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Showing posts from November, 2016

The Cat Who Went into the Closet, Lilian Jackson Braun (1993)

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A good read. Once again, Qwilleran, the quirky newspaperman with the endearing, bristling mustache who moonlights as a sleuth and feeds his two Siamese cats Koko and Yum Yum nothing but people food (sometimes gourmet at that), finds himself embroiled in a murder. With a vested interest in what appears to be a suicide but, according to Koko's behavior, is more likely foul play, Qwilleran is again on the prowl. If you enjoy high society soirees, fund raisers, witty repartee, and a solid crime to solve, this mystery is right up your boulevard. Despite the previous two disappointing novels … Had 60 Whiskers and … Talked Turkey, in my eyes, given the quality of … Went into the Closet, Braun is redeemed. Four out of five stars. G

The Cat Who Talked Turkey, Lilian Jackson Braun (2004)

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Not so great. Like The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers, this story is less about solving a crime and more about social events, meals, and conversation. If that's what you're into, great. The protagonist Qwilleran is a likable enough guy. He was quirkier in the earlier novels though and hence more engaging. Of the eight or nine novels I've read by Braun so far, the stories were best categorized as crime fiction. They focused principally on solving a case, catching a murderer. It should be noted that this novel, as well as … Had 60 Whiskers, were both written late in her writing career. I suspect she received lots of fan mail raving about how much readers love her tales of cats and decided to concentrate more on the felines. This is unfortunate if true. This story is centered around said cats with a murderer thrown in which, incidentally, our protagonist doesn't pursue. Three out of five stars. G

Personal Injuries, Scott Turow (1999)

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After watching the movie Presumed Innocent back in the late 80's, I went hunting for the novel of the same title. I found The Burden of Proof (1990) instead. Archiving my comments, I decided they bore repeating: “Amid the shallow slurs of modern paperback novels, Turow's style stands apart. He’s one of the few modern writers I've come across who can tell a suspenseful story in a substantive way.”
After reading Personal Injuries, I stand by my initial impression. Sifting through the bargain bin at my local used bookstore, I grabbed this one and a dozen other paperbacks for a nickel each. One is Turow's Reversible Errors, which I look forward to reading sometime soon. Turow is thorough, detailed, and engrossing. Personal Injuries is just as good if not better than Burden of Proof. The author's sense of what's essential to plot and setting are quite good. The cast of characters is memorable and at times moving. Five out of five stars. PG-13

The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers, Lilian Jackson Braun (2007)

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Not my favorite Braun novel. In fact probably my least favorite. Very little in the way of plot. The story is essentially a series of high society social events and phone conversations. Disappointing, frankly. Rather short too. I initially thought this might've been an unfinished novel never intended for publication. Wikipedia says otherwise. Not giving up on Braun just yet, though. All things considered, she’s a fine prose writer. I enjoy her style. Many of her novels are superb. Unfortunately, this isn't one of them. Two out of five stars. Rated G

A Midsummer Night's Dream, William Shakespeare, edited by Jane Bachman (1995)

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A play that becomes a play within a play. Though ambitious, this really wasn't my cup of tea. That being said, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that the characters are wonderful and that their lines are sometimes exquisite.
However, establishing an intriguing plot in Act I, scene 1 that gets hijacked in Scene 2 by a separate cast of characters, who in turn are manipulated by forces outside the play they're rehearsing (while giving rise to a reflection only such a structure can affect), complicates things unnecessarily. Especially when you consider introducing a geas into the story. A geas, an archaic trope popular in ancient fairy tales, essentially serves as a manipulating factor, rendering a given character bound to desires beyond his or her own personality or control, making him or her a marionette at the mercy of, say, a potion or a psychosis.
Today we're most likely to call this trope a cheat. In this play, the geas allows the audience to consider the nature…

Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, Dover Thrift Editions (1993)

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Despite the many film adaptations, none of which I’ve seen, I knew little more about this classic, tragic love story than the names of the principle characters involved. As a fan of the diction, I suspected I'd enjoy it. So why did it take me this long to finally get around to reading it? Another one of life’s great mysteries. You might think such high expectations would set me up for disappointment. Instead, I found the hype entirely justified. Without narrative, without exploration of character beyond what mere dialogue reveals, roughly 500 years later, the story still resonates. The language still evokes. Five out of five stars. PG-13

Othello, William Shakespeare

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Another free Public Domain Book from Amazon.com. Apart from King Lear and Macbeth, both of which I read and thoroughly enjoyed decades ago, the only other work I'd read by this master playwright was his Sonnets, and that was only last year. I should point out that I didn't find that collection particularly captivating.
Othello, on the other hand, is stellar. Obviously, plays are meant to be performed on a stage, but that mere dialogue on a page, without the benefits of narrative or exposition, can evoke feelings in the reader says a good deal about Shakespeare's genius. A few choice, popularized lines from the play: But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.To mourn a mischief that is past and gone,
Is the next way to draw new mischief on.Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceiv'd her father, and may thee.Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit and lost without deserving.
My favorite mon…

The Cat Who Smelled a Rat, Lilian Jackson Braun (2001)

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Well written narrative that leads nowhere. Like many, though not all, of Braun's novels, conflict is an afterthought. Most of the cast gets along, which is ideal in real life but boring as hell in fiction. Again, we're treated to social events, pleasant conversations, meals, and, of course, more catfits and other feline antics. But without an obstacle to overcome, good narrative doesn't make for good fiction. I've enjoyed some of Braun's novels very much, but I'm growing more dissatisfied with her subsequent stuff. She's a good prose writer. Her debut novel was stellar. In fact, I initially thought I'd discovered a reincarnation of Wodehouse. No such luck. Three out of five stars. PG

Teen Scene, Your New Super-Hip Now Guide To Everything, 1001 Groovy Hints & Tips, By the editors of New Ideas for Teens (1970)

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Just about the only things I remember about my teens are acne and alienation. Oh, and (shamefully) lots of television. But when our grandmother passed away in 2005 and left her house to my brother Jeff who didn't want the responsibility and who then passed it along to me, I eventually got around to cleaning and found this book in a closet in one of the bedrooms. Apart from my grandmother's name written on the cover in black marker were sketches of girls in bell bottoms and boys with hair cut above the ears. Curious as to what passed for cool and hip in 1970, I decided to read it.
Based on the long title, I expected to find some sage advice for teens about etiquette and fashion. Turns out the book isn't geared toward teens in general but rather female teens in particular. And the advice ranges from tips about looking pretty for your boyfriend to hosting inexpensive parties. I don't know whether my grandmother ever read it. By 1970, she was already an adult, a grandmothe…

The Children of Odin, The Book of Northern Myths, by Padraic Colum

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If you follow my blog, you know I have a predilection for myths, legends, and ancient stories involving heroes and their various virtues and vices. This has been a passion of mine for decades. It might have to do with the primal elements involved in such tales – the pristine condition of the earth, its inherent beauty untainted by electric lines and smoke stacks, the clarity of good versus evil often in the form of archetypes, as well as the courage displayed in the face of overwhelming odds without the amenities of technology or modern conveniences to aid the good guys and gals in their struggle. Then there's the bonus of the mystical, the miraculous, the supernatural, and, most importantly, the wisdom and lessons learned we often don't find in the modern novel.
This Public Domain Book, which I downloaded for free from Amazon.com, quenches many of those thirsts.The author Colum, a poet and a playwright, was awarded the Regina Medal in 1961 for his “distinguished contributio…

The Anatomy of Story, 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, John Truby (2008)

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I read this book late last year for the first time, but like Ivanhoe, this too, only for different reasons, deserves repeated reads. Truby is not a particularly gifted writer or anything. Very little is quotable or well stated as such. But the instructions are invaluable. I won't give away his secret recipe. Instead, I'll summarize this way. Truby outlines the elements and techniques inherent in great storytelling by pointing to the universal themes classics and otherwise successful novels, television shows, and films adhere to. He breaks these elements down into sections – premise, character, plot, dialogue, moral argument, symbolism – and forces the writer to evaluate what kind of story s/he wants to tell, how to maintain theme, how to evoke emotions in the reader through scenes, how to design convincing characters and so on.
Before reading this book, I'd done what I imagine lots of writers still do – redraft a manuscript until a story begins to take shape. Whereas now I…

The Children of Húrin, J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

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Like The Simarillion, this was an unfinished work J.R.R.'s son Christopher completed. Unlike The Simarillion, this is a legitimate novel. Tolkien evidently attempted several iterations of the story. So Christopher had several partial manuscripts (some going as far back as 1916) at his disposal. In one iteration, the master approached the story as a lay (or long poem). While it's impossible to know precisely where the master's prose end and his son's begin, the result is a riveting tale with a clear protagonist, though damned, and reads deliciously well. I was surprised to discover it follows the hero cycle faithfully, though it strays often in its results: Túrin heeds nearly no one and consequently digs a deeper hole for himself as the story progresses. I'm reminded of a Game of Thrones fan who wrote that, to its detriment, The Lord of the Rings (probably the movie versions) lacked the betrayals, gore, and perversions Thrones offered. That critic might want to read…

A Gathering of Hope, by Helen Hayes

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Like the few aforementioned books above, this is another I found hiding in a box in a closet in my garage. I'm not a fan of inspirational books. Sure, I've had my share of dark moods. But words of inspiration have always struck me as sappy. After flipping through this little book, however, and discovering poems and sayings by writers Robert Frost, Dickinson, Shakespeare, Emerson, St. Augustine, Byron, Whitman, and Keats, as well as the Psalms, I couldn't resist reading it.
Hayes suffered the loss of both her daughter and later her husband. She knows grief and includes the writings of classic poets and poems that helped her through these spells of despondency. Not a bad collection. My favorite quote is probably Stevenson: “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” My favorite excerpt is Hecuba's lines from “The Trojan Women” by Euripides, which is too long to include here. It's very moving. Three out of five stars. G

Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions, by Harry Shaw (1975)

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Ever since I became an avid reader and consequently fell in love with words, I've been trying to master the language much like a musician might memorize chords, scales, arpeggios, and other musical phrases. Beyond its more visceral rewards, I believe such a pursuit is worthy of my time and energy. Partly for this reason, I abhor sloppy writing as a substitute for clear, lucid prose.
I should mention that both in conversation and on social media (Facebook, Twitter), I'm that guy who frequently corrects people when they abuse our otherwise wondrous language. Probably why I'm so damn popular. (Incidentally, Shaw correctly identifies the preceding statement as irony, not sarcasm, which is more derisive irony, something along the lines of “What a great friend you turned out to be!”)
Because I love the English language and am grief stricken when it's abused or treated with indifference, while reading this treasure I was pumping my fist in the air and affirming this and that …

The Cat Who Talked To Ghosts, Lilian Jackson Braun (1990)

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This novel offers what every good mystery should – fine writing, engaging characters, an unsolved murder, and a sleuth driven to determine what happened. All of Braun's novels deserve this recipe. Unfortunately, not all of her books provide it. Braun clearly knows how to apply tension, intrigue, and suspense. For that reason, I can't understand why so many of her books often lack these winning elements. It's as if she's merely stumbling on these devices blindly. Which I refuse to believe. Yet in some cases the contrast appears too great to be otherwise. 
Some of her novels convince you this is a mystery writer to follow. Others make you wonder whether this is the same author. I mean, how do you go from a well-plotted novel with engaging, intriguing characters, tension, an unfolding of events and clues and sleuth-work to a satisfying finale in one novel, such as this one or her novel The Cat Who Saw Red (which is also excellent) and then on to the next novel that chronic…

Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott (1820)

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I've read this novel twice now for two reasons. One, it's a classic that demands repeated reads, and two, my first manuscript was influenced by this period, as is my sequel-in-progress. So I wanted to immerse myself in the cast's diction again. 
Most writers of fantasy fiction set their stories in a period that mirrors our own middle ages. Yet despite their adherence to its form of government (monarchies), its mode of transportation (horse, mule, wagon, carriage), its architectural structures (castles, towers, temples), its tools of war (sword, spear, bow), and its dress (tunics, robes, bodices, armor), when it comes to dialogue, these same writers tend to assign their characters the contemporary colloquialisms of today. This has always struck me as lazy. Granted, creating dialogue that approaches the lexicon of a begone era is a challenge. But ever since reading the gracefully worded dialogue in Donaldson's Covenant Chronicles, Ben-Hur, Don Quixote, The Iliad, as well …

The Adventures of Pinocchio, by C. Collodi (the non de plume for Carlo Lorenzini) translated from the Italian by Carol Della Chiesa (1883)

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From what I remember of the Walt Disney animated film Pinocchio, this original version is comparable to how the Brothers Grimm might treat the material. It's a dark fable, a fable because of its cautionary lessons and its supernatural elements, including talking animals. Pinocchio is a mischievous urchin fast approaching that of a reprobate. Not until he faces potential death (which he does in nearly every chapter) does he appear mildly remorseful, and that remorse is short lived as yet another temptation appears which, again, distracts him from the sagacity of his elders.
Despite the darker tone, this story is still amusing and fun. I caught myself smiling throughout and even chuckling quite a few times. An intermittent, interactive quality abounds.We've all probably experienced those stories in which the author stops his narrative to flatter us, calling us his “gentle reader” or his “dear reader.” Something along the lines of “As it happened, dear reader, Sally sold those se…

Past Forgetting, My Love Affair With Dwight D. Eisenhower, Kay Summersby Morgan (1975)

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Like The Groucho Letters in my previous post, this was another hardback amid a hidden stack of books in a box in the closet of my garage. I decided to read it not in anticipation of the sensationalism – the idea of a love story between Eisenhower and his mistress – but rather because I expected to learn something of that period: the war, the decision makers involved, maybe even a few facts I hadn't come across in the history books. I wasn't disappointed.
As the publishing date makes explicit, Summersby wrote this decades after the facts. Eisenhower had since died; Summersby herself–partly to quail the rekindled media gossip at the time and partly because she'd been diagnosed with terminal cancer and given six months to live –decided to set the record straight as to what really happened.
Chronicling her experiences during the second world war as an officers' driver, she doesn't even begin discussing her love affair until midway into the book. Even then she treats the…

The Groucho Letters, Letters From and To Groucho Marx, Simon & Schuster (1967)

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My father introduced me to the Marx Brothers when I was about ten. This would've been in 1975, long after vaudeville and even after the Brothers' heyday in film. Too young to appreciate their puns, satire and wit, I wouldn't truly take notice until decades later when I'd catch a scene or two on some TV special giving tribute to classic comedies or comedians. Several years later I bought a DVD boxed set of their films which included just about everything but “Animal Crackers” and “Duck Soup.” My favorite film in this collection is still “A Night at the Opera.”
A week ago, while cleaning a house I indirectly inherited from my late grandmother, I was going through some old boxes hidden away in a back closet of the garage and found a number of hardbound books I didn't know about. Among them was the aforementioned book. No introduction, forward, afterward, or backward is provided. Nothing but letters, as the subtitle indicates, from and to this then aging comedian.
But …

Murder in Three Acts, Agatha Christie (1935)

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Another great Hercule Poirot mystery, this one without Hastings. I'm developing a real fondness for this diminutive Belgian. In a way, he's a precursor to Columbo, maybe inspiring Columbo's invention. His syntax and hesitant phrasing frequently strays from the English, sometimes with amusing results. After he solves the case in this novel, a character asks him: “Why do you speak perfectly good English and at other times not?” Poirot replies: “... to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say 'A foreigner; he can't even speak English properly.' It is not my policy to terrify people; instead, I invite their gentle ridicule. Also I boast! An Englishman he says often, 'A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much.' That is the English point of view. It is not at all true. And so, you see, I put people off their guard. Besides,” he added, “it has become a habit.” Five out of five stars. G