Janet's Book Reviews

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

My name was on the waiting list for two months before I was able to check out The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman from my local library. The wait was worth it. 

After decorated Australian veteran Tom Sherbourne returns from four years fighting in the World War 1 fields of France, each day is a struggle to fend off the memories, the guilt, the horror. He finds peace as a lighthouse keeper and thrives on the order, the solitude, the wild windswept coastline with its many secrets, and the task of keeping the light burning to warn approaching ships about the dangerous coastline. He muses that the light illuminates objects miles away from it but not those close to it, and that becomes a metaphor for the rest of his life. 

"And then he wakes and he’s in a place where there’s just wind and waves and light, and the intricate machinery that keeps the flame burning and the lantern turning. Always, always looking over its shoulder. 

"If he can only get far enough away---from people, from memory---time will do its job." 

Then Tom meets and marries Isabel, a vital and loving woman, and his life takes another turn. When a small boat washes ashore, its occupants a dead man and a baby who is very much alive, the decisions Tom and Isabel make that day will change their lives, and the lives of others, forever. 

Here’s another beautiful passage, just one more reason to read this deeply moving novel. 

"The forest sings to him: the rain tapping on the leaves, dripping into the puddles, the kookaburras laughing like madmen at some joke beyond human comprehension. He has the sensation of being part of a connected whole, of being enough. Another day or another decade will not change this. He is embraced by nature, which is waiting, ultimately, to receive him, to re-organize his atoms into another shape. 

The rain is falling more heavily, and in the distance, thunder grumbles at being left behind by the lightning." 


From Rivets and Rails: Recipes of a Railroad 
Boarding House Cookbook 
by Shaunda Kennedy Wenger

This is a charming cookbook that preserves a historical era as carefully as its cooks preserved their food---and their recipes. As many successes originate, this endeavor was started out of necessity, as Elizabeth Shade Kennedy found herself suddenly widowed with five young sons to raise. She established a boarding house for railroad workers on the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad lines and kept a detailed cooking journal. 

The recipes, tips and and anecdotal notes offer insightful glimpses into Mrs. Kennedy's life as a cook, mother, and boardinghouse keeper. No doubt her boarders were well-fed. This priceless journal documents recipes and traditions that have been passed to the present generation of cooks in Elizabeth Shade Kennedy's family. Historical footnotes add to the reader's appreciation and understanding of the recipes and methods described in the book. In From Rivets and Rails, Shaunda Kennedy Wenger pays tribute to a her ancestor, a great lady and a great cook. 

From Rose Blossom Wine to Wampsie Pudding to recipes for gall stones and furniture polish, From Rivets to Rails offers a fascinating history into home management, cooking and cooks. Many of the recipes could be made today without any changes. Some ingredients and standards have changed since the early 1900s; but wisely, the recipes in this book remain exactly as they were written, and the reader can adapt as deemed necessary. Modern equivalents and cooking standards would have significantly reduced the charm and appeal of this book. 

I loved the instructions for Mathiglum, (fermented honey, water, and brown sugar): "Take one glass before going to bed. Stay there for 48 hours, if you have no one to help you." No malady was listed, simply a cure, leaving readers to imagine its many possibilities. 

For a delightful read and a great historical cooking reference, I highly recommend Shaunda Kennedy Wenger's From Rivets to Rails, Recipes of a Railroad Boarding House Cookbook. Available at amazon.com.


How Do I Decide? Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing 

by Rachelle Gardner

I believe the publishing world has always been confusing and unpredictable for aspiring, new and even well-established authors. Now, with the advent of self-publishing and the thousands of advice-givers clamoring for our attention and business on the internet, it's downright noisy out there.

Addressing an author's need for clear and concise guidance, well-established literary agent Rachelle Gardner of Books and Such Literary Agency has launched a series of field guides for authors. The first, released January 22, 2013, is How Do I Decide? (Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing), a succinct 58 pages long and available as a Kindle book for $3.99.

Gardner's blog receives over a million page views a year. She has worked in a variety of facets of the publishing industry since 1995, publishing eight books and editing more than 100. As an agent since 2007, she has negotiated more than 120 book deals. Now that we've established her credentials, which are impressive indeed, let's get specific about her book, How Do I Decide?

The format is straightforward and streamlined. In a logical progression Gardner defines, in clear and simple terms, the many aspects of publishing writers must understand and weigh before determining which course is right for them. Each section has a checklist which can be used as part of the writer's decision-making process, and then, in conclusion, the pros and cons are summarized in simple, effective chart form.

In addition to the business aspect of the industry, this virtual guide encourages authors to examine their own goals, styles, talents and personalities in order to make the best and most rewarding choices for their own careers. Those choices may be clear-cut for many, though Gardner also notes that even successful and prolific traditionally published authors are finding ways to use a "hybrid" combination which includes self-publishing to advance their careers, options that weren't readily available until just a few years ago.

How Do I Decide? contains perspectives from successful authors James Scott Bell, Addison Moore, Jennie Nash, and Scott Appleton. At the end is a section of links to resources which by itself is well worth the reasonable price of the book, saving writers endless hours of confusing internet searches.

Upcoming titles in this series include: Successful Blogging (The Best Tricks for Building and Growing your Blog); Where Do I Start? (Getting Your Writing Career off the Ground); and How Do I Get an Agent? (What to Do and What to Expect).

Just as I don't leave home without my faithful GPS, I believe writers of all genres, backgrounds and experience will find this field guide invaluable.


Anatomy of a Kidnapping 

by Steven L. Berk M.D

Anatomy of a Kidnapping is a perfect title for this book, as its author, Steven L. Berk, M.D. is a physician, and responded to the events of March 6, 2005 with the instincts and skills he had honed in his many years of practicing medicine. On that day an armed man entered his home, took him captive, and forced him into a white van, where for more than four hours he dealt with a meth-addicted felon with a history of violence, who was looking for money to score more drugs. 

Although the defense attorney and others questioned the choices he made during his ordeal at the hands of this psychopath (when Berk might have had opportunities to flee), Berk justifies and explains these choices logically; he evaluated the situation and did what he thought was best for his family and himself under the circumstances. I would never challenge that statement. Certainly the outcome suggests he made many wise choices in dealing with his captor, and that only he could evaluate the terrifying situation in which he found himself, and determine the strategies he would use to deal with it.

This is an engrossing book that details not only the kidnapping of Dr. Berck, but contains many fascinating anecdotes from his years as a physician that helped to develop his particular method of assessing situations and acting accordingly. “In times of crisis,” he writes, “no matter the nature, a physician must do his best to promote calm, rational solutions to any problem. Even when emotions are running high and a situation is getting out of control, a physician must stay impassive and composed, and practice clear judgment.”

Even at the trial, Dr. Beck addressed the man who had held a shotgun to his head and changed his life forever, and said, “Someday I hope you admit to your crimes and ask forgiveness.”

The book also contains excerpts of testimony from the trial and newspaper articles relating to the case, which contain information from other points of view, adding more depth to the story.

A term Berk often uses is “aequanimitas” which he defines as:  “imperturbability . . . Imperturbability means coolness and presence of mind under all circumstances, calmness amid storm, and clearness of judgment in moments of great peril, immobility, impassiveness. It is the quality which is most appreciated by the laity though often misunderstood by them.”

The most moving part of the book comes at the end, when in a dream Dr. Berk is able to make amends for mistakes he has made in his life, and learns of good deeds that benefited others, many of which he had not known. Later, imagining the worst scenario that might have happened if his kidnapper hadn't freed him, he writes a touching letter to his son. 

Berk explains how his own concept of aequanimitas was strengthened and refined by his kidnapping as he concludes: “Jack Lindsey Jordan taught me a lesson using his temper, his shotgun, his attempt at intimidation. I could not afford to fret over small things or imagined fears again. I would celebrate my life, my experiences, and my contributions at every opportunity. I would fear no evil, large or small. I had become much closer to a life of aequanimitas.”

