Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
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Friday, September 10, 2021

comfortably nullAfter much anticipation, I tore through Bret Easton Ellis’ “Imperial Bedrooms”, the sequel to his very first novel, “Less Than Zero”.

Then, I read through it a second time, at a more languid pace.

Sure enough, I came away with the same feeling both times upon story conclusion: I wanted to throw up. But in a good way.

So, job well done, Mr. Ellis.

Actually, not so well done. I realize that there are impossible expectations in following up an iconic work like “Zero”, but still, “Bedrooms” has a distinctly incomplete feel to it. It’s generally a stripped-down narrative, mostly devoid of Ellis’ typical descriptive depth.

And portions of it seem disjointed, especially the opening convention: That the “Zero” book and movie were fictional constructs, based on the “real” Clay and his cohorts. It would have been an interesting premise, yet Ellis largely abandons it as soon as it’s introduced. What replaces it is a lot less satisfying: Clay’s obsession with a manipulative would-be starlet, which doesn’t feel authentic enough to motivate the book’s subsequent events.

Still, the author’s imprimatur is still present. A sense of dread hangs over the story as Clay’s true nature is revealed. His self-confessional in the book’s final paragraph brings it home, and makes clear that the boy from “Zero” grew up into a twisted cipher (not-so-subtly underlined by his lack of a last name, whereas other returning characters had acquired theirs).

There’s plenty here to satisfy fans of the original, right down to the “moving the game as you play it” veiled reference (from the opening pop cultural song lyric in “Zero”). “Bedrooms” is a welcome revisit to a terrain that you wish you could avoid, but have to explore despite your better judgment.

by Costa Tsiokos, Fri 09/10/2021 10:47am
Category: Book Review, Pop Culture
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Tuesday, June 15, 2021

zero plus oneOne year after I learned about it, today was the release date for Bret Easton Ellis‘ latest opus, “Imperial Bedrooms”. It’s nothing less than a direct sequel to his groundbreaking debut novel, “Less Than Zero”.

And I scooped it up first thing this morning. Via the Amazon Kindle app for iPhone. This would be my very first ebook purchase (not counting a couple of freebie titles that I downloaded, mainly just to practice reading on the iPhone screen).

Why did I inaugurate my digital-literature collection with this title? One reason is that I’ve been craving a must-read book for a long while now. Nothing else I’ve come across in the past several months has come close to engaging me. Ellis’ body of work certainly delivers for me, so I gladly committed to a pre-order for his newest output. A revisiting of the nihilism of “Zero” is just the ticket.

The other reason is that, frankly, I resent having to shell out an inflated pricetag for a hardcover edition. Because I hate hardcovers. I vastly prefer paperback/softcover formats, sheerly for their easier portability and handling. I understand how the book publishing business works, and how the hardbacks generate the lion’s share of revenue. But I still don’t like it. So the opportunity to pick up the ebook edition, at a steep discount, was too good to pass up. My only reticence came with my level of comfort in reading a bona fide novel on a mobile device’s small screen; turns out that the Kindle app is a good reading medium. So, I’m set.

I’ve already knocked down the first couple of chapters (I’ve no illusions about stretching out this read — I fully expect to devour it within the week). It’s already immensely entertaining, with Ellis’ spare elegance providing a compelling narrative. Clay, Julian, Blair, et al are definitely being set up for a wild ride in the onset of their middle age, some 25 years after the events in “Zero”. One immediate distinction between then and now: Seemingly all those characters now have last names, implying that they’ve grown up to be more “real”.

Finally, it’s imminently appropriate that I’m reading “Imperial Bedrooms” on an iPhone. Because the ebook is sharing space with my Elvis Costello songs. The connection, of course, is Ellis’ seeming obsession with Costello’s oeuvre — to the extent that he named “Less Than Zero” and “Imperial Bedrooms” after a song and an album by the musician. Technology happily melds popular culture in the palm of my hand…

by Costa Tsiokos, Tue 06/15/2010 11:36pm
Category: Book Review, Pop Culture, Tech, iPhone
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Friday, August 14, 2021

Recently I was sent a review copy of Laurie Sandell’s “The Impostor’s Daughter: A True Memoir”. This book is published by Little, Brown and Company, which is an imprint of Hachette Book Group; and although I’ve had an arrangement with Hachette to blog-review some of their books, I actually received “Impostor’s” outside of that relationship — in fact, I got it via a Twitter giveaway by @littlebrown.

I asked for the book without knowing anything about the author or the subject matter. When I later dug into the publisher’s marketing copy, I got the impression that “Impostor’s” was a woman’s coming-of-age story blended with family history intrigue — basically, nothing that I’d be too interested in. To my chagrin, I regretted my request, and even messaged back about whether or not I was really required to do a writeup (no, I found out).

After that, I dug a little deeper. On its Amazon page, I found out a detail that had been neglected elsewhere: “The Impostor’s Daughter” was a graphic novel! That’s right, a comic book wrapped in a hardcover package. That changed everything for me — even though the subject matter wasn’t my cup of tea, at least it would be presented in a format that was near and dear to my heart, and thus lend itself to readability.

Sure enough, when I got my hands on the review copy, I was instantly engaged by Sandell’s cartoony drawing style and crisp writing, and I got an enjoyable read out of it. Since I’m not required to do a full-blown review of “The Impostor’s Daughter”, I’m not going to. I will give it a thumbs-up overall, because Sandell presents a highly personal story centering upon her mysterious father’s impact on her identity, and that theme definitely drew me in. She executes it quite well, despite an over-reliance upon caption-delivered narrative and a somewhat disjointed closing stretch.

