Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch
by Donna Tartt
2014 Pulitzer Prize
5 stars - yes, to all the superlatives being bantered about
ALR Green - a nice little Maltese that pops in and out of the story

I approached this book with extreme caution. It's a daunting 771 pages. Plus, as it won the Pulitzer, I feared it would be yet another clunky, overwrought drama. 

Nothing of the sort. 

I was captivated from the beginning. The Goldfinch is narrated by Theo Decker. At the age of thirteen, he survives an incident in which his mother is killed. His life is never the same. The picture we see of Theo prior to the incident is of a fairly normal, accomplished kid. He lives with his divorced mother in New York City. All is fine.

Post incident, his life veers along a course that one could never have predicted. The first hurdle is where he will live. After a brief stay with the family of one of his classmates, he is whisked away by his heretofore absent father. To a life and location completely unfamiliar. 

Thus the tail unfolds. The life of Theo Decker, from 13 years of age to somewhere in his late twenties. Never plodding or overly sentimental. Never implausible. Many opportunities along the way for the reader to draw parallels between Theo's life and their own. To wonder, "what if?"

Hard to say more without spoiling the story. Are there twists and turns? Yes, but it isn't as if this is some great mystery. The surprises are those that we all have in life. Incidents both great and small that shape our destinies. 

One beautiful subtlety of Ms. Tartt's writing is the way the texture changes as Theo matures. I didn't really notice it at first. As a teenager, his narration is presented in short chapters and is mostly about what happened to him. The older Theo tells his story in longer chapters with more contemplation about how things make him feel and what it all means. Cool, right?

For me, the book was mainly about how one moment in our lives can change and shape our story in ways totally unexpected. I'm not talking about the fork in the road, but an event that takes us off the road completely and plops us down in someplace entirely new. A moment that forever puts a "before" and "after" into all subsequent experiences. For me, that event would be when our family relocated from New Jersey to Massachusetts. It changed everything. Everything. 

If I have one nit (and it's a small one), it's the last few dozen pages where Ms. Tartt wanders down the path of dense philosophical musings on life. That's OK. After over 700 pages of compelling narrative, she gets a pass on the last few pages. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches
by Deborah Harkness
4 stars - mixed emotions, but part 2 is in my queue, so good enough for that
ALR Green - some animals get killed by vampires, but others fare better

Well, this was certainly a mixed experience. At times I wanted to toss the book aside in frustration. At times I couldn't stop reading. I did like it enough to mark the second volume of the trilogy as "to read," so there's that.

Diana Bishop. Scholar. Witch. Mostly scholar. She doesn't want to be a witch and she suppresses her witchy tendencies by exercising... a lot. She spends her days in Oxford's Bodleian Library, hunkered down with obscure texts on alchemy. Not a bad way to live. Actually, pretty darn good, in my opinion.

Sure, there are daemons, vampires, and witches living among humans, but they keep to themselves. No worries. Then, one day, Diana is noticed by a vampire. A shockingly handsome vampire who just won't leave her be. Matthew Clarmont. He's got a thing for Diana and he just keeps popping up and worrying about her. Typical stalker vampire behavior.

Turns out, Diana has stumbled across a particular volume that holds secrets coveted by daemons, witches, and vampires alike. Only Diana can unlock the key to the mysteries inside the book and once she's opened it up, the library starts to fill up with lurking non-humans who all want a piece of her.

Matthew, meanwhile, has a research lab at Oxford where he studies the blood of all two legged beings in search of, well, not sure what. Diana is in danger and Matthew whisks her away to France where Matthew's mother lives in an ancient castle and all will be safe. Or will they? 

Not a bad setup. But here's the thing. I'd characterize the first 300 pages of the book as moving along at a near glacial pace. Boy, oh boy, do these folks drink a lot of tea, sip gallons of wine, go jogging, and change into identical outfits over and over and over and... 

The pace picks up incrementally once the 300 page mark is crested (I would characterize it as merely slow). Matthew and Diana, well, like doesn't everybody know that witches and vampires aren't supposed to fall in love? They've got the entire non-human community in an uproar. 

There is also what I believe to be unintentional humor. Matthew and Diana return to Diana's familial home in upstate New York. Matthew gets the need to feed on human blood. Uh oh. So he takes a quick  hunting trip to Canada. Nom, nom, nom. Canadians. 

How about this...

... it's about our common belief that no one has the right to tell two creatures that they cannot love each other - no matter what their species."

Right on!

Still, I'm giving it four stars. There is enough history to keep me interested. Ms. Harkness has also decided to tell whatever tales she wants about how vampires, witches, and daemons function and she breaks some longstanding rules. Hey, why not? Plus, once the non-human behaviors start heating up, there are some delightful scenes of witchery and whatnot. 

