Friday, December 28, 2012

loopyker's #CBR4 Review #13: True Strength: My Journey from Hercules to Mere Mortal and How Nearly Dying Saved My Life by Kevin Sorbo

OK, I admit that I kind of had a crush on Kevin Sorbo during his Hercules:The Legendary Journeys days. I've always had a weakness for tall guys with long hair - but, he also seemed like a decent guy when giving interviews. I hadn't really thought about him in years, but was extremely disappointed to find out recently that he is now into some of the more extreme Christian fundamentalist propaganda  . It didn't seem to fit with his past public image, so I was curious. In looking him up, I discovered that he had a serious illness and had written an autobiographical book  about it. “Aha!”, I thought. “That might explain the extreme religious views.”

I was pleased to discover that my online library had the audiobook of True Strength, narrated by Kevin himself and his wife, Sam Sorbo.  I hoped to find an explanation for this fundamentalist approach in this book. I was disappointed in that respect, but really enjoyed and connected with the book in other ways.

We all know we are mortal, but many of us like to forget about that at different times in our lives. Kevin Sorbo probably wasn't thinking of it too much when he was in peak physical condition and playing the half-god, Hercules on one of the highest rated syndicated television shows in the world in the 1990's. But, he was was forced to confront that in a sudden, terrifying way. Unknown to all but his closest family, friends and co-workers, at this peak time, Kevin suffered three strokes after an aneurysm in his shoulder caused clots to travel through his body. These resulted not only in damage to his arm, but both long lasting and permanent symptoms such as partial blindness, dizziness, weakness, headaches and ringing in his ears just for starters.

This struck while on hiatus from Hercules, between the 4th and 5th seasons, just after the release of Kull the Conqueror (1997). It was at a crucial point, both in his career and for the continuation of Hercules where a lot of other people depended on Kevin as the star to keep the show going. Hercules hadn't yet reached that magic 100 episode number for the best syndication deals. But fortunately, everyone had a little time to figure things out before filming began again - and it took a lot of creative solutions.

It's been a long time since I've seen Hercules, but I still can remember when the writing suddenly changed with Kevin missing in strange ways - like one episode where he had been turned into a pig or was missing altogether. At the time, I was annoyed at the writing. Now, after reading True Strength, I'm amazed they pulled off hiding Kevin's recovery and disability so well! I found it really interesting to hear about all the little tricks they did to make it look like he was there more than he was and what they used to hide his weakness. He went from doing many of his own stunts to needing a body double to even lift a sword for awhile. He was never able to return to doing even many of the previously easy-to-him stunts.

Besides relating to True Strength as a fan of Hercules and then Andromeda, I very much connected with the personal struggle Kevin went through with his sudden disability. I couldn't be further away from the TV business, or the physical fitness enthusiast Kevin was. But, as someone who became disabled after a car accident, I could relate to a lot of the things he felt and encountered - from the broader implications of not knowing what you are going to be able to do with your life, to the little strange things like developing random food allergies.

I too was knocked down at a high point in my life. It doesn't matter how much money you have or how famous you are - it is the same process of discovery to figure out what exactly happened to your body and what is your “new normal” state mentally, physically and emotionally - and then what to do to move forward with all of that.

Like many people, Kevin had a tough time with his doctors. Some dismissed his symptoms and thought he should get better quickly, while others said the opposite. It became a struggle to know who to trust and believe and to know when to trust and believe his own body too. It is hard enough for us “regular” people to work through this just with ourselves and our families. Kevin had to go through all of this while presenting a public image of a demigod. He had been so good at doing this before his strokes that even doctors and emergency care workers afterwards weren't always taking him completely seriously because he was Hercules.

I read a review of True Strength that criticized Kevin as just a whiner - that he had lots of money to afford doctors and alternative treatments etc. when this particular disabled reviewer didn't. I think they are missing the point of the book. Yes, he had it easier than many people in some ways. But, as I said above - money doesn't really matter when it comes to the internal, personal struggle you go through. Kevin openly admits there were times when he got self-absorbed and depressed and took it out on people like Sam. I think it would be a very rare person indeed who didn't experience that at some point with a big life adjustment like that. It is refreshing to see a real portrait of that kind of roller coaster rather than the myth that disabled people are only inspirational and good people if they are passive, meek and grateful just to be alive and for any charity they receive.

