31 May 2011

Books Finished Since May 1

book icon  Murder Your Darlings, J.J. Murphy
Dorothy Parker arrives early for her luncheon at the Algonquin Hotel with her fellow members of "the Round Table," a sharp-tongued company of writers and publishers, including the acid-tongued Alexander Woollcott and the whimsical Robert Benchley, and discovers, under that selfsame table, the murdered body of a newspaper drama critic. A young visitor from the South, callow "Billy" Faulkner (yes, that Faulkner), is suspected of the crime, and Dorothy juggles apartments and escape routes to keep the young man out of the clutches of the police, accompanied by her drinking partner-in-crime, Benchley.

With the police pursing "Mr. Dachshund" (Dotty's cover name for Faulkner), Parker and Benchley bounce from newspaper publishers to speakeasies to the haunts of gangsters trying to figure out who would want to kill the critic—with a fountain pen nonetheless!—and even manage to do some writing in the process. Murphy draws a vivid picture of Prohibition New York, to the point where Parker and Benchley's sheer volume of imbibing makes one cross-eyed. And the members of the Round Table may have been inventive writers and creators, but they certainly were an unpleasant bunch of comrades, even to themselves. Still, the book moves at a brisk pace, and if knife-edged repartee is your fortè, you may enjoy the wild ride.

book icon  My Life as an Experiment, A.J. Jacobs
I bought this off the remainder table and didn't expect much from it; it looked a lot lighter than The Year of Living Biblically and even Jacobs' first effort, The Know-It-All. In the end, indeed it is, but there are still several hilarious moments. Jacobs outsources all his responsibilities (to a company in India, nonetheless), tells only the strict truth for a month (you can imagine how that turned out), attempted to live by George Washington's "Rules of Civility," posed as a celebrity, attempted to find "the most rational toothpaste" (yes, honestly), and more.

As always, Julie Jacobs needs to be commended for putting up with A.J. The woman is a saint. And in total honesty, like A.J., I will tell you this is best bought as a remainder book. However, at that price, you should find something to enjoy.

book icon  Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, Nina Sankovitch
Nina and her sister Anne-Marie were brought up with a love of books. From childhood they recommended volumes to each other, purchased each other books, read together. Then Anne-Marie passed away at age 46. Floundering in grief and memories, Nina decides to take a hiatus in her life and read a book a day as a way of soothing her soul and honoring her sister.

It was a daunting challenge. I'm a fast reader and can usually finish a regular-sized book in a day, but I'm not sure even I could have kept up her pace. I'm not sure I would have been prepared to give up sleep and other activities to keep this tryst. But I enjoyed reading of her experience: of the books she read, of the memories they brought back, how they made her think or cry or laugh—or occasionally just be happy the book was finished and there was a new one the next day! She read fiction, nonfiction, profound books, light books, young adult novels, and more.

This book is for anyone who has loved books and for whom books are a refuge from sorrow, something you turn to for solace and inspiration. You will definitely understand.

book icon  White Corridor, Christopher Fowler
The war to close the Peculiar Crimes Unit isn't over: it has been arranged that a minor, tetchy royal will inspect their headquarters; surely what she sees will lead to an order to shut them down. If that isn't bad enough, senior officers Arthur Bryant and his more urbane partner John May have become trapped in a blizzard (and a murder investigation), while the rest of the unit must operate on their own, and solve the mystery death of one of their own, about-to-retire, superannuated coroner Oscar Finch, who expired in a room locked from the inside.

Fowler twists the unit, still bruised from their last adventure with the Horseman, into two parts: Bryant and May trying to help a young mother who's being stalked by a murderer while the rest of the unit works to solve Finch's death before the Princess' visit. As always in a PCU book, there is unexpected humor mixed with tension, the delightful eccentricities of each of the team members, and the mounting tension involved not only with the mother and her son being stalked, but the real danger of Bryant and May also becoming victims. I was a bit dismayed at the team being broken up for the story, but it did not fail. Another delight.

book icon  Cut the Clutter and Stow the Stuff, edited by Lori Baird
Really, all I needed was another book about decluttering...but I had this 50 percent off coupon at JoAnn...

This is a very practical, readable clutter book. The author firsts asks a series of questions to pinpoint what type of clutter you have, and then helps you work with it. She's very practical and does not suggest you go out to buy expensive storage solutions, or even plastic tubs, her theory being that you just toss the stuff in bins and really don't declutter. She offers a lot of low-cost solutions for keeping things under control, from something as simple as a board nailed across two-by-fours in your non-drywalled garage to corral brooms and rakes by their handles, using non-traditional pieces for storage like putting a baker's rack in the mudroom or a sorting hamper in the garage, and just a bunch of other useful stuff. Very enjoyable and enough to set off light bulbs over your head.

book icon  Ginny Gordon and the Lending Library, Julie Campbell
I picked this up at a used bookstore, having been a fan of Campbell's Trixie Belden novels since childhood, and having read that this resembled the Belden novels superficially: Ginny is always getting involved in mysteries, Ginny and her friends live in Westchester County [New York], they have counterparts in Trixie Belden characters (although I doubt if Trixie would have put up so patiently with the characters of the twins, Babs and Whiz, who always seem to be doing something stupid). In this entry, Ginny and her friends are starting a lending library in their small town and, inexplicably, two men are trying to find a specific copy of a new bestseller. Typical 1950s kids' mystery, with the biggest mystery to me how Ginny got any of her schoolwork done in between working on the library, trying to help a financially-challenged friend, and trying to find a companion for an older woman!

book icon  A Free Man of Color, Barbara Hambly
In 1833 New Orleans during Mardi Gras, Benjamin January is playing piano at a ball where white benefactors display their handsome mixed-race mistresses. Of mixed racial heritage himself, January is a trained physician who cannot openly practice in the United States and supports himself by teaching and playing music. When he meets a former student of his, a costumed white woman wildly out of place at the event, and she asks him to help her speak with the well-known but spiteful Angelique Crozat, he cannot refuse her.

And then Crozat is found murdered.

This is a complicated historical mystery that pulls no punches about the racial discrimination of 19th century New Orleans. January must find out who killed Angelique without implicating his former student, and risks being sold into slavery to do so. The novel contains a large cast of characters, both of Creole and American extraction, and is a fascinating portrait of New Orleans society before it became Americanized, but is no light mystery reading. For those who stay with the story, there are rich characterizations and situations.

book icon  The Alchemy of Murder, Carol McCleary
The first in a series of "unpublished" adventures of Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, otherwise known as crusading Victorian reporter Nellie Bly. Nellie's career including her incarceration in a mental institution (in order to expose the horrible treatment of the inmates) and traveling around the world in 72 days to beat the record of the fictional Phileas Fogg.

But "newly-discovered" manuscripts reveal that Nellie discovered a horrifying event while incarcerated on Blackwell's Island: a foreign doctor performing experiments on prostitutes. He escapes the United States, only to spend a short sojourn in London as Jack the Ripper, and then Nellie follows him to Paris, where the great Exposition is taking place. Here she enlists the help of Jules Verne, and eventually is assisted by the dissolute but charming Oscar Wilde and the elder biologist Louis Pasteur, entering the Parisian underworld in search of a madman. An epidemic looms over the city—but is it of natural causes or artificially produced?

This is a page-turner that takes Nellie from sewers to hospitals to the rough neighborhoods of the Parisian poor. Verne's initial hostility blossoms into something quite different, and there are chases through sewers teeming with rats, encounters in dance halls and sleazy clubs, a journey to the country stalked by cutthroats, as our heroes slowly realize a biological weapon is being born. Improbable, but addicting, except for one thing: it's another of these modern books where spell-checking is evidently done by computer. Nellie "shutters" instead of "shudders." Oscar Wilde wears "beeches" (nice trick) rather than "breeches." It breaks the crafted atmosphere and is really quite unfortunate.

book icon  The Wilder Life, Wendy McClure
Anyone who has ever loved a book series to the point where they wished they could have lived the adventures in it will feel kinship with Wendy McClure, who fell in love with the Little House books as a child. Years later, she finds one of the books among her childhood things after her mother dies, and re-reads and becomes obsessed with the series. With her patient partner in tow, she tries recipes from the books, and eventually visits each of the sites Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in.

