Sunday, September 29, 2013

Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller

Coming Clean
by Kimberly Rae Miller
2 stars - fluff

ALR Yellow - Brief, yet disturbing mentions of various pets

Coming Clean is Kimberly Rae Miller's autobiographical sketch of growing up with parents who are hoarders.

This review would have been much more scathing had I written it after reading the first half of the book, but by the end I had mellowed a bit.

Too bad Ms. Miller didn't wait about 20 years when time would have, hopefully, given her the opportunity to take a bigger view of things. The book is painfully self absorbed and her parents come through as shadow figures lacking depth and character. From a literary perspective, the prose is as compelling as the supermarket checkout robot "move your.... bananas... to the belt."

I have to assume that Ms. Miller is no dummy (heck, she told the reader she has an IQ of 138 on page 10, a fact that added no value). But she managed to take what must have been horrific conditions during her childhood and provide no more insight than the reality TV shows that she (rightfully so) disparages.

What a missed opportunity to discuss the challenges of mental health issues and to provide readers with some of the wisdom she gleaned regarding hoarding behavior and the underlying causes.

I couldn't help but feel sorry for her parents. They seem like loving people who've had a lot to deal with. Well, now they've got exposure in the media to deal with as well. Good luck with that.

There's a reason organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon hold anonymity as one of their highest values. Here's a quote from an article in The Telegraph

... the antidote to shame is not necessarily incontinent openness – just as the remedy for constipation isn't diarrhoea.

There's a difference between sharing important information to help folks understand mental health issues and throwing innocents under the bus in order to fulfill your own need for public catharsis.

On a more minor note, people, please, it's The Boston Common, not The Boston Commons. There's only one and every time I see or hear it referred to in the plural it's like fingernails on a chalkboard.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrimur Helgason

The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning
by Hallgrimur Helgason
1 star - very clever but....

ALR - Blue (no animals at all - at least as far as I read)

Hitman Tomislav Boksic (a.k.a. Toxic) seeks refuge in Iceland after one of his hits turns out to be an undercover FBI agent and his face shows up on the most wanted list.

Mr. Helgason is a very clever writer. The book is written in the first person of Toxic and his thoughts and words involve numerous phrases and observations that evoked an internal grin on my part.

So, I'm looking for a quote to add to my review and am confounded because I can't find a single clever thing that doesn't involve expletives or deprecating remarks about women or nationalities. And that's the problem.

I'm not the squeamish sort (heck, I loved Pulp Fiction and Good Fellas) but there is only so much I can absorb before it loses its edge and just becomes a chore. There's nothing to like about Toxic, I was prepared for that. What I wasn't prepared for is 50 pages (as far as I got) with no real story save the ramblings of a demented mind. 

I didn't want to find out what happens to the unfortunates that get to know him in his assumed guise of "Father Friendly" (a man of the cloth whom he murders at the airport in order to assume his identity). I super didn't want to find out if some innocent animal was introduced in the story only to be terrorized by the main character.

On to other things.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Time Out of Mind by Rachel Field

Time Out of Mind
by Rachel Field
1935 National Book Award "Most Distinguished Novel"
4 stars - delightful

ALR Green - very minor character of wee terrier type doggie named Frisky who is well loved

Oh dear, look at that racy dust cover. The edition sent to me by the library network was sans dust cover. Just as well, since the cover doesn't suit the contents.

The book is set in the late 19th century. After the death of her father, ten year old Kate Fernald and her mother head to the coast of Maine where mom has a job as housekeeper to the Fortune family. The Fortune fortune comes from shipbuilding and sailing. Major Fortune is a widower with two young children, a boy, Nat, and a girl, Rissa who are both around Kate's age.

Kate hangs with the Fortune children but she's also part of the working class community. Neither betwixt or between, the working class thinks she is putting on airs, the Fortune family allows her to play with the kids, but excludes her from family gatherings. No worries, she seems happy enough.

Poor Major Fortune, though, sheesh. He's fighting progress all the way, what with building wooden sailing ships when steam ships are taking over and grousing about the fad for building summer homes along the shore. 

Then there is his son, Nat, who just wants to write music, but his old man says, "no way, you will be a sea captain" and, well, that kind of breaks the poor lad.

The writing is rich and luxurious. The characters well drawn. As for the plot....

The thing of it is, that the plot twists are, well, non-existent because one sees them coming from miles away. But the book is written in the form of a memoir, so I'm not too bothered by that. After all, isn't it human nature to craft our pasts in such a way as to form logical stories leading up to all the pivotal events in our lives? 

