Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Passage by Justin Cronin / NOT a review

I don't write reviews on books I don't finish, i.e. books I don't like, and this isn't a review, really. It's just a few comments on why I will NOT be finishing THE PASSAGE by Justin Cronin. I had the best of intentions. I've heard nothing but good things about this book so, even though it's a kind of vampirish, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it story, I wanted to see what was what. The first third of the story is excellent, if a little wordy. But once I got to a certain point (I won't give it away because you may not have the same reaction I did), I simply gave up, let out a sigh and closed the book.

This is a disappointment to me because I can see that Cronin is a damn good writer. Some of his characters in the early part of the book are quite wonderful. I believe it is possible to recognize good writing even if you don't like the way a story is constructed, how it develops. For me the storyline ebbed to a point where I completely lost interest and events ceased to have any effect on my emotions other than frustration. I so wanted to like this book.

If I didn't know better, I'd say THE PASSAGE appears to be constructed as if it were going to be turned into a long-running television series. I am probably totally wrong, but it's how the thing looks to me. I have nothing against television series, I just don't want to read a book constructed like one. And maybe you think it isn't fair of me to mention my reaction if I'm not going to finish the book and you'd be right. But the thing is, I really had great expectations. I hate when that happens.

I Still Love Charlie Chan

I was just reading artist Barbara Johansen Newman's post on her delightful blog Cats and Jammers Studio. (My favorite name for an artist's blog EVER.) This particular post is Barbara's opinion on all things Charlie Chan. We are in agreement over the idea of Charlie Chan The Stereotype and just how much we still love the Charlie Chan films.

In a nutshell: how can being smarter than everyone around you be a bad thing? As stereotypes go, I've never seen much wrong with this kind, but then I am not of Asian descent so I am not, perhaps, as sensitive as I should be. But to me, Charlie Chan is a brilliant detective who solves all the cases he takes on - he was always the smartest guy in the room. Far as I saw, he was treated with respect and deference by those around him, his thoughts, ideas and deductions always taken seriously. Plus: he ALWAYS got his murderer. At one point, he even saves the Panama Canal from saboteurs! Kind of hard to find fault with that kind of role model.

This is the excellent New Yorker piece about the new non-fiction Chan book: Charlie Chan: The Untold History of the Honorable Detective and His Rendevouz with American History by Yunte Huang.

I love the Charlie Chan films and I do continue to line them up on my Netflix queue whenever I'm in the mood for a damn good mystery.
Here's a short list of some of my favorite Chan films:
Charlie Chan on Treasure Island
Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum
Charlie Chan at the Opera
Charlie Chan in Panama
Castle in the Desert
Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise
A few weeks ago I blogged about the terrific trade paperback editions of the Charlie Chan books by Earl Derr Biggers, released last year by Academy Chicago Publishers. They are still good mystery reads.
What do you think about all this? Pro or con?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Time Travel Challenge

As you can see, by the cute button on my right sidebar, I am joining Alyce's Time Travel Challenge over at her terrific blog. Slowly but surely, I am getting the hang of this new blog life of mine.

TIME TRAVELERS NEVER DIE by Jack McDevitt is my first and only review so far, as part of the Challenge. Although, by sheer coincidence I have already read the following time travel books this year.

Those unreviewed books are:

BLACKOUT by Connie Willis (I plan on reviewing this alongside its sequel ALL CLEAR which is due out sometime next month. These are Willis's newest books in years. Well worth the wait, so far.)

TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG by Connie Willis (A favorite of mine. Read it again for the second time this year. It just gets better and better.)

TIME AND AGAIN by Jack Finney (A time travel classic.)

A SHORTCUT IN TIME by Charles Dickinson (A quirky take on time travel, very different from the other books listed.)

Haven't decided yet what I'm going to read, going forward, for my Time Travel Challenge, besides the Connie Willis books and yes, I know TIME is running short. The year is coming to an end. The pressure's on!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Review: Time Travelers Never Die by Jack McDevitt

Lately I seem to be saying, not my usual sort of book, a helluva lot. I think I'd just better get used to the confounding thought that, perhaps, my idea of what my usual sort of book is or was, has changed. I guess I am now, officially, an omnivorous reader. (I probably always was.)

Of course this could be due to a total lack of intellectual discrimination but I prefer to think of it as my annoying tendency
to want to know all kinds of esoteric stuff. Since my own days of adventuring seem to be over (and boy have I had a fun life), I guess I'm now searching for adventures of the brain. Adventures from an arm chair.
TIME TRAVELERS NEVER DIE by Jack McDevitt was one of many titles mentioned in At Home With A Book's Time Traveler's Challenge. Shortly thereafter, I noticed the book at the library and took it home. Kismet. I'm a fan of time travel writ well. My favorite writer who happens to incorporate time travel in her stories in a very smart way is the one and only, Connie Willis. There's little that can match her brilliance, but that won't stop me taking a look at other writers who take on time travel.
By the way: This will be my very FIRST Book Challenge, so we'll see how it all goes. If I mess it up (I admit, that's as likely to happen as not), then please remember I am NEW! Hopefully the pressure won't get to me - ha!

I'm not claiming to completely understand how and why time travel should work, I only know that in some strange way it all makes sense to me.

TIME TRAVELERS NEVER DIE is a fairly simple story : Shel and Dave Go Back in History, Meet Famous People and Have Excellent Adventures. But it is more like a tv show than any deeply, satisfying adventure film. Despite that, it was a lot of fun to read. When I was a kid, there was a terrific tv show called, You Are There, in which the camera purported to take the viewer back to a famous day in history so we could experience say, D-Day or Lincoln's Gettysburg Address or the assassination of Julius Caesar - each week, a different historical incident. On each show, a 'newsman' would interview witnesses and participants in the events as if they were being filmed on the spot. It was great tv - wish they had something like that today, might teach kids (inadvertently or not) a bit about history. McDevitt's book definitely has a you are there touch to it.

It is the year 2019 and physicist Michael Shelborne has disappeared into the ether leaving his son, Adrian (known as Shel), an enigmatic message, two strange devices Shel's been ordered to destroy, and not much else. The police are suspicious but there's little they can do without a body. Shel, a physicist and lover of history, quickly figures out that his father has invented a very spiffy (my word) time travel device no bigger than a cell phone. Deducing his father is stranded somewhere in time, Shel enlists his friend, linguist David Dryden to help him go back and bring dad home.

But where to go? The search field is wide open and thousands of years old. Michael Shelborne could be anywhere in the past.

This is why the book is so much fun. Shel and Dave try to figure out where Shel's father has gone, allowing for Michael Shelborne's brilliance and historical interests. We get to watch two clever young men of today (it's only nine years in the future after all) using their wits, travelling in time, adjusting time, using time to their benefit, all the while attempting to keep from seriously affecting past events - nobody wants to confront the dreaded, deadly paradox.

Along the way we meet Galileo, Aristotle, Michelangelo, Cesare Borgia, a young Benjamin Franklin, writer Aldous Huxley, and a whole other cast of familiar and unfamiliar characters. If you have even a nodding knowledge of history you will be delighted by the ease with which Shel and Dave figure out ways to meet people who helped change it in some way.

In their quest, the two friends travel to Selma, Alabama on the eve of the 1965 march across the bridge which resulted in the infamous attack by the Selma police on peaceful civil rights marchers. They meet John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Andrew Young and a whole slew of incredibly brave people who had no clue they were about to be attacked in such a terrible way - a historic watershed event in America's quest for civil rights.

Shel and Dave travel to ancient Alexandria, to the magnificent library which housed thousands of books and plays in scroll form - the library which in later years would be completely burned to the ground, most of its irreplaceable books destroyed. To this day it is impossible to judge just how much wisdom and knowledge was lost to the ages. This is one of my favorite parts of the book as author McDevitt makes the whole idea of such an imposing setting very approachable. Shel and Dave even manage to save many heretofore unknown ancient Greek plays by the simple expedient of making copies and sending them on to the 21st century with not, perhaps, the best results since they can't reveal their true sources.

My only quibble with the book is the absence of any really deep characterization. The two main characters never touched me in any real way. From my point of view, their emotional lives remained flat and uninvolving. I also felt that the book would have benefited by being a few hundred pages longer. There was, certainly, much in the past that could have been explored in more depth.

Despite this, the storyline arch is expertly done - from a funeral in the very beginning to the unique deciphering of a 'crime' near the end, it adds up to a mostly satisfying adventure in time. Shel and Dave meet almost everyone who's anyone and generally have fun doing it and we have fun reading about it.

I enjoyed the adventure and can highly recommend TIME TRAVELERS NEVER DIE as a page-turning, fast read with a few vivid lessons in history thrown in for good measure.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Happy Birthday, William Faulkner

Nobel Prize winning author William Faulkner was born today (1897-1962). A Very Happy Birthday, Mr. Faulkner. That's about all I have to say except that I thought the day should not go unremarked. I've never had great success reading Faulkner, I admit he's too difficult for me, a bit beyond what I can fathom. But I recognize that most of the rest of the world thinks otherwise and I respect the fact that they are probably right. (I did like the movie version of THE SOUND AND THE FURY with Yul Brynner and Joanne Woodward.)

I found all these old Faulkner book covers online. Aren't they fabulous? I am very keen on old book covers, especially the ones with garish images. (Well, garish in a good way.) So much cornpone and lust - who knew Faulkner wrote potboilers? Well, they probably aren't, but some of the older covers sure can fool you.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Friday Funnies

Of course we all have different ideas of what constitutes funny, but I like to think there are others out there with my own particular sense of...shall we say, quirky humor. Uh-oh, perhaps not the best word to choose. The minute someone says they have quirky humor, my eyes roll immediately to heaven. It's happened so many times to me: a person tells me they have that sort of humor and then they go on to prove that what they really mean is they have no sense of humor whatsoever. And well, you know, a person with no sense of humor is kind of hard to take. Humor is king as far as I'm concerned - life would be unbearable otherwise. I really do enjoy laughing but I know that not everyone understands or likes the same sort of humor.

In the film, WHO KILLED ROGER RABBIT? the cartoon rabbit in question is married to va-va-boom Jessica who is cartoon human and stacked - remember? Well when she's asked why on earth she'd marry a rabbit, she replies: "He makes me laugh." Yeah, I completely get that.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand - which is? - funny books.

Do you mind laughing out loud while reading? I don't. Have you ever howled with laughter while reading in a public place? I have. Did it bother me that people stared and edged slightly away? Nope. Would it bother you? Then DO NOT READ THE FOLLOWING BOOKS IN PUBLIC. You have been warned.

I'm keeping the list short by just talking in specific detail about two books today. Down the line, I hope to add to the list because I do read a lot of books that make me laugh...uh, in a good way.

