The Year of Horses and Porn


It’s time for my 2016 year in review in terms of books I read. There are a lot of Westerns on the list. There’s also a lot of erotica. I swear, though, that stuff was for market research purposes. Honestly!

I read 55 books last year. I don’t know if this is a personal record or not, considering I’m ancient and can’t remember a time I didn’t love to read. But it’s certainly a high point since I started keeping my stats on Goodreads. Because there are over 50 titles, I’m not going to go over all of them. Most of the reviews were published here and you can find them if you care. Here are the highlights and maybe a couple of lowlights.

The highest highlight for me this year was David R. Lewis’s Trail series of Western novels. I read the first seven books one right after another and had to stop myself from going back to the beginning and immediately starting over when I finished the seventh one. I love Lewis’s characterization, his use of dialect, his mix of action and character development … just everything. I only gave each book 4 out of 5 stars because they are not complex plots, don’t rely on symbolism or other literary devices. Yes, I did it because as an AP English teacher I’m something of a snob. I regret it now. They deserve five stars for the entertainment they gave me. I read several other Westerns, but didn’t enjoy any of them as much as this series.

The single book I enjoyed the most was probably Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night, and this was a surprise to me because, as a thriller, it’s pretty much outside my normal reading area. But this story about an elderly Vietnam veteran helping a young boy despite all their differences was just a fascinating story.

I reread some John Steinbeck, and added a couple of his books I had not yet read. Of those, I really liked To a God Unknown, an early work that showed the master coming into his own. This is a book about a family and their relationship to the land. I also reread The Pearl, Of Mice and Men, and read The Pastures of Heaven for the first time.

Some other books I reread were The Book Thief, which I still think is one of the best books I’ve read in the last five years, but it did lose a little magic rereading it so soon after the first time, and Salem’s Lot, one of the first horror novels I ever read. It had been at least 20 or 25 years since I read it last, and it reminded me why Stephen King’s early work was such an influence on me.

One of my regrets is that I didn’t finish Richard Adams’ Shardik. I really tried, but I lost interest. Then the great man died.

In nonfiction, I read Eric Weiner’s Man Seeks God, a book I really enjoyed, but found difficult to use in the classroom. I liked David R. Lewis’s Endless Journey better. I also read Conversations with John Steinbeck, a collection of media interviews, and Wolf, a nice biography of Jack London. Oh, and a short piece in which William Peter Blatty talked about his career.

Erotica. Most of that stuff is poorly written, not copy edited, and frankly, pretty boring.

I finished 2016 with three books going, which is one more than typical. I’m currently reading Willa Cather’s My Antonia, David R. Lewis’s Glory Trail, and Richard Bach’s Illusions.

Tips for Writing an Effective Book Review


Tips for Writing an Effective Book Review

Book reviews are more than just an ego boost for authors. Your review – whether it’s a full-on critique or simply a rating – helps future readers determine whether or not to give that author’s work a chance. Also, on sites like Amazon.com, the number of reviews helps to determine if the site will put that book in front of shoppers looking at similar items; the more reviews, the more likely the book will be suggested to more shoppers (it’s all about the site’s algorithms). Here are some things to consider after you’ve read a book.

  1. Be honest! Even if the author is a friend, your credibility as a reviewer is at stake.
  2. Stars are important, but words add credibility. If you want to give the book you just finished 5 out of 5 stars, fantastic! Adding even one or two sentences about why you gave the book that rating will help readers know what to expect from the book. And yes, authors do like to know what worked and didn’t work for you.
  3. Post your review in multiple places. So you bought your book at a local independent bookstore. Good for you! You can still post a review at Amazon, BN.com, GoodReads, Shelfari, etc. Don’t forget your blog and social media outlets! Cutting and pasting your review to several places will really help the author.
  4. Don’t mention in your review that the author is your best friend, your neighbor, your ex, or your teacher. Some sites, like Amazon, will remove your review if it appears you have a personal relationship with the author. If you were given a free copy it is perfectly fine to say you received the book for free in exchange for an honest review.
  5. Be honest! Yeah, I said this already. A reader who buys a book with undeserved glowing reviews is more likely to become disgruntled and over compensate with more negative reviews than the book may deserve.

