January 27th, 2018


Book #3: Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub

Number of pages: 625

This is the only Stephen King book I've read that is a collaboration with another author (although he also wrote The Talisman with Peter Straub). This is quite a long book, but once I got into it, it was quite enjoyable.

The first part introduces us to all the characters in the small town where the book is set, through the eyes of the crow Gorg, who ends up being significant to the plot. The narrative style was unusual, as it addresses the reader directly and allows us to imagine that we are flying through the town and snooping on all the residents.

The story only really gets going in part two. We are told that children are being kidnapped and eaten by a mysterious killer called "The Fisherman". Early in part two, the Fisherman kidnaps his latest victim, Tyler Marshall, who is distracted by the crow Gorg.

The hero of the plot, assigned to find Tyler Marshall before it is too late, is Jack Sawyer, who also cares for a blind man, Henry, and is reading "Bleak House" to him. Jack also seems to have the ability to see into a parallel world inhabited by bizarre creatures.

When the "black house" of the title gets introduced into the plot, the novel develops into a dark fantasy/horror story that involves demonic possession, and trips to the parallel universe where "twinners" live. While some of the content is quite bizarre, this book is very readable, and it all leads up to a gruesome finale - followed by a shock twist in the final chapters. The writers even tell you that can stop after the penultimate chapter if you want an upbeat ending.

I'd read the book before, and knew that something shocking had happened at the end, but I had forgotten what it was, so I decided to re-read it, and I think I may have got even more out of my second reading. Overall, it's a book that seems too long at first, but the writing style makes you keep wanting to read. I probably need to read more of Peter Straub's work, as I am much more familar with Stephen King's books (of which I have several).

Next book: The Sound of Seas (Gillian Anderson and Jeff Rovin)

Books 1-4

1. AsiaTown Cleveland, by Alan F. Dutka. My first book of the year; started this one last year. This was a neat bit of history I'd never heard about our area Chinatown/AsiaTown. It's full of photos as well that capture the area. The book goes from the start of the small but impactful Chinese immigrant population in Cleveland to the present day. It highlights past and present businesses and prominent residents. There's a good chapter on the Tong Wars, a sad period in Cleveland history for that area. All in all, a good book on local history.

2. Haunted Akron, by Jeri Holland. This was a good mix of familiar tales of haunts and several new stories. The concentration was more on the history of the locales themselves and the more technical aspects of trying to verify a particular haunting, which was different. The author stressed that she wanted to emphasize a balanced, neutral approach and she succeeded. It was a nice read on local history, area locales and legend.

3. The Art and Craft of Stage Management, by Doris Schneider. My mom found this book and gave it to me. I'm glad she did. Now, mind you, I have no intention of ever stage managing a show. I knew even before reading the book that this position would not be a good fit for me, and reading this only affirmed this. I had respect for stage managers before- it's a tough job that requires working with a lot of various parties. I had no idea how much was involved. This is a great book for beginner and intermediate stage managers, and can serve as a nice brush-up for either more experienced managers, or managers going from one type of theater to another. There's numerous checklists stage managers can use, it goes over the notation system, includes contact information for the various guilds and even includes a lot of anecdotal stories throughout. It made me appreciate all that goes into a theatrical production.

4. Visions of Sugar Plums, by Janet Evanovich. This short novel was published sometime in between the numbered novels. Obviously, Christmas hijinks are in store here, as the intrepid and hilarious heroine Stephanie Plum meets up with a new character Diesel. This combines some supernatural along with the usual zaniness. I chuckled throughout, and had to put the book down at one point I was laughing so hard. Without getting too deep into spoiler territory, it involved Stephanie's vehicle, a Christmas tree and one of the most hilarious takes on T'was the Night Before Christmas I've ever read. I've been doing a lot of serious reading lately, so this was the perfect chaser, a sugar-sweet bit of hilarious escapism. Fans who haven't already picked this up won't be disappointed.

Currently reading: The Death and Life of the Great American School System, by Diane Ravitch (updated 2016), and On A Burning Deck, vol. 2, by Tom Jones.


