Sunday, April 28, 2013

Defending Jacob by William Landay

Defending JacobDefending Jacob by William Landay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Andy Barber is Assistant District Attorney for a wealthy suburb of Boston. He’s a very successful attorney who sees the world in black and white, guilty and innocent – highly in control of his actions and emotions. He has a pretty great life with a wife he still adores and feels lucky to have and a 14 year old son. This is the narrator of this story and things are about to get very crazy in his life. He gets a call to the murder of a kid in his son Jacob’s class. And even though he is very involved in the case he is blindsided when after a few days, Jacob becomes the prime suspect and is arrested for the murder.

At this point the Barber’s world is turned topsy turvy. They are ostracized by the community that embraced them just the day before, and inside the house the comfort with each other is gone. There are lots of questions posed: Does our legal system really operate as innocent until proven guilty? Is violence hereditary? What is a parent’s culpability and responsibility when their child does something horrible? Because Andy has his emotions so firmly under control these dilemma’s are posed clearly and with due consideration while leaving the answers up to the reader.

To boil it down this is a compelling part legal part psychological thriller. It’s a page turner and the pacing is just right. The law “stuff” - strategy, procedure, characterizations - was really interesting and it made me wish my lawyer father (defense lawyer if you’re wondering:) were still around to discuss. I was a little disappointed in the manipulative ending but it’s easily forgiven because of all the goodness that has gone before. A worthwhile read.

So anybody else out there read and enjoyed and read and hated this one?  Who did you identify more with Andy or Lori?  What would you do in their situation?

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Friday, April 26, 2013

The Dresden Files on TV

This is a late entry into the list of shows that deserved another season.  I just finished re-watching the 12 episodes of this short-lived television show based on Jim Butcher's Dresden Files book series.  I was surprised to see that this just aired in 2007-2008 - I feel like my first watch was eons ago, maybe back in the early part of this century:)  I enjoyed the second re-watch and found myself wanting more at the conclusion.

The show is based somewhat loosely on the Dresden Files books having more of an "inspired by" feel but not straying too far.  It follows the adventures of Harry Dresden a self-proclaimed Wizard for Hire working out of Chicago. He's basically a magic-yielding PI of the hard-boiled variety.  He takes on independent cases but his steadiest income comes from serving as a consultant on the less explainable of the Chicago PD's cases.  He is most frequently brought on to consult by Lieutenant Connie Murphy, a hard working, lives-for-the-job cop who nonetheless trusts Dresden's results even when she doesn't always understand them.  Because Harry doesn't live in a world where the supernatural is recognized and accepted - it's Chicago just as it is today - so Harry walks a tightrope, with most people believing he's a crazy crackpot. 

It had some problems - the tone was uneven and indecisive and it never really quite came together to be addictive enough for a weekly audience. Essentially, it never quite captured the action packed fun of the books. I think part of the problem is that the books aren't exactly...emotionally complex...their strength were the interesting characters, particularly Dresden, and the nonstop action.  The show sort of skated between these two elements - i.e. having a little more emotional complexity then the books but not nearly as much action - It couldn't decide to commit either way and so ended up being a little blah.   But it had potential and I'm not sure it was really given a chance to find its footing.  Plus its hard to imagine that these books could not make a kick ass television series.

It also had some good things going for it.  I can't quite remember but I think I actually watched the show before reading the books  Which is maybe why Paul Blackthorne and Valerie Cruz embody Dresden and Murphy for me.  It is also probably why I was disappointed there wasn't more "context" between Murphy and Dresden in the books unlike the show. What?! I can't help it, I'm a girl. 
Paul Blackthorne as Harry Dresden

Valerie Cruz as Lieutenant Connie Murphy
 I also liked some of the other changes the show made to the books like having Bob be a more corporeal character rather than just a talking skull.  And as I mentioned I appreciated the attempt at adding some emotional complexity.  After all it inspired me to pick up the books and I've gone on to read most of the series.

So I hope someday they try again and hit it just right this time.  I think it deserves a second chance.  What do you think?  Any Dresden Files - books or show - fans out there?   

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Garden Update - April 26,2013

Well it's the end of April here in Iowa and the month could be summed up as cold and wet.  And by cold, I mean FREEZING.  We had low temps under 30 degrees F just a couple days ago.  It's made early gardening a bit of a challenge for me.  I want to get things going as early as possible and I get all flustered by the weather. 

