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.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

Palace Walk
by Naguib Mahfouz
translated by William M. Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny
1956
*****
5 stars - timeless
ALR Blue - no animals


Sometimes exploring the stacks at the library really pays off. I determined to find a book whose wear showed me that it had at one time been popular, but had suffered the fate of being thrust in amongst other, less seemly companions, in the stacks.

Palace Walk is the first novel in the Cairo trilogy by the 1988 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Naguib Mahfouz. 

The setting is Cairo in the early twentieth century during the British occupation. The characters are Al-Sayyid Ahmad and his family. 

Now at first I took this for an historical novel that would leave me better informed regarding time, place, and culture. Well, yes, it's that, but not really. The setting quickly takes a back seat to the timeless exploration of human nature. The characters demonstrate beautifully how people are not that much different between cultures and generations.

Al-Sayyid himself, tyrant at home, jovial attention seeker away from home.
His wife, Amina, who has made the best life for herself that is available to her and finds comfort and peace in her daily rituals.
Their children, three sons, two daughters, all different, all experiencing the emotional turmoil of growing up and questioning life.

Their world is small, like most people's. Their concerns with matters of no import to others are huge to them. So much so that when the British impose marshal law and there are ongoing demonstrations and many Egyptian freedom fighters killed, the lives of Al-Sayyid's family continue to be focused on their private concerns. They aren't ignoring or dismissing the political strife, but they are trying to live their lives and that requires doing normal stuff. 

Allow me to share the opening passage. 

She woke at midnight. She always woke up then without having to rely on an alarm clock. A wish that had taken root in her awoke her with great accuracy. For a few moments she was not sure she was awake. Images from her dreams and perceptions mixed together in her mind. She was troubled by anxiety before opening her eyes, afraid sleep had deceived her. Shaking her head gently, she gazed at the total darkness of the room. There was no clue by which to judge the time. The street noise outside her room would continue until dawn. She could hear the babble of voices from the coffeehouses and bars, whether it was early evening, midnight, or just before daybreak. She had no evidence to rely on except her intuition, like a conscious clock hand, and the silence encompassing the house, which revealed that her husband had not yet rapped at the door and that the tip of his stick had not yet struck against the steps of the staircase.

You see? No different than the first few moments of wakefulness that many of us experience. How often have I come to my senses at the usual time on a weekday morning, the sky still dark, and strained my ears to listen for queues that will tell me if it is AM or PM and where I might be in my cycle of routine. 

Palace Walk is about people seeking what we all seek; peace, acceptance, love.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Fastest Things on Wings by Terry Masear

Fastest Things on Wings
Rescuing hummingbirds in Hollywood
by Terry Masear
2015
*****
5 stars - delightful
ALR Green - yes, some of the birds die and some are kind of beat up, but the mood of the book is so uplifting that I think even sensitive readers will have a Green feeling by the end


Hummingbirds are cool. Do you need anything more?

Terry Masear is a hummingbird rehabilitator in Los Angeles, California. Who knew? She stumbles in to rehab and rescue in the same way many caring individuals do. It starts with her discovery of an injured bird, a casual remark to the hummingbird rescue where she takes it of "if there's anything I can do to help" and before she knows it, Ms. Masear is caring for dozens of hummingbirds every year. 

It's a labor of love and quite a labor. During the busy breeding months, her days start before the sun comes up and end sometime around midnight. During waking hours she's managing birds in different stages of healing while juggling constant phone calls from concerned citizens who have found birds. 

Her book takes the reader through one season of rescue while also providing some background on Ms. Masear. It's informative and engrossing. 