If you are expecting a "tour" of the Ingalls sites, you will be disappointed, as some reviewers were. This is not a Laura Ingalls Wilder travelogue, but the journey of Wendy McClure, who is searching for a past that is not her own. She has some amusing journeys to each of the sites, and gives a portrait of the Laura-lore as it is presented at each home, from the pageants in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, to the loneliness of the prairie, but it is also the story of Wendy's reconciliation with her own past.

I really enjoyed this book, but nevertheless was a bit dismayed at one portion: her and her partner's reaction to the devout Christians they met at one of the sites. Neither of them is religious, and they referred to the Christians as "cult members" and other unpleasant names because they indulged in prayers and practiced disaster preparedness, possibly in case of the end times, which several of the group chatted about. I felt their reactions were rather bigoted. Would they have reacted the same way to Muslims praying five times a day, a Wiccan or a Native American performing a traditional ritual, or Catholics saying the rosary? The Christians they encountered treated them with nothing but friendliness and did not try to forcibly convert them. Could they not have been polite and tolerant? This really bothered me.

book icon  Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of World History, Richard Shenkman
Given that I enjoyed Shenkman's I Love Paul Revere Whether He Rode Or Not and his similarly-titled volume to this, about US history, I was puzzled at the fact that I did not like this book as well as the others. Then I scanned some of the reviews of all three books and noticed that my opinion pretty well dovetailed with the others. The two US books were fun "bites" of American history, but while Shenkman admits straight out in the preface to this particular book that he's about to be Eurocentric, the book still seems gratuitously padded with jokes at the expense of the facts. The whole thing seemed like a lesser effort just to stuff some historical facts in humor. Very disappointing.

book icon  State Fair, Earlene Fowler
It's nice to see Benni Harper and hubby Gabe Ortiz "back on the job," as it were. This time Benni is helping out at the annual Mid-State Fair and enjoying a week of "bad for you" foods. A feature at this year's fair is an exhibit of reproductions of African-American quilts. Then the most complicated of the quilts disappears—and reappears wrapped around the dead body of a young white man who was dating a biracial girl who is the daughter of the fair's first African-American general manager. Could the death be racially motivated?

Since the quilting club and the manager are all Benni's friends, of course she can't help getting involved. But who might be responsible? Is the skinhead group in their midst too obvious? And why was the body stuffed in the family exhibit of a loudmouth car dealer?

The mystery shares several stages with other subplots, most prominently Benni's realization that racism still exists in San Celina. There's also a lively subplot with Benni's visiting great Aunt Garnet, who displays a surprising aspect of her personality and which lends a great deal of humor to the first half of the novel. Pleasing on several levels for fans of Benni, Gabe, Grandma Dove, and other returning characters.

[Note: Fowler has never made a secret of her Christianity, especially through Dove, Father Mac, and several other characters. However, it seems to be manifesting itself more heavily in the text in this offering. Some folks may find it unexpected or disconcerting.]

book icon  Mr. Monk is Cleaned Out, Lee Goldberg
Monk has too much on his plate. No there hasn't been a surfeit of killings in San Francisco; in fact, due to the downturn in the economy, the police department's let him go from his consulting job. He figures he'll live on his investments—until he finds out they're gone, his "investment counselor" accused of a gigantic Ponzi scheme of which he claims he is innocent. Monk not only considers him guilty, but suspects him of murder as well. What will both Monk and Natalie do without jobs? Worst yet, what will Monk do without water—his beloved Sierra Springs has also gone out of business! How long can he survive on water a teaspoon at a time?

This is the second book I've read in two months that involves the protagonists with economic downturns. The children in the previous book almost reacted better than Monk. As always in the novels, Monk seems to have more phobias than ever, and they can get intensely annoying. There is a nice confrontation between Natalie and her teen daughter Julie that shows Natalie's backbone, a humorous sequence in a pizza parlor, and a welcome appearance by Monk's agoraphobic brother Ambrose, but I didn't enjoy this one as much as, say, Mr. Monk is Miserable or Mr. Monk in Outer Space.

book icon  Time Unincorporated, Volume 2: The Doctor Who Fanzine Archives, edited by Graeme Burk and Robert Smith?
The title pretty much tells all in this collection of articles about the classic series of Doctor Who, some informative, some touching, some humorous. We learn about the Canadian roots of the series, series symbolism, "31 Things I Wouldn't Know If I Didn't Watch Doctor Who," essays for and against Jon Pertwee's Doctor (and another about his relationship with Jo), a look at the stereotyping in the classic "Talons of Weng-Chiang," women in the series, a closer look at Barbara Wright and Tegan Jovanka, as well as the Tom Baker era and John Nathan-Turner's tenure, examination of the Daleks, "20 Handy Tips for Survival in the Doctor Who Universe," and fifty more. You may not love every essay, but there's certainly something here for everyone. IMHO, a must collection for the classic Who fan.

book icon  The Mistaken Wife, Rose Melikan
In this third book of the adventures of Miss Mary Finch, heiress, and Captain Robert Holland, Army engineer and occasional adventurer, intelligence agent Sir Cuthbert Shy recruits a restless Mary to perform her most dangerous mission yet: she is to pretend she is the wife of an expatriot American painter and travel to Paris, a Paris in the wake of the Revolution and patrolled by menacing French officers, to keep the French from forming an alliance with the Americans against the British. At the same time, Holland has had troubling news of a new weapon, a boat that travels underwater. He also infiltrates France, knowing nothing of Mary's mission.

Needless to say, the two meet, sparks fly—and they must then race to complete their respective missions and then escape France before the gendarmes discover what they're up to. In the meantime, a faithful friend of Mary's preserves the illusion she's in England—but will the secret be kept?

Based on two real events, "the XYZ affair" and Robert Fulton's invention of a submarine, the suspense builds slowly until it's almost too late. A great combination of history and suspense, with two charming heroes who don't slobber over each other.

book icon  The Hardy Boys Mysteries, 1927-1979: A cultural and Literary History, Mark Connelly
What makes the Hardy Boys, created in the 1920s in a series of formula-driven, cheaply-published novels, enduring characters? Connelly addresses the mystery in this McFarland volume, which chronicles the early adventures of the Hardy brothers, Frank and Joe, through their 1920s exploits with "roadsters" and stereotypical minority characters through the 1950s when the books were rewritten and socially adjusted to the modern era where they fight terrorists with the latest technology. The characters are examined, how they changed with the times (and how the villains did as well), how the stories were corrected but became less challenging, how language differed over the years, how women were viewed in the series, and more. Connelly even tries to locate "Bayport," the iconic Hardy Boys hometown. A must for anyone who loved the Hardy Boys.

book icon  Royal Flush, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgina has just committed a major social blunder: the penniless 34th-in-line-for-the-British-throne, young "Georgie," unable to find employment in any other field, decides she will hire herself out as a dinner companion to traveling businessmen. She soon discovers that "escort" means something a bit different than she envisioned, and is luckily rescued from a lascivious client by her dashing Irish beau, Darcy O'Mara. Then she is visited by an official for the Home Office, who asks her to return to her ancestral home a few weeks early. Someone appears to be trying to injure (or perhaps kill) members of the Royal family. So Georgie reluctantly returns to Castle Rannoch, to be enthusiastically and uncharacteristically greeted by her dour sister-in-law "Fig," who is being driven mad by visiting Americans (including Wallis Simpson, the inamorata of the Prince of Wales).