The ten most recent episodes of History Channel Vikings underwhelmed.  That is a rant for another day, though.  Today, Book Review No. 3 will consider Jonathan Clements's A Brief History of the Vikings: The Last Pagans or the First Modern Europeans? (Spoiler alert: a little of both, and neither.)  Mr Clements concentrates on material recorded in contemporary sagas and chronicles, so as to ground his story in something resembling sources.  Most of the action in the History Channel series takes place earlier: there being no mention of Ragnar Lothbrok, Rollo the duke of Normandy, or Lagertha, or of any shield-maidens.  We see references to the "Great Heathen Host" led by Ivar the Boneless, Halfdan the Wide-Grabber, and Ubbi in England around 870, with Alfred becoming king in 871, and paying danegeld.  Harald Fairhair was in fact spurned by a woman early in life, but he never became king of all the Norse lands.  Raven-Floki arrives in Iceland about the same time.  Iceland, however, doesn't require an adventurous sail across open ocean: rather, it is visible on warm early spring days from the Faeroe Islands.

I witnessed that phenomenon on a more prosaic cross-Lake Michigan cruise in May, 2014.
Collapse )Methinks the man protesteth too much.  My tax dollars (one interpretation of manngjöld is a ransom; the other is "blood money" to buy off further honor killings) pay for a navy that keeps the sea-lanes open, hardly a fleet of commerce-raiders delivering the cheap stuff to me without the Chinese factories getting a cut.  And in the difference between the Northmen collecting danegeld and otherwise leaving the Angles and Saxons alone, and the local king levying taxes and conscripting men, we have the essence of the ongoing tussle to determine a governance structure that is symbiotic with, rather than parasitic on, other methods by which people cooperate.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)
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Book 12 & 13

The Complete PersepolisThe Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve wanted to read this for a while. I have a very good friend (and her sister and a past boyfriend) who are around Marjane’s age and lived through part of this (before ending up in America for much the same reason Marjane was sent to Europe). I’ve heard a lot of this first hand but I think my friends were gone before the roaming bands of extremists were in the streets pulling women in for wearing lipstick (to be fined or whipped). I’m glad of that.
But I’d also be lying to say I enjoyed this. Part of it was the subject matter which isn’t enjoyable but it’s important. Watching religious extremists (or should I just say extremists because Stalinism for example was far less about religion) strip away basic rights (especially women’s) executing anyone who dares to question them etc is not easy reading and it’s sure as hell more horrific to live through. That said, I had trouble empathizing with Marjane Satrapi and I feel bad saying that since this is a memoir. At one point her grandmother calls her a selfish bitch and that sort of summed it up for me. Even reminding myself that in this she is a child or teen (and in fact the worst of it was in her early twenties) and that those ages are hallmarked by self absorption and cluelessness, still didn’t make me warm up to her. I found her rude not blunt. The art was also not for me.

But the reason I gave it three stars rather than two (where my own personal enjoyment was) is that it is a valuable window into the early 80s and 90s which saw Iran go from a more modern, free thinking era (You can find women in mini-skirts in the 70s, having seen the pictures myself. You wouldn’t know it wasn’t Europe or America) and its headlong fall into oppression (especially of women) of twisting Islam (which like Christianity has strong themes of peace love and acceptable) into a tool to justify xenophobia and misogyny.

We witness Marjane and her family (who are quite liberal) loose family members, their street bombed until they finally send her away to Europe as a very young teen to try and save her from the wars. She doesn’t seem to fare much better there in isolation (and again a theme we still see today, the blaming of all Muslims for the actions of extremists). Marjane is intelligent though but homesick. Her return home didn’t go as she planned either.

Spoilers: her fall in Europe just seemed, as presented, a bad break up that left her so distraught she ran away and became homeless. Seems like an extreme overreaction even if we couple this with severe homesickness. And the moment that made her grandmother call her a bitch is probably what is going to stick with me more than anything else is when she was about to get caught for wearing lipstick again she tells this patrol that some stranger who is just sitting there said perverted things to her, knowing full well he’d be carted off to prison to be fined and/or beaten. She was laughing about her escape to her grandmother. Yeah, this is what I’ll remember but I guess I can give her credit for showing the good as well as the bad of herself. I’m glad I read this but no, I didn’t really like it.

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Harry Potter, #2)Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I came to Harry Potter via the movies, not the other way round. I started reading the books to anticipate the next movie so I never actually read the first couple. I decided it was time to fix that. This one is fun, not quite as much as the first but still fun, especially when read through the eyes of a child. Read through my adult eyes, there are problems but let’s tackle that at the end.

It seems almost surprising to me how much Hermione is still very much a supporting character here (when in the movies somehow she seems more in the picture if you know what I mean). She does solve the riddle of what the monster in the titular chamber is and how it’s getting around not that she gets to tell anyone.
Harry almost doesn’t get to return to Hogswart’s as he (and Ron) can’t get onto the train platform. Their chosen method of return nearly gets them expelled. This year’s Defense Against the Dark Arts professor is a handsome blowhard, Lockhart that all the girls (Hermione included) are swooning over, only he has very little to teach them. Ron’s sister, Ginny, is now attending school and Harry’s biggest worries seem to be that Draco has bought his way onto the Slytherin quidditch team and Creevy, a young boy in Griffindor has taken to stalking Harry with his camera because he’s infatuated with Harry’s stardom.

Until something starts turning students to stone. Some blame Harry. Others Hagrid. Others blame Dumbledore for being inept and allowing it to happen. Harry (and Ron and Hermione) have to stop this monster before it kills again like the last time the chamber of secrets was opened.

It was an enjoyable read (a forest of monstrous spiders aside) but there are a few things here that troubles adult me. Both make Dumbledore look as inept as Lucius Malfoy tries to paint him to be. Why is Harry being sent back home other than as a foil for him in the opening chapters? You could defend Harry being left in an abusive situation in the first book by saying direct observation would have led Voldemort’s followers to him. But to keep sending him back there? Why not foster him off to the Weasleys or something? They planned to let Tom Riddle stay within the castle in the summer but that’s never discussed for Harry. I find it strange is all. But the real problem I had with this book is Lockhart. He’s so obviously a con man that really only a child would fall for it (even Ron is suspicious). He’s obviously incompetent and yet Dumbledore hires him (I’d like to apply for a job here. It’s obviously easier to get than my own teaching job was). Did he cast a spell on Albus? Seems unlikely. It’s just strange.

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Briana and Aunty Tara
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Book 20 - 2016

Book 20: 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense: The Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of Our Times by Michael Brooks – 224 pages

Description from bookdepository.co.uk:

Science starts to get interesting when things don't make sense. Even today there are experimental results that the most brilliant scientists can neither explain nor dismiss. In the past, similar anomalies have revolutionised our world: in the sixteenth century, a set of celestial irregularities led Copernicus to realise that the Earth goes around the sun and not the reverse. In 13 Things That Don't Make Sense Michael Brooks meets thirteen modern-day anomalies that may become tomorrow's breakthroughs. Is ninety six percent of the universe missing? If no study has ever been able to definitively show that the placebo effect works, why has it become a pillar of medical science? Was the 1977 signal from outer space a transmission from an alien civilization? Spanning fields from chemistry to cosmology, psychology to physics, Michael Brooks thrillingly captures the excitement and controversy of the scientific unknown.


I can’t quite remember where I discovered this book, but it sounded very interesting and I was in a science mood after all those teen romance novels. It also seemed like it might be a quick, short read. But it wasn’t. Despite it's relatively short length, it's a very dense book - probably more scientific than I was expecting. Brooks really gets into the technical side of the science behind the scientific mysteries he discusses, and though this is certainly interesting, it can be a little more challenging for those of us not quite across our physics. Nonetheless, Brooks covers some really interesting mysteries; some things I’d never heard of, and some things I simply didn’t realise weren’t established scientific fact (or theory, I guess). Moreover, I was really glad I read this book when I did, because it covered some of the science of the universe that I later found discussed when I attend World Science Festival in my home of Brisbane (the only World Science Festival held outside of New York - boom!). So, if you are an armchair science enthusiast (or have tickets to World Science Festival 2018), definitely give this one a read.

20 / 50 books. 40% done!

4979 / 15000 pages. 33% done!

Currently reading:

  • My Life by Bill Clinton – 957 pages

  • Griffith Review 51: Fixing the System edited by Julianne Schultz and Anne Tiernan – 326 pages

  • Hot Six by Janet Evanovich – 324 pages

And coming up:

  • The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: Volume 3: White Gold Wielder by Stephen Donaldson – 500 pages

  • The Odyssey by Homer – 324 pages

  • Alice Hartley’s Happiness by Philippa Gregory – 257 pages