Monday, May 27, 2013

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Storm Front
by Jim Butcher
2000
****
4 stars - great entertainment



This one came in as a recommendation from one of my followers. Thanks. As promised, it is Philip Marlowe meets Harry Potter. 

Harry Dresden. Wizard and private eye. 

It is now the Monday of Memorial Day weekend and I've spent the last two days in bed fighting a noxious cold and flu, so not thinking well enough to write a full review. Suffice it to say, I will read more in this series and might even sample one of Mr. Butcher's "swords and horses" books.

I'll give you the dust cover synopsis.

Harry Dresden is the best at what he does. Well, technically, he's the only at what he does. So when the Chicago PD has a case that transcends mortal creativity or capability, they come to him for answers. For the everyday world is actually full of strange and magical things - and most of them don't play well with humans. And those that do - they enjoy playing with humans far too much... like a cat with a mouse.

That's where Harry comes in. Because it takes a wizard to catch a - well, whatever the hell it is he has to catch.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Animals Make us Human by Temple Grandin


Animals Make us Human
by Temple Grandin
2009
*****
5 stars


I'm writing this review more than a little distracted by the tornado disasters of the past 48 hours (so forgive me if this isn't quite up to snuff). My heart goes to all those who have suffered loss and devastation that I cannot even imagine. 

Here goes...

This book is for anybody who cares to know more about animals and what motivates them as well as what is required to give them a good quality of life.

Temple Grandin is one of the foremost experts on animal behavior. Her specialty is the care of food animals and she has spent decades advocating for more humane treatment of them. Her belief, which has been proven over and over, is that food animals can have a good quality of life and die a peaceful and stress free death when they make their trip to the slaughterhouse.

It isn't a topic most people want to consider. Sure, that bacon tastes great, but thinking too much that there is a sentient being behind that cut of meat is enough to put one off their food. 

But it's an important thing to consider. If you are going to eat meat, eggs, dairy, don't turn a blind eye to the fact that those products all come from animals. Many of whom, even today, suffer horrible conditions to provide your meals.

That's kind of grim stuff. But the book is anything but grim. It is a delightful look into the lives of animals and what each of us can do to improve those lives. 

The book is divided into chapters covering dogs, cats, cows, pigs, poultry, wildlife, and zoo animals. In each chapter, Ms. Grandin discusses what makes that particular species tick and what can be done to give them happy, fulfilling lives. 

The first chapter is about dogs and being a dog owner and lover, I swallowed every word. Ms. Grandin introduces fundamental behaviors of dominance and playfulness and how dogs do or do not demonstrate those behaviors. She talks about how dogs can suffer lack of proper education in how to be a dog at a young age and ultimately have difficulty interacting with other dogs. She contrasts dogs to wolves as well as the differences among breeds. 

I loved her descriptions of labs as being either "wheelchair" dogs who are "content to lie around all day... and are so calm they make excellent service dogs" vs. "hyper" labs who "[are] innately cheerful and energetic.... but don't have great emotional restraint or impulse control." I'd say my Dexter tends towards the wheelchair type whereas my granddog, Oliver, is more of the hyper type.

Looking back at my mastiff, Mango, I can readily see how he suffered some arrested emotional development and many of his inappropriate behaviors were the result of an adult dog operating with a puppy brain. 

The main thing I was reminded of is that dogs like to learn new stuff and the process of learning is as important as the goal because it stimulates the "seeking" pleasure center of their brain. Subsequently, I have renewed energy around spending a few minutes a day (at least) working on tricks with Dexter.

The chapter on cats was sometimes rather amusing and certainly enlightening. Apparently "inappropriate" elimination is quite common with cats and Ms. Grandin explains many of the possible causes (as well as the solutions). She also notes that black cats tend to be friendlier than other cats (with both other cats and humans).

I could go on and on. I learned so much from this book and it is very well written and not burdened with a lot of technical details (but plenty of notes for those interested in further references). The chapters are divided into short sections so it is easy to pick up and put down without being overwhelmed by all the information. 

I heartily recommend this book to anybody (whether you own an animal or not). At the end, it lives up to its title, because thinking about the feelings of other beings does make us more human.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Mad Dogs by James Grady


Mad Dogs
by James Grady
2006
*
1 star - it was good, until it wasn't



Last week I funneled my usual stack of book requests to the main library (rather than the local branch) just to shake things up. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the parking garage was missing and I was forced to (gasp) parallel park on the street. This is not good as our local branch is closed on Saturdays during the summer. 

