Tuesday, October 29, 2013

From Here to Eternity by James Jones

From Here to Eternity
by James Jones
1952 National Book Award
5 stars - epic

ALR Green - one tense, very brief dog scene, but no dogs injured

I can still tell you the exact location on my mother's book shelves of both The Thin Red Line and From Here to Eternity. I read The Thin Red Line as a teenager but never had the stamina for its predecessor.

First and foremost, forget about that dumb movie. Blech. The epic beach scene? So totally not how things actually went down.

At over 850 pages, reading this novel is a commitment and there were times when I thought to give up. Not because it is bad, but it was very uncomfortable in many sections. The story takes place at an army base on Hawaii in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Mr. Jones, a WW II veteran, draws extensively on his personal experience to provide us with an unflinching account of what went on in the army and how it affected individual soldiers.

I didn't find any characters to like. These are bored, young men, far away from home. They spend a lot of time drunk, they gamble, they visit whore houses, and they perform acts of violence against each other just for sport. 

But make no mistake, you are there. Mr. Jones provides us with details about the thoughts and motivations of the men. These guys struggle with life and sometimes I wanted to just slap some sense into them while others I wanted to air lift them back home where they could enjoy a bit of normalcy.

The depiction of women and homosexuals was hard to stomach. Both groups are relegated to the role of whore in one way or another. The women are desperate, clinging beings who use sex as a tool and the homosexuals are equally needy and willing to pay the soldiers in alcohol just to get company. The soldiers, to a man, use the women and homosexuals to satisfy their own desires without ever considering them anything approaching peers. 

The main characters are all enlisted men. Officers float around the periphery, but they don't play much of a role in the day to day. Mr. Jones apparently spent some time in the stockades himself and while the reader might want to think the stockade scenes are exaggerated, I think not. 

We can watch all the happy, buddy movies about the military we want, but I suggest that From Here to Eternity be required reading for anybody who knows somebody in uniform. Being thrown together with strangers, with no privacy, and few escapes, and subjected daily to a hierarchy that cannot be questioned is unimaginable. The men evolve in many ways through the course of the book and it is apparent how the environment forces them into actions that would never have occurred to them in a more normal setting.

Now to be honest, I doubt I will re-read From Here to Eternity (the normal requirement for a five star rating). So why five stars? It's a freakin' masterpiece of writing, that's why. You might not like what Mr. Jones has to say, but damn if he doesn't say it well.

Early on the novel, when Mr. Jones is describing the day to day in a peace time barracks, he brings up the topic of "fatigue duty." This is the routine of keeping the place cleaned up and is called "fatigue" because of its endlessness. It reminded me of housework.

It is the knowledge of the unendingness and of the repetitious uselessness, the do it up so it can be done again, that makes Fatigue fatigue.

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Shot in the Bark by C.A. Newsome

A Shot in the Bark
by C.A. Newsome

ALR Green - dogs run around and get patted

I really did try. I hung in there for 180 out of 221 pages.

First demerit goes to the cover art. Is that or is that not a corgi? Not a corgi in sight in the book. OK, so, that had me fuming, but I at least thought we'd get a nice doggie kind of mystery. Nope. The dogs in the story are all relegated to running around in the dog park, begging for pizza, and getting patted. Not even enough doggie stuff for me to classify it as a dog mystery.

The dog park itself just serves as a convenient place to put all the characters in one place on a regular basis so that they can talk about what's going on.

Bland characters, boring plot. Here's a test. If I moved all the action to the local coffee shop and replaced the dogs with, let's say, donuts, would I have the same book? Yes.

I did skim the ending. Turns out the author leaves the killer (because there is apparently a serial killer on the loose) unknown. Yup, killer gets away to plot and plan another day but all the dorky humans think the case is closed. Sigh.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl
by Gillian Flynn
5 stars - WOW!

ALR Blue - Technically, there is a cat, but it sits on a doorstep, eats a couple of times, and gets patted once. Not a player.

