Why would you apologize for what you read for pleasure? Every book read for pleasure should be celebrated. And novels that celebrate love, commitment, relationships, making relationships work -- why isn't that something to be respected? - Nora Roberts

I Tweet not, neither do I Like. OK, so now I Tweet. So sue me.

Here we may criticize the book, but never the one who reads it.

Proud supporter of the Oxford comma, and any other comma I can wedge into a sentence.

Authors: You are welcome to comment here, on the review of your book or any other post.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Call Me Saffron, by Talia Surova (contemporary with erotica elements, short novel)

This is for Super Librarian Wendy's TBR challenge Wendy's TBR Challenge which for April is a contemporary. I intended to read and review Sweet Dreams (Colorado Mountain Series Book 2), by Kristen Ashley because I liked the premise (older woman starting over after nasty divorce) but we'll file that book under Not For Me. The hero's attitude and actions sent up way too many red flags for this old nurse who used to work with battered women, which was the primary reason I DNF. The writing was also problematic for me. I know she has a lot of fans and she won't miss me. :-)

So I was casting about for a contemporary that I could afford and not finding much. Waiting lines at the library were too long, and I don't have any unread contemporaries on my Kindle. I'm not a huge fan of contemporaries. Then Cecilia Grant mentioned on Twitter that Call Me Saffron was selling for 99 cents, and while she had not read enough of it to actually recommend it, what she had read she found interesting.

I looked at the blurb and I was hooked for one reason: I had a roommate in college (only for two semesters) who was a grad student working her way through by being a call girl. The setup in this book involves a call girl roommate. Sold.

Here's the premise: Samantha is a young architect, just getting started in her career. She carries with her the burden of family of origin issues (no childhood sexual abuse) with sudden death, trauma, suicide, and emotional neglect. She says she does not do relationships but also does not like one night stands. Her roommate, Jeanine, is about the only person she lets in to her life. Jeanine is working on her grad degree in psych and, oh BTW, is working her way through as a call girl. She's careful and selective. Jeanine, being the nurturing person she is, would like to see Samantha have a real relationship with a man instead of her drawer full of vibrators.

One night Jeanine has an appointment with a well-to-do new client, but she is sick as a dog, and she talks Samantha into taking her place. (Yeah, I know, but go along with it.) Purpose is solely to have sex, hot sex, good sex. No attachments, no dating, no commitment, no emotions involved. Just good sex. Samantha is nervous but allows herself to be talked into it. After all, she has nothing against sex, just relationships.

The client, Dylan, is (of course) gorgeous and intelligent and really somebody special. He's never done this before, turns out he's coming off a very bad divorce, but they have a spectacular night together. Fireworks, unicorns flying over rainbows, earth shifting on its axis, and unexpected emotional closeness as well. It's the emotional closeness that scares the living daylights out of Samantha, and early in the morning she takes off while he's in the bathroom. End of story, she thinks. She'll forget Dylan in a few days. It was nice, but it was just sex, after all. She goes back to her life but she does continue to think about Dylan, the sex, but also the emotional connection.

Six months later, who walks in to the firm where Samantha works but Dylan. He's a successful businessman (not a billionaire, thank you very much) and needs to have some storefronts redesigned. He is astonished to see Samantha, but he clearly hasn't forgotten her, either. They end up having a quickie in an empty office (and how she managed not to get fired over this is absolutely beyond me) and Dylan wants Samantha to be assigned to the project. (Blondie singing "One way or another" going through my head during this part of the book. There's today's earworm for you. No, no, don't thank me. All part of the service.)

You can imagine where it goes from there. A lot of push-pull. Dylan does not want to let her go, knowing there is something special here, or something that could be special. Samantha is not about to give even a tiny corner of her heart to someone who will eventually just leave her. After all, everybody leaves her. Everybody. She edges closer and then runs away, repeatedly, but every time a little closer. They become friends, sort of.

Don't read this book thinking that there is going to be any realism about being a call girl. The ones I've met, both through my roommate and the ones I worked with as a direct or indirect result of their profession carried their own baggage and knew that being beaten up or having some non-consensual aspects to their "date" every now and then were part of the package, no matter how careful or selective they were. I found the portrayal of Jeanine to be too cheerful, too easy. But -- that may be taking this book more seriously than it is meant to be taken. After all, it's a love story, not a documentary.

Once you get past the original premise, it's really a fairly standard love story with the expected HEA. There's a lot of sex in the book - well, of course there is -- but the sex scenes, while detailed, were not clinical. They were as much about emotion as mechanics. One was even mildly amusing.

I liked Samantha and Dylan. They're good people, and like virtually every person in the world, they have their burdens and their hang-ups. They're honest about them, as honest as you can be when you're too close to see well. They care about their work. They care about other people. They've been hurt and struggle not to let their pain rule their lives. Most authors can't do a whole bunch of backstory and explanation in this short a piece, and I found that I wanted more backstory. [ETA: One of the things I liked in this book is how seriously Dylan takes Samantha's work. He respects her talent.] 

Kindle formatting fine. Told in the first person. There may have been one or two objective case pronoun problems but my reading of this was interrupted many times so I can't be certain. There wasn't anything that set my teeth on edge. The characters had chemistry. There are some secondary characters who no doubt will have their own books later on, and they seemed interesting. There was a good bit of character development. There is one short scene in which Dylan is drunk as a skunk (after something has caused him to finally see his ex-wife for what she is) and gets a little bit pushy, but nothing really bad happens and it did not trigger me, although it did make me wonder a bit about him. I know some people would see this mini-scene as evidence of his feeling all masterful and possessive, or simply the result of being drunk after a painful episode, but. Well, there it is. I didn't get the feeling that he would have hurt Samantha. Both Samantha and Dylan make their share of mistakes in building this relationship. You can see that it's not going to be an easy road for them, but it will be worth it.

