31 July 2011

Books Finished Since July 1

book icon  UnSpun, Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson
Thinking critically about "spin," whether it be political or the product of advertising. I saw this last year among the "required summer reading" books. Apparently some people wanted more specific things to investigate, like websites, politicians, and books, according to the reviews I read. This isn't a book that is partisian. Rather, it gives you examples of words, emotional triggers, and other propaganda tools that should make you "look twice" at a statement of "fact."

book icon  Trolls in the Hamptons, Celia Jerome
Willow Tate, graphic novelist, lives in her family's old New York apartment, envies her cousin Susan, and tries to cope with her odd family, who all have special gifts (grandma's a herbalist; Mom is kind of a "dog whisperer"). Belatedly, Willow discovers she has her own gift: working on a new idea, she draws a red troll—who promptly appears in real life, wreaking havoc on her neighborhood.

Via a sexy British representative of a hush-hush Department of Unexplained Events, Willow learns she's a Visualizer, someone who can bring a fantasy world alive. And, though desperately reluctant, she becomes involved with a kidnapped child, a boy Agent Grant tells her is being forced to break the barriers between the magic world and the human world. The more Willow tries to ignore the threat, the more it is brought home to her.

This is pleasant fantasy fluff with a strong romance novel element (Chapter 24 has a really steamy sex scene). Willow is a plucky but flawed heroine, Grant lends the proper male romance counterpart, and there are some funny quirky characters, including Willow's crusty mother, the deceptive "super" of the apartment building across the street from Willow's apartment, and even a three-legged Pomeranian. I'll definitely pick up the sequel, but be warned: if you're looking for hard fantasy, this isn't it.

book icon  The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, Jeanne Birdsall
In this newest outing with the Penderwick girls, the four sisters are separated for the first time in their lives. While Mr. Penderwick and his new bride (and her baby) are in England for a belated honeymoon, eldest Rosalind will be spending time with her friend Anna in New Jersey while Skye, Jane, and little Batty accompany Aunt Claire to a cottage in Maine.

It's a fun, but occasionally stressful adventure for them all: a guest they were told would not be accompanying them does arrive, Skye feels overwhelmed by her responsibilities as now oldest sister, Jane runs into an unexpected roadblock while doing research for her new "Sabrina Starr" book, and little Batty gets addicted to golf balls—and music! A neighbor and his dog add another spark of interest to the story, and, although at a certain point, as in the proceeding book, a plot point becomes very obvious, by then you are so drawn into the story you are eager to see how it all comes out.

This is such a delightfully old-fashioned book: although it's definitely the present (Aunt Claire and other adults have cell phones, and the books the children are reading are modern), the girls aren't overwhelmed by television and other technology, they explore, fight but don't cat-fight, and aren't drowning in girly "princess" stuff. As much as I hate sports, I wouldn't mind playing a game of soccer with the Penderwick family, and then discuss astronomy with Skye, writing with Jane, and take Batty to see a moose and her calves on a misty summer morning!

book icon  A Woman's Guide to a Healthy Stomach, Jacqueline L. Wolf
Since I occasionally suffer from various types of digestive problems, I was interested to see what this book had to say. It was a bit comforting to read the case histories in this book and to learn that "I am not alone," and that so many women felt embarrassed or frustrated by their conditions.

As this book illustrates, sometimes there are no "easy fixes" with digestive, reproductive, or elimination problems. Dr. Wolf takes various conditions—endometriosis, acid reflux, diarrhea, constipation, bowel irregularities, etc.—chapter by chapter, discussing causes and treatments for each. I found the charts, such as the one for fiber foods, and the one for which bacteria causes what type of food poisoning, very useful. I wish there had been a little more information on diets, but I suspect this can be solved by a more specialized book.

In summary, I found this a satisfactory overview about the subject, a good jumping off point for discussions with a doctor or further research on a particular issue (like celiac disease or IBS.

book icon  The Orchid Affair, Lauren Willig
In the present, perpetual grad student Eloise Kelly and her boyfriend Colin Selwick are in Paris, visiting Colin's mother and his odious stepfather, his cousin Jeremy. But in the world of Eloise's historical investigation of the British spy ring of the "Pink Carnation," Laura Gray, one of the newest graduates of the Selwick spy school, is sent on a delicate mission: to pose as governess to the two children of French official Andre Jaouen. Jaouen was once an ardent revolutionary, but, unknown to the Pink Carnation, is disillusioned at how the freedoms he dreamed of have been turned around by a new "aristocracy" ruled by fear.

Since this is a Pink Carnation book, you can possibly guess the outcome; the "fun" is the ride there, as Laura is endangered by the machinations of Gaston Delaroche and becomes friends with the enemy, including her two charges and their handsome father (shades of The Sound of Music). There's a deceptive lack of tension during a change of venue that builds to a corking ending, while Laura and Andre slowly pull back each other's layers to discover the real person within. A solid entry in the Carnation series. So when's the next? :-)

book icon  Unnatural Issue, Mercedes Lackey
Elemental Earth Master Richard Whitestone goes mad with grief after the death of his wife in childbirth and gives the raising of the child over to his faithful servants, until the day he sees eighteen-year-old Susanne from his window. She is the image of her late mother, and Whitestone's mad mind conceives the idea of bringing back the spirit of his wife and lodging it within his daughter's body. Luckily Susanne discovers the plot and flees; while the White Lodge detects traces of evil magic and sends Lord Peter Ansley to investigate.

There are several things to like about this book, the main being Lackey's Lord Peter Wimsey avatar, Peter Ansley. He and his faithful Bunter stand-in, Garrick, conceive a plan to track down the evil magic, and then to help Susanne, with the help of his landowning friends. I did think it a bit much that the avatar of Peter is also named Peter, and his friend is Charles, the same as in the Wimsey mysteries. Like the other female leads in these Elemental Master novels, Susanne is resourceful and no shrinking violet, and the portion of the book that deals with her service in the war is quite good. I also enjoyed the way Whitestone's real character was revealed as the story progressed. I did find Susanne a bit dull, however; not as compelling as Maya Scott, for example. I would get this from the library first, or wait until the paperback release.

book icon  Hallmark: A Century of Caring, Patrick Regan
Okay, it's a bit of a Hallmark shill, but it's supposed to be. This is a big coffee-table book packed with information about the founding, innovations, and family running of Hallmark Cards. If biographies of executives aren't your thing, there are special pages devoted to the different decades of card designs, insights into the artists behind the cards, including several pages about White House Christmas cards, several pages about J.C. Hall's parallels with Walt Disney, who was also raised in Kansas City, a chapter about television's Hallmark Hall of Fame, and more. This book can be bought at bargain prices, and at those, it is a worthwhile indulgence.

book icon  Queen of the Road, Doreen Orion
What do two successful psychiatrists do when they want a change of place? In the case of Doreen Orion, self-proclaimed home and possessions worshipper, and her husband Tim, they buy a custom-built bus and take a year off to tour the country (after a few months of working the bugs out of the vehicle's custom gadgets) with their standard poodle and two cats, including the one that starts out hiding the moment the bus moves. They travel to 48 states, discover the good and the bad about campgrounds, take in tourist attractions and the joys of visiting relatives, and encounter crickets and other "wildlife." Along the way, Doreen, who initially comes off as self-absorbed, agoraphobic, and frivolous(you'll certainly wonder how she ended up as a practicing psychiatrist), comes to realize that life in the great outdoors, without television and in the company of family and friends, is quite worthwhile after all.

This book can be quite funny, but you may wonder if Ms. Orion has an alcohol problem, given her penchant for concocting a martini for every occasion. She does touch on some neat places and personalities discovered in their cross-country odyssey, but your enjoyment will depend on how well you cope with her quirky personality.

book icon  Discounts, Deals & Steals, Readers Digest Books
For people over 50, advice on bargains for grandparents, for travelers, for everyday spending. A good book if this is what you're looking for.

book icon  Picturing Rhode Island, Maureen A. Taylor
I saw this book in Borders last year on vacation, but the high price tag made me gape. I found an excellent copy used instead, and in general I am pleased, but I wish they'd cut three-quarters of the "esthetic white space." The author advises you to use a magnifying glass to check out the details of the photos; I'd advise making them larger in the first place. This is a book, not a modern art gallery. The photos themselves are super; so many I've never seen before, or angles I've never seen before, of Downtown Providence and Newport, including a sequence of the State House being built, and the cleared landscape before I-95 was built.

