Tag Archives: book reviews

Holly Hollywood Presents: Up A Creek

Because Linda Rockstroh, the author of this charming and clever little book taught me English in high school, I take particular pleasure in offering a review of it. As you will doubtlessly infer from the synopsis and, injunctions against the practice aside, the cover of the book, this is a mystery story conceived and written for younger readers.

That said, and because I am a teacher who focuses on issues of basic literacy, if I taught younger children—8-to -12-year old kids are probably this book’s intended audience—I would buy 40 copies of this book posthaste for use in my classroom.

Conventionally, this is a mystery. The ten-year-old protagonist, Holly Stone, aka the Holly Hollywood of the title, moves from Hollywood, California to the small town of Lebanon, Indiana. There she immediately and more or less simultaneously becomes involved in two new friendships—which earn her the “Hollywood” moniker—and a mystery. You’ll need to buy the book to resolve the mystery because I find synopsizing an annoying exercise that too easily gives up spoilers.

What I can tell you about this book is that although it is a genre (again: mystery) story, it nicely incorporates some vocabulary-building devices that I think any teacher or parent will welcome. One such technique is as simple as it is elegant. Because Holly is a budding cinematographer, each chapter is titled with a term of art from the world of film production. Ms. Rockstroh—a filmmaker herself, incidentally—underwrites each chapter heading with a brief and edifying definition of the named term, which is a difficult balance to achieve. She also uses Holly’s internal dialogue to define appositively the words she uses in the dialogue. For example, on page 14, Holly, who speaks to the reader in the first person, relates that obsession is her “new favorite word” and defines that abstract noun as “…something you’re hung up on and can’t get out of your head.” That’s a tried and true strategy for vocabulary building, but also tricky. As you can see, it’s done well in this book. However, it doesn’t take too many uses of this device for it to become tedious. In the hands of this author, happily, no such overuse occurs here.

Another fictional device that is stock in mysteries is the cliffhanger at the end of a chapter. This is another technique used with just about perfect restraint in this book; again, my own tendency would be to yield to this strategy because of its ease, and write a book characterized by the tedium of its chapter conclusions. Again, you’ll no such excess in this novel.

One of the great sins, in my estimation, that writers commit when producing material for children is writing overly precocious characters. One sees in this in family-oriented situation comedies: a child makes an ambiguous, often ribald remark which canned laughter then backstops. That’s a precious affectation, usually inauthentic and insincere, and mostly annoying and off-putting. Ms. Rockstroh commits no such errors of literary judgement in her book. That makes Holly Hollywood a relatable and genuine character for young people reading this book or for educators designing lessons around it.

At the price for which this book was on offer at Amazon when I bought it ($5.99 in early April of 2019), this book is a great value and therefore well worth a chance. Even at full retail (I assume a corporate publishing house would charge between eight and fifteen bucks for a book this size) this book provides great value for parents and their children–who will all but certainly enjoy it.

Rotten Rejections: Ironweed

[As this blog probably indicates, or more accurately belabors, I find the folklore of books and publishing endlessly fascinating. I think the choices publishers make, based as often as not on their assessment of the market for a book, says a lot–and much of it not good–about a culture and a society. One of the most famous rejections in publishing history concerns William Kennedy’s magisterial novel Ironweedwhich broke down the barrier to publication of the remainder of his distinguished oeuvre. The serial rejection of Ironweed so exercised Saul Bellow that the Nobel Laureate famously said to Cork Smith, an editor at Viking, that “the author of Billy Phelan should have a manuscript kicking around looking for a publisher is disgraceful.” In the end, Bellow intervened on Kennedy’s behalf at Viking. The rest, of course, is publishing history, as The Albany Cycle as the novels that accompany Ironweed are known, joined the ranks of great American literature.]

“There is much about the novel that is very good and much that I did not like. When I throw in the balance of the book’s unrelenting lack of commerciality, I am afraid I just have to pass.”

“I like William Kennedy but not enough. He’s a very good writer, something no one needs to tell you or him, and his characters are terrific. I cannot explain turning this down.”

Excerpted from: Barnard, Andre, and Bill Henderson, eds. Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections. Wainscott, NY: Pushcart Press, 1998.

Rotten Reviews: Ann Beattie

“…Beattie’s admirable eye for the telling detail has unfortunately developed a squint…”

Commonweal

Excerpted from: Barnard, Andre, and Bill Henderson, eds. Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections. Wainscott, NY: Pushcart Press, 1998.

Brewer’s Curious Titles: All Quiet on the Western Front

“(German title Im Westen nichts neves). A novel (1929) of the First War by the German writer Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970). Brutally realistic, and written in the first person, it is prefaced by a statement:

‘This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure for those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have accepted its shells, were destroyed by the war.’

In 1933 the book was publicly burned by the Nazis as being ‘defeatist,’ and Remarque was deprived of his citizenship. The title is ironic. It refers to the fact that a whole generation of his countrymen was destroyed while newspapers reported that there was ‘no news from the west.’ The film version (1930), directed by Lewis Milestone, was a landmark of American cinema.

The title, together with that of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934), is played on in All Quiet on the Orient Express, a novel (1999) by Magnus Mills (b. 1954) about a man who doesn’t take a train to India.”

Excerpted from: Crofton, Ian, ed. Brewer’s Curious Titles. London: Cassell, 2002.

Rotten Rejections: Northanger Abbey By Jane Austen

“We are willing to return the manuscript for the same (advance) as we paid for it.”

Excerpted from: Barnard, Andre, and Bill Henderson, eds. Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections. Wainscott, NY: Pushcart Press, 1998.

Rotten Reviews: Romeo and Juliet

“March 1st—To the Opera and there saw Romeo and Juliet, the first time it was ever acted; but it is a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life, and the worst acted that ever I saw these people do….”

Samuel Pepys, Diary

Excerpted from: Barnard, Andre, and Bill Henderson, eds. Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections. Wainscott, NY: Pushcart Press, 1998.

Rotten Rejections: J.R. Ackerly

We Think the World of You by J.R. Ackerley

“not nearly dirty enough, and far too English.”

Excerpted from: Barnard, Andre, and Bill Henderson, eds. Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections. Wainscott, NY: Pushcart Press, 1998.

Rotten Reviews: Howl

“It is only fair to Allen Ginsberg…to remark on the utter lack of decorum of any kind in this dreadful little volume… ‘Howl’ is meant to be a noun, but I can’t help taking it as an imperative.”

John Hollander, Partisan Review

Excerpted from: Barnard, Andre, and Bill Henderson, eds. Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections. Wainscott, NY: Pushcart Press, 1998.

Rotten Rejections: The Ginger Man

“…publication of The Ginger Man would not be a practical proposition in this country. So much of the text would have to be excised that it would almost destroy the story, and even a certain amount of rewriting would not overcome the problem…. I do not think you will find another publisher who would be willing to undertake the publication under present circumstances.”

Excerpted from: Barnard, Andre, and Bill Henderson, eds. Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections. Wainscott, NY: Pushcart Press, 1998.

Rotten Reviews: Tom Wolfe

I: The Kandy-Kolored, Tangerine-Flake, Streamlined Baby

“One wants to say to Mr. Wolfe; you’re so clever, you can write so well, tell us something interesting.”

Saturday Review

II: The Painted Word

“There is plenty of hot air in this particular balloon, but I don’t see it going anywhere.”

John Russell, New York Times Book Review

Excerpted from: Barnard, Andre, and Bill Henderson, eds. Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections. Wainscott, NY: Pushcart Press, 1998.