31 January 2010

Books Finished Since January 1

book iconGwenhwyfar, Mercedes Lackey
In the past, King Arthur's wife has been seen as an empty vessel or even an adulteress, but in recent times, she has been rewritten in film and books as a rather stronger character, even as a warrior. Lackey's Gwen is one of this sort, a young woman who prefers horses and learning the arts of war to embroidery and fashion, or even becoming a wise woman.

It's an intriguing idea which rather falls flat. Gwen chafes against convention and is bored by her sisters' interests. Gwen gets her wish. Gwen trains and finally gets her horses. Gwen becomes an excellent tactician and advisor to her father the king. Gwen meets Lancelin, one of Arthur's knights, and admires his strategies. Gwen then must marry Arthur, who basically treats her as a vessel for his seed. It's that pedestrian. Her bratty little sister Gwyneth, known as "Little Gwen" for always emulating her, lends some conflict to the story, but otherwise it's rather colorless.

book iconThe Morning Show Murders, Al Roker and Dick Lochte
Billy Blessing, celebrity chef and host of his own cable show, is also a regular on a network morning show. When the producer of the show, who Billy who has butted heads with once too often, is found dead, poisoned by food from Billy's restaurant, our intrepid hero is naturally the chief suspect. In the meantime, Billy is warned about an assassin nicknamed "Felix the Cat" by a local crime boss.

This is a breezy, fairly complicated mystery that you won't take too seriously, but may enjoy along the way. Roker gives us a peek behind the making of both the Today-like show Billy appears on and cable series, and the wheeling and dealing that goes on in the background, along with the requisite characters: the wisecracking restaurant manager, the female host who's trying to break the glass ceiling, a spurned lover, etc. Although Billy is a chef, food is not a main ingredient in the mystery, so those who love cooking-themed crime novels should look elsewhere.

book iconThe Lost Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, adapted by Ken Greenwald from radio scripts by Denis Green and Anthony Boucher
In 1945, a radio series featuring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce was aired as a network offering. Author Greenwald recalled listening, enthralled, to these new adventures, and has adapted the scripts into this collection of "new" Holmes stories. The stories, especially the later ones, are a bit better than the opening few, and Greenwald puts in a good effort, but his occasional use of American phrases and idioms ruins any illusion of recreating a Conan Doyle narrative. The illustrations are delightfully pulpy.

book iconPostcards from Europe, Rick Steves
Just what started Rick Steves on his globetrotting ways? Interspersed between anecdotes of his adventures in Europe, whether on his own or leading a tour, is the story of how 14-year-old Rick reluctantly followed his parents on a European journey and ended up listening rapt while an elderly German gentleman told of being an eyewitness to the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the event that lit the blue touch paper of the first World War. We follow Steves as an ambitious young tour guide, almost too eager to get his tourists out of their comfortable rut, and as an 18-year-old bumming his way across the continent with a friend on three dollars a day, and in between we meet small hotel owners, chefs, teachers, and other colorful friends who give you inside views of Venice, the Italian Riviera, Paris, and Rick's favorite place of all, Gimmelwald in Switzerland. A fun read for Steves' fans or for folks who want to experience Europe outside of museums and monuments.

book iconCrazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America, Charles Leerhsen
Who was the first equine superstar in American sports? If you said "Seabiscuit," you're wrong. At the turn of the 20th century, harness racing was the bigger horse sport, and it found its poster image in the "person" of Dan Patch, the offspring of a violent but astonishingly fast stallion and a lame mare, himself born with a crooked hind leg that almost caused him to be destroyed. The horse with a crooked leg, driven by an unsavory but talented driver, blossomed into a speed powerhouse who finally broke the 2-minute mile and set a record of 1:55 that was not broken for over thirty years. Leerhsen follows the almost-forgotten, personable horse's story from his birth to his death, and his final sad years where he became pretty much a product endorsement name from everything from feed to gasoline engines to sleds, and also gives us a vivid portrait of harness racing in an era where doping was common and men traded horses like stocks. The narrative occasionally gets bogged down in almost too much detail, but the good definitely outraces any dull spots, with a great use of descriptive language.

book iconMurder on Bank Street, Victoria Thompson
Anyone who has followed Thompson's gaslight series about the adventures of midwife Sarah Brandt and the poor but honest Irish detective, Frank Malloy, knows that a longstanding mystery has been who killed Sarah's husband, Dr. Tom Brandt. Malloy, with growing affection for Sarah, has been tracking down his killer with the help of Sarah's aristocratic father, who disapproved of the match and who has been hiding a secret from Sarah. In this volume, Malloy has narrowed down the suspects and is ready to try to find the solution. Sarah doesn't get much detecting time in this one, but rather reacts as facts come to light and her nursemaid Maeve, a former street girl, gets the lion's share of the detecting duties. But as Maeve gets closer to the answer, will it be one Sarah wants to hear? A very suspenseful ending caps this entry in the series.

book iconDiva Without a Clue, Grace Dent
Frankly, it's the title that's clueless...this was published in England as Diary of a Chav, "chav" being a British insult word for what we might call "trailer trash." Fifteen year old Shiraz Bailey Wood gets a diary instead of an iPod for Christmas, and so begins her year-long saga of her schooldays in what's called a "superchav" school and a puzzling new teacher who tells her she's smart and should study for college when all she wants to do is quit school and work at a shop, her up-and-down relationship with her best friend, her older sister, her prickly mother, the "redneck" neighbors, and the other denizens of her life. It's sharply funny and occasionally sad, and well worth reading.

book iconThe Story of English: How the English Language Conquered the World, Philip Gooden
I have hosts of linguistics books, but this is one of the few (if the only) overview of the English language I have from a British viewpoint. There's nothing new here, and nothing covered in depth to suit a linguistics instructor, but it's a nice overview of the development of the language and the different civilizations, from the Celts through the Normans, and the contributions each made to the language. As a plus, it's gloriously illustrated and has interesting pull-outs, whether about the derivation of a word or about a personality, book, or concept.

book iconStar Trek, Alan Dean Foster
This is a workmanlike novelization of the "reboot" film by J.J. Abrams, with a few extra details worked in, such as where that ditch in the middle of Iowa came from (it's a quarry) and who the person was walking down the road when little Jimmy Kirk buzzes by in the car (it's his older brother George, who's running away from home and their stepfather). (Sadly, not much insight about why Mrs. Kirk chose such a jerk as a second husband.) Not many other details that the film didn't cover are included, however, although Foster does try to tone down Scotty's uncharacteristic comic relief role in the film. Oh, and you do find out the whereabouts of a missing character at the end. :-)

book iconRocket Men, Craig Nelson
As a layman reading this retelling of the Apollo 11 mission, I was enjoying the narrative, despite several typographic gaffes, the worst which is stating that 1948 was the date of the Apollo 8 flight (my favorite was the description of the Huntsville that the German rocket scientists first arrived at being a place of "dairy cows and cotton balls"; the lavatory image that it conjured up was very funny). Sadly, after reading many reviews, I now understand that there are many scientific errors in the narrative. So, please do not read this volume to be enlightened about the scientific process of space travel. Rather, read it as a chronicle of the times, of the excitement behind the lunar missions, the day-to-day life of the astronauts and their families, and Nelson's attempts to illuminate the personalities of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins. Indeed, one of the things I liked about this book were the numerous quotes from the normally taciturn Neil Armstrong. So, it's an interesting read (IMHO), but don't go to it for accurate scientific information.

book iconFounding Myths, Ray Raphael
From childhood we have heard many myths about the founding of the United States. As we grow older we learn that many of them, like the nursery tale of George Washington and the cherry tree, are just that, myths. However, many myths still exist—the story of Molly Pitcher, for instance, or the "hard winter" in Valley Forge—and these and others Raphael addresses. One of his main assertions is that we give too much credit to a small group of men, and a few women, known collectively as "the founding fathers" and too little to the ordinary people who actually lived and fought the Revolution: the shopkeepers and farmers, rich and poor, Tories and patriots. While he strikes some of the same notes as James W. Loewen, his narrative is less aggressive and hostile. (And he doesn't mention Gone With the Wind once.)

Incidentally, I was very amused by his chapter on Valley Forge, as he hit all of the points as our tour guide did during our vacation stop there in November 2009.

book iconThe Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, Alan Bradley
Enfant terrible Flavia de Luce, aged eleven, living with her widower father and two annoying older sisters, plus her father's shell-shocked former batman from the war, in a crumbling estate outside the small English village of Bishop's Lacey, is back! Flavia, a devotee of chemistry and interested in poisons, is introduced more slowly to the mystery in this outing, which finds her helping out with a puppet show being held at the church hall by a BBC children's show host and his female assistant. As quickly as you can say nux vomica, our plucky heroine is swept up in a muddle of the vicar's missing bicycle clip, Mad Meg of the forest, a former Land Girl, a former prisoner of war, a farm couple whose young son tragically hanged himself five years earlier, a field of cannabis, and, worst of all, a visit from martinet Aunt Felicity. The actual mystery is slow to begin, then takes off with a gallop, and we even learn more about Flavia's late mother Harriet. Her metaphors have also been reined in, which suits me just fine. A fun "English cozy" with a unique narrative voice.

12 January 2010

2009 Favorites

A yearly wrapup. A baker's dozen. Interesting: six fiction, seven nonfic. Of the fiction, three were mysteries, of the nonfiction, all but three were history, and of those three, two were about animals.

book iconA Voyage Long and Strange, Tony Horwitz (history: what happened between Columbus and the Pilgrims—Borders purchase)
book iconThe Cosgrove Report, G.J.A. O'Toole (1865 mystery about the fate of John Wilkes Booth—Borders purchase)
book iconTime Quake, Linda Buckley-Archer (conclusion of the "Gideon" trilogy; really, really, really worth waiting a year for!—Amazon order)
book iconA Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman (lush wordplay...loved it—Borders purchase)
book iconThe Perfect Summer: England 1911, Before the Storm (manners and morals in pre-WWI England—Borders purchase)
book iconA Duty to the Dead, Charles Todd (post-WWI based mystery with nurse protagonist; first in a series—Amazon Vine offering)
book iconHarlan Ellison's Watching, Harlan Ellison (media essays and criticisms—Borders purchase)
book iconEleanor Vs. Ike, Robin Gerber (alternative history--what if Adlai Stevenson had died and Eleanor Roosevelt had run for President in 1952?—Borders purchase from bargain table)
book iconAmong the Mad, Jacqueline Winspear (post WWI mystery, latest in the Maisie Dobbs series—Amazon order)
book iconAmerican Road, Pete Davies (cross country by car and "motor truck" in 1919 to publicize the Lincoln Highway project—Amazon Marketplace order after seeing Rick Sebak's Lincoln Highway special)
book iconWesley the Owl, Stacey O'Brien (IMHO, better than the highly-publicized Dewey—Borders purchase)
book iconA Drowned Maiden's Hair, Laura Amy Schlitz (YA thriller about an orphan adopted by a manipulative woman to take part in a con game—bargan book purchase at Fry's, of all places)
book iconFlyaway, Suzie Gilbert (experiences of a bird rehabber—Borders purchase)

Honorable mention to

book iconBeatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, Linda Lear (Borders purchase)