The Dog Doesn’t Die

Book reviews & random thoughts

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Domestic Violets, by Matthew Norman

Despite some quibbles – Norman is a first-time novelist, so of course there will be a few – I absolutely loved this book. It had emotional depth, humor, some realistic portrayals of men, and a parent/adult-child tension that rang true in many ways. At the same time, the female characters weren’t fleshed out well enough, the emotionally-satisfying ending was not entirely plausible, and Norman has silly definitions of “middle-aged” and “old.” Those aren’t deal killers, though. It’s a good book, a strong first effort, and I trust Norman to do better with his women next time.

In the story, protagonist Tom Violet (an “old” 35 or 36) has a lovely wife, an adorable child, a cute dog, a prestigious job, and a wealthy father. But this is not as good as it seems. He and Anna are having any number of problems, chief among them being a complete failure to communicate when that’s what they need more than anything. He loves Allie, his daughter, who at times is his main reason for hanging in there with his family. The dog is neurotic, the job is soul-sucking, and the father, Curtis, is a famous author who just won the Pulitzer Prize, while Tom has struggled for years to put together a first novel worth showing to anyone. Add a “work crush” to all of this, and Tom’s life is a mess.

But it’s an entertaining mess, and Tom is endearing in his attempts to always do what’s right without selling out any further than he already has at the job. By staying true to himself, Tom begins to take steps to sort through everything, and that is the journey of the book.

Sounds simple. It is and it isn’t. Tom makes any number of mistakes, but his self-deprecating humor and honesty made me cheer him on. He is wickedly funny. So I’m recommending this book.

If you follow this blog because you’re an animal lover, rest assured that nothing bad happens to the dog.

November 14, 2011 Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, dogs, families, humor | , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

This book featured gallons of tea, buckets of tea, maybe even an overflowing river of tea. Maybe that was the problem – maybe the characters would have been more interesting had they been coffee drinkers. Or if Diana, the wimpy, non-practicing-witch protagonist, had worn something other than black leggings and baggy blue sweaters. And when did it become necessary for every story involving a witch to also include vampires? At least they’re not zombies. I can’t get into zombies at all.

Am I sounding cranky about this book? I actually liked it, for the most part, and just recently recommended it to a friend. It’s not great literature, but it’s good escapism, a classic beach book if you will. I’ll read the sequel. But LET’S JUST STOP WITH THE VAMPIRES ALREADY, OKAY??? I AM SICK AND TIRED OF VAMPIRES!!! I get it, they’re sexy and powerful and mysterious and all that. They’re also over-exposed, and I don’t mean in terms of sunlight. Plus, I like witch books. Can we have more witches without vampires? Please? Look at J. K. Rowling – she did quite well writing a series about witches and wizards, with only the briefest mention of vampires, probably just to shut up the questions about them. It can be done, in other words, and quite successfully.

So I liked A Discovery of Witches, even though it dragged in spots, especially in the middle, which needed to be cut deeply and ruthlessly by an editor with strong opinions about pacing. My favorite characters were Emily (Diana’s Aunt Sarah’s partner) and the Bishop family’s house, which does not talk but is more expressive than 3/4 of the characters who do. I also liked Sophie (the Luna Lovegood equivalent), who comes in very late and is very cute and perceptive. Diana Bishop, though? Eh. Vampire/love-interest Matthew Clairmont? Eh. Matt’s mom, Ysabeau? Eh. The one-dimensional villains? Eh. The ending, which is also the set-up for the next book? Excellent!

