Sunday, September 29, 2019

Angry Optimist, by Lisa Rogak

Angry Optimist: The Life and Times of Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart and The Daily Show was must-see television for me for years. His ability to skewer the news (and the newsmakers) was both hilarious and educating, and his eye for talent was amazing: Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Ed Helms, Rob Corddry, and Josh Gad (among many others) all made names for themselves on the show. This biography covers Stewart from birth to around 2015 when he left The Daily Show. Largely a recitation of the main points of his life (birth, high school, college, stand-up, TV, marriage) there actually is an interesting tidbit here and there, such as officially changing his name to Stewart (after his middle name of Stuart) not to appear "less Jewish" but to distance himself from his father. Not a lot of insight into Stewart or what makes him tick, but as he is a largely private man a lot of what is in here was new to me. Clearly an unofficial biography.

First Sentence:
When Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz was born on November 28, 1962, in New York City to Donald and Marian Leibowitz toward the end of the huge postwar baby boom, he began a typical middle-class American childhood that was unremarkable for the time, and apparently very much strived for by the majority of people in the United States.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, by Bradley P. Beaulieu

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai (The Song of the Shattered Sands, #1)

This is book one of The Song of the Shattered Sands, and if it is typical for the series, promises a rollicking ride. It takes place in a world with distinct Greater Middle Eastern influences: the women wear silk dresses, headscarves, and jalabiyas, while the men wear kaftans, abas, and burnooses. The city of Sharakhai is in the middle of a huge desert, the most unique feature of which is using boats with runners and sleds to sail over the sand. A major difference in the narrative from its real-life influence is that women aren't treated as a second class; the (female) hero doesn't have to fight prejudice, genuflect to men as a rule, or disguise her sex to be effective and respected. What she does fight are immortal wizard kings and disfigured nightmare creatures right out of the supernatural horror genre. Combined with blood magic and gods that still walk the earth, this is a fascinating world in which to tell a story.

The plot is fairly straightforward, with only a partial resolution—fitting for the beginning of a hexalogy. It does bounce back and forth in time which I found a bit jarring in places; Beaulieu always prefaces a time jump backwards with a phrase such as "Five years earlier..." but doesn't indicate when the narrative returns to the present. This made the narrative seem choppy to me, especially as the denouement approached. That said, it didn't significantly damage my enjoyment of the book, and can certainly see myself picking up more books in the future. Recommended for anyone that likes magnificent world-building, strong female characters, and a compelling story.

First Sentence:
In a small room beneath the largest of Sharakhai's fighting pits, Çeda sat on a wooden bench, tightening her fingerless gloves.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Last Sheriff in Texas, by James P. McCollom

The Last Sheriff in Texas

This book chronicles the changes the state of Texas underwent after WWII, moving from mostly rural to mostly urban, and seeing the cowboy fade from a real profession to a role in the movies. Sheriff Vail Ennis of Bee County was a violent, uncompromising man with a flair for violence—he shot and killed eight men while in office between 1944 and 1952. Johnny Barnhart was raised in Bee County, but while attending the University of Texas uncovered a passion for civil rights that set him apart from his conservative neighbors. These two icons clashed during the election of 1952, forcing citizens to choose between frontier justice and law and order, changing Texas politics forever.

The story is told primarily via interviews and reminiscences with a healthy amount of historical context thrown in for good measure. I found it to be compelling (if very repetitive), although I can easily see how someone that isn't familiar with life on the Texas Costal Plain might find it slow and meandering. The book is part true crime, part political history, part biography, and part memoir resulting in a style that is a bit offbeat. On one page there will be a excerpt from a newspaper article, and on the next conversational dialogue from people long since dead. I found this see-sawing between fact and fabrication hard to get used to at first, but eventually settled down and enjoyed the story.

First Sentence:
The man who shot the sheriff was Roy Hines, thirty-four, ex-con, a grifter on his way from Oklahoma to Mexico.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Outcasts of Order, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Outcasts of Order (The Saga of Recluce)

This is the 20th entry in the Saga of Recluce and a direct sequel to The Mongrel Mage. Like many (if not most) of the books in this series, the basic plot points are the same: talented young man develops a unique set of skills, falls afoul of the power structure, and uses his wits to stay alive and safe while cultivating a group of unbelievably nice and honest people. While not breaking any new ground, Modesitt imbues a life into his characters that invests you emotionally and keeps you turning page after page. Once scene in particular brought a tear to my eye; the wife of a recently killed man (Barrynt) is speaking at his funeral. "It was when Barrynt and I first rode up to this house. He turned and looked to me and said, 'You're home now.' I was, but what made it home was Barrynt." The sentiment perfectly captures the love two people can have for one another. I greatly look forward to the next volume in the epic.

First Sentence:
Beltur sat bolt upright in the dark, sweating and shivering, the echo of thunder in his ears so loud that it took a moment before he could hear the pelting of heavy raindrops on the split slate roof.

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