ONE FOR THE MONEY by Janet Evanovich.
Everyone, more or less, knows or has heard of this but no list of funny books would be complete without it. First in a popular, L-O-N-G running series now up to book sixteen -, though, in my opinion not as funny as books two, three and so on - still, you should begin at he beginning. Believe me, it's quite funny enough. (Book one is also slightly more violent than the rest if memory serves.) I've read all the books in this series except the very latest and can report that, as usual, some are better than others but, of course, you'll have to judge for yourself. The one thing they ALL have in common is a general sense of weird wackiness.

Stephanie Plum is the wise-cracking star of this slightly tacky show, she's the original and totally lovable Jersey girl. An ex-department store lingerie buyer, Stephanie is unemployed and down on her luck after ridding herself of her sneaky, philandering husband. Somehow, she cleverly (or not) finagles her cousin Vinnie a Trenton, N.J. bail bondsman, into putting her to work as the world's most inept bounty hunter. (Yes, a bit of blackmail is involved. It seems that Vinnie has a thing for ducks, but let's not go there.) This is, by the way, the sort of book/series you probably won't find so funny if you didn't grow up in or near a city and never met these types of characters (more or less) in some form of your reality. I know people who simply do not 'get' this humor. Yes, they exist. I am not one of them.

What happens next to Stephanie forms the basis of the following fifteen or so, books. This is definitely a larger than life series set in a world of sleazy, often icky criminals, in a Trenton that no longer exists, if it ever did. One thing about the books that both helps and hinders, is that while everyone around Stephanie and her loopy, hilarious family (Grandma Mazur alone, is worth the price of admission), changes over the course of the books, the Plums remain the fixed point in a changing world.

Possibly why the series may be coming to an end. I mean, there's really no place left to go with Stephanie. But that's really neither here nor there if you're just getting acquainted with the books. Reading them of course, may be dangerous to your health, I once fell off my bed laughing while reading. I won't warn you again.

BULLET FOR A STAR by Stuart Kaminsky.
This is the first in the often hilarious Toby Peters detective series of books by the late Stuart Kaminsky. Kaminsky (admittedly one of my favorite writers ever), died last year and a light went with him that's for sure. He was a prolific writer of many wonderful mysteries. I liked most of his other work, but for me, the Toby books are the shining light, mostly because they are just so damned funny. (His three other series are more serious mystery/detective stories.)

The Toby books are set in the black and white b-movie world of 1940's Los Angeles and feature a guy who is really a private eye by default. He's a kind of lovable (there's that word again), small time, hard-nosed, schlemiel who refuses to grow up. His ex-wife (whom he still loves) is forever calling him a Peter Pan and, unfortunately, she's probably right.

Toby (real name Tobias Pevsner) Peters a detective to the stars. He's gotten the reputation for being able to keep deep, dark secrets under his fedora and for this reason alone, he's often hired by movie stars and/or studio people to help solve Hollywood mysteries. In each book in the series, Toby generally interacts with one, two or three movie stars or celebrities of the times. For instance, the first book features Erroll Flynn who hires Toby when he, Flynn, is threatened and his studio wants to keep it all hush-hush. In later titles, i.e. the second book, MURDER ON THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD which features Judy Garland, Toby takes on all sorts of laughingly weird cases in which Hollywood types figure prominently. Why he never gets rich is hard to explain but Toby does say he rarely gets steady work. That helps explain his general seediness, I suppose.

Toby has a brother, Phil Pevsner, an L.A. cop, who dislikes Toby and often demonstrates his dislike by physical means. I don't like Phil, he is a bully, but I put up with him. His wife is dying of an unspecified disease and you have to make allowances. Toby does, though it doesn't stop him goading Phil and setting off his famous temper. It's a strained, hard-to-define relationship at best.

Toby lives in a Hollywood boarding house run by a conveniently deaf old lady named Mrs. Plaut. (Love that name!) She persists in calling him Mr. Peelers no matter how often Toby tries to explain that his last name is Peters. She is a four foot something dynamo who, among other things, has been writing an account of her family's rather strange history for years. I adore Mrs. Plaut and in another life, I wouldn't mind being her, even if she is 83. Toby's seething patience with her is a joy to behold - one of several reasons why I like him so much. His best friend and willing cohort, is Gunther, a dignified, learned and sartorially splendid Swiss who happens to be a dwarf. Gunther works as a free-lance interpreter (he speaks several languages), often for the government. He, too, lives at the boarding house.

Toby's other cohort is the sartorially disgusting dentist Sheldon Minck. I'm sorry to refer to Shel as disgusting but yeah, he is. His professional and personal habits are nothing short of criminally disgusting. Toby rents a cubbyhole office from Shel in a downtown L.A. office building owned by Jeremy, a wrestler/poet who occasionally serves as Toby's back-up. Shel is so incompetent (as a dentist and human being) that your heart just goes out to anyone who is foolish enough to wander into his office for any sort of dental activity. I mean, I shudder at the very thought. He doesn't live at Mrs. Plaut's thank goodness. Shel (who reminds me of nothing more or less than the Pillsbury dough boy gone to seed) has a wife, Mildred - she hates Toby and won't have him in the house.

Okay, that's the recurring cast of crazies. But you have to remember that a world war is being fought during this time so there's a kind of dark cloud hovering over everything. But reading about Mrs. Plaut dealing with wartime home-front shortages, the coupons and such, the fake butter, is very funny stuff.