Oh no! Where will I park?


But I digress.

I arrived at the library on 05/11/13 and being an adventurous sort, I counted my way to the fifth bookcase, down to the 11th shelf, and grabbed the 13th book. You might think this is a doomed method of picking books, but so far my luck has been pretty good and it gets me out of my comfort zone.

Mad Dogs is a spy thriller action adventure story about 5 ex-CIA operatives. They have all been incarcerated in the special CIA nut house having totally lost it in various forms. Then something bad goes down at the facility, they escape, and the rest of the book is focused on their journey to find out what really happened and why they were being set up.

Now here's the thing. I really liked this book in the beginning. I liked it so much, I recommended it to my husband. Yup. Lots of cool spy stuff along with the odd behaviors of seriously mentally ill people going off their meds (no time to hit the pharmacy on their way out the door). 

As the story goes along, we learn what horrific event caused each of the characters to go over their tipping point and require psychiatric incarceration and medication. Very yucky stuff. So I'm reading and reading, and maybe slowing down a little bit, but still good, still lots of action and mystery. Heck, I'm even seeing it unfold as a movie and working my way up to putting actor faces to the names. 

But...

Then I'm slowing down a little more and one fateful morning around page 250 I said to myself "I'm just going to read the first chapter of one of my other books this morning and finish this one tonight."

Tick tock, tick tock, a couple of days go by and I haven't picked the book up again. Tick tock, tick tock. Last night, getting ready for my bedtime read, I grabbed Mad Dogs, opened it up, started reading and said "Um, hello? I kind of don't care anymore." And that was that.

I mean don't even care enough to skim the remaining 100 to find out what happened. So there you go.


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Life of Pi - movie


Life of Pi
2012
*****
5 stars - glorious beyond belief






Just watch it, OK?

I read the book and then I avoided the movie thinking "how can they ever capture this on the big screen?"

Well, friends, the movie was actually better than the book (gasp, you heard me, better than the book).

The plot is simple enough. A young man survives a shipwreck, only to find himself adrift in the Pacific ocean and sharing his lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. 

It is a beautiful film with breathtaking images. It challenges your emotions, but also leaves you with a sense of peace and admiration for the magic of life. Beyond that, I just cannot describe it.

Warning - there are some scary moments for animal lovers (hard to watch even knowing the animals were surely animated at times), but don't let that deter you because the story is too wonderful to miss.

Now in November by Josephine Johnson


Now in November
by Josephine Johnson
1934
1935 Pulitzer Prize
****
4 stars - wait until you can bear it, what a downer



Oh just shoot me now! This is possibly the most depressing book I have ever read. 

Sure, in the beginning you might think "OK, another day in the life kind of thing where everybody will work hard and life will have tragedies, but also some bright moments." WRONG!

There is not one spark of hope, not a single glimpse of happiness in the entire 231 pages. 

What we have here is a "dirt poor" family comprised of mom, dad, and three daughters struggling to get by during the depression and catastrophic drought of the early 1930's. Everybody working hard, putting one foot in front of the other and for what? Starving, death, insanity, and aching loneliness. Oh man!

It's a good book, well written,  and I understand why it won the Pulitzer, but a total downer. 

Near the end, the narrator (the middle daughter) looks back over her life so far. Now normally we'd get a respite from misery at this point and realize it was all worth it. Not so!

"I do not see in our lives any great ebb and flow or rhythm of earth. There is nothing majestic in our living. The earth turns in great movements, but we jerk about on its surface like gnats, our days absorbed and overwhelmed by a mass of little things - that confusion which is our living and which prevents us from being really alive. We grow tired, and our days are broken up into a thousand pieces, our years chopped into days and nights, and interrupted. Our hours of life snatched from our years of living. Intervals and things stolen between - between what? - those things which are necessary to make life endurable? - fed, washed, and clothed, to enjoy the time which is not washing and cooking and clothing... Thoreau was right. He was right even as Christ was right in saying Be ye also perfect - and as beyond us.

"We have no reason to hope or believe, but do because we must, receiving peace in its sparse moments of surrender, and beauty in all its twisted forms, not pure, unadulterated, but mixed always with sour potato-peelings or an August sun."

Oh lady, come up for air. 

If you decide to undertake this novel, rest assured that it does go by quickly. Also, if your library sends you an ancient and well worn copy (as mine did) you can at least enjoy sniffing the binding and fondling the soft and yellowed pages. 


Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Loyal Character Dancer by Qui Xiaolong


A Loyal Character Dancer
by Qui Xiaolong
2002
****
4 stars - a wonderful find


How many mysteries are there with author's whose names start with "X" I wondered.

Well, at my local library branch, exactly one, and so I did a blind grab to see what it was about.

A Loyal Character Dancer follows Inspector Chen Cao and U.S. Marshals Services Inspector Catherine Rohn as they travel through Shanghai and other Chinese cities in search of a missing woman. The woman is the wife of a Chinese immigrant who is a witness in a U.S. criminal case. A case that involves human smuggling and powerful Chinese gangs. He is headed for the witness protection program in the U.S. but he refuses to go or to testify until his wife is brought into the country. But his wife has vanished and it is unclear if she ran away, was kidnapped, or, possibly, murdered.

The book is a wonderful journey into Chinese culture, both good and bad. We see people struggling to gain a good life as well as glimpses into the social and political changes currently going on in that country.

The pacing of the book is what charmed me. It is written in a flowing, lyrical style that is difficult to describe. Even through the action scenes, I found just reading this book to be a calming experience. Chen is a thoughtful man who struggles with trying to find a balance between doing the right thing and playing into widespread and accepted corruption, both inside the police force and out. Inspector Rohn, an American fascinated with China, also struggles to accept the different culture as well as do her job without any of the tools that would be at her disposal in the U.S.

Reading the dust jacket, I learned that Mr. Xiaolong, who was born in Shanghai, was nominated for an Edgar award for his first novel (this is his second). I can see why. 

As a side note, the previous person to take this book out left the checkout receipt in. I'm always curious to learn what other people are reading. In this case, an interesting group of books; Frommer's Venice Day by Day and The Last Lingua Francia. OK, that's cool. I wouldn't read either of those myself, but I kind of like whoever it was that went before me.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Yes and No


Hail to the Chef
by Julie Hyzy
2008
*****
5 stars - a great series



This is the second book in the White House Chef series.

All that is lacking is a dog to make it the perfect cozy series for me.

We have a likable heroine, interesting side characters, a mystery that isn't too hard, good suspense, and not too much mushy stuff. Plus the reader learns a lot about how the White House kitchen operates (how the president and first lady keep from turning into blimps is beyond me).



The Fourth Bear
by Jasper Fforde
2006
*
1 star - too bad



I spent a wonderful hour cruising the stacks at the library a couple of weeks ago and came away with this volume. The concept is pretty cool. Jack Spratt is a crime solver in the Nursery Crimes Division in a world where characters from nursery rhymes intermingle freely with regular folk, causing no end of trouble. 

The author is very clever and imaginative and I was turning down the corners of so many pages to share quotes that I could hardly close the book.

On a visit to the local psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane, the guests are advised:

"To take notes I will supply you with presoftened crayons and notepads of damp tissue paper bound with moldy wool."

The chapters all begin with excerpts from the local publications:

"Most dangerous baked object: A hands-down win for the Gingerbreadman, incarcerated at St. Cerebellum's secure hospital for the criminally deranged since 1984. He is currently serving a four hundred year sentence for the murder and torture of his 104 victims: his crimes easily outrank those of the second most dangerous baked object, a fruitcake accidentally soaked in weed killer instead of sherry by Mrs. Austen of Pembridge, then served up to members of the Women's Federation during a talk about the remedial benefits of basket weaving. The final death toll is reputed to have been 62.

I know, good stuff, right?

Puns, clever turns of phrase, surprising behaviors (there is a great underground economy in black market porridge for bears), but, after 100 pages or so, just too much for me. I suppose I can only remark to myself "Oh, that was clever" or "Hehehe" so many times before my little brain craves a few pages of more pedestrian fare.

I will say the book had some lingering effects as I recently had a nightmare in which the apocalypse was brought on by alien gingerbread men. So there you go.