But beyond the book’s contents, my thoughts come back to how Little, Brown is positioning it. Just why aren’t they promoting the fact that “The Impostor’s Daughter” is, indeed, a graphic novel? It’s practically disguised as a regular text nonfiction, from the provided editorial reviews right down to the book’s physical dimensions. Ultimately the subject matter and genre count for more than the format, but knowing if a book is a standard text edition or a graphic novel is a major detail.

My guess is that the publisher is purposely avoiding the graphic-novel label for “The Impostor’s Daughter”. Little, Brown is targeting the standard women’s memoir-reading audience with this book, and those readers might not be amenable to an upscale comic book, despite the familiar literary terrain. Once the book is cracked open, the mystery ends — but before that, copies will be stocked, displayed, and categorized alongside other non-graphical titles so that “Impostor’s” is easily accessible to the target audience. It’s all in the product-positioning and marketing.

by Costa Tsiokos, Fri 08/14/2009 05:48pm
Category: Advert./Mktg., Book Review, Creative, Women
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Monday, August 10, 2021

Duly noted: In this week’s book section, USA Today paired up back-to-back reviews of Chris Anderson’s “Free: The Future of a Radical Price” and Ellen Ruppel Shell’s “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture”.

What’s more, both reviews were written by freelance writers, instead of newspaper staffers. Editorial synergy all around, then. Well done.

by Costa Tsiokos, Mon 08/10/2021 01:59pm
Category: Book Review, Business, Creative
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Wednesday, June 10, 2021

On the strength of my blog mention of the author back in December, Brooklyn’s own Soft Skull Press tapped me to do a brief review of Michael Muhammad Knight‘s new novel, “Osama Van Halen”. Thanks to publicity assistant Carrie Dieringer for reaching out and sending me the review copy.

“Osama Van Halen” is presented as a follow-up to Knight’s debut effort, “The Taqwacores”. While the themes and attitude regarding identity crisis for young Westernized Muslims are prominent in the new book, Knight goes a step further with a strong autobiographical angle: The real heart of “Osama” delves into the author’s struggles to reconcile his own feelings as a convert to Islam, on both the cultural and ethnic levels. There’s no attempt to mask this aim, as Knight injects himself into the main narrative, integrally interacting with his fictional characters; again, this is a next-step move, since in “Taqwacores”, he created a conventional fictional character to stand-in for himself.

Inasmuch as this is Knight’s story, presenting it as an absurdist novel often comes across as unnecessary giftwrapping. As entertaining as the postmodern punk-rock landscape here is, with Muslim zombies and Qur’an-derived superpower-granting spells keeping things lively, Knight falls back often enough on undisguised personal memoir — in particular, with the “F. Scott Fitzgerald vs. Five Desi Girls” chapter — that the read becomes too bumpy. When Knight’s character is finally confronted over his inner conflicts, the dramatic sword-tipped resolution is almost expected, and the exchange with avenging angel Rabeya veers toward straw-man argument.

The individual chapters in “Osama” feel more like separate short stories, so I wonder if this book wasn’t strung together, with a grafted-on thin narrative, to achieve that. That’s definitely the case with the book’s marketing, which focuses solely upon a single, inconsequential subplot (a revenge-fantasy kidnapping of Matt Damon). If so, I think it would have worked better as a collection of shorts, interconnected only by appearances by Knight the character and Amazing Ayyub, his radical Job-like doppelganger. The flow would have been much less forced.

That said, Knight’s depiction of American Muslim youth culture is pretty compelling. The melding of pop-rock-punk subculture with tradition-rooted religion plays out in an enlightening way. Knight’s actually at his best when he taps into this raw scene and reveals it, complete with contradictions and compromises. Even the fantasy magical-realism sequences centered around Amazing Ayyub play out pretty strongly when they’re allowed to fully take over the narrative.

I found myself being reminded of Jonathan Lethem, in terms of voice, while reading “Osama”. In particular, I detected some parallels with Lethem’s “The Fortress of Solitude”, at least in the recollection of childhood and spiritual development. Maybe it was also the superpowers featured in both books — along with invisibility, Knight throws in a mention of human flight, which may or may not be a veiled reference to plot elements from “Solitude”.

And of course, I have to take note of the New York State backdrop for much of “Osama”. While the setting is far-flung Buffalo (the same as Knight’s real-world home base), there’s a semi-cryptic mention of my own upstate hometown, Newburgh, toward the end. That’s all the more jarring considering the recent “Newburgh Four” synagogue-bombing terror plot, and Knight’s own afterword addressing another, unsettling life-imitates-art event from this book.

Overall, “Osama” is a raucous read, with an energy that overcomes a questionable plot structure. The author has plenty to say, and even if he felt the need to divide it between himself and a fictionalized version of himself, it’s worth taking all in.

by Costa Tsiokos, Wed 06/10/2021 12:12pm
Category: Book Review, New Yorkin', Pop Culture, Society
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Thursday, April 16, 2021

Recently Hachette Book Group provided me with an advance review copy of “The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection” by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, a historical nonfiction hardcover due to be released on April 27th. Thanks go to Valerie Russo for sending me the book. Below is my review.

“Crimes” is an expansive look at the evolution of French society from the mid-19th Century to the end of the Belle Époque, with particular focus upon the shifting mores in Paris toward authority and class structures. The culture of lawlessness during this period, and the state’s ongoing attempts to quell new breeds of criminals, get special attention throughout. The Hooblers offer up several examples of sensationalist crimes from this period that foreshadow 20th- and 21st-Century standards: The first bank-robbery getaway car, mentally-deranged serial killers, public-spectacle crimes of passion, etc. Accompanying this luridness is the counterbalance of the development of professionalized police detective methods that pioneered modern crime-solving, with legendary figures like Alphonse Bertillon and Francois-Eugene Vidocq showcasing France’s contribution to worldwide law enforcement methodology.

The husband-and-wife authors dedicated a lot of research to this broad sketch of France’s sociopolitical climate. Unfortunately, they felt the need to fixate their study around a single noteworthy event: The 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. That crime did indeed take on epic proportions in its day, but the Hooblers try to position it as a culmination of the previous half-century of French societal criminality.

Frankly, it’s a strained argument, especially when the details and background of the theft’s mastermind are revealed. Using the Mona Lisa as the centerpiece to this historical narrative smacks of an attempt to locate a center of gravity for what can otherwise be a too-tangential collection of episodes: Everything from the Dreyfus Affair, to Sherlock Holmes, to the prevailing popular penny-dreadfuls are tossed in as background. Even the name-dropping of Pablo Picasso as a onetime suspect in the Mona Lisa heist comes off as gratuitous.

I suspect the motivation for this structuring was driven by marketing concerns more than anything else. The promotional copy is concentrated upon the Mona Lisa angle, giving the impression that the bulk of the content would be about this single crime (“crime” singular, unlike the book’s title). That extends to the book’s physical presentation: When I showed a colleague the jacket cover, she instantly thought it looked like a novel, and was surprised when I told her that it was actually a nonfiction. This is all calculated to draw in readers, but I’m thinking it’ll result in considerable disappointment among the mis-targeted audience.

Approach “Crimes” as a collection of true-crime vignettes, and you’ll find the read rewarding. Look at it as a famous-painting thriller, and you’ll feel short-changed. And consider yourself lucky to have that choice.

by Costa Tsiokos, Thu 04/16/2009 12:49pm
Category: Book Review, History, True Crime
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Wednesday, November 26, 2021

flyMy book-reviewing arrangement with Hachette has spurred a trickle of interest in my reading-for-hire services. The compensation ain’t much — with Hachette, it’s nothing more than the free reading material, and even the paying gigs (which haven’t appeared on this blog) are far from lucrative. But there are worse ways to occupy my time.

One of the review requests I’ve gotten in the past month was from Andrew King, who’s written “Website Optimization: Speed, Search Engine & Conversion Rate Secrets” (with companion supplemental website, of course). The book is part of O’Reilly Media‘s popular ongoing series of tech how-to guides.

Why me? I can only assume Andy is looking for the Google-juice that will accrue from linkage for the book on this blog; it can’t be because he thinks I actually know what I’m talking about when I post on Web-media topics! But a free book is a free book, so I’ll throw in my two cents, for in-kind purposes only (assuming I ever write a book of my own).

“WSO” is predictably dense with under-the-hood info concerning the care and feeding of traffic-drawing websites. O’Reilly books are renowned as reference guides, and there are enough applied examples of CSS, metadata, and AJAX implementations (an entire chapter on that last topic) to make any programmer’s head spin. Since all these invocations are aimed solely at optimization efforts, they’re not particularly in-depth — but then, they aren’t meant to be. The task-specific focus is key, because it avoids the typical bogging-down that more comprehensive code guides deliver. Since it’s presumed that all you need is the nuts-and-bolts architecture to make a website (particular emphasis on ecommerce sites) a traffic- and revenue-generating machine, the brevity is a definite plus.

Where “WSO” shines is in the more non-tech sections, specifically on Web content and layout. King draws on loads of academic and market research knowledge to illustrate why the proper configuration of HTML, professional-level copywriting, and polished design is essential to effective optimization. A lot of SEO advice gives surface-level consideration to competent digital-content communication, when often it does little more than offer up keyword-gaming tricks for achieving prominent search-ranking placement. “WSO” doesn’t devolve into that sort of shortcut-seeking — it offers up solid marketing techniques for generating genuine Web media relevance (whatever “relevance” is supposed to mean in Googlespeak ;) ).

This guide’s not perfect. My main quibbles are with what I feel to be too much emphasis on the care and feeding of [meta] tags, which in my mind have been abused beyond credible redemption in the search-optimization field. And while the language throughout is informed and accessible without the need to know insider jargon, I think the discussion on paid-search (AdWords, etc.) keyword selection could have done with a bit more de-mystification of the process.

But overall, this is a great resource for building or enhancing a website from the ground up. “WSO” is a serious guide for serious Web development, and is worth the bookshelf space if you work in Web media.

PS: That signature O’Reilly colophon-animal on the cover of this book? It’s the common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor). No, I don’t know what it has to do with website optimization, either. But it does look cool.

by Costa Tsiokos, Wed 11/26/2008 12:19pm
Category: Advert./Mktg., Book Review, Internet
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Monday, November 24, 2021

yours, mine, oursMy visit last month with Hachette Book Group‘s Kelly Leonard continues to pay back — in reading material. In addition to the two books that Kelly herself gave for my review, her associate Miriam Parker sent along an additional new release. Below is my review for that one-more, Maria Semple’s “This One Is Mine”.

That Maria Semple‘s first novel should concern itself with the vicissitudes of life in Los Angeles isn’t surprising, given that she’s spent a good chunk of her life there. Semple is a self-described refugee from Hollywood, having left behind an established rĂ©sumĂ© in television writing in favor of family life in the Pacific Northwest.

That desire for escape resonates among the characters in “This One Is Mine”: Escape from a loveless marriage, unfulfilled expectations, and self-destructive tendencies. Portraits of sad, damaged people set against a sparkling Southern California backdrop is familiar territory; Semple makes this story fresh and enlivening with her unique voice and brilliant pacing. However much personal experience she’s imbued into this book — and, just from comparing her prose with her abbreviated bio, it seems like a lot — she’s used it to provide a healthy dose of authenticity that balances an overall tragi-comic tone.

“Mine” centers mainly around Violet Parry, a burned-out new mother and former TV writer (essentially Semple’s fictional doppelganger). She’s in an advanced stage of post-postpartum depression, struggling with LA-allergic physical imperfections to go along with a void that a near-perfect child and lap-of-luxury lifestyle can’t fill. Eschewing better opportunities to rejuvenate herself, she latches onto an irrationally obsessive affair with Teddy Reyes, a down-and-out junkie musician. Violet’s determination to sabotage her marriage drives the story, keeping things delightfully off-balance as things unfold.

Violet is far from the only wounded animal inhabiting this landscape. Her husband, David, copes with his wild mood swings in reaction to his wife’s increasingly aberrant behavior, along with his personal weariness over a lifelong burden of responsibilities. His sister, Sally, provides a parallel narrative, as she strives for marriage, social-climbing, and a desire to emerge from David’s protective shadow. Thrown in for the ride are a conniving ex-boyfriend, an undiagnosed Asperger’s savant, yoga groupies, and a fake Kennedy — all, in one way or another, looking for liberation from their circumstances, with mixed (but entertaining) results.

Semple manages to capture the quirkiness of a modest cross-section of Los Angelenos without succumbing to outright farce. Even some of the more outlandish plot turns — especially Violet’s persistent relationship with Teddy — stay grounded thanks to the author’s deft intertwining of each character’s storylines into a tight, satisfying whole. If anything, I would have liked some of the subplots to have been expanded a bit, even if this would have sacrificed the brisk pace… Or maybe I simply wanted to keep on reading.

For a rookie, Semple has this beat down cold. “This One Is Mine” is an impressive telling of urban alienation, with a dark undertone tempered by fittingly improbable resolutions.

by Costa Tsiokos, Mon 11/24/2008 12:17pm
Category: Book Review
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Wednesday, November 12, 2021

Last month, I received a couple of review copies of Hachette Book Group‘s latest book releases, courtesy of Hachette online marketing director Kelly Leonard. Last week, I reviewed the first book, Brad Meltzer’s “The Book of Lies”. Below is my review for the second book of the two books Kelly provided me, Robert J. Mrazek’s “A Dawn Like Thunder: The True Story of Torpedo Squadron Eight”:

While I’m an enthusiastic student of history, I’ve stated in this space before that I don’t find the deep-drilled nuts-and-bolts behind historic events particularly interesting. This is especially the case when it comes to military history: The details behind troop configurations, armament employments, etc. that so fascinates fans of this field of study frankly bores me to tears. I appreciate the information, but I prefer to read about the broader strategic actions and consequences that shaped the past (and present).

With that, “Dawn Like Thunder” isn’t exactly targeted at me. The book chronicles the formation and experiences of the 35 soldiers who made up Torpedo Squadron Eight. This U.S. Navy fighter pilot squad saw some of the heaviest air warfare in World War II’s Pacific Theater, including pivotal action in the battles of Midway and Guadalcanal. By its nature, this account boils down the greater epoch of a world war into the microcosm of a handful of individuals and their families.

I appreciate this approach to humanize history, and it’s certainly got a long track record. But given my bias, “Thunder” would have to present its story in a particularly compelling way for me to not get bogged down in what I consider to be excruciating minutiae.

Unfortunately, author Mrazek doesn’t do this. He provides a good deal of lifestory background on the men of the Torpedo Eight, making good use of the well-documented research he did (including extensive personal interviews with survivors and their families). But even with the amount of verbiage devoted to them, I never felt any of the principle players come alive in this retelling. Despite portrayals that pointed out their different hometowns, backgrounds, and personalities, Mrazek does a poor job of truly distinguishing the individuals from one another — this guy was pretty much like this other guy, give or take a few years on the birthday and/or some minor quirk.

The failure of the character portraits to captivate has a domino effect: If you don’t particularly care about a particular name, you won’t particularly care about what happens to him later. This doesn’t detract from these men’s true-life stories — the failure lies in this book’s storytelling. But it does make the resulting read through the naval battles and island-hopping campaigns rather laborious. The requisite amount of spec information on aircraft, warships, and weaponry is sprinkled throughout, and while it’s not overdone, the lack of a stronger supporting narrative made those passages that much more tedious.

While reading “Thunder”, I had the unrelated opportunity to read through most of Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation”. Comparing the two books isn’t my intent, as they deal with different aspects of the same era. But I did find myself wishing that “Thunder” featured a flow and general readability like “Generation”: More engaging and memorable by a longshot. Which leads me, again, to wonder how “Thunder’s” story would have related with someone else writing it. Only in the epilogues describing the Torpedo Eight’s post-war lives did Mrazek approach this level of engagement.

If you can get past these shortcomings, “Thunder” serves well as a typical account of a band-of-brothers wartime testament. It’s certainly well-researched, both on the personal level and in the larger brushstrokes of battle history. If only the stories that were intended to enliven this historical record had been more compelling, it would have been a worthwhile read.

by Costa Tsiokos, Wed 11/12/2021 12:39pm
Category: Book Review, History
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Monday, November 03, 2021

Last month, I received a couple of review copies of Hachette Book Group‘s latest book releases, courtesy of Hachette online marketing director Kelly Leonard. Below is the first review I’m posting, for Brad Meltzer’s “The Book of Liesâ€?:

Author Brad Meltzer obviously invested a lot of research and creative energy into “Book of Lies”, all of which amounted to a fictional tribute to the Golden Age Superman and his primary creator, Jerry Siegel. Considering my own past affection for the superhero genre, I really wanted to enjoy this book, especially since it piqued my curiosity based on its indirect Batman reference (I’ve always preferred Batman over Superman as far as DC characters go).

Unfortunately, I can’t say that Meltzer successfully pulled this one off.

The basic plot is Superman meets “The Da Vinci Code”. The story centers around Calvin Harper, a psychologically-scarred misanthrope who stumbles upon his long-lost father, Lloyd, one night. Calvin and Lloyd have a strained relationship, which provides the tension as Calvin gets sucked into a fairly convoluted Biblical-origined mystery involving contraband clues, rogue cops, and secret societies. Intertwined with the action is a (largely fictional) piecing-together of Jerry Siegel’s family background, with a history of Siegel’s father meant to parallel Calvin’s relationship with his own father.

(Subtle meta-reference: Calvin, preferring to be called “Cal”, refers to his father by his first name, Lloyd; pair those together and you get “Cal-L”, which translates to Kal-El, Superman/Clark Kent’s Kryptonian name. Just throwing that out there.)

The plot is intricate enough, and while it’s probably par for the course for a historical thriller, it simply doesn’t hold up. Far too many pivotal points where the protagonists are in a jam are resolved through circumstances that really strain credulity; for instance, the apocryphal story about what young Siegel was looking at outside his window in the year 1930-something becomes a key clue in advancing the story. Even the pay-off in the revelation of the story’s arch-villains — both the immediate mastermind menace known as The Prophet, and the too-familiar early 20th Century group of kooks that provide the backstory — ultimately disappoints.

The character development is uneven at best. Calvin is credible enough as the primary narrative voice throughout the story, although the tortured-soul angle grates after a while. But the other figures veer from little more than window dressing to necessary plot devices. In particular, Meltzer lavishes a lot of attention upon the main bad guy, Ellis, only to have him improbably devolve into a nearly inconsequential straw-man menace — a lot of build-up for nothing.

The killing stroke is the dialogue, which is nothing short of clunky. As I alluded, Meltzer had a ton of background material to weave into this story: Everything from the mystery cult speculations of the true story of Cain and Abel (the crux of the narrative drive in “Lies”) to the history of Cleveland (home of Jerry Siegel). Unfortunately, he (and his editors) didn’t find an elegant enough way to express it, resulting in a lot of overwrought speechifying by various characters. As interesting as those pieces of information were, they simply didn’t flow into the story’s pace in a realistic way.

All told, “Lies” is a valiant labor of love. The crafting of an involved narrative around the father of superhero comics is worthy of admiration from Michael Chabon, of “Kavalier & Clay” fame. I imagine that for fans of the thriller genre, it’s got enough key elements to make it work. And it’s certainly a fast-paced read. But the premise is not probable enough, nor sufficiently developed, to make it a satisfactory work of fiction.

- - - - -
That’s my view of it! Hopefully, I won’t be included in any follow-up to Meltzer’s round-up of critical commentary for this book (not that I’m a big enough fish to merit any such attention):

by Costa Tsiokos, Mon 11/03/2021 12:48pm
Category: Book Review, Pop Culture
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Monday, October 06, 2021

A few weeks ago, I got an out-of-the-blue email from Kelly Leonard, the executive director of online marketing at Hachette Book Group USA. The last time I had contact with Kelly was when I interviewed her about blog-based marketing efforts in the book publishing biz, way back in ’04.

A lot had changed since then, including Kelly’s publishing house changing hands from Time Warner to Hachette Filipacchi, and my own relocation from Florida to New York. Since we were both in the same neighborhood (generally speaking) now, I offered to come visit her in her offices in Midtown.

And so I did. I thanked her for the time she spent with me, outlining the intensive online efforts she’d undertaking these days as the book promotional game shifts more and more toward Web and user-generated channels. Blogs are a big part of Hachette’s outreach for title exposure, as are a whole bunch of Twitter trails for the publisher’s various imprints. Fascinating to see the strategy evolve, especially as more and more authors buy into the online component of book publishing, including the use of dedicated websites as story supplements.

As an added bonus, I got a bird’s-eye view of the shelf-full of trinket toys Kelly has displayed in her office, including a load of obscure PEZ dispensers (more notable for having been manufactured in some now-defunct Eastern European countries!).

We didn’t go into too much detail on whether or not I would be working for Kelly at some point; I certainly would like to expand my publishing track record by getting into the book biz. If this does come to pass, rest assured I’ll be referring to the experience in the punny-est way possible: As a “Hachette job”.

Anyway, it could hardly have been a complete visit without me coming away with some literary spoils, in the form of review copies of a couple of Hachette’s latest releases. To wit:

Brad Meltzer’s “The Book of Lies” is a current-release Biblical historical thriller that I’d taken note of because of its Superman connection. I practically requested this one from Kelly, in fact, because I was so intrigued by the backstory. I’m partway into it, and while it’s more thriller-ish than I care for, it’s intriguing enough, and a quick read. The cinematically-styled trailer is a prime example of current video promotional techniques in the publishing world.

Robert J. Mrazek’s “A Dawn Like Thunder” is a sneak-peek read for me, as it’s not scheduled to drop until December. This one is historical non-fiction, about Torpedo Squadron Eight, a World War II flying band of brothers who provided key aerial support in Pacific Theater battles at Midway and Guadalcanal. This feeds my interest in history, although in an area where I don’t delve into too deeply.

I plan to post reviews of both tomes in the near future, with “Lies” coming first. Always good when a meet-and-greet nets reading material.

by Costa Tsiokos, Mon 10/06/2021 01:16pm
Category: Book Review, Business, Internet, Social Media Online
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Monday, June 09, 2021

There’s a good deal to like about Dana Vachon’s “Mergers & Acquisitions”, a sort of 21st-Century blend of Bret Easton Ellis’ and Jay McInerney’s seminal ’80s novels.

One of the more minor touches, but still worthy of notice, are the character names Vachon assigns to a group of haughty Latin American bankers who share an “unfortunate love of monogramming” (meaning pay attention to those initials):

- Manuel Oliveira Rodrigo Orjuela de Navarro

- HĂ©ctor Esteban RaĂşl PadrĂłn Enrique de Stefano

- Carlos Ungaro Núñez de Talarico

- Antonio Suárez Sánchez

Try sporting one of those monograms on your dress-shirt cuffs. Chalk it up to the cultural baggage that comes with the unique paternal-maternal structure of Spanish surnames.

by Costa Tsiokos, Mon 06/09/2021 10:23pm
Category: Book Review, Comedy
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Tuesday, April 29, 2021

There’s no ambiguity about the inspiration for Tyler Knox’s “Kockroach: A Novel”, as the book’s opening line should tell you:

As Kockroach, an arthropod of the genus Blatella and of the species germanica, awakens one morning from a typically dreamless sleep, he finds himself transformed into some large, vile creature.

And if it doesn’t tell you, then I’ll let one Franz Kafka enlighten you, “Metamorphosis”-style:

One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.

I’m a sucker for such literary remixing, as my earlier reading of Joe McGinniss Jr.’s “The Delivery Man” as latter-day “Less Than Zero” attests. If nothing else, it shows off an author’s reverence for the writerly giants.

Notice the level of reversal that Knox imbues in his prose. Not only does he accomplish the bug-to-man change (that “large, vile creature” being a human), but he picks up on Kafka’s granting of “anxious dreams” to Gregor Samsa to, in turn, establish that Kockroach, being a cockroach, would be bereft of any dreaming at all prior to all this. Dealing with more active mental faculties becomes a key driver in Knox’s telling.

I only wish “Kockroach” had held up beyond its opening couple of chapters. A nice enough attempt at hardboiled comic noir, but ultimately a bit of a mess, with most of the characters (including, regrettably, the lead female, who also serves as one of the three narrators) being too underdeveloped to keep the story going. A transformation — in the form of another editorial proofing or two — could have done wonders.

by Costa Tsiokos, Tue 04/29/2008 12:19pm
Category: Book Review, Creative
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Thursday, January 17, 2021

To make it crystal-clear that Joe McGinniss Jr. is channeling Bret Easton Ellis’ “Less Than Zero” in his debut effort “The Delivery Man”, he starts off the novel with these three words:

Find Yourself Here

A literary echo of the signifier from “Zero”: Disappear Here. It sets the stage nicely for parallels between the moral nihilism of 1980s LA youth culture and the spiritual hollowness to be found among denizens of present-day Las Vegas.

I think “Delivery” did a pretty good job of conveying that, although ultimately it doesn’t paint as dire a picture as Ellis’ decadent landscape. The flashback-delivered backstory concerning the protagonist’s sister was all-too-obvious in informing the main characters’ motivations, and thus is probably the weakest part of the book. Otherwise though, I think it was a very good effort, and I enjoyed the read.

McGinniss’ hat-tip to Ellis isn’t surprising, since the two writers share an extensive common history, including mentorships and entrees into book publishing. So it’s only right that elements of his novel’s structure pay homage to Ellis’ iconic fiction.

Next step for McGinniss, of course: Getting his motto worked into a Brit-pop song. Only then will he have arrived.

by Costa Tsiokos, Thu 01/17/2008 08:11am
Category: Book Review, Pop Culture
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Sunday, September 02, 2021

Why pay for some hack’s multi-city junket when surfing the blogosphere is cheaper and more effective?

“If I had to choose, I’d rather have an author promote themselves online,� said Felicia Sullivan, the senior online marketing manager of Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins, who maintains that the Internet exposes authors to a broader audience than most bookstore readings.

“You can reach at least a few hundred people on a blog, and save time, money and the fear of being a loser when no one shows up to your reading.�

But what if no one leaves comments on your guest posts? That loser-fear is no harder to shake online than off.

by Costa Tsiokos, Sun 09/02/2021 09:56pm
Category: Book Review
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Friday, February 09, 2021

that's mister to youI’m on an oddball-lit kick of late. No sooner did I finish reading a collection of stories told by severed heads, than I picked up “Mr. Thundermug: A Novel”.

What’s so odd about this book, by first-time author Cornelius Medvei? The cover image here should give it away, but in case it’s not clear: The title character is a baboon, who moves his family into an abandoned house in some British neighborhood, then somehow learns how to speak perfectly-dictioned English.

I’d say that’s plenty to drive a comic novel.

I’m already halfway through it, and it’s a slim volume. It’s proving to be a breezy, absurdist read. Probably just what the doctor ordered for me, of late.

by Costa Tsiokos, Fri 02/09/2021 04:57pm
Category: Book Review
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Thursday, February 08, 2021

headstartI don’t suppose book publishing gets much more gimmicky than it does with Robert Olen Butler’s “Severance”.

The book is a collection of short stories. And I mean short — for a macabre reason:

Butler conceived of the idea after encountering a gruesome piece of trivia: that a human head is believed to continue in a state of consciousness for one and a half minutes after decapitation. Having then determined, from another source, that “in a heightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words per minute,� Butler arrived at a new — and unlikely to be replicated — art form, the vignette of the severed head, told in exactly 240 words.

Not that Butler limited himself to human heads. Among his subjects are a dinnertable-destined chicken, a dragon, Medusa, and the Lady of the Lake. Not sure they’re entitled to the same wordcount as us regular folk, but I’ll let it slide.

Unfortunately, it looks like he got some bum information on the first part of that creepy equation:

After decapitation, consciousness remains in the severed head not for a minute and a half, as your reviewer explains Butler’s premise, but for about 30 seconds. In 1905, a French physician timed how long the eyes responded when he called the decapitated man’s name…

To appreciate the full pathos of Butler’s subjects, readers may want to pause at the end of the first 80 words, when the thinking has to stop. Beyond that lies only the author’s hope.

Maybe that’s what I should have done when I tore through the book over the last couple of days; I could have completed it in one sitting instead. The book’s physical size wouldn’t have changed — as it is, each story is self-contained within a single page (plus a preceding section cover page).

I don’t mean to imply that “Severance” wasn’t entertaining. I thought the stories for the Biblical figures (the apostles Paul and Matthew, and John the Baptist) were excellent, as was the one for the Lady in the Lake. And the inclusion of Nicole Brown Simpson was sly, as was Butler putting himself on the chopping block (fictionally) for the finale. But I agree with the Times review: The stream-of-consciousness motif resulted in an overbearing sameness, especially toward the end. It didn’t help that the author overreached on a few, trying to shoehorn the narrative of what led to the character’s death into what should be final, frenzied contemplation.

For those interested, this all has a Sunshine State connection. Butler lives in Capps, Florida (which I’ve never heard of), and is a professor at Florida State University (which I have heard of). Figures that something this kooky would come out of the F-L-A.

by Costa Tsiokos, Thu 02/08/2021 11:51pm
Category: Book Review, Creative, Florida Livin'
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Sunday, November 19, 2021

Late last week, I had the pleasure of dining with my friend Tom, who made a one day/one night trip into New York on business. We had a decent Italian meal at Biricchino, which was a few steps down the street from his hotel.

While shooting the breeze over steak and lobster ravioli, Tom shared with me his new made-up word: “Manniving”. It’s a mash-up of “conniving” and “manipulative”, more or less. He found it a necessary linguistic invention to describe the evolving behavior of his precocious toddler of a daughter, who’s learning how to work her daddy for special favors like extra pieces of candy. Manniving joins “dramastic” — “dramatic” and “drastic” — as Tom’s unique contributions to the lexicon. Dramastic was born back during our college days; Tom’s been riding that word-coining as a mark of distinction among our social circle ever since. (And here I thought I was the group’s wordsmith…)

As it happens, Tom dropped his new word-stylin’ at the same time that I received a review copy of “Mixtionary”, a little humor book that contains about a hundred such hybrid words, accompanied by illustrations. And so the timing of my dinner with Tom was indeed fortuitous for me, because it underscored what I found to be both enjoyable about “Mixtionary” — and what was disappointing.

The book, released through IDW Publishing, is an attractively-bound mini-hardcover edition, ideally packaged and priced (at $9.99) for the giftbook market. It’s intended to be a breezy read, and Shawn McManus’ cartoon illustrations, accompanying every word definition, certainly help move you through the pages.

As for the invented words on those pages… The premise of this collection, as related by the authors, is that it’s the result of organic slang development, forged through emails and IMs to describe various modern-day situations for which old verbiage can’t do justice.

That’s a neat premise, but I don’t really buy it. Certainly, some of the catchier mix-words “feel” natural; but most of them feel wholly concocted to serve as filler material. If I had to guess, I’d say maybe 10-20 percent of the book’s content was born from genuinely spontaneous conversation; the rest was more likely cooked up just to get the book up to 100 pages. And of that rest, half is mildly amusing and potentially catchy, while the other half is just plain forced and unlikely to ever be used in common parlance.

Which words sing? I found “foodswings”, the inevitable mood swings suffered by people with blood sugar problems, to genuine. Others I found convincing were “mantiques” (vintage pop-cultural artifacts that grown men hang onto), “escape goat” (the fallguy/girl for a failed corporate concept), and “noclueitall” (someone who thinks s/he’s an expert despite obvious ignorance).

Which words seem contrived? “Dumposure”, describing one’s reaction to the end of a long-term relationship, doesn’t ring true. The brief Superlatives section — consisting of “elevenacious”, “excrucianine”, and “asiten” — especially smacks of cheap padding (especially since it’s not new; who hasn’t heard of a forehead so big that it’s a “fivehead”, for instance?). And the six — yes, six — variants on shoe-appreciation terms hint that one of the authors needs to cut back on the “Sex and the City” reruns.

I also found a couple of the words to be fine in concept, but awkwardly formed. Instead of “wronglomerate” for a corporate merger between two mismatched companies, why not “contraglomerate”? Same with “wronguist”, for someone with a penchant for mangling vocabulary — when “malinguist” works better.

All told, “Mixtionary” is a nice little piece of printed fluff, with definite creative potential behind it. But I don’t think there’s too much naturally trend-flowing about it, and comes across as trying too hard to be uber-hip. If I may be allowed a quick-and-dirty mashup of my own…

by Costa Tsiokos, Sun 11/19/2006 11:44pm
Category: Book Review, Wordsmithing
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Thursday, December 23, 2021

shiny happy
You do a couple of book reviews, and you get season’s greetings in return. Kelly Leonard and the gang at Time Warner Book Group sent me a nice holiday card based on artwork from Todd Parr’s “The Peace Book”. From the looks of it, it would make a cute book for young and old.

This card marks the very first piece of postal mail I’ve received addressed to “Population Statistic” (even the review books I got earlier this year didn’t include the blog’s title on the address label). Handwritten, no less. It gives me a funny feeling to see it in an offline context; it makes it more “real”, in a sense.

Take note: By singling out this holiday card, I’m not dissing all the other cards and letters I’ve received and will receive from friends and family. They all rule.

by Costa Tsiokos, Thu 12/23/2004 05:03pm
Category: Book Review, Creative
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Friday, December 17, 2021

One down, one to go. Courtesy of Time Warner Book Group, the following is my brief review of David Harris’ “The Crisis : The President, the Prophet, and the Shah — 1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam”.

By way of background, not only did I run a teaser for this review yesterday, but last month, I also made note of an interesting tidbit about Ayatollah Khomeini’s name.

The present-day War on Terror inspires an impulse to examine the roots of Islamic animosity toward Washington and its Mideast policy. The natural starting point: The 1979-80 Iranian Hostage Crisis, a flashpoint event that crystalized public attitudes on both sides ever since.

But how useful is the Crisis as a case study to be applied to today’s dynamic? The parallels seem obvious, taking into consideration the broad outlines. But is what happened during those 444 days a quarter-century ago as apparent as it seemed to the public eye?

Harris’ “The Crisis” examines the extensive behind-the-scenes machinations that led to the hostage-taking, the negotiations to free the captives, and the drawn-out resolution. Every step of the way, the accounts and recollections provided by the likes of Hamilton Jordan, Abolhassan Bani Sadr and Robert Armao speak to just how complex the process was, and how much depended upon managing the situation instead of making futile attempts at guiding it.

Harris devotes a tremendous amount of background to how the political culture in Iran led to the Islamic Revolution. The hostage situation doesn’t occur until halfway through the book, underlining the importance of what led up to the Crisis.

Much of that prelude centered around the Shah of Iran, reviled in his country for running a repressive regime commonly assumed to be an American-backed client. The U.S. backing of the Shah, right up to the end, ensured an anti-American character to the Revolution; but the antecedents to the uprising illustrated ample opportunities for Washington to potentially forge ties with the post-Shah government (though not without collateral diplomatic damage). The Iranian fixation on the Shah wound up precipitating the hostage-taking, and his eventual fate, after a lengthy stint as an nomadic exile, accelerated an end to it.

Harris attempts to portray the Shah as an all-to0-human character, done in by his own shortcomings. At times, it’s overdone: The author continually strives for irony by referring to the Shah by his many honorifics (“King of Kings”, “Light of the Aryans”, and others) simultaneously, but despite the story of his continuing physical and political deterioration, the effect makes the Shah more of a mystical figure.

The Shah is only one of the three central characters in this book, the others being Jimmy Carter and Ayatollah Khomeini. Character studies on each mainly concentrated on their upbringings and rise to power, and were supposed to serve as context for their later behavior. While comprehensive, I’m not sure just how useful it was in interpreting the chief developments in the Crisis. In particular, the Ayatollah, potentially the most intriguing of the three, is the sketchiest study (doubtless due to the greater difficulty in getting an accurate account of his later years).

Somewhat surprisingly, very little focus is put upon the individual hostages themselves, or to their captors. A decent overview of the raid on the American Embassy in Tehran is provided, as well as how conditions were for a few specific hostages and specific hostage-takers. But in this book’s scope, they’re almost relegated to one of many sidebar stories, with the macro-political stories taking precedence. Personally, I preferred this approach, as I feel it got to the heart of the matter; but those expecting this book to deal more directly with the hostages could be disappointed.

What struck me most about Harris’ presentation of the facts was how The Muslim Students Following the Line of the Imam (the group responsible for the hostage standoff) managed to paralyze not one, but two governments. While the flummoxing of Washington was apparent to the world, the way the Students manipulated Iran’s Revolutionary government was more subtle. And yet it was this defiance of Tehran’s secular authorities that prevented an otherwise-attainable timely solution, and more than anything set the tone for the poisoned relations between the U.S. and Iran even today.

As an historical anatomy lesson, “The Crisis” is a very comprehensive work. Harris covered all the bases, from all sides, and paid due attention to how governments function in the face of seemingly unmanagable circumstances.

Where the book falls short is in the alleged attempt to link the Hostage Crisis to the beginnings of today’s militant Islam. It’s a weak attempt that’s given barely a couple of paragraphs’ worth of mention. I have a feeling that it was injected into the title simply to make the book seem less musty and more relevant to today’s events. In reality, the book stands well on its own as a history book, and Harris shouldn’t have to apologize for that.

“The Crisis” is a great recounting of a critical juncture in American history. The presentation has many aspects of a real-life political thriller, making it an engrossing read.

by Costa Tsiokos, Fri 12/17/2004 08:44pm
Category: Book Review, History
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Thursday, December 16, 2021

I’ve been a lazy slug. I had intended to finally post a review of “The Crisis : The President, the Prophet, and the Shah — 1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam”, by David Harris today. It’s been well over a month since Time Warner Book Group sent it to me for my review, and a couple of weeks since I finished it. But I simply haven’t geared myself up to write it.

So, by way of committing myself to it, I’m posting this teaser here. I will definitely post a review tomorrow, come hell or high water. Mark it down.

by Costa Tsiokos, Thu 12/16/2004 07:45pm
Category: Book Review
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