Sunday, February 23, 2014

The God File by Frank Turner Hollon


The God File
by Frank Turner Hollon
2002
****
4 stars - but not sure how to articulate my thoughts
ALR Red - some scary stories involving animals, scary stories about people too



How to review this slim volume? Here are the facts. Gabriel Black has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a murder he did not commit (but willingly took the fall for). 

After reading a book about a man claiming his cure from cancer is proof of the existence of God, Gabriel sets out to collect his own information on that topic.

And thus we have The God File. A series of short vignettes and ponderings, all of which are deemed by Gabriel to support, in some way, that there is a God. 

But this is not a heavy theological quest and the existence or lack thereof is left to the reader to decide. The language is harsh and often brutal. The stories themselves evoke many emotions; joy, sorrow, pity, horror, fear.

I'd love to offer a quote, but taken out of context, I found any snippet to be lacking in communicating the overall feel of the book.

So, I guess either read it or don't. It's short and I found it difficult to put down. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Corvus - A Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson


Corvus
A Life with Birds
by Esther Woolfson
2009
***
3 stars - shorter would have been better
ALR Green - bird loving lady writing about birds, doesn't get any greener


Corvus is a book of Esther Woolfson's reflections on her life with birds. It also contains sections on bird history, bird anatomy, and bird behavior.

Birds are way cool, no doubt. One of my favorite pastimes is watching the activity of the birds who frequent our back yard feeders. I suppose I'm not unique in watching with a bit of envy videos posted of smarty pants pet birds talking, solving puzzles, and being all around great companions.

That said, my own forays into actual bird ownership have been disappointing. Maybe I don't have the patience to be bird momma.

In the book, Ms. Woolfson discusses the behaviors of the large variety of birds that have shared her home with her. Many of them foundlings, flung from their nests with a death sentence hanging over their heads. 

Crows, rooks, magpies, ravens, doves have all found shelter and love in her home.

Chance, a single moment, the confluence of fallen bird and receptive human, has changed me from observer to something else, something I can't even name; adoptive parent, housemate, beneficiary. Perhaps there is no name, no need for a name. A rook lives in my house and now, a young crow. I am in loco parentis for an elderly cockatiel. For years, a magpie, a starling, some small parrots, and two canaries lived here too. A number of doves inhabit a small outhouse - more of a shed - a structure elevated from its lowly role of having once contained coal by being given the name of dove-house.

I can't fault Ms. Woolfson on her writing style. It is rich and evocative. 

The Glasgow house where I was brought up had, in the way of houses of the time, no heating, only inadequate fireplaces, most of them unused, and a large stove in the kitchen. The possibility of installing heating was, as I recall, briefly discussed, my father's reluctance to have the Arts and Crafts panelling warped by the drying effects of central heating eventually overriding all other considerations, and so we continued to endure the almost universal experience of Scottish life of the time, ice on the insides of bedroom windows, fierce dashes from bed to clothes, the only warm piece of anatomy at bath time being the portion submerged.

Interestingly, her father, concerned for the welfare of the three small family dogs, was sure to keep them wrapped in snugly sweaters throughout the winter (despite their being "well-fleeced" poodles).

What it definitely did was prevent me from gaining any false ideas about the superior place human beings occupy in the world.

I fear, though, she fell off the rails a bit with the length and density of the book. In addition to delightful stories regarding the resident birds, the reader is also presented with chapters discussing bird history, biology, and behavior. In the beginning, they enhanced the story, but by mid point, these chapters began to bog me down and I confess to merely skimming them, eager to learn more about the actual day to day activities of her avian companions.

Congratulations to Ms. Woolfson for including several pages detailing the elimination habits of birds. I fear it is their lack of regard for where they poop (and the enthusiasm for same) that is my undoing as a potential bird owner. While Ms. Woolfson is happy to gamely follow her friends about, washcloth in hand, as well as engage in regular steam cleaning of carpets and furniture, I, for one, would not have the consistency to keep up.

Then there is the hording or caching. Birds, apparently, love to stockpile stuff. There are holes drilled into the walls by persistent beaks. Holes which contain all manner of items, including the occasional food reserve which can be detected by the odor of putrefaction (no thanks). 

Her magpie, Spike, was also a fan of knocking things about. After watching glasses and plates plunge from countertops, the human residents were compelled to keep all magpie movable objects either locked up or, in the case of canisters, glued to the countertop (again, no thanks).

Overall, this is a restive and calming book to read. Nothing scary happens and the prose is soothing. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Haven

Haven
2010 -
****
4 stars - mindless fun
ALR Blue - it's all about the people


Maybe my mind has turned to mush due to all the snow. It's also possible that the show won't sustain itself for five seasons, but halfway through season two, I'm addicted.

FBI agent Audrey Parker shows up in the small coastal town of Haven, Maine (filmed in Nova Scotia) to solve the murder of an ex-con and winds up staying on to further explore the mysteries of the community.

The premise is that Haven is being visited by The Troubles which consists of some weird supernatural phenomena taking over one of its residents in each episode. So we've got people who's paintings come to life, people who's shadows commit murder, heck, even people who turn into stone and blow up. Shape shifters, ghosts, sentient machines, you name it.

At the center is Audrey Parker who is the twinner for some mysterious lady in a photo from the long ago unsolved murder of The Colorado Kid (which is the title of the Stephen King story the series is very loosely based on).

I suppose a big part of the charm is that the series never seems to take itself too seriously. There is dry humor and an enchantingly mundane attitude about whatever weirdness might arise. Lawn sprinklers spewing blood? Group hallucinations? Cracks opening up in the earth? Just another day in Haven. 

The three main characters are Audrey who is TV perky and cute, but understated, Nathan, the son of the police chief who is afflicted with the inability to experience tactile sensation, and Duke, the lovable smuggler (played by the alarmingly sculpted Eric Balfour).

Audrey and Nathan do their best to humanely contain those suffering from the troubles (although I'm not sure how many times the guy who brings to life everything he reads can get through The Velveteen Rabbit or what the long term consequences of that might be). Sometimes, however, the Troubled need to be put down (thems the breaks).

To keep up the "suspense" we get with each episode one more clue into the source of the resemblance between Audrey and the mystery lady in the photo. 

Minimal mushy stuff.

Despite it being a true fact that winter lasts about 10 months in Maine, the episodes are curiously devoid of snow. Possibly another characteristic of Haven or maybe they just didn't have the budget for snow shoots (a TV series phenomena I learned about after watching Deadwood - a great series - and noting the distinct absence of snow in, hello, South Dakota).

If you need to turn off your brain for a few hours, give it a go.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Big Sky by A. B. Guthrie, Jr.


The Big Sky
by A. B. Guthrie, Jr.
1947
*
1 star - ugh
ALR Green - for 100 or so pages anyway


The sequel to The Big Sky, The Way West, was next on the Pulitzer list but after reading reviews of The Way West, I opted to sample Mr. Guthrie's writing through The Big Sky.

I persevered through just over 100 pages hoping that I could get past the writing to enjoy a glimpse of life in "America's vast frontier." But seriously?

What's missing here is any insight at all into what the characters are thinking, feeling, their motivations. I suppose that's why it's a "great adventure story." Don't want to muddy the waters with any of that mushy stuff.

The book starts with a bang as 17 year old Boone Caudhill decides setting out on his own is better than living with his abusive father. A bit abrupt, but when his father hunts him down with a posse and Boone is forced to run for his life, well, yeah, that was well written and a good adventure.

But then we descend into neither action nor drama, but a recitation of this happened, that happened, he said (no she said in this novel). Even the ever sparser action scenes began to lose their bite. Boone finds himself on some sort of boat traveling the Missouri river. They've got an Indian princess on board that they plan to use in a trade activity that wasn't clear to me. Whatever. 

The dust jacket promises that Boone will become the true love of "the beautiful daughter of a Blackfoot chief." Given the writing style, I super wanted to bail before that happened. I can only imagine how that would be written. More the fantasy of a middle school male than any sort of balanced character study. No thanks.

Fear not, dear friends, I am now reading a memoir which has the potential for five stars (if it doesn't bog down along the way).

Sunday, February 9, 2014

What the Dog Ate by Jackie Bouchard


What the Dog Ate
by Jackie Bouchard
2012
***
3 stars - very light weight, but it kind of grew on me

ALR Green - nice Labrador retriever in a minor role


Maggie Baxter's Labrador retriever, Kona, isn't feeling well. It's clear he's got a serious gastric issue. Sure enough, the vet discovers a blockage and removes the offending item... a pair of "size tiny lavender thong panties."

Uh oh. Those are so not Maggie's and thus she discovers that her husband has been carrying on an affair and her marriage comes to an abrupt and devastating end.

The book follows Maggie's adventures dealing with a broken marriage, a job she hates, and life in general.

I wasn't all that taken at first. However, sometimes having all your library books wait listed isn't such a bad thing and I kept going. My reward was that even though the book is fluff, it isn't all that transparent and some of the scenes are real and touching.

Here and there we are privy to Maggie's inner thoughts and they are wonderfully pedestrian and plausible. As when she reluctantly agrees to try speed dating (ugh) and takes a look at the men across the room:

Then Maggie did a quick inventory of the men: No. No. No... God no. Maybe. No. Eh? Maybe... Hello what's this? No. NO.

Given the nature of the book, you know you're headed for a happy ending, but the story took some interesting twists along the way. 

And what of the dog? Well, Kona isn't in the book enough for this to qualify as an official dog book, but he's around on and off and Maggie does try to take a page from his book of living in the moment and enjoying whatever goodness comes along. 

I recommend What the Dog Ate as a great plane or beach book or something to read when you've got a lot going on in your life. For me, it provided a nice reading pallet cleanser after a rash of total ughs and false starts.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Three False Starts


Have I become less tolerant of books that don't strike my fancy or have I really just stumbled over a trio of non-starters? Whichever, three books I started and stopped. It's Wednesday and hopefully by Saturday there will be a stack of winners waiting for me at the library.

I'll forego giving any of these an actual rating. I'm tired of single stars.


Many Mansions
(part of the New York Mosaic)
by Isabel Bolton
1952
1953 National Book Award Finalist



In all three of these novels voices move the stories - each carefully constructed narrative is built by layering of conversation, perception, and inner monologue onto lyrical descriptions of a vibrating New York City.

Even though I was offered a book of three, I only attempted the novel that actually got the attention of the National Book Award committee. That being Many Mansions. At just over 100 pages, I figured that no matter what, I'd get through it and have something interesting to say. 

Nope. Despite wonderful descriptions of places and people, this was just too dense for me. Sort of a literary Dinner with Andre. The mental equivalent of walking through deep snow in a rainstorm. Just made me miserable.




Tales of the South Pacific
by James A. Michener
1947
1948 Pulitzer Prize






Never was a Michener fan. Still not. 



Hons and Rebels
by Jessica Mitford
1960



Again with the Bas Bleu reading list fail. Ish. This is the autobiography of Jessica Mitford. The "muckraking journalist" from the English aristocracy. Born in the 1920's, she certainly grew up during some tumultuous times.

The book started out OK, but it got kind of weird. I actually found it a bit difficult to follow (could be that she was one of seven - or was it eight - children and I got confused over birth order and other character traits).

With my reading queue virtually empty, I stuck in there for over 100 pages, but it got worse and worse. More of an "I did this and then I did that" than a character study. I felt no connection to the author whatsoever once she emerged from childhood into a young adult. None.


So, with those three headed to the library, I have decided to take a new approach to the whole reading thing. When I saw Saul Bellow pop up next on the National Book Award list, I took a pass. Saul Bellow. Ugh. Next up on the Pulitzer list was The Way West by A. B. Guthrie. I did some checking of the reviews on Amazon and decided to order his previous work, The Big Sky. If I get through that one, it'll count.

I'm starting to think that book awards are like the Oscars. Big on clunky, overwrought message type creations, scant praise for skillful entertainment. And oh the drama, drama, drama. Like if you don't cry it wasn't any good. Seriously?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Suspect by Roger Crais


Suspect
by Roger Crais
2013
***
3 stars - started off great, but didn't live up to its potential
ALR Green - I'm relaxing the ALR rules a bit here. There are a few yellow scenes in the book, but I had a green feeling at the end, so that's the rating.


A tale of two survivors. LAPD officer, Scott James, was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He and his partner witness a gangland style assault and during the battle, Scott's partner, Stephanie, is killed and Scott sustains life threatening injuries which leave him crippled in mind and body.

Maggie is a K-9 military officer. She, too, is involved in a terrible incident in which her handler is killed and she is horribly wounded.

Fast forward. Scott decides to join the K-9 corp of the LAPD and Maggie happens to be waiting to see if she can recover from her PTSD and once again serve as a K-9 officer. So they start training together. Meanwhile, the investigation into the incident that brought about Scott's injuries is reopened. Scott divides his time between training Maggie and helping out with the investigation. Things get increasingly more dangerous for the dynamic duo, but they persist.

So, OK, what gives here? First off, I see the cover art and "Robert Crais" and my wee little brain keeps thinking "Roger Caras," the late, great voice of Westminster and author of many dog books. Head shake. Because I've never really been a fan of Robert Crais, but this book has a dog in it, so, heck, I'll play along.

The book starts off great, like 5 stars great. Mr. Crais provides some awesome "dog's eye view" chapters from Maggie's perspective. Really good stuff. Scott's also pretty cool himself. He's got issues, no doubt, but he's getting to know Maggie and it's all going pretty well. 

But then, I'm all like "hey, where are the Maggie chapters?" Seems like once Mr. Crais got the hook in, he decided to ditch the good dog stuff and revert to a rather formulaic detective story. Grrrr. Sure, Maggie is present in some of the chapters, but now she's a third person side kick. No fun. So, there is danger and some mystery and Scott figures stuff out and then in the end of the book, we get some more Maggie stuff, but by this time, I was kind of bored and just skimming. Nothing deep going on here. No need to read every word.

Still, three stars, meaning good enough to pass the time.