Review: A Man Called Ove

A Man Called Ove
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I came across A Man Called Ove while browsing, not looking for anything in particular. The reviews were good, so I gave it a try. I’m glad I did. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but it’s a strong character study about an old Swedish curmudgeon who learns to love before it’s too late.

Ove has always been a man of few words, like his father before him. He worked hard until he was told to retire, and now all he has to keep him going is making sure his unruly neighbors are following all the rules of their neighborhood association, something Ove helped establish before he was deposed as the leader of that by his former friend Rune, who now suffers Alzheimer’s. When a lanky man, his head-strong Iranian wife, and their two daughters move in next door, and an almost-hairless beat-up cat decides to adopt Ove, well, his life has to change. For instance, he can’t seem to find the time to kill himself to join his wife in the afterlife.

The book made me smile several times. Fredrik Backman had Ove determine a lot about people by the cars they drove. That was kind of nice, but not being very familiar with Saabs and Volvos, it didn’t mean a whole lot to me. I assume it would be like me driving a Ford and thinking Chevy people are defective.

By far, my favorite character was Parvenah, the Iranian neighbor. She caught on to what Ove was up to and, instead of confronting him about it, did what a smart woman who understands people would do. That’s really the strength of this book, the interaction between the characters and how they understand and relate to one another.

I had a little trouble with the ending. The bit with the journalist and the others confronting the man in the white shirt was, I thought, a little too coincidental. But really, it wasn’t enough to spoil a very good story.

The audio was extremely well done, too.

It’s a really good book. I recommend it.

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3 New Books for June

I’ve been busy since school let out less than a month ago. I’ve edited two books and published them, plus one more. All of them are outside my usual genre. Now it’s time to promote them and try to convince you to buy them.

First up is A Light Beyond. This is one I imagined several years ago, when I still had an agent who didn’t really believe in me. He shot the idea down, but it wouldn’t leave me. I wrote the book last semester, putting down a little over 50,000 words in a pretty short time for me during a school year. This is the story of Robert Prince, who meets an older woman when he’s 13 and falls in love with her. He has a friend who is a bully and a home life that is less than good.

Structurally, I tried something different with this short novel (or long novella). Each chapter is from a different stage of Robert’s life. We begin in a Cincinnati subway tunnel, where he’s been severely beaten. We then move to the summer of 1978, when he’s 13 and meets Alia, the older woman down the street. The third stage stretches over a much longer period of time, beginning when he’s about 18 and concluding with the chapter that reveals why he’s in the subway at age 51. Every third chapter goes back to one of these stages of his life.

For the few who are interested, there is a lot of nostalgia in this book for me. The chapters with young Robert are set on the street where I grew up and characters visit real places like Longfellow Junior High School, Bob’s Cone Corner, Hendrie House Buffet, etc. There really was a woman living in the house described who a “frenemy” of mine insisted was a hooker. Like Robert, I spent a lot of summer afternoons working puzzles, playing board games, and reading. But pretty much all the major plot elements are fiction.

A Light Beyond is available in both paperback and for Kindle and the Kindle app.

This next book is pretty special to me. My first genre love was for the Western, though it was more for movies than books. I’d wanted to write a Western novel for many years, but frankly, was afraid to branch out. The research seemed intimidating, too. And yeah, that same agent who dissed A Light Beyond didn’t want anything to do with Orphan when I proposed it to him.

This one is also told from three perspectives, but it’s three different characters. First is Ramsay, a wanted man just trying to get west, away from his old life and all the disappointments it held. When he catches a man cheating at cards in a small east Kansas town, the man pulls a gun and Ramsay has to kill him. This leads the man’s nephew, Jack, to decide that Ramsay is now responsible for him, so he tags along. Back in Chicago, Les finds out his lover isn’t who she claimed to be, and she’s pregnant. If he wants to maintain his relationship with her, he must leave his job as a packinghouse foreman and use his old Pinkerton skills to track down a meat baron’s missing grandson. Eventually, Ramsay, Jack, Les, the grandson, and a bounty hunter all meet up. There’s some shooting.

About the only other thing I can say about this one is that it’s dedicated to the memory of Johnny Quarles, Johnny lived in my hometown when his first novel, Brack, came out in about 1988 or so. I was about 22. Surprisingly for my introverted self, I picked up the phone and called him shortly after his book came out and found him to be a warm, helpful man with a wonderful family. He gave me a lot of good advice and let me interview him for various newsletters and such. In the early days of the Internet he even paid me to create and maintain his first Web site. My character, Ramsay Quarles, takes his name from Johnny and Johnny’s character Brack Ramsay. I hope my book is a worthy tribute to a great man.