(c) 2016 Steven E. Wedel

Review: Norwegian by Night


Norwegian by Night
Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Norwegian by Night Wow! What to say about this book? How to define it, even? When I chose it I was just hoping for a decent read set in the land of the Vikings. A literary novel. I didn’t have high expectations. So it’s all that much better than Norwegian by Night took me by surprise and completely blew me away.
This is the story of Sheldon Horowitz, a Jewish American Marine sniper, Korean War veteran, who is now 82 years old and living with his granddaughter and her husband in Oslo, Norway. After opening his door to a neighbor being abused by her husband, Sheldon becomes embroiled in a murder of international proportions and is forced to take the neighbor’s young son — who he cannot communicate with — and try to make it to his son-in-law’s hunting cabin, eluding Norway’s liberal police, the killer, and the memories of how he drove his own son into the Vietnam War and ultimately to his death.
It’s a hard story to define. On a literary angle, it deals with growing old and examining one’s life and the effect that life has had on others. It’s also a fine adventure story as Sheldon and the boy he names Paul play the parts of Jim and Huckleberry Finn fleeing the city for the wild places. It’s about anti-Semitism, and defining who you are by where you come from. And it’s a police procedural, as we see the crime and manhunt from the perspective of a female police inspector.
Ultimately, it’s a sad story with a bittersweet ending. One you’ll see coming chapters before you get there, but Sheldon makes you keep going. The last few lines are a little unsatisfying and I’d have liked an epilogue where we see Rhea enlightened and the investigation closed, but these are little things.
I highly recommend this one. I suspect it’ll end up being my favorite new read for this year.

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Review: John Steinbeck Was Wrong About Oklahoma !


John Steinbeck Was Wrong About Oklahoma !
John Steinbeck Was Wrong About Oklahoma ! by Bob Burke

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Oklahoma City attorney Bob Burke continues 70+ years of ignorant knee-jerk reaction to John Steinbeck’s masterpiece work of literature. One wonders how Burke could ever win a court case if he prepares his cases like he does the “research” for this short book.

I would like to write a full rebuttal to this ridiculous book, but this isn’t the place for that. Let me just point out that Burke offers only three quotes from Steinbeck’s long novel, each taken out of context and framed to mean something the author did not intend. After that, the book is nothing but a list of Oklahomans who have been successful in their chosen field or made innovations in industry.

Steinbeck never claimed every person in Oklahoma lived, acted, or thought as the Joad family. The story is about that family, not about Burke’s family or the families of his rich friends or the politicians he pals around with. Did F. Scott Fitzgerald claim all New Yorkers were like Tom and Daisy Buchanan? Did Sinclair Lewis claim all Chicagoans were the same as Jurgis Rudkus? Of course not. Burke’s reading of The Grapes of Wrath (if he actually read it) — as well as the comments from former Oklahoma Gov. George Nigh and U.S. Rep. Lyle Boren — only show that they are totally ignorant of what Steinbeck was doing, or of how to write fiction.

Burke claims that Steinbeck called Oklahomans “scum” and then provides a quote from an antagonistic character in the book to support his claim. By that reasoning, Harper Lee is a racist because Bob Ewell called Tom Robinson a “nigger,” right? How about the fact that the Joads persevered despite what Nature and the corrupt, rich landowners of California did to conquer them? How about that Oklahoma spirit Ma Joad exhibited time and time again when she insisted the family help those in need despite the fact they had almost nothing themselves? To a reader who isn’t pandering to politicians and rich friends, it’s easy enough to see that Steinbeck is praising the toughness and generous nature of the Okies.

