Book Review: The Wilderness of Ruin by Roseanne Montillo


Author: Roseanne Montillo
TitleThe Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer
Narrator: Emily Woo Zeller
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2015)
Summary/Review:

This book appeared to follow the formula of The Devil in the White City, focusing on a city in 19th century through the lens of major events and a mass murderer operating in that city.  In this case the city is Boston, the murderer is Jesse Pomeroy, and the event is the Great Fire of 1872.  Except, that the book isn’t really structured this way.

It is in fact more of a straightforward biography of Pomeroy, a teenage boy in Charlestown and then South Boston who tortured smaller children, and eventually began murdering them in the 1870s.  He is sometimes called “America’s First Serial Killer,” although that is not factually true, but his crimes occurred in a period of growing moral panic about children’s behavior (also not for the first or last time).  Montillo documents Pomeroy’s abusive family life, his gruesome crimes, his trial and public denunciation, and his long life in prison where he spent decades in solitary and made several escape attempts.

I’m not a fan of the true crime genre, so with the book so focused on Pomeroy it doesn’t appeal to me as much as a general history of Boston at the time of Pomeroy’s murders would.  Montillo’s attempts to link in other events are few and feel a bit forced and unrelated to the lifelong biography of the murderer.  She does also focus greatly on the life and work of Herman Melville, who has a connection to Boston but had moved to New York prior to the Pomeroy murders.  Montillo draws on themes of family dysfunction, mental illness, and monomania to draw Pomeroy and Melville together, but again the links feel strained rather than illuminating.

Recommended booksThe Night Inspector by Frederick Busch, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, and A City So Grand by Stephen Puleo
Rating: ***

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Book Review: The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2019 by Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa


Author: Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa
TitleThe Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2019
Publication Info: Birmingham, AL : The Unofficial Guides, an imprint of AdventureKEEN, [2019]
Summary/Review:

I’m fortunate enough to be returning to Walt Disney World soon, so I’ve been flipping through this mammoth guide to everything you’d want to know about the parks, attractions, dining, lodging, and other activities.  It appeals to my need to assiduously plan for a vacation. Honestly, sometimes I think I enjoy planning more than the actual traveling, and its too bad we don’t live in a multiverse where one could test all variations of a plan.  I reviewed the 2017 edition before and this guide is largely the same but updated to include newly opened attractions and more current advice.  I recommend it to anyone planning a Walt Disney World vacation whether you’re a planner or not.

Rating: ****

2018 Year in Review: Favorite Books


Here’s my annual list of my ten favorite books read in the year.  As always, this is merely the best books I read this year and not necessarily books published in 2018  For previous years see 20172016201520142013201220112010200920082007 and 2006. You may also want to check out My Favorite Books of All Time or see Every Book I’ve Ever Read cataloged in Library Thing.

In alphabetical order:

Books Read in 2018

The books are rated on a scale from 1 to 5 stars with links to summary reviews. (A) is for audiobook.

Here’s a thumbnail of what the ratings mean:

  • 5 stars – all-time classic (I’m very stingy with these)
  • 4 stars – a particularly interesting, well-written, or important book
  • 3 stars – a good book from start to finish
  • 2 stars – not a good book on the whole but has some good parts
  • 1 star or less – basically a bad book with no redeeming values

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October 1918

November

December

Book Review: To the Back of Beyond by Peter Stamm


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Switzerland

Author: Peter Stamm
Title: To the Back of Beyond
Translator: Michael Hofmann
Publication Info: New York : Other Press, [2017]
Summary/Review:

A family returns from a vacation to their home in Switzerland, and after putting their kids to bed, the father and husband Thomas simply walks away from the house leaving his wife Astrid and two children behind.  The short novel alternates with scenes of Thomas hiking across the mountains and Astrid trying to continue her life and waiting for his return.  This is not the first book I’ve read about a man leaving his family behind which is apparently some male fantasy I don’t share.  It’s unclear if this book is intended as an indictment of toxic masculinity or a celebration. This is a well-written book, but not one I can really review because it depresses and infuriates me so much.

