Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown
by Holly Black
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
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
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).

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
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
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
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
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
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
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.