Friday, July 31, 2015

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

The Sandcastle Girls
by Chris Bohjalian
3 stars - two star writing, but an extra star for topic
ALR Blue

Too bad this one misses the mark because the main topic, the Armenian Genocide, is an important historical event which many people are not aware of. 

The story focuses on Elizabeth Endicott, a wealthy young American woman who travels to Aleppo as part of a humanitarian mission to aid victims of the Armenian Genocide. She meets Armen, an Armenian engineer, and falls in love. Armen, who has lost his wife and child, is equally smitten, but feels compelled to leave Aleppo to join the army in the battle against the Turks. 

The narrator of the story is Elizabeth's granddaughter, Laura. Laura delves into historical archives to try and discover the details of what happened decades before. She's heard bits and pieces from her grandparents, but never the full story. She discovers a box of her grandmother's letters, along with some photos taken during granny's stay in Aleppo and from that she pieces together what might have actually happened.

The book started off well enough. There are scenes depicting the unimaginable hardship endured by the Armenian people and some reflections on events by Laura. But it deteriorates into a rather mushy love story. In fact that story is so soft and gauzy that by the mid-point, the genocide has faded, lost its immediacy. 

Things get more implausible as the book goes on, the impact of the war on people more removed. Then there's the ending. Ugh. A series of unbelievable coincidences that read more like a romance novel than historical fiction. 

Mr. Bohjalian has written several novels and is apparently quite successful, so if you've enjoyed any of his other books, I imagine you'll like this one as well, but it wasn't my cup of tea.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
by Ransom Riggs
2 stars - started off great, then things went all kinds of wrong
ALR Blue - no animal characters

The first half of this book is wonderful. The prose is lyrical, the atmosphere spooky. Mr. Riggs has collected old, and rather odd, photos of children and built characters based upon them. We first meet the narrator, Jacob, recalling conversations with his grandfather about the fantastical and peculiar children he lived with during World War II. 

There's the floating girl, the invisible boy, the girl who can create fire. Jacob is sure that granddad has been exaggerating his experiences as a form of entertainment. But when Granddad dies suddenly, Jacob undertakes a quest to find out if the stories were real or fiction. He and his dad head to the island which purports to house the Home for Peculiar Children.

Jacob finds the house, but it is a molding wreck. Abandoned since a bomb landed near it during the war. He sets to explore it nevertheless.

The gleam led me around a corner and into a small room with part of the ceiling caved in. Daylight streamed through the hole onto a mound of splintered floorboards and broken glass from which rose coils of silty dust, pieces of torn carpet plastered here and there like scraps of desiccated meat. Beneath the debris I could hear the scrabble of tiny feet, some rodentine dark-dweller that had survived the implosion of its world. In the midst of it all lay the demolished trunk, photographs scattered around like confetti.

Good stuff, right? So what happened? What started as a moody, interesting story, suddenly deteriorated into some sort of young reader styled fantasy action adventure. Seriously. Like it was two different books. I barely made it through to the end.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Scents and Sensibility by Spenser Quinn

Scents and Sensibility
by Spenser Quinn
5 stars - It's Chet and Bernie!
ALR Green - but just remember that Chet and Bernie live dangerous lives, some maybe some yellow moments

Do I need to say anything other than this is the latest Chet and Bernie book? I don't think so. Not only do I buy Chet and Bernie books in hardcover, I pre-order. That's how much I love this series.

Back in action! This time on the trail of the son of their next door neighbor. Bit of an issue with a cactus appearing on the front lawn. A stolen cactus! Things get all tangled up pretty fast. Before you know it, somebody is dead and thugs are keen to shut down The Little Detective Agency before Chet and Bernie get too close to solving the mystery.

Lots of fun doggie action, bad guys, good guys, and a wonderful surprise (I'm not telling).

Mr. Parsons straightened, scratched his head. That's a human thing for when they're confused. In the nation within - which is what Bernie calls my kind - we scratch our heads too, but only if they're itchy. And wouldn't you know? Seeing Mr. Parsons scratching his head made my own head itchy! So for a moment or two we were both scratching away, me and old man Parsons. What a life!

Friday, July 17, 2015

A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History by Tim Grove

A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History
by Tim Grove
1 star - just not the book I was expecting
ALR Blue

If you are looking for a book about how to make history relevant to the average person (with some historical vignettes thrown in), then this is the book for you. If, like me, you are keen to read anecdotes of life as a historian, then, no.

Mr. Grove is passionate about history education. He provides chapters about different ways institutions strive to make history interesting for people who might otherwise think it's not important. That's all good. Just not what I was looking for.

His opening chapters discuss Colonial Williamsburg. It's one of the largest and oldest historical recreation communities in the country. So, first off, that kind of exhibit doesn't work for me. I just can't get past the whole actors part. No worries there. He's got some pretty interesting discussions about how Williamsburg has dealt with the issue of slavery over the years and encouraging reports of people starting to ask questions after participating in various Williamsburg activities. All good stuff. 