That view of the disabled is perpetuated to make the the charity givers feel good about themselves. It does not treat the disabled as well-rounded human beings - and that is why I am very happy that Kevin Sorbo wrote this book! His celebrity can make other people think about disability in a way that the average person can't. Hopefully, in a way that also makes them more compassionate towards us.

True Strength is an inspirational book. As a disabled person it is good to see that even celebrities deal with the exact same things as we do and that they can rebuild successful lives, both personally and professionally.

Back to the original reason I listened to this book - Kevin's Christian fundamentalism. He talks about coming to terms with his faith in the book, but I didn't really pick up on how he got to the more extreme views. In fact, he talks about some decidedly non-fundamentalist views about things too. I still suspect the strokes had an impact on his more extreme beliefs, but this book is more about Kevin as a whole person and at an earlier time in his faith, so there were no good answers about that.

As an audiobook, Kevin and his wife were excellent narrators and it made the book more personal. It was one of my favourite books of the year and I highly recommend it in audio or print version.

Narrator: Kevin Sorbo and Sam Sorbo
Publisher: Oasis Audio
Duration: 9 hours, 36 minutes
ISBN: 9781608149285
Release Date: January 19, 2012

Hardcover: 296 pages (also available in paperback and e-book versions)
Publisher: Da Capo Press (October 11, 2011)
ISBN-10: 0306820366
ISBN-13: 978-0306820366

Sunday, December 23, 2012

loopyker's #CBR4 Review #12: Tailwavers by Sally Watson

Don't let the self-publishing and home photo cover fool you.  Sally Watson is an accomplished and well-loved author of several juvenile and young adult fiction books published in the 1950's - 1971.  After taking a break from writing she began self-publishing new books, juvenile-adult level in 2006. Among these, is Tailwavers, her first autobiographical book, about her life with a variety of cats and her cat rescue work in England and the US, including correspondence with other cat-loving friends about her thoughts on many things, but always coming back to the cats in her life.

With the conversational tone of Tailwavers, it is less polished than her earlier books, but still highly entertaining.  Sally's humour and intelligence shine through as strong as ever.  If you are already a fan of Sally Watson, you will enjoy this glimpse into her real life.  But, you do not need to be familiar with Sally to enjoy the stories of the joys and sorrows of living and care-taking of cats which any cat owner can appreciate. 

Sally is a true ailurophile (cat lover) and has written this book for like-minded people.  My own Mr. Cat sat on my lap through much of time reading this.  I was moved to both laughter and tears several times throughout the book and found it a nice, fun read.

(Full Disclosure: I am the web designer for and received a free copy of Tailwavers from Sally as payment.  But, I do not receive any compensation for sales of her books, or for my review.  I'm just a big fan!)

Author: Sally Watson

242 pages  (also available in e-book versions)
Publisher: iUniverse (Sept 14, 2010)
ISBN-10: 9781450253772
ISBN-13: 978-1450253772
ASIN: 1450253776
e-book ISBN: 9781450253789

Saturday, December 22, 2012

loopyker's #CBR4 Review #11: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I had this review ready to publish last week, but after the recent tragic news about the Newtown shootings in the US I took some time to rethink it.  I don't think that event changes my feelings about about my review below.  I feel that despite the violence in the book, The Hunger Games is more relevant to our current-day reality TV and our culture of competition and voyeurism than to school shootings or violence against children specifically.  But the media attention around such events has haunting similarities. 
- - -

I finally got on the bandwagon and had my first experience with The Hunger Games. I listened to Book 1 as an audiobook. Prior to that I had managed to avoid most of the hype. I didn't want to ruin it for myself if I ever did read the book or watch the movie. I hadn't heard of the book until the movie came out, but several friends had, and loved both the books and the movie, so I was curious but the general description of children having to fight to the death just created Lord of the Flies flashbacks, so I wasn't seriously interested. I absolutely hated Lord of the Flies reading it in class in early high school. I reread it once later to see if I had a different opinion as an adult. I didn't. 
I'm very happy to say that The Hunger Games was a completely different experience. I'm not sure if it was because the viewpoint for The Hunger Games was a girl vs the boys in The Lord of the Flies, or maybe it was because there was a much better back story for the characters leading up to the fighting so that you cared about them a lot more. I have no intention of re-reading The Lord of the Flies for a more direct comparison. Although, now that I'm thinking about it, I think that what stuck with me in The Lord of the Flies was the cruelness of the children, whereas in The Hunger Games is it is the compassionate moments that stay with you afterwards. I much prefer the latter. 

The Hunger Games is told from the point of view of a 17 year old girl, Katnis. She has been the head of her family since her father died when she was 11 years old and her mother went into a depression. They live in a poor, post-apocalyptic North American, coal mining community called District 12. Districts 1 thru 12 each specialize in a different industry and are controlled by The Capitol, mainly through keeping them in extreme poverty. 

As punishment for a rebellion by the Districts many years before, each year a boy and a girl from each District are chosen as Tributes to fight each other to the death. The victor earns much needed food and fuel for their own District for the following year. This is all great entertainment for the sadistic Capitol and its inhabitants, but understandably a source of terror each year for many in the Districts. 

The Hunger Games does a good job of contrasting these two viewpoints. I really felt for Katnis as she tries to understand this and navigate through all the Game preparations surrounded by excited Capitol helpers. I liked that they weren't just thrown into the fighting right away. It was much more subtly horrible to see the parallels of our own reality TV turned into this terrible form of entertainment with the superficial fashion shows and interviews actually becoming potentially life-saving events if they encouraged the audience to sponsor a Tribute with aid during the Games. 

Katnis is a very likeable character and I enjoyed learning about her life. She had already lost much of her childhood and continues to grow up more through this terrible experience. She constantly reminds us about how horrible the situation is without being whiny or preachy - she just reacts with her gut much of the time. She is strong and intelligent and admirable. I cried at a couple of points in the book - balling freely at one point. An audiobook makes that much easier, since the story continues even when your eyes are blurry with tears. 

However, this book is about children being forced to kill children, so you do have to be in mindset to be able to handle that. But, I didn't feel like the violence was really gratuitous or glorified. The ending was satisfying, but certainly left me wanting to go right on to the next audiobook in the series...although, I have to now wait for 62 people ahead of me on the online library waiting list to get through it first. 

I wrote the above right after finishing the audiobook.  I am now eleventh on the waiting list, so that is some idea of how long ago I listened to this.  I can't now recall anything about the audiobook quality, so I must have enjoyed the narrator.  In my opinion the best ones are the ones you don't really notice - it just feels natural to be listening to it.

The Hunger Games (Book 1) by Suzanne Collins  
Reading level: Ages 12 and up 

Audiobook : 
Narrator Carolyn McCormick 
Publisher: Scholastic Audio (Mar 01, 2011) 
Duration: 8 hours, 24 minutes 
ISBN: 9781445834207 

Hardcover: 384 pages (also available in paperback and ebook versions) 
Publisher: Scholastic Press (Oct 1, 2008) 
ISBN-10: 0439023483 
ISBN-13: 978-0439023481

loopyker's #CBR4 Review #10: The Blythes Are Quoted: Anne of Green Gables Series, Book 9 by L. M. Montgomery

I was excited to finally get to this after having been a fan of the Anne of Green Gables series for as long as I can remember.  The Foreword says, "The Blythes Are Quoted is the last work of fiction the world-famous author of Anne of Green Gables prepared for publication before her untimely death on April 24, 1942.... The typescript was delivered to Montgomery’s publisher on the day she died—by whom we do not know; Montgomery evidently intended it for publication, since it is amended in her hand-writing."  This is the first printing that includes Montgomery's entire manuscript.  It is speculated that earlier printings removed some things that were felt to be anti-war at a time when patriotism was heavily favoured.

I had read enough about this last book beforehand to know to expect something very different.  That certainly was the case.  Calling it "Book 9" in the series, is really only because of when it occurs chronologically and that the Blythe family is connected in some ways.  However, if you expect a continuation of the stories in the vein of the rest of series, you will be disappointed.

Rather than a novel following the Blythes as they grow up, this book is a compilation of short stories and poems.  Most of the short stories are about people unrelated to the Blythe family who gossip about the Blythes at some point to keep that connection to Anne.  In true gossip fashion, some of it is true and some not, but if you know the rest of the series you will know which is which. Sometimes a family member is also a very minor character.  The poems are scattered in the gaps between short stories and are mostly attributed to Anne in little scenes of discussion about the poem and family with Gilbert and the beloved family housekeeper, Susan.  The others are attributed to Anne and Gilbert's middle son, Walter.

Even though it is not a true continuation of the series, it makes the most sense to read this after the others in the series to know who the Blythe family is when they are mentioned and to understand the grief of the family that is mentioned when talking about a lot of the poems.  You have to be paying close attention though to get the details about marriages and grandchildren that are scattered throughout.

For that matter, I really recommend reading the whole series in order to see how Anne grows up.  Montgomery's development of Anne from a young, impulsive girl to a mature woman who has been through great joys and sadness and sees herself in her children as they grow in turn is one of the best things about the series.   (although, I have to say that Rilla of Ingleside  is the book least about Anne, but is my favourite as the children are forced to grow up quickly with the start of WWI.  It is also educational to someone who doesn't know much about Canada's involvement in the Great War and what it was like for the women)

Other people had mentioned this being a darker book, but I didn't feel that as much as I was expecting from those opinions.  I took it in the context of the characters who have been through WWI and are in, or near WWII, like the author herself.  There are certainly some darker, human emotions such as bitterness and dwelling on death and grief, but there are still the familiar themes of gossip and long-lost loves throughout.  If you are familiar with L.M. Montgomery's other work, you will not be surprised by many of the outcomes.

I am not a big fan of "Anne's" poetry.  I admit to having trouble focusing enough to tell the difference between a lot of them.  Familiar themes and style run through many.  

Overall, I was disappointed in that I wanted to know more about the Blythe children as adults and that will always be unfinished now.  Despite being a big change in organization style, The Blythes Are Quoted is still very recognizable as L.M. Montgomery and I'm happy to have read it for that reason.   Not a favourite by her though.

The Blythes Are Quoted: Anne of Green Gables Series, Book 9   
Author: L. M. Montgomery
Edited and with an Afterword by Benjamin Lefebvre
Foreword by Elizabeth Rollins Epperly

Publisher:     Penguin Group (Canada)
ISBN:      9780143175346
Release date:       Dec 22, 2009

544 pages  (also available in paperback)
Publisher: Viking Canada; 1st Edition edition (Oct 27 2009)
ISBN-10: 0670063916
ISBN-13: 978-0670063918

Thursday, December 20, 2012

loopyker's #CBR4 Review #09: Answer Me, Answer ME by Irene Bennett Brown

In my online library, a quote described Answer Me, Answer ME as “An excellent portrayal of a young woman's search for her true identity, a compelling story with just the right elements of mystery and romance.” Sounded like a potentially good, young adult book to me. I was sadly disappointed.

I listened to the audiobook, but I don't think that made a difference to my experience of the story. I can't imagine even the best narrator in the world making me anything but sorry I wasted my time. The only difference is that I didn't notice that the second “me” in the title is written “ME” until looking it up to write this review.

A young woman, Bryn Kinney, is on her own after her grandmother's death. Now at only 18 years old, she is wondering if her grandmother, the woman who raised her, was really in fact her biological grandmother at all and if she has any other family out there somewhere. She has never known who her parents were, so she sets off an a quest to search for answers about her past.