Burke makes much of the fact that Steinbeck never visited Oklahoma. This is true, he didn’t. There was no need to, however. There were plenty of Oklahomans in California, and Steinbeck spent a great deal of time driving his converted bakery delivery truck from migrant Hoovervilles to federal government camps interviewing people about where they’d come from and what they’d experienced.

Burke claims that Steinbeck says that all the poor, ignorant hick migrant workers were from Oklahoma. Absolutely not true. Steinbeck not only makes mention of Texies and Arkies, but the family the Joads team up with for most of their journey along Rt. 66 is from Kansas, and there is much discussion about how Kansans are different than Oklahomans. Did Burke even read The Grapes of Wrath? It appears more and more doubtful.

Burke relays how the idiot Nigh managed to get the State Legislature to revoke an invitation to have Steinbeck speak in Oklahoma as if censorship and ignorance should be a badge of honor. He praises Boren for condemning the novel on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, and then declaring the book obscene so that it could not be delivered via U.S. Mail. I’ll take the honest, hard-working, fair-minded Joads over these close-minded, ignorant politicians any day of the week.

In Nigh’s introduction to this ridiculous piece of tripe the former governor and university president tells how a high ranking Chinese businessman said all he knew about Oklahoma in the 1950s was what he’d read in The Grapes of Wrath. Nigh does not go on to say what the man’s impression of Oklahomans was based on that reading. But in an interesting twist, Burke closes his book with a story about how Nigh managed to change the state song to the title song of Rodger and Hammerstein’s musical Oklahoma. Well, those two “New York Jews” as he calls them never visited the state, but I guess that’s okay because Nigh liked the song. But in a further bit of irony, that play/musical/song has probably done more to damage Oklahoma’s image than Steinbeck ever did. I’ve met numerous people from other states who seem to think we still ride to town on horseback in the 21st century and that everyone here lives on a farm.

Finally, Steinbeck’s novel won the Pulitzer Prize. It was written after he did extensive research on the migrant situation for a series of newspaper articles collectively called “The Harvest Gypsies.” His novel was published by one of the world’s leading publishers. Burke’s lame attempt to show off his knowledge of Oklahomans who have excelled (almost all after the Dust Bowl, by the way) or his personal connections was published by a micro press run by the Oklahoma Heritage Association, an organization of which he was a director at the time his book was published.

Finally, Burke’s book does have some vague but interesting facts about famous Oklahomans, even if all his information is totally unsourced. His attempt to blow the state’s horn at the expense of one of America’s greatest authors is just pathetic, inaccurate, and damned embarrassing. If you’re a Steinbeck fan or scholar, the only use you’ll find in this volume is verifying that ignorance is still alive and well in the financial and social elite class of an otherwise very fine state.

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Books of 2015: The Year of the Western


I read 32 books this year, which happens to be the same number as last year. There were some really, really good books, and some stinkers. Some were re-reads for school, but most were first-timers. And the majority of the reading I did on my own seemed to be novels set in the Old West. So let’s look back, shall we?

The Lonesome Dove Saga, by Larry McMurtry — This was a giant undertaking. Okay, not A Song of Ice and Fire giant, but still, pretty big at four brick-sized books. Mostly it was worthwhile, too. I’d read Lonesome Dove before, but this time I read the whole series in chronological order. I really enjoyed the books about Gus and Woodrow when they were younger. I pretty much hated The Streets of Laredo, the last book in the saga, though the second written. Too much exposition, too many characters I didn’t care about, just too much of everything. The overall series, though, I highly recommend.

Josey Wales series by B.F. Carter — If you think Tombstone is the best Western movie ever made, you haven’t really watched The Outlaw Josey Wales. I love the movie, so I finally read the book(s). Gone to Texas was a very fun read. The sequel, The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales, was good, but not nearly as good as the first one.

Post-Apocalyptic Reads — I took a dip into 1950s/60s paranoia over atomic war with Nevile Shute’s On the Beach and Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon. At the time, I enjoyed Frank’s book much more, but images of Shute’s story have stayed in my mind better. Probably has to do with a difference in the books’ endings, because I found Shute’s writing to be very stiff and his dialogue was pretty unbelievable.