While never preachy, Ms. Masear does impress the reader with a couple of very important points:
  1. Never assume you know how to care for a wild animal. If you find an injured or trapped animal, call your local wildlife. Do not use "common sense" to try and take care of it.
  2. Don't listen to folks who say "let nature take its course" regarding animals in distress. If an animal is anywhere near where humans dwell, it's likely that nature has already been disturbed. Nothing natural about a bird getting a concussion from flying in to a window or chicks being stranded after a landscaper trims their nest out of a tree.
  3. If you are going to feed hummingbirds, then you need to stay on top of it. Sugar water should be changed out (and feeders cleaned) every couple of days and if you've made them dependent on your feeders as a food source, then don't let them get empty.
Fun fact! Hummingbirds preparing for their annual migration sometimes gorge themselves to the point that they are too fat to fly and might be seen laying under a feeder for half an hour or so while they burn off that excess weight.

For the first time this year, I am attracting hummingbirds to my yard. They are magnificent. I'm not sure how many I have because they are so territorial that it's one at a time only at the feeders. I do have two feeders that each might sport a bird now and then and I've seen two different coloration. Maybe it's a male and female. Who knows? They are great fun to watch. 

As much as I love animals, I'm not cut out for rescue. I know from this book as well as friends involved in dog rescue that once you hang your shingle there is no peace. Your phone will ring constantly and you'll eventually be in the "just one more" situation. It's so easy to get overwhelmed. Plus I would go coo coo talking to idiot people.


Bonus! Despite all of Ms. Masear's descriptions of how tiny baby hummingbirds are, well, nothing works like a photo, or, even better, a video. Click here to see a short video of a nice person feeding baby hummingbirds. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Frist Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones

First Grave on the Right
by Darynda Jones
2011
***
3 stars - fun and light
ALR Blue - no animals


Let's just go with the dust jacket on this one, shall we?

Charley Davidson is a part-time private investigator and full-time grim reaper. Meaning, she sees dead people. Really. And it's her job to convince them to "go into the light." But when these very dead people have died under less than ideal circumstances (like murder), sometimes they want Charley to bring the bad guys to justice. Complicating matters are the intensely hot dreams she's been having about an entity who has been following her all her life... and it turns out he might not be dead after all. In fact, he might be something else entirely. But what does he want with Charley? And why can't she seem to resist him? And what does she have to lose by giving in?

It's a breezy supernatural romantic mystery. Perfectly executed. Charley is a delightful heroine. Goofy, flawed, sarcastic, and knows how to take a licking and keep on kicking. She's surrounded by a platoon of dead people (some helpful, some not so much) that only she can see. A variety of relatives and co-workers, all of whom add a nice texture to the story, round out the action.

This is a romantic mystery, so there's some mushy stuff, but not terribly mushy, more like sexy. I'm popping book two into my queue.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
by David Wroblewski
2008
****
4 stars - emotionally draining, but a good read
ALR Green - Dogs are featured throughout, all of them loved and well cared for. Some moments which I chracterize as bittersweet, but very sensitive readers might find heartbreaking.


Here's a shortened version of the dust cover.

Edgar Sawtelle is born mute and only speaking in sign language. He lives an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in a remote part of Wisconsin. The story takes place in the 1960's and 70's. For two generations, Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog whose thoughtful companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar's lifelong friend and ally. When Edgar's father dies suddenly, Edgar's Uncle joins the family with tumultuous consequences. At the age of 14, Edgar is forced to flee his home, along with three of the dogs he has raised and make his way on his own. 

First off, that whole synopsis is a bit misleading. Yes, it all happens, but somehow I got the impression that most of the story would be about Edgar and his dogs surviving in the wild. That wasn't the case, but that's OK, still a good story. 

Having a bit of trouble finding the words to express my feelings about the book. I liked the story a lot. Edgar is an interesting chap and his views of the world as he grows up are brought to life beautifully. The dogs are amazing. I really liked the idea of raising dogs until they are two years old before selling them to families. During that time, the Sawtelles engage in daily training that results in dogs that are well rounded, with a vast array of behaviors sure to please their fortunate forever families. 

While I strongly recommend this book, it's one star shy of five. Why? Well, Edgar is really the only interesting character. Then there's the fact that I just wasn't left with anything to ponder in the end. Despite that fact that there are many surprising (yet plausible) twists, and emotionally overwhelming scenes, I would have expected to be left thinking and mulling in the end. Not the case. The only thing I was thinking was "Gosh, I need to spend more time training my dog."

That might sound like the book isn't so good, but it is. Here's a scene from early on in the story when Edgar was a baby and he and his companion dog, Almondine, are just getting to know each other. 

The muzzle comes hunting again, tunnels beneath his blanket, below the farmers and pigs and chicks and cows dyed into that cotton world. His hand rises on fingers and spider-walks across the surprised farmyard residents to challenge the intruder. It becomes a bird, hovering before their eyes. Thumb and index finger squeeze the crinkled black nose. The pink of her tongue darts out but the bird flies away before Almondine can lick it. Her tail is switching harder now. Her body sways, her breath envelops him. He tugs the blackest whisker on her chin and this time her tongue catches the palm of his hand ever so slightly. He pitches to his side, rubs his hand across the blanket, blows a breath in her face. Her ears flick back. She stomps a foot. He blows again and she withdraws and bows and woofs, low in her chest, quiet and deep, the boom of an uncontainable heartbeat. Hearing it, he forgets and presses his face against the rails to see her, all of her, take her inside him with his eyes, and before he can move, she smears her tongue across his nose and forehead! He claps a hand to his face but it's too late - she's away, spinning, biting her tail, dancing in the moted sunlight that spills through the window glass.

See what I mean? That's so beautiful and loving. The scenes, both good and bad, are all described with the same magical prose. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Paw Enforcement by Diane Kelly

Paw Enforcement
by Diane Kelly
2014
***
3 stars - some good news, some bad news, but a fun read for dog lovers
ALR Green - nice dogs featured throughout


First off, the cover. Oh my goodness, is that adorable or what?

Rookie Texas police officer, Megan Luz gets partnered with K-9 cop Brigit. Why? Because Ms. Luz has a bit of a temper and assaulted her human partner (who was admittedly a big jerk). 

There's trouble in the big city. Some miscreant is setting off bombs intended to send a message to the population. Officer Luz is on the spot and teams up with one of the local detectives to track the bomber down. 

Pros

  1. This is a big one. Ms. Kelly knows how to write a mystery. I mean she seriously knows how. The pacing is exquisite and she parcels out clues at just the right pace. Plenty of leads, but not so many that I got confused. Well done!
  2. Lots of doggie stuff. In fact there's doggie stuff in every chapter. Score!
  3. Minimal mushy stuff. Yes, there's a romance, but it doesn't overshadow the action and the reader is spared any groping or pounding hearts in bosoms.
Cons

  1. I didn't like the main character. Nope, not at all. Plus her stutter was a distraction, and if she pulled out her baton one more time, ish.
  2. Kind of a cop out (no pun) that the portions about Megan were in the first person, but the portions about Brigit and the Rattler (bad guy) were in the third person. Plus the Brigit parts got shorter and shorter as the book progressed.
  3. When Megan first meets Brigit, Brigit is not pleased. She growls a bit. Megan goes nose to nose with Brigit (literally) and stares her right in the eye. No, please, do not try this at home. Good way to lose a nose. I wouldn't even do that with my mild mannered lab.
  4. Not happy with the slap on the hand for assaulting a fellow officer or for teaming a rookie cop up with a trained K-9 as punishment. Seriously? According to the local police I've talked to, there's a waiting list of officers who want a K-9 partner and those highly trained and valuable dogs only go to officers that have already shown themselves to be worthy.
  5. Bad guy character development was lacking.
  6. Too much foul language and discussion of testicles. Hey, I'm no prude, but this read like a cozy and in that genre I expect to be spared from such things.
Will I read the next book in the series? Yes. Do I recommend this book? Yes, provided you are prepared to just skim the parts that don't quite work.