So what am I nattering about, anyway? Here’s the plot: Diana Bishop, professor at Yale and last in a long line of extraordinary witches, tries not to use witchcraft for reasons that don’t quite make sense but are eventually spelled out. While doing research at Oxford, she comes across a document that every “creature” – witch, vampire, daemon – seems to know about but her, and they all want it. Since she’s the only one who’s been able to call the document forth, they want her to try again, but she has sent it back to the stacks and there it remains. Only Matthew, Oxford professor and filthy rich vampire, seems to care more about Diana than about what she can do for him. They fall in love, which is expressly forbidden by some agreement made generations ago among the three types of creatures: they won’t date outside of their own kind, if you will. Violating the agreement pisses off both the witches and the vampires – not so much the daemons, who tend to be loose cannons – and unites them against Diana and Matthew. Diana drinks a lot of tea, acts like a wimp, sleeps constantly, fails to make the most basic decisions, and wears black leggings and baggy blue sweaters on most occasions. Eventually I wanted to throttle her, but then the book got interesting again, Diana started communing with ghosts, the mystery of her parents’ gruesome death became a factor, her inability to harness her extraordinary witchcraft powers was explained, and she and Matthew left Ysabeau’s deathly dull French mansion for Sarah and Emily’s delightfully opinionated house in New York. And then the book ended with a set-up for a sequel, which I plan to read despite all the damned vampires that will dilute the presence of my beloved witches.

Speaking of vampires, here’s a question: how did they manage to ride horses before the invention of the automobile? I’ve seen at least a couple of books in which they did, this being one of them. Some vampires fly, which would get around that question. But for those that don’t, how do they avoid chomping down on their live transportation when they go into a feeding frenzy? If the humans they care about are in danger, why aren’t their horses?

Anyway, no gruesome animal stuff happens in this book. Matthew has an entire stable of horses at Ysabeau’s place in France, and they’re fine.

October 24, 2011 Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, death of a parent, families, fantasy, horses, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Marrowbone Marble Company, by Glenn Taylor

I had distinctly mixed feelings about this book, which started off strong but got twisted around itself with too many characters and a theme that was hammered at relentlessly. Glenn Taylor is brilliant writer, and there are moments of great literature in The Marrowbone Marble Company, but the story also has a great capacity to annoy.

In summary: Loyal Ledford is a thoughtful young man, orphaned in childhood, who works in a West Virginia glass factory. He goes off to WWII, is traumatized at Guadalcanal, returns to the glass factory, marries, and stops an excessive-drinking habit after befriending Don Staples, a likable and wise preacher. He also becomes friends with Mack Wells, a black man at the factory, which is noteworthy because inter-racial friendships were viewed with great suspicion at that time. After being told in a dream that he should make marbles, Loyal establishes a utopian community in which he does just that with the help of Mack, Don, and his wife, Rachel. And while good often triumphs over evil in this story, it’s usually a close call.

So … I once had a friend who published several books (and lost a lot of her friends once she suddenly expected us to behave like mindlessly approving fans). For a long time, I was one of her beta-readers, which led me to realize that authors often have an encyclopedic knowledge of their characters and are baffled when their readers don’t. But we don’t. We don’t retain all the myriad details assigned to each character, especially considering that a lot of that detail never makes it into the published book.

I don’t know that Glenn Taylor understands that. The Marrowbone Marble Company had way too many characters, mostly male, a large number of which weren’t memorable and didn’t have compelling individual story lines. The first characters – Loyal Ledford, Mack Wells, Rachel Ledford, the Bonecutter twins, and a few others – were well-drawn and multi-dimensional. Later characters not so much, as if they were plopped in to carry some small portion of the plot but otherwise weren’t real people. Characters should seem like real people. Most of these don’t.

The other issue I had with this book was that Taylor kept pounding and pounding on his themes. Yeah, I not only get it, I already knew it: racism is bad. It’s a worthy theme, but Taylor badly overplayed it, which is particulary frustrating when he’s a good enough writer to have handled it well. He should have stuck with a few key characters and taken us into the civil rights movement by showing us more depth in how these few individuals confronted the problems of racism in their daily lives. A single inter-racial romance would have much more impact than Taylor’s enormous cast did.

I can’t honestly give a recommendation for or against this book. If the story appeals to you, keep in mind that the writing is good and Taylor does know how to keep a reader’s attention. But it helps to have an e-reader, so that you can search for character names to find out who’s who. You’ll need that feature.

As for the animals in the book, there is are no well-developed animal characters, either. A few animals get into unpleasant situations, possibly including death, but they’re all so weakly portrayed that a super-sensitive reader would likely cringe and keep going.

October 10, 2011 Posted by | Book Reviews, families, friendship, Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine, by Ann Hood

Over time, friends grow apart. This happens more often than we’d like to think. The ideal, often promoted in the media, is the forever friendship dating back to childhood, college, the first job. The reality is, some friends remain close, some stay in touch, and some stop being friends. Children complicate things, especially as they get older. And that’s a basic summary of this moody novel by Ann Hood.

More specifically, the three friends are Elizabeth, Suzanne, and Claudia, and they meet and bond as young hippies in the late 1960s. Sixteen years later, one has lost her mind – and everything else – in the aftermath of a tragedy, another has become a corporate workaholic and control freak, and the third is fatally ill and watching her children rebel against her carefully honed lifestyle. Unfortunately, I never felt like I got to know any of these characters well. I thought Suzanne was the most understandable, probably because I know women who took her trajectory from smoking pot to seeking power. But people learn to deal with the type of catastrophe that Claudia experienced, and while it was the kind of thing that would send anyone into depression, she wasn’t drawn well enough to let the reader understand why she got so much worse over time. Nor was it clear what kind of interventions were or were not attempted. What about her friends? Family? Elizabeth was less of a blank, but she, too, seemed incomplete.

I’m not recommending for or against this book. It was well-written, and if your goal is to read beautiful writing, go for it. If you need character development and a plot line, think twice, however.

There were no animal characters.

October 3, 2011 Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, families, friendship, Uncategorized, women's fiction | , | 1 Comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of True Confections: A Novel, by Katharine Weber

What I love most about this book is Weber’s hysterically funny, commpletely unreliable narrator, Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky. Alice is a true find in my fiction reading, and even though the book dragged in a couple of relatively short sections, I hated coming to the end and letting Alice go off into her daft non-existence.

Here is a representative quote:

But my altruism can be misunderstood, whether it takes the form of serving perfectly wholesome beef stew to a malnourished little second grader friend of Jacob’s whose vegan parents were practically starving him, or giving a much-needed haircut to a kindergarten classmate of Julie’s who was over for a playdate. … I have no idea why her silly mother cried like that. It was just hair.

In the story, Alice, aka “Arson Girl,” marries into the Ziplinsky family, owners of Zip’s Candies. Alice may be the smartest person in the bunch, though she’s not the most savvy about personal relationships, and she babbles away with sharp observations about the candy industry, in-laws, children, work, the law, and whatever else she feels like discussing. I did feel sorry for her in a few spots, but Alice is a strong-willed character, and even when she’s noting the personal hurts and slights she’s endured, you know that’s what she’ll always do — endure.

I strongly recommend this book, based on the narrator alone.

As for animals, this book is MOSTLY SAFE for animal lovers. A cat dies early on, and as does a kitten, though the latter is not shown. On the upside, there are two long-lived pet frogs.

Enjoy!

March 12, 2011 Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, families, food, humor | , , , | 1 Comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe

Killer concept, isn’t it? Young woman with untapped witchcraft ability finds herself seeking more information about Salem witches? It just didn’t work for me, though.

Connie Godwin’s flaky mother insists that the overburdened Harvard grad student move into her late grandmother’s abandoned house and get it ready for sale. And Connie comes across a mysterious scrap of paper and a key, and ends up tracking down the story of Deliverance Dane and the Salem witch trials. I do like the woo-woo, supernatural detective stories, and I enjoyed this one while I was reading it, but it didn’t really make much of an impression. It was almost as if Howe was writing from a checklist instead of an outline. It wasn’t bad, but I wish it had been better.

As for animals, Connie’s “familiar” is a dog, as a change from the usual cat. Arlo comes to no harm and plays a role in the mystery. So this book is SAFE for animal lovers.

February 25, 2011 Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, families, Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Nose Down, Eyes Up by Merrill Markoe

This is the second talking-dog book I’ve read by Merrill Markoe. I will now deeply blush and say “[expletive], I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.” If I were Gil, the protagonist of Markoe’s book “Nose Down, Eyes Up,” I’d then swear even more, declare the time as “beer-thirty,” and make an insincere declaration of love. And after all that, I’d cuddle a dog or four.

