Score: 91+/100 (9.1+ out of 10)
The Wind at Oak Hollow is an ambitious and complex fantasy novel filled with family drama, political intrigue, magic and the supernatural forces of nature itself.
The novel follows the Ganwin family, members of a pagan-like Medieval tribe, who have been granted several blessings/curses by the Elements, the nature spirits. Namely, one of their sons, Marl, has been blessed as a healer. In turn, he is cursed by the possessive spirit, Wind, who stalks and haunts him constantly like an ex-wife or overly controlling mother-in-law. Their other son, Natsir, is favored by Water. Their mother, the priestess Messa, is favored by Earth. Para (Natsir's wife) and Hereu (Marl's wife) also play sizable roles in the story, surpassing their husbands in interest at times.
The patriarch of the family, Nojhi, is initially seen as a farmer. However, it is strongly implied and later outright stated that he was a much different person in his previous life, a person of both great power and extreme cruelty. That darkness rears its ugly head from time to time as he is shown to be abusive at times to the boys at times.
The book primarily centers on Marl, for better or for worse, who wrestles with his powers and his relationships with Wind, Natsir, Hereu, Messa, and Nojhi. None of these relationships is necessarily smooth. In particular, he is constantly on guard for how Wind will meddle with his life.
Wind is simultaneously the coolest and creepiest character in the entire book! Wind comes across as a possessive, jealous ex-wife/girlfriend mixed with a mother going through empty nest syndrome. So she's kinda like Desirae from Perfectly Imperfect by Darlene Winston.
Wind whispers or talks to Marl on and off via a method like telepathy (mind-speak). She also does things like slam doors or outright attack like she's Christine (the killer Cadillac). She's particularly jealous of Marl's relationship with Hereu, an Auburn-haired girl from Selcovi, which we gathered was like the capital city of the kingdom. So, this kinda becomes a city-girl-meets-village/farmer-boy story for a bit.
Marl is identified as a prophesied figure known as the Wanderer, who, as you might guess, is supposed to bring balance to the universe, not leave it in darkness. In the meantime, Marl is a mischief maker who gets on the nerves of the poor, unfortunate townspeople of Na'ir. They tolerate his antics only in so far as it keeps them on good terms with his hot-headed dad.
It's strange, but we much preferred the female characters, Hereu and Para, over the male ones. We even enjoyed Messa more. The boys (who are actually almost 20, we think) talk and act like they're 12 or 14. They mope and whine. They get into childish school yard brawls, pretty much over the equivalent of your mama jokes. They get crushes and don't know what to do about those crushes. It's kinda... elementary.
Hereu, Para, and Messa on the other hand, seem like real women who have things together. Like, we remember when Hereu was all for trying her best to build the house with what meager resources she had available. Also, like we said, Wind (also female) is far and away the coolest thing in this whole book. Maybe the author just writes women better?
Anyway, this book excels in one key way: world-building. There is a lot of world-building on display in this book. We admired the way that the author was able to personify the three main elements as sisters similar to the Fates of Greek mythology, or how the sun and moon are referred to as “mother” and “father.” The vernacular and culture of the Erutani is very distinct, as is their history.
Now, we will say that this book lacks focus. That is probably the most frustrating thing about it. There are about ten too many characters and ten too many things going on.
For example, there's a side-plot in which Rippan kidnaps Para that happens deep into this book, long after a major thing like this should have happened. This side-plot seems to come out of left field and then quickly become a footnote. Rippan, by the way, is essentially Gaston from Beauty and the Beast.
Meanwhile, Wind is out there being a crazy psycho-woman, Onaryc is over here about to declare war on the rest of the world, Captain Tyrc is emerging as a treacherous and needlessly petty bastard, Nojhi is trying to suppress the memories of his past as a ruthless jerk, Nat is wrestling with being a caterpillar boy, and Marl is wrestling with the fact that he's a healer and the fact that his new wife is so much cooler and more interesting than him.
Sometimes we were seriously wondering: what is going on? What is the main idea? What is the main/central conflict?
It's just too much for one novel. The human brain can only absorb and follow so much.
Now, one thing we'll say is that this book is probably best treated like an anthology—a collection of loosely-related slice-of-life stories that revolve around the Ganwin family. Essentially, this is Little House on the Medieval Prairie (with magic). Not every episode leads to or relates to the next, but the central characters stay the same. In one episode, the Little Medieval House crew may be overcoming school bullies, in the next episode they may be coping with the death of their horse, and in the episode after that they're discovering that their father mutilated people and burned down villages. See, it makes a lot more sense that way.
If Little House on the Medieval Prairie sounds like an interesting concept to you, check it out on Amazon!
Score: 92/100 (9.2 out of 10)
The Mines of Jedira is a thrilling and captivating sci-fi novel by Cal Davis! It is the second in a series that began with The Jediran Quest, continuing a series that focuses on a young man wrapped up in humankind's valiant attempts to colonize space. This is a solid YA novel that doesn't just run, it flies!
The Mines of Jedira follows a young man named Braven, one of the brave survivors of the events of The Jediran Quest. Those tragic and harrowing events continue to haunt him and his colony mates. Braven and his parents find themselves visiting the small and mysterious Zeta Colony, one of the newer colonies that specializes in mining rare minerals using both manual and robotic labor.
Braven quickly notices that something is amiss when he sees a large, black shadow pass him, appearing to be the shadow of a large creature. They soon discover tracks of a creature over 9 meters in length, appearing to be phalanges. Braven and his new friend, Skylar, begin to suspect that they may be in the vicinity of a mythical creature known as a caprodome, a man-eating beast similar to a dragon.
Things escalate to a fever pitch when two kids go missing from the colony. A chaotic flurry of bad news spreads regarding the incident as there are rumors of storms, monsters, death, and more missing people.
There's suspicious, unscrupulous dealings afoot, a lot of which deals with the mines believed to be home to this light-deterred creature.
This book takes up almost a Kaiju-esque vibe, in stark contrast to the previous book which focused more on microorganisms like bacteria. Yes, this is a MONSTER story and we love it for that.
This book almost seemed like a combination of several books we read this season. For example, The Windy City Terror similarly featured a lab-bred monster that lurks the ground below. Endgame on Lunar One and Diary of a Martian similarly explored life inside and outside the boundaries of a space colony. One story in Tales of Monstrosity featured a monster called the Jersey Devil that was a lot like the caprodome in this book.
This book does one thing exceptionally well: the world-building! This book does a great job at fleshing out both the main planet of the book and the universe full of other colonies. For example, the moon is constantly referenced both as a measure of time (like when Braven doesn't want to get out of bed) and of distance (like when Braven is running/limping for his life). There are exotic minerals found in this colony found nowhere on Earth. Eden (another planet) is also referenced. There are even databoards which act like smartphones or Ipads.
One of the most interesting concepts in this book is that different people are able to communicate using universal-translator-like technology. One of the characters (Mesilia, if we remembered correctly) is physically unable to create speech, but she is able to let her thoughts be known using this technology.
Furthermore, the details and the world-building don't bog down the pacing of the story like they sometimes do in other books. Instead, this book flies by! You can get through this book in one or two sittings if you really wanted to. The pages go flying. If anything, the details and world-building just elevate the rest of the content.
There is also a rather interesting human subplot involving Braven and his new friend, Skylar. Braven adopts almost a big-brother-like role in looking after Skylar. Their relationship is similar to Katniss and Rue in The Hunger Games. At the same time, we didn't really connect with Skylar as much as we connected with Khara in the previous book. We missed Khara.
One last thing we appreciated is that you can tell that the course of this book takes a physical and emotional toll on Braven. He takes a beating in this book (as protagonists should). There are times when he's injured and can hardly walk or run! That just makes it more dramatic and tense!
Anyway, this book is really great for its target audience.
Check it out on Amazon!
Score: 96/100 (9.6 out of 10)
WOW! We did not expect to love this business book so much!
Taking Stock by Harvard-educated Peter J. De Silva really impressed us with its personable, practical, and applicable presentation. It's no surprise! Silva has proven himself to be a lifelong masterful communicator and leader—a former CEO, chairman, and board member for multiple successful companies. He has at least 35 years of business leadership experience!
So, Silva really brings a lot pain and pedigree to the table. He is a person of experience who we can truly get behind and want to learn from.
Also, to emphasize how much we learned, this is probably the most notes we've taken of a book!
So, where do we start?
