Monday, June 13, 2011

Libba Bray - "Beauty Queens" - Giveaway & Review

I read Libba Bray's popular trilogy of books - A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing - about a group of magical girls attending a boarding school in Victorian England. I was a fan of her writing based on her past work and it seemed like a no-brainer to pick up her latest novel, Beauty Queens. However, I was greatly surprised by the change in tone, style and format that it seemed like I was reading a completely different author. This is certainly a satire in the nature of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, however it struck too many dissonant notes in order to be pleasing. The abundance of footnotes, commercial-like asides and pageant bio forms are jarring, and the profanity-laced vulgarity of the airhead dialogue sounds like chitter-chatter captured from a high school lavatory.

Bray is out to lambast popular culture from beauty ads to reality T.V. as she depicts the fate of beauty queens whose plane crashes on a deserted island. Her attempt to demonstrate the transformation of flighty, vapid girls into strong, resourceful women is a bit far-fetched. The characters are bratty, whiny and border on completely unlikable. In fact, they are caricatures of ethnic stereotypes. The straight-A Indian-American overachiever who is afraid to fail. The outspoken Jewish girl who is above it all. The flighty Southern belle who is intellectually challenged. The hard-charging Texan who is in it to win it. The Catholic school girl who is afraid of her sexuality. None of these portrayals are three-dimensional or show any type of interior depth. They float upon the surface of the narrative without laying down any substantial roots to form an authentic connection with the reader.

The profundity of snarky comments are thinly veiled references to numerous real life figures. J.T. Woodland (Justin Timberlake), a bandanna-wearing former boy band member who becomes a trans-gender Miss Teen Dream contestant. MoMo B. ChaCha (North Korea's Kim Jong-il), an insane dictator who is infatuated with American culture but at odds with the United States government. Ladybird Hope (Sarah Palin), the grand dame of beauty queens who wants to run for president.

It's too bad that some of the book's important messages tend to get lost in all this drivel. There is an insightful passage regarding the deaf contestant, Sosie, and how people with disabilities are held to a unfair standard by society. When the vius stole most of Sosie's hearing, it also stole her right to complain. She figured out early that nobody liked an angry disabled person. People wanted to think you were so okay with it all so they wouldn't have to expend any energy feeling guilty. There is a beautiful image about biology trumping beauty for the African-American Miss Colorado. Nicole took comfort in the clinical book. When you peeled back the skin, you were dealing with bone and muscle, blood and nerve endings. It was all the same.

Unfortunately, the plot spins so out of control it makes the storyline of Lost look sensible. Hunky pirates shipwreck on their beach resulting in the loss of one girl's virginity and another's high heels. Another contestant is swallowed by a man-eating snake only to be saved from its gullet. The team leader goes native after being struck by darts containing fluid from a hallucinogenic island plant. A man obsessed with hazelnut coffee and an entitled frat boy control the island via vats of an explosive facial hair product. Not to mention, the text abounds with awkward references to underarm hair, tampons and cringe-inducing lines like, "She may be a D-E-W-S-H, but it's not all her fault."

Overall,
Beauty Queens falls way short of the crown.



Beauty Queens by Libba Bray is available for $18.99 at Amazon.com and at LibbaBray.com.

Review copy provided by the Amazon Vine program.

Congratulations to our winner: Kris S.!


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Jimmy Fallon - "Thank You Notes" - Review

I saw a taping of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon back in August 2009. It was a Friday so the episode featured the weekly "Thank You Notes" segment where Jimmy writes a letter of gratitude to a variety of people, places and things such as, "Thank you slow-walking family walking in front of me on the sidewalk. No, please, take your time. And definitely spread out, too, so you create a barricade of idiots. I am so thankful that you forced me to walk into the street and risk getting hit by a car in order to pass you so I could resume walking at a normal human pace."

Now along with the writers of Late Night, he has published Thank You Notes in book form. It features 164 glossy pages - one note per page each with a corresponding image. The size reminded me of McDonald's coupon books that arrive in the mail. As a coffee table book, it can easily be read in under 10 minutes. It's not an earth-shattering, game-changing publication. It is what it is - a collection of humorous jokes that examine the minutia of life from toilet paper to sweater vests.

The book reads like a compilation of the best tweets from the Saturday Night Live alum. Jimmy is a Twitter fanatic (you can follow him - along with over 3 million other people - at @JimmyFallon) as well as a savvy marketer. He employed the notoriety of his talk show as well as his social media standing in order to spur sales. He asked his fans, a.k.a. his "Fal Pals," to purchase a copy on May 26 via Amazon for a one hour window (3-4 p.m. Eastern, 12-1 p.m. Pacific) to boost the overall sales ranking. It worked. Jimmy's book soared to #1 on the online retailer's site. It also went on to secure the #2 spot on the New York Times best seller list.

