30 September 2009

Books Finished Since September 1

• Come Back, Como, Steven Winn
From when she was a small child, Phoebe Winn wanted a dog more than anything. Her parents, both with less-than-pleasant memories of family dogs, tried to fob her off with other pets: goldfish, and then a lovebird who met a sad end. Finally mom and dad relent and adopt a small terrier mix from the animal shelter—a dog with an inherent fear of men. From then on it's waiting for their new dog to adjust to them—or perhaps it's one of the humans that must adjust to the dog.

This is a nice, but unremarkable story of a dog with problems who comes into a family with problems. From the daughter's point of view, her love of "Como" is immediate, and her mother's affection immediately follows. But it's prickly dad who must learn to adjust to a wary Como, and there will be a heart-stopping accident before they accept each other for who they are. I was a bit appalled at the beginning of this book with what happened to the lovebird—what kind of a pet owner doesn't confirm with their pet sitter what dates they will be going on vacation?—and also that the animal shelter worker would be so eager to foist off a dog with a fear of men that she ignored telling the family about it until after their child had fallen in love with the dog. There are some sweet parts, however, especially when Winn realizes how much he has come to love Como.

• The Ghost and the Haunted Mansion, Alice Kimberley
At last! "Kimberley" finally mentions something integrally associated with Rhode Island! But one mention of Del's frozen lemonade does not a Rhode Island setting make.

Penelope Thornton-McClure apparently witnesses her pal Seymour Tarnish, the local mailman, fleeing from a mansion on posh Larchmont Avenue, where a death has happened. When it's determined that the elderly owner died of foul play, Tarnish is the first suspect—especially when it's discovered that the woman left the expensive home to him! As Pen and her ghostly companion Jack Shepard, who is tied to the bookstore which Pen runs by having died there in 1947, try to clear Seymour as well as discover what really happened to Timothea Todd, it turns out the crime is tied to a case Jack had before he died, in which a young boy's mother disappeared.

The jacket summary of this book is a bit of a cheat, as the threat to Jack's existence is laughable. The mystery is the usual folksy one for this stereotypical Yankee town, although the bumpkin police continue to annoy. The Forties flashbacks are neat, though. Maybe in a future book Pen can be in a coma or something and somehow help Jack solve a mystery in the past.

• Death at Epsom Downs, Robin Paige
While Charles Sheridan uses his skill of photography at Derby Day, his American wife Kate becomes involved with the infamous actress Lillie Langtry, formerly the mistress of the king, and now implicated in the murder of a bookie with whom she was in excessive debt. In addition, a horse's behavior in the Derby brings about the growing specter of horse doping, and once again both Charles' and Kate's sleuthing skills are put to the test when Charles is recruited by His Royal Highness King Edward VII to uncover the scandal at the root of the death of a jockey.

Another enjoyable adventure with the sleuthing Sheridans, with a fascinating look at early 20th century horse racing, and the recurring character I wondered about from the previous book finally does return, with happy results.

• Hounding the Pavement, Judi McCoy
Ellie Engleman is finally free of her manipulating, stultifying husband, starting fresh in a new Manhattan apartment with the help of her much-married mother and hoping to make her dog-walking business a success. But when she and her mixed-breed dog Rudy arrive at one of her customer's homes to pick up his pet Bichon Frise, she discovers the man dead and the dog vanished. Enter Sam Ryder, workaholic police detective and also the victim of an unhappy marriage and divorce, who considers Ellie first a suspect, and then a dog-crazy flake.

How much you tolerate this book is how much you can put up with its conventions. I found it kinda cute, but be forewarned that it is not just a mystery, but a romance-mystery crossover, and many romance novel conventions are used, including a big smattering of sexual desires and encounters. Also, the gimmick in this one is that Ellie can communicate telepathically with dogs she is emotionally involved with, so there's a lot of dialog going on between Ellie and her pooch Rudy (who senses that Sam Ryder wants to do "the Big Bang" with her) and a couple of the other dogs she walks, including her best friend's Jack Russell, who idolizes Mr. T from The A-Team. If you are a "cozy" fan, but not particularly enamored of romances or gimmicks, you probably won't like this one.

Some annoying parts: I would have thought Rudy's sense of smell would have twigged Ellie to some things much earlier. It also seems as if McCoy sets up all other dog walkers besides her heroine to be callous, rude people who only care for their profits, not their charges. I find this a perfect discount or coupon book.

• The Big Burn, Timothy Egan
In August 1910, the drought-stricken Bitterroot Mountains and environs caught fire. The tinder-dry environment, coupled with a fierce wind, created a firestorm of unprecedented ferocity. Mountain towns, lumber interests, and the fledgling National Park system had only one defender: the rangers of the newly formed and hopelessly understaffed Forest Service, an organization loathed by the big businesses who thought the only proper thing was to clear and develop the forests. The book begins slowly, with the history of the Forest Service at the hands of its two "fathers," President Theodore Roosevelt and conservation enthusiast Gifford Pinchot, and builds, like the fire itself, painting vivid portraits of the people who would become involved with this monster—woodsman Ed Pulaski, ex-football star and now forester Joe Halm, supervisor Bill Weigle, the independent Ione "Pinkie" Adair, the Buffalo Soldiers who gain the respect of racist whites—until at last it explodes, devouring settlements and settlers alike.

While the fire may not have "saved America," it certainly brought recognition and respect to the Forest Service and created attention to the need for better conservation of our natural resources. My only caveat about this book: don't read the parts about the fire at bedtime; Egan's graphic descriptions of the devouring flames and their results are disturbing, sinister and unnerving.

• Death at Dartmoor, Robin Paige
While his wife Kate soaks up mist-shrouded atmosphere for a new novel (written under her pen-name of Beryl Bardwell), Sir Charles Sheridan embarks on a project to fingerprint all the prisoners at England's notorious Dartmoor Prison. Also visiting Dartmoor are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, also gathering information for a new novel that will eventually become The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Kate's friend Patsy Marsden. When a Scottish physician accused of killing his wife, a man Charles is convinced is innocent, escapes from the prison, he is accused of the murder of a man who was found dead on the moor. But how did the Scotsman escape? Could it have anything to do with the young missionary who delivered Bibles to the prison?

This mystery kept me guessing, although I never doubted Charles was right, and also found out some things I did not know, such as Hound was originally co-written with another author. I am enjoying this cozy series after ignoring it for so long.

• A Fierce Discontent, Michael McGerr
This can be considered a companion volume to Crusader Nation which I bought last year. Both are about the progressive movement in the United States that began in the late 1800s, ran strong for many years, and then took its last gasps during the First World War. The disparity between rich and poor became emphasized in publications of the day, and organizations and movements were created to help the poor and improve living conditions and social conditions, not just among the poor, but for the entire population. Jane Addams sets up settlement houses. Upton Sinclair advises consumers about the horrible state of slaughterhouses. Temperance fighters begin their long crusade to ban alcohol. Millionaires become philanthropists. Chautauqua societies brought education to adults. Conservationists fought for the country's natural resources. In the intervening years, however, Americans also discovered leisure time. Movies, auto touring, and other amusements drew them away from good works. And the progressive movement also had its bad points: it supported the eugenics movement and also segregation. An accessible history of the era.

• Ballet Shoes, Noel Streatfeild
Yes, I'm one of those poor unfortunate adults who had never read this book as a child. Not only wasn't it in the library, but I wouldn't have read it anyway, as I preferred books about animals and hated ballet. Now, of course, I find its 1930s setting delightful and the portrayal of three adopted girls who must learn to perform to be able to earn money to help their guardian—each girl has her own talent: Pauline is a good actress, Petrova a devotee of mechanical items, and Posy a natural dancer—a great read. I must confess that I picked it up because I saw the British telefilm of this story at Christmastime and really loved it. It was picked to pieces by fans of the book who didn't like Emma Watson as Pauline, or thought Posy was portrayed as a brat, or complained they didn't stick exactly to the storyline. Well, Emma Watson didn't exactly fit the description, but I thought she was okay, and Posy much of the time was a bit of a brat, and all I can figure out that they changed was making Winifred into a whiner (which really was a disservice to the poor girl) and having Mr. Simpson be a bachelor to work up a little romantic interest for Garnie, who was shown as possibly being tubercular. But the book is just as wonderful as everyone has always described! I'm glad I bought it.

• DogTown: Tales of Rescue, Rehabilitation, and Redemption, Stefan Bechtel
Whether or not you have ever watched the NatGeo series, if you are a dog-lover you will surely enjoy this volume of stories of individual dogs at DogTown, the unique animal refuge in Utah where no dog is refused (dogs that cannot be "re-homed" are cared for at the facility). You will meet Annie, the exuberant Australian shepherd dog who accidentally attacks a child and is labeled "a biter"; Georgia, one of the pit bulls rescued from Michael Vick's dog fighting kennel who had all her teeth removed, probably so she could be bred; Aristotle, a Chihuahua with a puzzling and virulent skin disease; Bingo, the mixed breed dog so abused that he had emotionally shut down; and other troubled or injured dogs. Each chapter follows a dog from his or her arrival in DogTown, the steps that were taken in treatment, and how they came to their forever home. Within chapters you learn about the horror that is a puppy mill or a hoarder's home, how a dog's handler will decide on a treatment for them, what steps are taken if medical care is needed, and other aspects of DogTown's rescue work. There are also interstices between chapters where DogTown workers talk about a dog in their past or in their work that became special to them.

As expected, there are reminders to spay or neuter your dog, warnings against purchase of pet shop puppies, and emphasis on adopting dogs from shelters, but it does not detract from the narrative about amazing people making a difference with abused dogs.

• A Beautiful Blue Death, Charles Finch
I wanted to like this book, but it fell under my expectations. Charles Lenox, a Victorian gentleman and amateur sleuth, is asked by his childhood friend Lady Jane Grey to investigate the "suicide" of a young woman who used to be her maid. The author seems to have tried to go for a Lord Peter Wimsey character in 1865, complete with butler who helps him with his investigations, with a little Sherlock Holmes tossed in (Charles' older brother Edmund works in the government). But after having read so many Victorian-set novels—both those actually written in the Victorian era, like Conan Doyle, and those Victorian homages by Anne Perry, Robin Paige, etc.—the entire narrative is just disappointing, down to the little things like Lenox always complaining about his boots being thin and cold. He's rich—he should be able to buy any boots he wants (or his butler should be able to find him some! Bunter would be horrified)! I suppose it's not unrealistic, due to the common surname Grey, to have a character named "Lady Jane Grey," but anyone with knowledge of English history may wish she had another name. Many times the dialog sounds like "book dialog," nothing someone would actually say. Servants speak to their employers in too familiar a manner.

The title refers to the obscure poison used in the suicide, but sadly, that may be the most interesting thing about the book. I have the sequel and hope there is more promise to it.

• Age 14, Geert Spillebeen
At age 10, Patrick Condon leaves school behind forever. Since he is big for his age, Patrick is able to get a menial job sweeping holds of ships when his father lies about how old he is. After two years of working for a repulsive employer, Patrick has squirreled enough pennies away to fulfill his real dream: join the army. Once again repeating a lie about his age, Patrick is first inducted into the militia under his brother John's name, and then some time later, joins the real army. He loves the duties and regimentation of army life, which is much better than anything in his impoverished Irish neighborhood.

But by now it is 1914 and all Hell is about to break out in Europe.

This would at first glance be a good book to introduce adolescents, especially boys, to the squalid reality of the poverty in Ireland in the early part of the 20th century as well as the horror of the battlefields of "the Great War, but the narrative is really rather poor. The novel was originally published in Belgium; perhaps the translator is at fault—I don't know. Despite the intriguing storyline, everything is rather plodding. Perhaps the problem is that Patrick is not a particularly likeable boy, and, despite his army dreams, we don't really learn much about him.

Other things are bothersome: modern words crop up occasionally, ruining the mood of the era—one that particularly struck me was the use of "macho." At one point, the word "Kraut" is used for Germans. I have read many WWI era stories and the usual term appears to be "Hun" or "Boche." I was under the impression this term was used in WWII. I could be wrong. At the point that war is declared, the narrative changes from past tense to present tense, probably to emphasize the immediacy of the situation, but it happens mid-chapter and is quite jarring (there the author also begins referring to Patrick as John). There are several chapters that are from a different POV than Patrick's, and all are pretty badly done, but the one portraying the German scientist who developed chlorine gas is particularly bad--he comes off as a melodrama villain.

I really wouldn't recommend this book to anyone.