The Crux of the Tragedy

Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language. I know because everyone says so. Like most of you, I was compelled to experience his greatness in school, and I did not particularly enjoy it. (It was Othello. I could not work out the math by which the Great Handkerchief Scandal resulted in murder.) Earlier this year, I decided to give Shakespeare another go. I browsed Amazon for options and, scrupulously applying my principles, chose the most cost-efficient: the complete works of Shakespeare, bound into one enormous volume that could probably be used as a murder weapon but cost, used, $10.

The table of contents covers well over two thousand pages. I searched it for a place to begin and, intimidated, settled on the beginning. I proceeded on this direct approach only to be confronted by Romeo and Juliet. All my adult life, I had intended to never read Romeo and Juliet. But it was the next story in the collection and so, for a sense of completeness, I read it. The play has four centuries of hype to live up to and, as you would expect, it doesn’t.

It has its points, of course. My experience of Shakespeare is limited – Romeo and Juliet is only fourth in the book – but he seems to have been the kind of writer whose work is often uneven but never meritless. There is wit and gorgeous verse in Romeo and Juliet. The dramatic irony is interesting. The graveyard denouement, and Juliet’s living burial with her dead relatives, are evocatively horrible. And although Shakespeare probably didn’t intend it, it is kind of funny to watch Romeo drama-queen all over the stage.

And yet, as a love story, Romeo and Juliet is hasty and shallow. The two meet at a party and marry the next day. By the time they commit suicide, they have known each other perhaps a week. Granted, it was a jam-packed week, mostly with murders, but still. I know they were passionate to the point of hysteria. I know they gave some pretty speeches. I hold, nonetheless, to the principle that one of the requirements of a grand love affair is that it outlive milk.

If not a grand love story, Romeo and Juliet is a great tragedy – needless and self-inflicted, unredeemed by nobility. Neither hero nor heroine was courageous when it might have helped. Both, once they discovered each other, became cruel to everyone else – whether it was Juliet declaring her cousin’s death a good thing or Romeo skewering poor Paris. When the apothecary protested that he could be executed for selling the poison, Romeo goaded him into it by scorning his hunger and poverty. He put the man’s life at risk and pressed him into the guilt of complicity with another’s self-destruction. These are great moral crimes.

Mostly, Romeo and Juliet distinguish themselves by their absolute lack of wisdom and good sense. They were not star-crossed lovers. They were simply and inexcusably wrong about everything. Their secret marriage was a disaster in the wings from I do. That was so exceedingly obvious even they should have seen it. The only question was whether the crisis would be forced when Juliet got pregnant or when her parents chose a husband for her. Romeo and Juliet might have at least tried the honest approach. Rejecting that, they might have run away together. Either brave frankness or open rebellion could have saved them. But they would literally have rather killed themselves.

The only sensible reaction to Romeo and Juliet is Children, you are really very stupid. And that is the crux of this tragedy – that they were little more than children in need of adult supervision, and nobody was it: not the Nurse, not Friar Lawrence, not their awful parents. Romeo and Juliet got drunk on their first sip of sexual love and ruined everything. That is not a beautiful love story, nor an ennobling tragedy, but it is piercingly poignant.

Review: Point Horizon

Ever since his family left Virginia for Colorado, Tommy has been at loose ends and out of sorts. He left behind him in Virginia not only his Aunt Maggie, but the pictures she taught him to see and all of his dreams. In Colorado, everything seems dreary, or hostile – the barren plains, the dusty town, the gang of teenagers who roam the neighborhood, each one with a strange new name. Even his dreams have turned against him.

Then one day, while exploring a canyon with a new friend, he is chased by the gang deep into a cave – and then down, down, down. He and his friend will end up in the Firmament – which is not quite where he wanted to go, but it may be better than where he’s been.

Point Horizon is a book for middle-graders, written by David Zelenka. Although a novel, its primary purpose is to give a vision of the world that blends an awareness of beauty, a knowledge of science, and spiritual vision. Point Horizon is a scientific book as much as it is an adventure. Zelenka, a teacher and a former Park Ranger, writes knowledgeably about the landscape and animals of Colorado and about the science of the Firmament’s special environment.

He also writes in a clear, vivid style that evokes the natural beauty of the places he brings his readers to. The spiritual vision of the novel is clearly and broadly put forth; the doctrines of Christianity are not delineated, but the spirit of it shines through.

Physically, the book looks good. The cover is eye-catching, the font easy to read, and the illustrations at the chapters’ openings are simple but enjoyable. The book is 40,000 words and totals up to just under two hundred pages – roughly half of an adult novel. Point Horizon is, as I said, written for middle-graders, and considering the length, content, and writing level, it is an excellent bridge for young readers transitioning from children’s to grown-up books.

The adventure side of the novel was not, I thought, quite strong enough. It needed something – more excitement, some additional danger or opposition to the characters. Despite this lack, Point Horizon is a well-written, imaginative book that shows knowledge and serious thought. Recommended for children about ten to twelve, especially children interested in science or other worlds.

Prism Tour Review: The Cinderella Theorem

A themed book tour through Prism Book Tours.


Lily Sparrow is an atypical teenager: a teenager who thrives on mathematics, who wants everything clear and logical, who thinks all life should work out to a balanced equation. But when she discovers on her fifteenth birthday that her parents have been leading a double-life in a fairytale world, and now they want her to join them, she has a typical teenager response: She wants her normality back.

That she never was normal may occur to readers who watch her try to process all of life through mathematical equations. It’s natural, I suppose, that it never occurs to her.

The Cinderella Theorem is written by Kristee Ravan and is the first book of the Lily Sparrow Chronicles. This novel abounds in fresh, fun ideas. The clash between Lily’s mathematical compulsion and the fairytale world she is pushed into is the first. More follow.

In the world Lily enters, the characters of all the fairytales – good and bad – are living Happily Ever After. If they ever become Unhappy, they are no longer living Happy Ever After.

And so they vanish.

It’s a quirky world governed by its own absurd logic, and its citizens are all eccentric in their own way. I enjoyed all the outlandishness, enjoyed seeing old, beloved characters like Cinderella and King Arthur living Happily Ever After. The foundational ideas of the book and the worldbuilding are the finest elements of The Cinderella Theorem.

The principal flaw of this novel is a lack of proper editing. There are misplaced commas and far too many wrongly done dialogue tags (“That’s a problem.” He said). More substantively, there were things in the book – little things – that were extraneous, hints of ideas that were never used. (For example, in an early scene Lily is ordered out of a banned palace library … and that’s it for the Forbidden Library.) A good editor could have helped with these things.

I liked the first-person writing style of The Cinderella Theorem; I thought Lily had a good voice. The characters were quirky and likable, and the ideas and world itself were delightful. The Cinderella Theorem is an enjoyable book, a fun play on the old fairy tales. Recommended.


The Cinderella Theorem
(The Lily Sparrow Chronicles #1)
by Kristee Ravan
YA Urban Fantasy
Paperback, 367 pages
March 17th 2014

Fairy tales are naturally non-mathematical. That is a fact, and fifteen-year-old Lily Sparrow loves factual, mathematical logic. So when her mother confesses that Lily’s deceased father is (a) not dead, (b) coming to dinner, and (c) the ruler of a fairy tale kingdom accessible through the upstairs bathtub, Lily clings to her math to help her make sense of this new double life (1 life in the real world + 1 secret life in the fairy tale world = a double life).

Even though it’s not mathematical, Lily finds herself being pulled into a mystery involving an unhappy Cinderella, a greasy sycophant called Levi, and a slew of vanishing fairy tale characters. Racing against the clock, with a sound mathematical plan, Lily attempts to save her fairy tale friends while proving that normality = happiness.

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Kristee Ravan lives in Oklahoma with her husband, daughter, and pet fish, Val (short for Valentine). She wanted to be many things as she grew up including a general, an artist, and an architect. But she never bothered to say, “I want to be a writer when I grow up.” She was always writing stories and thought of herself as a writer anyway. She sent her first story to a publisher in the sixth grade. (It was rejected – in a nice way.) When she is not making up stories in her head, she enjoys reading, juggling, green smoothies, playing dollhouse with her daughter, and hearing from her fans. You can contact Kristee at the facebook page for her Lily Sparrow books: The Lily Sparrow Chronicles.


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Review: Until That Distant Day

France, in 1792, was an unsafe place, and not only for the king and queen. As revolutionary fever seized the nation, and Paris descended into tumult and violence, everyone’s security became threatened; everyone’s peace melted away.

Colette, in the thick of things with her revolutionary brother, finds her spirit drifting away from it. Regretting the past and fearing the future, filled with concern for those she loves and can no longer protect, Colette now reaches for things that have nothing to do with politics.

But, as the old saying has it, just because you don’t take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.

Until That Distant Day is a historical romance written by Jill Stengl and published by Rooglewood Press. The story fully entrenches itself in its historical setting; all sorts of fine details show a high level of research and create an encompassing sense of realism. The unrelenting heat, the political turmoil, the carriages in the streets, the characters’ reactions to a black slave – all invoke the world of 1792 Paris. But just as important are the little things. We watch the characters do small, daily acts, like going out to rain barrels for their water, and we taste the life they live.

The one historical element I would have liked to see expanded was the political conflict – not so much what happened but why it happened. Everybody wanted a republic instead of a monarchy, but why? I didn’t feel that the book explained the “first cause”, whatever troubles or grievances led the people to revolution in the first place. If I understood that unhappiness better, I might have understood better, and felt more, the cause and the passion surrounding it.

Until That Distant Day is a very character-driven book. Colette is a strong and complex character, both flawed and admirable. Claude and Pascoe, though sometimes unlikable, were yet understandable and ultimately sympathetic. All the characters felt very real, very human, from Tressy to Adrienne to Arnaud.

Although a romance, the novel is not primarily focused on the heroine getting her man. Other relationships are just as important to the story and just as deeply felt. I enjoyed seeing the brother/sister dynamic – a relationship that, for some reason, is often neglected in fiction. Even when stories feature sibling relationships, they tend to be brother/brother or sister/sister.

In some ways this novel is a study of humanity, and all our passions, faults, and virtues. Until That Distant Day shows sin and goodness entwining, in the world around us and in our own hearts. As a novel, it digs deep.

The historical milieu of Until That Distant Day is compelling and it imbues the story with a sense of danger. Impelled by its characters, with a wealth of human emotions and motivations, Until That Distant Day is a rich and profound novel.

A Book and its Author

I’ve been thinking about what to do for my blog this week, and then it came to me: I could review Dick Cheney’s memoir, In My Time. So here goes:

Dick Cheney spent forty years in public service, and he has been at the center of some of the most important and most controversial policies in recent times. Never one to pull punches, he is finally telling his side of the story. I imagine it will be good. Five stars.

Now, some of you may be asking: What kind of a review is that? And the answer is, it’s the kind of review you’ll find if you go looking on Amazon.

Tuesday – the day Cheney’s memoir was released – I looked it up on Amazon. I was surprised to find 34 reviews already up. Did thirty-four people really rush out, buy the book, read all 576 pages in one day, and then throw up a review on the internet?

And the answer, I am sure, is that some people did, just not thirty-four of them. An old problem is brought into focus here. Although there are many helpful and thoughtful reviews on Amazon, there are some that are, well, less so. Some reviews are not even legitimate, such as when people review books they have not read.

Sometimes you know this is the case. For example, there were one-star reviews of Cheney’s memoir where the authors admitted to not having read – or at least finished – it. I recall one person who said he would read the book he was supposedly reviewing when “I am forced to turn to the study of Larger Than Life International War Criminals”. So believe that one-star rating he gave.

There are also the reviewers whom you can only suspect of not reading the book. These are the ones who are light on facts and heavy on hot, hot emotion.

And hot emotion is exactly what Dick Cheney stirs up in many quarters. When people who are both famous and controversial write books, a funny thing happens. A lot of people try to review their books and end up reviewing them. Dick Cheney is both the author and subject of his autobiography, so it’s a blurry line, but when a review consists almost entirely of judgments on the man rather than the book, it’s crossed it. And all those one-star ratings, and even some of those five-star ratings – they’re not rating the book. They’re rating the author.