Book Review: “The Opposite of Hollywood” an autobiographical novel, by Margo Perin

An Honest Reflection

25732141Some of the most interesting people are the product of upbringing and circumstance. The lives of people we’ve never met can be full of gripping stories, complete with the daily drama that unfolds in the background. Ms. Perin’s latest autobiographical novel is an honest and courageous presentation of a search for truth within one’s own life. For me, the genre itself is interesting because it differs from a memoir in that the author chose not to claim the story as a 100% accurate presentation of events. That in itself lends credibility to the story as I find most memoirs to be the author’s ideal perception of self. In Perin’s novel, names may have been changed, some details of locales, and maybe even of events may have been slightly altered, but I’d venture to guess that most of what the author’s main character, Tosca experienced throughout the story was largely based on fact and truth.

Tosca Ring, is the 4th offspring in a family of 9. Her mother was a movie and opera fanatic and so named the Ring children after movie stars and opera singers. The story opens with the Ring family living in NY City and for unknown reasons started taking holiday trips that turned into extended moves. Tosca and her siblings were in a constant state of adjusting to new schools, new rules, new friends and neighbors, all the while never able to disclose anything about her family situation. Her parents were secretive, irresponsible, and ultimately abusive toward their children. On the outside, the Ring family may very well have been perceived as mysterious, intriguing jet setters. However, the dreary and disturbed lives that each of the children endured were amplified by the lack of attention and extreme treatment received from their parents. The story spans the most influential years of Tosca’s life, from a young age until late teens.

As an avid and curious reader I’m of the belief that authors are motivated to create and publish for a multitude of reasons. Perin may have written this novel in order to confront the naked truths of her own life. Beyond pure entertainment, my interpretation of the result was that Ms. Perin found peace by confronting the reality of her life in the process of sharing it with others. A review of the author’s accomplishments as an artist, writer, and musician are a testimony to the possibility of overcoming family disfunction.

Young adult readers/parents should be warned that some of the passages in this novel contain vulgar language, promiscuous situations, and violence. All of it felt genuine, honest and written with purpose. I came away with a realization that family disfunction and abuse can be a thin layer away from what most of us might see. I also came away reflecting on the resiliency of resourceful and hopeful individuals. Margo Perin – I suspect many readers will identify with Tosca and the lives of her sibs and maybe find peace in the knowledge that they are not alone.

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Book Review: “When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice” by Terry Tempest Williams

When a woman author is wedded to words, the result is a thing of beauty. When Women Were Birds is the best book of any genre that I’ve read in the past five years. I was captivated from the very first page. The reading experience was like taking a tour through nature and lurking within the depths of an artists imagination all at the same time.

I’m not a big reader of the memoir or auto biography genre, but I was inspired to read Terry Tempest Williams after hearing an interview she did with travel journalist, Rick Steves. The interview started out with Ms. Williams thanking Rick for the advice to young adventurers, that they should keep a journal while traveling. This opened the door for a well thought out discussion of this book.

In the opening chapter, Williams, having grown up in a Mormon family, reveals that Mormon women are raised with two responsibilities; to bare children and to keep a journal. Ms. Williams’s discovered that the journals her mother had left for her on her passing were mysteriously empty. She believed the mystery to have been a message from her mother to seek her voice. Each of the fifty-four chapters of this work touches on the main theme of finding ones voice. Williams structured this memoir in a series of vignettes that explore this theme. Woven into them is the relationship the author has to the environment and she bares her soul while sharing her thoughts on finding voice. She grew up with a field guide to birds and throughout this work relates the birdsong and the quiet in between, to her personal experiences of learning to listen while discovering what it is to become empowered.

Though Ms. Williams did not read from When Women Were Birds, during her interview with Mr. Steves, I could hear her voice throughout each of the chapters as I read them. Beginning with the first chapter after sharing her discovery of the empty journals, she offers, “Empty pages become possibilities.” In another of the early chapters she shares her thoughts on marriage and the different roles of men and women. She states “If a man knew what a woman never forgets, he would love her differently.” These sentences are brief but thoughtful and evoke unexpected emotions.

This book is not one to rush through, it is a short work you’ll want to think about as you read each passage. I’m eager to read the other works by Terry Tempest Williams and am also pleased to find that there is an audio version of When Women Were Birds, narrated by Ms. Williams. I’m anticipating that hearing Ms. Williams sharing her journey of finding voice will be even more beautiful than reading about it.