Unfortunately, I was hoping for more personal information about Mr. Grove and behind the scenes tales of what it's like to work in Williamsburg. You know, interviews with the actors, discussions of what it feels like to wear the costumes, that sort of thing. So, no, didn't finish the book because I was looking for a different kind of memoir. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Sara's Face by Melvin Burgess

Sara's Face
by Melvin Burgess
3 stars - a book for young readers, but written well enough to entertain this adult
ALR Blue - brief references to animal experimentation, but all clear otherwise

Sara. Teenager. Goofy, imaginative, restless, depressed, impressionable. Typical. 

While hospitalized after accidentally (or not) getting burned by an iron, Sara meets rock star Jonathan Heat. Heat is known for his multiple, and increasingly bizarre, cosmetic surgeries. He's kind of gone off the deep end with all of that and now has to wear a mask to prevent his face from frightening those around him.

He sees a kindred spirit in seventeen year old Sara and offers to move her in to his estate and allow his personal plastic surgeon to get rid of the scarring on her face and maybe throw in a breast job as well. Sara and her mom are enchanted and take him up on his offer.

But things are not as they seem. Sara becomes increasingly disturbed while in residence. She begins seeing and hearing things. Ghosts? Who knows? What's real with Sara and what isn't? She has a history of elaborate fictions, so nobody is sure what's really up with her. And what is Heat's real motive in taking her in? He claims he wants to help her be somebody. Help her to become beautiful and famous. Um, OK, maybe be does, but maybe he also has something more sinister in mind. 

The story is narrated by an investigative journalist who pieces things together after the fact through interviews and Sara's own video journal. Mr. Burgess does a good job laying on the suspense and intrigue. 

While not a lot for an adult reader to hang their hat on, it kept me entertained. For young readers, this would be a great book. It raises a lot of questions about fame, identity, love, you name it. So many "what would you do?" moments. Plus it plays in to the typical teenage conundrum of being neither child nor adult. Of yearning for something, but not knowing the consequences of making your dreams appear to come true. Good stuff. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Lucky Dog by Dr. Sarah Boston

Lucky Dog
How being a veterinarian saved my life
by Dr. Sarah Boston
4 stars - both entertaining and thought provoking
ALR Green - mostly good stories about dogs with cancer

Dr. Sarah Boston is a veterinary surgical oncologist. When she feels a lump in her neck, she knows what it is. Her fingers have touched enough masses to know the difference between cancer and benign. This one is cancer.

Thus begins Dr. Boston's journey of dealing with thyroid cancer. She writes beautifully. While some characterize her style as "hilarious" I'm more inclined to view it as an honest voice (as opposed to memoirs which imbue their authors with great thoughts at all times whatever life has to offer). 

One of the contrasts Dr. Boston draws repeatedly is the difference between veterinary care and human medical care. With vets, diagnosis comes swiftly, multiple options are laid out, the patient's quality of life is always paramount. With human doctors, there are often long waits, few options, and survival is given priority over quality of life. We need to change that.

She also has some great stories about how vets are treated differently than human doctors. I've seen it myself. Even though vets have the same amount of rigorous medical training as their counterparts who deal with humans, pet owners balk at their costs and try to second guess them. Frankly, I'm always surprised at how inexpensive veterinary treatment is. It's only painful because it comes directly out of my pocket, but vets do major surgery every day for very little money. 

In addition to her dog stories, Dr. Boston talks about her cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. She's got some honest (and much needed) opinions regarding how people talk about cancer, how they treat friends and family with cancer, how we collectively perceive illness.

There are lots of quotable moments in the book. I'll give you this one from before her cancer was diagnosed.

So, six weeks of this thyroid mass business, and now four different doctors have felt my neck and told me that the nodes are small and that is good. But now they are big and that is... bad? Just guessing. But there are other reasons for enlarged nodes. It's possible the trauma of the repeated stabbing during the time-wasting, excruciating, non-diagnostic needle biopsy could have caused reactive lymph nodes, which is just inflammation, not cancer (but that was a few weeks ago). Or I could be getting a cold (but I am not sick), or maybe it is the bubonic plague. I hear that the Bubes has made a serious comeback since we started pumping cows, dogs, and people with antibiotics, which leads to superbugs, which leads to the Bubes. (But I haven't been in a prison in Madagascar lately, so this seems less likely.) I swear I can feel the capsule that surrounds the lymph node stretching to accommodate the inflammatory cells/Bubes/cancer.

Captain's Fury by Jim Butcher

Captain's Fury
by Jim Butcher
4 stars - not quite 5
ALR Green - some horses killed in battle

Oops, down a star from the previous works in this series, but still a darn good read.

They grow up so fast. Just three novels and 1000 pages or so ago, our hero, Tavi, was a teenager with no normal furycrafting powers tending his flock of sheep. Now he's a young man and captain of a legion of the Realm. He's spent two years doing battle with the invading Canim. Those wolf like creatures who have left their homeland to take over Aleran spaces. 

You know, I'm really not good at names and keeping track of all the political intrigue. Not a problem. Plenty of swordplay, furycrafting (as in taking ownership of wind, sea, fire, whatever), and general action. In addition to the Canim, there are giant leviathans who eat ships at sea (with sharks along to pick up the chum), giant lizards ready to kill swamp invaders, and other cool stuff.

Basically, Tavi is on a quest to find a way to convince the Canim to desist in their hostilities and go home. Meanwhile, a band of three take off to put down some evil dude from the last book who wants to rule the world and some good guys and bad guys are left behind to do battle with the Canim whilst Tavi and his crew are off getting into trouble. 

People are flying around, blowing up, getting jabbed with daggers, you know, the usual. All good fun. 

Oh, and yes, once again, the cover art depicts a scene from the book. There's young Tavi confronted with fire hounds. What?

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Shards by James V. Viscosi

by James V. Viscosi
4 stars - fantasy fiction for grownups
ALR Green - a few animal characters in very brief scenes

First, a disclaimer. I am acquainted with the author via the Internet. We share a love of dogs and are both members of an online dog lovers community. In fact that is how I came to read two of his other novels, A Flock of Crows is Called a Murder (liked) and  Dragon Stones (did not like). 

Shards follows the adventures of two teenagers, Mercedes and Bernard, who find themselves literally sucked in to the world of a computer fantasy game. There they take on the characters they've created and go on a quest to recover some precious, magical stones. Ho hum, right? Well, no.

This is a fantasy novel for grownups. It's subtle, humorous, plausible (if you go along with the whole elves and magical stones thing). Mr. Viscosi has a gift for depicting settings and landscapes. His descriptions of the world that Mercedes and Bernard find themselves in are lyrical. 

All of the characters we meet are very "human" and multi-faceted. While there are some minor characters who are really only there to move the plot along, they are also drawn in a way so that their motivations are well understood. In fact, the scenes in the story also stand by themselves and there is something wonderful going on here. Because life isn't black and white and each scene in our lives typically contains things which are important, bizarre, and sometimes humorous. For example, while local leaders are discussing the possibility of spies doing harm to the realm, they are also attempting to supervise the bumbling efforts of the local constabulary to fish a fallen fellow (deceased) out of the river. Tension and strategy side by side with some dark humor. I'm all for that. 

Mr. Viscosi moves things along at a swift pace. No time for mushy stuff or any prolonged philosophical reflection. That's good too.

The nutty (and possibly evil) dwarfs steal the show with their steam punk underground habitat and multi-colored skin. They are gruff, smart (but not clever), and unintentionally (to them) funny. 

I'm no fan of teenagers. Bear with Mercedes and Bernard through the first section of the book. Once they arrive in elf land, it's easy to recast them as adults if that works for you.

Now then, I have two nits, OK, three.

  1. The cover art. Ugh. It screams "book for teen aged boys who have no life outside of their video games."
  2. The tightly spaced font and small margins (in fact I gave up trying to read pages 16-17 because, come on, these eyes aren't what they used to be).
  3. The ending. Let's just say, if you are halfway through the book and you are enjoying it, better go out and find its companion, Ravels, like, now.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Suicide Med by Freida McFadden

Suicide Med
by Freida McFadden
4 stars - how can you not love a medical student mystery?
ALR Blue - no animals

Southside Medical school, otherwise known as "suicide med." Why? Well it would appear that every year, for the last six years, one of the medical students has committed suicide. Uh oh.

Once again, Frieda McFadden combines her insider's knowledge of the field of medicine with her flair for writing to provide a "just one more chapter before I'm late for work" kind of book. 

As the new class of medical students enters Southside med, we're introduced to Heather, Abe, Mason, Rachel, and Ginny. They're stuck at the same cadaver table in anatomy class and their lives get all tangled up together. Any concerns about the annual suicides are secondary to the overriding anxiety of trying to commit to memory all the parts of the human body.

The book is separated into narrations of the events of the first year by each of the students. So we start with Heather who brings us to the edge of a cliff, then rewind to visit the same time from the perspective of another student and so on and so on.

Each narrative reveals more details about what's really going on. I'm a big fan of Dr. McFadden's writing style. Her characters don't spend a lot of time in deep musings. Their thoughts are more along the lines of bursts of feelings and observations rendered in phrases rather than complete sentences. I'm down with that. I like the way they think. We also get to see how the same events take on different meanings when viewed from the inescapably egocentric perspective of each person.

Dr. McFadden throws in a plot twist that I found, at first, to be a little over the top. She almost lost me. Then I said, "Hey, she's having fun, I'm having fun, just go with it." Then all was right once again. Because fun it is. 

I also enjoyed her novel The Devil Wears Scrubs and have added her next book to my queue. She's two for two on my list. Two books that I enjoyed so much that I stayed up too late at night just to see what happened next. Bravo! Now somebody please make this book in to a mini-series. That would be awesome.