31 August 2010

Books Finished Since August 1

book icon  An Expert in Murder, Nicola Upson
If you are a fan of classic 1930s mystery fiction on the line of Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, and Josephine Tey, you will love the narrative. This is a complex plot with echoes of Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series, as repercussions of events in the first World War still haunt an England slowly approaching the brink of the second. Josephine Tey (the pen name of Elizabeth Mackintosh) befriends a young woman on a train; a few minutes after Tey leaves the compartment the woman is brutally murdered in a manner suggesting the killer was leaving a message. Thus follows a complex mystery featuring the cast of Tey's hit play Richard of Bordeaux, including a thinly disguised Sir John Gielgud. In the midst of a cast of absorbing characters, the setting and Upson's pitch-perfect 1930s language also star.

book icon  Candy Freak, Steve Almond
I plucked this book off the bargain table since it looked like a tounge-in-cheek look at small candy companies by a self-professed "candy freak." This book does contain some interesting looks at companies like the New England Candy Company (Necco) and a few others, but contains wayyyy too much personal info about the author. (Do we really need to know when he masturbates?) In addition, several irritating typos abound (agar agar is mentioned about a dozen times and misspelled at least half of those), and suddenly near the end of the book Almond's narrative degenerates into a nosedive of a political rant. Eh, what? Pity, because the candy factory parts were good reading.

book icon  Shooting for the Moon, Bob Berman
With all the books about the US manned spacecraft program in the house, I suppose I could have passed on this short, simple overview of America's race for the moon. However, it was only a couple of dollars...

I notice a tendency in recent books about the space program to tag the Gemini program with "second movie in a trilogy" syndrome and say that it would be a footnote in history except for some exciting events within the program. As a person who sat and watched the Gemini programs, I'm not sure why modern writers consider Gemini an "also ran." The missions were all used to test heady stuff: space walks, docking, long-term spaceflight—as covered on television, they were never dull. So...enough already.

Check this book out if you want a summary of the U.S. space program with the occasional interesting bit of trivia. Otherwise there are much better books on the space program out there, like Chaikin's A Man on the Moon.

book icon  The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, Kelly O'Connor McNees
This is a pleasant but occasionally irritating novel of one summer in Alcott's life when the family was living in Walpole, New Hampshire, in a home let free of charge to them by a relative. As always, due to Bronson Alcott's refusal to work at a traditional job (although he expected his wife and daughters to toil away at the backbreaking housework necessary in those days), the family was scraping to stay alive. Louisa is longing to return to Boston where she can live frugally and write her stories, eschewing the romances her elder sister Anna and friends long for, until Joseph Singer comes into her life. As the Alcott women try to escape the strictures put onto them by society, Louisa at first rebels against, then is attracted to Singer. In an effort to show Louisa's prickly temper, McNees occasionally makes her more annoying than independent, and pretty much nothing happens in the book until the last few chapters. Still, it's a painless way to find out something about the Alcott family dynamics.

book icon  Mean Streets, Jim Butcher/Simon R. Green/Kat Richardson/Thomas E. Sniegoski
Frankly, I bought this book for the Harry Dresden story, but enjoyed the other three urban fantasy tales as well. Beware, the story about the private detective who goes searching for a woman's husband is rather intense and grim.

book icon  Death in Hyde Park, Robin Paige
A new adventure of Charles and Kate Sheridan, reluctant peer/amateur sleuth and his American-born wife, this time focusing more on the age of social upheaval in England that they find themselves involved in, and of the anarchists, Russian and otherwise, who lived in the East End. More courtroom drama that normal in this cozy series, but entertaining if nothing else the quick-witted barrister's work. As the story opens, a young radical is killed by his own bomb; arrested in the subsequent raid on a socialist newspaper is a union organizer who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Charles is asked to help clear the young man. As always, Paige mixes real history in with her story, as a young Jack London, in England to write an expose of the slums, encounters the feisty female editor of the raided newspaper. Along the way you painlessly learn something of the years of British social upheaval.

book icon  Spud, John van de Ruit
It's 1990 in a South Africa freeing itself slowly from apartheid. Nelson Mandela is about to be released from prison. And thirteen-year-old John Milton is off to boarding school for the first time. Nicknamed "Spud" (uh, because his "haven't dropped yet"), John ends up rooming with seven of the craziest boarding school buddies one could ever meet. As the year progresses, Spud embarks on escapades with his bunkmates, feels guilty for neglecting his girlfriend for an "older woman" (she's fifteen), copes during the holidays with his level-headed Mum and a father who thinks Mandela's release will wreak anarchy upon society (not to mention a slightly dotty grandmother whom he calls "the Wombat"), tries out for the lead in the school musical, befriends a few professors, and along the way learns some lessons about life.