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Book Review/Reflections: “Life on Foot: A Walk Across America” by Nate Damm

A friend of mine has convinced me to join him on a walking/hiking adventure along the west coast of the United States from the Canadian border to the Mexican frontier.  Part of our preparations along with daily hikes and walks is to read as many books and journals written by others who have taken on epic journeys.  Our initial inspiration stemmed from John Francis, author of The Planet Walker.  When I discovered that Francis’s book was the inspiration for Nate Damm’s book, Life on Foot,  I knew I’d want to read it too.  My review of Life on Foot follows:

I had mixed feelings about how best to review this non-fictional account of a young man’s adventure while walking across the United States. I thoroughly enjoyed reading and learning from the author’s experiences, while at the same time wasn’t impressed with his writing style.

I’ve r22174807ead other first person accounts of cross country walkers, of which I found John Francis’s The Planet Walker to be the most inspirational. To Nate Damm’s credit, he acknowledged John Francis as his initial source of inspiration before setting out on his journey across North America, which took him over 7 months to accomplish.

Mr. Damm did an excellent job of providing readers with a chronological blow by blow of the places and people he encountered during his travels. He shared his personal challenges along with the stories of others he met along the way. I recommend this book to anyone interested or curious about what it is like to walk great distances over an extended period. Readers seeking deep philosophy or refined writing might be disappointed with this book, but I found there were enough interesting and surprising aspects to it to enjoy reading every page.

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Book Review and thoughts on having read, “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee

Curiosity got the better of me when I heard Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird published a second novel after more than 50 years.  Since To Kill a Mockingbird is a favorite among favorites, I knew I had to read this one too.

If you’re a fan of powerful American fiction, you’ll be disappointed with  this novel as I was until it hit me that every author has to cut their teeth on something.  I found it interesting that this novel was written in the ’50s and has only recently been released – perhaps for good reason.  My review of Go Set a Watchman follows:

I loved reading To Kill a Mockingbird and when I heard Harper Lee had another novel coming out, I knew I’d want to read it also. I didn’t expect it could possibly be as good as To Kill a Mocking Bird (TKAM) and after reading it, I discovered I was right. I also discovered something else; in the pre-release media for Go Set a Watchman I learned that the novel was written before Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winner TKAM was published. Though it was written in the mid-1950s, it was never published until now and probably for good reason.

Go Set a Watchman is set in the early ’50s and opens with 26 year old Jean Louise Finch nick named “Scout” returning to Maycomb, Alabama where she grew up. Maycomb is the small southern town where her aging father, Atticus still practices law. It is a town in transition during a period when civil rights were at the forefront of social justice.

For me, a good novel stems from a great story with precise, economical prose. TKAM is that kind of novel, Go Set a Watchman isn’t. Written as a sequel to TKAM, Lee probably knew it wasn’t ready for publication. It perhaps served as inspiration to write TKAM, since it included many of the same characters as well as a theme and setting with potential to captivate an audience of readers. However, Go Set a Watchman lacked a hard hitting story and just droned on as a platform for Lee to express her views on social justice through the character of Jean Louise Finch. The title, Go Set a Watchman came from a passage where Jean Louise struggles to understand the changing attitudes of Maycomb and the town’s people. In this passage, Jean Louise expresses a need for an internal watchman to steer her conscience.

Reading both Go Set a Watchman and TKAM as an exercise in comparative literary analysis would be a good exercise for both students and teachers of high school level literature. As an avid reader and fiction author, I was surprised to have struggled with the point of view in the narration. On several occasions in the course of two-three paragraphs, the point of view shifted from first person to third person. I found it difficult at times. In some instances the commentary in the narrative had the feel of a diatribe.

Additionally, I was surprised at the repetition of back story in the earlier chapters. I felt like the author was circling back to a different kind of story, perhaps the one that served as Lee’s inspiration for TKAM.

If this were the only novel ever published by Harper Lee, she would have never become a household name among American authors. Read Go Set a Watchman if you are curious or enjoy an opportunity to see that a Pulitzer Prize winning author is also capable of producing a dud.

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Book Review: “The Hunters” by James Salter

When Jets Were Young

It has been over sixty years since American pilots deployed to Korea to engage in aerial 174621combat at the dawn of the jet age. BBC aired a taped interview of author James Salter in memorial of his passing last month. During the interview, there was mention of the editorial review from “Washington Post Book World” about Mr. Salter’s prose, “The contemporary writer most admired and envied by other writers. . . . He can . . . break your heart with a sentence.” Having heard that and knowing that the author was himself a veteran pilot with a MIG kill to his credit, I had to read this book.

I discovered later there was a hollywood film of the same title loosely based on the story, so I watched it too. The movie was disappointing and I only mention it here in hopes that anyone who saw it might be more entertained by reading the novel.

To quote from another aviation novel, The Wild Blue, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This is true of Salter’s prose offering up the touch, feel, and smell of being based in Korea. Salter brings the reader into the cockpit of a first generation jet fighter with extraordinary authenticity. He managed to recreate the tension and frustration that comes from the boredom every pilot experiences while waiting for the next combat mission – dangerous as they tend to be. The mood is nicely captured in the following 3rd person narration: “The worst part, he knew, was what lay ahead, the empty hours of melancholy that would not be filled until he flew again.” Then finally, “…it becomes, I don’t know, a refuge. The sky is the godlike place. If you fly it alone, it can be everything.”

From the mind and imagination of a deep thinker engaged in the solitary art of aerial combat, Salter’s reputation for putting strings of beauty together with words is indeed something to behold. As he narrates main character Cleve Connell’s view enroute to “Mig Alley” north along the Yalu River, he takes the reader along for the ride:

“Shreds of cirrus hung in the air, like icicles along the edge of a roof.” He goes on to describe the rush of the landscape, “Now he seemed to be crossing it with great speed, as if running with the current of time.”

Some passages that might tantalize perspective readers with the feel for the changing seasons on the Korean peninsula read as follows:

“The rain fell drearily from swollen skies. It seemed as everlasting as surf.”

This story is so packed with splendid writing. Here’s one more favorite:

“They crossed the Haeju Peninsula and then the edge of an unblemished sea that lay like a sheet of foil in the sunlight.”

No review of a piece of aviation writing would be complete without validating the credibility of the author. As a former military jet pilot, I really admired the author’s ability to put truth into the advice offered by the more experienced Connell, to one of the new replacement pilots who stated he was trying not to use the throttle so much. Cleve tells him to “use it all the way from the gear warning to the fire warning light if you have to. That’s what it’s there for. Only use it in time, not when it’s too late. Make the throttle your intention, not your reaction.” Though the technicality of the description (range of the throttle’s movement between gear warning and fire warning) may be different in modern fighters, the advice Cleve offered, reads well. It also evoked the kind of tension and anxiety a newbie might be experiencing before launching into the big adventure of combat for the first time.

I loved reading this book and will probably read it again, not for the story so much as for the beauty of the words the author used to describe every detail. Any reader who’s ever flown a plane should read it.

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Fellow Author Support

One of my favorite activities as an independent author is corresponding with other like minded readers/writers.  Most of the independent authors I’ve established relations with have of late become expert in the art of social media networking.  Our mutual objective is to get our work in front of a reading audience.

After seeing how fellow author Jonathan Brookes is ramping into this brave new world of “indie authoring/marketing,” yes, “marketing”, I’ve become recharged.  Recharged to write the sequels I’ve committed to, and recharged with the energy necessary to promote good work.

Previously, I invested a little over a year experimenting with boutique publishers and shared royalties, along with all the baggage that goes with the agreements and contracts. Now I’m eager to return to what I’ve discovered works well – self publishing quality fiction. If it is good enough, it will be discovered.

Jonathan Brookes, best of luck with Relic II“!  Learn more about the captivating fiction of Mr. Brookes by following his blog here.

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Book Recommendation/Author Profile: Bound for Distant Seas by James Baldwin

Thoughtful, Adventurous, and Articulate

I just finished reading Bound for Distant Seas, by fellow author and adventurer, James Baldwin (a full review can be found here). I’d read his first work, Across Islands and Oceans, and was captivated by the place descriptions and his genuine desire to experience the remote islands he’d hiked on foot (read the review here). Baldwin’s latest is even better, not only does he do a fantastic job of providing just enough detail of the challenges a solo sailor faces, he also writes of his serendipitous experiences, landing work when his money ran out and discovering the generosity of people with little to give yet still offering what they have.

ATOM on her second circumnavigation

ATOM on her second circumnavigation

Having read both of Mr. Baldwin’s works, I felt as if I were getting to know him. In the opening passage in this story the author is re-fitting ATOM, the vintage 28′ Pearson Triton he sailed solo on two circumnavigations several years earlier. While stripping through layers of paint the reader takes a journey back in time as the author recounts the experiences of his past voyages. The 55 year old sailor/author is the same age as his pocket yacht ATOM. Their relationship is one to be envied.

When I read Across Islands and Oceans, I learned that in his young adult years, James Baldwin worked in a steel foundry to earn enough money to finance his dream of sailing the world. Reading Bound for Distant Seas, gave me further insight into the mind of a person who could be described as a thoroughly self-educated adult. He’s proof positive that when one is equipped with tenacious desire and genuine curiosity, the world can indeed become their oyster. Years ago if you’d asked me who I’d enjoy spending a good meal and conversation with, I’d have probably rattled off a few names of prominent personalities ranging from the likes of JFK, Madeline Albright, Colin Powell, or Martin Luther King. Now I think spending an evening over a meal, or better yet, a cruise aboard the refit ATOM with James Baldwin, would be my answer to that question.

The author, James Baldwin, at the helm of refit ATOM

The author, James Baldwin, at the helm of refit ATOM

In my opinion, James Baldwin is an honest writer and true to his experiences. In a later passage he humbles himself to readers by confessing to what might have been a tragic end of his adventures while sailing in the shadow of high cliffs off of Taiwan. He found himself becalmed in a strong current driving ATOM toward a rocky and surf battered coast. With his companion, Mei asleep below deck, James and ATOM drifted into a zephyr that spirited them from the clutches of immanent disaster. Reading that passage, my heart rate increased as I allowed myself to experience the emotions that must have been running wild with James before a magical wind kissed ATOM’s sails rescuing him, Mei, and ATOM in the nick of time.

With Bound for Distant Seas, I found myself taking brief interludes from reading to leaf through my atlas. I even went so far as using “Google Earth” to view some of the places Mr. Baldwin described on his journey. When I found myself at the end of the Philippines, knowing there was a sailing trip home, I knew there would be another book in the offing by Mr. Baldwin. Since I couldn’t wait, I researched his story and discovered a multitude of articles he’d written for “Cruising World” magazine, as well as the Atom Voyages website.

Of the many things about James that I discovered while reading his works is that his genuine nature and his faith in his own hands-on “can do anything” approach to solving problems resulted in his ability to rely on the pure sailing arts. Of utmost importance is celestial navigation using a sextant, star charts, a nautical almanac, an accurate timepiece, and some mathematics, while most other cruising sailors rely on GPS technology to chart their course. Additionally, for practical reasons, James elected to remove ATOM’s troublesome engine to experience sailing as Slocum did with “Spray”.

Today, James runs a custom business re-fitting seagoing cruising sailboats. His website is definitely worth a look and the recent refit of ATOM will no doubt cause any sailor worth their salt to gasp with a big “Wow, that guy knows what he’s doing!” Furthermore, as one who’s sailed and flown his miles in and over the oceans, I would be willing to stand in line with my own pocket yacht for a custom James Baldwin refit and custom prep for my own dream cruise to Vava’u Tonga or another uncharted destination further east in the Philippines. James, you’re experiences still linger in my mind as perhaps they do in the minds of other like-minded cruisers and dreamers.

To discover more about author, James Baldwin, his wife Mei, and their custom yacht refitting business, visit the ATOM Voyages website at:

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The origins of a good story: Tyler McMahon – author of Kilometer 99

Tyler McMahon - Author of "Kilometer 99"  pictured on the sand at Ocean Beach, CA

Tyler McMahon – Author of “Kilometer 99”
pictured on the sand at Ocean Beach, CA

I’m pleased to introduce some insights from fellow author Tyler McMahon, on what went into his latest novel, Kilometer 99.  Mr. McMahon teaches fiction writing at Hawaii Pacific University and is the editor of Hawaii Pacific Review.

Having recently read Kilometer 99, I was thoroughly impressed by Tyler’s ability to balance plot with character development (see my review here on this blog). I was curious why he elected to write the story from the point of view of a female protagonist. Tyler was very gracious and offered the following:

“As for writing from a female point-of-view in Kilometer 99, it wasn’t necessarily part of my design. I’d wanted to write about post-earthquake La Libertad for many years. I drafted stories and essays set there, but none of them quite worked. Malia sort of came to me one day, and immediately snapped the story into focus. As a Hawaiian woman, she had insights into tourism, development, and surfing that other narrators couldn’t. She also challenged Salvadoran assumptions about people from the United States. Right away, she snapped the story into focus.”

K99_smallcoverAs a fiction author, one of the aspects I study while reading a good novel is the balance between plot and character development. Readers will be pleased to discover that Kilometer 99 is rich with fast paced gripping plot elements, but what made this story work for me was the character development.  Mr. McMahon offered the following on this subject:

“For me, the great pleasure of writing novels is to step outside myself and dwell in another consciousness for a while. While I don’t think that I have any particular insight into the female psyche, I do enjoy working with a narrator who is fundamentally different from me. Right away, the challenge becomes a matter of making the character convincing–to make her (or him) into a real, believable person.”