Recommended booksThe Cold Song by Linn Ullmann and The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Walt Disney Imagineering by The Imagineers


Author: The Imagineers
TitleWalt Disney Imagineering : A Behind-the-Dreams Look at Making the Magic Real 
Publication Info: New York : London : Hyperion ; Turnaround, 1998.
Summary/Review:

This is a coffee-table size book with historical plans, concept art, models, and photographs of various works at Disney Parks over the years created by Disney Imagineering.  They work to create 3-D experiences based on animation, landscaping, architecture, and of course engineering, many of which have to be created in house because they’re creating things that have never been done.  I would’ve liked if this book had more behind-the-scenes, how-did-they-do-that detail instead of lots of hokey quotes about “sparks” and “dreams,” but I suppose Michael Eisner didn’t want to give the secrets away.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: Birthright by Nigel Robinson


Author: Nigel Robinson
TitleBirthright
Publication Info: London Bridge (1993)
Summary/Review:

The TARDIS crashes and Bernice Summerfield finds herself alone in the East of London in 1909, albeit the Doctor has somehow found a way to supply her with a bank account to draw upon, and the support of the Waterfield family for a place to live.  Soon she’s investigating a series of grisly murders attributed to Springheel Jack, but are actually committed by … aliens!  Meanwhile, Ace is on a desert planet in the far future aiding the surviving humans against the insect-like Charrl.  And the Doctor is off having adventures in another book that I won’t be reading.

This is the first example of a “Doctor-light” story that became common in the future Virgin Adventures and in the new television series.  It also continues the trend of characterizing the Doctor as a manipulative mastermind, the Ace as surly and violent, and Benny as clever but self-doubting.  Even the surreal dream-like sequence of the conclusion is a New Adventures’ trait.  Nevertheless, it’s a much more simply-written, straightforward narrative than some of the other, more complex books.  And barring a few examples of sexist language, it’s a pretty enjoyable adventure to read too.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Last Wolf  & Herman : The Game Garden, The Death of a Craft by László Krasznahorkai


Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Hungary
AuthorLászló Krasznahorkai
Title: The Last Wolf  & Herman : The Game Warden, The Death of a Craft
Translators: George Szirtes, John Batki
Publication Info: New York : New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2016.
Summary/Review:

This translated work by postmodern Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai contains two novellas or short stories. The Last Wolf is the story of a man telling a story in a bar about hunting the last wolf in Spain.  It’s written entirely in one loooooong sentence.  Herman is a story in two parts about a game warden tasked with trapping predators in the woods near a city who ends up going feral himself, trapping animals of all types, including domesticated animals.  “The Game Warden” portion is told from his perspective while “The Death of Craft” focuses on a group of young men and women traveling to the town and hearing the stories of Herman’s madness going on around them.  Both books focus on hunting and the animal nature within humanity. This is a challenging book to read, especially as an Around the World for a Good Book selection, because of it’s sparse narrative and experimental prose.

Recommended booksJerusalem by Goncalo M. Tavares and Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens by Brandon Sanderson


AuthorBrandon Sanderson 
Title:Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens
Narrator: Ramon De Ocampo
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2012)
Previously Read By the Same Author:  Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones, and Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia
Summary/Review:

The Alcatraz series continues with the great humor and cleverness of the previous books, including a great running gag on chapter numbering.  The book focuses in on the history and meaning of the Smedry Talents bringing alight some fascinating details.  The story also finds Alcatraz and his friends in the middle of war, with all the loss and sacrifice that entails.  While humorous and never comes to a point that death seems possible, the book does exposit on the frightening reality of children in war.  Finally, Alcatraz makes an unexpected alliance.  Another great book in this series, and I look forward to the next and final volume.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Princess Bride by William Goldman


Author: William Goldman
TitleThe Princess Bride
Narrator: Rob Reiner
Publication Info: Phoenix Books (1999) [Original published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (1973)]
Other books read by the same author: The Silent Gondoliers (as S. Morgenstern)
Summary/Review:

“Life isn’t fair, it’s just fairer than death, that’s all.”

The recent death of William Goldman prompted me to seek out one of my all-time favorite books, The Princess Bride.  If you’re familiar with the classic 1987 film adaptation, Goldman’s book is even more funny, more clever, and more sweetly satirical. The book is written with a framing device in which he discovers that a beloved adventure book read to him by his father when he was sick as a child, was actually a long political satire that bored his own son.  So Goldman decides to publish an abridged version with only the good parts.  All of this framing device is fictional, as Goldman invented both the story of The Princess Bride and a fictional wife and son.

The audio book version I found to listen too is disappointingly an abridged version, ironic since The Princess Bride is already supposed to be an abridged book. Many of the scenes that don’t correspond directly to the movie are left out of the audiobook, including the majority of Goldman’s framing device interrupting the narrative.  The audiobook doesn’t even have the Reunion Scene.  As a bonus, the book is read by Rob Reiner – director of the film – in his wonderful Bronx accent.

It’s definitely worth putting this on to play to your kids if you’re not up for reading the book out loud yourself.

Recommended booksThe Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, and The Once and Future King by T. H. White
Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Greed and Glory by Sean Deveney


Author:  Sean Deveney
TitleGreed and Glory: The Rise and Fall of Doc Gooden, Lawrence Taylor, Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump, and the Mafia in 1980s New York
Publication Info: Skyhorse Publishing (2018)
Summary/Review:

Sean Deveney follows up his book about New York City in the 1960s through the lens of local politics and sports, Fun City, with this book about New York City in the 1980s through the lens of local politics and sports.  Fun City focused on two figures, Mayor John Lindsay and Jets quarterback Joe Namath, both handsome, young men who rose to prominence alongside the 60s youth culture and offered the promise of a great future (for themselves and the city) but also had hubris that lead to colossal failures.  Greed and Glory, as evident by the extraordinarily long subtitle is not so focused.  Greed and Glory cuts from storyline to storyline with no clear theme, and often is not even arranged chronologically.

The sports angle is covered by the 1986 World Series champion New York Mets and 1987 Super Bowl champion New York Giants.  Star players Dwight Gooden for the Mets and Lawrence Taylor for the Giants each struggle with their celebrity in New York and each end up with cocaine addictions that mar their careers.  But Deveney just can’t seem to focus on these two players and what they mean to the larger story of New York in the 1980s, and instead spends a lot of time describing the experiences of other Mets and other Giants and play-by-plays of important games in their championship seasons.  And while this kind of narrative can be interesting, there are whole other books dedicated to these teams’ champion seasons, whereas this one promises and fails to tell a more relevant story of Gooden and Taylor in 1980s New York.

The other storylines focus on New York mayor Ed Koch as his third term is rocked by scandals among the Democratic party leaders throughout the city.  Future mayor Rudy Giuliani makes his mark as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York by aggressively pursuing cases against the Mafia as well as the political corruption in the Koch administration.  And Donald Trump carries out a convoluted plot to get a NFL team and a domed stadium in Queens (paid for with other peoples’ money, naturally) by suing the NFL on behalf of the USFL.  The plan fails, but he somehow redeems himself by restoring the Wollman skating rink in Central Park.  Pretty much every sketchy detail of his character (and lack thereof) was evident in the 1980s, but for some reason people still decided to make him famous and then elect him President.  Ugh!

These storylines – if the Mets/Giants stories were excised – could almost make a good book, but there’s still too much and it just comes out messy. Granted, the 1980s in New York were a mess and it’s still difficult to make any sense of it.  Deveney doesn’t make a dent in that mess, but I will give him credit for at least making it a pageturner of a read, if ultimately too fluffy for its own good.

Recommended books:

  • The Bad Guys Won! A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo-chasing, and Championship Baseball with Straw, Doc, Mookie, Nails, The Kid, and the Rest of the 1986 Mets, the Rowdiest Team Ever to Put on a New York Uniform–and Maybe the Best by Jeff Pearlman
  • Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City by Jonathan Mahler
  • Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
  • New York Calling : From Blackout to Bloomberg edited by Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.

Rating: **1/2