Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles

Care of Wooden Floors
by Will Wiles
3 stars - but maybe 4 for you

I'm reviewing this books as if I were recommending them to myself. So, for me, this is a three star book, but I think that for others it is easily four stars. 

I heard about this book on my local NPR news station. They interviewed the author and it sounded delicious. 

An unnamed British copywriter agrees to house sit his friend's apartment in an unnamed Eastern European city. A city where our hero, unfortunately, does not speak the language. The gig comes with the simple instructions of "feed the cats, don't touch the piano, and make sure nothing harms the priceless wooden floors." Easy peasy, right? Wrong.

Warning, this is a very dark novel. A bit Kafka-esque. The writing is exquisite. Describing a supermarket:

"The supermarket occupied the ground floor of one of the spearhead-shaped blocks, a wedge like the prow of a ship. A heavy antique iron clock was cantilevered out from the sharp point of the block, above the store's front entrance, layers of cellulite-lump black paint and hefty Roman numerals speaking of another age. It was a purgatory of sticky linoleum and radium-blue insectocutors."

Or when he describes being caught up in the market crowd:

"...the market was heaving; one's direction of travel was utterly limited by crowd consensus... and often your course was entirely away from your intended direction, dictated only by a new shudder of peristalsis in the folds and creases the stalls left for their wretched consumers." 

The entire novel takes place over the span of eight days. During those days, there is, of course, the inevitable spillage of wine on the precious hardwood floors. A small stain, how bad can it be? 

But our hero is drawn into an ever more desperate circle of misfortune and before long, dealing with a circle of wine is the least of his worries. Along the way, he is confronted by the carefully placed notes of his friend which seem to anticipate his every move. Every cabinet he opens, even the books he chooses to page through have notes that seem to have been written in response to what he is thinking at that moment.

A lovely touch is the cleaning lady. The hero doesn't understand a word she says, but she is clearly not happy with him. Her words in the book are written as "-------!"

Just when the reader thinks it can't get any worse... it does. Many surprising twists. Reading this book was a claustrophobic, panicky experience. Wow! That's great writing.

So why just three stars? Because, for me, the ending... ARG! Just NOT what I wanted at all. 

No spoiler I. I will leave it to others to decide if they like the ending or not. Even if you, like me, are frustrated by the conclusion, it's worth reading for the fabulous writing.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Victims by Jonathan Kellerman

by Jonathan Kellerman
4 stars - highly recommend

I've been a fan on Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware novels since he first started pumping them out back in 1985. This is the 27th book in the series and while there have been some along the way that would have merited just three stars, this one is certainly of the four star variety.

Alex Delaware is a forensic psychologist who works with the Los Angeles police department as a consultant. He's called in whenever there are particularly grisly and vexing crimes, most likely committed by persons who have slipped their cogs. 

I'll reiterate... grisly. The murders in these books are frightening. Almost icky and scary enough to cross the author off my list. But he keeps me coming back because his writing is just so darn good.

Alex's sidekick is Milo Sturgis, homicide detective. The reader learns just as much about Milo as about Alex. Kellerman does a great job filling us in on the private lives and intricacies of his characters. That's a must for a series to survive. Great descriptions of minor players as well, so I never have the feeling of a character appearing as a convenient prop. They are all three dimensional beings.

In one of the books, Alex picks up a girlfriend, Robin. I wish he would dump her. I don't like her at all, but that's not terribly important.

He also acquires a French Bulldog somewhere along the way (I forget how). She's awesome. 

The writing makes the novel. Kellerman has a knack for pacing. Sure, the earlier parts of the books allow for nice pauses to go do whatever, but by mid book he has usually wound things up to the point where I will miss sleep to keep going. The books are written in the voice of Alex which means that we only know what he knows. Super. So we get to puzzle things out along with Alex. There are plenty of plot twists, but nothing predictable or usual about them. Not so convoluted as to frustrate and when the pieces fall into place it is logical and satisfying.

Every book deals with some sort of mental illness or another. Fascinating and scary stuff. 

Here's the dust cover teaser from Victims:

"Not since Jack the Ripper terrorized the London slums has there been such a gruesome crime scene. By all accounts, acid-tongued Vita Berlin hadn't a friend in the world, but whom did she cross so badly as to end up arranged in such a grotesque tableau?"

More murders occur, Alex and Milo go to work, and we are away. 

Lots of information about the nature of mental illness throughout all the novels, but never in a preachy way. More creepy than anything else, because what protection does the average person have against the mind that has lost its grip on reality? 

If you choose to read this, I will add a semi-spoiler footnote.... I think the author likes dogs. 'Nuff said.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin

Scarlet Sister Mary
by Julia Peterkin
1929 Pulitzer Prize
4 stars - recommend with some caveats

Banned in Boston! Woo hoo! Now that's what I'm talking about.

Turns out there was a bit of a change by the stuffy old Pulitzer committee in 1929 and I say, "Hear hear!" The language of selecting the annual winner had heretofore called for a book which "best present[ed] the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standards of American manners and manhood."

Seriously? Get over yourselves.

That clause was changed to read "preferably one which shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life." Now we're talking.

The action takes place on a Carolina plantation sometime during Reconstruction. The players are entirely African American (startling in itself) who live in the old slave quarters of a plantation and scrape out a living by continuing to pick and sell cotton. Mary marries at the tender age of 15 and within a year her philandering husband has abandoned her and their infant son (conceived prior to the wedding - uh oh).

Mary decides to turn her back on the church which holds the little community in its grip and proceeds to engage in dalliances with a variety of nameless, faceless men, which results in her giving birth to nine children in about 15 years. No welfare mother she. Mary supports her brood through her hard (yet overly romanticized) toil in the cotton fields. She loves all of her children, cares for them as best as she is able, and continues to view men as tools. Go Mary!

The writing is seductive and drew me in quickly. Intentionally or not, the author does a fine job showing how difficult it can be at times to distinguish between extreme religion and belief in magic. In fact Mary gets better results from the local shaman than she does from all the bible thumpers chastising her for her lifestyle. 

All that said, if this book were written today, I think the author would have a hard time finding a publisher. The author, herself a white woman who grew up on a southern plantation, never gets past the image of African Americans as "other." I applaud her discussions of primitive, human emotion, but also recoil from her need to populate her novel with a "primitive" population (at the time), thereby allowing the uptight, well mannered, white folk to reassure themselves that they are above all that. Given that this was a best seller when first published, methinks there were more than a few of those "Age of Innocence" corseted, whiny women huddled under the blankets, experiencing equal amounts of thrill and envy at Mary's scarlet ways. 

So I'm recommending this novel as a period piece only. 

All in all, I'm glad the Pulitzer committee pulled the plug out of their collective butt holes and awarded the prize to Scarlet Sister Mary. Hopefully the next few years of novels will be equally intriguing.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Hangman's Root by Susan Wittig Albert

Hangman's Root
by Susan Wittig Albert
3 stars - good, predictable fun

Ah, sweet relief.

After a bad run on one and two star books, I settled in for a cozy mystery by an author mentioned by one of my followers. 

Just what I needed to freshen up my reading pallet.

China Bayles, lawyer-turned-herbalist in Pecan Springs, Texas is the heroine. The mystery centers around the apparent suicide of a professor at the local university. A professor who was engaging in dubious animal experimentation and the sworn enemy of one of China's good friends, Dottie the cat collector.

Suicide... or was it? After Dottie is arrested and charged with murder, China sets about finding out what really happened. She calls an old law school pal in to help with the investigation and we are away.

Plenty of twists and turns and enough quirky characters and subplots to keep my interest. 

Absolutely formulaic and that is just what I was looking for. Bad guys are really bad, good guys are vindicated, nobody gets hurt (OK, except for the dead guy, but we didn't like him anyway, did we).

Friday, November 9, 2012

Things Your Dog Doesn't Want You to Know

Things Your Dog Doesn't Want You to Know
by Jeff Johnson and Hy Conrad

1 star - ugh

Dammit! This book had so much promise. Dogs telling tales about what they are really thinking? Fantastic.