Kate has a time of it, but she seems pretty adaptable and doesn't have regrets about her actions, which is kind of rare. Now then, that cover. Well, there is actual S-E-X in the book. Seriously. Not heaving bosoms and whatnot, but I'm pretty sure there was sex. That's rare for a novel written in 1935 when for the most part all you get are vague descriptions of men gallivanting about and babies somehow being conceived. So there's that.

But that isn't really the central part of the story. The story is about the beautiful Maine countryside, the inevitable march of progress, missteps with consequences, and, of course, the many faces of human love and how it can cause both pain and joy. 

Good stuff happens to Kate, bad stuff happens to Kate. She is filled with joy, she is filled with sorrow. Basically, she's living her life, right? 

I read this book coincidentally with my husband being hospitalized (don't worry, he's on the mend). It was the perfect escape during those long hours. A story that drew me in, where I cared about the main character but with nothing so horrible as to cause me distress. Four stars because I am going to try another one of Ms. Field's novels at some point.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Pilgrim's Wilderness by Tom Kizzia

Pilgrim's Wilderness
by Tom Kizzia
4 stars - a well researched and written account of one man's madness

ALR - Green - While I suspect their many animals were not any better off than the family members themselves, they do not play a major role in the story.

Robert Hale, a.k.a Papa Pilgrim, is a nasty piece of work. No two ways about it. This is a heartbreaking story about how one man can take control of innocent lives for his own twisted means.

Masquerading as a "back to nature" wilderness type guy, Bob Hale takes his family of wife and fifteen children into the Alaskan wilderness. Purportedly to live a Godly life, but really to just carry out his own version of deceit and perversion.

By isolating his family, he is able to raise his children to fear him as well as any outsiders. In particular, he indoctrinates them with fear of any and all authorities.

His Alaskan neighbors originally embrace the family as fellow pioneers, but they slowly change their minds as they are subjected to acts of thievery and harassment. 

During the first half of the book, Hale's primary adversary is the Alaskan park service. He is a homesteader in the gigantic Alaskan park lands. A right and a privilege which he scoffs at as he bulldozes through protected lands and intimidates any park official intent on imposing law and order. 

Things become very dark indeed during the second half of the book. As his children mature into adults, they begin to question the lifestyle imposed on them. A lifestyle full of beating, torture, intimidation and incest. 

The older children eventually escape from his clutches and seek shelter with another local family who provide for them the courage to press charges against Hale, who is ultimately brought to justice. With the help of friends and a surprisingly sympathetic representative of the US government, the Hale children learn to face what happened to them yet still maintain their Christian values and love of God.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

Two Years Before the Mast
by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
1 star - nope

ALR Green - save for some albatrosses, whales, and dolphins, no animals were even mentioned in the part of the book I managed to get through.

In his preface, the author discusses why he wrote this book. The reason being that while there were several "entertaining" books available about life at sea, they were all written by navel officers or passengers and thus there existed a literary hole to fill regarding the life of the common sailor.

Following a bout of measles which affected his eyesight to the point where he could not continue his studies, Mr. Dana left Harvard to serve on the crew of the merchant vessel, Pilgrim, in a voyage from Boston to California (via Cape Horn) and back again. The book is drawn from his journal entries during that trip. Two years before the mast.

Unfortunately for me, Mr. Dana just isn't a great writer. I wasn't bothered by the cataloging of daily chores or the technical, seafaring language, but I had hoped for a bit more eloquence regarding the voyage. Instead, it was quite flat and tedious. I knew I was in trouble when his description of the wild storms around Cape Horn evoked no more emotion in me than the passages regarding the sailor's diet of salted pork. 

I abandoned this ship after a mere 75 pages.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Last Policeman by Ben Winters

I'm adding a new rating, the Animal Lover Rating (ALR). If you are like me, one scene where an animal is abused or traumatized can ruin a story, so I figure forewarning is appropriate. Since the ALR explanation will often be a bit of a spoiler, I'll put the details at the end of the review. Here's the rating system:

RED - scary stuff, danger, either animals are cruelly treated or you will cry and cry
YELLOW - caution, possibly some animals in scary situations which might or might not resolve happily
GREEN - nothing to fear
BLUE - no animals at all (as if) or only the briefest mention "oh look at the cows"

The Last Policeman
by Ben Winters
3 stars - worth reading
ALR - Green

There's a big ass meteor headed for our planet. Thanks to modern science, everybody knows the exact date of arrival and that when it hits it will immediately wipe out a big chunk of the planet and leave the rest a cold, ash covered place with unknown chances of human survival.

So now what do you do? The arrival is six months away when the book opens. People are reacting in various ways. Some are ditching everything and doing their "bucket list" others are trying to just go about their business. Inflation is out of control, there are new strict laws (as in your trial date is... never), but for the most part, folks are living their lives. I mean, after all, you can't run, you can't hide, and you don't know if you're on the direct hit path or not.

In Concord, New Hampshire, Hank Palace, newly promoted police detective, is doing his job. So when he is called to a suicide that looks like something more, he dutifully treats it like a homicide and tries to find the perpetrator. Easier said than done. Nobody else in the department seems to care and the dead guy's family and friends are all taking the suicide story to heart.

I actually found the book a bit disturbing and I'm not sure I will read the rest of the series. Because we can see the world, society, unraveling in subtle (and some not so subtle) ways and all along I'm wondering what I would do and getting kind of freaked out.

It's not a bad little book. It's a quick read and will keep you guessing up until the end. The ending itself was so so, but since there are two more books, you can keep going if you so choose.

ALR - Green
Very minor poodle-ish dog character who sees his master killed but is later adopted and seems to be just fine.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

The Distant Hours
by Kate Morton
5 stars - delicious

First, a confession.

I'd seen this and other books by the same author show up on the "return this in two weeks or else" shelf of the library. I never took one home. Why? Because the cover art and back blurb led me to believe that these would be nothing more than transparent romance novels. Subsequently, I hesitated when a friend recommended the book lest I find myself giving a one star review to a book that she enjoyed.

Well, clearly I've been missing out. 

The story, in brief, centers around Edie, whose mother is quite upset on reading a letter that turns up after being lost in the mail since World War II. 

Milderhurst Castle, apparently housed Edie's mother during the worst of the London bombings and her time there was kept a secret until the arrival of the letter. Curious, Edie, goes to visit the castle where she meets the Blythe sisters. Three elderly women who spent their lives in the castle and are now rattling about in it and holding on to family secrets. As the story continues, the reader is offered a narrative alternating between past and present as Edie's search for the truth heads towards a collision with the author's retelling of the past through the eyes of the Blythe sisters. 

The writing is everything I could have hoped for. Ms. Morton paints vivid pictures with her pen so that one feels the fierce rainstorms, smells the countryside, and is most certainly a bit thrilled by tours through the castle. The characters are nuanced and real. Each with her own regrets, her own dreams, and her own secrets.

One might imagine that a step back would reveal too much drama, but this is not the case. Every twist in the plot is quite plausible. Every disappointment and misstep sadly human. 

We are not overburdened with long conversations as Edie, as well as the sisters Blythe, are primarily introverts and much of the story is told through their thoughts and deeds with actual human interaction kept to a minimum. Oh, I can relate to that. I knew I had found a kindred spirit in Edie on page 16:

I don't have many [friends], not the living, breathing sort at any rate. And I don't mean that in a sad and lonely way; I'm just not the type of person who accumulates friends or enjoys crowds. I'm good with words, but not the spoken kind; I've often thought what a marvelous thing it would be if I could only conduct relationships on paper.

And on viewing the books "floor to ceiling" in the library at Castle Milderhurst...

My fingers positively itched to drift at length along their spines, to arrive at one whose lure I could not pass, to pluck it down, to inch it open, then to close my eyes and inhale the soul-sparking scent of old and literate dust.

As for the ending, well, all books must end and when one is wallowing in such a wonderful work, it is a bit stressful to see the last hundred pages waiting. Once over my sorrow at turning the final page, I concluded that the ending was just fine. I will be adding more of Kate Morton's books to my list.

Yes, there is a dog in the book. A lurcher (which is an intentional cross between a sight hound and some other dog). Although it is not explicitly stated, I fear he does die in the end, but he seems to have a happy enough life in his brief appearances during the telling of the tale.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Savage Sam by Fred Gipson

Savage Sam
by Fred Gipson
2 stars - oh dear

It does distress me when a book is recommended by a friend and it is not to my liking, but these things happen.

First a note on the unfortunate cover art. On page one of the novel, Sam is described as 

... big-footed, rump-sprung pup, sort of liver-speckled, with flop-hound ears, a stub tail and a pot belly that was all appetite.

Um, hello? That couldn't be further from the curious blend of Golden Retriever and Lab on the cover of the edition I read. Sigh. 

Murder, torture, animal abuse galore, and that's just in the first fifty pages.

The story is told in the first person by Travis, a fifteen year old boy living in Texas in the year 1870. 

Travis, his six year old brother, and a 12(?) year old neighbor girl are kidnapped by Indians (what we would call Native Americans nowadays, but I'll use the terminology used by the author). Why do the Indians take them? My guess is because they are generally PO'd at the white man, but no reason is ever given.

The Indians proceed to carry their quarry at breakneck speed across miles of Texas all the while stealing horses and causing general mayhem. 

But, hey, this is a dog story, right? Sam is the son of the famously dead at the end dog, Old Yeller (note Sam does *not* die). He is particularly attached to Travis's little brother, Arliss, and is hot on the trail of the Indians (that is once he recovers sufficiently from getting a hatchet in his back). Travis can hear Sam baying along somewhere behind them.

Eventually Travis escapes, meets up with Sam, and then with the posse put together to go and fetch him and the other two children to safety. They all follow Sam some more and catch up with the Indians whom they slaughter. Children return home, Sam recovers from the multiple wounds suffered during the whole adventure and there you have it.

As a faced paced adventure, the story fulfills its promise. But as a dog story, not just my cup of tea. It's overall an incredibly brutal and violent book. Since the book came out of the juvenile section of the library, it would appear that the target audience would be young people. I certainly wouldn't recommend this for young children. For teenagers, it isn't any more violent than an action movie so if it gets them reading, I'm all for it.

I understand the Disney movie based on the book softened things up a bit (as in the poor old family mule is traded with other Indians rather than having it's throat slit in front of Travis and the broiled remains subsequently served for dinner). Plus, I doubt a 1963 Disney movie actually shows a 15 year old boy stripped naked, beaten, and then tortured with hot coals, but I could be wrong.

I don't doubt that some horrific violence was perpetrated by the Native Americans as they attempted to defend their land from invaders. That stuff goes down plenty today all over the world. The author even eludes to what has the Indians so wound up when one of the men on the posse talks about how the white men are messing with the buffalo, but it's a point easily missed and overall, the impression given is that the Indians were just plain mean. 

Finally, as for Sam himself, he seems like a good dog. He's certainly one tough dog. Savage? No. Just loyal to the end.

The Panther by Nelson DeMille

The Panther
by Nelson DeMille
4 stars - super main character, great story

Nelson DeMille writes big, fat books. This one was 620 pages. I run hot and cold with him. When they are to my liking, I can't wait to read them and start to get antsy as the end draws near, wishing they were twice as long. When they are bad, I usually toss them aside with frustration after 100 pages or so.

This was one of the good ones.

Here's the setup.

Anti-Terrorist Task Force agent John Corey and his wife, FBI agent Kate Mayfield get packed off to Yemen to track down and kill or capture The Panther. The Panther himself is a nasty piece of work. Born in the USA to parents who immigrated from Yemen, he somehow developed a deep hatred of the United States and went back to Yemen to become one of the top ranking terrorists. 

He's gotta go and Kate and John are just the duo to do it. Trouble is, we're talking Yemen, FBI, and CIA. What a combination. Can't trust anybody. There are double and triple crosses and nobody is really telling it like it is.

The book made me curious enough about Yemen to want to look it up online, get a sense of the geography and the history. But you won't need to do that. Mr. DeMille provides a lot of that information in the book. These sorts of exercises often leave me confused and frustrated, but Mr. DeMille does a great job of meting out information in a manner that is easy to digest as well as highly educational. Short story is, stay away from Yemen. What a mess.

The majority of the story is narrated by John Corey himself. I liked him. He was very real. Just sarcastic enough to elicit a few chuckles, but also seriously concerned about his life and safety and that of his wife. He has some inappropriate thoughts and remarks that are clearly to compensate for the insanity surrounding him and not because he is some super dude who is immune to danger.

On meeting the CIA agent assigned to the mission:

Weird. And for the record, his handshake was more of a jerk than a shake, and the skin was cold. Maybe he was dead.

On entering the city of Old Marib:

The place was creepy, and the dark mud brick buildings looked like high-rise haunted houses. It was deathly still, except for a weird wind that whistled through the streets and through the shells of buildings, and small dust devils appeared and disappeared in the reeds and rubble. The words 'post apocalyptic' crossed my mind.

I mean, the place smelled dead - like old ashes and rotting...    something.

Nothing overly literary or macho, just the regular human reactions.

By midpoint I had developed my own theories about what direction the story would take. It kind of went along with what I thought and kind of didn't. That's a good thing. The author provided twists and turns, but not for the sake of keeping you guessing. Every change of direction made sense.

There's plenty of action and danger and not a lot of mushy stuff. The characters are developed by how they react to what is going on around them rather than tedious back stories. 

I'm just wrapping up a one week vacation. I recommend tackling this (or some other Nelson DeMille) under similar circumstances. This is a book to read in giant swallows, not to sip a few dozen pages at a time over a period of weeks.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Trophy Exchange by Diane Fanning

The Trophy Exchange
by Diane Fanning
3 stars - goes fast

Exactly what I was looking for to clean my brain out after the spectacularly depressing Grapes of Wrath.

The book opens with eight year old Charley Spenser happening upon the body of her murdered and mutilated mother. Ew.

Detective Lucinda Pierce is called in. Detective Pierce not only had half her face blown off during a domestic violence case, but also was involved in a call-out that turned very very bad (as in internal affairs investigation bad). Ew again.

Ms. Fanning is apparently better known for her true crime novels and it shows during the first third of the novel. Stylistically, it sounds more like true crime than a regular book. But she finds her voice after a while.

Nothing extraordinary here in either the characters or the mystery but the chapters are short and the pacing kept my interest.

The ending was a bit too tidy for me and the motivation behind the murders was dealt with in a rather cursory fashion. Ms. Fanning isn't going to jump to the "gotta get another book by this author" list. That's OK. The time reading was well spent.

One scary scene involving a cat, but the cat is fine.

I did learn a new expression "creeping a house" meaning to break into a person's house and mess with their stuff just to screw up their mind. Hopefully not a phrase I will ever have need for.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath
by John Steinbeck
1940 Pulitzer Prize
5 stars - great book, but ever so depressing

Ach! I had to set aside time to get through the last 150 pages or so in one big swallow because reading this book was so depressing. Oh Pulitzer Prize committee, is there no joy in the world?

How many times have I read this? I don't know... four or five. Yes, a great story, an important story to read, but oh man!

The story centers around the Joad family. Tenant farmers in Oklahoma, they, along with an astonishing number of other farmers, are forced off their land during the depression. Forced out by big business that sees a profit to be made off of factory farming. 

With no where to go, nothing to eat, the Joads pack up and join hundreds of thousands (yes, you read that right) of people headed out to California in search of work. 

Predatory businessmen abound to take advantage of the migrants. They sell them useless vehicles, give them pennies for their belongings, all with an eye on the precious bottom line. Things aren't any better in California where the land owners take advantage of the abundance of labor to knock down wages below subsistence levels. The people are helpless. Attempts to unionize are met with violence from the local constabulary who are, apparently, in the pockets of the businessmen.

Well intentioned people in California, soon become fearful and desperate. People who originally helped the migrants with food or shelter are quickly overwhelmed by the number of them and close their doors, making the migrants increasingly threatening in their attempts to provide food for their families at any cost.

There just isn't any alternate path for these people. There's no ray of sunshine (despite the happy ending of the movie version). It's one big mess.

I recently had a discussion with a co-worker regarding welfare and unions. He spoke from his privileged middle class cocoon about how we should stop giving hand outs to people and how the unions are destroying business. Maybe I should hand him this book (although he proudly proclaims that he 'doesn't read novels'). I admit that both welfare and unions have gotten out of hand, but I would never support their total demise. What kind of country are we if we allow good people to starve or to be killed and maimed due to savage working conditions?

The Grapes of Wrath is raw and harsh. You won't find any happy scenes to allow you to snuggle down in your recliner and think "oh, that isn't so bad." That's OK. That's even good. Plenty of people in the world today living under similar conditions. No need to look back in time. 

The photo below has become the iconic image of that era and the hardship suffered by so many Americans. 

There are few independent farmers left in this country. What has driven them out? Don't downplay the part that you and I have played. Our constant quest for an endless supply of perfect fruits and vegetables and tasty meat, all at lower and lower prices has created an environment where big business wins every time.

Think about that the next time you balk at paying more for locally grown. 

But I won't leave you totally in despair. Check out this video from the Peterson Farm Brothers.

Now I'm off the cheer myself up with a good, wholesome murder mystery.