But I’m a cat person. And last I checked, I was real, not fictitious.

Gil is a 47-year-old Malibu handyman constantly at war with his inner 22-year-old. That inner raunchy kid is Gil’s main enemy, while his saving grace is Jimmy, his dog. There are three other dogs — Dink, Fruity, and Cheney — but Jimmy is Gil’s boy. All four dogs talk, and that leads to one of Gil’s many problems: Jimmy is devastated when he learns that Gil is not his biological father. As Jimmy explains it, he thought doghood was a phase he’d grow out of, and that some day he’d shed all the hair and start walking upright like Gil.

So Gil, who’s in a doomed relationship with a nice girl named Sara, takes Jimmy to visit his birth mom and two siblings — who just happen to be owned by Gil’s over-sexed flake of an ex-wife, Eden. Although Gil is more emotionally fragile than he’d ever admit to himself, Jimmy’s stated (because he’s a talking dog, remember) preference for his birth family is a crushing blow. So while he tries to juggle a dismayed maybe/maybe-not girlfriend, an ex-wife who wants to cheat on her current husband with Gil, work issues, housing issues, financial issues, and the emotional needs of the three remaining dogs, Gil misses Jimmy. Just how much is part of the climax of the book.

So yes, I recommend this book. I give it two dew claws up, in fact. I will say that, having read several books by Markoe, this is the least humorous. It’s funny, but she’s had me giggling nonstop, and this book isn’t like that. And that’s okay. I only mention it in case you’ve read any of her other books and have expectations.

Now for the hard part of this review: I can’t really tell you if this book is safe for animal lovers. In my book reviews, I always mention whether or not the book could upset someone who doesn’t like to read about bad things happening to animals. There is a scary part in this novel, so if you are a tender soul who can’t bear the thought of an animal in peril, this is NOT the book for you. I can’t tell you how it turns out without spoiling it for you, though. All I can say is that I liked it.

February 20, 2011 Posted by | animals, beach book, Book Reviews, dogs, families, humor, pets, satire | , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Dirty Secret, by Jessie Sholl

George Carlin had a routine about “stuff” that always made me laugh, but also pointed out the absurdity of excessive acquisition. Like, how much “stuff” do we actually need? Probably a lot less than we’ve got.

While that applies to most of us, there’s a subset of people who get carried away with their stuff. Compulsive hoarding, according to Wikipedia, involves not only excessive acquisition, but also failure to discard. On the “hoarder shows,” the hoarders will often declare an item to be useful, failing to recognize that while it might be useful to someone, somewhere, it’s not likely to be useful to the hoarder.

So what’s it like to be related to a hoarder? On the hour-long TV shows, we’ll often hear a few comments from the children of hoarders. But, as Jessie Sholl demonstrates in her compassionate and poignant book about her own mother’s hoarding, there is much, much more to it than the sound bites selected by the editors at the A&E and TLC channels.

Sholl’s mother, Helen, was badly abused as a child and, possibly as a result, comes across as being sort of “flat”. I feel like the autism spectrum is over-used these days, but there’s something not right in the way she perceives and reacts to things.  She teases Sholl mercilessly about snakes, which she fears terribly, for example. And she’s a hoarder. Fortunately, Sholl’s father and stepmother were good, supportive parents with a normal household.

Sholl and her husband manage to keep Helen’s “situation” with the hoarding and the odd behavior and judgment at a manageable length for a while. But then Helen comes down with cancer, and the nightmare of dealing with the incredible volume of junk in her house begins in earnest. Although she denies it, Helen has blown her retirement savings on boxes of goods she never even opens. And there are other problems with the house that I will leave for the reader to uncover.

Sholl’s memoir has been described as the first memoir by the child of a hoarder. I’d like to see another, because I imagine there are hoarders who present different problems than Helen’s. I thought Sholl was incredibly fair to her mother, giving her the benefit of the doubt until it became almost insane to do so. She writes well, without hyperbole or excessive emotion or editorializing. Therefore, I am recommending this book.

As for animals, there are a couple of sad scenes. Sholl tries to get past her mother-induced fear of snakes by raising one as a baby, but that doesn’t work. She learns that the dog that she and her husband adopted may have had a sad beginning. And her mother, with the usual “flat aspect,” doesn’t seem to have cared for the dog she once had, although that dog may have gone on to a better environment. The first two situations were a more upsetting than I’m describing, so I will call this book PARTLY SAFE for animal lovers.

February 15, 2011 Posted by | autobiography, Book Reviews, dogs, families, memoir, nonfiction | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Family Album, by Penelope Lively

I loved this book, but I don’t have a lot to say about it. Part of the problem is that there is a big twist, which I believe most readers will figure out, and assorted smaller twists. Together, they prevent much discussion of the plot.

However, the plot is not the driver in this book. Rather, it’s the characters. And they raise many,  many questions. Charles and Allison are parents to six adult children, five of whom either moved as far away as possible and/or never visit. Then there’s the nanny-for-life, Ingrid, who is still around despite the absence of children or grandchildren. So Allison may prattle on all she wants about family and how she adores little ones, but something went wrong if they never visit. Right?

Here’s a representative quote:

“[W]hen this spring morning gets up momentum there are nine at Allersmead, none of them more than a yard or two from someone else, but all poles apart within their heads, their hearts.”

Sounds like a dysfunctional family to me! It quickly becomes clear that Charles is only a sperm donor/financial support type of father, and I spent the entire book trying to figure out what he and Allison might have ever had in common beyond procreation. Their Christmas gifts are ridiculously inappropriate, further proof they don’t know each other at all.

Lively somehow manages to give each of the six children a distinct personality, so that I quickly felt like I knew them. Most of them take a turn at narration, which could be distracting but which Lively manages splendidly.

As for animals, there are dogs (the book is set in England, of course there are dogs) and small children in the flashbacks aren’t always kind to spiders and the like. But overall, this book is SAFE for animal lovers. Enjoy!

February 5, 2011 Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, families, Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? Reviews of Two Books by Philippa Gregory: The Red Queen, and The White Queen

One reason I am a fan of Philippa Gregory is that she takes history and makes it accessible. I say this as someone who majored in history in college. Sure, I can find my way through a straight history book, and much of the nonfiction I read is exactly that: history. But authors who fictionalize history well often fill in the blanks for us with dialogue and what they imagine to be likely actions where the historical record contains gaps. Philippa Gregory is a master at this, and she also focuses on female figures who are considered secondary or tertiary by mainstream historians.

In “The White Queen” and “The Red Queen,” Gregory examines two significant women from the War of the Roses, in which England’s Lancaster and York houses of the Plantagenet family fought for 30 years in the mid-1400s. In The White Queen, Gregory writes from the point of view of the beautiful Elizabeth Woodville, the young widow who captured the heart of York’s King Edward IV. Woodville was also the mother of the two young princes whose disappearance from the Tower of London has perplexed historians for centuries. Gregory provides a plausible scenario to account for the boys.

Both women were ambitious but, as portrayed by Gregory, Margaret Beaufort was consumed by her ambitions. And, because she was not married to a king or in a direct line herself, her insistence that her son would become king of England seemed absurd at times. Gregory paints Beaufort as particularly serious and even grim, only satisfied once Henry VII was on the throne.

Gregory is a solid writer whose pacing sometimes gets bogged down in repetition or portrayal of worried characters. She’s also a damned fine storyteller, and the War of the Roses is a damned fine story. I recommend both of these books, with a slight preference for The White Queen.

Regarding animals, there wasn’t much. Gregory doesn’t go for that kind of thing as a rule. There is a brief pig slaughter description in The White Queen, and a bit of horses-in-battle stuff in The Red Queen. But I am declaring both books MOSTLY SAFE for animal lovers. Enjoy!

January 31, 2011 Posted by | biography, Book Reviews, families, historical fiction, history, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment