: Tina Fey

Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown and Company NY,NY  2011


For someone who doesn’t read a lot of memoirs this seems to be my year.  Tina Fey writes a piece that is part memoir, part stand up routine.  It’s more like reading a series of short sketches than a story of someone’s life.  At the same time she does seem to cover the arc of her experiences in a somewhat sequential manner.

Reading this book it seems as though Tina Fey truly believes she has an ordinary life.  It is just extraordinary circumstances and people she works with who make her interesting.  There is a sense of the common man in her humor, especially when she writes about her feelings of guilt as a working mother.  At the same time she clearly holds the modern-day noblesse oblige when she debates quitting her job and leaving all those people without the paycheck that they need even if she doesn’t.

She does spend plenty of time talking about the serendipity that brought her fame;  Sarah Palin as vice presidential nominee.  She talks about her reluctance to take on a character and how much everybody thought she should.  She talks about working with Amy Poehler.  She talks about walking the line as a writer between satire and political commentary.

As a whole this work is as delightful as I had hoped.  Tina Fey is a funny lady.  She is a comic writer by trade and it comes through in her voice as I read.  This is the kind of book that has you looking a little crazy while you laugh out loud on the bus.

Saturday Night Live

30 Rock


Posted by on March 12, 2013 in Memoir


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If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could TalkUnknown

James Baldwin (1924-1987)

Vintage Books (Random House) NY,NY  1974

ISBN: 10-0-307-27593-0

Tish is 19 and pregnant.  Fonny, the father and her childhood sweetheart, is in prison mostly for being a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.  This is an “everyman’s tale” of a black family in Harlem, New York in the late 1950s.  The language is colored with beat era phrases.  The setting long before Harlem was gentrified.

It is a story of love.  It is a story of what makes a family.  It is a slice of life, a birthing story.  But what is being birthed here is not entirely clear.  The family rallies behind Tish and Fonny and the baby.  The insight, as Sharon (Tish’s mother) learns the difference between knowing she’s oppressed and exploring the fine detail of the many ways the system works against her, is as astonishing to her as it is to the reader.  We see the small ways these people find to lift each other up and hold each other down.

This is a story of a different time and a different place.  Nothing brings this home for me quite as dramatically as the way one character, Frank, beats his wife.  In the narrative this is done as causally and offhandedly as a character in a British novel setting down her tea-cup, and with about as much notice.  I think it was the third time he hits her upside the head and she falls to the floor that I consciously noticed what was going on.  The other characters didn’t react, so neither did I.

The author paints the wife as such a hard hearted, sanctimonious, shrew that I found myself wanting to cheer Frank on.  I had to stop in shock at my reaction.  Regardless how I felt about the story, this is clearly brilliant writing.  What kind of person would I be had I been brought up in this environment?  What if these scenes were all I knew?  What would it be like to be in prison just because the police needed a perpetrator and they knew where to find me?

I picked up this book at the recommendation of another blogger, thank you Totsy!  I also picked up this book at a time when I am participating in conversations about privilege. (podcast discussion of privilegeArticle/interview Pagans and Privilege)  Nothing brings that issue home as effectively as a good story that sucks you into a world and a point of view so very different from your own.  I am privileged by my upbringing, my social status, my skin color and my education.  I am privileged to have literature like this at my disposal, from my local library.  I am reminded of what I learned from To Kill A Mockingbird “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Here is a story that makes you walk around for a bit in someone else’s skin.  Well done.

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Posted by on March 6, 2013 in Fiction, Non-fiction


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Elephant Whisperer

The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African WildUnknown

Lawrence Anthony and Graham Spence

St. Martins Press NY, NY  2009

ISBN: 978-1-250-00781-0

I really wasn’t sure when I picked this up if I would like it.  Would it be a collection of stories about animals in Africa?  Would it be about training elephants to do work for people?  Would the elephants be a metaphor for the political situation in South Africa?  Would it be a memoir of safaris?  The answer to my questions turned out to be a delightful yes and no.

Our Lawrence Anthony and his lovely French wife, Francoise, have bought a game reserve in Zululand in South Africa.  It turns out that the idea is truly to preserve the species in a wilderness habitat rather than to create a zoo or a hunting reserve.  We learn that the animals are actually native to this area but were pushed out for so long that most of the local native tribespeople have never even seen things like an elephant in person.

Politically, Lawrence grew up in the area and was very active in the movement for civil rights for the South African natives.  He speaks the local languages and knows the tribal chiefs personally.  He dreams that the small reserve he has purchased could be joined into a large Royal Zulu game reserve connecting his little parcel Thula Thula to the National Forest.  That would not only allow for the return of the native species but also become a corridor for their natural migratory patterns.  This is a dream with serious political ramifications and the book holds stories that represent some of them.

The center of the book is Lawrence Anthony’s relationship with a herd of elephants.  He acquires them because they were unruly enough to warrant killing them, at least in terms common among small reserves.  Lawrence takes on the challenge and throws out the book.  He takes his cues from the elephants, particularly Nana the Matriarch, and works to establish trust.

It’s clear from the stories that Anthony Lawrence has a genuine love of nature in nature.  We hear not only about the elephants but also other animals the reserve acquires.  There are stories about the rhinoceros, the crocodile and even the family pets.  Max, his bull terrier, is clearly a partner in the process.  As this narrative covers several years time we are sad to see Max aging and eventually unable to keep up.

Developing this dream has its challenges.  There are stories about the staff some of whom are priceless and others who are problematic.  We see that part of the dream is to provide jobs, training and opportunities to the young tribesmen.  Those who are successful are also those who clearly share the vision of seeing the animals thrive, unencumbered in their native environments.

Of course a dream this large needs funding.  So there is an exclusive resort built on the property.  Camera safaris are conducted.  Tourists are wined and dined in high French fashion.  Still, it is clear that the animals are the priority.  When flooding creates new pools and pockets very near the resort and residence areas the crocodiles that move in are left alone.

So too, over time, are the elephants.  The close relationship Lawrence builds with Nana does not need to continue into the subsequent generations.  In the end the dream truly is to let the elephants and the other wildlife simply be.  Now I have a trip to South Africa and Thula Thula Lodge on my bucket list.  The stories have drawn me in and created a compelling picture.  It would be a delight to see it all in person.

Sadly, Lawrence Anthony died a year ago March 2, 2012.  The elephants he loved showed up to mourn his death.  Here’s the link to the article.  News: Elephants gather inexplicably to morn death of “Elephant Whisperer”

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Posted by on March 2, 2013 in Memoir, Non-fiction


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