Well, the author essentially demonstrates to us that our success as business leaders can be viewed like a mosaic—a lot of previously-separate, fractured fragments that come together to form a greater whole. What we took away from this is that, in business and in leadership, there are a lot of moving parts. There are times when some parts are going to need more help than others—exposing, exploring, and strengthening weaknesses. This gives us an opportunity to learn, grow, and get better constantly—what the author calls “Kaizen.” Ironically, Kaizen is a Japanese concept that we're also familiar with. In Silva's career, it was championed by his former boss, Ned Johnson, at Fidelity.
There are times when some parts of a mosaic are going to be shining and thriving. This is an opportunity to capitalize on this success and to see how it can be improved and expanded. Always be on the lookout for what works (and what doesn't) as well as why something works while other things don't.
A lot of this book places a heavy emphasis on one key concept: PRINCIPLES or values, especially in contrast to rules. The best analogy that Silva gives us is that the US Declaration of Independence is a collection of principles while the Code of Hamarabi is a collection of rules—one is emulated the world over while the other is mostly a relic of time.
Silva advocates for ten key principles:
What really stood out to us about all of these principles is how much it dealt with dealing with people and treating them well and ethically. The way you treat people is likely going to influence how they treat/view you and your business. If you treat your associates/workers well (like in Principle #6), they will take care of your customers, and your customers will take care of you and your wallet.
People come first. Everything else follows.
Something else we gathered from this book is that we should always be seeking to improve and challenge ourselves. Silva tells us that:
“Good leaders do not let important matters lie fallow just because they are hard or complex. They face the realities of each situation head-on and do the right thing.”
Doing the right thing is also a significant part of this book. A business or leader's ethics and values should never be left to doubt or question. You should seek to be above board and transparent whenever possible. The author tells us that it can take years to build trust and only seconds to lose it.
Working well with others is also important. A high tide raises all boats. According to Silva, “Enlightened leaders know that you do not raise yourself up by putting others down. You pull yourself down with everyone else, making it impossible to accomplish great things.”
We can learn a lot from others, including our competitors and rivals. Collaboration and cooperation can be truly powerful things—especially when they are mutually beneficial.
In another great quote, the author explains that another word for kindness is “considerateness.” This, from our perspective, is thinking about and considering the needs, feelings, wants, and desires of others, not just your own.
Speaking of competitors and rivals, another key thing we took away from this book is that you should seek to distinguish yourself and your business from others, not to be like them. What does that mean? Well, for example, Apple distinguished itself from Microsoft, providing computers that were less vulnerable to viruses. Coke and Pepsi taste distinctly different from each other, and many prefer one over the other. To use a football analogy: there are run-heavy teams, pass-heavy teams, and balanced teams. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. However, the key to each of their success is doing what they do well—recruiting around their identity, practicing, and executing well.
This business book was incredible, and we were honored and privileged to be able to read it.
Check it out on Amazon!
Score: 92/100 (9.2 out of 10)
This cheerful, upbeat, and playful Story Monsters Theme perfectly encapsulates the Story Monsters LLC publishing brand that has swept our literary contests!
This song reminds us of some of the memorable tunes from children's daytime TV shows like Big Comfy Couch, Barney, and Bananas in Pyjamas!
This song captures that innocent, fun, positive, and uplifting mood of something like I Love You (You Love Me) from Barney.
There's something undeniably wholesome, friendly, and happy about this song. We loved and appreciated that.
The lead vocals by Erin Rementer are smooth, friendly, and cheerful. It's very inviting and welcoming. Rementer is an experienced vocalist who performs for Universal Studios and Walt Disney World on a daily basis! She certainly carries a Disney princess-esque vibe to the song.
There's another thing that this song does well: taking an inquisitive, questioning stance that gets the audience (and the kids in the song) thinking. It gets their gears turning and their wheels spinning, something that you want when trying to engage a young audience. The song also builds and explores the mystery and story of the Story Monsters brand itself by explaining what a Story Monster is, what they do, and who they are.
The lyrics are well constructed by Conrad J. Storad, the author of the Story Monsters children's book from which these characters originate.
The song serves as terrific promotional material for the brand, demonstrating for the listener that kids love (or will love) the Story Monsters and Story Monsters books. The message is clear: OUR BOOKS ARE FOR YOU!
Speaking of a young audience, this song features backup vocals by several different children, often participating in the answering of questions prompted by the narrator and singing along with the chorus. They actually do a fantastic job! They add to the youthful spirit of the song and fit the publisher's main demographic.
Another great thing about this song is the effective use of the xylophone as one of the song's main instruments. The xylophone is perfect for a song like this since, like the singing of the children, it fits the tone and the demographic of the song's intended audience. The xylophone is also an instrument that many kids will have access to at their schools and daycare facilities because, like a drum, it is easy for young children to use as it uses the larger muscles of the hand and arm. The piano plays subtly throughout the song and then becomes the focal point of the bridge building to the end of the song.
Lastly, there's a motion to the rhythm of the song. It's a song that you can bob and sway to, even from a crisscross, applesauce seated position (which is perfect for circle times and reading times). The background music was composed by Zachary Simpson. Simpson has over a decade of experience composing music for film, TV, and even video games! He is a graduate of the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.
This isn't something you would probably hear on the radio outside of a commercial, and it's probably not something most people would go out of their way to download. However, for the promotional purpose it was likely created for, it's excellent!
Update: a few days after listening to this, it's still stuck in our heads so we added an extra point. It's really catchy!
Check out the Story Monsters Theme here!
Score: 94+/100 (9.4+ out of 10)
Nancy Grace Roman, Mother of the Hubble Telescope is an eye-catching, magnificent work of art by Gayle Cobb.
It portrays astrophysicist Nancy Grace Roman standing tall amidst the cosmos with a workbook her right hand and reaching out with her left, almost as if to hover or float like a fairy or angel among the stars.
This work almost portrays her like a constellation, among the very stars and nebulous gases that she helped to illuminate for the world to see!
She is portrayed in her younger years, perhaps in her 30s or early 40s. She wears green from head to toe, something we thought was an interesting choice. All in all, the color choice is excellent because it helps her to stand out among the dark purples and dark blues of the cosmos.
The slight wave of her black hair and her green dress imply that she is fly or floating through space. So, the illustrator was able to imply movement very well. It's also a very dramatic and striking pose.
Nancy Roman Grace's face is beautifully painted, looking out and up toward the sky/space, fitting with the title of the book for which this cover was made, Her Eyes Were on the Stars by Jennifer Sommer.
There's a look of awe, wonder, and—interestingly—maybe some sadness in her eyes. Perhaps this sadness comes from the fact that she wouldn't live long enough to see the full fruits of her labor—the colonization of space and the advent of interstellar travel.
The full painting, which runs outside of the cover, is actually even more magnificent since it shows a brighter, more star-rich part of the cosmos seemingly showering light downwards like a spotlight. We understand why this part was left out of the cover because it could be distracting, but it's amazing none the less.
The part chosen as the background for the cover was probably the better choice since it was darker and helped the central figure to stand out more.
One of the more experienced artists among us noted that the stages may have not been cleaned before painting and that the canvas may have been zoomed out with a large brush used. Overall, though, we were impressed by this painting!
What's more is that it opened our eyes to this incredible woman who did so much to help with the exploration and understanding of space around the world!
Check out illustrator Gayle Cobb here!
Score: 91/100 (9.1 out of 10)
Visual Impact by Wendi Pillars is a richly informative educational resource to take your learning to the next level. This book is about learning to more efficiently and effectively use visual imagery, diagrams, and notes to process, remember, and utilize more information than ever before. This book also doubles as a collection of templates that can be copied and used by the user as needed, thus doubling as a workbook.
What's more? You don't have to be an artist to benefit from using visual aids. Stick figures are fine!
This book emphasizes the four domains of learning: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. So, it isn't only useful for students trying to learn. It could also be useful for a public speaker preparing to remember parts of a speech. It could be useful for an author trying to organize or storyboard their novel. It could be useful for a business leader trying to organize group-think ideas from the latest business meeting.
This book also emphasizes the four step in which learning occurs: 1. the brain receiving input, 2. the brain reflecting, analyzing, and connecting this input, 3. the brain manipulating the information to make meanings, 4. the brain exhorting us to use or “do something” with that information.
First and foremost, this is an impressive and ambitious book. It is jam-packed with information and ideas. That's both to its benefit and to its detriment. It's actually overwhelming a lot of the times. We constantly had a feeling that there was just too much information (TMI) and too much going on. That was true for both the prose and for the visual representations. If there was any book that needed to be simplified and more concise, it would be something like this that champions comprehension.
However, all that doesn't take away from the fact that this is a solid and good book for what it is trying to accomplish. Think of it like this: this is a toolbox. It's not a book you necessarily have to read cover to cover in one or two sittings. It's a book you should read as part of a note-taking or life skills class, perhaps over the course of a week or a month.
Like a toolbox, you don't have to use all of the tools all at once, nor should you. You should pick and choose the ones that work for your specific needs and your specific problems. With that in mind, this book becomes much more digestible and usable.
So, what are these tools in the visual toolbox? They include things like colors, arrows, boxes, thought bubbles, bullets, borders, dividers, drawing, and more. There are also more complex concepts like community, dynamic visuals, and equity literacy.
Now, a lot of these tools and techniques are things that you probably do already, either consciously or subconsciously. For example, some of us have used different colored highlighters to help differentiate between different kinds of information in textbooks. Many of us who have written or authored something have used boxes, lists, and diagrams to help to organize what we are writing (or intending to write). Many of us circle, box, or use checkmarks around bits of information that we'd particularly like to emphasize or try to remember. Almost all of us use arrows in notes and Power Point presentations to help connect ideas.
Pillars elaborates on and explains how to better use these tools/techniques and how they work in conjunction with one another.
This book also includes a useful collection of visual templates that you can copy and use as needed.
Check it out on Amazon!
Score: 96/100 (9.6 out of 10)
You Have to Live, Why Not Win? is a truly extraordinary, exceptional, and outstanding motivational/inspirational book by Dave Ketchen and Larry D. Thornton. It features illustrations by Dave Dodson.
You Have to Live, Why Not Win? follows the life, career, and lessons of Larry D. Thornton, a man who went from an illiterate, struggling Black student in a bigoted society to sitting on the board of directors of McDonald's, owning numerous McDonald's across the country!
This is a book for people who need a kick in the butt or a supercharge: entrepreneurs, dreamers, business people, athletes, professionals—go-getters. This is a book about success. It's a book about overcoming adversity. It's a book about changing your perspectives. It's a book about becoming a better person—someone people can get behind.
This is truly a phenomenal book!
It is also a book about breaking down the social constructs that keep us down and keep us back like bigotry, racism, self-defeating mindsets, pessimism, and anti-social behavior.
This book is a wealth of knowledge, wisdom, inspiration, and motivation from a man who has walked the talk. There is something in here for people of all ages to learn from, children and adults. We believe that it is probably most appropriate for those in the reading level above the fourth-grade, although parents and teachers can possibly guide younger kids and students through it. All of these concepts are universal, although some of it may go over the heads of younger children. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try to digest this information, even if it takes a few read-throughs. And if you're going to try, why not win?
This book delivers a lot of great life lessons (and some great quotes to support them).
The key themes of this book are: PEOPLE, PERCEPTION, and PERSEVERANCE. Mr. Thornton tells us that people come first. Mr. Thornton gives many examples of the people who have touched his life in a positive way.
For example, Miss Nichols, the “Old Battle Axe” teacher, believed in him and his potential to go to college and become a successful student there. There was Richard Fuller, the farmer who gave Thornton's family bread when they were impoverished. There was Herman Petty, the man who invited Thornton to join McDonald's. And there was Richard Anthony, who invited Thornton to serve on the corporate board.
Dave Ketchen, the author and a scholar at Auburn University, is also briefly shown as an inspiration to Thornton.
The book also explores other key concepts like disposition (attitude, character, personality, work-ethic), communication skills, and demeanor.
Most of this book is presented as a speech to graduating seniors—perhaps the target demographic—framed between flights in which Mr. Thornton is found being a mentor to a rambunctious teenager on the airplane. This framing is incredibly impressive and shows forethought and knowledge of narrative structure.
The illustrations, for the most part, are solid. There are times when they appear slightly muddled and the facial features/details of some of the character seem a little warped or indistinguishable. This is mostly noticeable on the first few panels/pages (on the airplane). It's as if the illustrator got better and improved as they went along.
It is surprisingly how easy it is to follow most of the dialogue. The writing is good and the text is legible. Here are some of our favorite quotes from this amazing book:
“Learn to work harder on yourself than you do on your job. If you work hard on your job, you can make a living. But if you work hard on yourself, you'll make a fortune... most of your fortunes are not financial.”
“You want to know what I see when I see you, Mr. Thornton? I see a man, just a man that is winning, like me.”
“If you can't take anything, you can't have anything.”
“What do I see when I see me?”
“These hands are going to do special things.”
There's one final, more subtle theme that goes throughout this book, and it's giving back to and inspiring the future generation. We see how people like the Old Battle Axe and Thornton's mom inspired him when he was young, confused, and discouraged. The book encourages us to be beacons to young people in the same way.
Check it out here!
Score: 92/100 (9.2 out of 10)
The Guitar Decoder Ring by Asher Black & Barry Gilman is a bold and ambitious music theory book that focuses on the instrument of the guitar. It is intended as an easier way for a person to learn to play the guitar and to express their creativity using it. For more advanced guitar players, it could provide a different perspective and a way to improve on one's skills, providing another tool in the toolbox.
The Guitar Decoder Ring introduces musicians to the concept of SIGIL—the “new language of guitar” (as the authors call it). This is really the main selling point of the book. SIGIL is presented as a clever, unique way to navigate the fret board. The main advantages of this seems to be: 1. to make the guitar easier to learn and play, 2. to provide an outlet for more experienced guitar players to improv (improvise) and create new melodies without necessarily following strict keys.
If this sounds complicated, it kinda is. But think of it this way: the keys on the keyboard of your computer may seem cluttered and mixed up, but they become simpler to understand when you realize that different areas or regions of the keyboard perform different functions. The keys near the top effect things like brightness and sound, under those are number and symbols that can be altered with the SHIFT key. Then there are the letters. If you become married to the idea that each button corresponds to a letter of the alphabet, you can become stuck just pressing the keys with one finger—accomplishing what you need to accomplish, but doing so very slowly and inefficiently. However, when you take advantage of muscle memory and your fine motor skills, you can use all ten fingers to type what you need to types with exponentially more speed and efficiency. This is kinda how SIGILis supposed to work.
The inspiration behind the title is telling as it hearkens back to childhood nostalgia of the Captain Midnight decoder rings. This was a kind of interactive game using codes presented by the television personality that corresponded to a letter or word, revealing a hidden message for the viewer.
SIGIL is presented as a groundbreaking and special pedagogical, and it really is. It's surely a different way of navigating and playing the guitar strings that may appeal to some players.
What we think is really special about this book is that it advocates for a new way of learning that nurtures creativity and innovation rather than simply pushing a dogma or a rigidly structured way of doing things. This is more like a Montessori approach as compared to a traditional education approach. We actually thought that this was phenomenal! Think about this: most music students are taught how to play an instrument or two. They are taught the keys and notes, then shown sheet music to play back or regurgitate. However, are they taught how to compose their own music? Are they encouraged to create?
The authors encourage their students to compose their own tunes and to create their own music. They are encouraging students to make news things—better things, different things. Isn't this what we should be encouraging music students (and all students) to do?
The book also explores some interesting techniques that may be familiar to some players. For example, the authors cover techniques like bends, slides, vibrato, hammer-ons, pull-offs, palm muting, and tapping.
Check it out on Amazon!
Overall Score: 93/100 (9.3 out of 10)
Book Score: 90/100 (9.0 out of 10)
Art Score: 90 to 96/100 (9.0 to 9.6 out of 10)
50 Paintings for 50 Coworkers is an outstanding collection of art that Steve Offord created for coworkers over the course of 12 months. Some of the pieces of art are jaw-dropping, mindboggling, and awe inspiring!
This book began with a rocky start. The forward is unnecessary and, honestly, quite hard to read due to the font the author chose to use. Thankfully, it's rather short. Also, the first pieces of art (featuring acrylic paint, pencils, and papers) seem relatively simple and straightforward. It was clear that the author/illustrator was just warming up and practicing with these first pieces of art. The art for Cathy on page 5 even admits that “practice makes perfect.” This tells us that the illustrator was dipping their feet in the water for the early parts of this process.
There is a painting of a field of flowers illuminated down the middle (but dimmer and darker on the outside) that may hold greater meaning, perhaps a sentimental one between the illustrator and recipient.
This isn't a best foot forward sort of deal. With that said, these early works are still better than about 95% of the art we normally see.
Thankfully, you can gradually see the art quality and WOW factor grow throughout the course of this collection.
Far and away our favorite piece of art in this collection is titled “Tonya Harding” on page 9. It's not the painting quality itself that's so magnificent, but it's the concept and execution of what appears to be the cracked/shattered plate that it was painted on. This perfectly reflects Tonya Harding's person, career, and life.
We also loved how the illustrator was able to make the gold pattern on her outfit glimmer and pop. The only real issue with this work are the brown spots around the front, back, and sides of the legs. This just seems unnecessary and perhaps like an accident, although you could argue that these are bruises or scars.
The next works that impressed us were a couple of the paintings that were made on wooden fencing: the dog on page 10 and the woman on page 12. Both of these appear to POP out of the page, displaying a layered, 3D-like, depth effect. It's especially impressive considering that these were painted on two separate pieces of wood spaced slightly apart, providing a greater challenge.
After that, the next works of art that wowed us were the ones painted on sheets of metal, especially: the rhino on page 18 and the elephant on page 37. What's most impressive about these is that they are painted on sheets of metal that appear to have peaks and valleys, providing an additional challenge for the illustrator. Our one complaint is that the rhino's right-foot looks like it wasn't finished or painted with the same amount of love and care that the rest of it was. Perhaps that's symbolic for a right-foot injury the recipient was experiencing? We don't know.
The jaguar painting on page 20 rivals the Tonya Harding painting as one of the greatest and most impressive works in the whole collection. The colors are the best in the collection. Furthermore, it's impressive that the illustrator was able to align the jaguar's eyes perfectly with the holes and sports in the metal grate.
The art on page 39 has a particular WOW factor because it was painted using wood from an actual house fire! The painting features a figure skater being illuminated by light from the ashy/charcoaled parts of the wood, perhaps serving as curtains or dark clouds.
The art on page 50 appears to be of Big Boss from the Metal Gear series (perhaps the recipient is a Metal Gear fan), and is magnificently and impressively painted onto a metal grate.
Lastly, and perhaps the most impressive work of art of all, is the reflection of the woman on page 53. Apparently, this was painted using only a glass table and PIGEON DROPPINGS! However, the effect is cool, eerie, creepy, mysterious, captivating, jarring, and strangely beautiful! The woman herself is beautiful, but her hand reaching out like some sort of vengeful spirit adds a horror element to this work.
What's striking is that her hand is the only major light/white spot in the vicinity surrounded by darkness, almost making it appear like it's coming out of nowhere—out of another realm or dimension. We marveled at this work!
Steve Offord is clearly a brilliant, extremely talented, and insanely creative human being. He is also a physician! We somewhat wondered how we would feel receiving one of these works of art with the cryptic, mysterious messages. For example, could you imagine if someone just sent you a broken tailpipe with a painting on it? Or wood from a house fire? Could you imagine if a coworker handed you a note that said, “i could end up alone?” or “i could end up in big big trouble!” Wouldn't that be a little alarming? Like, wouldn't you worry that they may be up to something? Well, thankfully, it seems like the author/illustrator has a good/great relationship with his coworkers and that's not so big of a concern.
Also, the subtitle seems unnecessary and superfluous given that the author doesn't really describe what they learned along the way. You could argue, however, that their art improved and their creativity increased throughout the experience.
The art itself is magnificent!
You can see Dr. Offord's spot for the Art Show Movie here!
Score: 88/100 (8.8 out of 10)
Shadow of the Gypsy follows a man named Josh Barlet, initially appearing to be just a Black Mountain News journalist in a secluded town, whose past comes back to haunt him, pulling him back to his dangerous roots.
Josh is drawn back to his hometown, which he fled under suspicious and mysterious circumstances, after he learns that an ominous face from the past, Zharko, has finally tracked him down and now holds the cards. Zharko is a member of the dangerous and ruthless Russian mob which is executing illegal activities around Asheville and Litchfield.
However, Zharko isn't the only familiar face that Josh encounters en route to his harrowing return. Josh realizes that returning to his hometown would mean potentially reuniting with his childhood friend and long-time love interest, Molly, whom he has heard is wed to an assistant school principal named George.
Zharko knows Josh personally and intimately, including about Josh's love for Molly and desire to keep her safe. He is able to use this knowledge to blackmail and strong arm Josh into one more job—Devlin's “upshot”--to fulfill an old contract and make everything come full-circle.
Josh is seen as the perfect person to pull of this job because he is viewed as a “good boy, who is always obedient, makes no waves or hides what is happening.” This is ironic because it seems like Josh always hides what is happening.
Shadow of the Gypsy is an ambitious crime thriller with promising characters and an interesting premise.
However, we have to admit that it really got bogged down in the weeds. What do we mean by that? Well, the book really takes its sweet time getting to the point and fleshing out any sort of discernible, distinguishable plot. For perhaps the first hundred pages, we felt like we were left in the dark about what was even going on. We weren't sure if we were reading a book about a small town boy returning to his roots, a former gangster who wanted out but found that impossible, a book about the perils of immigration the experiences of Gypsies and Russian immigrants, a love story about Josh and Molly, or a shoot-em-up/beat-em-up crime thriller. It never feels like the book really commits to either of these, rather attempting to do all of them at 20%.
It really feels like this book's narrative meanders and can't just get to the point.
What's kinda hilarious is that the narrative seems to be—at least subconsciously—aware of this. What evidence do we have of this? Well, some of the actual dialogue admits this. For example, Paul (Josh's boss at the tabloids) says, “Will you quit wasting my time and give it to me plain?”
When Paul later asks, “What is going on?” Josh simply replies with a quote that pretty much encompasses this book, “I'm not exactly sure, which is the whole point. You could say the upshot is all a mystery.”
It was strange how many times we started and stopped this book only to start and stop again, coming away with a surprising little information.
The author, Shelly Frome, is an absolutely brilliant person, a Professor Emeritus of Dramatic Arts at Columbia University! He's also a very prolific author with numerous books to his name.
This book almost comes across like a fun side project, a collection of some great, interesting ideas that the author attempted to tie together. It doesn't seem like something that was quite all there--wrapped up with a card and a nice bow. It's rough.
There just seems to be something... off about it. It's really hard to say why that it is, but we think it has to do with framing compounded by the complicated way that information is presented. For example, a lot of the dialogue is deliberately vague and usually sandwiched between the bad broken English of many of the characters.
Yeah, we really didn't enjoy the author's take on broken English. It reads/sounds almost cartoonish, like something from a comedy, not a serious action-thriller or drama. That kinda tarnishes otherwise interesting characters like Zharko and Vlad, who became annoying to read.
Now, with all that said, this book does have some bright spots and positive/promising things about it.
J.J. comes across as one of the hottest, coolest female characters that we've read about this season. She greatly outshines and overshadows Molly as the female lead. Because of that, the main romantic dynamic also gets overshadowed due to a much more interesting potential love interest.
The other thing that we admired was that there were many impressive philosophical, character-building moments in this book.
For example, there's a powerful allusion (and also direct references) to the story of Jonah and the Whale from the Old Testament of The Bible. This is fitting because Josh is a lot like Jonah. He was someone who had a duty to do and an obligation, but he ran from it instead of taking responsibility for it.
Also, Josh constantly draws inspiration from President Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Rider himself, who remains famous for his toughness—even giving a long speech after just being shot by an assassin, shrugging it off like a flesh wound. But, ironically, Josh seems to fall short of his own idealism and veneration of Teddy Roosevelt. Josh tries to be stoic, mysterious, and strong, but he's actually a softy and very vulnerable. You get the impression that Josh might crumble over if you so much as look at him with disdain. But Josh is, ultimately, a secret badass who does have the potential to turn on that next gear and become a Teddy Roosevelt.
The book also does try to say something about the experiences of Gypsies, Russian immigrants, and immigrants/immigration in general. They had been viewed with disdain, distrust, and suspicion for centuries—pushed into corners where they were practically forced to pursue unscrupulous means to survive like crime. Many of the characters in this book are the products of this, victims of a system that doesn't stop churning out desperate people.
The other thing this book does well is to explore the question of whether or not a man or a human being can ever become a new man or a new human being. Can you ever really change?
One line reads: “We are who we are.”
Another theme in this book is the concept of home. What is a home? Is home what/where you make it? Is it a specific place? Is it a specific thing? Could it be a person (i.e. Molly)?
One line from a poem in this book reads: “Take the journey, find your way home.” This line replays multiple times, becoming increasingly relevant.
You can check this book out on Amazon!