Sunday, December 27, 2015

Descent by Tim Johnston

Descent
by Tim Johnston
2015
*****
5 stars - flat ending, but otherwise great
ALR Yellow - some sad dog scenes


The Courtlands, a family of four, decide to take a holiday to the Rocky Mountains before their oldest child, Caitlin, goes off to college. Caitlin goes out for a jog one morning, with her younger brother Sean, following along on a bicycle. Only Sean returns. And so it begins...

The story focuses on the lives of Caitlin's father and brother after the disappearance of Caitlin. Mom is only a minor character.

What I found both compelling and disheartening with the story was how it showed that events in one's life can be so pivotal and, yet, pedestrian. The search for Caitlin never ends, but as months, then years go by, life must, somehow, go on. Who can tell if any of the subsequent events were caused by the disappearance or would have happened anyway? Violence, loss, suffering, these things come to all of us. It's the human condition. Even the horrific loss of a child is, sadly, not extraordinary in the great scheme of things.

I was a bit disappointed by the ending, but since I couldn't think of a more satisfying conclusion, no stars deducted for that.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander

The Kitchen Boy
a novel of the last Tsar
by Robert Alexander
2003
****
4 stars - good historical fiction
ALR Yellow - only slightly, pets mentioned briefly, meet same fate as owners


The Kitchen Boy is a blend of fact, fiction, and speculation about the final days of the Romanov family.

History is so important. If you don't understand the past, how can you understand the present and what drives people from different countries? While I was already familiar with the story of the Romanovs, this book will provide a nice overview of the bloody rise of socialism in the former USSR to those who missed that lesson in their history class.

The story is written from the perspective of the kitchen boy serving the Romanov family during their incarceration in Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg. He provides a window into the day to day life of the family under house arrest as well as references to events leading up to the Russian revolution.

Well, written and engaging. More has been discovered about the Romanov's since the book was written which makes what would have been speculation in 2003, outright fabrication. That in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the story.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Three Disappointments

The Cure for Dreaming
by Cat Winters
2011
***
3 stars - too young for this adult, but worthwhile for the right audience



Cool cover art.

It's the dawn of the 20th century in Oregon and sixteen year old Olivia Mead is about to get a lesson in human nature. Olivia is juiced about the suffrage movement. In fact she even attended a rally (and has the stains from the eggs tossed at the crowd to show for it). After Olivia volunteers to be hypnotized at a mesmerist entertainment, her dad decides that further hypnosis is just the thing to dissuade Olivia from her foolish notions of equality for women and be the docile, decorative object she should be.

The hypnotist is called to the Mead household for a private session. He hypnotizes her to reply with "All is well" to any situation that she finds vexing and he also enables her to see people as they truly are. So now she sees some people with a nice, warm glow, while others have the appearance of vampires and monsters. Eeeek! Unfortunately, she can't alert those around her to the dangers because all she can say is "All is well."

The writing is simple and straightforward. I'd put it at early middle school level at best. But for the right audience, there's a good message here. That being that ALL people deserve a voice, deserve to be heard. Plus a bit of history about attitudes regarding votes for women at the turn of the century. If you have a kid who is just getting in to full length novels, this might be a good pick. For grownups, not so much.

Ahab's Wife
or, the star-gazer
by Sena Jeter Naslund
1999
*
1 star - nope


In theory, this is a "magnificent, vast, enthralling saga" about the wife of Captain Ahab. The dust cover indicates that lots of stuff happens. Great. Sadly, I will never know, because the writing style was not my cup of tea. 

I'm not opposed to writing that drifts about, but this was so ethereal that it barely touched down for plot points. Consciousness, but not in even a stream. Just too floaty, languid, and slow. I was out within 50 pages.

An Expert in Murder
by Nicola Upson
2008
*
1 star - a stylistic mismatch


P.D. James is very popular, but I've never been a fan. So when the top recommendation on the dust cover was penned by that author, well, I should have known.

The book has all the trappings of a good mystery. It's a period piece, set in England, female lead, parlor murder that is a bit gruesome, but only after it has happened.

Didn't work for me. I was bored. Really bored. On page 17, the detective shows up to investigate the murder (usually where things get interested) and I just didn't care. Possibly a record for me. Not even 20 pages. Oh well.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole by Ropper and Burrell

Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole
A renowned neurologist explains the mystery and drama of brain disease
by Dr. Allan H. Ropper and Brian David Burrell
2014
***
3 stars - interesting and engaging
ALR Blue - people brains only


Dr. Ropper and Mr. Burrell take the reader through some of the maladies of the brain via anecdotes about patients and doctors. There are also segments with historical information about treating brain diseases as well as the mechanics of how neurological issues can impact the body.

The writing is good. The authors don't get bogged down in the details and they add plenty of human interest in the form of patient stories. There are chapters devoted to different issues, such as ALS and Parkinson's. They also discuss the different decisions both doctors and patients can make when faced with a dire diagnosis.

I learned some stuff. The book also reinforces the need to have an advocate whenever you are in the hospital. Doctors, like all of us, can make a quick diagnosis and then seek information that supports that diagnosis. If your doctor does this, you, or your advocate, need to be able to have the "what else could it be?" or "what would show you that it isn't what you think it is?" kinds of conversations.

Oh, and, yes, a bit of worry over tired staff, medical errors, and whatnot.

Only three stars because the book was, overall, at too high an altitude for me. I would have liked more stories about patients, both good and bad, and the techniques used for diagnosis. I was annoyed that most of the cases were left dangling until the final chapter. Then the authors did a roundup of what happened to everybody, but I'd lost track of who was who, so it wasn't very satisfying. They also changed tone in the end from instruction to philosophy and the departure from the previous format was jarring.

My favorite chapter was the one discussing the definition of brain death and the role of the physician in determining same. Gave me something to think about.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Killing Floor by Lee Child

Killing Floor
by Lee Child
1997
***
3 stars - man-cozy
ALR Blue - no animals, not even pets


Have I used the expression "man-cozy" before? Let me define it. "Man-cozy" refers to a formulaic story that is intended to appeal mostly to men. So the feisty female heroine of the standard cozy is replaced by a macho guy who knows some self defense and killing tricks. The formula, though is otherwise the same. Mystery, romance (although mostly just sex since this is a man-cozy), good guys win (since there are about 8700 entries in the Jack Reacher series, never any doubt). Good guy gets in lots of pickles. Kills people, whatever. It's a man-cozy, OK?

