I teach creative writing. My students are working on memoirs, novels, poetry, new age spiritualism, history, children’s stories, and a variety of other topics. All of them, but especially the novelists, have the problem of knowing where to start. Novelists have to figure out how much of their character’s backstory should be included and where. It’s not unusual for authors to complete their first draft and choose to or be advised to dump the first few chapters. I not too long ago read my first—and probably last—book by a certain bestselling author. The first 100 plus pages were the story of how the protagonist became a private detective and how he met the person he later hired to be his secretary. That story had no relevance to the mystery when it finally began.
The authors of the first two novels I’ve included in this review wrestled with that problem and lost, in my opinion, but if you choose to read these two books, persevere. They’re worth it.
The first novel is Short Bus Hero by Shannon Giglio. This book is unlike any I’ve read before. It’s a fantasy, but has no knights or dragons or spaceships. It’s contemporary and takes place in Pittsburgh. The main characters in the order we meet them are the unnamed angel narrator—yes, a real angel—her current assignment, Ally Forman, a young woman with Down syndrome, and the washed-up professional wrestler Stryker Nash.
This book has a lot to recommend it. The writing is good, the characters are well-developed and appealing, and the plot is both interesting and fun. However, the first 10 pages have not much to do with anything. You won’t mind the time invested, but once the real story starts, you’ll wish you’d arrived there sooner.
Twenty-three-year-old Ally struggles with the usual problems of becoming an adult all people her age have to deal with, but her Down syndrome amplifies some of those problems. Ally is a wrestling fan (read fanatic) and a fan of Stryker Nash. When Stryker is dropped by his federation, Ally’s world falls apart.
If I tell you Short Bus Hero has a happy ending, I’m not giving away a secret. It’s how we get to that ending that’s interesting. I’ll give you a hint. Ally wins the lottery. And even though the ultimate message, money can buy happiness, is not what I would have preferred, it works here. What I love about reading novels is that the authors often take us places we would never predict. That’s the joy of reading them. You’ll find a lot of joy in this book.
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The second novel, Cuernavaca by Richard Perhacs, has a much bigger problem with where to start. Cuernavaca is a thriller, but the first 60 pages don’t thrill. The protagonist, Scott Flores, doesn’t get off the plane in Mexico, where the action takes place, until page 61. Before that, we find out why Scott is going there. We get to watch his life implode—his wife dies, his drinking goes out of control, and his professorship is terminated—in what seems like slow motion. But then, finally, things begin to happen.
Again, we pretty much know how things will end up, but it’s the journey that counts. And that’s interesting. Scott is an archaeologist. His best friend, Jerry, hires him to catalog the finds at an important dig. The artifacts are rare and extremely valuable on the black market, and some seem to be going missing before they can be catalogued. Scott sees the job as something exciting but familiar. He doesn’t expect to become embroiled in smuggling and murder. Scott is an interesting character well written. I recommend him to you.
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The third novel this month is Pets and Masters in Space: Part 1: The First Voyage by Elfa Todari. An intriguing title and an intriguing book, it’s the first of a proposed series. It starts in the right place. Our heroine, Antaska is walking in the hallway of the spaceship with her new “employer,” eight foot tall green M. Hoyvil. Well, it turns out she’s not exactly the employee of the telepathic Hoyvil; she’s his pet. And there are a lot more surprises. We get to be with her as she figures out this new world that she has volunteered for.
She’s not the only human aboard. There are many others who have volunteered and trained for their new “jobs.” Informed consent is a slippery concept here. And if you expect those humans to band together based on the common heritage, think again.
Todari does a good job of setting up this series of worlds 10,000 or more years in the future. This is a fun read. You’ll enjoy it.
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On to non-fiction, although this next book would make a great novel. I recommend to you Cow Woman of Akutan, a memoir by Joan Brown Dodd. The blurb on the cover says it’s an extraordinary, compelling story, and is it ever. Joan, her husband Charlie, and their good friend Hans decide that it would be a good idea to start a ranch on the Aleutian island of Akutan, so they do. Simple as that. Well, maybe not quite that simple. The fact that none of the three had ever worked on a ranch didn’t slow them down, nor did the fact that Joan and Charlie had two small children, soon to be three.
Bit by bit, nothing went as they planned and the sheep, cows, pigs, and chickens presented one crisis after another. Although disaster after disaster seemed to plague them, their commitment to each other and to the children survived and thrived. And they had the friendship and help of the local Aleut villagers. When a change in the US homestead laws put a merciful end to their endeavor, you’re glad you got a chance to spend five years with such interesting people. Although this world is not as foreign to us as M. Hoyvil’s spaceship, for most of us Cow Woman of Acutan will be a new and unique experience.
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I had a nice note from Leonard Gaston asking me to review his book Hypothesis Testing Made Simple. The blurb on the back asks, “Have you ever found the study of statistics difficult . . . ?” You bet! The way I managed to get through my one statistics class was to treat it like religion. I accepted it without needing to really understand how it worked.
I can’t tell you whether this book achieves what it sets out to do, but I can tell you what that is. Gaston writes for those who must do hypothesis testing, “This is not a full blown statistics book. . . . What it attempts to do is give the non-mathematician a grounding in the basics of a few potentially useful tests—enough, we hope, to get most of us through our research projects.”
It’s written clearly and set up in a useful way. Each chapter starts with a section telling you what the chapter will do for you and ends with what you have learned and what comes next. This 164 page book include Numbers, Central Tendency, and Dispersion; Probability; Combinations, Permutations, and the Multiplication Formula; Ways to Present Data; the Normal Distribution, and eight more useful chapters. If hypothesis testing is in your future, this book is worth checking out.
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Another specialized book is Forensic Metrology: Scientific Measurement and Inference for Lawyers, Judges, and Criminalists by Ted Vosk and Ashley F. Emery. The authors define forensic metrology as “the application of scientific measurement to the investigation and prosecution of crime. . . . Forensic metrology provides a basic framework for the performance and critical evaluation of all forensic measurements.” This 418 page book includes chapters on Measurement, Weights and Measures, Validation and Good Measurement Practice, and Result Interpretation. Section II covers the statistics used in processing this information. The included CD has a primer on forensic metrology and practice materials on court decisions, legal motions and expert reports. The book finishes with a section for the “Mathematically Adventurous.” You know who you are.
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Mensa of Northeastern New York 2011 to 1963: A Documentary About The First 48 Years by Leo A. Kellogg is something different. Kellogg, the MoNNY historian, put together what was originally a PowerPoint presentation. It starts in 2011 and works backwards on the assumption that people will be most interested their contemporaries. Kellogg wrote this for current and past members, and hopes that it will be included in all the library systems within their area. It’s a useful introduction to Mensa in general and to that particular section of Mensa for anyone interested in finding out more about our organization. Something like it might be a good recruiting tool for any Mensa group.