Although this type of book is not my cup of tea, Call Me Saffron was worth the time I invested in it.

Personal note: Mr. Bat's kidneys took a serious hit from the contrast material used during his procedure last week and we're still dealing with that. We're adjusting meds daily and remaining optimistic that this will all be worth it, at least for a time. Please forgive me for not responding to your comments. He's needing care pretty much 24/7 right now and time is hard to come by.  

Friday, April 10, 2015

First Grave on the Right (Charley Davidson #1), by Darynda Jones (PNR? UF?)

[Trying to get back to normal here. Trying.] Not a big fan of paranormal romance, and I'm not sure if this is PNR or a paranormal with romance elements, or maybe it's urban fantasy with comic aspects, but several people recommended it and it was available for Kindle through the library, so I thought I'd try it. Bit of a gamble, given that Mr. Bat and I are doing our own little dance with Death right now, so far being able to hide behind the potted palms, but my rather dark and snarky sense of humor (what's left of it) has been one of my best lifelong coping mechanisms so why not.

Charley is a Grim Reaper, a person through whom the recently dearly departed are able to see the Light and then go to it. She's like catnip: nearly all the souls are irresistibly attracted to her. Assuming all works as it should, and heaven knows Murphy's Law applies to nearly every situation. Sometimes people get stuck and they want Charley to do something before they'll go to the Light. Sometimes they simply refuse to believe they're dead. She does her best. Bit of a drag, and she sure didn't ask for this, but there it is.

She's also a private investigator, mainly domestic things I gathered. Her father is retired from the police force, and her uncle is still a police officer. She has helped both of them in their murder cases to the point that they rely on her sub rosa. As they said in those old Looney Tunes cartoons, "Well, it's a living." One of her uncle's colleagues is deeply suspicious of her and all her works and all her ways, while at the same time being obviously sexually attracted to her. Ditto a young police officer who has a jealous and protective child ghost following him around.

Recently Charley has been, not troubled exactly, but challenged and intrigued by some vivid erotic dreams featuring the same man whose face she never sees but she gets the full impact of the rest of him, believe me. And we get to hear about it. Kind of a lot. The dreams are nice in their own way, but also disconcerting, and then of course there's the sleep deprivation to deal with. Then the guy starts following her into the shower, and gets in the way of interactions with live humans when she's awake, up against the wall with a bang in the living room. [I used to tend bar, and after Harvey Wallbangers came along, there were drinks like Sloe Comfortable Screw Up Against the Wall with a Bang as alcohol moved on from basic Mad Men type Manhattans and Martinis to drinks that taste like pop. But I digress. Again.]

I wasn't very far into the book when I realized that it's primarily a setup for remaining books. Too many characters, too many plotlines. I've spent way too much time here repeatedly typing and deleting a summary of the plot but it's all over the place. Basically we have the murder of three lawyers (cue the standard lawyer jokes, starting with Shakespeare, I kid you not) possibly related to an old murder that was supposedly committed by someone Charley knew briefly who is doing life for it but now he's comatose on life support that's going to be shut off in three days so she has to hunt down his sister to block that, and he may be the guy who is in her dreams, but he also may be something else, and what about this blurry figure that has saved her from death several times, and whose side is her uncle really on, and … oh, I almost forgot, we have human trafficking and a woman Charley tries to help escape an abusive husband. I'm sure I'm forgetting something. Oh, yeah, the ghosts that won't go to the Light. Including an elderly aunt of Charley's who fixes her pretend-coffee every morning. And there's an evil stepmother. Well, it's complicated. There's more plot but as Mick Jagger said in a completely different context, my tongue's getting tired.

As I recall, the Kindle formatting was okay and the grammar wasn't terrible, nothing I made note of anyway. Charley is a smart aleck and wisecracks her way through the book but the jokes are mostly so corny and old I remember them from my childhood. But then, everything old is new to someone, so maybe the recycling is okay. Her constant sarcasm and "kiss my ass" got real old. Enough already. So you're kick-ass and smarter than the average bear and you're your own woman and we got that right away, now just … enough already. Point made and pounded in. She names her body parts. Srsly, her breasts and ovaries have names. Now, you're either going to find that hilarious or you're going to roll your eyes so far back that they get stuck that way, just as your mother told you they would.

There's a good plot buried (whoops) in this mess. The idea is good and the writing, while all over the place and a bit clich├ęd at times, is not terrible. The idea is intriguing. Props for that. Props for a kick-ass woman who owns her sexuality. [I'm coming off a string of Kindle freebies with writing so bad it makes one weep.] At times I felt some echoes of the early Queen Betsy books or the better Stephanie Plum books: that slightly tilted worldview, fast action, heat level.

Sensitive readers should know that there is a rather unexpected very short scene in which rape is threatened in order to intimidate Charley. The reader knows, and Charley kind of knows, that the threat is only for show, well, probably only for show, but there is some rough touching and the threat. It did not bother me, not enough to trigger an unpleasant response from me, but YMMV.

I also had a problem in that Charley's gift supposedly is a Big Dark Secret but then she goes around telling everyone, and it's pretty obvious that she helps her uncle find dead bodies and gives him details of the murder, so … what?

At the end, there's a Big Reveal about the dream lover. I saw it coming a mile away but again, I've read a lot in a lot of different genres and they all get predictable by the time you're my age. The Big Reveal turned me off entirely. It does set up a plotline for Good vs. Evil in subsequent books, if that appeals to you.

