30 September 2010

Books Finished Since September 1

book icon  Death at Blenheim Palace, Robin Paige
In what Paige states is the penultimate book in the series, the emphasis is on those wealthy American young women who were dazzled—or coerced by greedy parents—into marrying English peers, only to find themselves looked down upon by the servants and overwhelmed by running huge manor houses, and discovering that they were only married to shore up dwindling finances. Consuelo Vanderbilt Marlborough has found this out the hard way. Now she fears her husband will make a fool of himself with his mistress. In the meantime, visitors Sir Charles Sheridan and his American wife, the former Kate Ardleigh, get wind of a plot to burgle Blenheim Palace during a visit of King Edward and Queen Alexandra—and it will be an "inside job." Winston Churchill as a young man also re-appears. Another "cozy" murder mystery revolving around a little-known piece of history, with a rather bitter taste at the end. For historical perspective on this novel, try the book To Marry An English Lord or a biography of Consuelo Vanderbilt.

book icon  Changing the World, edited by Mercedes Lackey
A new collection of short stories set in Lackey's Valdemaran universe, and they are pretty much all "keepers." Lackey has a strong entry (especially against her "Scooby-Doo" parody in the last volume) about a woman who resents Heralds because of a family incident. I even enjoyed the very tongue-in-cheek "Interview With a Companion," which I understand some fans did not like. There's a nice mixture of stories as well, not all involving Heralds—witness a mystery involving city guards and the tale of a trader's daughter who wishes to rescue an abused servant girl in a female-repressive society. The humorous "Nothing Better to Do" about a Herald entrusted with the transport of a mischievous toddler was also a favorite.

book icon  The Complete Idiot's Guide to The World of Narnia, James S. Bell Jr. and Cheryl Dunlop
I can't say there was anything in this volume that I didn't know, but if you are just getting into C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, or wish to probe the deeper meanings of the stories, you may find this volume helpful.

book icon  The Way I See It, Melissa Anderson
How odd that books about sweet Mary Ingalls and nasty Nellie Oleson came out nearly at the same time. Anderson's book is...workmanlike to the point of being dull. While I don't think it was quite as bad as some of the reviewers on Amazon.com paint it—I did pick up a few interesting tidbits about the series and Melissa's life off the set—and I certainly don't mind that she "dished" little "dirt" about her co-stars, the simple sentences, the reiterations of whole pages of plot synopses from Little House on the Prairie (Little House fans will remember all the nuances of the plot; why repeat the details?), and the occasional wandering into a script format made the narrative choppy. I'd take this book out of the library rather than buying it; YMMV.

book icon  Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, Alison Arngrim
On the other hand, this book is all that it was publicized to be. Arngrim's writing is fast, funny—and sometimes terrifying, occasionally profane, and always absorbing. Arngrim came from a theatrical family: her father was Liberace's manager and her mother the voice of animated characters like Gumby and Sweet Polly Purebred, her brother was the cute little kid with the dog on Land of the Giants. But beneath the surface was dysfunction; her father was gay in an era when it wasn't spoken of and her parents focused so little on their children that Arngrim's "cute" brother abused her from an early age and was a hard drug user, all without their knowledge. In the midst of this chaos Arngrim worked off her fears and frustrations (and the pain of her elaborate wig and costume) via bratty Nellie Oleson, and found friendship with the girl who played her "enemy" Laura Ingalls, Melissa Gilbert. Hilarious and heartbreaking by turns.

book icon  Main Street 9: Coming Apart, Ann M. Martin
As we return to Camden Falls, Massachusetts for a new year, Nikki Sherman is dreading the reappearance of her father. His divorce from her mother is being finalized and he's showing up to collect a last few things. But when he does reappear, Nikki is surprised to see he is well-dressed, soft-spoken and—most importantly—sober. In the meantime, Flora is letting her love for her new baby cousin absorb her days, younger sister Ruby has done something forbidden and is trying to be good to make up for it, and the youngest of all the friends, Olivia, is emotionally coming to terms with the fact that her pal Joshua considers himself a boyfriend rather than a friend who's a boy.

As always, Martin mixes up the lives of her child characters with her adult characters: there's a subplot with Mr. Pennington, and also the fears of Mrs. Sherman. I was hoping she would go against type with Nikki's father, but I was disappointed in that. As seems to be custom in the "Main Street" books lately, it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Nevertheless, another good visit with the Northrups, Walter, and Sherman families.

book icon  Grace Under Pressure, Julie Hyzy
Grace Wheaton's grandmother loved Marshfield Manor, the place she had been a servant so many years ago, and brought up Grace to love the old place, too. Now in her twenties, Grace has become assistant curator at Marshfield, which has become a hotel and events venue as well as museum and home for the last of the Marshfields, Bennett. After a loud man attempts to break up one of Marshfield's weekly Teas, the mansion's security director is shot and killed, and Grace discovers that someone has been sending threatening blackmail notes to the estate owner. When Grace must step in the deceased man's shoes, she is faced with a resentful co-worker, irate customers, and the specter of the shooting: was the killer actually trying to murder Bennett?

Although there was a coincidence with some characters that seemed a bit contrived, I enjoyed both the mystery and the characters, especially Grace and her roommates (although I flinched at Hyzy giving a gay man the clichè name of Bruce!).

book icon  At Home, Bill Bryson
Think of this of "a short history of nearly everything having to do with the home." Bryson takes us from attic to cellar in the old vicarage he calls home in England to tell the story of private life. After examining the pivotal year of 1851 and the land surrounding his home, Bryson starts with the basic structure of all human shelters, the one-room living space that became the medieval hall, and then visits each individual room to chronicle a different aspect of society: the bathroom to examine sanitation; the kitchen to talk about food (of course); the scullery to discuss servants, etc. The home becomes a springboard of discussion to architecture, social customs, furnishings, plants...even sexuality, and all in Bryson's engaging fashion.

The true test of this book: it kept me absorbed in a 3 1/2 hour ticket line in over 70 degree heat. Now that's interesting writing!

book icon  An Impartial Witness, Charles Todd
Bess Crawford, nurse at the front in World War I, accompanies the wounded home to England where they will be hospitalized. One patient, a badly burned pilot, keeps a photograph of his wife with him always. To her surprise, Bess sees the woman at the railway station—with another man...then later learns from a newspaper article that the woman has been murdered. She can't help reporting what she saw to Scotland Yard...or becoming involved herself in the investigation, especially after an innocent man's life is at stake.

I didn't like this installment of the Bess Crawford mysteries as well as the last, although we did get to see much more of her family. Despite the fact she's nursing at the front, she seems to come and go from her posting at ease, and one can't worry about her much as she always appears to have a faithful bodyguard by her side. Those things, however, didn't keep me from turning the page to see who was involved and how other characters in the story would react.

book icon  Night of the Living Trekkies, Kevin D. Anderson and Sam Stall
Quirk Books, who have kept us in supernatural horror characters like zombies, werewolves and vampires with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Mansfield Park and Mummies, tackles a media classic with this humor-edged survival tale about Jim Pike (hmmm...Jim Kirk...Christopher Pike...get it?), a veteran of two tours of duty of Afghanistan and former Star Trek fan who just wants to spend the rest of his life blending in with the woodwork, until the weekend GulfCon invades the hotel where he works as a bellboy. But it's not the invasion of the Trekkies that will bring Jim out of his torpor, but something more serious...something that looks like an invasion of...zombies? With his younger sister, a convention attendee, to protect, and others to protect, Jim must find a way out for them, and fast.

This isn't great literature nor an insightful psychological portrait, but it is a well-paced, very often humorous, survival adventure. SF fans especially will enjoy the battle of wits against the mindless invaders (and no, they're not actually refugees from reality television...).

book icon  Turn and Jump, Howard Mansfield
This book made me...melancholy.

The subtitle is "How Time and Place Fell Apart" and is a series of essays connected by a time theme, basically how people used to operate on a schedule set by the sun and by what chores needed to be done, but how now we are harried by the clock. Some of them are only thinly connected to the theme, but I found all interesting, especially the story of a family-run grocery store that was operated for 103 years, and each year of its operation record books were kept of the day-to-day events. I almost cried when I finished the essay and discovered the place no longer exists, since it sounded like such a wonderful place to visit. The melancholy effect came to a head with the final essay, which is about the Native Americans just reclaiming their heritage in public, when they were told to keep it hidden for so many years.

book icon  The Gentle Art of Domesticity, Jane Brocket
No sooner did I wish to find Ms. Brocket's Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer, a book about the goodies found in old children's books, then I came upon this volume on the remainder pile at Barnes & Noble. Since it's about baking, knitting, sewing, and quilting, with the occasional side trip to gardening, you might figure it was the last thing I would be reading, but I rather enjoyed it all, turning the pages that made the book into a cozy home, with colorful patterned illustrations on every page of baking or fabric projects or just family photos and domestic-themed paintings. It was like reading Jennifer Harris' "Allsorts" blog in print. Brocket's themes include "Inspiration," "Color," "Texture," "Patterns," and more.

book icon  Blackout, Connie Willis
Willis returns to her future Oxford universe setting of The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, where history students time travel to pivotal but not critical settings in history to observe people and events happen as part of their studies. As the book opens, Merope Ward (under the alias Eileen O'Malley, a maid at a manor house) is already studying World War 2 evacuee British children, Polly Churchill is now Polly Sebastian on her way to pose as a shopgirl in Blitz London to study the effects of bombing on the residents, and Michael Davies, as Mike Davis, is supposed to go to Pearl Harbor. But it becomes evident that there is something "up," as schedules are switched and amended up until the time each of them leave. Michael ends up near Dover, frantically trying to get to the beach to observe only the returnees from Dunkirk. Instead he takes part in the action and worries he has change history, while Polly must cope with "slippage" that has made her days late for her assignment and Merope with her job taken away.

Once one can get over the fact that most of these history students appear fixated on their time periods and don't know a lot about anything else but what they are studying, and, as in the past books, the "net" they use for transport is prone to trouble, this is an absorbing glimpse into what would happen if modern people had to cope with the realities of the Second World War, and perhaps the prospect of not returning home. As what happens to Kivrin in Doomsday Book, Polly begins to see that the population she is studying aren't just subjects, but real people who she begins to care about. Mike and Eileen also form attachments and struggle with what their impact will be on history.

Be forewarned that this book ends on a cliffhanger and is continued in the sequel All Clear...which I have in my hot little hands thanks to Amazon Vine. :-)