But, no, icky, barely got into it. Why? My biggest complaint is that the dogs all had the same voices. And their voices were mainly well constructed sentences with complete thoughts. Even the attempts to go into short attention span activities (like waiting for dinner to be served) lacked punch.

The authors should have consulted with some of the amazing dog bloggers out there who pen blogs on behalf of their dogs. Now those dogs have personality. In dogs that blog land there are dogs who can't spell, dogs with peculiar speech patterns, and, most of all, dogs who really express themselves as, well, dogs. 

Ish. Since the binding isn't broken, my edition is still good as new so I'm donating it to the charity auction at work. 

You want to know how dogs really think? I'll give you one example from the blog of my (now deceased) mastiff, Mango. Read it here. Or check out Dexter's blog here. Then, of course, there is Miss Puddles who has a remarkable way of telling her stories. Check her out here.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

The Bridge of San Luis Rey
by Thornton Wilder
Pulitzer Prize
1 star - could not finish

Calgon - Take me away!

What is up with the Pulitzer Prize committee of the late 1920's? Oh blech.

A nice, thin volume, of barely 100 pages. Surely I can get through that. 

Here's the premise. A bridge in Peru collapses, sending five people to their death and a local cleric, Brother Juniper, seeks to find out what led those specific five people to be on the bridge that day. That sounds pretty good. Almost like a reverse Final Destination.

The book opens with the bridge collapse and then there is a section for each individual victim (well, I suppose there is since I didn't make it through victim number one).

On page 20 and I am really struggling with the dense prose, so I flip back to the dust cover for support. That read well. "Be strong." I counseled myself. But before I even reached page 30 my wee little brain was crying out for relief. "Don't care! Don't care! Don't care!"

I noted there is a recent movie edition. Uh oh. The reviews were far more entertaining than the book. 

From the NY Times:
...has appeared virtually out of nowhere, sneaking into the market with a stealth that reeks of flop sweat. [But] how bad could a movie be that features talent as serious as Robert De Niro, Kathy Bates...
That bad, alas.

Sounds like a pass.

Listen up oh Pulitzer Prize committee of old. Just because these books are supposed to be about the human condition, that doesn't require them to be dreadful, overly verbose tragedies. I, for one, engage in the human condition every day and I assure you that there are bright moments when it is great to be alive. 

Now then. Reading through my reviews of the earlier winners, I am nostalgic for those volumes which, although marked with the inevitable tragedy, were still quite readable and, dare I say, frequently enjoyable. One must assume that the award committee was water logged in the fashion of the day when it came to what was considered great literature. Hopefully those pompous committee members who subjected me to not one, not two, but THREE one star disasters in a row have something better coming soon.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield

Early Autumn
by Louis Bromfield
Pulitzer Prize

1 star - couldn't finish

Oh come on, Pulitzer Prize committee. Please. 

I never even heard of Louis Bromfield. OK, I don't know everything. "Perhaps," I thought, "I will discover a wonderful new author. Isn't that part of why I am reading these Pulitzer Prize books in the first place?"

The book got off to a rocky start. I found the introduction of characters a bit convoluted and almost needed a scorecard. It didn't help that there were so many names that were the same: Sabina, Sybil, Sabine (yes, both Sabina and Sabine). I stayed strong and within fifty pages or so I had them mostly sorted out.

Then there was the fact that the action takes place in Massachusetts, but in the fictional town of Durham. I never got my head around that and part of me kept thinking everybody was at their summer place in the Carolinas.

So, what of the story? Rich family. Snobby. Black sheep. Crazy lady locked up in the north wing. Sick kid. Blah, blah, blabbity, blah, whatever.

The main character is Olivia Pentland. Sad lady. Trapped in loveless marriage. Boo hoo. Sorry, but I wasn't getting into it at all. 

The author almost drew me back in with the promise of revealing some family secrets as well as the budding romance between poor Olivia and the common landowner, O'Hara. Almost. Lots of words, lots of details, but all the wrong details. Cardboard figures. 

By page 100 I was skimming, by page 150 I was done. Blech.

