31 August 2011

Books Finished Since August 1

book icon  The September Society, Charles Finch
I have to admit I was not completely thrilled with the first book in this series. Characters acted like no Victorian characters would act and the hero was continually complaining about his boots when he clearly has enough money to buy new ones. But I quite enjoyed this outing, in which Charles Lenox investigates the disappearance of an Oxford student, his one clue a reference to the mysterious "September Society," while trying to raise the courage to propose to his old friend Lady Jane Grey. The mystery is excellent and kept me guessing, but for me the main draw was the lovely portrait of Victorian Oxford, its various colleges, gathering places, and out of the way alleys.

As always, Finch allows modernisms to sneak in his dialog, which really removes me from the story. Characters say "Terrific" or that another character "is a wreck." I expect "Swell" around a corner someday. YMMV. And the fact that Lenox's lady love is named after a famous historical figure has always disconcerted me. But neither deterred me from the enjoyment of following Lenox through Oxford on the trail of clues. A period mystery that is recommended.

book icon  The Eighty-Dollar Champion, Elizabeth Letts
As a kid I delighted in Whitman Books, frugal "hardcover" (cardboard covered with cellophane-covered color art) volumes with non-acid free paper that is now yellowing, sold in the five-and-ten for 29 cents. They published classics like Little Women and Call of the Wild, TV-tie ins based on everything from Lassie to Wagon Train, series mysteries and adventures (Trixie Belden, Timber Trail Riders, etc.) and a final small category known as "Real-Life Stories" which featured sports stories, military stories, etc—including my favorite, a book with alternating chapters about real-life dogs and horses. It still sits in my library, the cellophane curling off the covers, the spine partially cracked, all due to loving reading and re-reading.

So it was with delight that I saw this book on Amazon Vine and the first thing I exclaimed was "It's Snowman from More Than Courage!"

I really enjoyed this story of riding school teacher Harry De Leyer and the stocky horse he rescued from the glue factory as much as I did the brief passages about the story so long ago. The author does pad the tale a bit, continually commenting on Snowman's stature or attractiveness, or the fact that he'd been a plowhorse at one time, but this did not deter me from the rest of the story about the De Leyer family's struggles and triumphs, Snowman's career, behind the scenes at horse competitions, and Harry's other equine hopefuls. I read the book in one sitting and would definitely recommend it for horse lovers.

book icon  Changes, Jim Butcher
It all begins with Harry Dresden receiving a telephone call from his old lover, Susan Rodriguez. Their daughter has been kidnapped by vampires of the Red Court.

It is a revelation to Harry, as he had no idea they had a child together. But Harry knows the Red Court, and he intends that their daughter should not stay in captivity long. But it will take every friend he has to accomplish a rescue.

One word review: nonstop. I think at some point Harry gets a few hours sleep. Otherwise he is marshaling his friends, gathering information, planning an attack, and trying not to run afoul of Government types who appear to be after him as well. Old friends and enemies make renewed appearances as the suspense builds and builds—and a further familial secret is revealed.

It is not exaggerating to say that Harry's life is turned in an entirely new direction due to the discovery of his child. If you've been following his adventures during the previous dozen novels, this story will be exciting, exhausting, and ultimately startling.

book icon  A Renegade History of the United States, Thaddeus Russell
Every once in a while it's fun to read an off-the-wall history book, and this certainly is one. According to Russell, it wasn't the founding fathers, those supposed bastions of freedom, who actually made the United States free: instead it was the outcasts of society—prostitutes, "Negroes," Jews, the Irish, Italians, drunkards, adulterers, homosexuals, fops, entertainers—who fought for our freedoms, against a society that would restrict them. There's an examination of the American work culture, which so many of these people flaunted (Russell makes the certainly inflammatory statement that slaves actually worked less than the religious- and work-constrained free citizens), and that society tried to mould them into. The first independent women were not educated "bluestockings" like Abigail Adams, but tavern-keepers and madams. Other chapters deal with how shopping and gangsters improved the United States, and how New Deal iconography and actions paralleled Nazi Germany.

This is definitely "not your father's history book."

Whether or not you think Russell is speaking rot or sense, this book tackles segments of society that you rarely see portrayed in history books: not the Big Names, but the everyday Joes. For that examination alone this book is worth reading.

book icon  The Victoria Vanishes, Christopher Fowler
Still troubled by the events in the previous White Corridor and Ten Second Staircase, elderly and eccentric police detective Arthur Bryant fears he's lost final touch with the world and his investigative sense as well. He's planning to hand in his resignation, and events aren't helped when he apparently sees a long-vanished pub during an investigation into a killer targeting middle-aged women at pubs.

Once again the Peculiar Crimes Unit tackles an unusual string of crimes while facing its own mortality; certainly this time they will be shut down, especially when dour Sergeant Renfield is assigned to "keep an eye" on them. Fowler mixes his usual offbeat humor and characters with the history and lore of the classic—and vanishing—English public house. Not as "meaty" as some of the other books, but a worthy entry in the series which sees the team facing an uncertain future.

book icon  Ad Nauseam, Edited by Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky
This is a series of often tongue-in-cheek, but even more disturbing essays about the influence of advertising on our everyday lives and how it has permeated every corner of society, even down to children's elementary school textbooks. (Just the fact that more children could identify typefaces used in advertised products more quickly than they could birds and trees in their own backyards, and the comparison of tests from 1964 and 1988 will make you weep for modern students.) Articles cover how advertising changed over the years, how photos are truly worth a thousand words (and no ideas), how young people perceive advertisements posing as public service statements, how supermarkets are arranged to sell expensive luxury foods rather than staples, and more, with pop quizzes strewn among the chapters. At once depressing and infuriating.

book icon  The Native Star, M.K. Hobson
It begins when Emily Edwards, an accomplished herbalist, makes a love spell: her foster father isn't getting any younger, and their business of selling magical herbs and charms is slow due to a new mail order product, so Emily thinks marriage to a successful timberman who's always been a little sweet on her would be the best thing to provide for "Pap's" old age in their tiny Western town of Lost Pine.

But Emily's plan backfires spectacularly after she tries to help out at a zombie-run mine gone out of control; not only is she is rescued by the insufferable Dreadnought Stanton, a formidable warlock, but she ends up with an odd magical rock embedded in her right hand. When Stanton talks her into going to New York to consult with his mentor, strange things begin happening: pursuit, an encounter with a mysterious Native American spiritual guide...and that's only the first third of the book.

This is a delightful mix of opposites-clash romance story, steampunk Western, and world-in-which-magic-is-common, with Emily as the plucky heroine and Stanton as her reluctant guide. If fantasy and steampunk intrigue you, this may be just your cup of tea; while I bought it not sure I would like the plot, I immediately snatched up the sequel once I was finished!

book icon  Re-Read: The Number of the Beast, Robert A. Heinlein
I finally bought myself a copy of this book after reading it many years ago. It's from Heinlein's "sex is fun" period and there is an intriguing idea behind the story: not only alternate universes, but ones in which the worlds created in novels are real.

The story starts out (literally) with a bang: talented Zebediah Carter meets the beautiful and brainy D. T. (Dejah Thoris), a.k.a. Deety, Burroughs and her professor father Jake at a party given by sharp-tongued Hilda Corners. It's love at first sight for Zeb and Deety (and later Jake and Hilda), and the four plan a dreamy getaway—until Jake's car is blown up just before they get into it. Escaping in Zeb's nifty little flying car, nicknamed "Gay Deceiver," the foursome discovers the kerfluffle is all about Jake's time machine, an invention an alien entity is determined to kill them for. Next thing they know, the foursome are trading quips, endlessly arguing over who should be in charge, and exploring alternate universes—including a Mars radically different from their own and even the magical land of Oz—in fleeing from the "Black Hats." (Oh, yeah, and having lots of sex.)

Unfortunately, the story loses its focus and then strays into all-too-familiar territory when Heinlein's ubiquitous "Lazarus Long" and his family show up. (Surprise...more sex.) The very end is a jumbled mess.

Still, bits are to be enjoyed. And I want "Gay Deceiver." "Gay's a good girl!" "I bet you say that to all the girls." Yes, indeed.

book icon  Service and Style, Jan Whitaker
I read Remembering Woolworths some time ago, and have had a copy of The Grand Emporiums (a chronicle of department stores, most now, sadly, gone) for many years, so I was delighted to find this new history of department stores available. Whitaker covers the rise and fall of the department stores quite thoroughly, with rare but occasional bland prose, well illustrated with advertisements and photographs within the text (and with a color centerfold), including all the changes the stores attempted to make with the times, and the special promotions the stores ran over the years and through the seasons. It's a nifty history starting back in the days when stores had overworked "cash children" and then pneumatic tubes to make change, stores delivered your purchases with horse and wagon, and the ladies' wear department consisted of bolts of fabric, trim, and sewing supplies (only men wore "ready to wear" clothing in the 19th century), and continues through the years when womens' ready-to-wear made the department store, the tea rooms flourished, and Christmas windows became famous.

It's a pity someone can't write a history of the other "five and tens" to match this history of department stores! (This is a hint, someone!) Woolworths wasn't the only player out there...

book icon  Dangerous to Know, Tasha Alexander
Lady Emily, recovering from injuries suffered while trying to help an English girl in Constantinople, is not herself. Knowing her previous actions may have caused her miscarriage, she is moody and depressed, not impressing her imperious new mother-in-law, who wonders what her dashing son Colin saw in this listless woman. Then, while out riding in the Normandy countryside, Emily discovers the dead body of a young woman who appears to have been abused. Later, making the acquaintance of the neighbors George and Margaret Markham, she sees what she thinks may be a ghost.

One could not expect Emily to endure the ordeal of her previous adventure (Tears of Pearl) without being slightly changed. However, I wish Alexander had not rushed the marriage of Emily and Colin. Emily was just discovering her true self after her first husband's death, defying convention by studying Greek and drinking a "man's drink" (port), when she fell in love with Colin. However, Colin, despite his efforts to not restrict Emily's freedom, cannot help reverting to gallant Victorian gentlemen due to his love for her. So Emily spends a good deal of the book mourning her loss, and Colin being overprotective. While it makes it less satisfactory for the fans of a strong Lady Emily, it does intensify the air of Gothic suspense swirling through the plot, despite the distraction of an old friend and the puzzle of a missing painting. The end indeed gets quite creepy.

Just don't expect Emily at her best in this offering.

book icon  Harry Potter and History, edited by Nancy R. Reagan
This is a fun collection of essays about the Harry Potter universe and how it compares to actual history. While it strikes me that as a book more geared to adults it could use a little bit more history of "magic" and "witchcraft" in the actual world and a little bit less referral to events in the Potter books, it didn't keep me from enjoying each discussion. Essays I found particularly of interest were one chronicling the parallels between the Death Eaters and the Nazis, another talking about the use of parchment and scrolls, and especially the two concerning Hogwarts in comparison to actual British boarding schools, and the parallels of two Inquisitions: that in the Potterverse and the real-life persecution of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition. History buffs who are also Potterphiles probably will enjoy this volume.

book icon  Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, Susan Orlean
We children of the 1950s and the early 1960s remember him well: the courageous German Shepherd dog who protected the boy Rusty in the days of the Old West. But "Rinty" had an earlier life, as a German Shepherd puppy rescued from the carnage of "the Great War" by Leland "Lee" Duncan, a dog whose hit adventure films saved the Warner Brothers studios.

I was almost as fond of The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin as I was of Lassie, so in general I found this book enjoyable. We go behind the scenes of the original Rin Tin Tin's silent career, and of the sound serials done by his son, and then into the story is woven the tale of Herbert Leonard, the man who brought Rin Tin Tin to television. It is occasionally a sobering tale, as in the hardscrabble, bleak childhood of Duncan, the thwarting of Leonard's dream to create a new Rin Tin Tin series, and Daphne Hereford's problems in retaining the Rin Tin Tin name. For the canine lover there is also an examination of the changing role of dogs in the 20th century and a look at dogs in motion pictures. And for those fans of the television show, there is much material contained about this now-forgotten series, including the bizarre tale of a man passing himself off as Lee Aaker at autograph events, and some secrets about the dog himself.

My biggest complaint was that I thought the author inserted her own personality into the narrative a bit too much. Some of this stemmed from her own childhood recollections of Rin Tin Tin (including a statue of the dog owned by her grandfather), which I found understandable; still, I wish there had been less of it. However, to anyone who loved Rin Tin Tin in any incarnation, who is interested in movie dogs, or German Shepherd fans, you may find illumination, knowledge, and interest in Rinty's story.