I did not connect with this book at all. I kept expecting something interesting to happen, for there to be some twist for that “mystery” element, but it didn't happen. No, you don't know who her parents are right away, but when things are revealed it is very anti-climatic and if you are paying attention you can figure most things out well ahead of time. As for what I didn't figure out, I didn't feel a strong enough connection to Bryn to really care about. The “romance” mostly meant that a guy was there and wanted to date her, but the big romantic tension was that she felt she couldn't socialize and look for clues to her past at the same time.

In general, there were no real conflicts in other areas either to create the tension necessary for a good story. And what attempts at conflict there were, seemed false to me so I just couldn't get into caring about the character at all. 

Young adults reading this now will also find the technology very out-dated and I expect they would have trouble relating to a search for family without the use of Google and other online options. It is getting harder and harder all the time for even someone my age to relate to that. In a lot of stories, a passing reference to this type of thing isn't a big deal, but in this book there is a lot of talk about how she is actually searching for information by following tips from a book. Many of those tips are still valid, but the lack of Internet searches is more glaring than usual. But maybe I wouldn't have noticed so much if I had been interested in the rest of the story more.

Author: Irene Bennett Brown
Reading level: Ages 12 and up

Narrator: Laurie Klein
Publisher: Books in Motion (December 16, 2008)
Duration: 6 hours, 23 minutes
ISBN: 9781605481456

208 pages
Publisher: iUniverse (October 20, 2000) (original publication 1985)
ISBN-10: 0595145051
ISBN-13: 978-0595145058

loopyker's #CBR4 Review #08: The Killings at Badger's Drift by Caroline Graham

I'm a fan of the TV show, Midsomer Murders, and the first five books in Caroline Graham's Chief Inspector Barnaby Series inspired this TV show, so I thought I'd see how the audiobooks compare starting with The Killings at Badger's Drift: Chief Inspector Barnaby Series, Book 1 .  I haven't read any of the original (7) print books. 

If you've seen the British TV show, then you know that Midsomer Murders follows the investigations of Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby and his younger sidekick Sgt. Gavin Troy, around the quaint little villages in the English countryside .  These are slower paced murder mysteries when compared to typical American shows.  Runtime per episode is 100  minutes.  If you find these too slow-paced for you, then the 8-13 hour or more length of the audio books won't be to your taste.

Compared to the TV show, I found both the Barnaby and Troy characters less likeable.  DCI Barnaby was missing that subtle, warm humour portrayed so well by actor John Nettles  and similarly, Sgt. Troy was missing the sweetness to his inexperienced bumbling that Daniel Casey (and later Jason Hugh as DS Jones) brought to the roll.

The narration and most character voices were read well by Hugh Ross, however some of the voices for the more flamboyant characters were exaggerated in a way that made them difficult to understand at some points. 

Since I started writing this review, I have seen a couple of the more recent Midsomer Murder epidsodes where John Nettles has left and has been replaced by his cousin with the convenient name of DCI John Barnaby, played by Neil Dudgeon.  I'm glad that I saw this after listening to the audiobook.  It makes this new TV DCI Barnaby character more understandable.  I feel like he is much more like the original DCI in the book version of Badger's Drift.  Similarly, and unfortunately for the sidekick - now DS Ben Jones, played by Jason Hugh, they seem to have made his character more immature to have the relationship between the DCI and his underling closer to the book, instead of looking like he has gained some experience working with the first DCI Barnaby.   I am curious to see if the sidekick character develops better in both the TV show and books in the Chief Inspector Barnaby Series.

As for the story, it is a traditional type of murder mystery.  An elderly spinster sees something she shouldn't have and gets killed to hide the secret.  DCI Barnaby has to figure out if it was in fact a murder, and if so, then what was the motive?  There is a little more adult content in this then in the TV show - enough that I made a note to mention it, but not enough that I can remember specifics now.  I don't like to say much about the plot or characters since it is a mystery. 

The Killings at Badger's Drift: Chief Inspector Barnaby Series, Book 1
Author: Caroline Graham
Narrator: Hugh Ross
Publisher: AudioGO Ltd  (Mar 01, 2011)
Duration:  8 hours, 24 minutes
ISBN:  9781445834207

264 pages (also available in paperback and ebook versions)
Publisher: Adler & Adler Pub; 1 edition (January 1988)
ISBN-10: 0917561414
ISBN-13: 978-0917561412

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

loopyker's #CBR4 Review #07: Daring Greatly by Brené Brown

I've watched exactly one full episode of Katie - the Katie Couric show. I heard that Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess was going to be on an episode, so I had to watch it. Brené Brown happened to be the main guest on the same show and she made such an impression on me that I immediately convinced my boyfriend to buy me her book, DaringGreatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live,Love, Parent and Lead

So, I took a little break from my usual fiction books to read this research-based, self-help type of book. It took me a little longer than usual to get through it - not because I wasn't interested, but because I had to keep stopping to make notes on post-its and discuss things that I found interesting with my boyfriend. He hasn't read the book himself yet, but he probably knows what half of it says already from me! So, this book just had to jump the queue in my ever growing, waiting-to-be-reviewed book list.

I think virtually everyone can see themselves and others in at least parts of this book somewhere. I found meaning in so many sections of it, that I did something I've never done before - I bought it for someone else before I even finished reading it (two people actually, with the help of my boyfriend). I also recommended it to others - and still do.

This isn't a touchy-feely self-help book. Brené Brown is always referring to her research, in a way that the scientific mind in me appreciates, but she still makes it very accessible to non-researchers by relating it to every-day people and situations, including many from her own life. For a short version of her style and some of the topics covered in Daring Greatly, check out the video of her very popular 2010 TEDxHouston talk, ThePower of Vulnerability , which she performed before writing this book.

If you like that Ted talk and you want to hear more, then read Daring Greatly as soon as you can! I will be rereading it for sure. It is the type of book that will mean different, but still meaningful, things to you when you reread it, depending on the personal struggles in your life at the time.

I made so many bookmarks that I don't really know what to pick to say for this review. I can't pick just one quote, so I won't even try. You can check out the book's site for that kind of thing. What spoke to me overall, is the idea of how we are in a culture of “scarcity”, thinking we aren't “enough”, that we are failing somehow as a person - physically, emotionally, financially - whatever, and how that leads to fear, shame and guilt, withdrawal/shutting down, and in worst cases, even addictions or lashing out. But, in the end, we need to be brave and let ourselves be vulnerable, whether what we do is successful or not, because that is the only way to fully experience life and joy. We can't shut out just the bad stuff selectively. When we try, we shut out the good stuff too. We need to learn to face things, and work through things to be happier and less stressed and to feel loveable and worthy of belonging and love. And in all of this, I also found her findings about some gender differences especially eye-opening and thought provoking.

In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown doesn't present things in the unrealistic positive thinking attitude that so many self-help books like to get stuck on. These are hard issues for people. Brené herself needed help to work through it in her own life, as you will have heard in the TED talk. The goal isn't to never feel fear, shame or inadequacy or to be 100% happy all of the time. The goal is to recognize what you are feeling, when you are feeling those things and to learn how to feel them and deal with them in a constructive way so that you can be the person you want to be, for yourself most of all, but also for your relationships with your significant other(s), your children, your co-workers and your community. It isn't always a comfortable process, but that is OK. That is normal and healthy and a part of living.

I really can't think of any adult I know who couldn't benefit from this book at some level. I would be surprised if people couldn't related to at least part of Daring Greatly and I highly recommend it for everyone. It can truly be a life-changing type of book to those who are open to it.

Author:  Brené Brown

Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has studied vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame for more than a decade and has had her research featured on PBS, NPR, CNN and more. 
Reading level: Ages 18 and up
Hardcover: 256 pages (also available in Kindle and audio versions)
Publisher: Gotham (September 11, 2012)
ISBN-10: 1592407331
ISBN-13: 978-1592407330 

I didn't see this until after I had read the book. It looks useful to me though for people who like this kind of thing:  Daring Greatly Readers Guide (PDF)