Some of my favorite books in the series are, HE DONE HER WRONG which features Mae West, SMART MOVES which features Paul Robeson and Albert Einstein, THE DEVIL MET A LADY which features Bette Davis, MILDRED PIERCED (get it?) which features Joan Crawford as a suspect in a murder, THE MELTING CLOCK which features artist Salvadore Dali, HIGH MIDNIGHT which features Gary Cooper and Ernest Hemingway and so forth and so on. There are a bunch of other books in the series, it's great fun hunting them down. Some of the actors and/or celebrities involved are, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Eleanor Roosevelt, Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin, Bela Lugosi, the Marx Brothers...well, you get the idea. Stuart Kaminsky was a professor of film at Northwestern so he knew practically everything there is to know about movies. He not only wrote mysteries, he wrote anthologies, essays and opinion pieces on books, film and writing. As I said, he was prolific.

If you have any sort of affection for 1940's movies and characters, you will love the Toby books, I hope, as much as I do. Plus you will have a great time. If noir can ever be described as ha-ha funny, then this is the series that proves it.

Of course there are varying degrees of hilarity and it all depends on your own sense of humor, but these are books worth taking a look at when you're in the mood for a good read and a good laugh.

One other thing: some of the Kaminsky titles may be hard to find as a few go back several years, but if you look in the library or on the secondary market online or elsewhere, you should have little trouble. Plus I suspect that there might be a re-issue in the works.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Book Quizzing

Saw this quiz over on Simon's blog, STUCK IN A BOOK and it looked like so much fun I thought I'd take a crack at it too. Since I'm so new at this blogging thing, I hesitated before plunging in because, I mean, who would want to read my answers? But then I though, what the heck, if I can't have fun on my own blog - who can?

1. Favorite childhood book?
The Pippi Longstocking books. They actually helped shape my view of the world when I was a kid.

2. What are you reading now?
Just finishing up TIME TRAVELERS NEVER DIE by Jack McDevitt. Also re-reading THE SECRET OF CHIMNEYS by Agatha Christie, reading SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS by Marisha Pessl and looking askance at THE PASSAGE by Justin Cronin.

3. What books do you have on request at the library?
ALL CLEAR by Connie Willis, ON THE LINE by S.J. Rozan, ONE WAS A SOLDIER by Julia Spencer-Fleming, TO FETCH A THIEF by Spencer Quinn, WORTH DYING FOR by Lee Child.

4. Bad book habit?
Same as Simon's: hoarding.

5. What do you have currently checked out at the library?
TIME TRAVELERS NEVER DIE by Jack McDevitt, SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS by Marisha Pessl, THE PASSAGE by Justin Cronin, THE LABOURS OF HERCULES by Agatha Christie, THE VARIOUS HAUNTS OF MEN by Susan Hill, COMMUTERS by Emily Gray Tedrowe, THE BLIND ASSASSIN by Margaret Atwood, NO TRACE by Barry Maitland, MURDER AT MANSFIELD PARK by Lynn Shepherd, WHAT THE DOG SAW by Malcolm Gladwell, WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead.

6. Do you have an e-reader?
No. I rarely travel so I don't see a need for one.

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?
Several at once, though, occasionally it drives me nuts.

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?
I never expected my tastes would be influenced, but they really have been. Didn't realize there were THAT many authors I'd never heard of, much less read. The book blogs that have changed my outlook and added new titles to my tbr list are blogs which specialize mostly in literary books, especially Brit. mid-century literary. My eyes have been opened a bit, no question. For the better, of course.

9. Least favorite book you read this year (so far)?
The last book in the Stieg Larsson trilogy, THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST. Couldn't even get past the first few chapters.

10. Favorite book you've read this year?
2010 has been a great book year for me, so it's especially hard to choose. I can only narrow it down to six: CRYPTONOMICON by Neal Stephenson, THE CITY AND THE CITY by China Mieville, THE FIRST RULE by Robert Crais, MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND by Helen Simonson, THE WEED THAT STRINGS THE HANGMAN'S BAG by Alan Bradley and MISS HARGREAVES by Frank Baker. Sorry, best I can do.

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?
All the time. I'm not saying it's always a success, but I hope I keep an open mind and heart.
12. What is your reading comfort zone?
Mysteries without exploding stomach type violence and without heavyweight social issues masquerading as plot.

13. Can you read on a bus?
No. I can't read in any moving vehicle. I can listen to audio books in a car, though.

14. Favorite place to read.
Sitting at the dining table or curled up in my large living room sofa-chair.

15. What is your policy on book lending?
I only lend books to trusted friends and even then I'm leery. Ha!

16. Do you ever dog-ear books?
Although I have a huge collection of bookmarks, I still dog-ear paperbacks occasionally. Hardcovers - no.

17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?
Yes, especially in paperbacks. I circle passages I especially like and want to remember for whatever reason. Once in a blue moon, I'll write in hardcovers if they're old and much loved, but never in my first/firsts.

18. Not even a text book?
I don't think I've opened a textbook in a hundred years.

19. What is your favorite language to read in?
English. I'm fluent in Spanish, but never read it. Consequently, I am very rusty.

20. What makes you love a book?
Connection, connection, connection and my own instant recognition of that indefinable something that tells me I'm in the presence of a terrific writer. Style carries weight with me as well. I am also a very big fan of character driven books.

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?
See above. Although I sometimes will recommend a book I'm merely lukewarm about or have only just skimmed, if I know that a friend is interested in the subject matter, theme or characters.

