The Dog Doesn’t Die

Book reviews & random thoughts

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 Road to Jerusalem, by Jan Guillou

I had such a great time reading this book! It’s one of those novels that reminds you why it’s fun to be a bookworm.

And I have to start off by giving credit to the translator, Steven T. Murray. Guillou is Swedish, and so Murray gets credit for making the book read so smoothly in English, even if he did confuse (or leave confused) Odessa with Edessa. A translator can make or break a book, and Murray certainly did a great job with this one.

Oddly, none of The Road to Jerusalem takes place in Jerusalem. That’s because The Road to Jerusalem is the first book of a trilogy. And it is the Road TO Jerusalem. As in “en route.” This book takes place in Sweden, or pre-Sweden. Also, I have always maintained that books in a series should be able to stand alone and be read individually or even out of order. So few series live up to that standard, including this one, but this time I didn’t care.

So, what was so wonderful about this book that made me overlook the nitpicks? Lots! Never before have I been so drawn in to a character’s story as I was to that of Arn Magnusson — whose tale begins in the womb. Indeed, at first the story looks like it’s going to be the sage of Arn’s parents. But no. After his parents and older brother are introduced and turned into fully fleshed-out characters, Arn is born, becomes a charming child, falls off a building and almost dies, and gets sent off to a monastery because his parents vowed they’d give him to God if he survived. This sets the “God spared you for a purpose, Arn” theme that then permeates the rest of the book.

So how interesting can a boy in a monastery be, you may be asking? This is where much of the action takes place, and where Guillou builds the foundation for about 1/3 of this book and the two to follow. With sure, confident pacing, the author takes Arn on an exploration of his interests, guided, but not explicitly directed, by the French monks of the Cistercian order. Most prominent among these are Father Henri, prior of the monastery and Arn’s chief guardian and confessor; and Brother Guilbert de Beaune, smithy, weapons master and, in terms of his real role in the story, Man with a Mysterious Secret about His Past. Together with the rest of the brothers, they prepare Arn for a number of contingencies, while not steering him toward any specific future. Eventually, Arn leaves the monastery and returns to his family, where it becomes apparent that the French know a thing or three more than the proto-Swedes of Arn’s clan. Arn has a few adventures, falls in love, and … the book ends with the set-up for the sequel.

Character development is a strong point in this novel. For example, Arn is conflicted, humble, and naive, yet he knows that he has special gifts and talents, which the French monks honed to a fine point. Even the villains’ thought processes make sense, for the most part, as they are usually more ignorant than vile. 

Guillou doesn’t try anything avant-garde or trendy – all he does is tell a good story well. What more do readers want? I highly recommend this book.

There are animals throughout the book, with some named horses – and the mysterious Brother Guilbert is a kind of horse whisperer. Arn bonds with a couple of Brother G’s “special” horses, stallions named Shimal and Khamsiin. And the horses serve Arn well. While I don’t think they quite come up to the level of being characters, that may change in subsequent books. In any case, there’s not much here for animal lovers to worry or get excited about.

It’s a good book – I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

September 8, 2011 Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, historical fiction, horses, translation, Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Hearts of Horses, by Molly Gloss

I loved Molly Gloss’s subtle storytelling in The Hearts of Horses. Instead of a strong, driving plot, Gloss opts to show a defined period of time — protagonist Martha Lessen’s long winter of 1917, during which she “gentles” some horses in an eastern Oregon county. Gloss slowly reveals the surprisingly complex Martha to us, along with the people she meets and their horses.

The story is also a picture of a time when the West was changing, and right before transportation, agriculture, and American society as a whole transformed into today’s urban, transit-powered times. Ranching was still something for rough young men, but most of those had gone off to fight in World War I. When 19-year-old Martha shows up with her own three horses offering to train ranchers’ wilder horses to saddle, the overwhelmed men who’d stayed behind really had little choice other than to hire her.

Martha was what we think of as a “horse whisperer,” using a calm, steady, and gentle approach to help her equine charges adjust to what was expected of them. She was much more comfortable around horses than people, and as her past is revealed, it becomes clear why this is. Yet she herself is slowly gentled into feeling more comfortable around the new people she meets.

Gloss spools out her tale like a series of vignettes. One of the things I like is that even the villains have dimension, and when one or two of them get their come-uppance, it isn’t a black-and-white situation. Martha’s sort-of-but-not-completely surprise ending is sweet, though it also takes her back to a dark part of her personal history.

As for animals, this is a tough one, and it’s made me think I need another rating category. So here it is: NO GRAPHIC DEPICTIONS OF HARM TO ANIMALS. That may evolve a bit. The point is, regarding The Hearts of Horses, there are times when you read of something bad that happened to an animal — a horse is injured, a dog is kicked — and it doesn’t go any further than a few words. Because horses are a significant focus of this book, there are many such instances. But Gloss never shows us much of this. When a horse is injured while in Martha’s care, for example, you mostly see Martha tending to the injury and don’t get the really awful images that will disturb some readers. There is a lot of that kind of thing in this book. There’s also a lot of love and respect and care given to the various animals, again mostly horses. So I’m going to say that this book is MOSTLY SAFE for animal lovers. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

December 5, 2010 Posted by | animals, Book Reviews, historical fiction, horses | | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Lost Hours, by Karen White

I read this book because, when I went to Amazon looking for another book by White, I saw that this one had better reviews. Granted, Amazon reviews are not to be taken seriously in all cases, but I have used them with some success when gauging the works of an author who is new to me. So I ended up with The Lost Hours, I think it was a good choice, and I’m now more likely to buy some of White’s other books.

The Lost Hours has a minor romance element, as well as a somewhat larger mystery element, but I wouldn’t stick it in either of those genres. The story includes multiple generations of three families in the south, two white and one black-identifying mixed race. Although the present-day protagonists — Piper, Lillian, and Helen — are white, it is the three families’ relationships in the 1930s that create the dilemma Piper faces and the mystery that the elderly Lillian refuses to reveal. Helen, by the way, is blind, and I think she’s fairly sketched, in that she defines herself in terms of her abilities, not her single disability. Piper is still coming to terms with a leg injury she suffered as a competitive equestrian and, having had a college roommate who had lost a limb in a motorcycle accident, I found her lingering issues to be completely plausible. Piper can’t seem to escape being around horses, however, and information in her grandmother’s diary drives her to subterfuge. These were not the most compelling characters, but they were certainly interesting, and the plot was intricate. I recommend this book and look forward to ready more by White.

As for animal lovers who are concerned about the fate of animal characters, I think this book is SAFE despite the fact that Fitz, the horse Piper was riding at the time of her accident, died. His death isn’t shown, nor are the details of the abuse suffered by Captain Wentworth, a horse that Lillian’s grandson Tucker has rescued. Mardi, a dog character, wants to lead (or, more likely, herd) Helen, but she doesn’t need a guide dog and so she humors him by letting him accompany her everywhere. Other animals are mentioned in passing.

January 5, 2010 Posted by | animals, Book Reviews, dogs, horses | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment