Category Archives: reviews

Return of the Jedi: The Original Topps Trading Card Series (Volume Three) edited by Gary Gerani (2016)


Return of the Jedi: The Original Topps Trading Card Series (Volume Three)
edited by Gary Gerani
Abrams, 2016

The third installment of Abrams’ Star Wars trading card books focuses on the third (now sixth) movie in the franchise, Return of the Jedi. As with the first two books, product designer Gary Gerani recounts the process of reading the screenplay and selecting photos from LucasFilm’s library for use on the cards. It is clear from his writing that by the time they were readying this product for release, he had become quite a fan of George Lucas’ space opera.

Each Return of the Jedi Topps card is reproduced in this volume, with the front and back of each receiving its own page. This is a change from the Empire Strikes Back book, in which the horizontal cards were shown with the front and back on a single page. Gerani occasionally writes a sentence or two about specific cards, but for the most part they are allowed to stand on their own. As with the previous two volumes, bonus cards are again included with this third volume.

Return of the Jedi

I was not even ten years old when Return of the Jedi was originally released, and while I have a handful of the vintage cards from this series, I never came close to completing the entire set. To have all of the cards presented here in one volume, in a much more affordable format than tracking down the originals, is a fantastic way to relive my formative collecting years without breaking the bank.

Star Wars fans young and old will love all three Original Topps Trading Card Series books.

Learn more about Abrams.

Purchase Return of the Jedi: The Original Topps Trading Card Series (Volume Three) edited by Gary Gerani.

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher (2016)

Princess Diarist Carrie Fisher Star Wars

The Princess Diarist
by Carrie Fisher
Blue Rider Press, 2016

This book sat on my desk for over a month before I decided to finally open it. I purchased it after the author’s passing, and avoided any reviews or even descriptions of what was contained within these pages, other than that it contained the late Carrie Fisher’s found diaries, her “recollection of what happened behind the scenes on one of the most famous film sets of all time, the first Star Wars movie.” If you are not aware of the contents of The Princess Diarist, be warned: there are spoilers ahead. Go back now if you plan to read this book and don’t want to know anything about it (assuming you have not already read other reviews).

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Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, and Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s by Jason Turbow (2017)

Dynasty, Bombastic, Fantastic Jason Turbow

Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, and Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s
by Jason Turbow
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic is the story of the Oakland A’s, a team stocked with some of the best players in baseball in the early 1970s. Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudi, Dave Duncan, Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers…they all played a key role in the team’s dominant run of three straight World Championships from 1972 through 1974. None was a bigger star—in his own mind, at least—than owner Charlie O. Finley. The businessman moved the A’s from Kansas City shortly after securing the team, and shrewdly managed his personnel until baseball’s labor laws broke down, causing an exodus of not only the A’s but many major league rosters in the late 1970s. Finley’s first major loss came when his star pitcher Hunter jumped ship, just a few years after the owner stood his ground against another young pitcher (and kept him, at the time).

But Hunter’s departure came later; from 1972-1974, nothing could stop the Oakland powerhouse. Their three-year reign saw them defeat the Cincinnati Reds, the New York Mets, and the Los Angeles Dodgers, but it was not all smooth sailing. Contract disputes, poor attendance, arguments over playing time, and Finley’s manipulation of players play a major role in by Jason Turbow’s historical account. The author freely admits that Finley, if living, “wouldn’t likely appreciate his portrayal here.”

Besides the verbal clashes with the front office, there were a number of physical fights in the clubhouse as well. Turbow says, “I detail the major dustups in the book, but omitted many others that didn’t fit into the narrative. I had a recurring experience during my interviews: Player says that it was all overblown and the team didn’t fight as much as the media made out; I recount to a player a litany of the most prominent skirmishes; player goes quiet, shakes head and grudgingly agrees that maybe there’s something to it after all.”

Dynastic. Bombastic, Fantastic is a great way to get your blood pumping for another great season of baseball.

Learn more about Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Purchase Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, and Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s by Jason Turbow.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Hidden Treasures by Adrian Besley (2017)

Monty Python

Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Hidden Treasures
by Adrian Besley
Abrams, 2017

British humor (or humour, if you prefer extraneous u’s in your words) does not always translate well when performed for American audiences. Even the venerable Monty Python struggled when they first came to the United States, despite their reputation across the pond. Adrian Besley’s Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Hidden Treasures is a fantastic retelling of the troupe’s history on the BBC, including the formation of the group and their eventual success in America, all the way through their successful reunions of recent years.

