Book Reviews: Comparing and Contrasting Never Enough by Michael D’Antonio and MAGA Mindset by Mike Cernovich

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You can't get away from Donald Trump. He's the President. As with Barack Obama, Trump has those who worship his every move and those who hate his stinking guts.

But I am not here to praise him nor to bury him. No, I'm not even here to talk politics.

I'm here to talk books.

Regardless of your personal feelings, Trump is President. And it's always interesting, at least to me, to learn about our elected officials and see what makes them tick. Because, to be honest, one has to be a little touched in the head to want to go into politics. And so, I read (actually, listened) to two books about the man, one that painted him in a distinctly negative light, and another that was far more flattering.

Let's face it: Whether you love him or hate him, Donald Trump is an interesting cat. And he did beat both a veritable army of GOP insiders and the most favored candidate in American history, to win the election.

[Full disclosure: I voted for the guy. Mainly because, as a reluctant Republican, I have grown so disgusted with the party as I have with the Democrats, and Washington in general, that I relished the idea of sending a giant, human middle finger to the entire establishment. Regardless, one does have to admire his ability to accomplish what he sets out to do, even if you dislike him politically or personally. I felt much the same about Barack Obama (whom I did not vote for, twice–but still, the man knows how to accomplish what he wants and is also an interesting guy. There's a lesson there for all of us.)]

First up, the more "negative" book, Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success by author and journalist Michael D'Antonio, published in 2015. I know that in 2016 D'Antonio updated the book and re-christened it The Truth About Trump, but I listened to the audio version, borrowed by my wife from our local library for me to listen to during my many long car trips between the D.C. Metro area and New England I had to make in the recent past.

Reviews of this book call it “A carefully reported and fair-minded account" (USA Today), “A brisk and entertaining read, drawing on interviews and documents and distilling decades' worth of news coverage to tell the story of Trump's childhood, family, business deals, and political forays” (The Washington Post), and "Balanced, well sourced, and perfectly timed" (Financial Times (UK)). Me, I find these claims of balance and a lack of bias laughable.

Let's get it out of the way: D'Antonio clearly does not like Trump. That said, the book is meticulously researched, well-written and constructed, and sheds a lot of light on Trump and what makes him tick.

Trump's family history is pretty fascinating, with his hellraising and, quite frankly, dishonest and kind of sleazy grandfather (who first built, and then lost, the family fortune), to his father Fred who, through hard work and good timing, nearly single-handedly rebuild the family fortune, to Donald himself, the story of the Trumps is one of sheer determination and will. No one will tell ANY of these men that they cannot do something, and they all have a knack for sniffing out an opportunity and exploiting it . . . even if that involves some unsavory steps along the way.

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What D'Antonio discusses definitely raises some red flags (and sensationally hints at far more sinister doings without much in the way of evidence, but I digress) about Trump's temperament and proclivities–his penchant for stretching the truth, if not outright lying; his habit of bending the rules to benefit himself and his family, if not outright breaking them; insinuating that he is a virulent racist and anti-Semite with no real proof; his cozy relationship with corrupt attorney Roy Cohn . . . but was it enough to make me pull the lever for his opponent? Absolutely not. For all of his vices–greed, arrogance, women, and a pathological inability to not fight back seem to be Donald's vices–to me at least, Hillary Clinton was far worse.

And yet, through it all, Trump comes across as an enthusiastic builder with an almost childlike sense of wonder about everything. One can imagine him looking at a building he fought tooth-and-nail to get built and being like, "Holy cow, can you believe it?" He clearly also believed in his designers and architects, going to the mat for many of them. And he, obviously, believes in himself.

He also tends to, let's say, exaggerate his accomplishments and disparage those of his opponents with stereotypical New York bravado. Continue reading “Book Reviews: Comparing and Contrasting Never Enough by Michael D’Antonio and MAGA Mindset by Mike Cernovich”

Book Review: The Secret Kings (Soul Cycle Book III) by Brian Niemeier

Brian Niemeier sure knows how to start a story off with a bang.

The third installment of his Soul Cycle trilogy (as of now) brings back one of Book I's best characters: Teg Cross! And he's as badass as ever.

What begins as a mission for survivors of the galaxy-shattering cataclysm turns into a battle against the forces of the Void intent on remaking the world in its image.

If you watched Star Wars and thought, "Not enough magic or monsters"; if you're into horror and ask yourself, "Where are the spaceships?"; and if you're into Dune and keep wondering "Where are all the good books?", then the Soul Cycle series is right in your wheelhouse.

Teg isn't the only returning character from the first book here, and allies and enemies from Book II also feature prominently. And of course, new friends and foes appear and make their impact felt. To say anymore would spoil things, but just let's say that the interaction between these disparate personalities is great.

It also helps that Brian can write, keeping the action fast-paced, keeping the danger right at the protagonists' heels, and giving few respites from the (almost exhausting) breakneck pace.

Oh, and we get to see more cool planets.

As I try to do in my book reviews, let's highlight a few key things that really made The Secret Kings work, and discuss why.

