Book Review: Ape House by Sara Gruen

Ape House
Sara Gruen
Spiegel & Grau, September 2010
ISBN 0385523211
Hardcover

Water For Elephants was a magical read. That book had the capacity to bring together humans, animals and history and transport the reader into an unfamiliar world. Obviously, I’m going to compare every elephant and circus book to “Water” and I’m pretty sure most will fall short. Sadly, I’m going to have to compare Ape House to “Water” as well and come to the same verdict.

What happened here? Well, to start with, the book’s titled Ape House but we don’t get to the apes for 100 pages. Our introduction is to the human characters: of the four, the one least influencing the apes is the most interesting; however, I suspect many writing coaches would consider ‘Amanda’ a darling that Ms. Gruen probably should have killed in favor of the story.

When we finally get to the apes, we learn that animal rights activists have bombed their research facility. The apes are running free. Unfortunately, they get captured and sold to reality television creators who decide to make a television show about their activities. Doing what’s natural to the animals becomes pornography to the prurient-oriented viewers.

The primary quartet of human characters fall short of their potential. Isabel, the ape researcher, is badly damaged by the bomb blast and is forced to undergo extensive plastic surgery. A fascinating storyline about character identity is sacrificed so we can see how Amanda is attractive to men. John, the ape reporter and Amanda’s husband, spends his time divided between trying to follow the apes’ story and hopefully recover them and staking his territory with his overly-attractive wife. Peter, the man who dumped Isabel is about as unnecessary as Amanda.

The story does pick up as John and Isabel desperately try to find the apes. A lot of fascinating character studies straight from the pages of the papers. But, do we have to have the ‘Eastborough’ Baptist Church picketing the apes because they are touching each other and thus, potentially bisexual?

In contrast to the humans, the apes come off as the more compassionate and ‘evolved’ species. Their conversations and plight are amusing and touching. The small interactions with the apes are the portions of the story that had me riveted to the page while the remainder of the story left me hurrying to return to the animals.

Now, in conclusion, I’m going to mention the fictional work that I consider the Water For Elephants of the ape world. It’s Captivity by Debbie Wesselmann. This is the story of a South Carolina ape research institute with strong human and ape characters.

Reviewed by Rebecca Kyle, September 2010.

Sisters in Crime, a Contest Winner and a Home Invader

A few days ago, I went to a meeting of the local chapter-to-be of Sisters in Crime (SinC).  The guest speakers were Meredith Cole and Ellen Byerrum who were both entertaining and informative and I especially enjoyed seeing Ellen again (she was always a favorite author visitor when the store was open) along with her sidekick and husband, Bob.  I hadn’t seen them since our closing event last September.

Another fun aspect of the day was that Laura drove down three hours  from Fincastle to go to the meeting with me.  She’s an aspiring mystery writer so it was good for her to learn a little about the process of getting that book to its final stage on the bookstore shelves.  It was nice spending some time with her.

We aren’t an official SinC chapter yet because there are stages we have to go through to get approved by National and we are just now at the point of drawing up bylaws and developing a slate of officers.  In the meantime, though, some of us, perhaps all, are already members of the national organization.

While the store was doing somewhat well, I was a member of a number of trade organizations such as SinC, the Mystery Writers of America, the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance and the Horror Writers Association, to name a few.  Then, in the last eighteen months when I was looking for any possible ways to cut expenses in an effort to keep the doors open, I decided to give up nearly all of those memberships.   I kept the one for the neighborhood merchants’ association and SinC.

Why did I keep SinC?  When all is said and done, I believe this organization is one of the most valuable to anyone even remotely connected to the book world and offers a great deal for low dues.  Although  the name is Sisters in Crime, it’s also open to men and its stated purpose of support for women in the mystery field is valid even today 23 years after its founding.  Anyone with an interest in mysteries is welcome and our ranks include not only authors but also booksellers, readers, agents, publishers and librarians.  One of the best perks is the listserv that’s very active and offers education, entertainment and fun for all members of the national group, especially nice for those who aren’t near a physical chapter.  If you love mysteries, you should join—just go to http://www.sistersincrime.org/ to learn more.  And, if you’re in the central Virginia area, please check out our local group.

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Congratulations to Julie Fetcho!   Julie has
won the autographed copy of Photo, Snap, Shot
by Joanna Campbell Slan.  Thanks to
everyone who entered the drawing 😉

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Ack!  Ick!  Get it away from me!

A week or so ago, I found one of these on the window of my car, trying its best to get in.  I flicked him off the window and drove away without another thought.  Then, coincidentally, I read a news article about the critters invading the mid-Atlantic area in hordes this year and, when I saw Laura on Saturday, she told me about the private invasion she and Drew are having in their apartment, particularly upstairs near the skylights.  They live in a very old grain mill deep in the woods so, while I commiserated with her, I sort of chalked it up to their surroundings.  (And sympathized with Drew who hates insects and arachnids more than any 16-year-old I’ve ever known.  Maybe that’s why he’s good at crosscountry—he’s outrunning the bugs.)

Then it happened.  Yesterday, I saw one on my bedroom wall.  IN MY BEDROOM—EEWW!  Now, stink bugs don’t bite or sting or carry disease so they’re relatively harmless but, make them mad, and they release the smell of stinky feet.  Oh, joy, just what I want in my bedroom, of all places.

They say the usual pesticides don’t do a lot of good; I sprayed that thing umpteen times and, as far as I know, he’s still alive somewhere.  Just, please, don’t let me make him mad.

The Birth of Characters

Musher Kathy

Kathleen Delaney returns to talk about how coming up with characters is an adventure all in itself.

There has been a lot of discussion lately on several of the chat groups I belong to about characters, all kinds of them. We aren’t necessarily talking about ol’ uncle Ben who used to amuse the grandkids by taking out his teeth and making them clack, or Grandma May, who let the chickens in the house because then she knew how fresh the eggs were. Not that we want to exclude those folks, far from it, but what we’ve been talking about is how to make the characters in our books come alive.

That is not an easy thing to do. Like all authors, I’ve thought a lot about it, how I can infuse life into the people I write about, and I’ve noticed some differences in how my characters have grown and matured with each book. The fact that so have I, grown and matured, might have something to do with it. The fact that I’ve learned to listen might have helped a little as well.

When I first graduated from writing articles to trying to write a book, character seemed the most intimidating part of it. Everything I’d written to that point had been about my family, short little pieces about my children and their exploits. One featured the family dog. Mindy. She took to the 4H dog obedience classes with a zeal that made me nervous, and brought home a wall full of blue ribbons. However, stories about her, or the kids, didn’t help me make up a character to hang a book on. Advice wasn’t hard to find, and the most prevailing piece said, “write what you know.”  Well, I knew about being divorced with five kids, I knew about trying to make a living in real estate, and I knew something about living in a small town. And, I knew I didn’t want to write an autobiography. So, while my protagonist turned out to be a middle aged woman, divorced, trying to start life over as a real estate agent in a small town, I also tried to make her as little like me as possible. I did, however, give her situations I knew something about: big box stores coming to small towns, Arabian horse showing and breeding, and in the latest book, And Murder For Dessert, I placed her smack dab in the middle of warring temperamental chefs and wine makers. I’d experienced aspects of each of these situations so I could “write what I knew.”  Except for the murders. Those, I added.