I want to publicly thank Tyler McMahon for sharing his experiences and insights as a writer.  More importantly, I believe prospective readers should know that Kilometer 99 is likely to go down as the best novel with a surf theme that I’ve ever read.  Anyone with doubts should pick up a copy and read it for themselves.

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Book Review: Kilometer 99 by Tyler McMahon

Get ready for a Five Star – Earth Shattering Adventure

I love novels with themes involving surfing. McMahon’s Kilometer 99 is a story that K99_smallcovershould be on the shelf of every surfer and anyone with a sense of adventure that appreciates quality writing. I’ll admit that the book’s plot description in the flyleaf is what got my attention. In fact, it was enough by itself to encourage me to buy a copy and drop what I was previously reading so I could plow right through it when I should have done a better job of savoring every passage. I felt transported by McMahon’s style and precise balances between plot and character development.

The title Kilometer 99, is a reference to a semi secret surf spot in El Salvador. According to the author’s note, the spot doesn’t actually exist, but is representative of the type of warm water point break with long hollow waves and make-able sections that every surfer dreams about.

The tumultuous world events at turn of the 21st century weave into the setting in La Libertad, El Salvador, where main character Malia,a recently minted engineering graduate from Hawaii, is a Peace Corps volunteer. The opening passage is a rail grabber written from Malia’s point of view, that takes the reader on an authentic ride-along in the green room of a fast right, witnessed by a fellow surfer paddling back out to the line up.

It is through surfing that Malia meets Ben, an agriculture specialist with realistic expectations about his role in supporting local development. Turns of fate play significant parts in how McMahon masterfully creates drama throughout the story. An earthquake sets off a chain of events that cause Malia and Ben to seek a different type of adventure. They meet up with Pelochuco, the North American opportunist who influences many of the decisions Ben and Malia are faced with.

I was not only impressed with McMahon’s ability to captivate my attention with his fast paced plot elements, but also his writing craft. The following quote is just one of many wonderful examples of this author’s artistic talents: “The long day’s last light clings like rust to the edges of a worn-out sky.” The colors and tranquility of the scene presented in that passage transported me and still linger as I reflect on this beautifully presented story.

The realism accompanying each string of events that Malia and Ben encounter as they take up with Pelochuco, are almost tragic but somehow laughable at the same time. In the wake of one of Pelochuco’s misbegotten adventures where each of the three were physically injured, Malia recounts their condition with her split lip, Ben’s torn ear and the mutilated eyebrow Pelochuco received surfing at K-99. “Our three wounds have us looking like the ‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ monkeys.”

There is no doubt about McMahon’s credibility as a surfer and most definitely a writer. I’ve read all of Kem Nunn’s work and was thoroughly captivated by Tim Winton’s novel Breath, but Kilometer 99 tops my list of novels with a surf theme and ranks among the best of period pieces that appeal to my sense of adventure. This novel has so many wonderfully crafted passages that my best recommendation is to just read it.

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Book Review: “The Former Hero” by indie author Jeffrey Allen Mays

Authentic and Gritty – Five Star Literature

Jeffrey Mays showed me what is in the art of the possible with his debut novel, The Former Hero.
I hadn’t read anything as good in the genre of experimental literature since the early ’70s when Ishmael Reed wow’ed me with The Last Days of Louisiana Red. My appetite for classy writing is once again fulfilled.

Mays’s work will transport readers with a strong sense of place and well-developed characters that bring authentic dialog to life.TFH

When Moira Flax rouses from a substance-enhanced stupor, only to find her daughter missing, she immediately assumes the worst.   Only luck would land her on the back of Angus’s Harley, but it would take more than luck to save her and her daughter Penny from the corrupt and filthy world led by Mayor Robert Knox.

Former “good cop,” Lt. McCarthy is hard wired to “do the right thing” and risks all, to rescue the city and its citizens from the depths of crime and violence controlled by Knox and his cohorts. The story takes place as the cold of a winter season casts a dark shadow over the decrepit city that could be anywhere USA. Mays created the perfect feel for readers who enjoy a “noir-esque” mystery.

The city has a history and Mays offers just enough awareness of the loose links that spring the city’s tragic past, generations forward to the state of affairs at the story’s clever conclusion.

The Former Hero is a novel that will provide readers with a lasting impression. I haven’t stopped thinking about the plot or the characters since immersing myself in the first chapters. Each of the character’s backstories is perfectly synchronized to keep any reader’s interest. I hope Jeffrey Mays can crank out another masterpiece like this one soon.

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