One of the best books I have ever read. Wow indeed.

How to give you a clue without any spoilers?

On the day of his fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne returns home to find the front door of his house open (and aforementioned cat on the doorstep), the living room in shambles, and his wife... gone. But don't even think you are about to read a "who done it?" Not even close.

Attention focuses on Nick as he struggles to make sense out of his wife's disappearance while simultaneously dealing with the critical eye of the media and the hovering parents of his wife, Amy. During the first part of the book, the author alternates between Nick's present and Amy's past as revealed through her journal entries. But things are not as they seem. So totally very messed up not as they seem at all.

From the dust jacket:

Gone Girl's toxic mix of sharp-edged wit and deliciously chilling prose creates a nerve-fraying thriller that confounds you at every turn.

Now then, Pulitzer Prize committee. Why is this not one of your top choices for an award? It is by an American author and it is most certainly about American life. Principally about life in an overly connected era where public image is everything and trial by FaceBook is a matter of routine. Poor nervous Nick, on the day of his wife's disappearance is standing before the cameras, stunned, and instinctively gives a small smile (don't we all smile for the camera?). Immediately "HE DID IT!" 

So this certainly qualifies for a Pulitzer as far as content goes. Writing style? Are you kidding? You KNOW these characters and sweat and pull your hair out along with them. The sentences are precise, not a wasted word, yet colorful enough to paint complete scenes. It's all so real that it is hard to remember it's a novel. 

Ms. Gillian is known for her ability to portray convincingly some of the less savory human characteristics and she does that brilliantly in Gone Girl. I heard an interview with her on the radio. She sounded like a nice, normal person. Who knows where her books come from? Maybe she's just like totally over the top talented. 

I am definitely going to read the rest of her books. But first my brain needs a break because Gone Girl left me feeling a bit done in. Exhausting.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Sightless in Seattle by Claire Anderson

Sightless in Seattle
by Claire Anderson
3 stars - good story, so so writing

ALR Green - Happy dogs doing good work

Claire Anderson gives us some wonderful anecdotes about guide dog boot camp and the challenges of being legally blind. However the writing is painfully terse and one only gets glimpses of what I imagine are fascinating stories.

I particularly liked her recitation of a "day in the life" of living with a guide dog. Made me feel a bit abashed that I don't brush Dexter often enough and certainly am lacking when it comes to brushing his teeth.

I totally see a TV series here. So much so that I sent the author an email encouraging her to look into it. 

Oh, and I also asked her to solve for me the mystery of poop collection. While she did share how poop depositing in a controlled fashion is achieved, well, inquiring minds want to know.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Curse of the Scarab by H.Y. Hanna

The Curse of the Scarab
by H.Y. Hanna
4 stars - dark, scary, fun

ALR Yellow - because it's dark and scary (see above)

This is the first in a series of adventure / mystery stories for young people featuring Honey the Great Dane. 

From the back cover

Honey the Great Dane enjoyed a pretty peaceful life: walking her human, checking Peemail at the park... until the arrival of a puppy named Bean turns her life upside down. But when Bean goes missing - together with other neighborhood pups - Honey sets out on a dangerous quest to find them.

The book is written from Honey's perspective. Along with her best pals from the dog park, Honey is determined to find those puppies. Her sidekicks, a husky, a beagle, and a mixed breed, are all wonderful. Ms. Hanna has really captured the quirks of the different kinds of dogs. And of course Honey herself. Absurdly large, slobbery, and with a heart of gold.

But the story is no lark. Evil is afoot and Honey and her pals find themselves in some very scary situations. There is a lot of drama packed into this short volume. I think that as an adult I was more scared than I would have been had I read this when I was an official young person. I suspect youngsters will fall completely in with the dogs and not be fretting about how long they spend away from home or what all that stuff the beagle is eating will do to his digestion.