“Perhaps that is the most important lesson coming from my experience: to live each day to its fullest; to celebrate the joys of family, work, and good health; and to appreciate our every moment as precious.”
I found the book compelling and well written. It’s a definite page-turner. Even though we know the outcome from the beginning, we want to see the actual events unfold, and Dr. Beck invites us into his unique personal perspective as he does so. 

I had another reason for wanting to read Anatomy of a Kidnapping: my son is a physician in residency in El Paso, Texas, at a hospital and clinic associated with Texas Tech University, where Dr. Berk is Dean of Medicine and Provost of Texas Tech Health Sciences Center. In other words, though somewhat distanced through the chain of administrative command, Dr. Berk is ultimately my son’s boss. With Dr. Berk at the helm, he is in excellent hands. 

                   Steven Berk, M.D.


Today it's my privilege to review his book and talk with Canadian Ricky Tsang, 
author of Ricidulous: An Autobrainography

Book Review 

(Note: I first met Ricky online when I reviewed his book for Readersfavorite.com, and we've corresponded regularly since)

Ricky Tsang’s book is a journey into a brilliant mind; the reader will find humor (dark/bawdy and/or hilarious), love, tenderness, truth and fantasy within its pages. 

Diagnosed with Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy at age seven, Ricky has witnessed the gradual wasting of his muscles as a result of this cruel, incurable disease. When he lost the use of his hands, he turned to writing (with the aid of his computer) to express himself. This book is a result of several years of posts on his popular blog.

I enjoyed his original and creative style, and because of his humor and sense of the ridiculous, the reader does not read about his life with pity but with interest and respect. Though many of his essays are philosophical or humorous, an occasional mention of incompetent nurses (on whom he must depend for every physical need) illustrates the fragility of his daily existence. He finds daily support from his dedicated family, of whom he writes with great love and admiration. 

He also writes with great tenderness of love, especially romantic love, and criticizes our cultural obsession with beauty; in a series of essays dedicated to women of every nationality and culture, he expounds upon their particular qualities that he finds beautiful and encourages them to celebrate these features, while expressing his great admiration for them. 

This is a touching and intriguing book; no one label can describe this multifaceted look into the genius of Ricky Tsang’s mind. I hope he continues to blog and publish, as his is a most original voice.


Photo taken September 17, 2011 at Chapters in Ajax, Ontario, first book signing for Ridiculous. Ricky sold a record-making 60 copies.

Q & A with Author Ricky Tsang

Where did the idea for the book originate?

When I was young, I always wanted to become a cartoonist, but because of my physical disability, I eventually lost the ability.  I found writing some years later and started off with poetry, only to realize there were too many restrictions in my need for expression.  I started a blog in 2006 with a practice run a couple years prior and because of my growing readership, decided to turn it into a book.

What inspired the title?

One of the reasons I started my blog was because I felt faint all the time, at the time.  I was dizzy every day and thought I was dying.  As I continued to write however, I stopped feeling it.  It was then that I realized what had happened.  I added too much vinegar in my shark fin soup and wasn’t really dying!

The origin story of this book is “Ridiculous”.  Humility drives me to call my ramblings nonsense, while arrogance forces me to claim a little mindfulness.

What kind of physical disability do you have?

Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy is a genetic but not hereditary disease that slowly weakens and deteriorates voluntary muscle strength and mass.  It’s x-linked recessive and inherited from mothers alone, affecting mainly boys and rarely girls.  I was diagnosed after a muscle biopsy at Sick Kids Hospital when I was seven years old.

What genre is your book?

Since it talks about my life and is mainly a journal of thoughts, I call it an “autobrainography”.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

“Ridiculous: The Mindful Nonsense of Ricky’s Brain” is a book about everything and who I am, a record of my brain throughout the several years of writing that reveals the strange and perhaps contradicting dichotomy of my person, and includes both fictional (short) and real-life stories, not to mention romance, tragedy, comedy, self-help, philosophies, and much, much more.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

It took a little over five years, since it was a blog.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Women inspired me.  They’re the epiphany of selflessness and innocence.  I suppose I must have sensed this from a very young age because I’ve always had a fascination towards the female gender.  I write to learn, and perhaps even encourage women to know how beautiful they are for their individual selves.