Good thing, too, because I went online to see how it all turns out and I had I struggled through the remaining half of the book I would have been pig biting mad by the end. Turns out none of the surprises were very surprising after all.

Let's see...

The great founder of the Pentland family was a bastard child who stole the name from an aristocratic family. Uh oh. The old man really was having an affair but he kills himself by riding his horse off a cliff. Whoops. Olivia decides that the noble thing to do is to become the leader of what is left of the Pentland clan rather than taking a chance on love (i.e. running off with O'Hara). Please. Seriously?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Wallace by Jim Gorant

Wallace: The Underdog Who Conquered a Sport, Saved a Marriage, and Championed Pit Bulls - One Flying Disc at a Time

by Jim Gorant

2 stars - it's complicated, see review

I wish I could have given this book more than two stars, but I'm trying to be honest here. 

There's good news and bad news. I'll start with the good news.

Wallace is a pit bull whose life nearly ended more times than once early on. He had a bad start after which he was put into a shelter where he did not fare well. Not only did Wallace suffer from breed discrimination, but he had behavioral issues which put him at risk of forever being labeled a dangerous dog which would have ended his life.

Thanks to the dedication of Roo Yori and his wife, Wallace's true calling in life was discovered. Roo and his wife took in Wallace, issues and all, and found that the perfect release for his drive and energy was to participate in the sport of dog Frisbee. 

Sounds great, right? The problem is that Jim Gorant is the author. I tried to read Mr. Gorant's book about Michael Vick's dogs and I had to put it aside about halfway through. Why? Because Mr. Gorant's writing lacks heart. 

Jim Gorant is a sportswriter by trade and his writing style feels more like an article in Sports Illustrated than a story about dogs, humans, and how their devotion to each other can make miracles happen. I almost didn't finish Wallace. That's how dispassionate the writing was. 

The focus on the competition, the winning, overshadowed the emotional parts of the story for most of the book. Even when writing about the sacrifices made by Roo for his dog, the love of Roo and the bond he had with Wallace, there was something missing. In fact something so seriously missing that I began to wonder if Roo himself was more focused on competing and winning than in salvaging Roo and giving him a great life. 

A quick trip to Wallace's YouTube site set my mind at rest on that question. Sure, the competition videos are amazing, but what I really enjoyed were the videos of Wallace going through his bucket list (now that he is, I believe, retired from competition). Roo did a short PR movie of Wallace (you can watch it here) and that is the video that reassured me that there really is a special bond between Wallace and Roo. 

There are several videos of Wallace performing. It's awesome stuff. You can watch a sample here.

In summary. Great story. Not so great book.

The Avengers

The Avengers
4 stars - recommend

First off, I will tell you that I am a big fan of super action, blow things up kinds of movies. If there are aliens, monsters, natural disasters, I am there. I put The Avengers in my Netflix queue just because it was an action movie. I didn't have a lot of hope that it would actually be good.

But it was. Wow!

This movie is just plain fun. There aren't any icky love stories, no social commentary, just lots of things blowing up, monsters, and super heros. Woo hoo!

What put this movie into the four star category was that it never tried to be more than it was and it sure felt like everybody involved in it was out to have a big old party. The writing is great. Seriously. Overblown statements about dominion over the Earth are made with tongue firmly in cheek. The actors all play their characters straight. The Avengers themselves have their own personal agendas and they don't always get along with each other. They make fun of themselves and their fellow super heros.

The scenes add enough clever details that I might even pitch into the five star category by watching it again. For example. In the super spy control room, all seriousness in discussion of what to do next and as Samuel L. Jackson wanders off screen, we briefly see one of the workers flip his computer screen to a game of Tetris. 

There are no painful jokes or gags (and nobody gets kicked in the nuts). 

Best scene by far (and this won't spoil it) is the Hulk kicking Loki's ass. Almost hit the replay button for that one. 

Yeah, people get killed. Hey! That's what happens when Norse Gods duke it out, but it is all comic book style action. No guts spilling out, or arms flying through the air, so I would rate this as OK for kids as well.

Oh, and of course, the battle scenes and special effects are quite satisfying.