I'd put the drama about par with a classic Disney movie. Think Bambi or 101 Dalmatians. Those movies had some pretty intense scenes and so does Curse of the Scarab. In fact I was about two thirds through and it was getting time to go to work and I was late to work because I had to finish. I couldn't take the stress of not knowing how things worked out (and, boy does she ratchet up the action in the end).

This would be a great book to read aloud to whatever child you have at hand. Plenty of opportunity to use different voices and, more importantly, lots to talk about. The moral lessons aren't in your face, but there are some important messages about always helping those who are suffering and not letting stereotypes get in the way of making new friends.

Now then, on a different note, I hope Ms. Hanna will forgive me some humor at the expense of one of her characters. That being the dog Newbie. From the moment he started speaking, all I could imagine was Carmen Ghia from The Producers. If you haven't seen the movie, watch the clip below (starting at 30 seconds).


Thursday, October 10, 2013

Dog Days by Elsa Watson

Dog Days
by Elsa Watson
4 stars - a delightful, happy making read

ALR Green - Folks like me, who tend to be totally besotted with dogs, might have a few yellow moments and shed those happy sad tears, but it's all good.

Jessica Sheldon, co-owner of the Glimmerglass cafe is preparing for the big Woofinstock canine festival. Too bad she just plain doesn't like dogs. In fact she is terrified of them and even spotting one across at a distance sends images of carnage through her brain.

But she's trying and she knows being a good dog lover is part and parcel of being a member of the Madrona community, so when she sees a lost and frightened dog about to be scooped up by the evil dog catcher, she surprises herself by stepping in and pretending the dog is hers.

How is her good deed repaid? A bolt of lightening causes Jessica and white dog Zoe to switch bodies. Yup, BANG, and then Jessica is a dog and Zoe is a human. 

Each retains, what I'll call the "hard wired" aspects of their new hosts. That's a good thing because it enables dog, now human, Zoe to use speech to communicate and human Jessica, now dog, to smell and hear things with ultra keen awareness.

This could have gone downhill fast, but I was delighted that Ms. Watson avoided overly anthropomorphizing things and before long she really had me convinced that these two were existing in each other's bodies. 

What's so cool about the book is that it's light and entertaining, but there is also a lot of stuff snuck in there about how humans can be their own worst enemies when it comes to over analyzing things and being generally up tight. It also highlights dogs as loving, sentient beings who enjoy the moment and just want to be part of a family. In fact I kind of did that happy sad cry thing, almost, well maybe a little, at parts.

In the interest of full disclosure, nutty dog ladies are going to get anxious during the opening scene when Zoe is lost and scared as well as some other points in the story. Stick with it. If you think things are getting too dark, just look at the cover art. You get my drift? No book with a cover like that is going to have anything super icky in it. 

Note that the publisher has classified this book as a "romance." Huh? Yeah, well there is Hot Max and there is a lot of patting and rubbing going on, but I wouldn't put it in the romance section. I'd put it in the "damn I love dogs and this book is for me" section.

Oh, and one last thing. I had to actually (gasp) buy this book because after waiting a year for my library network to produce a copy, I just couldn't wait any longer. Members of the Minuteman Library Network take heart. There will soon be a copy in circulation for your reading pleasure.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren

The Man with the Golden Arm
by Nelson Algren
1950 National Book Award
no rating

I splurged and bought a box full of books from Amazon. I'd just lost patience with waiting and waiting for one of the institutions in the library network to obtain just a single edition of books that had been languishing in my reading queue (some for over a year).

When the box arrived, I kept reading The Man with the Golden Arm for all of a day before I allowed myself to mark my spot and try "just one" of the bounty now sitting in a pile on my reading table. 

The thing is, as I read my newly discovered treasure, the golden arm guy started losing a lot of his luster and I finally conceded that I would not be returning to it.