The End of the Affair by Colin Firth — Another book I read because of the movie. I enjoyed both. It’s not a read that will improve your mood, but it is beautifully told and engaging.

Non-Fiction — I read two non-fiction books (three if you count re-reading The Way to Rainy Mountain, which I guess would count). Simon Callow’s biography of Charles Dickens was fun, but the focus on Dickens and the theater wasn’t my favorite angle. Mike McIntyre’s The Kindness of Strangers was fascinating to me, but penniless road trips, hobo culture, and such has always interested me. I recommend both of these.

The Stinkers — The worst was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which I finally gave up on. Booorrrrring! Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland wasn’t any better, but I’d assigned it for school, so I had to read it (and apologize to my AP Lit class). The most disappointing book of 2015 goes to Harper Lee for that boring step-child Go Set a Watchman.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky — One of the best new reads of 2015 for me. I just reviewed this one a week or so back, so I won’t belabor the point. It’s an important book in the YA genre. And the student who recommended it, Jess, is NOT a nag as I previously joked. (Yes, she nagged me about calling her that. haha)

Obviously, this is not 32 books. If you want to see what the others were and what I thought of them, scroll back through my posts and you’ll find my reviews. It’s not like I posted all that much in 2015. Gotta work on that.

Review: On the Beach


13638117“I shouldn’t like to give too enthusiastic a review of this novel,” the reviewer said.

“Oh darling, can’t you at least try?” his conscience pleaded.

“Perhaps,” he answered, smiling. “But only after I’ve had another whiskey.” He paused as his sarcastic side muttered something into his beard. “What’s that, old boy?” the reviewer asked.

“To hell with it,” the sarcastic one answered. “The novel was a bloody bore and you know it. Just be out with it already. Don’t drag on about it the way Nevil did. Your readers don’t have all day.”

“Yes, I suppose you’re right at that,” the reviewer admitted. “Very well then, I will get on with it, as you say. But first, tell me what you have there in that red box.”

“Some pills I’ll be swallowing soon enough if you keep dragging on about this review,” the sarcastic side answered.

“Oh dear, but he IS a dreadful beast,” his conscience said.

On the Beach is a novel about the survivors of a 1960s nuclear holocaust. They survived World War 3, which was fought in the northern hemisphere, and are facing certain death as the trade winds shift to blanket them in lethal radioactivity.

Nevil Shute gives us that set-up pretty quickly and the opening is clever and interesting. But then the book buries its feet in quicksand up to its ass and pretty much nothing happens until the end.

Yeah, I get he was showing us how bleak and desolate the world is (would be) after a war fought with atomic weapons. That’s why the submarine goes to Seattle. I understand. I get that some people refuse to face reality and keep talking about what they’ll do next spring or summer. Others accept it and face the end in their own way.

I’m being pretty harsh. The book isn’t awful. It’s just too long for the amount of substance Shute has to present. The characters are pretty shallow.

My biggest complaint, though, is that Shute gives us a post-apocalyptic world populated with survivors who know they are going to die in the late summer, and yet they all remain horribly polite and responsible citizens. There’s no panic, no looting (until a bare mention at the very, very end), no murder to acquire the special goodies one would covet to enjoy in his or her final days. Everyone is properly British right up to the end (and this includes the Americans, really). Maybe in the late 1950s people really thought their neighbors would remain civil right up to the final breath, but in the post-Mad Max world of apocalyptic fiction we know better.

And yet … and yet … I’ll confess to a slight lump in the throat as the lead characters began to succumb to the sickness in the end. I guess I’m a sucker like that.

In the end, it’s an interesting period piece with a much better set-up than pay-off. Unless you’ve read all the other post-apocalyptic fiction available to you, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this one because it is very, very slow and uptight.

I listened to this on audio. The narrator did a good job for the most part, though the American submarine commander sounded like a Brit impersonating an American.