28 February 2010

Books Finished Since February 1

book iconThe Coupon Mom's Guide to Cutting Your Grocery Bill in Half, Stephanie Nelson
I hadn't been couponing as much as I used to, so I picked up this volume to kick-start myself again. There are some good strategies here, even for people with busy schedules who can't monitor multiple coupon packets/websites/lists for coupons; she divides couponing strategies into three different groups to facilitate a system for each person's lifestyle. There are even recipes to go along with the foods that most often go on sale/have coupons.

book iconThe War Against Miss Winter, Kathryn Miller Haines
Aspiring actress Rosalind Winter's luck is all bad: her boyfriend was shipped out after they had a falling-out, if she can't get a role soon she'll be tossed out of her theatrical boarding house, and when she walks into the office of her part-time job (secretarial work for a private detective), she discovers her boss has (ostensibly) committed suicide. She knows there's something suspicious about the death, odd people keep approaching her, and suddenly she's involved in a production by an offbeat playwright.

I was ambivalent about this one: on one hand I enjoyed the 1940s wartime New York City setting, the behind-the-scene theatrical machinations, the life at Rosie's boarding house, her friendship with the deceptively fragile Jayne, and some of the supporting characters, including Jayne's mobster boyfriend and Rosie's unexpected new friend Al. On the other hand, I wavered back and forth about caring about the plot, which mixed one part of Rosie's life with the other, and Rosie's excessive use of 1940s slang gets really wearing after a while. If you are a fan of 40s noir-ish mystery with a wisecracking heroine, you might enjoy this, but I'm debating going on with the series. I hear the slang is slackened in the sequel.

book iconThinking in Pictures, Temple Grandin
Author of Animals in Translation and other animal psychology volumes and a PhD, Grandin is also an autistic person who has managed to learn to cope with the "normal" world. She explains how her thinking differs compared to a non-autistic person, and how it has helped her in her chosen field, designing humane apparatus for slaughterhouses. Grandin's concepts of animal thought are fascinating, but in this book about her, I would have preferred more about her. We get tantalizing glimpses in how she suffered from excessive noise and touch, her difficulty "reading" people and understanding abstract concepts, etc., but never quite hear her story, rather what she suggests would help parents with autistic children and those children themselves.

book iconSilent on the Moor, Deanna Raybourn
When last we met, Heathcliff—oops, Nicholas Brisbane—had gone to Yorkshire to manage an estate, and he had asked Lady Julia Grey's sister Portia to help him with some household problems. Of course headstrong Julia, being a March, and being in love with Heath...I mean Brisbane, decides to accompany her sister. In Yorkshire they find the odd remnants of the family that Brisbane has taken over the estate from: an aristocratic mother, an ethereal older sister, and a practical younger one, not to mention an unusual gypsy woman living on the moor. Julia has come to Yorkshire to find out if her attraction to Brisbane can be resolved, but instead is drawn into old family secrets and hatred. Portia also receives a shocking blow in this third book in the series. The Brontë-ish setting works well with the resolving of the Julia/Brisbane plot, but the publisher should be shot for their new "bodice-ripper" covers. Newcomers to the story should probably start at the beginning of the trilogy to understand the tempestuous March family, and Julia's ongoing relationship to the enigmatic Brisbane.

book iconVienna Secrets, Frank Tallis
A friend has been reading this series of turn-of-the-20th-century mysteries set in Vienna, involving police detective Oskar Reinhardt and his working relationship/friendship with a young doctor (Max Liebermann) specializing in the new science of psychology, so when this fourth entry in the series presented itself on Amazon Vine, I ordered it, hoping one could pick up on the story without having read the previous three books. The mystery itself initially involves the grisly murder of a Catholic priest, a man killed by decapitation, having had his head yanked forcibly from his body, directly next to a monument of the plague.

Tallis' descriptions of 1903 Vienna bring that venerable city to life. One can see the medieval squares, almost smell and taste the luscious pastries so lovingly described in coffeehouse visits, note the decay in portions of the cities. It is also an excellent portrait of a time where advances in psychiatry go hand-in-hand with virulent anti-Semitism (including a deliberate charge brought against Dr. Leibermann for not allowing a Catholic patient to receive last rites from a priest) in government circles. I think it helps to have read the previous books to discover how Reinhardt and Leibermann became friends, and also to be a fan of police procedurals, which I confess I am not. I enjoyed the mystery, but wasn't fond of the psychiatric musings.

book iconAppetite for America: Fred Harvey Civilizing the West—One City at a Time, Stephen Fried
In 1853 young Englishman Fred Harvey arrived in the United States almost penniless; by the time of his death he had built an empire of eating establishments (and several hotels) that stretched across the Midwest to California. In 1946, ironically as his empire was dying, his "Harvey Houses" were immortalized in the Judy Garland film The Harvey Girls. Harvey elevated railroad eateries, once the nadir of American cooking with slow service and heavily fried and recycled food that required gobbling down during the short station stops, to a European fine dining standard and introduced the "civilizing" element of the Harvey Girl waitress to the West.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book! Fried uses the westward expansion of the United States and the growth of railroad travel through its golden age as a canvas against which he verbally paints the growth of the Fred Harvey chain in a friendly conversational style that never talks down to its audience. From "bleeding Kansas" to the final victory in World War II, the growth of the Harvey family (both "in triumph and tragedy") and empire takes place against the history of the United States: the Civil War, westward expansion, the development of the National Park system (and Harvey's role in publicizing the Grand Canyon, the Southwest, and Native American crafts), the industrialization of the country, and two world wars.

Fried includes Harvey House recipes and his own experience traveling along the "Harvey route" as a postscript to an already enthralling tale. Highly recommended for history buffs and even those whose previous knowledge of a Harvey House simply consists of knowing the words to "On the Atchinson, Topeka and the Santa Fe."

book iconTime Unincorporated, Volume 1, Lance Parkin
This is a collection of articles that Parkin wrote for various Doctor Who print fanzines over the years, especially in the years between the cancellation of the original series until the revival. Also included is Parkin's overview of the series, year by year. Whether or not you agree with all of Parkin's opinions, this is a fun read for a Who fan, especially one funny essay about the Daleks masquerading as a field report. Especially when he begins talking about the announcements and then buildup to the new series, it brings back the excitement Who fans felt when they first heard the series was coming back. All I remember is when I first saw "Rose," I wanted to shout, like the famous hockey announcer, "Do you believe in miracles?"

book iconDon't Eat This Book, Morgan Spurlock
A follow-on to Spurlock's film, Super Size Me, in which he ate nothing but McDonald's food for an entire month. Between this volume and Fast Food Nation, it's enough to turn you off any of them for the rest of your life. Made me even guilty for the plain junior hamburger and bowl of mandarin oranges I usually get at Wendy's.

Spurlock makes good points about the "healthy" foods that fast food establishments are supposedly putting in their menus that are, with the additives to make them palatable, turn out to be as fattening as the original foods they served. (Check out the books Eat This, Not That and you will learn that sometimes that big bad hamburger has fewer calories and less salt than the "healthy" chicken sandwich some places offer.) He intersperses his experience making the film and eating at McDonald's between chapters on food additives, how some health companies who defend fast food restaurants are actually paid by them, and much other dirt on the fast food industry. While it was nothing I didn't know before, it was—if you'll pardon the pun—food for thought about the additive-and-fat heavy diet we eat these days.

book iconThe Tale of Briar Bank, Susan Wittig Albert
How delicious! Miss Beatrix Potter escapes from her stultifying life with her parents at Bolton Gardens for a few days at her farmhouse in the Lake District and is promptly snowed in, which means she can enjoy additional days at her beloved Hill Top Farm with her Sawrey neighbors. In the meantime, a tree has fallen on Hugh Wickstead, a local farmer, killing him, and Lady Longford's barn has burnt down, from what looked like lightning. But the animals of Sawrey know better, for Wickstead's terrier Pickles saw the miscreant...a dragon was the culprit, a dragon guarding the treasure Mr. Wickstead has found!

There is a mystery involved in these pages, but the narrative contains more than usual of the whimsical animal interactions that are the special mark of Albert's Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter. The Wind in the Willows-type relationships between the animals are cute, but I could have hoped for a little more of the real-life mystery and encounters between the people, especially as the romance between Beatrix and lawyer William Heelis is beginning to grow. Still, Albert writes in such a lovely approximation of Potter's own style, and describes the little animal nooks with such loving detail that it's hard not to want to visit these little cozy places yourself. But, warning...for cozy fans only!

book iconThe Betrayal of the Blood Lily, Lauren Willig
I remember saying these books were like peanuts. They are not. If you are in the mood for romance mixed with early 19th century swashbuckling in the Napoleonic era, they are chocolate—quite irresistible.

In this latest chapter of the Pink Carnation saga, Penelope Devereaux, the impulsive best friend of Henrietta Selwick Dorrington, having compromised herself at a Christmas party, is now enroute to her husband's new post in India. Pen, who has already found out that life with Lord Frederick Staines isn't that proverbial bowl of cherries, finds herself curious, and perhaps even a little attracted, by Captain Alex Reid, a straight arrow who nevertheless seems to be hiding secrets. Since Pen knows from Henrietta's missives that there's a "flower operative," the Marigold, operating in the area, she suspects it may be Reid. And what is he to make of this headstrong women who he soon realizes made a bad marriage choice? In the meantime, relations are going badly between the Indian nationals, the British, and the French. Could it be that it's Penelope's callous husband who's the spy? Or someone else? Much romance, much recrimination, much betrayal going on behind the scenes.

The modern framing sequence, with Eloise Kelly learning about Colin Selwick's complicated family relationships, seems more intrusive this time than previously, especially since it's taken on the aspect of a soap opera. Even though we know we're only being allowed access to these Pink Carnation tales through Eloise's "discoveries," the intrusions are getting...well, more intrusive.

Just to note we won't be waiting the usual year for the next installment: there's a Christmas-based book due out in October. In the meantime, when is Jane Wooliston going to get her romance? And might it be with the enigmatic "Moonflower"?

book iconScience Fiction Culture, Camille Bacon-Smith
This is the second in Bacon-Smith's ethnographic study of science fiction fans, but while the first (Enterprising Women) concentrated mostly on fanfiction as written by women and communities of women in science fiction, this opens a broader observation of science fiction fandom: early fandom based on books and pulps through the online communities for SF today (or rather in 2000, when the book was published). Chapters touch on gays/bisexuals in fandom, the Goth movement, how an SF book goes from idea to published volume, children growing up in fandom, and more.

I especially enjoyed the chapter about early online access, specifically GEnie, since James and I used to be on GEnie. That was a fun time.

25 February 2010

More Carnationy Goodness

If you're a fan of Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation series, you will enjoy this original Christmas novella, the framing sequence of which takes place before Temptation of the Night Jasmine:

Ivy and Intrigue: A Very Selwick Christmas