Oddly enough, the bits about death (not capitalized) did not bother me or make me feel sad. Most of that part of the plot was written with some sensitivity, with a cheerful matter of factness and even optimism that made me smile. So I wouldn't shy away from the book for that reason, and if you're up for a multi-book series with some near-cliffhangers and multiple plotlines, and you like snarky if slightly corny humor and a reasonable amount of sex, and you like PNR or urban fantasy-lite with murder mystery aspects, this book may be a decent read for you. I did finish it, and after my recent string of DNFs, I guess that's saying something. I have now looked at other reviews, and about 75-80% of them love this book, so there's that.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Home, sweet home! (completely personal, not a review)

Oh my stars, the sweet and profound peace of being home with the person, animal, or thing you love best.

Mr. Bat had his procedure Monday morning and it did not go as expected but the very experienced and skillful doctor found a different way to accomplish the goal. His heart is now beating in a synchronized rhythm instead of beating all over the place. I notice that his hands are warmer (he's so cold all the time).

He was/is a brave man in a quiet way, reassuring me that he was not afraid, willing to talk about possible bad outcomes, no whining. He makes it very easy to love him and care for his needs.

He is extremely sore in both shoulders because they ended up using a variety of methods to get the pacemaker wires into the heart. Normally this would just be some soreness, but he has serious arthritis in both shoulders -- we were considering shoulder replacement surgeries right before he got sick last year -- and the prolonged positioning of arms back and overhead has him miserable. Of necessity, his arms had to be put into positions they haven't been able to achieve in at least 10 years. He isn't able to take much for pain due to bad kidneys, bad liver, bad heart, bad lungs, so we're making do with a single dose of Tylenol every day and a lot of ice packs. He does not complain, bless him. He has a nice recliner chair that supports his head, neck, and shoulders well, and that's a big help.

Because they had to use blood vessels in both shoulders, he can't raise either arm for 30 days, which is a darned nuisance, since our microwave is over the range/oven, our dish cupboards are high (at 5'10" I have to use a stepstool to get to all but the bottom shelf), and our living room drapes are hard to open and close. He's just crushed that he can't do dishes for the next 30 days due to reaching. :-) No lifting, no reaching, no pushing, no pulling, can't open doors for me (which is killing him), can't drive (he doesn't anymore anyway), no suspenders to hold up his jeans, no nothin' for 30 days.

He remains quite weak but I think once the sedation completely wears off, he's going to look better. His kidneys took quite a hit from the contrast material but seem to be bouncing back to their previous damaged but working state, although his weight is back up about 10 pounds, all fluid. He is short of breath from that. This should resolve. Says so right here. 

Neither one of us has slept at all for several days, and we're planning an afternoon nap today and an early bedtime. Today he started walking with a walker, with me to support him. Up and down the hall, perhaps 200 feet total. He's done it twice this morning and while it wore him out, he tolerated it well otherwise.

I don't know how we could have done this without your support, good thoughts, and prayers. My work friends, my social friends, my family, my internet friends: what a debt I owe you for your kindness and thoughtfulness! I hope you never need repayment, but if you ever do, I stand ready to do whatever you need. Thank you.

Friday, March 27, 2015

A little bit about a lot of things, mostly personal

Forgive me, please, for not responding to your comments. I do read them, and I appreciate your leaving comments. I'm just not up for two-sided conversation these days and most of the time what I write doesn't make sense. But I do appreciate your being here and offering comments as the spirit moves you.

Today we are putting our last pet, our cat, Abby, to sleep. Put down. Euthanized. Whatever term you prefer. She's 15. She has, we think, kitty Alzheimer's and probably an abdominal lymphoma that causes her pain when she eats. She limps on her back legs and right front. It's time. It's been time for awhile, we think, but now she is starting to lose weight and isolates herself quite a bit.

It's odd, this process, the deciding, the knowing ahead of time. Judge, jury, and executioner.

Still, I worked oncology in the bad old days before hospice, when narcotics were denied or given only sparingly for fear of addiction (addiction a problem in a person with days to live???). A close relative begged me to give her an overdose, a memory that will haunt me to the day of my own death. I don't know whether I would have done it, but I did not have access to the necessary drugs. I did what I could to keep her comfortable. It was never enough. So my thoughts and emotions on euthanasia of pets are rather bound up in those experiences. On the whole, it's a kind thing to do. Mr. Bat commented that both of us will be lucky to have such a quiet and comfortable end.

But there are no more pets for Casa Bat. We're too old, and they're too expensive for us now on such a limited income, and honest to God, I have it in me to do this one.last.time for this sweet cat, but I don't think I can do it again.

In other news, I read Longing, by Mary Balogh, which is a reprint of a 1994 (?) book. I still haven't made up my mind about it. I think it probably was exceptional for its time. I haven't decided whether the heroine was stupidly stubborn or incredibly brave. Perhaps a bit of both? I did not like the way the one love interest controlled her with sex and the other with threats of violence against her. I did, however, very much enjoy the complex characters - none of them all good or all bad - and the rich secondary characters, the overall plot, and the setting of Wales. I looked up the song, Longing, on YouTube and found myself, yes, longing for a place. I liked the way the book speaks of home, finding your home, the place you belong. I'm glad I read it but I don't see it as a potential re-read. As is usual with her books, the Kindle formatting wasn't the greatest, but I've seen much worse and for the most part it didn't bother me. There is explicit sex. There is violence, including a sickening episode of violence toward the heroine in which the one love interest is complicit. Still, overall a decent read.

I spent two months of my book budget and actually bought Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, by Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor who is a recovering alcoholic. It was highly recommended to me and I read it once through at top speed, and am now going back over it slowly. I'm going to try to find a paper copy, because this is a book I may study. For all her appearance (tattoos, muscle shirts, jeans) she is at base a pretty by-the-book Lutheran in her theology. Her understanding of grace fascinates me. She is definitely cranky and I'm not sure I'd want to spend a lot of time with her, but she's a no B.S. person and the love of God does shine through her.

I also read It Happened One Midnight, by Julie Ann Long. This author drives me right up a wall with her errors in grammar and word choice, and her very modern attitudes and dialogue, but I do love her characters. This book had great characters. The author has become a library-only or 99 cent-only buy for me, but the book was helpful in getting me through some tough hours.

Mr. Bat is going to have a procedure on the 6th that is a different kind of pacemaker. Unfortunately, they have to remove the existing one - that shoulder is going to be agonizing for a couple of days and then just very painful for a couple of weeks - and put in a new one with another wire. The goal is to have both sides of his heart beat at the same time - they are not beating at the same time now and he's filling up with fluid, and even his liver is starting to protest now. He has to have contrast material for the procedure, and last time the dye caused his kidneys to fail completely, so we're a little nervous. There are more risks associated with implanting this kind of pacer. It works for about half the patients who have it. For the ones who have success, the results are astonishing, and that's what we're hoping for. A friend was on death's door when he had his done a couple of years ago, and you'd never know now that there's anything wrong with him. So - we have hopes. There's a chance I'll lose him simply due to the procedure, but life is full of risks, and as he says, there's a risk simply in driving down the road to the hospital. He's all for it. I'm quietly terrified. At this point, we're both dreading the day and simultaneously wishing it were today. Waiting is hard. If this does not work, we're pretty much out of treatment options. Well, time passes, whether you want it to or not. 

I've kind of given up on his dietary restrictions for the last few days. His appetite is very limited, and while we know he'll be more comfortable staying fairly close to the restrictions, I'm letting him have anything he wants. Even half-portions of the things that sound good to him are too much food for his tiny appetite, so we're not going over the restrictions by much. He knows after the procedure we'll need to be more compliant again.

I don't know where I am on this Jane from Dear Author/Jen Fredricks situation. On the one hand, hey, good for her for being a successful author. I don't know where she finds the time, working full-time, taking care of a child, is married, has the huge blog. On the other hand, the lack of transparency -- from someone who has pilloried people she thinks lacked transparency -- is bothersome. I can see how she would want to keep it private, especially to begin with, and then as things snowballed, couldn't figure out how to out herself. I feel very sad for some of the folks who write reviews there, since they clearly did not know and some feel blindsided, among other things. I really can see multiple sides to this, I see everyone's point, and I just feel bad for everyone. People have lost trust and are feeling betrayed, and people are feeling the need to defend someone they think is being unjustly attacked. Lots of unhappy people, and this is not a Twitter Kerfuffle of the Day, it's a genuine issue. I feel bad for everyone involved.

Well, now I have to go remove all the cat photo websites from my favorites and block Emergency Kittens for awhile. At least I didn't buy that 2015 cat calendar I was looking at. Unopened cat litter and food will be put in the common area downstairs for some other cat to use. Cat carrier and her blankets will go to the vet with her and they can dispose of them. In exactly 5 hours that brave little heart will stop beating. Damn. I'm sorry: too much change for this old lady in too little time.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Five Stages of Falling in Love, by Rachel Higginson (contemporary)

This is a Kindle 99-center. God knows why I picked it up. I don't care much for contemporaries, and the subject matter should be totally off limits for me right now. (For those of you who just tuned in, my husband is terminally ill.)

First, I have to get this off my chest. I was still a fairly young nurse in oncology when Kubler-Ross's research on grief became a popular subject. Kubler-Ross did not intend that the 5 stages of grief should be carved in stone, or that they were to be lived sequentially. A grieving person steps in and out and back and forth in the stages and at times can be holding all 5 in their head at one time. It is not a sequence, people! Not, not, not! You are not "doing it wrong' if you do not slip from one stage to another, never to see the previous stage again. Okay? Remember this, because people, and even some grief counselors, don't know this and it's maddening to have someone look at you and say, knowingly and superiorly, "Oh, you're in Bargaining." I mean, maddening, claw at the walls maddening! I cannot tell you how many hundreds of times I've had to start over with people from square one in their work of grieving in order to get that pushed out of their heads, because they think they're doing it wrong and/or going crazy.

But for the purposes of this pretty good book, we'll let the author go sequentially.

Elizabeth and Grady Carlson had a marriage that exists only in dreams, or Hollywood. They were soul mates. Liz said that when Grady did something, there were fireworks. He called her Light and Life. They had 10 years together, 4 kids in 8 years of marriage. He ran a construction company and built them a custom home, perfect. She was a SAHM. He was an involved father. They complemented one another perfectly. And then Grady got a brain tumor and after 2 years of hell, he died.

He died.

And left her alone to raise 4 kids under the age of 8.


Liz has a sister, Emma, a grad student, who loves her and the kids and helps as much as she can, since her schedule has a little flexibility. But grad school, as we know, is no walk in the park, either. Liz is having trouble getting out of bed, nevermind getting the kids to school on time, planning meals, getting clean clothes into the drawers, mowing the lawn. Her MIL, also a widow, and her BIL, now running the business (into the ground) are grieving so hard that while they love her and worship the kids, they can't help much on a practical level. Her parents live in Florida. Mainly it's Liz and sometimes Emma against the ocean of grief, the mountain of responsibility, the sheer weight of the air and the burden of breathing it in and out.