The Pythons write in the foreword, “Abrams, the publishers of what they feel is one of the most original and fascinating books ever produced by Monty Python, have asked us to let you all know that this is one of the most original and fascinating books ever produced by the Monty Python team.” A truer statement has never been uttered.

The real draw for this volume is the “removable memorabilia.” Included are pages of scripts, postcards, animation artwork, and posters. In all, there are 22 removable facsimiles of memorabilia from the Pythons’ archives. Throughout the book, the reader can also find QR codes which can be scanned to watch the sketches referenced throughout.

Monty Python fanatics will absolutely love Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Hidden Treasures and the memorabilia it includes. Highly recommended for fans of the irreverent British comedians.

Learn more about Abrams.

Purchase Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Hidden Treasures by Adrian Besley.

I Adulted! Stickers for Grown-Ups by Robb Pearlman (2017)

I ADULTED stickers

I Adulted! Stickers for Grown-Ups
by Robb Pearlman
Universe, 2017

When I was a kid in elementary school, I always looked forward to getting a sticker on my homework. “Super!” “Fantastic!” “Great Job!” Those stickers were often more important than the actual letter grade. As I grew older, those stickers appeared less frequently. In high school, they were gone altogether.

Now that I am an adult, I never get stickers anymore. There is no adhesive affirmation that I did “Awesome!” on any project at work, or that my ideas were “Incredible!” Outside motivation is not easy to find. That is what makes the 100 stickers included in Robb Pearlman‘s I Adulted! Stickers for Grown-Ups “Brilliant!”

There are stickers for a number of everyday adult accomplishments, and just because no one else noticed doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pat yourself on the back. From “I Cooked for Myself!” to “I Ignored the Online Troll!”, I Adulted! Stickers for Grown-Ups is a fun collection with which you can memorialize the mundane. “I Put Money in the Bank!” “I Called my Elderly Relative!” “I Didn’t Tell my Boss Off!” These are just a few of the day-to-day deeds that deserve some recognition.

Just in case there is something you want to celebrate that is not included, there are eight blank stickers for you to write in whatever little thing you think was “Amazing!” Just about anyone who misses childhood will appreciate this book.

Learn more about Universe.

Purchase I Adulted! Stickers for Grown-Ups by Robb Pearlman.

Poems in the Manner Of… by David Lehman (2017)

Poems in the Manner Of

Poems in the Manner Of…
by David Lehman
Scribner, 2017

Intentionally adopting another author’s voice can be a dangerous exercise; falling into the trap of derivativeness is nearly unavoidable. David Lehman attempts to pay homage to his influences in Poems in the Manner Of…, as he calls on inspiration from the words of such heavyweights as Shakespeare, Whitman, Hemingway, and more. The results are a mixed bag; some work well, others fall well short.

Lehman fails at subtlety far too often, employing blunt and sometimes crass expressions. I often began a piece enjoying his direction, only to be blindsided by an unnecessary expletive or an unsettling turn of phrase. In some instances, the poems seem almost sarcastic. His imitation of Dickinson seems more parody than tribute. He also utilizes prose poetry far too often, while the occasional astrological profiles feel forced.

There are, however, moments of brilliance. Lehman’s “Two Poems in the Manner of Edna St. Vincent Millay” are refreshingly subdued yet quite enjoyable. Lehman strongly captures Millay’s famous sonnet style and voice.

Lehman, who has edited the Best American Poetry series since he initiated it nearly thirty years ago, has been called “a combination of Mark Twain, Charlie Rose, and John le Carré with a little John Donne thrown in.” Perhaps in his own voice, he can channel them, but I fail to see those personalities in Poems in the Manner Of….

Learn more about Scribner.

Purchase Poems in the Manner Of… by David Lehman.

Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done by Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton (2017)

Finishing School

Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done
by Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton
Tarcher Perigee, 2017

The title of this book grabbed me immediately. Of course I have a writing project that I can’t seem to get done. I’ve had this idea bouncing around my head since I was a junior in high school, over twenty years ago. I’ve started it several times, and I have finished one version of it, but it didn’t feel right and I have (in my mind) tinkered with it more and more. But here’s the rub: I haven’t touched it in nearly three years. Do I want to finish it? Absolutely. Do I know how to do that? Absolutely not.

This is where Finishing School comes in. Cary Tennis, the creator of the concept, and Danelle Morton, one of his first Finishing School pupils, do not tell you how to write your book, but how to finish it. This isn’t a typical writing book. There is nothing said about characterization or plot or point of view or voice. It’s all about getting it done. Quantity over quality (because quality comes after quantity is achieved). Tennis notes that regret often comes from failure to try. He writes, “It doesn’t hurt so much if you tried and failed. It does not weigh so heavily on the conscience. But failure to try can really haunt you. So try, at least.”