Orphan is available as both a paperback and for Kindle and the Kindle app. The audio version is in production at the moment.

The third book I released this month is a really old manuscript. I’m talking like 25 years old. Songbird was written when my wife was pregnant with our first child. We never asked to learn the gender of our kids before they were born, preferring to be surprised. I know, that’s unthinkable today with all the elaborate gender reveal parties, but … whatever. We knew if we had a boy he’d be named Alexander and if we had a girl she’d be Rebecca. So the songbird of the story is named Becca and the wandering sailor who rescues her from the Trolls is Zander.

As you may have guessed, this is a children’s fairy story. Becca trades her freedom to save her village and she’s locked up in the Troll king’s Fang Tower, where she has to sing every time a Troll rings a bell. Zander hears her one day and vows to rescue her, but the Troll king’s ransom requires that Zander find the legendary land of Farin and bring back Queen Roshell’s wedding ring. Can he do it before the Troll king forces Becca to marry him? Well, it’s a fairy tale, so you can probably guess the answer to that one. It’s a chapter book, so I guess the target audience here is probably grades 3 to 8. The font is bigger than normal, so the page count is higher than the word count would suggest.

You’ll find several homages to J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Lloyd Alexander in this one.

Songbird is available in both paperback and for Kindle and the Kindle app.

Thanks for sticking with me!


Review: Flowers for Algernon

Flowers for Algernon
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Somewhere, sometime, somebody failed me. How is it I had never read Flowers for Algernon until now? Even my youngest kids say they read it in eighth grade, and they almost never read anything.

I make my AP Literature seniors do a tapestry of books they’ve read at the end of the year. A lot of them had Keyes’ novel on their tapestries. Then, Flowers for Algernon played an important role in Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything. So, it was like Fate decided it was time I read this novel. I’m glad I finally did.

This is the story of Charly Gordon, a mentally retarded man who undergoes experimental surgery and in the course of a couple of months becomes a genius smarter than the university professors who operated on him. Now there are two Charlies. The old one, innocent, kind, naive, and mentally handicapped, and the new one, arrogant, immature, violent, but brilliant. And there’s a running clock when Charly finds the flaw in the professors’ experiment.

That’s the plot. The real story is about what it means to be human. The professors see Charly as a lab specimen. Charly’s old “friends” see him as a buffoon there for their entertainment. Charly, meanwhile, who only wanted to be smart before the operation, struggles to reconcile the person he was with the person he is … and the person he’s becoming.

This is a wonderful, but very sad novel. It’s a book that will make you look at yourself, your attitude, and question what is important in your life.

I listened to this as an audio book. Jeff Woodman did a brilliant job. As retarded Charly struggled with spelling, I thought at first I was missing out by not seeing the text, but Woodman’s narration more than made up for anything I might have missed by not reading the words myself.

I highly recommend this book, either in print or audio.

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Review: West Texas Kill

West Texas Kill
West Texas Kill by Johnny D. Boggs
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

West Texas Kill was pretty good, but certainly isn’t Johnny D. Boggs’ best novel. The structure is well done, with most chapters ending in a cliffhanger. The pace is non-stop action. The characters, though, were just lacking. The only one I really liked was Moses.

Boggs doesn’t let the story drag with too much historical detail, but he has enough real place names, real situations like tired horses, slow travel, empty guns, to keep it gritty and realistic. No one just uses a gun. Boggs is always very specific about the brand and caliber of the weapons being used.

I guess my biggest problem with the book is simply that it was pretty predictable. That notwithstanding, I enjoyed the ride quite a bit.

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End of May

I haven’t blogged just to blog in quite a while. So, as I’m sort of between projects and figuring out what to do with myself at the start of summer, I thought I’d do an update on my life. Because both you readers care, right?

School’s Out for summer. It was an interesting year. Not always a good time, but come the end of the year all is forgiven and transgressions (mostly) forgotten. I’m going to really miss having those seniors in my life on an almost daily basis. They’re good young folks with very bright futures ahead of them.

It would seem I have broken a tradition the Advanced Placement English students of the Class of 2017 had going. I’m apparently the first English teacher of their high school career to not quit the school after having this group. For some of them, the trend goes back to eighth grade. For what it’s worth, I did apply for a couple of jobs at other schools, but nobody called for an interview.

No surprise here, but the Oklahoma Legislature has failed to find a way to raise teachers’ salaries. Many teachers are leaving the state, which is just as well since a lot of schools are having to reduce the number of teachers they can afford (and increase class sizes). This includes my school, where class sizes for English are expected to be 35 students per section … although that math doesn’t really add up when all things are considered and we’re looking at 40+ kids in some classes.

But hey, in other news I finished a new book. It’s called A Light Beyond. I’ll be posting the cover and blurb here in a few days. This is a book I proposed to my previous agent several years ago and he shot it down (like he did everything else I proposed). Now it’s written and is being edited. It’s currently at about 50,000 words, which is an odd length, pretty long for a novella but not long enough to be a novel. I’m not looking for a publisher for it. It’s going straight to my own MoonHowler Press and will hopefully be available at SoonerCon 26, which starts June 23 and really should include your presence.

Students asked me a while back how many books I have published. I couldn’t answer at first. The answer is 16. They asked how many I’ve written. That answer is 30. Eight of those unpublished books will hopefully be released in the next year as I find time to polish and do the layout and design for them.

Review: 14

14 by Peter Clines
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once upon a time, for many years, all I read was horror fiction. These days, my reading tastes vary pretty widely, with horror popping up … rarely. You read too much in one genre, you get burned out. That’s how it was for me, anyway. Now, when I dip back into the horror pool, I need for the book to be really good. Peter Clines’ 14 managed that.

Nate Tucker got lucky and found a nice apartment at an affordable price in an old building in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the building is also a machine that is keeping Lovecraftian horrors at bay. More unfortunately, some weird cultists have found the machine and want to shut it down so that Cthulhu and his buddies can feed on humanity.

On the one hand, I wanted to say Blech! when the full plot twist was revealed and real people like Lovecraft and Tesla were used to advance the plot. However, Clines did such a good job at creating his very believable cast of characters that I went along with it. And I enjoyed nearly every minute of this ride. There were a few things, like the constant movie references and the cliche of … who the bad guy is that were a little annoying, but they were only minor annoyances.

The book comes across like a mystery, with the horror not rearing it’s slimy head until you’re way into it. But you know it’s coming. And you know it’s gonna be big and bad. Clines delivers on that. It’s a good book and I highly recommend it. I listened to it on audio and can definitely recommend it that way, too.

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Family Means Forgiving

Yesterday I delivered my first sermon. It was for the Class of 2017 baccalaureate ceremony at Western Heights High School, where I’m the English department chairman. Some Facebook friends asked for a copy of the speech, so here it is, pretty much just as delivered.

Family Means Forgiving

Hello. Thank you to my colleagues, the parents, and especially the Class of 2017 for asking me to be your speaker today. I know some of you are thinking I’m an odd choice to deliver your baccalaureate sermon, and honestly, I’m as surprised as you are. When I was a kid, my dad would blast Jimmy Swaggart on the turntable Sunday mornings while getting ready for church, and I would stay in bed as long as I could, pretending to be asleep, sick, lame, or dead in hopes I wouldn’t have to go. And now here I am.

I spent a lot of time trying to decide what I wanted to talk about today. Although I am a licensed minister, I’ve only used those credentials to marry people, and I couldn’t find anyone willing to get married today, so I had to sit down and write an actual sermon. I’ve written news stories about teenagers dying while huffing gasoline and novels exploring my own deepest fears, but this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. For my topic, I decided to talk about something I wish I’d been told some three decades ago when I was sitting in the audience at Enid High School’s baccalaureate.

Forgiveness is part of what I want to talk to you about today. Forgiveness, family, and avoiding regrets. But let’s start with the family part.

What is family? If you were a senior in my AP Literature class this year you probably expect to hear some John Steinbeck quotes about how there’s only one soul and each of us has a little piece of it and that makes us all family. Well, instead of a quote you got a paraphrase … and I expect you to know the difference.

Romans 12:10 has something to say about who we should consider to be family. “love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor. ” First Peter, Chapter 4, verse 8, tells us, “Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins.”

My point here is that family extends beyond the mom or dad or grandparents sitting with our graduates today. Sure, we’re all made in the image of God and that makes us family. But beyond that, we share a kinship forged here in these hallways, in the stadium, in this auditorium and in the classrooms. We are a family of Jets.

One of the things that has always struck me about Western Heights is the diversity of our student body and how well we all usually get along with one another. Sure, there are some fights, especially at the beginning of the year, and there are cliques and best friends and bickering and such, but for the most part, despite our differences, everyone gets along with everyone else.

That’s not how it was for me in high school. Races didn’t mix. Economic groups didn’t associate with one another. And stoners didn’t talk to preppies. The Breakfast Club was real, man.

