31 July 2009

Books Finished Since July 1

• Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time, Michael Downing
As an avowed hater of DST, I picked up this volume hoping it would enlighten me on the logical reasons for the practice. The most I knew before reading this book was that DST was instituted during World War I to extend working time in the war plants, that it was rescinded after the war, then returned for the next. How surprising to find out that the threat of DST came even earlier, that it has been contentious for years, with even communities and buildings disagreeing about it, and that it was once blamed on farmers—when farmers hate the practice. Downing keeps you reeling as the the fight goes back and forth and back again. If you are interested in the history of DST, you might find this interesting.

• The Unscratchables, Cornelius Kane
Max "Crusher" McNash is a hard-bitten veteran police officer whose investigation of what looks like a gangland killing arouses the attention of the FBI due to the crime's improbable suspect. The Feds send philosophical, well-dressed Cassius Lap to investigate. Can McNash trust Lap, since he suspects the agent may have sympathies with the killer? And can he trust himself not to grab Lap in his jaws and shake him like a bull terrier shakes a rat?

Jaws? Of course. In this spoof of pulp detective novels, McNash (a bull terrier) lives in the Kennels, the world of dogs (his boss is a German Shepherd and his partner is a borzoi; one of the perps is a whippet and the victims are Rottweilers) and Lap is a Siamese cat, from the feline refuge of Kathattan. I've never been a fan of crime noir, film or book, and I confess the private eye slang was wearying at first. But as I got absorbed in the plot, the characters, and the spoof of human foibles, I began to enjoy it, especially when a Hannibal Lector-like character was introduced (a cat, of course)--a thoroughly delightful homage! And like all the best "shaggy dog" stories, this one even ends appropriately! If you enjoy offbeat fiction, this one's definitely for you.

• The Blackstone Key, Rose Melikan
I've been reading a good deal of these types of novels lately, ranging from the time of the French Revolution to Victorian times, from the romantic romps of the Pink Carnation to the tales of Liberty Lane, Emily Ashton and Lady Julia Grey and have become very familiar with the spunky, well-educated-for-a-woman-of-the-time protagonist who becomes involved in dark doings. At first glance, Key is of that breed.

But heroine Mary Finch is not. While she is intelligent and shows unexpected strengths, she is more timid than the usual heroines of these books and makes several mistakes right until the end of the story. Her spunk is of a milder sort, and so is the story, which spends its own sweet time meandering to the climax as you get a portrait of 18th century life and the intrigues of French spies in England during the latter part of the Revolution through the Napoleonic Wars through the eyes of a young teacher. I found the characters interesting and enjoyed Mary, Captain Robert Holland, Paul Duprez, and the supporting players on both sides, but the story is very slow-moving. People who favor livelier fare will probably not be satisfied by the novel.

• The Counterfeit Guest, Rose Melikan
Now an heiress and living at her late uncle's estate White Ladies with two of her fellow teachers as chaperones, Mary Finch is asked to undertake a clandestine mission: observe Colonel Crosby-Nash, suspected of being a traitor. Since the colonel is married to Mary's friend Susannah Armitage (cousin to Captain Robert Holland, whose acquaintance Mary made in The Blackstone Key), it is fairly easy for Mary to keep tabs on him, and even receive an invitation to their country house. In the meantime Captain Holland, who has abruptly broken off his growing relationship with Mary, finds himself battling internal conflict in the Army, bred by instigating spies who use suggestion and broadsides to spread their revolutionary aims. Eventually Mary's mission and Holland's will mesh, posing danger for both of them.

Mary has become a bit less naive in this second novel, although she is certainly shyer than similar heroines like Liberty Lane and the "Pink Carnation" ladies, and her spying mission takes a certain nerve--there are several tense moments that are quite breathtaking. Holland, too, sees more action in this second novel, including a foray into preventing an explosive situation, accompanied by his faithful batsman Drake. The suspense builds nicely, but slowly, in the manner of 19th century novels of this genre. If you like nonstop action, this is not the novel for you.

We also learn more about Mary's new life and Holland's past, and that certain "wise" decisions don't always work out that way.

I found this novel thoroughly enjoyable and am looking forward to Melikan's sequel.

• Planet Dog: A Doglopedia, Harry Choron and Sandra Choron
A great bathroom book! All about man's best friend in short bites: movie dogs, literary dogs, dog shows, dog books, people in dog history, dogs in people history, and other lists. Much fun if you are a dog lover.

