Friday, January 29, 2010

Let the Hurricane Roar (aka Young Pioneers)

By Rose Wilder Lane

Molly and David are a young newlywed couple, setting out from Minnesota to the Dakota Territory to homestead on fifty acres. They have a team of horses, a wagon, and little else with which to start their new life together and it is not much longer before Molly is pregnant. It's pretty isolated where they have set up house in a small dugout, but Molly is certain she can have the baby with only her husband to assist.
She has a pretty rough time giving birth, a lot rougher than either she or David expected, but she has a strapping baby boy and David gets the fields plowed and planted. Their fifty acres has a creek so water is plentiful and easy to get and there is plenty of slough hay to cut and store for the horses. They make friends with there nearest neighbors, the Svensons, who speak very little English, but, out there on the prairie, the isolation brings them together.
The wheat crop is healthy and promises to fill their pockets with cash, so David takes the rash step of buying items on credit, including lumber and windows to build them a little house instead of living in the dugout. Molly is thrilled at the prospects of a real house, but their dreams come crashing down when a plague of grasshoppers moves in and destroys not only the crops, but the seedling trees they had planted and all the grass for miles around. The young couple find themselves deep in debt with no way to pay. Everyone in the area is suffering too and there are no jobs to be found. David decides the only thing he can do is to go back east and get work there and save up some money. Molly is to stay behind and move in with the Svensons and keep their land from being stolen by claim jumpers.
Seems like David has it all under control until he breaks his leg and gets stuck in Iowa and the Svensons decide they are fed up with the Dakota Territory and they are leaving. Molly tries to find a place in the closest town where she can stay with the baby but no one wants her. She makes the rash decision to spend the winter by herself in the dugout, just her and her baby. She will face down fierce blizzards, wolves, terrible cold temperatures and worst of all, fear and loneliness.

This was a terrific story of a young couple coping with the harsh realities of homesteading in the Dakota Territory, told mainly from the point of view of the girl, Molly. She is just seventeen when she gives birth to her baby and her husband in only three years older than she. The problems she and David face are typical of what pioneers had to deal with and many were forced to give up and move on, including the author's parents, James and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Of course, Laura Ingalls Wilder told the same stories in her own series of books about homesteaders, the LITTLE HOUSE series. That is my only quibble with Lane's book, that it is mainly just a retelling of one of her mother's stories, including the grasshoppers, the blizzards, the homestead by the slough, it is all a bit too familiar. Still I enjoyed the book a lot, although it did make me wonder how anyone managed to stick it out on the Dakota prairie. Probably should have just left it all to the Sioux.

The Wrath

By David Robbins

On an archaeological dig in the valley of the Dog People in Egypt, a pathogen is released that quickly spreads throughout Egypt and from there to the rest of the world. This disease affects the eyes, making them bulge out; the salivary glands, making the afflicted foam at the mouth; the joints and tendons, forcing the person into a hunched-over-on-all-fours stance; the brain, destroying the cortex and turning the person into a blood-thirsty, ravenous beast; and it causes an intense fever that results in the victim tearing off all their clothes and running around nude: thus the dog people.

As you can tell from the description, this is a rather silly book. Even the front cover of the book is silly, as it shows a hairy beast with huge fangs and pointed dog ears, which does not describe the sufferers of the dog people disease. Going by the cover you would think they turn into werewolves, but not so.
Another silly thing about the book, which was published in 1988, is that the doctors studying the infected people keep catching the disease and turning into dog people themselves. Like doctors in 1988 didn't understand how to deal with infectious diseases without exposing themselves to them.
But besides that, it's a pretty fair story, about struggling against an implacable foe and not always winning. But happily, the calvary arrives in the nick of time and all is not lost.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Collected Plays of Neil Simon Volume IV

By Neil Simon

This volume contains five plays: LOST IN YONKERS, RUMORS, JAKE'S WOMEN, LAUGHTER ON THE 23RD FLOOR, and LONDON SUITE. LOST IN YONKERS not only won a Tony Award it also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1991.
Set during World War II, LOST IN YONKERS is about two boys who have to spend several months with their Old World grandmother after their mother dies and their father has a job that requires him to travel. The grandmother is less than thrilled to have the boys and she warns them that she runs a tight ship and that they are expected to do what she tells them. She is a real harridan and the boys are frightened of her. The old woman had a very hard life and she wants her children and her grandchildren to be tough enough to take what life dishes out. She is not the kind of grandma that buys her grandkids toys and bakes them cookies. She seems not to understand that family love goes a long way toward easing life's harsh realities.
RUMORS is a fun farce about a dinner party that starts out with the guests arriving to discover their host unconscious, suffering from a gunshot wound to his ear and his wife is missing. As the guests arrive, the consensus is that the man tried to kill himself because his wife left him and they decide they have to protect his reputation by covering up the his attempted suicide.
LAUGHTER ON THE 23RD FLOOR is about a comedic television show in the 1950s struggling to cope with the demands of the network and their sponsors. It is mainly about the star of the show and his crew of comedy writers.
LONDON SUITE is a series of vignettes about the goings on in a particular set of rooms in a hotel in London.
JAKE'S WOMEN is about a writer who seems to find talking to his imaginary women more compelling than talking to the actual women in his life. Mostly it is about the destruction of his marriage to his current wife due to his attachment to his previous wife who died.

I enjoyed RUMORS the most. It is a fun-filled, laugh-filled farce and simply a LOL joy to read. I also liked LAUGHTER ON THE 23RD FLOOR, with its lively repartee and LONDON SUITE because it was just light and fun. JAKE'S WOMEN was boring and LOST IN YONKERS was excruciating. That old grandma was not a pleasant character with which to spend an afternoon.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Year of the Quiet Sun

By Wilson Tucker

Brian Chaney is offered a job on a time machine project. Chaney is a scholar and a demographer and is offered the job because they want him to go into the future and see if trends predicted in the current time were correct and to gather information about demographics of the future. He agrees to join the project, one of the main reasons being the attractive woman who offered him the job; she first approached him while he was sunning himself on a Florida beach and she was wearing a see-through blouse with nothing on underneath. (And delta pants, whatever those are. The delta pants are mentioned quite often in the story. I did a Google search on them and the only thing I could find where some baggy, ugly clam diggers and some ever uglier military-looking pants, which can't be what the delta pants are as the Chaney character found them quite alluring and sexy and they are described as form-fitting.)
Their first trip in the time machine will be just two years into the future. When Chaney makes his leap, he is surprised to find out that Chicago is experiencing fierce race riots and martial law has been declared. Subsequent leaps by other team members to about the year 2000 reveal that the USA is embroiled in a race war, black vs white, with the blacks being backed by China. Chaney's final leap puts him at about 2030 where he gets stranded because there is no electricity to send the machine back to his time. The good news is that the war is over and he is reunited with the delta pants woman he has been lusting after. The bad news is that the country is depopulated, that nukes were used in the war, and that the woman is old and decrepit. Also, the whites apparently won which is bad news for Chaney since he is black, a fact that is not revealed until the very end of the book, although it is occasionally hinted at.

This was a pretty boring book. It takes them forever to go on the first time travel trip. It seemed to be mostly about Chaney's unrequited love for the woman, a woman he never gets until he meets up with her again in the future when she is old and dried up. The descriptions of America's future were not even close, which made it kind of irritating to read.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Three Sisters

By Rebecca Locksley

The Tari people, who have magical abilities to varying degrees, used to rule over and protect the other tribes. But times have changed and the Tari have retreated to their mountain homeland and left the other tribes to suffer under the harsh rule of an invading people, the Mir. The Mir have come into the land with a new religion and new ways of doing things and have set about destroying the culture and religion of the native peoples.
Living among the natives are three young Tari women. Taken from the Tari as infants they know very little about the Tari and live as outcasts. One of the sisters, Elena, is married to a native chieftain and she is taken captive when her village is overrun by the Mir. Since she is very beautiful, the overlord takes her for his harem. When the two other sisters find out Elena has been taken they set off on a quest to free her from captivity, using their innate Tari powers to do so. What they don't know is that there is a cadre of Tari who wish Elena to remain captive, as there is a prophecy proclaiming that her half-breed child will save the Tari people from destruction. So as the two sisters work to free Elena, their efforts are sabotaged by the other Tari who want Elena to stay where she is.

This was a really good story. The abilities of the Tari were very interesting and the two sister setting off on their quest have quite a struggle to gain Elena's freedom. At one point, having so far failed, they are forced to retrench and go to the Tari homeland for help, only to fall into the hands of the Tari faction who are working against them. The Tari people and their magical abilities are very interesting and I found this book an exciting and fascinating read.