This is definitely not a "G" rated book—with all those boys life is nothing if not raunchy—but it's also hysterically funny...and sometimes extraordinarily touching. Sort of a male version of Diary of a Chav and a less depressing Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (whom Spud has a few choice words about!).

book icon  Up Tunket Road, Philip Ackerman-Leist
This is the simple but remarkable story of Philip and Erin Ackerman-Leist, who buy property in rural Vermont and live as real homesteaders. Their life is not easy; for some time they struggle against keeping warm and sheltered until their cabin is livable, and they must make choices about how to best use the land to support themselves. This is as much an examination of the homesteading lifestyle and what it is perceived to be versus what it is (or doesn't need to be) as it is a chronicle of the couple's adventure in living. Leist brings his down-to-earth Vermont neighbors vividly to life—the dowser, the builder, the organic gardener, the cattleman, and others. As always, there are humorous happenings in their unconventional life—like the time Leist is trapped in the outhouse by one of their oxen.

If you've ever wondered what it was like to "go off the grid," this is an honest retelling of the pleasures and the perils of doing so. Plus you get the wonderful pen-and-ink drawings of Erin Ackerman-Leist!

book icon  The Sisters Grimm: The Problem Child, Michael Buckley
The sisters Grimm, Sabrina and Daphne, have no sooner started to cope with the destruction of their elementary school and the loss of "Mr. Canis," their grandmother's unconventional chauffeur (hint: he's really the big bad wolf!) than their uncle Jack shows up. Under Granny Relda's disapproving eye, Jack encourages Sabrina to dabble in the magic that her grandmother endeavors to keep her away from. But it's hard for Sabrina as the world of the Everafters is threatened by a new menace: Little Red Riding Hood. Driven mad by the death of her granny, Little Red is even invading Sabrina's dreams.

There's a bit more meat in this edition of Buckley's delightful "mash up" of fairy-tale characters as Uncle Jack tempts Sabrina into something she may become addicted to: magic! And with Daphne's new martial arts talents, can a rousing finale not be far behind?

book icon  A Year at the Races, Jane Smiley
Another bargain-table find. It was...okay. I've noticed Smiley's name on several different best-selling books, and as this was about the training of race horses, I thought it might be interesting. The horse parts—about their individual, sometimes quirky personalities, how they are trained, and the backstage dealings at the race track—are fascinating, but the bits about the pet psychic are just...odd. The horse doesn't like its name so Smiley has to change it?

book icon  Tales from a Dog Catcher, Lisa Duffy-Korpics
If you're a dog lover, you'll probably enjoy this collection of tales by Duffy-Korpics, who supported herself before and during college by being an animal-control officer in a small New York town. It has the flavor of a Chicken Soup for the Soul volume (in fact, several of the stories here have been in Chicken Soup volumes). You'll read about people willing to give up almost anything for their pets, and callous human beings not worthy of the name human; quirky owners (sadly, some quirky enough to endanger their pets) and those enriched by the lives of their animals—even a sociopathic dog. This is a good book for bedside reading, perhaps one story a night—but be warned in the case of some of them: tissues should be available.

book icon  Mr. Monk in Trouble, Lee Goldberg
Well, isn't he always? :-) This time Monk and Natalie find themselves in Trouble, an almost forgotten gold-rush town—well, almost forgotten except for that tantalizing gold robbery in 1962—at the request of Captain Stottelmeyer; an old friend of his has been murdered while working at the town museum. Monk is appalled by the rustic town, but not appalled enough to not become intrigued in both the murder of the Captain's friend and the 1962 gold robbery. And along the way, Natalie starts reading a gold-rush era diary that features a young widow who works for a startlingly familiar, squeakily-clean assayer: a fellow named Artemis Monk.

Some bits of this book are fun, especially the improbable diary entries. But, oh, goodness, the running gag is back...times two. Please...please, not again... Not to mention that the murderer was so obvious that even I twigged to the person immediately.

book icon  The Mapmakers, John Noble Wilford
Can anyone actually look at a map, especially a map of "places far," perhaps those mentioned in story and song, and read the exotic names without a sense of longing for adventure? Wilford begins at the beginning, with the idea of the map drawn into the sand by some ancient ancestor, and wanders the earth on the trails of the mapmakers: the ancients including the Egyptians and Greeks, the medieval cartographers who brought us the T-O maps, the men of the Age of Discovery, the mapmakers who seek to draw the most accurate maps, the search for preciseness in latitude and longitude, surveying, ocean mapping, and finally, to the methods of today, using spaceflight, computers, and GPS to make a better map. Wholly absorbing.

No comments: