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Lyrics, when properly fit to a harmony, moves music from something melodic to something affecting. In my estimation something lyrical possesses a certain beauty, perhaps a subtle poetry about it. But I can’t say I considered my writing “lyrical” in nature, although I have aspired to it.

April Schiff Pohren, at Cafe of Dreams, wrote a review which speaks to the kinds of things one hopes for when you set your words upon the public stage. Something I thought was unique was her inclusion of a couple of favorite passages from the story. She backs up her declarations of “lyrical prose” and “a story knitted together with thick strands of inspiration.”

Take a quick look if you would!

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“Two-fers” should be on Tuesdays, I know, but mine came today. I could have gone with “A Writer’s Winter Wednesday” but it implies two things: a status as a professional writer—which I am not, I don’t get paid for doing what I do; that “winter,” in the classic sense, had arrived in Arizona. It is cooling down, yes, but “winter”?

Really I wanted to share two quick links with you. The first is another (only my second!) review for The Apocalypse of Hagren Roose by Ms. Cheryl Malandrinos at The Book Connection. She called it “powerful, eloquently written . . .” and “a thought-provoking literary work.” Yeah, I’m still trying to absorb such words.

Speaking of words (<– I rather like that) I have another guest post at Miki's Hope.com, The Many Essences of Christmas. Do you remember those fat Christmas tree lights, not like the dinky ones today? How about all the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials? Have a quick look at my guest post to see what else you may remember!

Have a great evening, everyone, and a better tomorrow.

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When putting your words, thoughts, and ideas out for public consumption you hope people enjoy it, perhaps even reflect upon it a bit. With so much competing for our ever-shortening attention spans having someone read your work is an accomplishment in itself. 

Having achieved such a benchmark one must also accept that their thoughts of your work are equally as valuable as you feel your work is—good or bad, a review is important.

But good ones feel so much better .. . .

So it is that I am much pleased that my first review, by Sharon Chance at Sharon’s Garden of Books was positive. Have a look for yourself!

Thank you to Sharon and to all those who take a few moments to check out her thoughts.

Tomorrow, Hagren’s daughter, Alina, gets her Dear Santa letter published. Hope you check back for that!

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1001 First Lines book cover“Jesus, just grab me already!”

Have you ever picked up a book, started reading it, and been frustrated by how utterly inadequate the beginning is? Conversely, have you ever bought a book because the beginning absolutely affixed itself to your imagination? Anyone who reads has most likely lived both these experiences, and Scarlett Archer’s 1001 First Lines is just the recipe book to reveal your tastes.

“Recipe book?” you say to yourself. “I’m confused.” A cookbook lists ingredients, measures, cook times and temperatures—but it doesn’t actually do the work for you. It can’t tell you how the dish will taste upon your tongue. Based on experience with the ingredients you may have a fair idea of whether or not you’ll like the outcome. But what if you’re in a I’ve-never-tried-this-before mood; you can’t say for certain you’ll like it.

Likewise, Ms. Archer doesn’t do the work for you here. She gives you the tidbits, morsels, seasonings, all the stuff you need to make your own subjective decision.

Ms. Archer’s approach, initially, disappointed me; this because of the almost always dangerous practice of presupposition. I chalked up the book’s title to something metaphorical, hoping the book would be an excursion into analysis of some of the best and worst first lines published. Not so. What Archer has done, however, is given the curious reader a looking glass through which one is able to catch a glimpse of one’s deeper pockets of curiosity, to shed some light on why we are (or are not) captivated by the first words in a book.

I tried the time-tested method of reading: pick the book up and start at the beginning. I quickly found that wasn’t working. Reading 1001 First Lines is an exercise in fun, actually. A highlighter and pen became necessary complements to my journey through its pages. And here’s why . . .

At the outset I was chagrined to see that these first lines were not given the label of “bad” or “good.” But in the absence of those labels lays the beauty of her approach. I got to highlight lines I thought good, then made a note explaining why I thought it deserving. The same held true for those I felt truly bad. Therein lies the key: I don’t read the same way or with the same emotional experiences you do. Having Archer declare a given first line good or bad immediately removes from the experience all the joy or disgust we seek as readers and instead would bring it down to some manner of quantification, requiring some way to measure against a list of criterion or standards . . . and for most reading that simply can’t work. The experience is largely a function of solitude and personal willingness to suspend one’s own conceptions and hitch one’s wagon to the authors words.

For example, here’s one I feel is good:

Are you there God?

My reasons for liking it may differ from yours, but I would bet most people would say this is a good first line. Why? Who among us hasn’t, at one time or another, wondered if God was listening? The next question in a readers mind should be “Why is this character asking that strong a question?” In case you’re wondering that’s from— Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume.

Here’s another one I feel is good:

Where’s Papa going with that ax? said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

Papa clearly means to kill something . . . but what? Now you have to read on to find out.

That, in case you didn’t know, is from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.

How about a bad one—and I’m not making this one up:

It was a dark and stormy night.

Most any teacher, instructor, professor, editor, or friend (at least a good friend) will tell you that line is so overused by amateurs it’s evolved to something well past banal and cliché and has arrived at eye-rolling awful. I (and many other kids) read this book in grade school—A Wrinkle In Time by Madeline L’Engle.

A book’s cover may draw you in, catch your eye, but the meal begins when you start reading. That first line is, in many cases, a fish-or-cut-bait proposition—it snags you or it falls flat. 1001 First Lines is loaded with examples of both. Kinda fun to see these first lines, isn’t it?

Archer has classified her collection of first lines into 15 categories, from Comedy and Romance to Erotica and Biography. The more you read, the more you begin to see why certain writers are so widely read any why others seem to disappear. Want some more examples, don’t ya?

Good:

It is so appropriate to color hope yellow, like that sun we seldom saw.

Flowers In The Attic by V.C. Andrews

My note for this line: Beautiful yet haunting.

Bad:

Hello.

After Midnight by Richard Layman

My thought: It’s distractingly cardboard-ish. Surely there’s something more creative to be said.

Another good one:

Nothing ever begins.

Weaveworld by Clive Barker

Me: Cerebral, poetic, and creepy.

Not so good:

It was night again.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rathfuss

Me: Lackluster.

As with the lions share of books published now 1001 First Lines is available as an ebook. Here’s a pleasant surprise: I was told it was available digitally but I lean heavily toward “traditional” reading—you might remember it as holding an actual book in your hands and turning physical pages. “If available,” I wrote to the tour coordinator, “I would certainly prefer a hard copy for review.” And I received one. That wasn’t the surprise (although the curmudgeon in me is most grateful).

The cover is striking in its simplicity, yet as a reader its bullseye red circle immediately grabs your attention. I was told how the hard copy was produced but forgot by the time I received the book. It looks like any other professional release from a traditional publisher . . . but this was produced by Amazon’s CreateSpace. Color me surprised!

If you belong to a reading group 1001 First Lines would prove a sensational conversation piece. Part of a critique group? What better way to sharpen your skills than to bandy about some of the best and worst since Gutenberg put ink to paper? Whether reader or writer 1001 First Lines is a fascinating peek at words that grab us, and those that repel.

As readers we all know that many times the first line is long forgotten by the time you get firmly sucked into the story. 1001 First Lines is by no means an indictment of poor writing nor an apotheosis for the better examples. Nor is it a do-it-yourself manual for getting the perfect first line for your story. It’s a lot like the “serving suggestion’ image you see on food packaging—you know when you make the dish it won’t look anything like the image, but it will, ultimately, be your own.


Ready to read it? You can find 1001 First Lines at:
Amazon
Scarlett’s blog

A review copy of 1001 First Lines was kindly provided by the author, Scarlett Archer. My thanks to her and Dorothy Thompson for the opportunity to participate in the 1001 First Lines virtual tour.

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The Sun's Heartbeat book coverRhythm; it moves our feet, affects our sleep patterns, provides the very current of life. Every living thing taps into it, must participate in it, to survive. The Sun’s Heartbeat is Bob Berman’s passionate appeal that our Sun not only governs life on Earth but has a rhythm all its own.

Books covering scientific topics can often be heavy slogs, but Berman takes every long-forgotten notion we thought we understood about the Sun and serves it up fresh and accessible without sacrificing the least element of giddy fascination. The élan present in his words borders on the romantic lending a palpable air of almost sublime adoration of his subject.

A dry statistical analysis this is not. While not bereft of solid science to support his work his approach to the material soars well beyond the arid scope of textbooks and drops anchor in the pleasant and playful manner of one who chases his obsession like a dog chases its tail. The Sun’s Heartbeat is the book to bring us all up to speed on the one true celebrity in our solar system; those here on Earth are mere pretenders by comparison.

Tweet-sized factoids are rarely as much fun and thought provoking as those peppered amidst the pages:
• The sun’s core is 320,000 miles below its surface; that’s forty Earth widths.
• In Earth’s youth, the sun was 30% dimmer. In 1.1 billion years it will give off just 10% more energy, enough to boil away the oceans and sterilize the entire planet.
• Every second the Sun loses four million tons of its weight.

To an extent, therein lies the subtle irony—Twitter is a very self-centered media by which its users can declare “here’s what I’m all about at this moment, world!” Berman leaves little doubt that our only star is, at least in the astrophysical sense, the prime presence in our lives, that it, above everything else we rely upon for survival, is supreme. If we think we are the center of the universe then a simple glance skyward should be all that’s required to set the record straight.

Berman’s approach exceeds the bounds of “lively,” at once bristling and compelling in its meld of science with the satisfying ability to repeatedly draw the jaw down and up again. Without exception each chapter leads to a new discovery, and ultimately a renewed respect for the one celestial body we perhaps take the most for granted.

The author’s many years at Discover magazine serve to bring a complex subject to a level of layman understanding. His method of informing draws upon our innate sense of wonder without resorting to the drool inducing dullness of the overly academic. Principles we learned long ago in the classroom are given a fresh update and pigtailed upon the latest solar research, yet as boring as that may sound Berman makes it obvious that he’s not just passing along the latest bits, he wants us to take it all in, to marvel and appreciate (as well we should) everything—quite literally—under the sun.

Knowing more about ones surroundings is always good, even knowing more about the larger universe around us. But the most basic of questions begs—is it useful or practical?

Is knowing that light travels in differing wavelengths useful? If you want to understand the benefits and dangers of ultra-violet radiation it is; it could literally save your skin, if not your life.

Consider the very air we breathe, the atmosphere above our heads. Did you know it absorbs all but about one percent of the sun’s UV radiation? Not amazing enough for you? Even at a paltry 1% a sunbather is bombarded with a million trillion DNA altering protons per second. Useful information, indeed.

Here’s a fun fact: Because the moon has no atmosphere to block radiation exposed flesh would receive a painful sunburn after a mere 90 seconds. Not only is the air we breathe free, but it’s working hard to protect us too.

What about sunspots and their correspondingly media-rich phases solar minimum and solar maximum? They are as essential a part of the Sun’s rhythm as our own need for respiration, or our very heartbeats. They also affect our global climate, provide stunning atmospheric light shows, and have the potential to reduce our technological goose-step to a toddler’s crawl. “Useful” doesn’t aptly describe how important that is to us three planets away.

It is perhaps folly to think of humankind’s perpetuity, the conceit that we will eventually undergo a species diaspora and spread to far reaches of our galaxy and beyond. Berman points out that our bodies are not designed to handle the staggering volume of cosmic radiation awaiting us on the other side of our atmosphere. Moreover, although our sun is breathtakingly huge, by galactic measure it’s mediocre. Let that sink in for a moment.

Indeed, useful and practical are removed from the theater of conceptual notions and made fundamentally necessary verbs.

The Sun’s Heartbeat beams with enjoyment—authoritative in scope and informing in a page-turning, captivating way. Give a copy to young readers you know, give one to anybody you know who delights in the wonders of science and nature. Pick up a few copies of this paperback book for members of your reading group (don’t miss the reading group guide in the back!). Share Berman’s awe and respect for the star that not only powers our solar system but helped make it all happen.


Once again, my thanks to Rhonda Sturtz at New York Journal of Books for procuring my review copy of this book, and to Little, Brown and Company for graciously providing said book.

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The Apple Experience book coverTake a quick moment to think back through the last seven days of your life. Recall places you went: restaurants, shopping, perhaps traveling. In those seven days odds are excellent you probably experienced, at best, mediocre service in some regard. If you had truly memorable service, the kind that makes you want to convince others to patronize said business, then you are in the minority.

The Apple Experience: Secrets to Building Insanely Great Customer Loyalty is, fair to say, a most welcome antibiotic for a woeful and ailing service industry.

Think divorce isn’t relevant to a discussion of customer service? Think again. Studies have shown that a large percentage of divorces are not so much the result of relationship symptoms—like an extramarital affair—but rather take root much more deeply: Most such affairs come about because one partner no longer feels special—which of course the “other” party accomplishes.

That’s a painful, yet incredibly potent way to truly understand what great customer service can do for one person. Wouldn’t you like to know how to keep your customers and clients so happy that they not only stay with you and return again, they also actively evangelize your business?

Carmine Gallo doesn’t ask you simply to look through the glass doors of Apple stores, he wants you to study and embrace the simple elegance—and a large part of that experience has little to do with selling, but rather relationships.

Mr. Gallo acknowledges that not every business model is conducive to a literal application of Apple’s “5 Steps of Service,” but within The Apple Experience he provides the tools and reasoning necessary for any owner, manager, or supervisor to elevate their offerings, to differentiate themselves from the competition not from a cost perspective but from touching people’s lives. Apple’s word of choice is “enriching:” as in the ability to achieve a deeper emotional connection with employees and customers.

Among the concepts discussed are:
• resetting the customer’s “internal clock;”
• hiring for passion and other non-typical traits—a company can train to do tasks but cannot train for personality;
• creating “wow moments” that not only exceed damage control but also provide fantastic opportunities to convert detractors into promoters;
• understanding that costs go far beyond bottom line labor numbers;
• enriching lives is not just for customers and clients, but especially important: for your employees.

That last bullet point gets a good deal of real estate in the book and for good reason. Once again, recall the last few times you experienced standard, blasé service. People in positions like that are going through expected motions.

The author states early on the seemingly obvious yet most often overlooked facet of great service: “Gallup has found that 71 percent of employees in the United States are “not engaged” or worse, “actively disengaged and emotionally disconnected” from their workplace.” Outside of the all-important paycheck, it’s hard to remain passionate about a job you don’t care about or a company that lacks vision.

Mr. Gallo fans the flames of another incredibly important facet of human motivation: that monetary incentives work only to a small degree. Most people thrive upon—and want—some form of praise; and many want to feel like they are part of something bigger, a genuine part of helping their company grow. These are psychological intangibles that wield far more power than mere trinkets or bonuses.

Apple, via Steve Jobs’s vision, has taken a retail concept most analysts predicted would quickly fail and turned it into a stunning revenue juggernaut with an almost rabid following.

The crux of Apple’s revolutionary tale is that success isn’t just about cool looking products or spiffy, trendy retail spaces—those are contributing factors to be certain. But profits steadily grow because, to a person, Apple employees are trained and are genuinely passionate about not only the brand but also about creating that special je ne sais quoi—that feeling of connection. Apple’s cultural tenet according to the author: “They want to reach your heart, not your wallet.”

From the very beginning, The Apple Experience compares religion to the loyalty/fervor Apple engenders. The parallel is explained clearly enough in the book, and any reader serious about learning and profiting from Gallo’s research will completely understand the analogy.

The author is to be applauded for calling out Sears customer service (and others) by name. It certainly would have been far less troublesome to state something like “a once great retail giant” or “an institutional retail chain.” Instead he chooses to take the shot straight up, with no chaser, and juxtaposes his personal experience with Apple’s customer service. The upshot? A social media-heavy consumer base can do damage more quickly and more easily than at any other time in retail history.

Any of these companies can change their culture. It must come from within, and it must be more than lip service. Mr. Gallo challenges the reader to go into any Apple store and experience the principles he outlines for themselves, to observe interactions between Apple staff and customers, to pay attention to expressions and body language as customers exit the store.

The Apple Experience is bursting with paradigm shifting ideas and plenty of solid reasons for putting the Apple model to work, supported by such successful top tier companies: FedEx, Zappos, Disney, Lush, Outback Steakhouse, just to name a few. Their stories hammer in the notion that ho-hum customer service most other companies egregiously pass off as a quality “customer experience” is, in a word, not.

“Average is officially over” the author quotes. Say what you will about the Apple brand or its products. From crossing the store threshold to the very box your purchase comes in, every detail of the Apple experience is designed to touch a part of our nature that most retailers utterly disregard.

Over ten years of retail dominance . . . isn’t it worth considering what Apple is doing right? Any service provider, doctor, lawyer, bartender, accountant, or tailor can leverage The Apple Experience to work in their favor. The first question to ask is sublime yet simple: Are your current results satisfactory . . . or do you want insanely great service—and the loyalty of your customers that goes with it?


Another hearty thank you to Rhonda Sturtz of the New York Journal of Books, and to McGraw Hill for their efforts in acquiring the review copy for this review.

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Trading Manny book coverJoe Gullo was just seven years old when he unwittingly set himself and his father upon a two-year journey—an adventure not so much of thrills and close calls but of learning—to get a solid answer to a straightforward question: If major leaguers took steroids then isn’t that cheating? And shouldn’t they be punished?

Author (and Joe’s father) Jim Gullo had his work cut out for him. As a dyed-in-the-wool fan of baseball he sorely wanted to wish the question away, but because his son was developing his own passion for the game he sought answers . . . and they wouldn’t come easily.

Trading Manny: How a Father & Son Learned to Love Baseball Again is the story about that long trek that began with the withering truth of a child’s observation.

Jim Gullo doesn’t set us up for another book-length rant about the travesties of drugs in America’s pastime. The road he takes unavoidably leads him to deeply consider his own perspective on the game and the issue, but the torch he bears the entire way is for his son, and ultimately, an almost desperate effort to soothe the betrayal that baseball committed against all its fans, young and old.

Father and son are the poignant thread that so compellingly pulls this story together. Any dad who’s a fan of baseball can’t help, as an adult, to at least give serious thought to the steroid issue; but how does a father answer such a question when he knows the answer is more complex in the grown-up world of professional sports—especially when you know the child is fundamentally right?

It’s not as easy as saying they did something stupid; Jim Gullo knew that, and so did his son. But he wanted to be able to get behind the reasons why these otherwise gifted athletes did something so obviously unfair.

But again, how to do it without crushing a boy’s admiration for the players he pins to his wall?

Most of us grew up in environments that allowed us a measure of comfort or inspiration from those we admired. It’s a pretty good bet we had posters and pictures of favorite bands, movie stars, or athletes (remember the Farrah Fawcett poster?) hanging upon our walls or pinned to the ceiling.

That connection, especially at a young age, is powerful. As we mature we accept the toppling of our idols, even expect it. But when we’re kids it stings because we can’t get our heads around the big “Why?”

This very moment is epitomized in Trading Manny in a poignant sentence evoking the sum total of our feelings when disappointed by those we once looked up to: “the Manny poster, once removed from Joe’s bedroom wall, wasn’t packed and didn’t make the move with us.”

These “heroes” lied, and for most of us when we got busted lying retribution was swift—but not so with Major League Baseball. Jim Gullo wasn’t satisfied to try and make his son understand the concepts of lip service and scales of economy, and his dogged pursuit for answers—for both he and his son—is what really makes the humanity of this story pulse with life.

The author makes no secret of his feelings regarding the use of PED’s at any level of athletic play—no eggshells survived this walk. He is only too happy to point out those named as violators, but is equally careful to toe the line and satisfy the legal eagles by pointing out “alleged abuses” when appropriate.

A fan can read numerous articles in sports and online magazines and blogs concerning the whole PED circus as it played out. But Mr. Gullo, despite his own growing misgivings about the game and its tainted nature, takes the higher road and uses his journalistic background to begin teasing out answers where he can instead of raging against the establishment.

He deftly accomplishes this task by attacking through the back door; baseball doesn’t expect (or perhaps even care) that its fans will give much passing thought to the scandal, but the author makes certain that Trading Manny asserts itself and makes major league baseball accountable to its entire fan base, to the extent it can be held so.

Entrenched fans of the game looking for telltale stats to bolster arguments will be dismayed by the overt circumvention of sabermetrics. The seven-year-old Joe is fond of tracking players via his baseball card collection, but the stats are largely ignored in favor of the infamous results.

Was an opportunity squandered to make examples of questionable players? Not at all. We Americans love the quick fix, we thrive on immediacy and convenience, but issues like those in Trading Manny don’t lend themselves to our more consumerist natures.

The more important life lessons, those which profoundly matter, take far more time than our gnat-like attention spans desire them to—and yet if we make allowances for these spans of time, as father and son did here, the results are well beyond what we could have possibly foreseen when we first stood at home plate.

On the upper deck concourse of Chase Field once hung a large picture, captured in the lower half of which were the silhouettes of a father and son standing and cheering, with the wide, awe-inducing expanse of the ball field before them. In the lower right corner were short lines of text:

Dad: 1
Video Game: 0

Trading Manny is, of course, about the heartbreak two fans feel when their love for baseball is betrayed. But its more fiercely compelling story is about young Joe whose nascent ideas about heroes gets a distinct refining—and about his father who learns more from his son than he thought possible.

Dad: 1 . . . and the bases are loaded, nobody out. The fans are on their feet!


Know someone who’s a baseball fan? Perhaps you’re one? Have a ball player in the household? Get a copy of Trading Manny — I assure you, you’ll be glad you did. You can find it at the following online retailers:
Get a signed copy from the author!
Amazon.com (Kindle and soft cover)
Barnes & Noble.com (Nook and soft cover)


Another hearty thank you to Rhonda Sturtz of the New York Journal of Books, and to DaCapo Press for their efforts in acquiring the review copy for this review.

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