The authors begin by addressing “The Six Emotional Pitfalls” which cause many aspiring writers to simply give up, and how to acknowledge those struggles and move past them as you do your work. Again, Finishing School is not about how to make your writing better, but simply how to finish it. After addressing the emotional obstacles many writers face, Tennis and Morton explain the concept and execution of Finishing School, and how it differs from traditional writing groups. “The issue we tackle is not the is not the quality of the work on any given Tuesday but the habit of writing….Finishing School’s sole focus is the steady application of time to the craft, every week reinforcing the qualities and habits necessary to one day saying that you are done.”

Time management plays a major role in the program. The aspiring writer has to state clear goals and set aside a sufficient amount of time to accomplish them during the week. Some will commit more time than others, but if one is not willing to carve out a slice of the clock for writing, is there really any commitment present? This has been a major problem for me, and Finishing School has encouraged me to take an honest look at both my writing and my desire to write.

Tennis and Morton also teach the reader how to create a Finishing School with other local writers, either one-on-one or a group. The authors finish their book with a section titled, “Finishing,” including a look at John Steinbeck’s self-torture while he wrote the classic, The Grapes of Wrath. Every author, no matter how accomplished, faces similar emotional pitfalls. But one thing is certain: “If finishing this project is something you really want to do, you have to go after it with everything you have within you.”

More of a motivational book than a “how to write” book, Finishing School just might give you the push you need to get back into that long-neglected novel/screenplay/poetry/short story anthology/whatever-project-you-have-not-looked-at-in-years. Before reading Finishing School, I last looked at my draft almost three years ago. Now I am looking at my calendar to determine the best time for me to tackle it again.

Learn more about Tarcher Perigee.

Purchase Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done by Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton.

King Kobra Thrill of a Lifetime (remastered 2017)

king kobra

King Kobra
Thrill of a Lifetime
Collector’s Edition Remastered & Reloaded
Rock Candy Records, 2017

Everything that King Kobra did right on their debut, they did wrong on their follow-up, at least for the first half of the record. Capitol Records pressured them for a more radio-friendly sound, claiming the debut was too heavy. Carmine Appice and the band acquiesced to the label’s demands and delivered Thrill of a Lifetime in 1986, an album half-filled with lackluster, synthesizer-heavy pop rock songs.

The first five songs, including the Russ Ballard-penned “Dream On,” are easily skippable. Even the theme song for the awesome Iron Eagle movie, if divorced from the movie, is a ho-hum AOR affair. The song is good when considered alongside other movie anthems of the 1980s, but when measured up against King Kobra’s own material, especially the first album, it falls short. Of course, the label decided to release “Dream On” and “Iron Eagle (Never Say Die)” as singles.

Guitarist David Michael-Philips revealed that eighty percent of the record was recorded using drum machines, despite Appice’s reputation “as one of the best drummers in the world.” Appice was only “fully involved” on three songs: “Raise Your Hands to Rock,” “Party Animal,” and “This Raging Fire,” which was only included on the record as it was released in France, and is not included on this remastered version.

“Home Street Home” is an interesting rock/rap hybrid, and is a fun listen, but doesn’t hold up very well over the past thirty years. “Overnight Sensation,” despite using the drum machine, is more of a rocker and would have fit in well on Ready To Strike. “Raise Your Hands to Rock” and “Party Animal” are also hard rockers that help the album finish strong. A bonus track, “Home Street Home (Street Mix)” is also included, and again is interesting but does not add much to the final product.

The remastered compact disc comes with a 16-page booklet, featuring a 4000-word essay on the recording of the album and the demise of the original King Kobra after Thrill of a Lifetime was released.

1. Second Time Around
2. Dream On
3. Feel the Heat
4. Thrill of a Lifetime
5. Only the Strong Will Survive
6. Iron Eagle (Never Say Die)
7. Home Street Home
8. Overnight Sensation
9. Raise Your Hands to Rock
10. Party Animal
11. Home Street Home (Street Mix) [bonus track]

King Kobra
Mark Free (lead & backing vocals)
David Michael-Philips (lead & rhythm guitar/backing vocals/guitar synthesizer)
Mick Sweda (lead & rhythm guitar/backing vocals/guitar synthesizer)
Johnny Rod (bass guitar/backing vocals)
Carmine Appice (drums/electric & acoustic percussion/backing vocals)

Purchase King Kobra’s Thrill of a Lifetime Collector’s Edition Remastered & Reloaded.

King Kobra Ready To Strike (remastered, 2017)

King Kobra

King Kobra
Ready To Strike
Collector’s Edition Remastered & Reloaded
Rock Candy Records, 2017

Capitol Records initially released King Kobra’s debut album, Ready To Strike, in 1985. Dark-haired drummer extraordinaire Carmine Appice recruited a handful of blonde musicians to join him after he was fired from Ozzy Osbourne’s band. He liked the appearance of Mötley Crüe, with one blonde-haired and three dark-haired members, and wanted to do the opposite with his band. Spencer Proffer, the producer of Quiet Riot’s Metal Health, produced King Kobra’s debut album at his Pasha Music House.

The record is full of hard rockers, from the title track to the ear-wormy “Breakin’ Out.” The only single released from the album was “Hunger,” a song written by Kick Axe and later recorded by them and released on The Transformers: The Movie soundtrack under the name Spectre General. Before King Kobra was fully formed, the song was shopped to Black Sabbath as well, when Ron Keel was auditioning for the band. That fell through, and so did a Sabbath version of “Hunger.” King Kobra also recorded another song written by Kick Axe, “Piece of the Rock,” at the urging of Proffer.

This remastered compact disc by Rock Candy Records comes with a 16-page booklet, complete with a newly-written 4000-word essay by Malcolm Dome which recounts the formation of the band and the recording of the album, along with the difficulties King Kobra had with the record label and the lack of promotion from Capitol Records. Also included in the booklet are several full-color photographs of the band, both promotional shots as well as concert photos.

King Kobra’s debut album is right up your alley if you enjoy bands like Ratt and early Mötley Crüe. After just a few listens, you’ll be raisin’ your fists to the power chords and singing along to this long-overlooked band.

1. Ready to Strike
2. Hunger
3. Shadow Rider
4. Shake Up
5. Attention
6. Breakin’ out
7. Tough Guys
8. Dancing with Desire
9. Second Thoughts
10. Piece of the Rock

King Kobra is:
Mark Free (lead & backing vocals)
David Michael-Philips (lead & rhythm guitar/backing vocals/guitar synthesizer)
Mick Sweda (lead & rhythm guitar/backing vocals/guitar synthesizer)
Johnny Rod (bass guitar/backing vocals)
Carmine Appice (drums/electric & acoustic percussion/backing vocals)

Purchase King Kobra’s Ready To Strike Collector’s Edition Remastered & Reloaded.

Monkeys With Typewriters by Scarlett Thomas (2017)

Monkeys with Typewriters

Monkeys With Typewriters
by Scarlett Thomas
Soft Skull Press, 2017

Dissatisfied with telling her creative students to “just write,” author Scarlett Thomas attempted to teach the deeper topics of literary theory to help them write better. She began lecturing on these deeper topics, and over time discovered that she had enough material for a book on writing. Monkeys With Typewriters: How to Write Fiction and Unlock the Secret Power of Stories is an excellent look at both the theory and practice of storytelling.

Thomas begins by examining a variety of literary works as well as Hollywood storylines, from Plato to Aristotle, Pride and Prejudice to Great Expectations, The Matrix to Toy Story. After reviewing numerous examples, Thomas summarizes the eight basic plots found in literature before launching into the “practice” portion of her book. She introduces the concept of using matrices in planning a novel, including categories that utilize what you know, what you think, and where you live, among others. She includes a blank matrix with further questions that the aspiring novelist can use to develop their own characters and worlds.

After discussing the value of the matrix, Thomas delves into styles of narration and the choices beyond first and third person, characterization and the importance of loving all your characters, and the value of writing good sentences, an area I continue to struggle with in my own writing. In the final chapter of the “practice” section, the author encourages the reader to become an author, to write a novel, to actually put into practice what they have just read. She offers a number of tips on note taking and brainstorming, drafting, and even offers a checklist of questions to ask yourself about your work.

Perhaps the most interesting and important question is this: “If the only copy of my novel was stranded on the top of a mountain, would I go up to rescue it?” The depth of that questions hits hard, but if you have poured your heart and soul into your creation, how could you possibly answer, “No”?

For those who cannot shake the desire to write, Monkeys With Typewriters might just give you the motivation, encouragement, and guidance you need to start tapping those keys.

Purchase Monkeys With Typewriters by Scarlett Thomas.

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