Best Enemies

By Jane Heller

Amy and Tara were best friends from the time they were is grade school together. So when Amy is planning her wedding, naturally she asked Tara to be her maid of honor. Bad idea, because Tara lands in the sack with Amy's hubby-to-be and Amy catches them in the act. The friendship is over and Tara runs off with the guy and they get married. Amy goes into therapy to cope with her depression.
A few years later, Tara has written a book and the publisher Amy works for assigns the book to her to do the publicity for it. Which means Amy will be forced to work with the hated Tara and her vile husband.
Complications ensue when Amy pretends to be engaged to a very successful author and Tara's vile hubby runs off with his secretary. Because Tara's book is all about her beautiful and perfect life including her perfect marriage, it is imperative that the hubby be located in time for all the publicity events and presented to the public as the loving husband he is portrayed to be in Tara's book. This crisis brings the two women together and once again their friendship blooms.

This was a pretty good story. It is told first from Amy's point of view and then from Tara's. The only real problem I had with it was Amy's willingness to be friends with a person who has proven herself to be completely selfish and untrustworthy. But other than that, I enjoyed the story.

Behold the Man

By Michael Moorcock

Karl is a dissatisfied man. Something is missing from his life. Maybe it is God. So when an eccentric genius offers him a ride in his experimental time machine, Karl says OK, provided he gets to choose the time and place of his destination: 28 AD in Israel. He wants to find Jesus Christ.
So the time machine works and Karl finds himself in the Holy Land but he is in bad shape from the crash landing which wrecked the time machine and so now he is stuck there. He is rescued by a religious community of Essenes under the nominal leadership of John the Baptist. Now John is expecting the arrival of the Messiah and he is pretty sure Karl must be it despite Karl's assurances that he is not. At one point John tries to get Karl to baptize him but Karl flees.
He wanders in the desert for a month or more but eventually finds his way back to civilization and heads for Nazareth, determined to find Jesus. And find him he does: Mary, Joseph and Jesus in Nazareth. But this holy family is not so holy: Joseph is bitter and disappointed, Mary is a slut and Jesus is a giggling, deformed idiot.
But Karl knows that Jesus will die on the cross as the Jewish messiah and so he sets about to make the story of Jesus come out the way the Bible recorded it. The only way he can do it is to become Jesus and preach and teach and eventually die on the cross.

This is a nasty book. It is not enough for the author to deny the divinity of Jesus Christ; no, he has to make him out to be a drooling idiot and his mother as a fat whore. So, according to this book, the Saviour is just some loser from the future who went into the past and ended up dying on the cross and rotting. Just nasty.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Night of the Jabberwock

By Fredric Brown

Doc Stoeger is the editor and owner of a smalltown weekly newspaper. It's Thursday night and Doc and his typesetter person are just finishing up the preparations for running this week's edition Friday morning. Doc is feeling rather disenchanted with running a smalltown newspaper as there never seems to be any news to put in the weekly. If there ever is any news, it seems to happen earlier in the week so by the time his paper prints it, it's old news. He wishes, just once, he could print breaking news. He's about to get his wish & then some.
At first it starts out badly, with two of his front pages stories being either reduced or cancelled altogether. Then things start to popping, first with a rumor that a close friend of Doc's was run over. He also hears about an accident at the fireworks factory. Next he finds out a lunatic has escaped from the asylum. Then Doc happens to run across two gangsters wanted by the police for a series of bank robberies. And next Doc actually foils a bank robber who was robbing the town's bank. He is going to have the best issue ever of his newspaper. But then...
He is asked not to print the story about his friend because his friend was drunk and fell down and it could damage the man's reputation if this was revealed to the public. He is asked to quash the escaped lunatic story to protect the family of the lunatic. He is told to not write about the gangsters by the police who are close to nabbing the rest of the gang. He decides not to print the bank robbing story because the thief was the bank owner's own 15 year old son. Doc's wonderful, news-breaking issue is kaput.
Until the police discover two dead bodies in the trunk of Doc's car, that is. Looks like someone is framing Doc for murder and he is on the run to prove his innocence and to avoid being gunned down by the local police chief, who is an old enemy of Doc's. And just maybe Doc will manage to produce that news-breaking edition he has been longing for.

This was a pretty good story. At first, it kind of hilarious how Doc keeps getting leads on great stories only to have them vanish. Also, Doc is a real boozer, and alcohol figures prominently on nearly every page in the story. Although, as one of the cops says, "Doc didn't drink that much. He'd get drunk, a little, a night or two a week, but he wasn't an alcoholic." Wrong. Doc is a real boozer, it is nothing to him to sit and drink 4, 5 shots of whiskey, neat, in a row. As he says, he doesn't like whiskey, but he likes its effect. A constant theme throughout the story is Doc's search for another drink of booze.
Anyway, the story starts out kind of funny and amusing but it gets less amusing as it progresses, with one of the gangsters being burned alive and then Doc being framed for murder and the police ordered to shoot him on sight.
But even with that somber turn, it's a really great story and despite the gruesome bits pretty much a lot of fun to read.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Craig Claiborne's A Feast Made for Laughter: A Memoir with Recipes

This is Claiborne's look back at his life, starting with his childhood in the South and touching on his professional life with a big emphasis on the food he has eaten, and the feasts he has thrown and it concludes with a section of recipes.

It was an OK book. Although he starts out pretty frankly, by the time he gets to his adult life the frankness disappears and we find out nearly nothing about his private life, although he does mention the time he was arrested for driving drunk and that he developed high blood pressure and had to modify his diet because of it. But other than that we find out nothing about who he loved as an adult or anything about his family, other than that he broke off relations with his mother because he felt she was smothering him.
But if you like reading about food, you'll love it. I frankly became very tired of reading what seemed like endless lists of menus of food eaten at meals he enjoyed. After wading through several, I just started skipping them altogether.
At the back of the book he also has a long list of cookbooks and books on food that he recommends and along with a list of those he wrote himself that adds up to over 100 books. And included, as I said before, are 100 of his favorite recipes like Chiffonade of Lobster Chez Denis, Cotes de veau belles des bois, Salade gourmande, Tripes lyonnaise, Pigs' Feet Sainte-Menhould, Lemon Lotus Ice Cream, Coquilles Saint-Jacques, Coulibiac of Salmon. He has a recipe for Stuffed Cabbage, or as he calls it Chou vert farci, that has 29 ingredients and 16 steps to prepare. A bit overwhelming, for me. I think I copied down maybe 5 of his recipes. The others seemed too complicated, had uncommon or hard to find ingredients, or had ingredients that I don't eat, like tripe, which I have never seen in a store here, and which I wouldn't want to eat even if it was available. For example, his Brandade de morue or mousse of salt cod. First of all: mousse of salt cod? It just sounds nasty. Second, salt cod? I have no idea what that is, except I know it involves cod fish. But I am sure I have never seen salt cod for sale here. I doubt I would eat it even if it was available for I fear it would be like lutefisk, which is totally gross and disgusting.
One good thing about his recipes, though. I finally found out what a scotch egg is. It's a big meatball with a hard boiled egg in the center. Which seems like an strange thing to do with a meatball and an egg, but what do I know. I am not a foodie.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Ladies of the Lake

By Haywood Smith

Dahlia was her grandmother's favorite grandchild. Cissy, the grandmother, encouraged Dahlia to study ballet and she was very proud of Dahlia's accomplishments as a professional dancer. However, in her later years, her mind began to fail, and in the beginning of this story, she tries to shoot Dahlia and one of her other sisters when she mistakes them for rapists. And thus begins this story of four sisters living together for one summer in the house their now deceased grandmother left them.
For Cissy has stipulated in her will that the four women cannot inherit her property, which is worth millions, unless they spend three months together in the house. Cissy, even though it appeared she favored Dahlia best, still wanted the sisters to have better relationships with each other and hit upon this method to achieve her goal.
Dahlia gets along best with her sister Violet, has a neutral relationship with sister Rose and doesn't get along with sister Iris at all, which is mainly the fault of Iris, who has always been jealous of all the attention Dahlia's talent as a dancer has gotten her. Violet, Rose and Iris all have stable marriages but Dahlia's marriage is kaput. Dahlia's husband ran off with his secretary and all his and Dahlia's money, including a refinance of their home, which has left Dahlia hanging on by the skin of her teeth. The money from the sale of Granny's lakeside acres will enable Dahlia to hang on to her home and keep her ballet school up and running.
Staying at the old house brings back lots of memories of their childhoods spent at the lake. Various complications arise, including Dahlia's weird health problems and allergies, the discovery of two long dead bodies in a bricked up root cellar in Granny's basement, and Dahlia getting attacked by chiggers and later on by a rapid raccoon. Dahlia gains a love interest in local boy done good Clete Slocum, who, it turns out, knew old Granny better than anyone in her family, including her favorite, Dahlia.