Following are some of my favorite selections:

- Thank you guy in the revolving door who isn't pulling his weight, for letting me handle all the pushing responsibilities while you handle all the waiting responsibilities. No, let me get it for you. You're the king of the hotel entrance.

- Thank you Chinese delivery place, for giving me three sets of utensils when–SURPRISE!–it was just me eating. Are you trying to tell me that one person shouldn't eat all this food? Next time why not take it further? Why not have the fortune cookie tell me to "take human bites." Or say "Are you done now, fat ass?"

- Thank you flour, for keeping the paper sack container business alive. Don't want to change your packaging, huh? Whenever I buy you I feel like I'm Charles Ingalls buying something from Oleson's store on credit.

- Thank you little kid who keeps pushing the button on the Dancing Santa Doll at the drugstore. Go ahead and just keep on pushing. I love hearing the electronic version of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" over and over and over. Stop pushing the button for one second so I can tell you a secret: "Santa isn't real!"

- Thank you people who show off their high school Spanish when pronouncing their order at a Mexican restaurant. The way you just said "fajita" made me feel like I was wandering the rustic streets of Guadalajara. But I'm not. I'm in a Taco Bell and you're holding up the line, amigo.

Overall,
this book is definitely the hysterical replacement to the generic Hallmark thank you card.



Thank You Notes by Jimmy Fallon is available for $12.00 at Amazon.com and at LateNightWithJimmyFallon.com.

Review copy purchased from Amazon.com

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

QVC's Lisa Mason - "Big Life Lessons from That Still, Small Voice" - Review

Whenever I watched Lisa Mason when she was on QVC, I was always impressed by her spirit. Whether she was affectionately calling a viewer "sugar" or hosting a four hour Diamonique marathon, her genuine nature radiated through the TV screen. That's why I was interested in picking up a copy of her book, Big Life Lessons from That Still, Small Voice. Lisa is so much more than a salesperson for a cable retailer. She's the daughter of a Baptist minister. She's an Emmy winner for her work on an AIDS documentary. She's an engaging, in-demand motivational speaker. And it is a treat to read how she relates stories from her own life and how she was influenced by listening to God's gentle stirrings in her heart.

What sets Lisa apart is that she pays attention not just to the little things in life, but also how they combine to create a major moment. Throughout the book, her message is – do not fear change, it is inevitable. The key is to be conscious of the inner promptings of our heart, mind and soul. We ignore them at our peril.

I really have a new-found respect for Lisa after learning about her roots. With a
father as an itinerant preacher, she continually moved throughout her childhood from small Southern towns to an overseas military base. The ability to adjust to new surroundings shows a strength of character and a defined sense of self that she possessed from a young age. Years later at a charity luncheon, Lisa begins talking with a woman who grew up in a privileged Connecticut environment and attended Ivy League schools. When asked about her own background, Lisa didn't feel comfortable sharing the details of her upbringing. But I'm glad that she overcame that reticence and as a writer was able to open up and share details about her past.

What really comes across is Lisa's honesty. She flunked out of college. She worked as a waitress. She made mistakes in her relationships with others. She suffered from depression. She did not write a book as an ego trip. Instead, she fills the pages with heartfelt emotion.

When filming a documentary she met a young girl dying from AIDS, but no one knew how she contracted the disease. In order to pinpoint the cause, both of her parents were tested and the results came back positive. The entire family succumbed to AIDS. Despite the fact that Lisa won an Emmy for her work, she relates that when she looks at the statue it represents nothing but devastating loss.

Another touching passage involves being stood up by a literary agent in a New York City deli. Feeling like she wasted an entire day, she boarded a train to return home. It was during that journey that she encountered a severely disabled, disfigured child and her mother. Upon disembarking, Lisa noticed that they did not speak English and appeared lost and alone on the station platform. Instead of walking away, she took the initiative, picked up their bags and helped them find the customer service desk. She even drove them to the airport. After all of this, she didn't receive a pat on the back or an effusive show of gratitude. Instead she knew deep down that she accomplished what she was supposed to do that day.