In my journey of romance, I’ve come to realize that a woman’s intentions are what make her gorgeous.  Understanding her is the greatest journey to undertake.  With this book, I hope to encourage women to know how beautiful they are for their individual selves and defy the perverse misconceptions that society has brought upon us.

How did you feel when you held the first printed copy of the book in your hand?

I never did, actually.  That would be impossible for me.  However, when I saw it for the first time, I felt very accomplished, especially as a self-published writer.  I did everything myself, including the editing and designing.

Your book recently won an award.  Tell us about it.

Back when I first published my book, I submitted it to Readers Favorite for a review.  I was privileged to receive one from author Janet Kay Jensen and was thrilled to get five stars from the amazing writer.  In mid-2012, after some media attention from newspapers and a television station, I entered a contest from the aforementioned, international website.  I won the Honor award soon after for the non-fiction humor category.  I was too excited!

What’s next on the writing agenda?

Right now, I’m working on a genuine autobiography regarding my life with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.  It’ll focus on an attitude of gratitude.  I’m also planning on a sequel to “Ridiculous” and a romantic novel.  This time, they will be traditionally published.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

In this book, I’ve uniquely written love letters to all races of women.  Why?  This depends on whether you’ve taken the time to recognize the three extensions of a woman’s heart; her eyes, smile, and touch.  Have you ever noticed how the sunlight glows in her radiance, when her lips dance in song to the melodies of the most angelic curves?  If so, then you might understand because her warming gracefulness instils a resonating silence that helps us to remember that the infinite beauties of the universe can neither be corrupted nor destroyed.

Because of my need to redefine all things known to humanity, I envisioned a way to reinvent racial stereotypes and make them funny and endearing.  There are many challenges when it comes to being a woman, and I wanted to take the initiative to encourage even one person to feel good about herself.  When I found the opportunity to include everyone, I went ahead and did my thing.  I always try to be original.

What would you like readers to know about Ricky?

Our bodies are worthless if we don’t have a little character, and people who know me personally would agree that I’m a character, which isn’t necessarily a good thing… for others.  I blame it on sarcasm.  I’ve learned an emotional independence that continues to strengthen my foundations as a person because physical limitations are simply external.  I acknowledge without focusing on them.

It’s funny because while I was blogging, a number of people accused me of playing the sympathy card.  I have a disability and include it in my writings from time to time.  Muscular Dystrophy is a significant part of my life and not something I can get away from.  Then again, I can’t control how others react, and if some of them choose to feel sorry for me, it’s their problem.  I call it “reverse sympathy” because there’s no hope for them either.

I’m glad and I’m sad and I’m mad and I’m bad.  I’m stubborn and ridiculous and my humour is insane.  I’m mysterious and eccentric and annoying and outspoken.  I don’t compromise with anything because I’m not a one-dimensional person.  I’m me.

How can people find Ricky Tsang on the Internet?

As a ridiculous person, I obviously have a ridiculous amount of links, but everything is on my official website: http://www.rickytsang.ca

Thank you, Ricky! 

More Ricky links:

The Toronto Star featured Ricky on its front page; http://www.rickytsang.ca/ricky/thetorontostar/

Here is a YouTube video preview of his book  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1rmxNMU9aI

Author Biography - from Readersfavorite.com

Ricky Tsang came into the world on May 20, 1981, scaring the daylights out of all the pretty nurses when he smiled at them without tears. He’s one of the oldest living individuals with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a “genetic but not hereditary disease” as he likes to say (for fear of sounding contagious), that slowly weakens and deteriorates voluntary muscle strength and mass. He was diagnosed after a muscle biopsy at Sick Kids Hospital when he was seven years old, but only cared about the ice cream his parents had promised.

Born and raised in Hong Kong and eventually becoming a Canadian citizen, this aspiring author, blogger, songwriter, and artist from Ajax, Ontario was wheelchair bound by the age of nine. It was only after losing his ability to draw with his hands that he pursued the literary arts.

As a motorized madman, Ricky isn’t looking to be an inspiration, but instead uses his peculiar sense of humour to find a little ridiculousness in life. He focuses his writing on romance (and comedy) because his lifelong dream is to make every girl throw up. It’s all a part of his evil plan, according to the one who’s writing in third person, of course!

Ricky will continue to write until he finally goes out of print since Duchenne’s is apparently “fatal”, and until then, who knows how many more chicken wings may survive?

Ricky and his mom



From the publisher: SYNOPSIS

Buck Cooper is Texan, obese, and invisible to his colleagues. And to the voluptuous Allison Turner, the girl of his dreams, he is way below par. Buck's entire life is about fitting in, a feat he's been struggling to achieve but has never succeeded. Until serendipity lands him in Japan. Right in the middle of a sumo match.

As his life takes a new turn in a country where being big can mean fame and fortune, Buck must embark on the most dangerous, yet adventurous ride of his life—to find the ultimate meaning of love and acceptance. Even if it means risking his life and giving up everything he has.

Big in Japan, a novel by Jennifer Griffith, was released  on July 21, 2012. It is a novel that takes the reader into the heart of sumo in Japan. Using humor in her narrative, Griffith seamlessly juxtaposes the human drama behind Japan's national sport with one man's pursuit of love and acceptance.

My comments: 

American Buck Cooper’s accidental journey into the sport of Sumo wrestling is fascinating and laugh-out-loud funny. The reader gains an inside view into the world of Sumo wrestling, which we quickly learn is not for the faint of heart. The fast-paced plot has plenty of surprising twists as well as engaging moments of hilarity and poignancy. Soft-hearted Buck emerges as a gritty, tough and memorable hero. I highly recommend Big in Japan by Jennifer Stewart Griffith. Two thumbs up!

Interview with author Jennifer Stewart Griffith

Give us a one-sentence synopsis of your book:

Buck Cooper is a big fat Texan nobody who goes to Japan and accidentally becomes the first blond sumo wrestler.

What inspired the idea for your book, Big in Japan?

My husband—he’s always my muse. One lunch hour he was home and we were sitting around brainstorming what my next story should be about. I mentioned knowing of an American guy when I was in Japan who’d come to train as a sumo wrestler. My husband said, “That’s it! You have to write about that!” I said, “But I write love stories.” He said, “So, why not have the sumo wrestler be the hero of it?” At first I just guffawed, but then the idea wouldn’t leave me alone.

What inspired the title?

There was a song in the 80s with that title, but there’s that common phrase among Hollywood people who claim to be relatively unknown in the U.S., “But I’m big in Japan.” Well, in Big in Japan Buck Cooper is a nobody in the U.S. due to his obesity, and he goes to Japan and is suddenly noticed for his size instead of being invisible because of it—and his size works in his favor.

What is the genre?

Big in Japan is straight-up commercial fiction. It’s written for adults, with the main characters all being in their mid-twenties. But it’s appropriate for younger readers as well. There’s action, but it’s not an action novel. Sports (namely, sumo) are the venue, but it’s not strictly a sports novel. There’s love, but it’s not a romance. Buck has to let go of the guy-next-door that he’s always been and become the warrior he was always meant to be.

Who would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Oh, I don’t know. Buck would need to be a heavy, very tall guy in his 20s, with blond hair—someone who can do comedy and who can handle the physical demands of doing sumo (which is pretty intense as a workout, which you’d probably never guess.) I sort of wish Chris Farley were still alive. Since he’s not, I’m guessing the actor would sort of need to be an unknown. For a while I was thinking of a cute Disney teen actor I’d seen, Doug Brochu, but I’m glad all that would get left up to casting agents anyway.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I’m not sure how long the first draft took. There were about seven rewrites in the three-year total process.

How did you conduct your research in the sport of sumo wrestling?

It was tough, actually! There’s not much about sumo in English online. I ordered a book (which turned out to be a printout of what I’d read on Wikipedia.) Trolling blogs and going to the JSA (Japan Sumo Association) website frequently, as well as some fan sites—those were my best sources.

What surprises did you discover in your research?

Well, that sumo is really simple, for one. The way a wrestler wins is to either make his opponent step outside the ring or else touch the ground with any part of his body other than the bottom of his foot. That’s it. I also discovered that sumo has a darker side. News articles over the past few years showed that there have been some pretty brutal hazing incidents that have marred the sport’s image and brought it lower in the estimation of the Japanese people, for whom it is their national sport (much like baseball is America’s.) I tried to incorporate some of that seedier stuff in the novel, but I tried not to dwell on it too heavily. I wanted Big in Japan to be frothy fun.

How did you develop the main character, Buck Cooper? And why is he from Texas?

My main goal with creating Buck was to make a truly likable guy. I wanted him to deserve everything good, and give the audience a real reason to root for him, to want him to rise above his challenges. So, I gave him as many heroic qualities as I could while keeping him a real guy.

And as for Texas, I wanted him to be from somewhere that was the antithesis of Japan. Everything’s big in Texas (including Buck’s 6’6” height, as well as his 400 lb~ weight). In Japan everything’s small. I’m 5’1” and I loved it! When I lived there for that year and a half, I could go to the grocery store and reach everything on the shelves. (It was fantastic!)

What is one message you want readers to learn from your book?My main purpose in writing it was to entertain, and if readers come away inspired by something, great! I always love the idea that there’s someone out there for each person, someone who will really appreciate the “real person inside.” But that’s the romantic in me. Some people have told me they loved Buck because he overcame great odds, and he learned to stop letting his body image hold him back. Others have said they loved that he found “the thing” that let him break out of his old self and become his real self—and they wished their own children could find that for themselves, the thing that creates confidence in them. I think the message I hope a reader finds is the one meant for him/her to find.

Big in Japan was recently named as one of the top reads of 2012. (http://www.ksl.com/index.php?sid=23340441&nid=1009&title=the-best-books-of-2012&s_cid=queue-1) How did you feel when you learned about this? Oh, my heck! I was just floored. I couldn’t believe that it could possibly figure in among those other wonderfully written books! But it was a thrill to be able to call my dad and tell him about that and hear him laugh—that my book about a sumo wrestler that falls in love could be so well received. That was the best. I bet my grandpa would love it, too, if he were still with us. He loved Japan and was my biggest supporter when I was over there.

What responses have you gotten from Japanese readers?

I have a friend from high school who married a Japanese woman, and he has circulated the book among their Japanese friends. For a while I kind of worried that the villains in the book might not come across well to a Japanese reader, but he said no, they realized jerks are jerks in any country! Haha. So, yeah. I guess it turned out fine. He also said they were suckers for a love story like that, and that they’re waiting for my next book. Pretty good response, then. ??

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Well, Japan is a little off the beaten path for most of us, so I wanted to portray a lot of the feeling of Japan in the novel so readers could take a virtual trip there. When I lived there I lived in Japanese apartments and ate the food and slept on the floor on a futon mattress and rode a bicycle and lived the life, so I did my best to convey all of those details to the reader. I wanted reading it to be like a very inexpensive vacation to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Where can readers learn more about you and your books?

My website is authorjennifergriffith.com. I’m on Facebook at AuthorJenniferGriffith, and my Twitter handle is @griffithjen. I love to hear from readers. Big in Japan is available at bookstores and through online booksellers.

Thank you so much for the interview, Janet. I really appreciate you!

Big in Japan
Jennifer Stewart Griffith

ISBN: 0984880119

ISBN-13: 978-0-9848801-1-9

Format: Harcover, Paperback

Pages: 320

Publication Date: July 28, 2012

Publisher: Jolly Fish Press, LLC



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