22. Favorite genre?

23. Genre you rarely read?

24. Favorite bio?
JANE AUSTEN by Carol Shields.
Favorite Autobiography: ACT ONE by Moss Hart

25. Have you ever read a self-help book?
Not really. Do decorating books count as self-help? I read plenty of those.

26. Favorite cook book?
Don't have a specific one.

27. Most inspirational book you're read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?
THE GLASS CASTLE by Jeanette Walls and THE LADY IN THE PALAZZO by Marlena di Blasi. Both non-fiction.

28. Favorite reading snack?

29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.
Can't think of one. Hype, positive or negative doesn't influence me except that over-hyping a book might delay my picking it up.

30. How often do you agree with critics about a book?
Well, jeez, it all depends on the book and the author. Once I read a book, if I'm interested in seeing a critic's p.o.v. I'll check the NY Times or Publisher's Weekly or one of the blogs, but that's generally only after I've read the book. I rarely read a complete review of a book I'm interested in reading because most reviews give too much away. This doesn't apply to non-fiction though. I read more non-fiction reviews than I do fiction, depending on the subject matter of course.

31. How do you feel about giving bad or negative reviews?
Rarely happens because I simply do not finish books I can't stand. That doesn't mean I might not make a comment on someone else's blog. But a negative review? Nah, I just don't have it in me.

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you choose?

33. Most intimidating book you've ever read?

34. Most intimidating book you're too nervous to begin?
THE BLIND ASSASSIN by Margaret Atwood. Well, in truth, anything by Margaret Atwood.

35. Favorite poet.
Probably William Blake.

36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time? About ten.

37. How often do you return a book to the library unread?
Happens once in awhile when I simply run out of time or if I dislike the first few pages.

38. Favorite fictional character?
Sherlock Holmes.

39. Favorite fictional villain?
Sir Eustace Pedler in Agatha Christie's THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT.

40. Books I'm most likely to bring on holiday.
Mysteries, myseries, mysteries.

41. The longest I've gone without reading.
About three weeks give or take a few days. Sometimes I get in a funk and just stop. Of course, when I'm ill, it's hard to concentrate.

42. Name a book you could/would not finish.
Oh so many, so many...AHAB'S WIFE by Sena Nasland. THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger. (Hmmm, do I spot a trend?)

43. What distracts you easily when you're reading?
Not much.

44. Favorite film adaptation of a novel?
COLD COMFORT FARM with Kate Beckinsale.

45. Most disappointing film adaptation.
The new version of BRIDESHEAD REVISITED released last year. So disappointing I never even saw it. Once I read they'd altered a very important scene, I gave up. I can't ever imagine seeing it.

46. The most money I've ever spent in the bookstore at one time?
I once spent a hundred bucks in Barnes and Noble. It was a great day.

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?
If the book has a main character who happens to be a dog, I always check to make sure that dog is alive at the end. This is my own personal criteria.

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?
Clunky writing and/or bad characterization.

49. Do you like to keep your books organized?
Yeah, sure, I'd love to keep them better organized. But right now this is it: mass paperbacks in a separate bookcase in the laundry room, cookbooks in a bookcase in the kitchen, hardcovers in the floor to ceiling bookcases in the living room, hardcovers and trade paperbacks in another bookcase in the kitchen and one in my bedroom. I'm hoping, eventually to organize by subject, but so far, no dice.

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you've read them?
I never give my books away.

51. Are there any books you've been avoiding?
Oprah books. I rarely read family saga type books. Those seem to be the sort of things she recommends.

52. Name a book that made you angry.
THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett

53. A book you didn't expect to like, but did.
The Harry Potter books.

54. A book you expected to like but didn't.

55. Favorite guilt-free pleasure reading?
I occasionally re-read my old Signet Regency romances. But in truth, all my reading gives me pleasure. Reading should never be a chore. Heaven forbid.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Favorite Dog Fiction

In case some of you have not noticed, I love making lists, especially book-related lists. Best this, Best that, Books to be read, you get the idea. As I've made myself more and more familiar with the many excellent book blogs across the blog-O-sphere (Is that word still in use? Probably not, I always seem to be playing catch-up.), I do see, though, that I'm not the only one with a list fetish. And that is a very good thing. How could we exert some control over our reading if not for lists of one kind or another? Lists make us feel as if we are actually in control, even if we're not.

Since I'm never far from being in a listing sort of mood, I thought tonight I'd post a list of my favorite dog books. I got the idea from this piece in Publishers' Weekly on the suddenly noticeable (at least according to PW) popularity of dog books, the glut, if you will, of dog related books now on the market.

This week's issue also has a brief article by Elizabeth Thomas Marshall author of one of the best non-fiction dog behavior books I've ever read, The Hidden Life of Dogs. (Once you've read this book you'll never look at your own dog in quite the same way again.)

The following list, though, is about fictional dogs and they all have one thing in common: they all have happy endings. (And they've all been published mostly within the last ten or so years. ) Yes, it's true, I will not, willingly, read a book where the dog dies in the end. That's my own particular bug-a-boo. When I'm looking over a novel where a dog plays a major part, I always check the ending first. Don't care who the author is. Don't care how much the book's been recommended. Don't care if I've loved the author's previous work. Nope. There are to be no fictional dead dogs for me, ever. Not if I can help it. (I've had enough of that in real life, thank you very much. My wizened old heart can only stand so much.)

So I guess you could call this my happy list and you wouldn't be too wrong and except for the last one, they're all, coincidentally, mysteries.

Of course, the first book on the list breaks my rule immediately. But it couldn't be helped, since the incident didn't happen at the end. But I managed to keep reading and accepted what happened since the writing was so good and the story so intriguing. And besides, there is another dog in the story who filled in almost immediately. How the author manages this touchy plot point is a tribute to her talent for story telling and to the charm of the dog who steps in to help carry the plot.

The book: SCENT OF MURDER by Cynthia G. Alwyn. I had assumed it to be the first in a series, but since I've not seen any other books by this author, who knows what happened.
At any rate, it's worth hunting around for this debut first published in 2001. This is the only book I've ever read to feature my favorite breed of dog, the Bouvier des Flandres. I've been lucky enough to have lived with two Bouviers in my life and I can state that their charm, their affability, their strength, their devotion, their self-awareness, their love of children can never be over estimated. They are purely wonderful dogs AND they don't shed.

The author of SCENT OF MURDER, Cynthia G. Alwyn, was (and still may be) a search and rescue volunteer so the details in this story of kidnapping and murder, ring true. Her main protagonist, Brenna Scott is the head of a search and rescue team in Sacramento, California. She also works part time for her friend, private investigator Jett Culpepper. When a murderer begins taunting Brenna over her help in the search (while on a business trip to Seattle), for a missing four year old girl, Brenna and her dog can't help but be drawn into a harrowing hunt for a killer. A terrific book well worth looking for. An added plus: the original book features a wonderful cover - it never hurts.

Carol Lea Benjamin is a dog trainer and author of dog behavior books who also happens to write one of the best mystery series out there. The main thing I like about her books is that they just get better and better as they go along, the characterizations deepen as the stories grow even more intriguing. (I am a big fan of character driven fiction.) Private detective Rachel Alexander and her pit bull Dash (named after author Dashiel Hammett, of course) live in NYC's Greenwich Village. Author Benjamin 'gets' the gritty city details down, as well as the nuts and bolts experience of living with a dog in downtown Manhattan. Here's a list of the titles in the series in the order of publication.










All these books are terrific, but my very favorite is the emotionally complex, WITHOUT A WORD, a book that, under the guise of being just a mystery, explains in its own quietly intense way, the idea that some women are not cut out to be mothers. Not an earth shattering idea of course, but handled here in a different way by the author. The interesting thing about it is that although what a certain character does is very hard to reconcile, it is not inexplicable. A thought provoking book in more ways than one.

The last book in this series, far as I know, THE HARD WAY is also memorable for its moving characterization of a doomed young man living on the streets of NY. Benjamin has really matured into a truly fine writer. I wish she were writing more fiction.

My next to last choice is a relatively new series by Spencer Quinn. Quinn is the pen name of an author who has written several other books including the Echo Falls series, as Peter Abrahams. As Quinn, he has fashioned a wonderful, heartwarming (yes, I said it and I'm glad: heartwarming) series told from the point of view of a fine fellow who happens to be a dog. Chet the dog is the partner (as he refers to himself) of a hard drinking sad sack named Bernie, a guy barely making a living as a private eye. The main thing I love about these books is Chet's 'voice'. Author Quinn never EVER gives in to sentimentality or cutesy-poo doggy behavior with Chet. The dog's first person narration is perfectly in keeping with the way a dog would think if we, as humans, actually knew HOW a dog would think. Stephen King says that Spencer Quinn speaks "...two languages - suspense and dog - fluently." He is perfectly right.

No matter how Bernie behaves, good, bad or indifferent, to Chet, he is a hero. According to Chet, Bernie " always the smartest human in the room." The devotion Chet shows to Bernie, a devotion which is reciprocated, is the most touching thing about the series. I love when Chet explains that Bernie is a great name for a human. I mean, who wouldn't want to be named Bernie? And of course, his own name, Chet, pure and simple, is just right.

It is Chet's personality that carries these books. "I'd been the best leaper in K-9 class, which had led to all the trouble in a way I couldn't remember exactly, although blood was involved."

Chet's wry observations of humans and their foibles, his short term dog memory, his inability to reason like a human keep him, despite his narrative skills, behaving strictly like a dog. "Who says no to a chew strip?" That is the charm of these books. Chet never truly understands Bernie's emotions or behavior unless it relates directly to him, Chet, in some basic way. That's the beauty of Spencer Quinn's achievement, the fact that despite this self-imposed limitation,
he still manages to make these suspenseful mysteries work.

First in the series, DOG ON IT, has Chet and Bernie involved in the investigation of a missing teenage girl. Chet's trained nose leads the way into the desert where biker bars and unsavory types don't take kindly to being questioned. It isn't long before Chet and Bernie (in a very harrowing episode) are separated and Chet almost comes to a bad end. I was on pins and needles waiting to see what would happen next.

THEREBY HANGS A TAIL is the second book in the series. This time, Chet and Bernie are investigating threats made against a show dog. What may be a joke turns deadly serious when the dog and her owner are both kidnapped. As good as the first, these two books rely primarily on the brilliant characterization of Chet and Bernie and damn if I'm not smitten with them.
The third book in the series is titled, TO FETCH A THIEF. I can hardly wait to read it.

Okay, one more mention: ONE GOOD DOG by Susan Wilson. A friend of mine strongly recommended this book to me and the first thing I asked him was: Does the dog die at the end? He assured me not, but I've been lied to before. (Another friend once got me to read BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY by promising me it had a happy ending. Am I gullible or what?) Anyway, I double checked before I took the plunge.

ONE GOOD DOG is the gripping story of a Boston man, Adam Marsh, trying to live down a stupid incident which has cost him his livelihood, his marriage and basically, his life. In atonement, he has been sentenced to community service in a homeless men's shelter. It's also the story of Chance, a street-wise pit bull, trying to escape the dogfighting ring, who helps teach Adam how to survive in this new life minus the social and monetary trappings Adam had previously held so dear. A well-written book with, again, wonderful characterizations of both dog and man.

Obviously there are many other dog books, but these are a few of my fictional favorites. You really can't go wrong picking up any one of these. Dogs rule.

Kristina Swarner's Beautiful Vision

Kristina Swarner is a wonderful artist I've just found online. (One of the best parts of scooting around the internet is making this kind of joyful discovery. So many artists, so little time. Same as with books.) Her art is beautifully intelligent, filled with familiar elements imagined in a new way. I love the fanciful use of color and pattern; her images have the quiet charm and intensity I love.

Here's a link to her portfolio. I hope you'll have a look.

AND Kristina's prints are available in her etsy shop - good news, indeed.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Halloween Reading

Ok, I was going to wait until it was Officially October before I posted a bunch of titles that might make fine reading for the Halloween season (yes, I suppose it is now a season on its own) but over the weekend, I saw some front yards already decorated with humongous blow-up pumpkins, scarecrows, etc and thought: if I wait for October, Christmas will be upon us and I'll be a day late and a dollar short with my list. Long sentence, I know. I'm prone to that.

Anyway, so let's talk about mysteries, beasties, ghoulies and things that go bump in the night. None of my recommendations are horror per se, because, well, I never read horror-HORROR. (Well, hardly ever, I do occasionally read Dean Koontz.) I do read thrillers and horrible stuff happens in them, but they're not qualified as horror, unless it's John Connolly and I never read him - too scary. (Although I admit he's a terrific writer.)

I thought I'd just make my list a bit different from others by not including titles you'd probably see everywhere. I hope I've made my list a fun melange of different sorts of books. Things I think are perfect for this time of year when ghosts, witches and goblins lurk on every corner.

There's only one vampire book, because, as a rule, I don't read vampire books. But Sunshine by Robin McKinley is the rare exception. I've read this twice and the second time held up as well as the first. I'm about to break the rule for a second time, though as I have The Passage by Justin Cronin sitting here waiting to be read. Can't recommend it though, 'cause I haven't read it yet. I also don't read Stephen King, so that explains the absence of his books.

I'm only going to post a couple of sentences about each book shown above, because otherwise this post will go on indefinitely and we can't have that. I like to talk books too much as it is.

HALLOWE'EN PARTY by Agatha Christie
(Well, with a title like this, how could you not read this for Halloween?) Eccentric mystery writer Ariadne Oliver calls upon Hercule Poirot to solve a nasty murder which took place at a party she attended.

PASSAGE by Connie Willis
Willis is one of the premier American sci-fi writers. I wish she were much better known. I think if she weren't writing in genre, she'd be world famous, that's how good she is, plus it's what she deserves. Passage takes place at a gloomy hospital where a group of doctors/students are studying the near-death experience a little too closely. No, it's not what you immediately think.

The classic mystery in a classic setting. Guests are stranded on an island estate after being invited for the weekend by an unknown host.

SUNSHINE by Robin McKinley
As I mentioned, this is the only vampire novel I've ever liked and finished reading. I wish this one had been made into a movie. It is quirky, funny, erotic and scary. Quite an accomplishment.
This beguiling, sad and intriguing story takes place in two realities. In one, it is a few years into the future and a great plague has wiped out most of mankind. In the other, we're in a city in which the dead exist as long as they are remembered by those still left alive. A brilliantly conceived book.

THE ALIENIST by Caleb Carr
One of the first historical suspense novels (it takes place in early 20th century New York), to dwell on the new science of crime psychology - the first book in which a serial killer comes to be recognized as such. Ghoulish, but so well written you put up with it.

An epic suspense novel, so big it was published in two books. The Carolinas, 1699. A beautiful widow is accused of being a witch and bringing disaster to the town of Fount Royal. The pages fly by in this so you're never really aware you're reading this mammoth undertaking.

ODD THOMAS by Dean Koontz
In my view, this is Koontz's masterpiece. Yes he is a horror writer, but I admit to reading some of his books and this is one that I, thankfully, did not pass up. Brilliant doesn't quite cover Koontz's extraordinary achievement. Odd Thomas is a quiet, self-effacing, self-aware, short-order cook who, oh by the way, can see the dead - it is a Koontz book, after all. Of course, there's bloody stuff happening, but the character of Odd Thomas makes it all worthwhile.

THE MEPHISTO CLUB by Tess Gerritsen
This was my introduction to Gerritsen's Rizzoli and Isles series. (Rizzoli is a Boston medical examiner and Isles, a cop.)It is a violent read and not something I would have ordinarily picked up, but somehow it kept me turning the pages while giving me the creeps. Though the book takes place over the Christmas holidays, it is anything BUT a happy holidays book. Not for the faint of heart.

An eerie, grotesque story of dogs genetically engineered by a 19th century German scientist - the monster dogs in the title - to walk upright and speak with the help of voice boxes. They arrive in NYC, with prosthetic human hands, dressed in Victorian clothing and seeking, as Frankenstein's monster did, their place in the world. The book is hard to find as it is out of print, but in my view, it is well worth looking for in the secondary market.

On a much lighter note, this is the first book in the Hitchcock Sewell series, written a few years ago, set in Baltimore. Hitch is an undertaker who solves murders. Yeah, makes no sense, but it's a great deal of fun. Tim Cockey is a terrific writer who should be much better known.

Doyle's classic. Sherlock Holmes and Watson must solve a creepy murder on the moors. Are the Baskervilles doomed to death by violence? "Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!"

THE CABINET OF CURIOSITIES by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Special FBI Agent Pendergast (eccentric with a Capital E) is on the job again, searching for a nasty, inventive serial killer in NYC. This is another ghoulish read from Preston and Child, but it is also fast moving, creepy fun, in between the dead bodies. There are several books in this series and you can really jump in anywhere. I picked this one because it was my first one.

THE TAKING by Dean Koontz
I read this when I first discovered Koontz and was not disappointed. It's one of his more frightening end of the world as we know it, books. I could not put it down.

A terrifically moody gothic if you're in a gothic/suspense/love story mood. Has a high creep quotient too, that's why I've included it. Try to find one with the wonderful original cover if you're buying.

A DIRTY JOB by Christopher Moore
After a startlingly sad beginning, this book settles into the kind of thing that Moore is famous for, with his usual cast of characters: ghouls, beasties, humans with second sight - the usual. I LOVE this book. Can't recommend it enough. Moore can be an acquired taste, but if I were you I'd acquire it immediately.

I will wait until October to post my nice list of scary movies for those of you who like the sort of scary I like. (NO exploding stomachs, NO flinging of brains, that sort of thing.) I'm already stocking up on popcorn.

I have read all the book recommendations on this list, so I'm knowing whereof I am speaking when I say these are good reads for times when it gets dark early, leaves are falling, the wind is blowing and a chill has begun to creep into your bones making the whole thing official: winter is coming, the geese are getting fat.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Dr. Samuel Johnson Day

What a week for literary Birthdays! Agatha Christie, Mary Stewart and today the ornery (and odoriferous, I might add) Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Englishman famous for his brilliance, his dictionary and his wit.

Just for the fun of it: I've declared today Dr. Samuel Johnson Day! If you will, include one of his sayings into your ordinary conversation and lift a glass to the old curmudgeon today.

Johnson was a self-proclaimed "...writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge." (Yeah, right.)

These are a few of his more memorable comments:

(My 'favorites' are the first four. The one about London I have engraved on a beautiful Wedgewood mug I bought years ago.)

"Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels."

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

"Language is the dress of thoughts."

"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."

"We would all be idle if we could."

"A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good."

"A woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

Johnson observed, that "he did not care to speak ill of any man behind his back, but he believed the man was an attorney."

Talking about poetry: " is much easier to say what it is not. We all know what light is; but it is not easy to tell what it is."

"Depend on it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

The following comment suits me as a blogger. In fact, it probably suits most bloggers:

"I dogmatize and am contradicted, and in this conflict of opinions and sentiments I find delight."

To read more about Dr. Johnson, please go here.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Happy Birthday, Mary Stewart!

One of the Grande Dames of the gothic mystery, Mary Stewart has a birthday today. She was born in 1917, so that makes her 94, I believe. A word or two about Ms. Stewart's books: I discovered them at just the right time in my life. I was young, just finishing up my Agatha Christie phase (not that I ever got over it, as you well know), looking for another type of mystery series with, perhaps, a strong love interest mixed in. At the time, I didn't even know that there was a whole other category of books known as 'romance'. My only excuse: I was a sheltered child. Ha!

I had no idea gothics existed, didn't even know what the word meant. Though I did have a hint from having read Jane Eyre. But, I didn't, at the time, connect the two. I had already developed a strong penchant for the tall, dark and handsome male character who sported enigmatic airs, lurked in the shadows and caused all manner of problems for the innocent heroine. Why can't they write more books like Jane Eyre but with a 'modern' twist? I thought at the time. (Well, maybe I didn't think twist, but you know what I mean.)

Little did I know.

Through Mary Stewart, I discovered Phyllis Whitney and Victoria Holt, not to mention Daphne DuMaurier, and a whole host of other wonderful authors writing up a gothic storm of books. Subsequently I spent months and months reading every one I could get my hands on. One of my favorite things about these books were the covers. They were all, basically, the same idea: A frightened girl with long hair flapping in the wind (gotta' have long hair), walking alone on the moors or other such forbidding landscape, in the distance could be seen the dark outline of a castle or some other sort of large, imposing structure. That's it. You saw that in the bookstore and you knew you had to take a look. (Exception: This Rough Magic which seems to have had a dolphin on the cover in place of the girl. But it did have a mansion on a cliff.)

Of the Stewart books, I'd say Nine Coaches Waiting and My Brother Michael were the favorites (if I had to choose). Though Airs Above the Ground was and continues to be one of the best book titles ever conceived. (A terrific book, too.) I remember reading it and trying to figure out a way to include the words in ordinary conversation. But since I didn't ride show horses in dressage, there was very little chance of my being able to rattle off the phrase. (Airs above the ground actually describes the leap when a horse has all four legs off the ground at the same time during dressage. The leap is taken from a standing position which makes it that much more difficult and beautiful. Airs above the ground. Perfect.)

Besides the fine writing, Mary Stewart's books had something else going for them that I really appreciated: she tended to set her books in different countries, so you got a moody good mystery with love interest and a bit of a travelogue to boot. Fabulous, for someone like me who dreamed of traveling one day.

I never did get into Mary Stewart's Merlin series, I think because I'd begun to move on to other authors, by the time they came out. But I still remember the Stewart books with a deep affection. After all, they were steady companions at a very impressionable time in my life.

Here's a link to a Mary Stewart Fan Blog that looks full of info.