I figured since Lee Child's Jack Reacher series was so enduring (20 entries so far), I'd give the first book a shot. It was, satisfyingly, as expected.

The story opens with Jack Reacher adrift in a small Georgia town, eating breakfast in a diner. Then, the local constabulary storms the place and arrests him for murder. What the heck? He knows he didn't kill anybody. In fact he just got in to town, so what's going on? Well, it's up to our plucky hero to solve the mystery. Figure out who is good, who is bad.

Does he succeed? Um, hello, 20 books in the series, right? Of course along the way there is plenty of danger and lots of people get killed. The mystery itself is very interesting. Plenty of twists, but it doesn't feel contrived. Great pacing.

I'll keep this series in mind for when I'm looking for a sure thing.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Mr. Mercedes
by Stephen King
2014
***
3 stars - poor start, good enough finish
ALR Yellow - Mr. King is fond of using animals and other innocents to raise the level of tension


Bad guy drives Mercedes into crowd. Kills and wounds. Cop on the case can't find bad guy. Cop retires. Bad guy contacts him as part of plan to commit more acts of mayhem. Cop tracks him down.

If not for the name "Stephen King" on the cover, I wouldn't have finished this book. The first half was not to my taste. Too ugly. Unlikeable characters. Too much revealed about the bad guy. 

The book improved in the second half. More characters, some of them interesting. Just, well, more.

Good enough for a quick read when you don't mind having your levels of helplessness and paranoia amped up a bit.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes
by James S. A. Corey
2011
****
4 stars - space adventure
ALR Blue - no animals


Our main library has been closed for several weeks due to an electrical explosion. The little branch library has a scant two shelves dedicated to science fiction. A couple of weeks ago, I went free ranging on those shelves and found this book. It was fat and showed enough signs of wear that I was confident it had been checked out several times, despite the date stamp indicating it had only arrived at the library five months ago. What the heck?

Good decision. Apparently there is a genre known as Space Opera. Who knew? According to the Internet, Space Opera is "a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes space warfare, melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, and often risk-taking as well as chivalric romance; usually involving conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, futuristic weapons and other sophisticated technology."

Yup, Leviathan Wakes is all that. The scene opens in the Belt around the rings of Saturn. People have colonized most of the solar system and Jim Holden captains an ice mining vessel which takes frozen stuff from the rings and delivers it to be converted to water. He and his crew discover a derelict ship. Well, what happened here?

Meanwhile, there's Miller. He's a cynical cop operating in the Belt who gets tangled up in the fallout of Holden's discovery (which kind of turns in to riots and war). 

The two of them each search for answers and eventually their paths cross. So, what's really going on? Terrorism? Corporate greed fueled war? Aliens?

The story was everything promised. The inhabited solar system, with it's different cultures (mainly people who grew up on Earth v. those who grew up in the Belt), cool technology, battles, and human interest. Minimal mushy stuff, but plenty of plot. 

Bonus. This is one of five volumes in a series. Yikes! That's a lot of space opera to look forward to.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Second Grave on the Left by Darynda Jones

Second Grave on the Left
by Darynda Jones
2011
****
4 stars - perfect paranormal romance (with a bit of mystery)
ALR Blue - no animal characters


Charley Davidson (a.k.a. The Grim Reaper) is back for another paranormal romance and mystery. She's still engaging in an on and off affair with the son of Satan and this time he's in a bit of a pickle.

Satan Junior (Reyes Alexander Farrow) has left his corporeal body behind because, well, it's being tortured by demons. Ew. Still, it's all that stands between those demons and Charley, whose bright light (don't forget, she's the gateway to heaven) is oh so attractive to nasty beasties looking for a quick trip out of hell.

If that isn't enough, Charley's busy working on a missing person case which seems to include a trail of suspicious deaths. Suicide or murder? What do you think?

It's all jolly good fun.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Soulless by Gail Carriger

Soulless
by Gail Carriger
2009
***
3 stars - vampires, werewolves, romance, and mystery
ALR Green - bitey face werewolves


From the back cover blurb:

Alexia Tarabotti is laboring under a great many social tribulations. First, she has no soul. Second, she's a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette.

Where to go from there? From bad to worse, apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills a vampire - and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate. 

It's a mishmash of delights. Let's take them one at a time.

Romance - This book is first and foremost a romance. It's a regular bodice ripper, with a plucky, independent heroine and a gruff, but well muscled, hero. This reader was a bit grouchy with the writing style at first, but once I realized the book was really not a mystery or a vampire / werewolf story, but a good, old-fashioned romance, well, I settled in for the ride. What a delight!

Vampires and Werewolves - Well, yes, but given that the setting is Victorian England, they are for the most part very well mannered. They register with the government and prey only on willing victims. Most of them live in hives (vampires) or packs (werewolves) with a few independents milling about.

Fashion - Bustles, corsets, cravats, and waistcoats abound. Clothing commentary is present even during action scenes as one can hardly wrestle about with bad guys without silk and taffeta getting mussed. Fashion is a sure marker of character "Highland werewolves had a reputation for doing atrocious and highly unwarranted things, like wearing smoking jackets to the dinner table. Lyall shivered at the delicious horror of the very idea."

Mystery - Well, really just a bit of one. Enough to provide encounters, both amorous and dangerous between our hero and heroine.

Now then, it seems my local library filed this book under "horror," which was no doubt mandated by the supernatural beings, but I wouldn't put it in that category myself. It also had the book in the "young adult" section which is fine, but I must warn you that there is some fairly explicit mushy stuff (provided one has the vocabulary to understand what is being said). 

Robust secondary characters abound. Wonderful!

The destination of the story is apparent from early on, but the journey brings some delightful surprises. Hop on, enjoy the ride.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Shadow of the Wind
by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
translated by Lucia Graves
2001
*****
5 stars - beautiful prose and a compelling story


The Ateneo was - and remains - one of the many places in Barcelona where the nineteenth century has not yet been served its eviction notice. A grand stone staircase led up from a palatial courtyard to a ghostly network of passageways and reading rooms. There, inventions such as the telephone, the wristwatch, and haste seemed futuristic anachronisms. The porter, or perhaps it was a statue in uniform, barely noticed my arrival. I glided up to the first floor, blessing the blades of a fan that swirled above the sleepy readers, melting like ice cubes over their books.

What a pleasure to read beautiful prose. I give high marks both to the author and the translator (who has surely captured all the writing craft of the original text).

This book is a reader's delight on many levels. There is the writing itself, as well as a textured story that takes the reader in directions unexpected. Oh, and don't forget that at the core of the story are books. The love of books and of reading. The power of the written word.

In the opening, young Daniel's widowed father takes the boy to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. It's a labyrinth of corridors and tunnels where one can get lost, not just in the layers upon layers of books, but literally in the maze of the structure. Daniel is told to select one volume to keep and protect. He chooses The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax, and therein begins his journey.

The story takes place in the first half of the twentieth century. 

Daniel is captivated by the book and determines to find more works by Mr. Carax. He is flummoxed when he discovers that somebody is seeking out and destroying every copy of every book Carax ever wrote. 

"[Daniel's] innocent quest has opened a door into one of Barcelona's darkest secrets, an epic story of murder, magic, madness, and doomed love, and he realizes that if he doesn't find out the truth about Julian Carax, he and those closest to him will suffer horribly."

The book starts off in a slow, dreamy fashion, but picks up the pace, almost without the reader noticing. I read the last 200 (out of 487) pages in one, big gulp (who cares for housework when there is an exceptional story to be read).

Fermin Romero de Torres, one of the characters in the book, is prone to wonderful proclamations.

" ' Television, my dear Daniel, is the Antichrist, and I can assure you that after only three or four generations, people will no longer even know how to fart on their own and humans will return to living in caves, to medieval savagery, and to the general state of imbecility that slugs overcame back in the Pleistocene era. Our world will not die as a result of the bomb, as the papers say, it will die of laughter, of banality, of making a joke of everything, and a lousy joke at that.'"

I recently made the acquaintance of a woman from Venezuela who noticed the book on my side table and was delighted to learn that I was reading her favorite author. Of course she had read the book in its original Spanish, but I assured her that the translation was providing me with the same exceptional experience she had. 

One note. Do pay attention to names during the first hundred pages or so. I was not as determined as I should have been and there was a period where I found myself a bit tangled as to who the different players were. No problem, the author got me all caught up after a while.


Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Crook and Flail

The Crook and Flail
by Libbie Hawker
2013
***
3 stars - the historical fiction equivalent of a cozy mystery
ALR Blue - no animals


Those nutty Egyptians are at it again.

Book two in the She King series centers around young Hatshepsut's coming of age and adolescent adventures fighting for the throne of Egypt. Hatshepsut's mom has said Hat is destined for the throne of Egypt, as king, despite the fact that she's female.

Hatshepsut falls for that prophecy for a little bit, but then decides she might be better off as Great Wife for now, so she dutifully marries her younger brother, Thutmose, because that's just what you did when you were an Egyptian royal.

Since Thutmose is only 11 when they get married and Hatshepsut is 13, there isn't much bedroom activity at first. Good thing, since Hat thinks her little brother is a twit.

Then some more stuff happens.

As in the first novel of the series, there isn't much character development, and the story is straightforward. I still liked it. The information about day to day life in the royal household is fun, as are the scenes involving dressing and grooming (remind me never to time travel there, all that hair plucking, ouch!). Yeah, I'll read book three, why not?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Consumed by David Cronenberg

Consumed
by David Cronenberg
2014
**
2 stars - started off fine, deteriorated as it went
ALR Green - thank goodness


Naomi and Nathan. Two photo-journalists who thrive on their pursuit of sensation and depravity. Naomi is off to discover the truth behind the murder and partial consumption of Celestine Arosteguy by her husband, Aristide. Nathan is documenting questionable surgeries by Zoltan Molnar, whose record includes human organ trafficking. 

Nathan has sex with one of Molnar's patients and contracts a rare STD called Roiphe's disease. That leads him to track down Dr. Roiphe himself, both for a cure and to see if there's a story. There is. Turns out Dr. Roiphe is a bit, well, odd, and his resident daughter is totally coo coo nutty.

OK, friends, this is David Cronenberg. That means the reader is going to expect some squirmy, icky stuff and there is plenty of that. The first 175 pages were great. Four star stuff. Like his movies, the setup and scenes danced along the edge of too disturbing to continue. Lots of "he isn't going to... OMG, he is!" situations. 

Gross and mesmerizing.

And then, boom, off the cliff he goes. Because the narrative changes from third person observations of Naomi and Nathan to a first person account by the still very much alive and on the run Aristide Arosteguy of the circumstances leading up to his wife's demise. Everything changes. 

For 60 pages the reader is subjected to a dense narrative that is too convoluted, too philosophical, and too breast obsessed for this reader. By the time Mr. Cronenberg resumed his previous writing style, I was just about done. I struggled through the last 70 pages, but he'd lost me. I no longer cared about anybody, about their weird obsessions, about much of anything. Splat.


Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Boy from Reactor 4 by Orest Stelmach

The Boy from Reactor 4
by Orest Stelmach
2013
***
3 stars - intense
ALR Green - some animals mentioned, briefly sad, nothing to worry about


Nadia Tesla has a cool name. Hey, that's a hook for me.

Anyway, she decides to make some inquiries into her father's past. Dad immigrated from Eastern Europe and, well, maybe his life prior to coming to the US wasn't all that wholesome. Pretty soon she's in trouble with the local branch of the Ukrainian mafia and on a mission to Chernobyl to rescue her teenage cousin, along with a secret that could possibly change the course of the world. Wow! 

