Monday, January 27, 2014

A Murder in Wellesley by Tom Farmer and Marty Foley

A Murder in Wellesley
by Tom Farmer and Marty Foley
4 stars - well written, disturbing, enlightening
ALR Yellow - Dr. Greineder had two GSDs. They aren't central to the story, but one is inexplicably euthanized and the other's fate is not discussed (one presumes she is left in the care of the Dr.'s adult children).

Wellesley, Massachusetts. My home town. The cover of the book indicates that the 1999 murder of May Greineder was national news. Was it? I don't know.

Regardless, on October 31, 1999, the Wellesley police received a call from a distraught man that his wife had been attacked at Morse's pond. Arriving at the scene, it was clear that she was dead and that she had been violently murdered.

Marty Foley, co-author of the book, was also the chief investigator on the case. It's no spoiler that Dr. Greineder was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. The book is about the investigation and trial that led to that conviction. 

If this were fiction, avid mystery readers like me would have been suspicious of the obvious clues from the start. Primarily, the lack of blood on Dr. Greineder's hands despite his clothing being covered with blood and his claims that he had touched his wife's body. Good enough, right? Wrong.

For me, this was a story of how our judicial system *should* work. The burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove guilt (not the other way around) and subsequently, we are taken through the collection of evidence and information regarding what can and cannot be admitted and why. Internet juries often become frustrated about evidence that is excluded from trials and "facts" that seem insufficient to convict. But these rules of engagement are to protect the innocent. Remember that.

This book gets four stars for readability. It's very well written. Yeah, given the outcome and that the lead detective is one of the authors, it's a bit biased in favor of the prosecution, but that's OK. 

I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of the jury. If the accounts are accurate, they presumed innocence and took the time to review the facts. My personal experience, both from sitting on a federal jury and being a defendant in a civil jury trial is that you can't expect that kind of consideration from the average jury. In both cases, the jurors made their decisions early on and refused to let any facts budge them from that decision. Despite all evidence pointing to guilt in the federal case I was part of, I am still haunted by how our guilty verdict would affect the lives of the accused. It's a terrible and important responsibility. Remember that if you ever get called to jury duty.

It amazes me that people continue to seem shocked when an "upright" and educated person commits a crime. People are people and some percentage of the population is capable of heinous acts. Every now and then, somebody who works at the same company as I do will be arrested. Most of my co-workers are shocked. Not me. I always tell them "This company employs 60,000 people. I can guarantee you that some number of them are pedophiles, wife or child beaters, thieves, drug addicts, and, yes, even murderers." That's just the human condition. We can never really know anybody, not even ourselves.

Oh, and all you dog walkers and joggers out there. Brace yourselves. It would appear that statistically, you're the most likely to be the ones on the scene when something bad happens. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay

The Map of Lost Memories
by Kim Fay
1 star - started off well, but just not my thing
ALR Blue - animals as scenery

I don't like giving one star ratings to perfectly fine books that just aren't my style. But this is as much a way for me to check back on authors that don't suit me as helpful reviews for others, so here goes.

1925. Irene Blum is a regular Indiana Jones. She works for a museum obtaining lost treasures from around the world. Some of her methods are questionable and she will frequently obtain things for private collections which is kind of a no no in the collector's world, but that's OK, it's part of the adventure.

When the museum director where she works passes away, Irene is passed over for the slot primarily because she's a woman and that gets her blood up. So she sets out to find the lost scrolls of Cambodia's ancient Khmer civilization.

It's an odd book stylistically. For the first fifty pages or so I loved it. So much that I was crafting my glowing review even as I read. I saw BBC series. Yup. Because for the first third of the book, we've got lots of action and a bit of mystery and a fine heroine. 

So what changed? I'm not sure. All I can say is that by the time I crested the 100 page mark, I was growing increasingly impatient. The characters started to lose some of their depth and despite reading some passages several times, it struck me that many key elements of the story were written in a confusing and haphazard way. It almost seemed like bits had been left out. Weird little things like conversations in a cafe where the arrival of the characters was abrupt and the flow of conversation and food service didn't quite match.

At first I thought "OK, this is the sort of book that you need to read in big chunks, so just immerse yourself." Last night I gave it a final attempt and spent a full hour reading. Nope, the magic didn't return. Off to the library with this one.

As a side note, this is the third book in the stack of twelve I purchased from Bas Bleu in the hope of expanding my reading palate a bit. Sadly, two out of the three I've tackled have been non-starters for me. Makes me dread picking up the next one (which I won't do for a bit as I've got some books waiting for me at the library).