Doesn't mean it's a bad book. In fact it's a great book in a depressing hopeless poverty stricken drug addict kind of way. Because that's what this book is about. So without knowing how things play out in the story, I can give this one a thumbs up for those keen to pursue great literature. Sadly, I have reading rules and a book, once discarded, has it's bookmark removed and is placed on the outbound pile.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Outsourced by Dave Zeltserman

by Dave Zeltserman
3 stars - better than watching the grass grow... just
ALR Blue - not an animal in sight, not even a bird in a tree

From the back cover

Dan, Shrini, Joel, and Gordon were all software engineers. Now they're out of work thanks to outsourcing. They might not have any job prospects but they have a plan. Desperate, and seeing their middle class lives crumbling apart, they come up with a fail safe way to use their computing skills to knock over a bank. But not even a systems analyst can foresee every eventuality, especially when the Russian Mafia in involved.

So I'm thinking, yeah, that looks pretty good. It will be all about what happens to middle aged folks when their jobs go away and have some possibly plausible stuff about software. Nope. So wrong.

First off, these big cry babies went through a failed start up. Boo hoo. If all the startups I worked at had succeeded I'd be a gazillion-aire. I know lots of good engineers who lose their jobs late in their careers and never get work in their field again, so just the fact of that isn't enough to make me jump on board with the characters in the book. 

I disliked everybody from the start. Dan, the mastermind, is pissed off about his job prospects so when he lands a contracting gig to oversee a bank project where the code is written in India, he takes it upon himself to add a backdoor silent alarm shutdown to the code. Did you hear that? We aren't talking about taking advantage of poorly written code, we're talking about an alleged professional intentionally putting bugs in a piece of SW he is being paid to manage. BEEP! One point down.

Next he seems to have a perfectly clear conscience regarding the peripheral damage from his little bank job. Does it not occur to him that the folks in India who wrote the code could lose their jobs? Folks who are just doing their job and actually did it correctly. How about the bank manager? Oh yeah, he's all kinds of mad at the bank manager for sending the work to India, but he doesn't pause to think that the manager might be operating under impossible constraints. BEEP! Two points down.

Then there are his fellow disenchanted crew who are certainly not like any SW engineers that I know and are, to a man, total creeps. BEEP BEEP! Double point deduction for misrepresenting nerds.

And how the heck do you even write a book where there is not a squirrel or bird or tree or grass or any kind of scenery at all? BEEP! Um, hello?

About now, you're asking yourself, "Hey, Mango Momma, you sound pretty mad at the book, so why even three stars?"

Well, if you forget about the false hook of the title and teaser, then it isn't bad as a fast read, everybody gets screwed, bank heist kind of story. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Sound and the Furry by Spencer Quinn

The Sound and the Furry
by Spencer Quinn
4 stars - oh what fun!

ALR Yellow - but in a good way (see review)

How much do I like Spencer Quinn's Chet and Bernie series? So much that not only did I actually buy this book, I pre-ordered it on Amazon. In hardcover! Yes, indeed. 

In case you haven't heard of Chet and Bernie, Chet's the dog, Bernie's the master and together they form the Little Detective Agency. Got it? But the cool part is that all the books are written by Chet (that would be Chet the dog).

Chet knows his job is helping Bernie solve mysteries, but he's also, well, a dog.

I'd seen worse. The kitchen, which was where we ended up, was kind of nice. It had one of those old stoves you sometimes see that stand on little feet, with space underneath, and in that space, would you believe it? Practically a whole strip of bacon, presently - but not for long, amigo - getting gnawed on by a nervous-eyed mouse. The little guy split in a hurry - and tried to abscond with the goods, abscond with the goods being cop talk for making off with the bacon. In the end, he barely absconded with himself. As for the bacon? Delish, and not really that old at all. Still plenty of crunch left, which is how we like our bacon, me and Bernie. This case, whatever it was about exactly, couldn't have been going more smoothly.

That's the way Chet rolls. He does his best to help Bernie crack cases, but he gets distracted and confused easily. Heck, he's a dog.

This particular book concerns a missing person search in Louisiana. Nice chance for Chet to sample a new venue, full of different delights... and perils.

Which brings us to the yellow rating. Chet is, after all, a detective. And detectives get into trouble. Sometimes scary trouble. Sometimes trouble where you wish Mr. Quinn didn't have such a good handle on doggie thoughts.

Does Chet pull through? Well, let's see. This is the sixth book in a wildly successful series, so you figure it out.

The mystery itself is, once again, fairly apparent to the reader. But that's OK and I will tell you why. The thing of it is that Chet, with his superior canine snooter, picks up lots of clues that Bernie misses. The problem is that Chet isn't a deep thinker, so he doesn't always put two and two together and even when he does, communicating with Bernie can be, well, challenging when one is limited to doggie vocalizations and tail postures. It's all good.

Chet and Bernie remain, for me, the penultimate in doggie mysteries. 

Dog on It - 2009
Thereby Hangs a Tail - 2010
To Fetch a Thief - 2011
The Dog Who Knew Too Much - 2012
A Fistful of Collars - 2013

I'm hoping that Chet takes on an apprentice soon. My guess is he was around two when he met up with Bernie which would make him six now. He'll be slowing down in a year or so and needs to start training up another doggie so that Mr. Quinn can keep pumping out these way cool awesome books.

Oh, and hey, Spenser Quinn, if you are reading this, I'm still waiting for a mastiff to be featured in an upcoming mystery. You just let me know if you need help with the voice because I am totally all over that action, oh yeah!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Couple of Fun Movies

Yeah, I've been watching movies and TV series, but they don't all make it here. It is, after all, primarily a book blog. But here's a duo of fun action movies to watch on a Saturday night.

World War Z
starring Brad Pitt
directed by Marc Forster
5 stars - ZOMBIES!

Just forget about the excellent book by the same name and enjoy. Look at those zombies go! These are super running, jumping zombies. No mushy stuff, just all action all the time. Woo hoo!

Yup, it's goofy and dumb and has some inconsistencies, but who cares? Check out this parody trailer. Oh yeah!

Iron Man 3
starring Robert Downey Jr.
directed by Shane Black
4 stars - great fun, might watch it again as an Iron Man tilogy weekend blowout

Some slow moments, but Iron Man still has it. One of the best movie action heros evah!

Yup, there's a parody trailer of this one too (warning, contains serious spoilers)

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

In This Our Life by Ellen Glasgow

In This Our Life 
by Ellen Glasgow
1942 Pulitzer Prize
1 star - just shoot me now

ALR Green - three happy dogs mentioned in passing (in the first half of the book at least)

The best thing about this book was the original edition sent to me by the library. Apparently the book was acquired in the year it was written so I was able to enjoy one of those deliciously worn volumes where every page opens neatly and one enjoys the tactile sensation of turning pages thickened and heavy from years of human contact. 

It also looks like the Library Police have toned down a bit. The sticker in the back indicates a two cent per day fine for overdue books, two week loan only, and a complete shutdown of library privileges until all fines are paid. That would be like a 32 cent per day fine in today's dollars (as opposed to the 10 cents I pay) and my library network extends a grace period that allows me to float an outstanding balance (not that I ever would) and still check out books.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. The review.

From page 34:

In the midst of it all, [Asa] felt, there was no middle age. There was just youth in the machine and old age under the wheels, but there was no middle age anywhere...

And it only gets worse.

Here we have an extraordinarily depressing book. I made it to page 220 before I had to bail out lest I begin applying to my own life the bleak prospects the author gives her characters.


The writing is magnificent. Every character is described so beautifully that one knows not only the details of their appearance, but also the motivations behind their thoughts and deeds. 

Unfortunately, there is not one happy person in the entire cast of characters. These folks are beyond depressed. In the pages I read, there is no glimmer of hope, no bright light. Every conversation, every setting is heavily basted in despair and hopelessness.

No thanks.