Characters and Conflict:

It's great seeing characters like Teg and Xander, Astlin and Nakvin, and Jaren and Tefler cross paths…and deal with villains like Kelgrun, Fallon, and Vaun Mordechai.

These interactions feel natural, and friendships and friction created when they all meet is completely in-character; nothing seems out of place. Brian gives the sense that, were these characters real and sitting in a room together, this is how they would act.

The newcomers, like Izlaril, Lykaon, Gein, Anris, the Anomians, and Celwen are welcome additions to the cast.

And the conflict! Not always armed hostility, but even the good guys don't always get along.

In screenwriting, there's a principle that also applies to novels, that every scene needs conflict, or at least a goal. You can broadly call this a reason for existing: Does it further the story? Does it reveal something about a character? Could you cut it out and lose nothing of the story? Continue reading “Book Review: The Secret Kings (Soul Cycle Book III) by Brian Niemeier”

Book Review: Souldancer (Soul Cycle Book II) by Brian Niemeier

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Recently, I read and really enjoyed Part I of Brian Niemeier‘s three-part Soul Cycle series, Nethereal. Having read Part II, Souldancer, I can say that Brian improves upon nearly every aspect of the already impressive Nethereal, creating one of the most memorable sci-fi worlds I have had the pleasure to be invited into.

Mild spoilers for Nethereal are ahead, so if you plan on reading the series yourself–which I strongly recommend that you do–you might want to skim or otherwise skip most of this review.

(Wow . . . what kind of writer tells his readers not to read his blog? There can be only one: this guy!) Continue reading “Book Review: Souldancer (Soul Cycle Book II) by Brian Niemeier”

Book Review: Nethereal (Soul Cycle Book I) by Brian Niemeier

Take the good parts of Dune and Star Wars, mix them together with a heaping dollop of Dante, a dash of high fantasy, and a whole lot of horror, and you’re beginning to almost approach Brian Niemeier‘s self-published Nethereal, book one of his three-part Soul Cycle series. 

Is it sci-fi? Is it science-fantasy? 

Who cares? It’s fun. 

Nethereal reads like the best console or pen-and-paper RPG you never played. Imagination abounds. 

Fitting, as Brian is a figure in the burgeoning #PulpRevolution

Nethereal focuses on space pirate Jaren Peregrine and the crew of his ship, the Shibboleth, as they seek revenge against the Guild, a quasi-governmental entity that dominates the Spheres (think: planets). 

Jaren is half-Gen (think: Elf), and the Guild destroyed his race, and his family, and now they’ve got to pay. Chief among Jaren’s crew is mercenary Teg Cross, steersmen Deim Corsurunda and Nakvin (no last name given), and the mysterious Vaun Mordechai, a late addition with mysterious motives. 

Pursued by the Guild, Jaren and crew meet a rebel force and end up commanding the mysterious, powerful Exodus, whose unsettling cargo takes them through the depths of hell…and beyond. 

Even stranger is Elena, a half-woman, half-machine who appears to be the Exodus’ source of power. 

I don’t want to spoil anything here, but suffice it to say Nethereal is one of the most imaginative works of fiction I’ve read in a long while. 

And the heroes are–gasp!–heroic!

I do have nits to pick–this is the Internet, after all. Some of the characters are a little tough to connect with, particularly Jaren, who beyond single-mindedness really has little else going for him–I don’t quite get why he is such an inspiring leader. Deim is similarly inscrutable. And I did feel some of the characters’ attempts at glib humor fell flat. 

The world and its structure, culture, and mythology is a little confusing too, though the glossary included helps, and things begin to make more sense as the story unfolds. And Marshal Malachi is a bit disappointing as a villain. 

But the rest of the villains provide one of the deadliest, vilest, and flat-out creepy rogues gallery you’ll find most anywhere. Each player has their own goals and motivations–and reasons for stabbing their purported allies in the back. 

So why do I say “science-fantasy”? Aside from the immortal Gen race, there is a substance called ether that the spaceships run on (hence the name “ether-runner”). This ether can also be manipulated via Workings (think: magic); indeed, it is through Workings that the steersmen control the ether-runners. 

There’s also gun fighting, swordplay, warrior-priests, demons, the undead, body-swapping, necromancy, and heavy theological discussions about life, the soul, and everything else that matters.

The pacing is brisk, which helps a book of this scope keep from getting bogged down. And I can offer it the highest praise any book can get: Nethereal was incredibly difficult to put down. I cannot wait to start book two, Souldancer.

Highly recommended. 

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Book Review: Sword & Flower by Rawle Nyanzi

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If you ever wanted to know what would happen when a Japanese pop-star who can use magic teams up with a sword-fighting Puritan warrior to fight demons in weird dimension that may or may not be limbo, then Rawyle Nyanzi has answered this question for you in his debut offering, the novella Sword & Flower.

Even if you’ve never had these questions–and if you haven’t, I’m sorry–Sword & Flower is a fun, exciting read, part of the nascent “Pulp Revolution,” looking to bring back the spirit, energy, and free-wheeling nature of sci-fi and fantasy’s golden age.

You know, before politics, social justice, and lots of other stuff that has nothing to do with storytelling got in the way of storytelling.