The book focuses primarily on Nadia's desperate flight through Ukraine and Russia both in search of her cousin and then to get him away. Her Ukrainian enemies hook up temporarily with the local gang and pursue her relentlessly.

It's fast and it isn't pretty. Everybody who Nadia comes in contact with is at risk as the mob follows her trail and presses people for information. While I understand a map would have given too much away, it still would have been useful. I quickly lost track of where she was (and was too lazy to consult the Internet). 

Don't be fooled by the short chapters and do pay attention. There aren't that many characters, but I still got a little confused regarding who was who and what their motivations were. No worries. Things happen fast and I got the gist.

I'm just giving three stars because even though this book really drew me in, there wasn't much to it at the end of the day. Yes, some things to think about regarding the state of Eastern Europe, but not much investment in the characters for this reader. Still, I've popped the sequel into my queue because I see potential with this author and am keen to learn more about Nadia's adventures.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Sekhmet Bed by Libbie Hawker


The Sekhmet Bed
by Libbie Hawker
2011
***
3 stars - dodgy writing offset by an interesting story


Thirteen year old Ahmose is the second daughter of Egypt's current Pharaoh. She's fine with life in the women's quarters and figures some day she'll be a priestess, given her ability to read dreams.

No such luck. When her father dies suddenly, a soldier named Thutmose is named as his successor, and Ahmose, along with her elder sister, Mutnofret, are named wives #1 and #2. Mutnofret is appropriately PO'd that her little sister got the #1 slot. Ahmose is also not entirely pleased. Not only does she suffer from the jealous manipulations of her older sister, but she's not even going to let her husband consummate the marriage as she's pretty sure she'll die in childbirth.

Years pass, Mutnofret is producing sons, then, at the age of seventeen, Ahmose has a vision regarding her yet to be born progeny and things get totally mixed up.

The story was interesting and I appreciated Ms. Hawker's information about day to day life in the Egyptian royal family. 

Sadly, the writing just isn't all that good. The characters are flat and I was never fully drawn in to the scenes or actions. Almost there, but not quite. Given the story, though, I filled in the blanks on my own and I will be adding the second book in the series to my reading queue.

I liked the book better after I read Ms. Hawker's notes at the end. Her remarks about the book, her readers, and ancient Egypt showed an enthusiasm that is hard to resist. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Chocolate Cat Caper by JoAnna Carl

The Chocolate Cat Caper
by JoAnna Carl
2002
***
3 stars - super cozy
ALR Green - a grumpy cat jumps on people and prowls around


Nothing like a predictable cozy to cleanse the reading pallet after a few false starts.

Lee McKinney, newly divorced, has moved to a small town in Michigan to live with her Aunt. Aunt Nettie runs the local hand crafted chocolate shop and Lee is recruited to help out in the shop by keeping the books and running errands.

One such errand is to deliver chocolates to rich and loathsome defense attorney, Clementine Ripley. Nobody likes her. She makes her living by defending the most heinous of bad guys. Plus she bought up some lakefront property and built and totally ugly mansion. 

When Ripley drops dead later that day, well, there are plenty of suspects, but the presence of cyanide in one of the chocolates points the investigation towards Lee and Auntie. Uh oh.

The book roles out in typical cozy fashion. Lots of personalities, a few clues, a bit of danger, and all wrapped up in the end by our heroine. Just what I needed. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

Girlchild
by Tupelo Hassman
2012
*
1 star - not enough forward motion in the story


Girlchild is a first person narrative of a child growing up in poverty. She's being raised by a single mother who had her first child in her teens and is the daughter of a woman who was also a teen mom. They live in Nevada in a trailer. The narrator, Rory, experiences molestation at the hands of a neighbor when she is quite young. 

The story is told in fits and starts through memories of a child. For that, the narrative is well done in that it echos the vignettes that form one's childhood memories. What caused me to set the book aside without finishing is that ultimately it just didn't go anywhere. It seemed to spin around and around on the same topics endlessly with no forward motion.

Another recommended book that was a disappointment. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road to the Deep North
by Richard Flanagan
2013
**
2 stars - I just couldn't finish it, but the author gets an extra star for writing style
ALR Green - nice little terrier in the portion of the book I read


Well, that was frustrating.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is the story of Dorrigo Evans. He's a soldier in the Australian army who is captured by the Japanese during World War II and becomes part of a POW effort to build a railway in Japan.

One of the most frustrating reading experiences I've ever had. Mr. Flannagan's novel is structured in an exquisite fashion. He flops around between times much the way one's own brain is in the past, present, and future at any point in the day. He's got tons of short, meaningful sentences, such as, "A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else." 

The main character, Dorrigo Evans, isn't all that likable. That didn't bother me. Even unlikeable people have interesting experiences and thoughts. What caused me to ultimately toss the book aside after just over 80 pages was the love story. Evans has an affair with his Uncle's wife. I tried to ignore the flat, trite characterization of both the affair and the woman, Amy, but it became too much for me. Yuck. 

In fact all the women in the book (again, at least the part that I read), are given no character whatsoever. The author treats the reader to scenes with men other than Evans which tell us something about them and make them real. The women? They are dull as dishwater. Spiritless characters who only exist through the observations of the men around them. 

Ugh.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Ravels by James V. Viscosi

Ravels
by James V. Viscosi
2015
****
4 stars - delightful and engrossing
ALR Green - some monster animals and a cranky cat thing


Ravels concludes the adventures of Mercy and Bernard. Two teenagers, swept into the magical world of a video game in the book Shards

As the Ravels opens, there is trouble brewing in the land of adventure. Fierce storms are targeting cities and individuals, wiping them from the face of the Earth. Bernard is trapped in some sort of underground habitat of an unknown menace, along with a couple of other escapees from the line of doom. Meanwhile, Mercy is facing reanimated statues that are determined to seal her in a stone coffin. Uh oh.

The story progresses from one adventure to the next as Bernard, Mercy, and a ragtag crew try to discover the cause of disruption in the world and bring things back into line. 

Not easy for this reviewer to tell much more without inserting spoilers. Let's just say, there are monsters, events of nature, magic, elves, a dwarf, other odd humanoid creatures, and plenty of puzzles to solve. 

So let's do good news / bad news.

Good news.

  1. The characters. Magnificent. Mr. Viscosi treats his readers with multi-faceted, flawed characters at every turn. At times heroic, but mostly just trying to get things done. You might not like all the characters, but you certainly get to know them, their motivations, their quirks.
  2. The scenes. Rich and evocative. I could see every setting. The scenes drew me in to the world of the book completely. Lush descriptions.
  3. The language. Mr. Viscosi has a rich vocabulary and isn't afraid to use it. Plus there are delightful utterances scattered throughout. " 'Madness, but no more than I should expect from you three, I suppose, let alone from you.' This last was directed at Cynidece, a hooligan so dire she required separate denunciation." Delightful!
  4. The science, what there is of it, is plausible and described in technical terms. Keep up or don't, but things aren't dumbed down.
  5. Surprises. Yup, several big surprises for this reader, but they never felt contrived.
Bad news.
  1. The format of the book. You might not think it's a big deal, but the pinched margins, parsimonious white space, and bulky paragraphs often left this reader feeling a bit claustrophobic. 
  2. Not enough "previously on." Having taken a break of several months between the first book and the second, I was lost at times during the first 100 pages. 
  3. The names. I gave up trying to pronounce the names of the characters. Kaderleh, Kihantroh, Cynidece, whatever. I just made some sounds in my head for each character.
  4. Not enough dwarfs. Surely the dwarfs merited best supporting character awards in the first book, but with only one rather mild mannered dwarf in this volume, I felt a bit cheated.
Overall, big thumbs up. The prose, the world, enveloped me completely. If you want to get lost in a story, The Strings Duology of Shards and Ravels is the way to go.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier

The Lady and the Unicorn
by Tracy Chevalier
2004
***
3 stars - a good enough story with some interesting history lessons
ALR Green - brief appearances by pet dogs



In late 15th century Paris, a French nobleman commissions an ambitious set of six tapestries. Nicolas des Innocents, painter and rogue, is hired to create the paintings from which the tapestries will be created. The story follows the tapestries from conception to completion along with the lives of Nicolas, the nobleman's family, and the weavers. 

The story and the characters were a bit dull. None of the characters caught my fancy. However, the narrative style was different and fun. As the story moves along, it is narrated by different characters. That was cool. There is plenty of information about the art of weaving tapestries. Also cool.

Overall, a quick, entertaining read.

The Stuntman

The Stuntman
1980
directed by Richard Rush
starring Peter O'Toole, Steve Railsback, and Barbara Hershey
*****
5 stars - one of my favorite movies
ALR Green - cameo by a grumpy dog during the opening credits


Steve Railsback as Cameron is on the lam. He escapes the clutches of local law enforcement only to stumble upon a movie in process. Eli Cross (Peter O-Toole), the movie's director, takes him on as a stuntman. Why? That's part of the story. No spoilers, right?

I loved this movie when it first came out and am no longer sure how many times I've watched it, but I watched it again last night, so here are my remarks.

First and foremost, Peter O'Toole. Wow. He dominates the film with his larger than life on screen presence. His character of Eli Cross is full of ego, artistry, and deceit. Poor Cameron doesn't stand a chance. 

Combine that with wonderful stunts, great music, and plenty of surprises, and it's a delightful package. Nominated for three academy awards, but winner of none, due to some stiff competition that year (Raging Bull and Ordinary People took best actor and best director respectively).

Sure, some of the acting is a bit forced (Barbara Hershey), but who cares?

A nod to Charles Bail (professional stuntman) for his supporting actor performance as the stunt coordinator.

Note - Despite being a great movie, it hasn't had a Hollywood do-over. Subsequently, there are no subtitles and the soundtrack is a bit muddy. That didn't bother me, but for my husband, who hadn't seen the movie before, I had to interpret some of the dialog. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown
by Holly Black
2013
****
4 stars - a bit of a twist on the management of vampires in the 21st century
ALR Green - one dead dog on the side of the road and a few scenes with a friendly crow


Seventeen year old Tana wakes up in a bathtub after a raucous party. She discovers that while she remained passed out and hidden, the rest of the party goers were set upon by vampires and drained of their blood. Ew. Well, almost all of them. Her on and off boyfriend was only partially drained and left tied to a bed for later consumption. Not only that, but cowering in the corner of the room is a sorry looking vampire in chains seeking a bit of help.

Tana isn't all that surprised. Heck, she lives in a world full of vampires. Luckily, they've been, for the most part, relegated to walled communities called Coldtowns. The general population is privy to some of what goes on behind those walls thanks to live internet feeds, blog posts, and tweets. Some humans even opt to enter a Coldtown in search of eternal life or to become feed bags. 

Tana sets out to return the unfortunate vampire to the local Coldtown. That being, of all places, the city of Springfield, Massachusetts (gosh, Springfield just can't catch a break).

Great book. Despite reading well for this adult, I'm glad that the book is categorized as young adult. There are plenty of cautions in the story about believing everything you see on the Internet and the dangers of romanticizing things you don't really know too much about. Also, lots of action, surprises, and even a bit of teen aged romance. 

Good pacing, rich characters, some cool vampire action scenes, and moral dilemmas. Couldn't ask for more. 

Love the cover art. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Mad Max Fury Road

Mad Max Fury Road
2015
**
2 stars - so awful that I can't be bothered looking up the director or actors



Listen, I'm a big fan of the original Mad Max movies and of action movies in general. But, seriously, you have to give me something other than action, action, action, same, same, same.

Zero character development. By that I really mean zero. No attempt to impress the viewer with how real the situation might be in a post apocalyptic world where water is the most precious resource. Not even meaningful changes of scenery.

Are the visuals good? Absolutely. The shame is that after the first hour I was sick of them. Sick of the chasing, the explosions. Heck, the bad guys didn't even seem all that nutty. The heroes, well, who cares?

For the first hour, truck of good guys drives across a barren landscape while bad guys give chase. Then they hang out for a few minutes and decide to drive back. Second hour, good guys drive across the same landscape with same bad guys chasing.

In the middle, there is a pause, signaled by a lowering of the volume, when the good guys reach their original destination. But what had promised to be a green space is just more wasteland, with only half a dozen crones in residence. Pretty resourceful crones, though. Despite being in a place with nothing as far as the eye can see, they've managed to stockpile weapons, keep their motorcycles fueled up, feed themselves, and even construct a wooden tower (not sure out of what since there is only one tree in the entire movie). Now, you'd think they would have a camp and that they'd invite their new pals over for a snack and some R&R. Nope. Everybody spends the night next to the truck. No breaking of bread here. 

The soundtrack is the only device used to break up the action. Without the sound, one would weary even faster of the dull, consistent pace. At least the music is sometimes full orchestra, sometimes scant instruments, sometimes just percussion.

What really makes me mad is the missed opportunity here. I'm not asking for anything particularly deep, but the whole theme of Mad Max is about how people behave in desperate situations and, yes, it gives the viewer something to chew on. That being that maybe they are wrong about what matters in life and that power can be distorted very readily into something sinister. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel
2014
**
2 stars - another book with a lot of hype
ALR Green - a couple of dogs make brief appearances


Wow. The second book I've read recently that received lots of favorable reviews, but was a total disappointment.

Station Eleven tells the story of the world both before and after an outbreak of flu that wipes out 99% of the population. 

Here's what went wrong:

  1. Pacing. The author pops back and forth between pre and post pandemic. That's OK. But she spends so much time in one place or the other that the reader is prone to losing track of (and enthusiasm for) the parts of the story left dangling. As a result, each return to a different time feels a bit like the first episode of the new season of a favorite TV show (as in, "who is that again?" "what happened to him?"). To compensate, we get a sort of "previously on" recap. The result of this is that some plot devices are hammered home so many times they elicited eye rolls and sighs from this reader.
  2. Nothing new here. Really. Nothing. People wander around, some people are bad guys, some are good, some have regrets, some not, there's a religious prophet up to no good (surprise). Ho hum.
  3. Boring, flat characters. Every one of them. Seriously. 
  4. Another "tell all" style of writing. No mystery, no curiosity, just "here you go, here's what happened." 
  5. Key plot moments are described in such a bland style that one wonders what all the fuss was about.
  6. Nothing to think about. I wasn't left pondering my life, the future, or anything (other than, perhaps, feeling somewhat cheated by the previously reliable NPR book review site).
Blech.

Now a bit of nitpicking. 

The flu conveniently kills infected people in 48 hours. This avoids having to talk about difficult decisions of whether to leave loved ones behind, masking symptoms, etc.

Early on in the book (and now I'm getting very fussy), somebody uses a bicycle to generate enough power to boot up a laptop. The error message when it tries to connect to the Internet is "This webpage is not available." Now what browser could they possibly be using? On all my browsers, that message means you ARE connected to the Internet (hooray), but the site you're going to is down. So which is it?

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Abundance by Amit Majmudar

The Abundance
by Amit Majmudar
2013
****
4 stars - life, small, personal, bittersweet
ALR Blue - no animals


This book is both less and more than the teaser on the dust jacket. 

The dust jacket would leave one to believe that the central theme of the novel is the passing along of cooking techniques from mother to daughter and the clash of personalities that result when son, Ronak, proposes publishing the recipes. It's less than that. It's something much more intimate, something richer. 

What the author gives us instead is the thoughts of a woman as she approaches death. While the author is male, his first person narrative as an older woman is beautiful.

The mother, who is never named, tells us of the months following a cancer diagnosis. Her cancer, while certainly a big part of her life, is not what she focuses on. Instead, she shares with the reader all the thoughts, joys, concerns, of a mother, daughter, grandmother, person. 

Somehow, Mr. Majmudar uses the selection of topics to tell us far more about the narrator than what is actually discussed. His character is focused on her life, her family. As her children and their children spend more and more time with her, her relationship with them evolves in ways small on the outside, big on the inside. 

It's a quiet book. Her thoughts drift back to the time when her own mother was dying. She lingers over some events of the past, but keeps herself firmly in the present. She is neither courageous nor defeated. 

If there is a moral to the story, it is similar to the attitude I have adopted as I age. That is to find a balance between letting life happen and trying to control it. To embrace today, with all of it's joys and sorrows. To keep loved ones close and to be honest with them. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates

Black Chalk
by Christopher J. Yates
2013
**
2 stars - good enough if you want a distraction
ALR Blue - no animals


Six college freshmen join forces to play a game. The game involves some (unexplained) combination of dice and cards which determine points. Points then require participants to draw from buckets of consequences. The consequences are rated according to difficulty. The only rule is that none shall involve physical harm. They are designed to provide an increasing amount of social and personal discomfort to the individual. Dares become progressively more personal and humiliating.

I caught the end of a discussion about this book on my local NPR station and was left with the admonition to read it without trying to learn too much about it first. Fair enough.

One thing I will make clear. Mr. Yates is a good writer. He understands pacing, the use of dialog, settings, all that stuff. I imagine that his book might have presented in a different way at first and possibly got dumbed down by an editor seeking mass appeal.

Here's how.

First 100 pages or so. Super. Five stars. Couldn't wait to see what happened next.

Then the descent.

One star dropped when I realized he wasn't really giving the reader anything to challenge them. There were no clues dropped to be picked up later. Every part of the story was told directly and there was nothing to know or suss out until you were told. Even worse, the reader was informed what the "surprises" would be in that every reveal was prepped well in advance. As in, somebody dies, OK, now I just have to wait for him to tell me who.

Another star dropped when I lost interest in the characters. Their introductions were great, but the author never delved any deeper. By midpoint, I had a bunch of goofy, naive, twenty somethings whose back stories were told with a style as flat as that of an instruction manual.

Now down to three stars, but I was still staying up late to find out what he was going to do. You see, I was still hoping he'd give me something cool and thought provoking.

Nope. Last 50 pages. Ugh. The ending? Super ugh. 

This book gave me nothing to think about afterwards other than how disappointed I was. By the end, the entire premise, rather than being foreboding, was just dumb. The fate of the characters uninteresting. The conclusion itself, rather than an "oh wow, so that's what it was all about" was just one more page to read.