Georgie rather bumbles her way through this mystery, which throws all sorts of characters at one right and left: a sexy Italian speed demon, endlessly bathing Americans, a dashing woman pilot, a dismissed officer, a stalking reporter, Georgie's twinkling Cockney grandfather and her narcissistic mother—even the young Princess Elizabeth! It's a fun romp through another version of a legend addressed in a Robin Paige book.

book icon  In a Gilded Cage, Rhys Bowen
While attending a women's suffrage parade with her unconventional friends Sid and Gus and their former Vassar classmates, Molly Murphy is arrested, but rescued by her police office fiance Daniel Sullivan; via the parade private detective Molly also gains two cases: one old classmate asks her to find out the truth about her birth, and some time later Molly is contacted by another classmate who wishes to know if her husband is cheating on her. But when the latter woman abruptly dies, Molly wonders if there is more to the case than adultery.

I guessed "who" early on, but the "why" of the tale is a convoluted mystery that should keep most "gaslight era mystery" fans entertained. More interesting in this volume is Bowen's portrayal of an era when women were almost literally property of their men, unable to do anything without male approval, and the husband held sway; women who showed intelligence were called "bluestockings" and were persuaded to bury their education to become pampered creatures who were basically baby breeders. Molly is having her own struggle with accepting a marriage proposal; she likes being an independent woman as much as she loves Sullivan. It is a thoughtful portrayal for what intelligent women know was an infuriating era.

My one quibble: at least twice Bowen uses modern nomenclature which propels me abruptly out of the story. (For instance, a woman refers to a suspected homosexual person as "AC/DC." Say what?) Why carefully paint Molly's turn-of-the-last-century world and then use vocabulary that destroys the brushstrokes?

book icon  The Little Ice Age, Brian Fagan
At one time England and Newfoundland were so warm that vineyards flourished. The Vikings struck terror into neighboring countries because the ice packs had retreated enough to give them a freewheeling lifestyle.

And then climate changed. Bitter winters and rainy summers became the norm. Crops rotted, people starved throughout the late medieval and Renaissance periods into the age of exploration. The 19th century saw some conditions even worsen: when Mount Tambora erupted, the world suffered through "the year without a summer," where snow fell in June and frost killed ripening crops. Climate change led to the Irish being dependent on potatoes, which caused disaster when the potato blight struck.

This is a smart, readable text about the effects of climate change on people, society, governments, and ecology. Never simplistic, the text is accompanied by maps and graphs to further illustrate events and concepts.

book icon  A Witch in Time, Madelyn Alt
The little town of Stony Mill sees two more mysterious deaths, but it's the domestic complications of protagonist Maggie O'Neill and her family that drive this newest Bewitching mystery. Maggie's just about to tryst with her boyfriend Marcus Quinn when she gets the word that her "perfect sister" is ready to deliver. Pretty soon Mel is with twins, and Maggie has become trapped in an elevator, where she hears what sounds like a threat against a woman. Later on, she hears an argument between a man and one of the new mothers on the maternity floor. Can the two events be connected?

We spend the first half of the book involved with Maggie's family dynamics (in fact, it all takes place at the hospital) and the mystery doesn't really get going till the second half. Indeed, the story is more about Maggie coping with her overbearing mother, repercussions from the birth of the twins, Marcus' growing relationship with her, and a minor subplot involving Maggie's best friend. If you don't mind the story being light on mystery and you don't mind the "Grandma Cora" convention leaping to another level, you should enjoy this entry in Alt's series. Maggie's grandfather is a hoot!

book icon  Our Glorious Century, Reader's Digest Books
A super used bookstore find: a big coffee-table book published in 1994 as an overview to 20th century life in the United States. Crammed full of photographs, lithographs, drawings, maps, charts, and other visual aids, the book progresses era through era covering the political, social, and environmental issues of each time period, with the occasional two-page spread about fads that spread over the entire century, like automobiles, games, transportation, and more. A delightful cornucopia of American history.

02 May 2011

The "Real" Lord Peter?

In face only, at least. Apparently, Sayers based Wimsey's looks on Roy Ridley.