We see Grady's death in the prologue. In Chapter 1, it's been about 6 months since he died, and Liz is doing her best, trying hard for the sake of the kids, but in pain, so much pain. She sees her older son trying to be adult for her and worries that she relies on him too much. She sees her older daughter starting to act out in school, and the younger daughter still thinks that Daddy is coming back from heaven some day. Liz hates it that the baby will not have any memories of his daddy. And there's the lawn to mow. (Why her friends and neighbors don't pitch in here I don't know. Maybe they did and then after a couple of months figured it was time for her to move on, I don't know. It's astonishing how fast other people think you should get over grief.)

The house next door has been for sale, and now Ben has moved in. Ben is about 35, attorney, a no-drama guy, friendly enough, decent enough to the kids. There's a kind of meet-cute scene that would have been funnier if I hadn't been so worried about Liz.

We watch Liz cope, and fail to cope, and then cope some more, and then dissolve into tears, the helpless kind as grief slips its knife between the ribs, leaving us on our knees, unable to breathe, gagging with the impact of it. We see Ben trying to help out just out of common decency, opening his pool to Liz and kids, later shoveling the snow. Sometimes bringing over a bottle of wine and listening. Sometimes ordering pizza for all when the fridge is empty because Liz couldn't face grocery shopping with 4 little kids in tow. He helps with math homework. He becomes a sounding board. He falls in love with the kids and with Liz.

But it hasn't been that long since Grady died, not even a year, and Liz is appalled and terrified about what she is feeling, what she is doing. She panics. Ben tries to give her space. She advances a bit and then retreats, feeling disloyal, feeling as if she is contemplating adultery. It gets complicated. We wonder if there will be a HEA for Liz and Ben (there is), and we worry about those kids, too.

I couldn't stop reading this book and got through it in one go, with a break for a cup of hot vanilla and a cookie. Might have been two cookies.

Well, clearly, I was up to my ears and drowning in this book from page 1. I'm not sure I can even judge whether it's well-written because I was so emotionally involved. I will say that at no point did I feel manipulated emotionally. The kids are not just plot moppets. They're good kids and they're real. They love their mom. They miss their dad. They're confused. At no point did I want to kick Liz in the butt and tell her to get over it. She was doing the best she could, and who can do more than that? If she'd had her way, she would have died with Grady, or spent the rest of her life in bed, trying to die also, but she loved her kids fiercely.

Kindle formatting fine. Oddly, at about the 2/3 mark, we have a short run of apostrophe plurals, and then no more. Of course, I couldn't help being annoyed that Liz did not get counseling. Money wasn't a concern. Surely she and the kids saw a physician or ARNP during this time for routine things. Why no counseling? There's no violence. No gory medical detail. A little bit of sex, short, not real descriptive, but too much for the clean-mostly tag. Hot kisses. Heaven is mentioned generically as the place where Daddy is, but there's no God talk, for those of you who are sensitive to that. The ending was a little bit abrupt, but then, when Liz was ready to look at the possibilities in her life, there wasn't much more to tell, I guess. This is not Liz and Grady's story, this is not Liz and Ben's story. This is the story of Liz, and how she learned to live again when she did not think she could.

Ben may have been just a touch unrealistically good and kind, but I know to my own certain personal knowledge that there are good and kind men out there, so who is to say.

This is painful reading. It's intense. Or it was for me. It was too intense for me to cry over. For me, it was a book that is going to make it hard to pick up another book right away, certainly won't be fiction at any rate. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard, by Laura Bates (non-fiction, memoir)

Amazon blurb: [Forgive me, please. Energy, physical, emotional, intellectual, is hard to come by these days, as is time.]

Shakespeare professor and prison volunteer Laura Bates thought she had seen it all. That is, until she decided to teach Shakespeare in a place the bard had never been before — supermax solitary confinement. In this unwelcoming place, surrounded by inmates known as the worst of the worst, is Larry Newton. A convicted murderer with several escape attempts under his belt and a brilliantly agile mind on his shoulders, Larry was trying to break out of prison at the same time Laura was fighting to get her program started behind bars. Thus begins the most unlikely of friendships, one bonded by Shakespeare and lasting years—a friendship that, in the end, would save more than one life.

Shakespeare and I became buddies when I was in 6th grade. I fell obsessively in love with him and memorized huge swaths of the plays and poems, writing parodies/pastiches - I mean, I was in luv. But all things pass, and dating an English major in college pretty well put an end to my obsession when it became clear that literary analysis - or even understanding literary analysis - was never going to be my strong suit. (As you know.) I haven't read any Shakespeare in over 40 years, but I do quote him from time to time, and I remember him as one remembers an old friend not seen in years, fondly, perhaps dimly.

When I saw this title at the library, of course I got myself on the waiting list immediately. It was an interesting read, although I do find myself conflicted. On the one hand, what an amazing thing to do and an amazing outcome. On the other: what exactly is everyone's motivation here? Do they even know, themselves?

Ms. Bates was a young professor of English, teaching kiddie lit to primary ed majors by day, traveling to a prison by evening to teach Shakespeare to inmates called the worst of the worst, men living in windowless concrete cells for months and years. Having been turned down for tenure on the first time of asking, she was motivated at least in part by her need to make tenure with its job security and increased salary (aging parents), and need to publish. So here's a goldmine for publication, right? Still, I have to think that her primary motivation was to provide an outlet for these forgotten people, part perp, part victim, to bring literature she loved to a population some people would say is better forgotten - at best.

While we see reactions from other inmates, the focus of the book is one Larry Newton, already a career criminal in his teen years, sentenced to life in prison at age 17, signing away any chance for appeal or parole in exchange for his life, after the random murder of a college student. Repeated escape attempts and the knifing of a guard put him into solitary, not just solitary, but supermax, for more than 10 years. (Think about what you were doing 10 years ago. Think of how much time has passed, how many birthdays, pizzas, holidays, bottles of wine, dinners with friends, changes in you in 10 years. Now think of 10 years in supermax.) (Nauseating, isn't it?)

Larry's understanding of Shakespeare is quite remarkable, especially given his lack of education and deprived background (mother worked 2 jobs to stay off welfare, stepfather regularly beat the crap out of him). His reading of Shakespeare is transformative for him. His insights and talent for teaching cause other inmates also to view their lives differently, to take at least some responsibility for what they have done, to see that moment of decision, and to try to pass that new insight and knowledge on to young people at risk. What is honor? What is integrity? What is true courage? How do you fight peer pressure? When is revenge justified?

For the reader there are also questions. How is it that someone not yet old enough to buy cigarettes was allowed to actually sign his life away in a plea bargain? How much of our justice system is based on rehabilitation, how much on vengeance? Is educating lifers worth the tax dollars required, and if no tax dollars are directly involved, is it fair to put more burden on the guards and the system to protect the volunteers from these people with a history of random violence? Do "hardened criminals" deserve this education when children of middle income parents can't scrape together enough money to go to college?

The book is well enough written although it could be tighter. The impact of the story is reduced the longer it goes on. No errors in grammar :-) and no Kindle formatting problems. The prose is fairly dry. No flights of fancy here, no poetry, perhaps to better showcase Shakespeare? There are photographs and drawings that came through well enough on my old Kindle. If you've never been in a prison, or visited anyone in a prison, you may find some of the conditions, even some of the photographs, shocking. Sex is mentioned, a little bit, and violence is mentioned, but no graphic detail of either one. The realities of having groups of men warehoused in environments that surely violate the most basic humanitarian standards are shown here. The book is a little self-congratulatory at times.

I could have done without the personal journey of the author, but I think probably many or even most people would want to hear it. Other than trying to figure out her motivation, it didn't interest me particularly. Again, I think it diluted the focus of the book. I do give her proper respect for her achievements, and for facing her fears. At one point she tracks down the site of the murder Larry committed, and she does comment on the senselessness of it. But her focus is on Larry and the program. I do applaud her also for objectively reporting what she saw and experienced, no preaching. We are allowed to draw our own conclusions for the most part.

I enjoyed reading different insights into Shakespeare's tragedies. Some of the things the inmates said, and especially how a person gets sucked into violence, comments on Hamlet and MacBeth, were quite interesting and I'm still thinking about some of them. Need to do a serious Bard re-read. Maybe this coming winter will be a good time for that.

In the end, what did I feel? Mostly I felt sad for the waste. The waste of the lives of the men behind bars, and the waste of the lost lives of the people they killed, and the impact these acts had on their families and friends. Whether victim or perp, your family and friends are never the same, never ever the same. You have to pick your causes and concentrate on a few, and prison reform has never been one of mine, but - damn. How do we make right what can never be made right? Are we fools to even try? How can we not at least try?

Here's some background and excerpts: huffingtonpost shakespeare-saved-my-life-excerpt

And her TED talk: TED talk

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Dreaming Spies, by Laurie R. King (mystery)

This is for Wendy the Super Librarian's 2015 TBR Challenge. The March challenge is to catch up on a series. Wendy's Challenge   [Yes, I did two books for this challenge.] 

I couldn't decide which series to catch up on. I am easily bored, and I find that usually after three or four or maybe if I'm lucky five or six books in a series, the writing quality falls off sharply, the author having lost interest or something. It's rare for me to continue a series past the 5th or 6th book. However, I found the Mary Russell series from Laurie R. King to be of unusually high quality, and since I've been a Sherlock nut from a single-digit age, I was in hog heaven.

But Locked Rooms, the eighth book in the series, seemed to me to finish the story in a satisfying way. I tried one or two of the subsequent books and simply could not get into them. Wordy and downright weird. However, I'd heard good word-of-mouth on Dreaming Spies, the twelfth book in the series, so I jumped over four or so books and picked this one up from the library. It's pretty good.

If you have not read the Mary Russell series, this is not the place to start. The books are best read in publication order. Definitely start with The Beekeeper's Apprentice, the first book. The idea is that Sherlock Holmes, retired from public but not the King's service, has semi-retired in the country to raise bees. Along comes 15-year-old Mary Russell, a half-American, half Cockney Jew heritage smart-ass bluestocking, planning to major in theology, orphaned and living with a careless and sometimes cruel aunt, and they form a very unlikely but still believable partnership. If this idea is anathema to you, then nevermind. Nothing is for everyone.

Here is the Amazon blurb for this book:
After a lengthy case that had the couple traipsing all over India, Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are on their way to California to deal with some family business that Russell has been neglecting for far too long. Along the way, they plan to break up the long voyage with a sojourn in southern Japan.[…]

Aboard the ship, intrigue stirs almost immediately. Holmes recognizes the famous clubman the Earl of Darley, whom he suspects of being an occasional blackmailer [. …] And then there’s the lithe, surprisingly fluent young Japanese woman who befriends Russell and quotes haiku. She agrees to tutor the couple in Japanese language and customs, but Russell can’t shake the feeling that Haruki Sato is not who she claims to be.

Once in Japan, Russell’s suspicions are confirmed in a most surprising way. From the glorious city of Tokyo to the cavernous library at Oxford, Russell and Holmes race to solve a mystery involving international extortion, espionage, and the shocking secrets that, if revealed, could spark revolution—and topple an empire.

Russell has grown up some since Locked Rooms. She's softened - slightly - some of the attitudes and habits that irritated me. Well, she is no longer so very young. Their relationship is tender, fond, and respectful - from both sides. They work together here, and with less of the competition and one-upmanship I've seen before. On the other hand, the characters have relished the competition, so far be it from me to say that they can't have it. Still, snotty superiority in an overly-bright and socially isolated and uncomfortable adolescent is almost to be expected. In a woman in her early to middle 20s it's just obnoxious, so I'm glad that the character has grown a bit, or at least learned to stifle some of her oh-so-superior attitudes.

Ms. King has fallen in love with Japan, and who would not? In the 1920s, Japan was emerging from several centuries of self-imposed isolation, and although it is an ancient civilization, was very young and new in the pre-Depression 20th century. Seeing the old ways giving way to some new ways, but retaining the sense of honor and duty, was interesting to me and I thought well-written for a book that is, after all, a mystery novel and not a history text or sociological study. Ms. King writes with some insight and much admiration.

The mystery kept me guessing all the way through, as it did Holmes and Russell. They kept seeing pieces of the truth, but never enough. I was well entertained.

Kindle formatting fine. Grammar perfect. Dialogue very good. Enough description to let me know where I was without boring me to death. No sex, really, except for some BDSM books that shock the daylights out of conventionally-raised Russell (very short mention of this, no real descriptions). Not much violence, and not much description of what there is, thank goodness. There is an suicide that we hear about but do not witness. Russell's time in the library at Oxford is described as only a book lover would describe it, and I drooled, and made promises to myself with respect to my next life.

The pace was quite a bit slower than I'm used to in a Russell story. The time on the ship felt a little claustrophobic, which reflects how Russell was seeing it. I loved the Japanese poetry included.

If I weren't so invested - or at least I was in the past - in this series, I probably would not have enjoyed this book as much. I enjoyed seeing Russell grow. As always, I wished there were more Holmes in the book, which is a common complaint about the more recent books. However, it was good enough that I checked out book #11 from the library to read it. Sometimes it's fun to read something, anything, that is written well, with no errors in grammar, no howlers, simply good, skillful writing, regardless of the subject. I was coming off a series of Kindle freebies so bad that every one of them was a DNF, and this, despite its faults, restored my will to read. However, this is far from the best of the Russell novels, and is certainly no place to start. 

Notorious Nineteen: A Stephanie Plum Novel, by Janet Evanovich (contemporary mystery with romance elements, I guess)

This is for Wendy the Super Librarian's 2015 TBR Challenge. The March challenge is to catch up on a series. Wendy's challenge page  Now, I am the Queen of Fickle. Few are the series, whether book, TV, or film, that I have read more than, oh, four or five of. I get bored. I really don't care whether that PR person with the shoe obsession ends up with the ex-priest or the magician, and I'm tired of cats preaching Libertarianism at me, and I was never Team Anybody with poor Sookie. Richard Jury and Adam Dalgleish have gone their solitary melancholy ways without me.

So it has been with Stephanie Plum. I laughed my way through the first book and still recommend it. The next few books were nearly as good, but then quality began to fall off, and by book 10 I was go-went-gone. Every now and then I'd pick up a paper book in the store and read the first and last chapters, and I would see that absolutely nothing had changed, and I'd move on. There was no character growth, and the bed-hopping got on my nerves. Recent books have been little more than recycled jokes about Lula being fat and Bob the dog pooping and barfing in inappropriate places, while Ranger muttered, "Babe." I don't know who was writing the books. I sincerely doubt it was the author of the first three to five books.

I saw this challenge and checked the library and saw that the 19th book in the series - I think there are now 21 - was available. So I checked it out.

Not much has changed in the world of Plum. Stephanie is still hanging out with Lula and having trouble deciding between Joe and Ranger, although she seems to be sleeping with Joe exclusively. Lula is still pouring herself into outfits and eating enough for 12 people. Ranger is still saying little more than "Babe." Joe is still putting up with this stuff and has not tracked down the person who has custody of his balls. Oh, and cars are still being blown up willy-nilly, and Grandma Mazur is still probably the best character in the book, which at this point is not saying much. Ma Plum has taken to drink, something I guess we're supposed to think is funny. I don't find functional alcoholism funny.

But there was a plot to this book, so that's something, and it wasn't a bad plot, although it was a tad transparent. People, bad people, are going missing from their hospital beds after routine surgeries, and they all have the same surgeon, and the nurse in charge moonlights at a clinic in a remote location, and the location is owned by a man with his own fleet of airplanes. If you've read any mysteries, you've got it figured out.

But it was adequately told, considering. Bob the dog didn't barf on anyone, although Stephanie did. There weren't a lot of potty jokes. I did actually laugh once.

Kindle formatting fine. I didn't notice any grammar problems. There's some violence, but it's very cartoonish, so even the guy who blows himself up in Stephanie's living room didn't inspire any reaction in me. I suppose I should assign an ick factor, especially to the ending, but again it just didn't seem real enough for an ick. There's some icky stuff, but it's not rape, although there is brief non-sexual torture toward the end. It just didn't seem real. I'll give it an ick factor of 6, though, because if the characters and book had seemed real to me, it would have been mildly to moderately upsetting. One of the bad guys is a deranged war vet, and - I don't know, I guess I'm looking in the wrong place to find anything even remotely sensitive or nuanced regarding that, 'cause there wasn't any, other than Ranger's refusal to discuss it. There's also some gross ickiness at the end, but again, so cartoonish. It's not described too much, so if you don't think about it, it probably won't bother you. The writing is a tiny - and I mean tiny - bit tighter than in the last few books I read in this series, but there's just no tension, no substance, no growth.

I'm more or less caught up. I haven't missed anything by skipping at least nine volumes. Nothing has changed. I'm as caught up as I need to be. I don't know how long the machine is going to keep churning these out. As long as they keep selling, I guess. Blah. Lifeless. Stale. Not even a TBR challenge will get me to read another one. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Personal update - not a review

First, thank you for the prayers and good wishes. They do help, truly. I do think that positive energy sent out into the universe, however it is done, helps somehow, and then, of course, there's the comfort of knowing that someone, somewhere, is holding you close in their heart, even if only for a few seconds.

Mr. Bat isn't doing very well right now. He's not sick unto death yet. Meds aren't working very well, pacemaker isn't working as it should (due to his heart, not the pacer). He is simply wearing out. He has swelling - not terrible, perhaps 10-15 # (7 kg) - but a lot of fatigue and some shortness of breath. He is otherwise comfortable, but weary.

They have offered him a different type of pacemaker. There's about a 50/50 chance that it will help him for awhile, but there is a much higher surgical complication rate with this particular device for someone with his particular constellation of diseases and disorders. He wants to go for it. It will be done the 2nd week of April, which is the first opening (tell me again how we don't ration medical care in this country. Go on, tell me again.). He says he ain't dead yet and wants to go for it.

We have had a couple of weeks of glorious early spring weather. I've been able to get him out most days, well, for doctor appointments for one thing, but also to drive around and check water levels in the rivers, to watch the mounds of snow melt away, to watch the robins coming home and the geese flying north, to watch the squirrels play, and to get the occasional ice cream cone or some other treat (what would you do for a Kit Kat bar? :-)). Probably tomorrow, the last day of predicted fine weather, we will drive past the various places we have lived over the past 40-plus years and share some memories.

If the new pacemaker does not work, it will be time for hospice. What an unhappy sentence to have to type. But we have great hopes for the new pacemaker to buy us a little more time and some relief of his symptoms. His doctor has a national reputation and we trust his judgment and skill.

He's still my guy, my sweet boy. Cheerful when approached, but otherwise very quiet. He says, when I ask, that he is not afraid. I believe him. We are holding off on decisions about the cat (who is reasonably comfortable but also clearly declining) and moving to a cheaper apartment for now. We are living very much in the now, which is all one can do, and that's as true at 20 as it is at 80, it's just that not many people know the reality of it at 20. Nearly all of our friends have died, had strokes/Alzheimer's and gone to nursing homes, or moved to Texas or California to be near family, but we do have one true and faithful friend nearby and one nephew who can help, and we can count on them.

I probably won't be blogging or tweeting much, certainly not much until after the procedure in April. I may not be able to respond to comments for awhile, but be assured that I will read them. I am, as you can imagine, both busy and nearly paralyzed by anticipatory grief and anxiety. Cleanest apartment in Iowa, though! 

We have no regrets. We have shared a love that not everyone gets to experience, and we're grateful for that. Even the best HEA ends eventually, and our hope is that ours will end with us still holding hands and smiling into one another's eyes with love, faith, and gratitude for all we have shared.

Thank you for your many kindnesses. I'll be seeing you as I am able.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Cute little story about raccoons - true, even. (personal, not a review)

This happened to a neighbor and not to us but I'm pretty sure it's true because he told the story the same way every time. We'll call them Peter and Anna.

Peter and Anna lived in this big old Victorian house in an older part of town with lots of old trees and some creeks running through the area. They were pacifists and vegans (well, Peter was as long as Anna wasn't out of town. When she was out of town it was Cheeseburger Week for ol' Pete.) and had a huge garden and lots of cats and dogs, plus they fed a small herd of feral cats, trapped them and got them neutered and their shots and then turned them loose again. Nice, peaceable people. (I miss them terribly.) (Anna was the turkey sandwich Anna, if you're a long-time reader here.) 

One night in the middle of the night, Peter woke up to the sounds of someone downstairs, probably in the kitchen. Now, they didn't live in the world's best neighborhood, and Anna had had a stalker for some years, so he woke Anna, pulled out his service revolver and Anna got her big ol' flashlight, and down the stairs they silently crept. Yep, definitely coming from the kitchen. Not a lot of noise, some rustling, some soft thumps.

Anna turned on the flashlight as Peter shouted his best ex-Navy "Who goes there?" and what did they see but three raccoons.

One raccoon was eating breakfast cereal out of the box.

One raccoon was helping himself to ice cream straight out of the carton.

One raccoon had found a plate of fried chicken intended for the church picnic the next day, and was chomping away on a drumstick. Silently, still gnawing on the leg, he held the plate out to Peter, as if to say, "Want some? It's really good."

Peter yelled, which woke the dogs up (finally), and the coons took off down the back hallway to exit the way they'd come in: the cat door. The one little raccoon with the cereal wouldn't give up the cereal and tugged and tugged on it until the waxed paper bag inside gave way from the cardboard, and he pulled it out after him into the night.

The dogs looked very embarrassed. The cats looked at Peter like "Hey, we thought he was your brother."

So, Twitter people, that's my raccoon story.