Despite the weather complications things are going pretty well.  Early in the month I planted out my onion and kale starts, and some spinach, lettuce, sugar snap pea and lettuce seed.  Mid-month I uncovered my garlic and shallots.  Everything but the carrots have started to come up at least some of them.  The biggest problem I've had is with the squirrels being excited by the newly fluffed dirt - its apparently HI-larious good fun to dig in.  As a result I think most of my carrots are doomed, one plot of spinach, one plot of lettuce, a few sugar snaps, and my onions are feeling pretty darn molested.  Little fluffy tailed troublemakers.  I do love all things wild but its hard when you have such a small garden.

In addition to what's going on outside I just got some fingerling potatoes  from a friend which are chitting (is that a word?) in a window.  I also have tomatoes, peppers and basil cooking under the lights in the upstairs office.  I've had a few monster tomato starts this year, I think because I had to improvise planting containers and planted a few in cherry tomato containers which are a bit bigger then the peat pots I generally use.  I just had to repot them because they were ready to plant outside but the outside ain't ready for them.  It made me realize, because I am incredibly dense and it hadn't struck me before, that this may be a solution to my pepper problem.  What's my pepper problem?  Basically I'm not happy with the number of peppers that ripen before the harvest season is over.  It finally occurred to me that next year I could try and get my peppers further along during starting.  Hmmmm.... All because of rogue planting containers.

Here's some pics:

Fukagawa bunching onions, much molested by the squirrels (and a new Blueberry Bush)!




Can you see the Sugar Snaps?

Garlic and Shallots

Garlic and Shallots

Fingerling Potatoes Chitting

Monster tomato start

So what's up in your garden?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes NovelThe House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel by Anthony Horowitz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Recently I read my first Sherlock Holmes book (Hound of the Baskervilles) and came away feeling rather underwhelmed. I surmised it was because I’d been exposed to so much Holmsian entertainment, mostly of the film and television variety, not to mention all the countless narratives that have been influenced by Holmes. I know all the stories, the solutions to the mysteries, all of Holmes’ quirks and talents, so, actually reading the book, was a surprisingly plodding and unexciting affair much to my immense disappointment.

Despite that experience, I am still very interested in all things Holmesian so have had the House of Silk on my TBR for a while. Because of my experience, I suspected I may not be too sniffy about it not being Conan-Doyle. And, indeed I very much liked this new Holmes mystery.

The set up is Watson, nearing the end of his life, sitting down to write of one last adventure. Watson explains that it was a case that was delicate in some way so it could not be written up or published at the time. And it is a particularly convoluted and twisted tale which starts one place and winds its way through many intriguing byways before drawing to a satisfying conclusion with all threads tied up in a neat Sherlockian many-stranded bow.

One of the best things about the book were the insights into the nature of Holmes and Watson’s bromance. Watson’s voice is rich and true, clear with hindsight, and sentimental, revealing the closeness but complexity of the friendship he shared with the world’s most eccentric detective. It’s a fascinating relationship.

I also want to highly recommend the audio version of the book narrated by Derek Jacobi. This is one of those instances where I think listening to the book may be superior to reading the book because Jacobi IS Watson. He voices Watson just as I’d imagine him to be, bringing him and the story to life.

One thing I cannot judge is how fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books will feel about the book. To me it seemed like a reverently written tribute to Doyle’s creation but as I mentioned I’ve only read one of the original tales. But with that limited experience I do believe anyone will like it.

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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What Canceled Television Shows Most Deserve Another Season?


One of my favorite websites, Television Without Pity, posted the following question on their Facebook PageWhat show do you wish got brought back for another season?

And because I have truly my dork cred honestly through years of hardcore Joss Whedon obeisance, my instant thought was of course Firefly.

Firefly, all 14 episodes of it, is actually my favorite of Joss Whedon's shows (in case you are a well-adjusted person who does not obsess over sci-fi TV shows, others include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Dollhouse).  I feel like everything about it is pretty close to perfect - the cast, the wild west tinged yet futuristic universe, the fantastic storytelling that had just started to bloom, the characteristic Joss Whedon humor.  Sigh.... This may actually be my favorite 14 episodes of television of all time. The movie's pretty excellent too. Perhaps it's perfection is directly tied to it's short-lived status - It didn't have time for the characters to become annoying or the story lines to derail - but I'd really like to see some more of this universe.  I'd like for it to have the chance to suck.  And, of course, if we are talking reality I think the biggest challenge might be not being able to wrangle up all the original cast.  I think it might be a different beast without Wash and Shepherd Book but I think Joss would make it interesting regardless.

My second show, which I shamelessly stole after seeing someone else post it, is Deadwood.  This show was mesmerizing and mind blowing and I remember thinking that there was no way it only had three short seasons.  There was so much more steam and profound profanity left in this show.  The cast was also, well, special. A true ensemble with everyone bringing something awesome to the screen.

And I just realized I'm apparently obsessed with Westerns. Hm. Good to know.

There's a couple of others that floated across my mind.  Veronica Mars of course but only if we could go back to the goodness of Seasons 1 and 2.  And also it looks like there may be a movie which is something.  Stargate SG-1 but only if a 50 year old version of Richard Dean Anderson came back and new writers were brought in to finally bring undeniable closure to just what exactly is going on between Jack and Sam.  The Mighty Boosh could use another season stat but not sure if that's not a possibility at some point.  I'd love to see more X-files.

What shows do you most wish would make a comeback and why? 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone GirlGone Girl by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

WARNING:  I think this book is best read cold, knowing very little about what it is about.  I tried to be vague below but I do think I reveal some things that are best not known before reading.  So I would wait to read the review until after you've read the book.

Downloaded from Narrated by Julia Whalen and Kirby Heyborne.

I’m not sure what else there is to say about this book that hasn’t already been said. It was the ‘it’ book of 2012, and in my opinion, for good reason. It’s the twisty tale of a marriage gone awry. Nick Dunn comes home on his 5th wedding anniversary to find his wife Amy missing and signs of a struggle. As he talks us through, directly addressing his audience, the first few days of the police’s investigation, we the reader start to wonder just how reliable a narrator he is. But this is a book where things are never quite what they seem.

Things not being what they seem. This, in a way, was the theme of this book. Who are we really and is it the same person we present to the world - are we ever quite what we seem? Do we just project an image to the world? Do we just project an image to our spouse/significant other? What happens when that projection starts to lose focus and the truth of who we are starts to surface? Sure the characters and scenario presented here are extremes but these extremes are just window dressing for potential truths or at least interesting thoughts about relationships and identity. I found myself truly drawn into Nick and Amy’s world, riveted by their situation and made thoughtful by the underlying questions. There be layers here!

The layers kept me occupied enough that it didn’t matter that I did not like or empathize with any of the characters. I would normally say that the characters and my ability to empathize with them may be the number one criteria for determining my level of engagement with a book. Nick and Amy and their dynamic were so freakin’ interesting that it hardly mattered that they were both repulsive. The story and relationship spun was enough to satisfy. I am in awe of Gillian Flynn’s ability to think of everything and present it all in a coherent, well-paced story with flair. I wondered throughout the book how she was going to wrap it up and I think she got the end just right, disturbing as it may be.

In an attempt to characterize it, Gone Girl reminded me a little of In the Woodsin that they are both, ostensibly mysteries/thrillers but are really more concerned with the psychology and inner mind of its protagonist(s). Psychological Thriller perhaps?

Despite all the really great elements of this book, it was not a compulsive read for me. It was a page turner for sure but I wasn’t longing to get back to it in between listening sessions and I didn’t huddle in the corner with my ipod trying to avoid going to work or anything. So it wasn’t a perfect read but pretty darn close.

The narration on the audio version was done by two narrators – a male and female reading the two main characters, Nick and Amy. They were fantastic, hitting just the right tone for both characters.

Have you read Gone Girl? What did you think?

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Sunday, April 14, 2013

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

City of Bones (The Mortal Instruments, #1)City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My March and, thus far, April should probably be dubbed Young Adult Reading Months from here on out. This is the busiest, most stressful time of year for me at my job (no I’m not a tax preparer, thank god), and so I’ve been attracted to the straightforward, suck-you-in stories prevalent in the Young Adult – Fantasy genre. After finishing The Diviners, I ran across City of Bones while looking for my next young adult audio read in my Library’s catalog. It looked interesting and had a high rating on Goodreads.

I really enjoyed it. I mean REALLY enjoyed it. So I was surprised when about 2/3rds of the way through the book I checked out some of the reviews on goodreads and there were a lot of them that were seriously brutal. The biggest complaint seemed to be that the book’s plot was derivative which was puzzling. It’s a legitimate complaint for sure but I think derivative plots can be enjoyable and serve a purpose and quite honestly it seems that well-worn themes are kind of a hallmark of YA literature. Granted, I don’t read an over abundance of Young Adult literature but when I do it’s because I’m looking for the comfort of the derivative plot, the well-worn tropes that exist because they resonate so well with people. Sure it’s more fulfilling to see these common themes presented with an original twist (in my, admittedly limited, experience Seraphina by Rachel Hartman is a recent good example, and I think Garth Nix can almost always be counted on to do something imaginative) but I’m fine if they are just done well. And I think City of Bones, does its job pretty well.

A lot of reviewer’s complained that this book was just a rehash of Harry Potter and Star Wars. Well I love both those stories so it is fine by me that City of Bones has a lot of the same themes, story elements and archetypal characters. Maybe it would bother me in if I had a bit more brain power to devote to my reading and was wanting a more contemplative and original read but City of Bones, at this moment in my reading life, didn’t hit me over the head with its literary borrowing and it gave me just the sort of comfort and escapist adventure for which I was looking.

And there were some things by which I was pleasantly surprised. First, the characters. I am a reader who is very easily annoyed by female protagonists, particularly those that are teenage and who are lusted after by more than one hot guy. But for whatever reason I was all right with this book’s protagonist, Clary Fray. She’s a little mopey, (which may have been accentuated by the narrator) but not to the point of annoyance except perhaps towards the end and she was a pretty fair mix of brave kickass and in over her head. Her reactions to most things was pretty authentic and I liked that despite her developing crush on Jace, it didn’t stop her from being justifiably annoyed by him and showing it.

Towards the end, she did seem to get hit with the dumb stick a few too many times, particularly in her initial dealings with Luke, and she developed a very bad case of the “I’m 15 years old so obviously I know better then you grown up folk who are impossibly corrupt and stupid” self righteousness. This does make me a little nervous for the sequels - that the Clary irritation factor may become an issue.

However, it is worth noting, that I was surprised by some injection of Clary being called on her shit as well. Since the primary audience for books like this is teenagers they are often validated to the point of annoyance for me as an adult. And yet in the initial scene with Magnus Bane, he pretty much puts her in her place and tells her to give her mom a break – that life is more complicated and messy and full of questionable decisions then Clary has the experience to judge quite yet. The author does this pretty deftly without making Clary seem overly unreasonable while also not letting the teenage self-indulgence run rampant.

And speaking of Magnus Bane he was a pretty great tertiary character.

Finally, you can’t leave the discussion of character without talking about Jace Wayland who is probably the most interesting male lead I’ve encountered in a young adult book in a while. He’s got some legitimate emotional issues which he deals with in a properly sarcastic and suppressing manner. He’s hilarious and arrogant in a deliberately over-the-top way and he’s an ass-kicking hero. He’s a bunch of fun.

This could be my verdict for the whole book: a bunch of fun. It’s an action-filled, good-vs-evil, character driven romp. I found the narrator, Ari Graynor, to be pretty mediocre and she didn’t have a lot of range beyond the two main characters (Clary and Jace).

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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Stolen Away by Alyxandra Harvey

This is the most recent offering from Alyxandra Harvey, published in 2012.  While Harvey appears to be going back to some of the mechanics that made her initial Drake chronicles book (Hearts at Stake) a hit; duel viewpoints from two best friend heroines, two romances, similar setting; she has moved onto a different mythology.  Eloise Hart learns that the fae world is real only after she is kidnapped by the Fae King Strahan.  Turns out her Aunt Antonia is mixed up in Fae politics and Eloise has just been made into a pawn.  She is released once her Aunt takes her place and she immediately recruits all her friends and the mysterious and hunky Fae stranger Lucas to help her rescue her Aunt.

It makes me sad but I think Harvey might be struggling with her writers mojo.  This book was kind of a hot mess, and while I wouldn't say any of her books are best known for their tight plots, this one just sort of jumps from one thing to the next with little connective story or flow.  It's sloppy and so much doesn't make sense.  Why does Strahan target Eloise and not Antonia's twin sister with whom she is very close? I was under the impression that there was something special about Eloise but there isn't.  The whole why of the crown and the ribbon and what must be done when and why is just never really clear.  And there are two instances of flagrant, unapologetic insta-love that make my head hurt.  At least one is kind of hot (Jo and her mystery man) but Eloise and Lucas is just boring and ridiculous - they don't ever appear to even have a conversation and their is little to no chemistry because Harvey can't decide whether Lucas is an uber-formal Fae aristocrat who knows nothing about modern culture or just a regular 19 year old who happens to be able to turn into a hawk. 

The characters are also kind of a mess.  Once again, as seen with Solange and Lucy, Violet and Elizabeth, we have a rather boring main heroine (Eloise) and a more interesting spunky best friend (Jo).  Unfortunately, both characters get painted with a rather clumsy brush with "interesting quirks" slapped onto them instead of really being apart of their persona.  Eloise dresses all retro funky, wears bright red lipstick, and is quiet but actually deep down is supposed to have violent, angry tendencies.  Jo likes boys and is a total flirt and also likes to use British slang in her speech.  Um, that's great but it doesn't substitute for actually giving the characters some depth.

Overall everything about the book felt rushed and thin.  It wasn't a compulsive read like the Drake Chronicles but it did keep me interested enough to read to the conclusion.  2 out of 5 stars, i.e. it was okay.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Haunting Violet by Alyxandra Harvey

Alyxandra Harvey's 2011 Young Adult novel takes place in Victorian Era England when mediums were all the rage and were also mostly charlatans and con-artists. Violet grows up on the edge of poverty, helping her mother, one of those fake spiritualists, fleece grieving relatives of their cash.  Understandably therefore, Violet doesn't believe in ghosts until one day around her sixteenth year she starts to see and even hear real spirits.  Her abilities draw her into a mystery surrounding the death of another teenage girl, while she, her mother, and their other companions Colin and Marjorie are ambitiously trying to pull off their most elaborate con yet at the country estate of Lord Jasper.

I have to say up front that I was pretty disappointed by this book.  After reading The Drake Chronicles, I had developed a pretty significant author crush on Alyxandra Harvey.  She has a great sense of humor and a real knack for creating characters it's easy to love, and stories that are equal part action/adventure and romantic swooniness.  So my expectations for this book were pretty darn high which probably helped make the disappointment that much greater.  My major criticisms:

1) A boring heroine:  I've discovered, having also now read Harvey's most recent offering Stolen Away, that she actually has a propensity towards rather blah heroines who she then gives a spunky best friend.  I think she is trying to make her heroines as average as possible to give them relatability. Unfortunately, the sassy best friends tend to steal the spotlight and be more fun then the main character.  Case in point Solange and Lucy from the Drake Chronicles - Lucy was by far the more interesting and fun character for me and I think for a lot of readers.  Lucy's romance was also more compelling.  In Haunting Violet we get a rather ho-hum heroine with a relatively lukewarm romance while the more interesting best friend Elizabeth gets especially short-shrift.  Violet is likeable enough but she's not terribly complex  - I would have preferred her to be more morally ambiguous considering her upbringing.
2) The evil mother:  Violet's mother could have been quite interesting.  Without giving too much away, Violet's mother was thrust, by misfortune, on to the streets, pregnant and without friends or family.  She has been forced to make her way in the world and she could have very easily been made into a rather complex and interesting character and to play a rather larger role in the drama.  At one point Harvey seems to be making her more sympathetic when she begs Violet's father to take her saying "How will I feed her?" and I started getting interested and then Harvey abruptly does an about face and takes the character into no-return evil land. Which is just less interesting...
3) The mystery: The mystery at the heart of the book ends up being developed rather weakly and also ends up having a rather boring solution.
4) Subdued humor:  Harvey's strengths are her humor and light-hearted, snarky banter.  Probably because this is a period piece, the humor was pretty underwhelming.

In the end, It was just okay.  It had potential, particularly in the area of developing more complex characters, but it never really got close to that potential.  Not nearly as compulsive and propulsive a read as the Drake Chronicle books.  2 out of 5 stars...It was okay.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Prairie Chickens!

I spent part of the least week out in Western Nebraska trapping prairie chickens for a reintroduction project.  There were two early mornings, starting around 4:30 am sitting in a blind watching the natural world wake up and being surrounded by the haunting booming and wild whoops and cackles of the male prairie chickens as they did their best to look and sound sexy for the ladies.  The fellow pictured above was stationed about 10 ft from our blind.  It was a breathtaking reminder of how diverse and incredible our world is and how much we lose when we lose species. 

The locals seemed to have a different viewpoint.  When it was explained why we were there, usually in response to the questions, their normal response was usually "You're doing what?  You actually getting paid to do this?"  I always wanted to respond "I know, right?  Can you imagine a more fulfilling, worthwhile and downright awesome job?"  But I am pretty sure they didn't mean it that way.  I'm pretty sure they meant it in a "There is money being spent on something so incredibly ridiculous and worthless?" sort of way.  Pretty discouraging and doesn't bode well for wildlife and natural resource conservation. 

Got any strong feelings about Greater Prairie Chickens? Do they deserve to be valued and have people working on their behalf?