Oh, and one more thing. I did have a go at the 1947 Pulitzer Prize book, All the King's Men.

All the King's Men
by Robert Penn Warren
non-starter, no rating

It was clear from the get go that this one wasn't going to work out for me.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Dr. Who

Dr. Who
2005 edition
starring Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, and Matt Smith
5 stars - way cool awesome
ALR Blue - an episode or two with an animal in a minor role, but mostly birds, dogs, cows, etc. are just background

Dr. Who premiered in 1963 in beautiful black and white. During my life, I'd heard people speak of the series in near worshipful terms. I sampled the odd episode here and there and was, honestly, underwhelmed.

But after relentless "suggestions" from my sister, I finally agreed to sample the new, 2005, version. 

Wowee! I am totally hooked.

So what is "Dr. Who" and why is it so popular? Dr. Who is the last of the Time Lords. He zooms around the universe in his Tardis. That's a time travel machine which allows the Doctor to pop in and out of time and also move between planets and galaxies. He usually travels with a human companion because, let's face it, things can get lonely in outer space.

I've been struggling to articulate the appeal and I'm not sure how good a job I'll do. Without getting too heavy, a big part is the Doctor and his attitude about life. He always seeks adventure and marvels in biological and technological creation. He can appreciate the beauty even in things that are not altogether good. He always wants to solve problems without violence and would rather send evil aliens packing than destroy them. Plus, he values intelligence and the ability to reason and figure out creative ways out of problems. 

But the show isn't smarmy. Quite the contrary. There are plenty of aliens and humans who are nasty and often the ending isn't happy. Somehow, even though I know the Doctor will survive, I get anxious when he finds himself in serious danger (frequently).

I also enjoy that the story doesn't try and explain things too much. When the Doctor is solving a problem, he'll tell the audience his reasoning briskly, and only once (subtitles are strongly recommended for those of you who don't speak "British"). You either keep up or you don't. And not everything is explained either. Heck, when you are bouncing around between time and place, it's easy for things to get a bit "wibbly wobbly timey wimey." You just have to go with it.

It's also a very clever show. Odd bits of humor that come and go so quickly that you might not even know they happened. Not in your face, laugh track, humor, just a few seconds. For example, when Buckingham palace is being evacuated, we get a quick scene of the Queen and her escorts running down the hallway. Off on the side, one guy is carrying a corgi. That's funny. 

It took me a few seasons to figure out that London is invaded by aliens every Christmas. That's funny too. Additionally, if somebody has an American accent, well, watch out, there be trouble. Nasty Americans. Hehehe.

The whole regeneration thing. Brilliant. Time for a new Doctor? Just let the old one regenerate into a different actor and there you go. 

I watch a reasonably large number of movies and TV series in any given year. Mostly I'm just left with impressions as in "I liked this" or "I didn't like that" but specifics just don't stick with me. Oddly, episodes of Dr. Who *do* stick in my mind. Don't know what to make of that given the stories are complicated and diverse, but there you go.

So, if you've never tried Dr. Who, or have tried it and been disappointed, do give the 2005 edition a whirl. It's available on Netflix streaming. Stick with it for a few episodes and see what you think. I'm nearing the end of what's available. Too bad. Nothing like an episode of The Doctor to look forward to at the end of the day.

One more thing. Small nit. I do so wish they hadn't mucked about with the spinning logo in the opening credits. Sigh. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Messenger and Son by Lois Lowry

by Lois Lowry
4 stars - very short and to the point

ALR Green - nice little puppy

The third volume of the Giver Quartet, Lois Lowry's books for young readers.

This slim book seems more like a bridge story than one that stands on its own. In Messenger, Lois Lowry starts to tie together elements from the first two books in the series. Matt (whom we met in the last book) has run away from his community and finds himself welcomed into the Village. The Village is a pleasant enough place. Not the dystopia of the first novel, nor the feral society of the second. Something in between. 

It's the land of misfit toys. A place that prides itself on taking in refugees from other communities. But something is amiss (isn't it always). Pretty soon, the community built as a haven for those persecuted in their homelands starts to have discussions about closing the borders (hey, where have I heard that before).

If you're reading the full quartet, include this one, but I'm not sure I would recommend it on its own. I will say that it is a bit darker than the previous novel and the descriptions of the forest as a sentient and malevolent being were creepy even for this grownup.

by Lois Lowry
5 stars - wraps things up

ALR Green - animals just as decorative characters

The final volume of Lois Lowry's Giver Quartet for young readers.

Son brings us back to the same time and place as the first book in the series, The Giver. We're back in that magical land where nobody ever feels pain, everybody has the right job, is well nourished, and nothing bad ever happens... ya think?

In The Giver we met Jonas and his family and the infant that they were nurturing. Son shows us the origins of the infant and focuses on a different member of the community, Claire, and her quest to find her child.

Here's the deal. In utopia, in order to keep everything on the straight and narrow, folks start popping pills once they hit puberty. The pills are certainly some sort of hormone suppressant as they keep teenagers from going bonkers and pretty much suppress all those icky emotions like love. So these dorked out folks still want to keep things running, but with no sex drives, where to get babies?

Enter the Vessels. Every year, a handful of twelve year old girls are given the "honor" of becoming brood mares for the community. They get artificially inseminated, give birth (blindfolded), and their babies are whisked away to be awarded to an appropriate family. Works for everybody.

Everybody except Claire, who isn't so good at the job, gets the boot, doesn't take her drugs, starts to (yikes) feel things and sets out to find the child that was delivered from her body.

Son has a lot more action than the previous two novels. Claire turns into something of a G. I. Jane and there is a part of her adventure that is a real nail biter. 

By mid book, the reader knows the fate of all the characters introduced in the first three volumes. It's all coming together. 

What I love about this series for young people is how it shows youngsters making important decisions and taking on big responsibilities. The kids in these books are dealing with life and death and putting family and community before themselves or perhaps leaving their families and communities in order to find a better life. Some have happy endings, some do not. They take chances, they do the right thing. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry

Gathering Blue
by Lois Lowry
4 stars - not quite as good as its predecessor, but still well worth a read

ALR Green - one delightful little dog in a supporting role

This is the second book in Lois Lowry's quartet for young readers. From a society where nothing bad ever happens in The Giver, Ms. Lowry moves to a feral society where only the strong survive. Children (or Tykes as they are referred to) are slapped and smacked into good behavior. Food is scarce and anybody showing physical weakness is dragged into The Fields and left to die.

The central character of the story, Kira, was born with a twisted leg that should have destined her for The Fields, but her mother was able to plead for keeping the little Tyke in order to pass along her weaving skills.

When Kira's mother dies, Kira is singled out to go and live among the Council of Guardians and work on repair of the sacred cloak worn by the Singer. The Singer, annually, does a day long song fest, retelling the history of the world. So, yeah, it's a good gig for Kira. Plus she gets all the food she could eat and indoor plumbing. In her new home, she meets Thomas, a wood carver who has also been given a sacred task. His is to maintain the carvings in the Singer's staff.

Once again, Ms. Lowry has crafted a thought provoking book about courage, kindness, and all the foibles of human nature. I didn't enjoy this quite as much as the first book in the series, but it is still well above average.

One thing I love about the two books I've read is the ambiguity of the endings. Normally, an ambiguous ending would be frustrating, but in Ms. Lowry's books, they are more of an invitation for contemplation. There's plenty to think about in this thin volume. At the head of the list is that one must always ask questions, even when the answers might be scary. Knowledge is power, as they say.

I'm still voting to add Ms. Lowry's books to middle school reading curriculum. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Possibility Dogs by Susannah Charleson

The Possibility Dogs
What a handful of "unadoptables" taught me about service, hope, and healing
by Susannah Charleson
5 stars - heartwarming, instructive, inspirational
ALR Yellow - one very red scene near the beginning, but the rest of the book focuses on success stories (although some dogs die, so sensitive readers will be happy/sad)

It wasn't until I started reading about the crazy pack of Pomeranians, that I realized that this book is written by the author of another five star title, Scent of the Missing.

First and foremost, Ms. Charleson is an extraordinary storyteller. She is able to write about the struggles of both dogs and humans in a way that is compelling and paints wonderful pictures in the reader's mind. In particular, she can bring to life the quirks, behaviors, and motivations of dogs without ever anthropomorphizing them. Here's a sample where she describes a dog learning to play fetch.

Smarts to burn. Roscoe had plenty of smarts, but he was an odd dog at first. He wasn't sure what to make of fetch. Roscoe was simply too infatuated with the complete perfection of ball. Initially the dog would simply go after the ball and then run with it in his mouth, joyful, heedless of everything and everyone else: Here is this thing I've caught and now I have it I have it I have it. Fetch took a little patience on Alex's part. Plenty of games began and ended with just the one throw. He wanted to possess, but he also wanted to run, and he wanted Alex's attention too. How to do all at once? Alex taught him to fetch by alternately throwing two balls. Once he learned the routine, Roscoe seemed overjoyed by the concept of a game involving all of his favorite things: the ball, the run, and his person, all of which could be had over and over again.

The Possibility Dogs is about dogs trained as service dogs specifically for people with mental health issues. The people we meet have lives that are defined by their illness and have become unable to function in the world. OCD, PTSD, depression, etc. So what does a psych service dog do? He or she can be trained to disrupt obsessive behavior. The dog can learn to sense the onset of an anxiety attack and redirect the owner. The dog can provide a calming presence that enables the owner to re-enter the world.

Ms. Charleson struggles with her own issues, brought on by events surrounding one of her search and rescue missions with her Golden Retriever, Puzzle. By learning how to train her dog to assist her, she begins her journey into the world of psych service dog training.

The dogs featured are all rescues, which makes things even better. Dogs with unfortunate circumstances who are able to not only be companions, but who take delight in the work of helping their humans navigate through life. 

Without ever being overly technical or preachy, Ms. Charleson takes the reader through the selection of both dog and owner as well as the training techniques involved. While I'm not training a service dog, reading her descriptions of how eagerly dogs learn basic helpful behaviors has certainly inspired me to pick up the clicker again with Dexter.

There is death in the book. Dogs die, owners die. Ms. Charleson discusses the death of several dogs, but she does it in a way that aligns with my own sentiment. Yes, there is the awful final day (or days) when you know your dog is very ill and you are rushing to the ER or administering handfuls of medication, but if you have loved your dog and provided a good life for him or her, and you are there with them through the end, then it might hurt, but it is all good, it's all worth it.

This is one of the best dog books I've ever read. It has valuable information in it about the world of service dogs and, best of all, it is beautifully written.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Glimpses of the Moon by Edmund Crispin

The Glimpses of the Moon
by Edmund Crispin
1 star - delightful prose, but just too draggy

ALR Green - I only read 100 pages... some illusions to animal abuse, but otherwise happy guest spots by a variety of animals

Professor Gervase Fen sets out to find the true solution to the mystery of a curiously dismembered corpse.

Gobbo gave the impression of having been left over unaltered from a very early novel by Eden Phillpotts. He cackled pruriently at references to love or courtship. He cadged drinks. He reminisced, racily if not particularly engrossingly, about a boyhood whose chief amusements had apparently been poaching and voyeurism.

In the span of 100 pages, I went from being delighted to almost dreading the next passage. If this book is your style, then you'll love it. I did expand my vocabulary a bit and this is a fine example of a quirky mystery with plenty of unusual characters. But one can only take so much of a sluggish, meandering plot. Once I decided to stop, I realized that the author had conveniently summarized the solution in the last 30 pages or so, but alas, I didn't even care enough to get through that. Pity.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver
by Lois Lowry
5 stars - don't mind that this is a "young person's" book, it's still great

ALR Blue - animals only in memory, that's part of the point of the novel

This book went into my queue some months back after I heard an interview with Lois Lowry on All Things Considered. Ms. Lowry writes books for young people, but she believes in challenging them and this slim volume does that and even gave this far from young person some things to think about.

I'm having a hard time coming up with a synopsis that isn't also a spoiler, so I'm going to revert to the dust cover.

" 'It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.'

"Thus opens this haunting novel in which a boy inhabits a seemingly ideal world: a world without conflict, poverty, unemployment, divorce, injustice, or inequality. It is a time in which family values are paramount, teenage rebellion is unheard of, and even good manners are a way of life.

"December is the time of the annual Ceremony at which each twelve year old receives a life assignment determined by the Elders. Jonas watches his friend Fiona named Caretaker of the Old and his cheerful pal Asher labeled the Assistant Director of Recreation. But Jonas has been chosen for something special. When his selection leads him to an unnamed man - the man called only the Giver - he begins to sense the dark secrets that underlie the fragile perfection of the world."

What? No conflict, poverty, inequality, etc.? Sounds great to me. NOT! At least in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, it seems like every time some tragic accident happens, there is a rush to make rules so that bad thing will never happen again. The result of which, is many laws so stifling that the joy of adventure is removed from the many to avoid the inevitable human screw up of the few. Laws and more laws. Laws about how to behave, how to be human, laws that numb the spirit.

Jonas sums things up nicely in this statement that sent shivers down my spine "We really have to protect people from the wrong choices."

So you can see where this is going and I think it's great that Lois Lowry is so popular. Plus she doesn't smack you over the head with her points. The book provides more questions than answers and plenty of fodder for discussion.

The Giver is the first in a series entitled "The Quartet." Each book only takes a couple of hours to read, so I've gone ahead and popped the lot to the front of my reading queue.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Darkside by Belinda Bauer

by Belinda Bauer
4 stars - well written, wonderful characters

ALR Yellow - pony is hit by a car and dies, disturbing flashback to another incident, but animals not central to the story

The majority of the residents were in the garden room and Marvel understood why the moment they entered. It was hot. Saharan hot - even in the middle of winter. With its long windows and glass roof, the garden room was no more or less than a greenhouse for cultivating old folk. And it seemed to be working. At least two dozen old women with identical hair sat around the perimeter of the room, sunning themselves like lizards in wing chairs, sucking up the heat as if they'd outlived the capacity to make their own. Several of them wore hand-knitted cardigans and crocheted knee rugs just to be on the safe side. A large tin of cheap biscuits was being passed around the room and examined at each station as if it were the Holy Grail. Ahead of the tin was all craning white heads and expectant muttering, behind it was silence and crumbs.

Good stuff, right? In Darkside, Belinda Bauer returns to the village of Shipcott (featured in her previous novel). Time has passed, but the reader is reminded of the history of the small town.

Murder. A helpless woman is killed in her own bed and the one and only Shipcott police officer, Jonas Holly is on the spot. But murder requires a more studied team of specialists, so DCI Marvel and his crew are called in to investigate.

Marvel and Holly are at odds from the start. Marvel is horrified by his posting in such a rural area (cell phone signals are scarce - the horror) area and quickly dismisses Holly as a bumbling idiot. 

Now here he was in this shithole village in the middle of a moor that didn't even have the niceties of fences or barns on it, with the miserable prospect of having to conduct a murder investigation surrounded by the vagaries of gorse, yokels, and pony shit instead of the sensible amenities of self-service petrol stations, meaningful road signs, and his beloved Kings Arms.

Then there is another murder, and some more. 

But the murders are almost secondary to the story, more of a tool to move the reader through wonderful character descriptions and actions. As Marvel and Holly go about their investigations, each with his own method, they are also both troubled by their own demons. Demons of past follies and present frustrations that conspire to interfere with their objectivity regarding the case.

There is humor, horror, and everything in between. It's a damn fine book.

That said, I think I might excuse Ms. Bauer from my reading list. I realize I gave Black-Lands five stars and all of the elements which I praised for that book hold true with Darkside. This might sound funny given the types of gruesome, horrific books that I read, but Ms. Bauer's writing, her stories, and just too disturbing for me. I suppose that is part of her craft. We're all different and different things will strike too deeply for us, so don't pass Ms. Bauer by just because she's tapped into my own personal bug-a-boos. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Cross and Burn by Val McDermid

Cross and Burn
by Val McDermid
4 stars - not the best in the Tony Hill series, but well above average
ALR Green - nice Border Collie dog in a supporting role

I work at a corporation which employs around 70,000 people worldwide. My office is located at the central campus, a cluster of buildings which provides workspace for well over 5,000 people, over 1,000 of which are in the same building as I am.

I say this, because as much as my colleagues deny it, statistically, I likely cross paths with people who are hiding secrets. Secrets of wife beating, pedophilia, and other disturbing behaviors. And that, friends, is the notion that Val McDermid capitalizes on in her novels. Not just that these people walk among us and pass for normal, but that their twisted views of the world can put the most innocuous of us at risk. Chilling and perhaps best not pondered for too long.

I've read and enjoyed every one of the Tony Hill series. Well, enjoyed might be too strong a word. I'm both fascinated and disturbed by them. Fascinated to see how the plots are resolved and very disturbed by the graphic details regarding brutal acts of violence by horrifically evil villains.

The latest edition is no exception. There's a serial killer out there. One who takes women, imprisons them, subjects them to horrors, and then savagely murders them. And at the center of it all is Tony Hill, who is, himself, a wildly dysfunctional person whose quirky mind uniquely enables him to mimic the thoughts of serial killers.

There is a BBC series based on the novels, but it only touches the surface of Tony's malady of the mind (and you can watch the series and read the books without one interfering with the other). 

This installment gets just four stars instead of five because it wasn't as strong as its predecessors, but it is still much better than the average mystery. Ms. McDermid presents a cast of very human characters and just about any person who makes an appearance, however brief, is given enough background to be a very real part of the story (as opposed to a plot convenient prop).

The ending came a bit abruptly for me, but it did set things up nicely for another Tony Hill book.

Points deducted, though, for perpetuating the myth that a person who's never changed a light bulb can, on her own, suddenly become a general contractor. I don't care how clever you are, doing home improvements is more than reading a manual.

Oh, and the dog? You'll see. It's all good.