What this book needed? Twice as many pages! :-) I couldn't believe there wasn't a picture of the old meeting house in Cranston, or the exterior of the old Normal School, or more of the downtown shopping district, or a few more modern photos of the amusement parks.

book icon  Into That Silent Sea, Francis French and Colin Burgess
When I read In the Shadow of the Moon (a book about the Gemini era in the American space program) three years ago, I didn't realize it was part of a series called "A People's History of Spaceflight" until I bought the volume about the Apollo missions. This is the book about the Mercury era—but what I found most fascinating was that fully half the book concentrates on the Russian Vostok program, with biographies of each of the Soviet astronauts, including Yuri Gagarin, Gherman Titov, and Valentine Tereshkova. Even more intriguing was a chapter about "the Mercury 13," thirteen women pilots, including the famous Jackie Cochran, who attempted to get the space program opened to women.

This is a super series of books for anyone interested in the space program; there is also a volume called To a Distant Day about the rocket pioneers, and books about unmanned spacecraft and Spacelab. Highly recommended!

book icon  Requiem for a Mezzo, Carola Dunn
Daisy Dalrymple only knows one of her neighbors is a gifted mezzo-soprano who lives with her husband and sister. But when she goes next door to borrow a baking item, she finds herself propelled into the lives of the narcissistic parents' favorite Betsy "Bettina" and her plain sister Muriel, Bettina's put-upon husband Roger, and their music students. Still, when Daisy and her Scotland Yard beau Alec Fletcher attend Bettina's performance in Mozart's Requiem, no
one's more surprised than Daisy—or more frustrated than Alec—when vain Bettina is poisoned onstage.

This adventure propels Daisy and Alec into the histrionic world of opera, where each of the suspects has a good reason for wanting Bettina dead, and dozens of alibis as well. There's an entertaining supporting cast, including Alec's faithful sidekick Sergeant Tring, the members of the opera company, and even a brief glimpse at Alec's little daughter Belinda, whose acceptance of "Miss Dalrymple" in Alec's life shows a preview of things to come. Another sprightly adventure in the Dalrymple series, although I guessed early who the real culprit was.

book icon  The Reading Promise, Alice Ozma
Alice's librarian father loved to read to his children's classes, and to his daughters. When Alice was ten, she and her father made a promise that he would read to her every night for one hundred days, no matter what. The one hundred days became a thousand, through colds and adolescence and arguments, then continued into a nightly habit until Alice's first day at college.

This is a book about a bond between a father and a daughter that seems to come about partially to compensate from problems with home life. Her parents' marriage was fragile and eventually her emotionally-troubled mother left, leaving her father to bring up two daughters. Her father held himself aloof from a social life so his daughters would not feel they had been abandoned. So their reading "streak" became a coping mechanism as well as a loving tradition.

Despite the melancholy behind this volume, there are several magical moments in this book, including Alice and her father watching a thunderstorm that reminded me of my own childhood. My mother kept me from being afraid of thunder by telling me it was "the angels bowling," and each loud clap became a strike, a softer one a spare. This chapter had a similar feel. For those who love books, or who have used books to get through those tough moments of their life.

(Note to the editors of this book: why is Alice selling her bicycle door-to-door? Oh, you meant she was pedaling her bicycle, not peddling it! Why didn't you say so?)

book icon  The Dime Novel in Children's Literature
I thought it about time I got to this one, which I bought with interest last year at DragonCon. McFarland is known for publishing narrow-interest, but excellent nonfiction, so I was a bit dismayed as I got into this one. There is much good information about the predecessors of books for children (hornbooks, broadsides, chapbooks, religious tracts) and the way dime novels/series books/pulp magazines were treated the way the internet is vilified today, television was in the 1960s, comic books in the 1950s, radio serials in the 1940s, and the movies in the 1920s, as bad influences on children. (Indeed, even novels were suspect in the 1700s.)

However, the book is pretty badly written, with stiff prose, repeated information, and often conflicting data. In one paragraph, five sentences one after the other begin with the same three words. There are noticeable typos, like "Blumfeld" for "Plumfield" in a list of significant children's books, and the author even states that Nathaniel Hawthorne created the character of Natty Bumppo (I've never read Cooper, but even I know who created one of the most significant early leads in American fiction!). If you are truly interested in dime novels and their influence and appeal to children, I suggest you find a used copy of the book.