Think more adventure and less angst.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must state that Rawle is a personal friend. He and I talk writing very often in person or on-line, and have read and critiqued each other’s work. In fact, I had the pleasure of reading early versions of Sword & Flower, and it’s interesting to see what suggestions I had and points Rawle missed made it into the final story.

And if you recall, Rawle and I went to see both Suicide Squad and (ugh) the new Ghostbusters movies so you don’t have to.

I don’t want to give away too many of Sword & Flower‘s plot points since it is short–104 pages–but I have to give some, as it has as unique a premise as you’ll find.

Lesser Heaven is a place where some go when they die, where they are held before achieving either a seat in paradise or eternal damnation. Why this is so, and what they must do to get a full reckoning, however, is still a mystery.

Interestingly, people seem to get sorted on the basis of geography and culture, so that an thirteenth-century Zulu tribesman would be with other thirteenth-century Zulu tribesman while a twenty-fifth century space-faring Chinese astronaut would appear with other twenty-fifth century Chinese, and so on.

That’s right: All cultures and all time periods coexist simultaneously in Lesser Heaven, so you just know that interesting interactions are bound to take place.

One such involves Dimity Red (real name: Chiyo Aragaki), Japanese pop sensation, who meets her end in a grisly manner and finds herself in Lesser Heaven. For some reason, though, she is immediately attacked by a demon, saved by a Valkyrie, and then deposited near a settlement of Puritans. And though she helps these pilgrims stave off demons that menace their settlement, she is soon arrested for being a Satanic witch.

Luckily, she catches the eye of the free-thinking son of the settlement’s pastor, nicknamed Mash, who senses her goodness and questions his own people’s automatic dismissal of what should be considered, perhaps quite literally, as a God-send.

I told you, Sword & Flower has a bit of everything. Continue reading “Book Review: Sword & Flower by Rawle Nyanzi”

Book Review: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

The great Jane Austen read-through continues with Northanger Abbey.

Northanger Abbey is not as deep of a character study as Emma, nor as serious a rumination on England’s class system and women’s role and opportunity within it as Sense and Sensibility or Mansfield Park. Nor is it as thoughtful a meditation of romantic love and what goes into a good marriage as Pride and Prejudice. But what Northanger Abbey lacks in weight it makes up for in humor.

This book is funny. 

Now, all of Jane Austen’s books are funny. But Northanger Abbey is more biting, almost acerbic, than Austen’s previous books. Austen’s descriptions are sharp and, while veering a little into caricature, stop just short of being mean. And of particular note is her satire of both novels and those critics who despise the artform. Continue reading “Book Review: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen”

Book Review: Emma by Jane Austen

I am four books into my read-through of the entire Jane Austen canon, and all I can say is that I enjoy each book more than the last.

So does that mean that Emma, the topic of this review, is a better book than Sense and SensibilityPride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park? Only in the sense that I seem to enjoy whichever of her books I am reading at the time the most.

Everybody knows Emma, right? Emma Woodhouse, the matchmaker who cares so much about the romantic goings-on of others, and so little for her own, that a few early successes blind her to the romantic blunders she is making others step into.

This matchmaking aspect is a large part of Emma. But it’s not the only part. I am finding it difficult to say anything about the Austen oeuvre that hasn’t been said before and have instead tried to extract from them why I think they are worth reading aside from the entertaining stories. And two themes that I took from Emma are those of self-awareness and that people can change.

Let’s have some plot for context: Emma is the youngest daughter of the hypochondriac widower Henry Woodhouse. She is charming, rich, witty, attractive, and too clever for her own good. After successfully matching her sister Isabella to family friend John Knightly, she fancies herself somewhat of an expert on matchmaking. And that is where her trouble begins.

Emma is also flighty, inconstant, and never spends enough time devoting herself to the improvement of anything, as John Knightly’s brother George, who serves as her conscience, is so fond of pointing out. She is, in other words, a middleweight despite her obvious energy and intellect:

“She was not much deceived as to her own skill, either as an artist or a musician; but she was not unwilling to have others deceived, or sorry to know her reputation for accomplishment often higher than it deserved.”

What’s worse, many of her schemes to bring people together go wrong, with sometimes humorous, sometimes harmful results.Her friend Harriet Smith; the priest Mr. Elton; the farmer Robert Martin; Frank Churchill, the stepson of Emma’s governess; family friend Jane Fairfax . . . they are all on the receiving end of Emma’s machinations. The fun and poignancy of the story is seeing all of these little stories play out, and the effect that they have on Emma and her conception of self.

I won’t go into spoilers except to say that, as with all of Austen’s works, her characterizations are sharp and deep, her insights into human nature are masterful, and there is always that dialogue . . . some of the best written by anyone, ever, in the English language.

But Emma might be my favorite Austen character thus far, and here’s why: While clearly intended to be unlikable at the outset, she does what she does not out of malice, but out of what she thinks is for the best. So there’s a clear intention/outcome dichotomy, but it works because of Emma’s  willingness to change. Continue reading “Book Review: Emma by Jane Austen”