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.