Footnote. I'd give the author one star back if this book had been found in the young adults section of the library. As a cautionary tale for teens and kids in their early twenties, it works.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

Summer Knight
by Jim Butcher
2002
****
4 stars - lots of action plus a mystery
ALR Green - unless you get upset by trolls and ghouls getting chopped up


Harry Dresden is back. He's the only professional wizard in the Chicago phone book and he's on a mission to solve any and all mysteries involving supernatural beasties so that the citizenry stays safe and oblivious to the dangers that lurk all around them.

Harry's despondent. His girlfriend has ditched him to go off on her own and deal with a newly acquired taste for blood, he can't pay his bills, his friends are deserting him, and his personal grooming habits are zip.

Enter the Winter Queen of Faerie. She's bought his contract from his evil Faerie godmother and she wants him to solve the murder of the Summer Queen's right hand man. Yeah, why not?

Trouble is, well, you just can't trust those Faeries. They are devious beings. Tricksters. Nothing is what it seems with them and it isn't long before Harry is getting bombarded from all sides by beings who want him dead. Not to mention, he's in deep water with the high council of wizards. They think he's gone rogue and intend to deal with him accordingly.

Harry calls on his local friendly pack of werewolves, along with some sprites who will work for pizza and a handful of changelings. They'll need to draw on every bit of cleverness and daring they have to defeat trolls, ghouls, centaurs, spells, you name it.

Hey, the big battle scene in Wal-Mart is worth the price of admission. 

Monday, September 7, 2015

Within Arm's Length by Dan Emmett

Within Arm's Length
A secret service agent's definitive inside account of protecting the president
2014
*****
5 stars - very interesting stuff
ALR Blue - not even presidential dogs


Dan Emmett. Marine. Secret Service Agent. CIA spook.

Here we have a no-nonsense tour of what is involved in becoming each of those things, with the main part of the book focused on Mr. Emmett's term as a Secret Service Agent. It's cool stuff. Mr. Emmett is no poet, but I gave the book five stars for both content and for his (mostly) "just the facts" manner of storytelling.

It would be easy for somebody in his shoes to write a political manifesto and he does take a few steps down the path of political opinion now and then, but for the most part he sticks to the main topic. The Secret Service in general, and specifically the Presidential Protective Division is charged with keeping the President of the United States (POTUS) free from harm. They also provide protection services to the presidential family as well as candidates for the position of the presidency. Retired presidents have the option of using the Secret Service, only Richard Nixon declined that offer.

What the reader learns is about the training that goes in to becoming a Secret Service agent. It's a lot. Mr. Emmett also offers stories of specific details and what they involved. Most of his stories are about President Clinton. Most famously, Clinton's proclivity to go jogging around Washington DC and the burden that put on those tasked with keeping him safe. 

He avoids any comments regarding a standing president's decisions or demeanor. His job was to protect the office, not the man. However, the stories he does share are a good reminder that all presidents, regardless of their politics, are human beings and the Secret Service is an organization of men and women that see the human side of things more than anybody. 

I recommend this book to all citizens of the U.S. It certainly gave me a new perspective of what it means to be a member of the Secret Service. 

Now, here's my Secret Service story. President Clinton visited the town where I live in 1994. He was slated to speak at our high school. Now I was in the habit of early morning walks with my dog at the high school and I assure you that the Secret Service knew all about me. I only noticed the vans and guys with earpieces a couple of days before the President's arrival. Yup, no doubt there was a notebook somewhere with "thirty something woman with dog - harmless" written in it. I knew enough not to mess with them. Just go about my business. One of their vans must have had a bomb sniffer dog in it. When we walked by, there was serious barking and the whole thing started shaking. Like all the vans, it was black, unmarked, and had tinted windows, but Agent Fido knew we were there.

Here's a photo of Clinton during his visit. Look at the faces on those Secret Service guys.


Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests
by Sarah Waters
2014
*****
5 stars - um, don't have anything clever to put here
ALR Green - yippy terrier bounces and barks here and there


It's going to be difficult to describe what is so cool about this book without spoilers, but I will try.

London. 1922. The widowed Mrs. Wray and her twenty-something daughter, Francis, are having trouble making ends meet. With debts mounting, they reluctantly make the decision to take in lodgers. Enter Mr. and Mrs. Barber. A nice young couple eager to have their first home away from the prying eyes of family (their previous residence being with Mr. Barber's family).

For Francis and her mother, it's a huge adjustment. Three out of four rooms on the second floor are turned over the the Barbers with the fourth reserved as a bedroom for Francis. The arrangement imposes interaction between the lodgers and their landladies. There's a shared staircase, front door, and the water closet, located in the back yard, requires a trip through the Wray's kitchen. Big adjustment. How to manage the relationship? Shall they be friends? Pretend the other doesn't exist? While the Barbers seem to adapt quickly, it's more difficult for the Wrays to manage with strangers in their home. 

And then what? Well, for the first couple of hundred pages (this is a long book of 564 pages), I had mixed feelings. I wasn't sure if I liked the book or not, but having read previous works of Ms. Waters, I hung in there.

Glad I did because the remaining pages consumed me. For real. So difficult to pry myself away. The book is all about Francis. The other characters come to life through her eyes only. Ms. Waters pulled me in to the machinations of Francis' mind without my even noticing it. Once you reach the point where you are sweating out decisions along with the main character, longing for her to say or do one thing or the other, anxiously awaiting outcomes, well, you're in it, right?

Let's just say, "stuff happens." Some stuff that is important only when it happens to you, some stuff that others will take notice of. Beyond that, I will reveal no more.

The dustcover reads "... the most ordinary of lives, it seems, can explode into passion and drama." How true, because from the outside there is nothing extraordinary about any of the characters. But aren't our own lives, no matter how mundane, filled with the drama of our internal angst? At times I felt I was reading a Thomas Hardy novel as the characters tumbled into a chasm of consequences from the smallest of decisions. Sometimes a bit of Poe. 