I’ve found out, however, that there are better ways to come up with characters. The first step is to listen. I’ve discovered that people seem willing to share things about their lives with me easily. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I only have the one leg so perhaps I seem less threatening. Or maybe its just because I move slower, more time to talk. But they do. And while I’d never use their stories, what a breach of faith that would be, they’ve taught me a lot about characters and character, and given me a glimpse of how different people deal with different situations. They have also, without meaning to, given me some really great ideas for plots. People come in so many different kinds of packages, some good, some not so good, but almost always interesting. For instance, I met a woman on the bus in Danali. We got to talking and she told me she was from Germany and was staying at the youth hostel. As she was darn near as old as I am, that was a bit of a stretch, but definitely less expensive than some other choices. She also said she gathered wild mushrooms for her dinner and told me how to cook them. Well. Wild mushrooms were something I hadn’t thought about before, unless, of course, in conjunction with a way to murder someone. You can see how my mind works. I tucked her information away, and also made a note of what an interesting person she was. The next day my friends and I were watching the dog sled demonstration they do in the park when my bus friend appeared, holding a large paper cup filled with something. Mushrooms. For me. She had gathered them that morning, hoping to see me again. I took them from her with gratitude, also with a little trepidation, and, after checking with the ranger, followed her instructions and we all had them for dinner. Delicious. And, I’m still alive. So is my imagination. This lovely woman had a great story, but to me she had even more interest as a person. Germany is a long way from Alaska and she wasn’t with a tour. Most woman in their seventies wouldn’t attempt that, especially traveling alone. She was friendly, articulate,  knowledgeable about many things and quite obviously willing to try almost anything. She, herself, will never appear in one of my books, characters in books don’t happen that way, but having met her I have a wonderful jumping off point to introduce a really interesting person. I just hope I can do them justice, both the real one and the fictional one who will grow out that brief but memorable encounter. And, an added plus, I have an idea for a new plot. It just might include wild mushrooms and sled dogs.

See what happens when you are willing to listen.

Book Review: Photo, Snap, Shot by Joanna Campbell Slan

Leave a comment below and you’ll be entered in the
drawing to win a signed copy from the author!

Photo, Snap, Shot
Joanna Campbell Slan

Midnight Ink, 2010
ISBN 978-0-7387-1976-4
Trade Paperback

Kiki Lowenstein is understandably upset when her daughter Anya finds a body at school.  She is upset a little bit more when she finds out that Detweiler, a man she was growing to care for until the minor fact that he is married emerged, is working the case.  Then there’s the stress of knowing that her boss has cancer; what will that do to her job?  Throw in some pressure, spoken and unspoken, from her mother-in-law, and you have almost a normal day for a single mom.  Perhaps the part about the body is a little out of the ordinary – but not for Kiki.

Because Anya may have unknowingly seen the murderer, Kiki won’t stay out of the case, no matter how much Detweiler insists on it and no matter how much she has to deal with Detweiler.  Kiki uses every connection she has, every skill she possesses, to make sure that Anya is safe.

This is the third book in the Scrap-N-Craft series.  Slan has developed some great characters; even the peripheral ones are believable.  The romance between Kiki and Detweiler is also well done.  Everyone knows at least one woman who’s been deceived, for whatever reason, by a married man.  Still, Detweiler isn’t totally unsympathetic as a character.  Fans of cozy, craft-themed mysteries have much to enjoy in Slan’s series, even without the scrap booking tips.

Reviewed by P.J. Coldren, August 2010

Leave a comment below and you’ll be entered in the
drawing to win a signed copy from the author—winner to be announced Wednesday, September 29th!

Banned Books Week 2010

This is Banned Books Week, running today through October 2nd.  An annual event sponsored by the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association and other organizations with a deep interest in our inherent freedom to read, these books that have been challenged or outright banned somewhere in the US in the past year are celebrated.  This year’s Top Ten (in terms of number of attempts at banning):

1. TTYL; TTFN; L8R, G8R (series), by Lauren Myracle
Reasons: Nudity, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs

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2. And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
Reasons: Homosexuality

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3. The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Reasons: Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Anti-Family, Offensive Language, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs, Suicide

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4. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Reasons: Racism, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

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5. Twilight (series) by Stephenie Meyer
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group

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6. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

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7. My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
Reasons: Sexism, Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs, Suicide, Violence

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8. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things by Carolyn Mackler
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

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9. The Color Purple Alice Walker
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

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10. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
Reasons: Nudity, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

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For a list of hundreds more challenged books, go to http://tiny.cc/xp9b4

So, how can you make a stand against ignorance and narrow-mindedness?  Read a banned book this week.

Einstein's Tongue–Shoes!

Lately, debate has sprung up among runners: to wear, or not to wear, shoes. There are arguments for both sides considering how the foot strikes a surface, terrain and its consequences, and several other related subjects. And, of course, people are going to say one thing or another in defence of their preference.

Here is a fact about the toe strike: studies have shown that habitual toe strike running results in less damage to the arch of the foot, because of a natural cushion in this old method of running; anyone who runs barefoot is prone to use the toe-strike in their strides, and from this idea it is common to believe that barefoot running is safer. On the flip-side, running with footwear tends to cause runners to land heel first. This cushions the force on the arch less than the toe strike, and is believed to result in an increase of stress injuries. This is false! Firstly, footwear grants a thicker heal to negate the increased risk. And secondly, there is very little difference between the number of injuries sustained from toe strike and heel strike running. The differences are often blown out of proportion due to how many people lend drama to their injuries with out thinking about their running history beforehand. Someone who has lived to run barefoot is less likely to receive stress on the arch than someone who has just begun the method.

Barefoot running has become a new trend around the world. People are running across sand, trails, and even pavement with out footwear. Against what the majority of people say, this does no further harm to the bare foot runner. According to a study performed by Harvard University, A person naturally adapts they’re stride, foot-fall, and agility to suit the terrain. For instance, a bare foot runner passing over pavement or another hard surface is going to automatically lessen the tension in their legs to absorb the shock that comes from striking the hard surface. Of course, linked to the drama that people emphasize on their injuries, someone who tries to run for the first time over pavement is going to feel pain. This is because the new bare foot runner has no prior experience! There is no additional pain versus and experienced bare foot runner and someone with foot wear, and the people who say otherwise are, in most cases, lacking only in experience.

The truth is, there is little great benefit versus running with foot wear and running with out. What ever difference there is, people tend to blow out of proportion because something doesn’t work immediately. There are benefits and consequences for both forms of running, but there is no clear advantage for one over the other. All one can do is train one, the other, or both, and gain the necessary experience for excellent performance in this activity.

Einstein’s Tongue–Shoes!

Lately, debate has sprung up among runners: to wear, or not to wear, shoes. There are arguments for both sides considering how the foot strikes a surface, terrain and its consequences, and several other related subjects. And, of course, people are going to say one thing or another in defence of their preference.

Here is a fact about the toe strike: studies have shown that habitual toe strike running results in less damage to the arch of the foot, because of a natural cushion in this old method of running; anyone who runs barefoot is prone to use the toe-strike in their strides, and from this idea it is common to believe that barefoot running is safer. On the flip-side, running with footwear tends to cause runners to land heel first. This cushions the force on the arch less than the toe strike, and is believed to result in an increase of stress injuries. This is false! Firstly, footwear grants a thicker heal to negate the increased risk. And secondly, there is very little difference between the number of injuries sustained from toe strike and heel strike running. The differences are often blown out of proportion due to how many people lend drama to their injuries with out thinking about their running history beforehand. Someone who has lived to run barefoot is less likely to receive stress on the arch than someone who has just begun the method.

Barefoot running has become a new trend around the world. People are running across sand, trails, and even pavement with out footwear. Against what the majority of people say, this does no further harm to the bare foot runner. According to a study performed by Harvard University, A person naturally adapts they’re stride, foot-fall, and agility to suit the terrain. For instance, a bare foot runner passing over pavement or another hard surface is going to automatically lessen the tension in their legs to absorb the shock that comes from striking the hard surface. Of course, linked to the drama that people emphasize on their injuries, someone who tries to run for the first time over pavement is going to feel pain. This is because the new bare foot runner has no prior experience! There is no additional pain versus and experienced bare foot runner and someone with foot wear, and the people who say otherwise are, in most cases, lacking only in experience.

The truth is, there is little great benefit versus running with foot wear and running with out. What ever difference there is, people tend to blow out of proportion because something doesn’t work immediately. There are benefits and consequences for both forms of running, but there is no clear advantage for one over the other. All one can do is train one, the other, or both, and gain the necessary experience for excellent performance in this activity.