31 March 2010

Books Finished Since March 1

book iconFoundation, Mercedes Lackey (re-read)
Mercedes Lackey returns to her Valdemar universe after a five-year absences. While Foundation, set at the time that Herald's Collegium is being built (and being fussed about by older Heralds who think the old way of instructing novices one-on-one is fine), isn't terrible, it does read a bit like a young-adult novel rather than a tale for adults. And there is the usual plot: adolescent, badly treated (in this case, the boy protagonist Mags is a mine slave, so it's more serious than usual), is Chosen and finds happiness, but also finds challenges in the form of evil intentions by outsiders. In this case the "evil" comes late in the novel and is just a setup for the remainder of the trilogy, so nothing really earth-shaking happens. Still, it's another new Valdemar novel, and hopefully something a bit more exciting will occur in the sequels.

book iconBlood and Circuses, Kerry Greenwood
In this sixth book in the Phryne Fisher series, Phryne is asked by carnival friends to find out who is trying to drive Farrell's Circus out of business. Phryne joins the circus as "Fern," a dancer turned trick rider (she learns to trick ride for the mission). In the meantime a hermaphrodite man who belonged to the same circus dies in a boarding house nearby; a former circus performer is accused of his death.

This is a fascinating entry in the Phryne Fisher series, giving you an inside look at a traveling circus in 1928 Australia and a glimpse of the people who work there: clowns who are thought unlucky, unusual people like dwarves and hermaphrodites who are accepted in the circus where they would not be anywhere else. Phryne, who has taken the job because she was bored, learns about loneliness and fear. We're also given a glimpse of Australian gangsters and street crime of the 1920s, including a prostitute who's becoming a drug addict. As is usual with a Phryne Fisher book, all the lads are attracted to her, and she manages to have hot sex with two different men. But it's a cracking good mystery as well.

book iconMurder in the Dark, Kerry Greenwood
In the next to the latest of the Phryne Fisher books, she is invited to "the Last Best Party of 1928" at a home rented by an English brother and sister, a "golden couple" who attract hangers-on who worship them and act as servants to their whims. Phryne's not certain if she'll attend until a series of threats urge her to keep away. Since no one tells the Hon. Miss Fisher what to do, Phryne arrives at the rented estate to rub hands and horns with sycophants, Bright Young Things, and other denizens attending the party. Then a child the siblings have adopted is kidnapped and someone starts sending Phryne a series of riddles.

The story is a vivid portrait of bored wealthy youth and their hangers-on in the 1920s. It was the puzzle, Phryne, and the young man who she befriended that kept me reading, as the siblings and their friends were frankly obnoxious. I couldn't imagine a more horrendous group to spend the New Year with, which, of course, made the ending all the worse (and all the more ironic).

book iconHave You Seen My Country Lately?, Jerry Doyle
As I get older, I start to wonder what has happened to our freedoms: the rise of the "nanny state," kids afraid to go outside and play, not to mentioned threatened at school by other children whose parents seem to make no attempt to control them, more rules and regulations leading to more chaos instead of less, people who would rather sue than take responsibility for their actions. Doyle echoes many of my concerns about the eroding of our rights and the obliviousness of the politicians that are supposed to represent us. I also enjoyed the brief biographical information included.

book iconThe Book of Lists: The 90s Edition, David Wallechinsky and Amy Wallace
I have all the Book of List volumes, which are fun reading, like popcorn in print. Perfect bathroom books, or bedside reading.

book iconThe Mapping of Love and Death, Jacqueline Winspear
In 1914, Michael Clifton intends to purchase valuable California land under which he believes is oil. While he is enroute to the East coast, war breaks out in Europe, and Clifton feels the need to serve the country of his father's birth. Eighteen years later, Clifton's body is unearthed in a trench, and it looks as if he met his death not by wartime action, but by malicious intent. His parents engage private inquiry agent Maisie Dobbs to dig into Michael's past, especially to see if she can find a mysterious nurse who appeared in love letters found with Michael's body.

This is an excellent volume in the Maisie Dobbs series. The title references not only Maisie's search into Michael's life (he was a cartographer), but of the changes happening in her personal life as well. For years Maisie has held herself aloof from most relationships, except those with her mentor Maurice Blanche and her father. Now, between her friend Pen's matchmaking attempts and the appearance of someone from her past, Maisie is faced with re-examination of her future. Time is also forcing her to face another event she has dreaded.

I find Winspear's prose enjoyable, whether telling us of Maisie's inner turmoil as well as walking us through her deductive reasoning, or describing 1930s England and the repercussions left behind by World War I. She has made me feel as if all her characters are family: Maisie, her father, Maurice, Lord and Lady Compton and their son, Maisie's assistant Billy and his family, Andrew Dene, and others introduced in the course of the series. I look forward to following Maisie into the future.

book iconScent of the Missing: Love & Partnership With a Search and Rescue Dog, Susannah Charleson
This is an enjoyable book about the training of Puzzle, a Golden retriever, for search and rescue, interspersed with the author's memories of her own training in the field (and occasionally personal reasons for her involvement in the work). I enjoyed Charleson's descriptive language; if it gets occasionally flowery, it paints evocative word pictures of search sites, inclement weather, the dogs as they work, the scents and sounds of a disaster area, the tension surrounding a search and the uncertainties of the process, victims and families. As in real life, some of the searches are not resolved, and some end tragically. A particularly absorbing chapter that takes place before Charleson adopted Puzzle concerns her participation in looking for wreckage from the Columbia space shuttle.

While the search and rescue chapters are absorbing, some of the best parts of the book are about Puzzle's relationship with Charleson's family of Pomeranians, each a rescue, including an elderly, blind dog who was allowed to wander away from his deceased owner's home by her children because they didn't want the animal. Puzzle's relationship with "Scuppy" is especially memorable. Recommended for dog lovers as well as those interested in search and rescue work.

book iconHouse Unauthorized: Vasculitis, Clinic Duty and Bad Bedside Manner, ed. by Leah Wilson
If you are a fan of House, MD, you may enjoy these essays about the various aspects of the series. Sections include House, the show; House the character; the psychology of Gregory House; and his interactions with the other characters. I have to confess I found the opening essay, where different fictional "concepts" (like "House, Heating and Plumbing Contractor") were supposedly tried out before a hospital setting was decided on, fell a bit flat in the humor department.

However, the majority of the pieces in this volume were of interest. Particularly noted: one comparing House to Hawkeye Pierce, another comparing Sherlock Holmes (the basis for the character) to House, and a fascinating query into why the fact House takes drugs to control debilitating pain is considered bad. There are also two essays about Wilson's role as sidekick, one postulating that Wilson, at least part time, may be a figment of House's imagination, plus another about how Cameron, Chase, and Foreman each reflect a part of House's personality.

book iconWindowsXP Timesaving Techniques for Dummies, 2nd Edition, Woody Leonhard
These are...surprise!...timesaving techniques for WindowsXP! I read through this book, but merely browsed some sections, not really interested in optimizing Internet Explorer, which I only use as a CITGO gateway. Leonhard writes in a light, humorous style to keep your interest in what might be a deadly subject to some. I found his instructions to do a System Restore very helpful (it didn't help the problem, but now I know how to do it). Neat stuff like desktop e-mail shortcuts, using Windows Media Player to rip CDs to mp3s, even a section on using a scanner effectively. And, as always, battling spam and viruses.

book iconWinging It, Jenny Gardiner
Scott and Jenny Gardiner had always wanted a parrot. Four months after the birth of their first child, Scott's brother gives them a wild-caught, terrified and traumatized African grey fledgeling.

This is the story of the Gardiners' life with "Graycie," as the bird was named, who never seemed comfortable in the Gardiners' busy home, eventually full of three children, two cats, and a dog who seemed allergic to almost everything. Despite Graycie's hostile personality, the Gardiners took their responsibility to her seriously and continued to try to bridge the gap between themselves and their reluctant pet. Once the family moves to a home where Graycie has her own space, it seems they may start making progress with her, but even this is interrupted by family emergencies, including a frightening series of seizures affecting their older daughter.

I have been a bird lover since childhood, with a succession of budgies, so this story struck rather close to home. I admired the family's decision not to make Graycie a disposable pet, but felt bad for Graycie as well: while Jenny and Scott never ignored Graycie for stupid things like endless cocktail parties, social climbing, and shopping sprees, it seems there were so many genuine family crises that kept them from being able to bond more with their bird. Indeed, Gardiner spends several pages apologizing for the times attention to Graycie had to take second place to childrens' injury/sickness, her own health problems, and home problems.

Therefore I was a bit ambivalent about my enjoyment of the book in total, but would recommend it to bird lovers, especially to those who might think owning a bird in the parrot species is "easy" and you will immediately have a cute, funny pet like those macaws and cockatoos in films, or they will be decorative and decorous. Like ownership of any pet, or parenting of a child, owning a parrot is a lifetime responsibility.

book iconWishing for Tomorrow, Hilary McKay
The tendency at the end of a classic book with beloved characters is for the reader to wonder "what happened next." Some folks just daydream about it, some write fanfiction, but there are others with enough reputation to have publishers who will support a sequel effort. Some really don't work out, like Susan Moody's hideous Misselthwaite (Return to the Secret Garden), an adult effort which managed to malign the characters of the original novel. Some are good efforts which fall flat, like Before Green Gables.

This children's sequel to The Little Princess, however, is quite readable, remains fairly close to the characters as originated by Burnett, and keeps up a good pace. McKay doesn't try to imitate the Victorian style under which Burnett wrote, which is both good and bad: the narration often seems simplistic next to Burnett's, lacking her wordcraft skills, and words which sound too modern creep in now and again. She also steers away from the unfortunate Victorian tendency to pigeonhole "well bred people" as those who would not willingly do anything wrong or sink into degradation.

If you were hoping to see more of Sara Crewe, you will be disappointed: she is a sideline character in this story, chiefly appearing in letters to Ermengarde, who continues to struggle against being an average child in a household full of overachievers. Snobby Lavinia comes into her own in the story as well, as we discover the reason for her vindictiveness, which uncovers the hidden bitterness in Miss Minchin's life as well. Lottie has turned into a bit of a brat in the story (one longs to make her sit down and shush), and the new maid who replaces Becky is very outspoken, not acting at all like the typical Victorian servant. However, these are minor problems; as sequels go, it is enjoyable and recommended for anyone who wonders "what happened next."