This was a pretty good story. Dahlia is very weird, what with the ballet moves she does when she is bored or distracted, the quoting of lines from movies, her strange health problems and allergies, her religiousness and her propensity for getting herself into trouble. Iris is just plain mean. Violet and Rose don't play much of a role in the story, Violet mainly threatens to pound Iris and Rose tries to keep the peace. The granny's relationship with Clete and his relatives was also strange, she was more involved with them than with her own family. She had a whole thing going on with them that her real family never even knew about. Also Dahlia's decision to dump Clete to go back to her marginal life in Atlanta didn't really make a lot of sense either. There where a lot of things in the story that just didn't ring true. Like Dahlia is so religious she stops to pray at the drop of a hat yet sees nothing wrong with breaking the law when it suits her: she talks the sisters into taking the bodies from the basement and dumping them in a park because she doesn't want to slow down the possible sale of Granny's land and she see nothing wrong with routinely driving faster than the posted speed limit. And the granny so concerned with her granddaughters relationships, yet spent more time helping out the neighbors than she did with her own relatives. And Clete being so hung up on Dahlia who he really doesn't know at all and yet keeping all kinds of secrets from this woman who is supposed to be the love of his life. And the cops not following up on their discovery of who dumped the bodies in the park.
Despite this, it made for a pretty good story, even though I thought Dahlia was a pain and a pill and if I'd been her sister I probably wouldn't have been able to stand her either. Some parts of the story were pretty funny, like when Dahlia got all eaten up with chiggers or when she started doing ballet moves at the hardware store. So even though I didn't really like Dahlia very much, I did like the story and I enjoyed reading it, though I was disappointed that the dead bodies in the cellar plot turned out so tamely.

The Lightning Thief

By Rick Riordan

Percy Jackson is a problem child. He keeps getting into trouble and having to change schools. Diagnosed with dyslexia and hyperactivity disorder, he finds it hard to achieve even a passing grade, much less good grades. But his problems go beyond your average troubled child's because Percy is different. As is revealed to him when he is attacked by a harpy while on a class field trip. The harpy, disguised as a math teacher, comes after Percy but he is able to fight the monster off when his Latin teacher, arriving in the nick of time, tosses Percy a pen that changes into a sword.
Turns out Percy's mom got pregnant with him by the old timey Greek god Poseidon, making Percy a half-blood, half god, half human. And the old timey monsters like harpies, minotaurs, gorgons can smell him and they hate half-bloods and desire only to kill them. The only safe place for a boy like Percy is at a summer camp just for half-bloods. It is a protected location where half-bloods learn to defend themselves against the monster who are out to get them.
Meanwhile, things are not good on Olympus, which is located on a cloud above the Empire State Building in New York City. Someone has stolen Zeus's lightning bolt and all the fingers are pointing at Percy. Poseidon and Zeus are in a power struggle and Zeus figures Poseidon got his son to sneak into the throne room and snatch the bolt when no one was looking. All the gods are taking sides and if the bolt is not returned, and soon, their heavenly war will plunge the world into actual war.
So Percy goes off on a quest to find the lightning bolt and return it to Zeus and save humanity from a new world war, clear his name and Poseidon's name and rescue his mom from the clutches of Hades, god of the underworld, who snatched her for leverage against Percy and Poseidon. With Percy go two friends, Grover, a satyr and Annabeth, another half-blood. They will travel across America from the East Coast to the West Coast because the entrance to the Underworld is located in Los Angeles and Percy has to confront Hades as part of the quest. They have to face down various lethal monsters and Percy has to learn how to be a hero and complete his quest successfully.

This was a pretty good story. Very heavy on the Greek mythology, of course. I don't really like stories based on mythology and I pretty much didn't care for that part of the story. Greek gods, yikes, who needs them? Not me. All that mythological crap just leaves me cold, Greek, Indian, Celtic, I don't care, it all sucks.
But despite the mythology and the stupid Greek gods (and, wow, do they come off as stupid in this story), Percy and his two buddies have lots of exciting and weird adventures. And it was interesting to see how the author brings the Greek gods and other mythological creatures into modern times. Makes for an engrossing and captivating read.