By the last hundred pages, I was pretty sure how the book would end. I was right. Virtual fist shake, Ms. Harkness. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sandstorm by James Rollins

by James Rollins
3 stars - 4 star action, but kind of a 2 star plot
ALR Green - some camels, one gets shot, a horse, nothing that sticks in your head

James Rollins writes some of the best action / adventure scenes going. Heck, a guy gets vaporized in the first ten pages. You've got explosions, chases, sandstorms, scorpions, all sorts of stuff. Woo hoo! What a ride. 

Um, OK, what about the story? Here's the deal. There's an explosion in the antiques collection at the British Museum. Call in collection curator Safia al-Maaz and her best chum (and patron of the collection) Lady Kara Kengsington. What's the deal? Who knows? Looks like more than a bolt of lightening. Hmmm....

Let's throw in a couple of ultra top secret Sigma Force operatives who pop over the pond to investigate (under the guise of scientists) and Ms. al-Maaz's ex-fiance, Omaha Dunn. A couple of throw away characters as well, just to round things out, and we are away.

The explosion revealed a clue leading to the lost city of Ubar, somewhere under the Arabian desert. Away we go, but not before one of the Sigma crew utters this delightful line while examining the debris in the museum, "And look at my ancillary reading. Besides Z-bosons and gluons against the background gamma, as expected with antimatter annihilation, this sample is emitting very low levels of alpha and beta radiation." What's that you say?

There's also a bad guy who wants in on this whole antimatter lost city thing and has much better firepower and technology than our intrepid band of main characters. Watch out!

Yeah, I like to poke fun at Mr. Rollins' novels, but you know I'm going to read another one, right? 

Monday, May 11, 2015

Buddy - How a Rooster Made me a Family Man by Brian McGrory

how a rooster made me a family man
by Brian McGrory
1 star - not what I had hoped for
ALR Green - guy does like his pets, so there's that

Different memoir, same problem. This happened, that happened, and way too much about the author's life exclusive of his animal pals. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Answer to the Riddle is Me by David Stuart MacLean

The Answer to the Riddle is Me
a memoir of amnesia
by David Stuart MacLean
4 stars - a cautionary tale regarding medication side effects and life
ALR Green - fuzzy dog who is a loyal companion to her master

I'm going to fall back on the dust jacket synopsis for this one.

On October 17, 2002, David MacLean "woke up" on a train platform in India with no idea who he was or why he was there. No money. No passport. No identity.

Taken to a mental hospital by the police, MacLean then started to hallucinate so severely he had to be tied down. Soon he could remember song lyrics, but not his family, his friends, or the woman he was told he loved. All of these symptoms, it turned out, were the result of the commonly prescribed malarial medication he had been taking. Upon his return to the States, he struggled to piece together the fragments of his former life in a harrowing, absurd, and unforgettable journey back to himself.

Not only did something awful happen to David MacLean, he's also a writer. That means that his memoir is a interesting and well written. 

First and foremost, not everybody who has something bad happen to them is a nice person. I grow weary of tales told of people who are involved in dreadful natural disasters, acts of war, or illness, who are portrayed as delightful survivors.

Imagine getting amnesia, only to discover as your memory returns that you were, well, kind of an ass. So it is with David MacLean. Photos from his past reveal that he was always leaning away from those he professed to love, and making ruinous faces at the camera. His friends and family are circumspect in their words to describe his past relationships, but it's clear he was a womanizer. 

Mr. MacLean slowly pieces his life back together, but the lingering side effects of the drugs are an ever present threat.

Now then, about those drugs...

Mefloquine (Lariam) is, as far as I can tell, still prescribed as a malarial prophylactic. It was heavily used by the US military. This despite the reported side effects of severe mental disorder, violent behavior, suicide. Many of the cases were chalked up to other causes; PTSD, pre-existing conditions. What's the deal? The deal is that a side effect that appears unrelated to the drug in most cases is dismissed by the medical community.

I know of what I speak. Statins cause me to suffer horrific insomnia. Thank goodness my primary care doctor believes me and she has noted statins as a no-go on my medical record. But many others do not and you will find insomnia at the very bottom of the potential side effects. 

Interspersed with his vivid depictions of the Lariam induced hallucinations and struggles to remember, Mr. MacLean gives the reader an overview of malaria and attempts to control it. He also has a postscript with more information about Lariam side effects and the continued use (and abuse) of it by the US military. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Two Memoirs that Couldn't Hold my Attention

Friends, I don't like giving one star reviews. I know how much goes in to writing a book and putting yourself out there. Nowhere is an author more exposed than in a memoir. Sadly, I am now compelled to give two memoirs one star reviews. I couldn't finish either of them, despite the feeling that both authors are cool people that I'd like to meet.

Here goes...

Following Atticus
by Tom Ryan
1 star - nice dog, interesting owner, repetitive journey
ALR Green

Tom Ryan created and authored The Undertoad, a newspaper for the town of Newburyport, MA, for a decade. A transplant to the North Shore of Massachusetts, he used the paper to uncover the more sordid side of small town life and push for change in local government. Well done.

He adopts a little Schnauzer, Max, and finds himself transformed into a dog person. When Max dies, Mr. Ryan gets another Schnauzer, Atticus, and the story is underway.

Mr. Ryan is a good journalist and I fear that was his undoing for me. His prose, while compelling when reporting the news, is not something that could sustain me for an entire book. 

No doubt, hikers through the White Mountains will be more interested to learn about his treks with his dog, but I found it to be repetitive and just couldn't plow through.

Out of the Whirlpool
a memoir of remorse and reconciliation
by Sue Wiygul Martin
1 star - I wanted to finish, but I couldn't
ALR Green

So much did I want to like this book, that I read 200 pages before stopping. Ms. Martin has a lot to say and she opens her heart and soul in her writing. 

Her opening pages, which describe deep depression, were perfect and heartbreaking. Depression is not something you pull yourself out of and as hers spiraled out of control, she decided to take her own life, but instead, lived, permanently blinded by the attempt.

Uneven is my best description of the book. Her stories of the coping mechanisms required to live in a sighted world during her first year of blindness were interesting. I was particularly impressed by the subtleties of cane use. 

When Ms. Martin is writing about how to use a cane, how to cook, etc., it's a good book. Where it failed me was when she turns to the more mundane aspects of life. The passages involving getting jobs, getting married, moving, slowed things down considerably.

I was disappointed that there was not more about how people learn to work with a guide dog. While she offered details on learning braille, how to choose clothing, and other stuff, her experience at the guide dog school was limited to meeting her dog and then her return home. Nothing in between about how she trained. That seemed odd (I thought I'd finally learn how people with seeing eye dogs manage picking up their dog's poop).

Ms. Martin shows us how full life can be for visually impaired people when they are in the right environment and have the will to try new things. That's all good. 

Thank you, Sue Wiygul Martin, for sharing your life and for being honest. I think this book has a lot going for it, but the writing style wasn't for me. 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Dead Anyway by Chris Knopf

Dead Anyway
by Chris Knopf
2 stars - confusing, implausible, and a bad ending
ALR Blue - no animals, not even as scenery

Arthur Cathcart is living a nice life. He's got a good business as a computer nerd and a delightful wife who owns an insurance agency. Then, one day, he comes home to find a guest in the house. A guest who kills Arthur's wife and leaves Arthur for dead, having shot him a couple of times.

Arthur is in a coma for a while and when he wakes up, he decides to pretend he died and assume a new identity (or two, or three) to go and figure out who killed his wife and make them pay.

It's not a terrible premise and even thought it got off to a slow start, midway through I was interested enough to keep going. Ultimately, however, I was disappointed.

I found the cast of characters to be confusing. Just something about the way in which people were introduced and then dropped, only to come back. I wasn't quite sure who was who. Arthur's schemes for how to track down the killers, well, they were also confusing. I was willing to go along while it was interesting, but, ultimately, it just strained my ability to suspend belief. 

The ending? Thud. 

Friday, May 1, 2015

A Street Cat Named Bob by James Bowen

A Street Cat Named Bob
and how he saved my life
by James Bowen
3 stars - quick read, wonderful story
ALR Green - it's all about the bond humans form with animals, as green as it gets

James Bowen was a recovering heroin addict living in government subsidised housing and working as a street musician to make ends meet when a cat entered his life and everything changed. 

Mr. Bowen found the cat, whom he named Bob, inside his apartment building. Bob was in rough shape. Clearly he'd been in some sort of tussle as he had an open wound. His fur was sparse. He was skinny. Bowen asked around, but nobody claimed Bob as their own and Bob took a fancy to Bowen. Bowen brought Bob down to the RSPCA for treatment and the cat was soon on the road to recovery.

Bob and Bowen bonded immediately. Bob wanted his new best friend in sight at all times and gladly joined Bowen on his trips into the city to ply his trade as a street musician. The rest is, well, history.

It's a great story and reminds us of the power of unconditional love as well as the need people have for a greater purpose when they are trying to pull themselves out of a life of despair. Bowen managed to get completely clean from his addiction. He did it for Bob. Hopefully readers will gain a bit more sympathy for how challenging it can be to move forward in life when finds oneself at the bottom of the barrel, regardless of circumstances that brought one there.