For QVC fans, it may come as a surprise that Lisa initially regretted accepting the job back in the early 1990s. She relates pulling into the parking lot in her Nissan Sentra for a 4 a.m. show. She felt bloated and blotchy. She was suffering through a bad mullet-style haircut. She had gained 10 pounds. She was dead tired. Walking down the hallway in her baggy sweats, she bumped into Joan Rivers. Feeling like she looked a mess, she fumbled through an introduction with the famous comedian. She recalls Joan being nothing but gracious.

Fast forward to the 1993 Oklahoma City bombing. Lisa is on board a plane above the city in order to present a broadcast for QVC's 50 states tour. Needless to say, when the plane landed and she found out what happened she went into a state of shock. The show was canceled and she returned home with a case of post traumatic stress disorder. She struggled to pull herself together. At her lowest point, she opened a package labeled personal but lacking a return address. What was inside was a necklace without a note. After looking at it more closely, Lisa realized it was ironically from Joan Rivers.

These slice of life vignettes are divided into 10 brief chapters (the entire book totals 115 pages). Each concludes with a life lesson, and some feature a biblical quotation. The book is not heavy on Christianity, but it does provide the framework for the overall theme. It also includes poignant literary references, such as the following from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

"Success"
To laugh often and much.
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children.
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends.
To appreciate beauty.
To find the best in others.
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden path or a redeemed social condition.
To know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.

Lisa Mason has done just that.

Overall,
a former QVC host shares stories from her own life and how to make a difference in the lives of others.



Big Life Lessons from That Still, Small Voice by Lisa Mason is available for $10.95 at Amazon.com and at LisaMason.org.

Review copy purchased from Amazon.com

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Jerome Charyn - "Johnny One-Eye" - Giveaway & Review

Johnny One-Eye is the Forrest Gump of the American Revolution. He's a fictitious character whose life becomes intertwined with the most illustrious personages in the land from George Washington to Alexander Hamilton. As the son of Manhattan's savviest madame, he lives in a brothel among prostitutes. Yet throughout the war, he seamlessly mingles with all classes in society from Prince Paul, the leader of the city's Little Africa, to his disgraced former general, Benedict Arnold. His ability to adapt to any situation places him in a precarious position as both the British and American forces try to recruit him as a spy. He walks a perilous line trying to serve two masters while first and foremost looking out for himself.

The travails of his love life tend to complicate matters even further. As a eye patch wearing, Quasimodo Lothario, he is hopelessly besotted with his childhood friend, Clara, who is now in the employ of his mother. As she flits from one customer's bed to another, she ridicules Johnny One-Eye's advances and mocks his romantic pursuit. Spurned by his true love, he turns to the comfort of the voluptuous mistress of General William Howe, the British commander in charge of the occupation of New York. Needless to say, Sir William flies into a jealous rage upon discovering he is sharing his lover with a one-eyed rogue.

The book itself is broken into seven sections by year from 1776-1783. Each begins with a preface written from George Washington's point of view. Johnny One-Eye shares the spotlight with the commander in chief because as the narrative progresses the question of his paternity begins to point in the general's direction. This illegitimate scamp from the gutter could, in fact, be America's first son. The two work on building a tenuous relationship as they try to watch out for each other in the midst of dangerous plots and intrigues.

Charyn succeeds in creating a George Washington who is a fully developed character. He is not the one-dimensional, mythological figure who cannot tell a lie. Instead, he is a military commander who makes mistakes, and he is passionately in love with a red-haired courtesan, Johnny's mother.
In the novel's best scene, these two characteristics combine at his beloved's whorehouse. In his foolhardiness, he knowingly walks into a trap by responding to General Howe's invitation to a card game. All sides hold their breath as Washington skillfully maneuvers through the game relying on his wits to save his life.

Charyn painstakingly reconstructs the Revolutionary setting. Through extensive research and attention to detail, he masterfully brings to life the British occupation of New York City. The island teems with a volatile mixture of Hessian mercenaries, British aristocracy, rebel spies and Loyalist merchants. The rich feast as the poor starve. Johnny One-Eye, himself, depicts the various atrocities of the time. He endures a tar and feathering, imprisonment aboard a fetid naval vessel and banishment from the colonies. Yet like the young nation, he overcomes all obstacles in order to fashion his own destiny.

Overall,
even with a one-eyed account, Johnny offers a detailed glimpse of the grueling birth of a nation.



Johnny One-Eye by Jerome Charyn is available for $25.95 at Amazon.com and at JeromeCharyn.com.

Review copy provided by Johnny One-Eye Blog Tour.

Also by Jerome Charyn: Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil and The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson

Congratulations to our winner: Andrea Kruse!