There were over 400 seniors in my graduating class. I didn’t personally associate with more than about 25 of them. I didn’t talk to guys who wore pink shirts or girls who wore bangles. Student Council kids were brown-nosing nerds. Our state champion football team was a bunch of thugs. My grades were average, so I couldn’t chill with the geeks. I didn’t use drugs, so I didn’t even hang out with the kids who shared my musical taste. High school wasn’t much fun, and now, looking back on it, I can see that it was mostly my fault I didn’t have any fun.

We’re human and have to deal with our human nature. We’re cliquish. We’re petty sometimes. We hold grudges. We push our brothers and sisters away from us. Some of you are about to graduate without really knowing your classmates, or maybe you’re holding on to old angers. She dated your ex-boyfriend, or he dented your car, or Sally blocked you on Snapchat and Miguel got that scholarship you thought you deserved.

Things happen.

Time passes.

When you come back for your 20-year high school reunion, do you want to still be holding on to your anger because Mackenzie changed senior quotes to senior thank-yous in the yearbook or because Nayelli ate your lunch or Lakota ran faster than you in track? Take it from someone who has a hard time forgiving, from someone who let prejudices and peer pressure decide who he associated with in high school, you don’t want to walk out of here for the last time with hard feelings or not knowing your family.

Colossians chapter 3 verses 11 to 13 say, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian,* slave, free; but Christ is all and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.”

Matthew 6:14 tells us, “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you.” And Luke adds to that in Chapter 6, Verse 37, with, “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.”

I’m not one to turn down good advice from other sources. One of my favorite quotes comes from author Elbert Hubbard, who says, “The ineffable joy of forgiving and being forgiven forms an ecstasy that might well arouse the envy of the gods.”

Forgive your friend for not letting you copy that homework assignment. Forgive Mr. Zenati for not rounding that 89 up to a 90. Forgive the referee for his bad calls. Forgiving will bring you joy, even if the offending party never knows or cares that you’ve given it. Do it for yourself.

Some of you know I’m kind of a literature nerd. You’re not getting out of here without a few quotes from some of my favorite books. And if I’m going to quote an author, you know I’m going to start with John Steinbeck. No paraphrase here. America’s greatest author wrote this in his journal during the time he was working on his short novel Of Mice and Men. He said:

In every bit of honest writing in the world … there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.

If somebody had told me this when I was your age, maybe I would have been smart enough to be open to the advice. Maybe not. If I had, when I went to my first high school reunion maybe I would have actually known the names of people who greeted me instead of simply remembering how she was a snob and he was a jock and that guy was always too stoned to matter.

My next message is for the parents and guardians. My daughter Sara graduated from Western Heights in 2013. When she came here as a freshman I had the highest hopes for her to work with Mrs. Wood and get a ton of scholarships and go to college for free and become the psychologist she’d talked about becoming. As time went on and we were constantly around each other at school, it got to where Sara liked me less and less and I approved of what she was doing with her life less and less until by her senior year we were hardly on speaking terms. Her path ended up being something different than I’d imagined. It was a few years after she graduated before I read Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha and found this advice given to the title character in regards to his son. Hesse writes:

Which father, which teacher had been able to protect [his son] from living his life for himself, from soiling himself with life, from burdening himself with guilt, from drinking the bitter drink for himself, from finding his path for himself? Would you think, my dear,
anybody might perhaps be spared from taking this path? That perhaps your little son would be spared, because you love him, because you would like to keep him from suffering and pain and disappointment? But even if you would die ten times for him, you would not be able to take the slightest part of his destiny upon yourself.

And so my message for my fellow parents and guardians is this: Recognize that the young person sitting here today has made mistakes and will continue to make mistakes. They are going to live their own lives and it might not be what you envision. It might not be what they envision today. Be forgiving. Be supportive. Love them no matter how stupid you think they are sometimes. And trust me, there are days I’ll agree with you about that. They have to learn on their own, just like you did. Just like I did. Be ready to welcome home the prodigal once he or she has earned wisdom.

Finally, I’d like to mention Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, the only book most of my AP seniors liked. I’m taking this quote a little out of context, but she writes that some people “forget all those things they don’t want to remember and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.” Memory is like a fishing net, she says, with the mesh releasing things that aren’t needed and holding in the good stuff. Hurston closes her novel with the protagonist, Janie, sitting on the porch as an older woman with much experience. She writes, “She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it in from the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes.”

As you leave today, I want you to think about your time at Western Heights High School as a fishing net. It’s time to draw in your net. Make sure it’s full of things worth remembering. Repair any relationships that need it. Forge new ones with people you avoided. Never forget that you are a member of the Jet family, and family sticks together.