• Tell Me, Pretty Maiden, Rhys Bowen
After living hand-to-mouth for so long, Irish transplant Molly Murphy has her hands full in turn of the century New York City: she's following one man to see if he is a good marriage prospect, and accepts two other puzzling cases: the disappearance of a rich college boy who has been accused of a heinous murder and the haunting of a Broadway theatre where a slightly long-in-the-tooth actress is making a comeback. If that isn't all, Molly and her beau Daniel, still on suspension from the New York police force, stumble over a nearly frozen young woman in Central Park, clad only in a light dress and dancing slippers, one who can not even utter her own name. As Molly hops from theatre to street to Yale and back again, the facets of each mystery only become more perplexing. A dandy period mystery starring a feisty heroine.

• Rhode Island: A Guide to the Smallest State
What a great history of Rhode Island; I learned more from this volume than I ever did about the history of the state in school. It makes one want to grab the book and go back to see all these sites—that is, if most of them are there any longer. For this is the 1937 WPA guide to the state, a fascinating combination of history, survey, Native American portrait, and Baedeker, with "auto tours" along the main roads...which, of course, were the secondary roads of my own childhood. So many things aren't there anymore: the numerous fabric mills, the ferries that existed before the bridges, and historical buildings destroyed by neglect, time, and progress. The saddest part of this book: a photo of Napatree Point (in a photo insert six pages after page 396). One year later all 22 homes were wiped out in the Hurricane of 1938.

Read the whole book (and see the photo) here.

• Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, Vicki Myron
In 1988, on a freezing winter night, a small orange kitten was left in the book drop in the Spencer, Iowa, library. Rescued by Vicki Myron and her fellow librarians, Dewey became not only a library fixture, but a minor celebrity after his story was told in magazines like Country.

This is such a good-natured little book about a small farming town and the people who were enriched Dewey's companionship, I hate to say anything negative about it, but it was not as good as Marley and Me or Wesley the Owl or Flyaway. Some understanding of the author's personal life and of the town of Spencer is necessary to the story, but there was almost too much biographical information about Myron herself and not enough stories about the cat. I'm glad I met Dewey, and his human friends, but I can't say I was really overwhelmed by the narrative.

• A Fatal Waltz, Tasha Alexander
I read this one in a whole "gulp." It is the third in Alexander's series about Emily Ashton, a well-bred Victorian lady whose interests also run to Greek antiquities and drinking port rather than sherry after dinner like a "normal" woman of the time. Emily is attending a house party at the request of her best friend Ivy, even though she would rather avoid the owner of the house, the sarcastic, vindictive Lord Fortescue, who would prefer that Emily not marry her fiance Colin Hargreaves. Before the weekend is over, Fortescue is murdered and Ivy's husband Robert accused of the crime. Before the book is over, in her search for justice for Robert, Emily will be threatened by Fortescue's colleague, visit Vienna and become involved with anarchists, and worry over Colin's being reunited with his old lover, now an Austrian countess and still determined to get Colin back despite being married. The suspense builds until one must keep turning the pages or wonder just what happens next.

• Consequences of Sin, Clare Langley-Hawthorne
I'm pretty sure this story was recommended by Dani on "A Work in Progress"; I was lucky enough to find it in the bargain bin in Borders at some point. Ursula Marlow is the privileged daughter of a self-made, now wealthy, factory owner, in England in 1910, but is beginning to break out of the straitlaced role of women in that era: having attended Oxford, instead of preparing for marriage as her father wishes, she is helping in the suffragette movement along with a newfound friend, Winifred Stanford-Jones. Then "Freddie" telephones her early one morning with the horrifying news that her lover, Laura, has been murdered in their bed, after they were seen quarreling at a risque club. Ursula asks her father's adviser, Lord Wrotham, to help defend Winifred, but she has no idea when she does so that she is about to discover an ugly family secret and not only put her reputation in danger, but her life.

I enjoyed this book, even if the lead characters are the usual lovely, intelligent but a bit naive young woman, and the handsome, enigmatic and troubled slightly older man (I mean, honestly, don't any ordinary people ever solve mysteries?). Ursula's upbringing causes her to make errors which may irritate some, but seem natural for the time. It's an easy read, and I'm looking forward to finding the sequel, although it appears to take place mostly in Egypt; I would have preferred pre-war England.

• Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol: The Making of the First Animated Television Christmas Special, Darryl Von Citters
This book is reviewed in July's "Rudolph Day" post in Holiday Harbour.

• A Duty to the Dead, Charles Todd
Bess Crawford, daughter of a British Army officer and a nurse serving aboard the hospital ship Britannic, is invalided home after the ship is torpedoed and her arm is broken. This gives her the chance to fulfill a soldier's dying wish; Arthur Graham's cryptic deathbed message is to be delivered directly--no letters will do--to his brother Jonathan: "Tell Jonathan I lied. I did it for Mother's sake. But it has to be set right." Bess' letter to the family results in an invitation to the Graham home, but to her surprise, there is no reaction when she delivers the message. Jonathan and Mrs. Graham even question if Arthur was in pain or drugged when he said it. But the longer Bess remains in the Graham home, the more questions begin to arise: what did the message mean and why was it so important to Arthur but not to his family? How did Arthur's oldest brother Peregrine become confined to an insane asylum when he was only fourteen? And when Bess is called on to nurse Peregrine through a bout of pneumonia, why isn't he the dimwitted man he has been described to be?

I really enjoyed reading this book and finished it in one long session. Since I have read similar books taking place during or concerning nursing sisters of WWI, most of which have been mentioned here (Anne Perry's WWI mysteries, the Maisie Dobbs stories, Gifts of War), the subject was of interest to me, and I liked this the most except for the Maisie Dobbs novels. Bess is one of the strong women that emerged at the time of the war, no longer willing to be treated as sweet flowers who were rewards to men. If I have one quibble with the book it is that I would have liked more descriptions of Bess and of some of the supporting characters, but perhaps the author did so on purpose so we could imagine Bess as we wanted her to be. Also, a certain amount of coincidence creeps into the story: how convenient that someone should be sick just as Bess was visiting, or the fact that the minister so willingly offers Bess the late vicar's journals to read. However, these small things did nothing to deter my enjoyment of the novel. I will be interested to read more about this character.

• Cesar's Way, Cesar Millan
Millan, the host of The Dog Whisper, explains his dog psychology methods. If you're a dog owner or lover, you will find this quite interesting.

• A Dangerous Affair, Caro Peacock
Liberty Lane, the independent heroine of Peacock's A Foreign Affair, has set herself up as a music teacher to support herself and is living in genteel poverty in an old mews with an older woman as chaperone, and faithful Amos Legge works nearby in a stable caring for horses including Liberty's mare, Esperance. One morning as she is riding "Rancie," she is overtaken by Benjamin Disraeli, who asks her to look into a flamboyant ballerina named Columbine. Liberty reluctantly does so, just as Columbine is murdered and a country girl, Jenny Jarvis, is accused of her murder. To complicate matters, Liberty's best friend, musician Daniel Suter, has fallen deeply in love with Jenny. As always fired against any injustice, Liberty is determined to find Columbine's murderer.

This is a more traditional-type 19th century murder mystery, as opposed to the politically charged conundrum of the first novel, with suspects including Columbine's co-stars, her wealthy gentleman friend, and even her French dresser. In the meantime Liberty faces the loss of her living space, of her beautiful mare, and even her best friend. Due to its more conventional plot, I didn't find this story as compelling as the first, but it was enjoyable nevertheless due to the presence of Liberty and her companions.

• Tears of Pearl, Tasha Alexander
I was so delighted when this fourth installment of the Lady Emily mystery stories turned up as one of the available books in Amazon Vine! I read it the moment it arrived in the mail and was quite taken by the setting: 19th century Constantinople. Alexander describes the area so well that I felt like I was in the bazaars and the different palaces, could smell the spices and see the intricate tilework, and feel the chop of the Bosphorus.

Emily and her new husband, the dashing spy Colin Hargreaves, have no sooner arrived in their honeymoon setting when a young woman from the Sultan's harem is murdered. The girl turns out to be the long-lost daughter of Richard St. Clare, employee at the English embassy. St. Clare, who seems to have ruined his health, and perhaps his sanity, in searching for the girl all these years, is determined to find out who killed her. It becomes Emily's task then, since Colin cannot do so, to infiltrate the harem and see if she was under threat in any way. But she cannot know the political machinations she will need to circumvent and understand to finally solve the mystery.

I felt that the actual perpetrator of the crime was a little obvious and that, at least for me, Emily and Colin's cooing over each other got a bit much (but they were on their honeymoon, after all). I believe I liked the characters in the previous novel a bit more. But the setting and mystery nicely overshadow these slight shortcomings. I can't wait to see what this pair tackles next.

23 July 2009

Oooh, Kewl!

As I've mentioned before, I was recruited for Amazon "Vine," where you get to preview books and other products.

On the third Thursday of every month you get a newsletter with offerings tailored to what you have ordered on Amazon and what you have reviewed. Sometimes I really hate it, because you don't get all the books up front. You can pick up to two books.

A week later you get another newsletter with all the books that were offered, what is left of them, anyway, and you can pick two more.

Last week I got a really cool mystery set in England during World War I. I almost ordered a novel about 1915 Niagara Falls, but decided against it.

Today the combined newsletter came and I was going to order a rather fascinating looking book about Warren Harding's affair with a woman who was later a German spy during World War I and a book about Louis Howe, FDR's advisor, when on second glance I noticed the upcoming Lady Emily book, Tears of Pearl, was one of the books! I had just finished A Fatal Waltz, the last book. So I got that instead of the Howe book, although I usually snap up Roosevelt books. The Harding book sounded more intriguing.