Did I like the story itself? I'm not sure. Does it matter? I was there, I was drawn in, seduced by the writing. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Guardians of the Night by Alan Russell

Guardians of the Night
by Alan Russell
2015
****
4 stars - great pacing, good lead characters, and a dog sidekick
ALR Green - doesn't qualify as a dog mystery, but Sirius the police dog is present a lot


Firsties! Yup, I put this on reserve before the library even bought the book and I got it hot off the presses. Yowza!

Michael Gideon is the one and only detective of the LAPD's special cases unit. He works the cases too weird to fall under any other jurisdictions. His partner is Sirius, a German Shepherd and police dog. 

In this, the second book in the series, Gideon is called in when a homeless man reports that he witnessed the murder of an angel. His story sounds fantastic, but Gideon determines there is some truth to his tale and is determined to get to the bottom of things.

At the same time, Gideon is trying to track down the "reluctant hero" who intervened in a school shooting just in time to save everybody and then vanished. 

The plot is rich and full of some interesting characters. The pacing is exquisite and makes for a real page turner (as in stay up too late reading kind of thing). 

Don't worry if you didn't read the first book. This one is better and the author provides enough information about what happened before so that you won't feel left out.

Sirius has some key scenes and he's a great dog and good friend to Gideon. I hope there will be more books in this series.

I do have two nits:
  1. Gideon's romantic interest, Lisbeth, is not given much attention. Her character is flat and it leaves one wondering what Gideon sees in her. Their interactions are superficial and awkwardly written compared to the rest of the book.
  2. I wish Gideon wouldn't leave Sirius in the car so much. Yes, he does crack open the windows, but it's LA in the summer and really too hot to leave the poor guy in the vehicle.



Monday, August 31, 2015

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

Below Stairs
by Margaret Powell
1968
***
3 stars - some good information, but sparse prose
ALR Blue - animals not part of the story



Below Stairs is the autobiography of Margaret Powell focused primarily on her work as a domestic servant in early twentieth century England. It's billed as the inspiration for the two popular TV series, Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs.

It certainly is a less romanticized version of life as a domestic. The reader gets some revealing looks at the drudgery and the overwhelming amount of work to be done day in and day out.

The writing is quite sparse and there are some odd grammatical twists that could be older English or could also be typos. I forgave that until I discovered that Ms. Powell used a ghost writer. Humph. I would have liked a ghost writer to be a bit more of, well, a writer.

The tone of the book is a bit grating. There is the constant comparison of things in "my day" vs. "today" and the author almost universally finds the people of "today" (particularly young people) wanting. I didn't need to be reminded that things change and it left me feeling that the author was mired in the past (despite her rather brutal description of it). 

No matter, it's a quick read and has lots of interesting tidbits.

Here's one quote which I found endearing. It echos a sentiment I often express about how people who lament the stinginess of the rich should look in to their hearts and ask what they'd do in the same situation.

I don't particularly envy rich people but I don't blame them. They try and hang on to their money, and if I had it I'd hang on to it too. Those people who say the rich should share what they've got are talking a lot of my eye and Betty Martin; it's only because they haven't got it they think that way. I wouldn't reckon to share mine around.

Now if somebody would explain to me what "my eye and Betty Martin" means, I'd be most appreciative.






Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Cotterill

Thirty-Three Teeth
by Colin Cotterill
2005
*
1 star - a perfectly good book that isn't my style
ALR Yellow - sad, abused bear escapes from captivity


Don't like giving this one star because I think it's a fine book, but stylistically it just didn't grip me.

Dr. Siri Paiboun is the national coroner of Laos. "Something wild and evil has been let loose in the city of Vientiane. A series of mutilated corpses lands in Dr. Siri's morgue, but it is only when Nurse Dtui is menaced that the elderly coroner can discover the cause of these deaths and identify the creature, animal or spirit, that has been slaying the innocent."

I liked the pacing. I like the setting. I learned a lot about Laos. I even like the characters. But after 100 pages, I was still struggling to get the rhythm of the book. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The African Queen by C. S. Forester

The African Queen
by C. S. Forester
1935
*****
5 stars - an adventure worth reading more than once
ALR Blue - no animals


It's hard to say whether this is really a five star book or it's just that I read and loved this book as a teenager and so it holds a five star place in my heart. Reading it for the third (or possibly the fourth) time, it's certainly a different experience for me than it was 40 years ago.

For those few not familiar with the story, here's a synopsis.

Rose Sayer is working as a missionary with her brother in Central Africa. Rose has lived a sheltered life and, now in her early thirties, has known little other than blind obedience to God, social norms, and subservience to her Reverend Brother. So when her brother succumbs to some sort of jungle disease, Rose is a bit at odds what to do. The Germans have recently invaded their mission and taken everything. Rose is alone in the middle of Africa.

Enter Charlie Allnutt. A small, rather disgusting man of indeterminate age who makes his living ferrying goods up and down the central African rivers. Upon discovering that Allnutt's boat happens to be carrying explosives, Rose determines that the two of them will make an impossible journey down the winding African river network to blow up a German patrol ship that is guarding a strategic lake.

And off they go. For folks who have seen the movie, let me say that the book is grittier. Forester does an admirable job describing the perils of the African jungle. You don't need wild animals to suffer. The heat, muck, and insects will do that just fine. 

Don't want to provide spoilers, but it shouldn't be any surprise that a man and a woman in desperate conditions eventually form a, well, "relationship." In my mind, this will always be less an adventure story and more of a romance. My young brain certainly found the interpersonal doings in the book far more titillating than the rather staid activities in the movie version.

All in all, worth reading. Not a lot of fuss or deep thoughts going on here. Just a straightforward adventure. There are a few literary delights as in this passage where Allnutt considers the urgency of "striking a blow for England" by heading down river:

Allnutt's impression was that they might start tomorrow if the gods were unkind; next week if they were favourable. To set off like this, at half an hour's notice, to torpedo the German navy seemed to him unseemly, or at least unnatural.

Lest anybody be in doubt regarding C. S. Forester's target audience (I'm thinking young men and boys), behold a different rendering of the cover art.


Oh my.