31 August 2014

Books Completed Since August 1

book icon  Here's Looking at Euclid, Alex Bellos
Yep, it's a book about math. Yep, me reading a book about math. Bizarre. Not only did I read it, I enjoyed most of it, although my old bete noire algebra struck again—even with Bellos' amusing and simple explanations, I still didn't understand the algebra, and the statistics chapter was just as bad. Yet I was enthralled by the chapter about plane and solid geometry and Pythagorean proofs. I was so delighted by one of the latter that I had to poke James in the midst of his own reading and show him the drawing. There are chapters, predictably, on pi, the Golden Ratio, magic squares and other math puzzles, gambling odds, and bell curves. Other chapters discuss different societies' ways of numeration, math tricks including Vedic mathematics, number sequences, data collection, and infinite numbers, and we learn about people who play with these numbers, some just for fun, others for a living.

I hate math, but I loved this book. I can hardly wait for to read the sequel. Now there's an improbability, even if not mathematical!

book icon  Murder at the Breakers, Alyssa Maxwell
A mystery set in Newport, Rhode Island, was irresistible to me. Our heroine Emma Cross is a second cousin to the Vanderbilts, alas, with none of the money. She makes ends meet by writing dull society columns for the local newspaper; her editor thinks this type of reporting is the only kind fit for a woman to do, even though Emma would like more of a challenge. But while reporting about a party at the Vanderbilt "summer cottage" the Breakers, Emma is a witness to the murder of Cornelius Vanderbilt's financial secretary, and, even worse, her black sheep brother is blamed for the death. Emma knows feckless Brady can't be the murderer, but who is? Could it even be one of her cousins?

I'll probably end up buying the next book in the series just because of the setting, but I really didn't believe in Emma as a 19th century heroine. Certainly there were forward-thinking women in those days, but she sounds more like a 20th century woman playing Victorian heroine. I was also disappointed with a main subplot; why make our heroine a self-sufficient working girl and then immediately introduce a love interest? But it takes place in Newport and I...simply...can't...resist...

book icon  The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla, Lauren Willig
Miss Gwen's (see Passion of the Purple Plumaria) bestselling new book, a Gothic thriller called The Convent of Orsino, has Society all a-twitter about vampire stories. Sally Fitzhugh, younger sister of "Turnip," is intrigued when she hears the rumor that the Duke of Belliston is a vampire and takes a dare to check out his garden, where she comes face-to-face with a less-than-vampiric duke who nevertheless has returned to England under a cloud of suspicion, as it has been long since believed he murdered his own parents. At a party, Sally is with him when he discovers a woman's body with marks on her neck as if she's been attacked by a vampire.

This is a lighter entry, and, alas, the next to the last entry, in Willig's Pink Carnation series. As Mischief of the Mistletoe was a Christmas entry, this is a Hallowe'en one, and has some funny bits between Sally and her "vampire beau" Lucien (not to mention the presence of Sally's pet, a stoat), but it's a lightweight effort before we get to the conclusion involving the Carnation herself, Miss Jane Wooliston, who has gone off on her own, and the black sheep of the Reid family, Jack. Meanwhile, on the Colin/Eloise front, some big surprises are in store. Enjoyable, but not the cream of the crop.

book icon  The Twelve Clues of Christmas, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgiana Rannoch, 35th in line to the British throne and pretty much impoverished, faces a bleak Christmas at the family castle with her affable brother "Binky," her martinet sister-in-law "Fig," and Fig's equally martinet mother, who just wish Georgie to be married off and out of their hair. So Georgie hires herself out to a wellborn woman who's throwing a Christmas house party, only to find out the guests are tourists looking for a "traditional English Christmas," and when she arrives there are police everywhere because the family's neighbor has been shot.

This was an enjoyable edition of the "royal spyness" series, even though the methodology of the criminal is obvious to anyone who's listened to years of Christmas music (except, apparently, everyone involved in the mystery—so much for "old English customs"!), and all the Americans are boorish. The combination of country house mystery and Christmas is irresistible, and Georgie is one of my favorite cozy characters. Georgie's self-absorbed mother reappears, working on a play with Noel Coward, and her down-to-earth Cockney grandfather also becomes involved in the mystery.

book icon  Monk: Mr. Monk Gets Even, Lee Goldberg
In this last of the Monk television adaptations by Goldberg, Adrian Monk's life seems to be going fine. While his former assistant Natalie Teeger is still in New Jersey, trying to decide if life as a police officer is for her, her daughter Julie is helping Monk with his cases, and Monk's agoraphobic brother Ambrose is marrying his ladylove Yuki. Monk even has a girlfriend now, but that's the problem. When some of his theories don't pan out, he feels like his happiness may be losing him his edge in solving crimes. And to add tension to the already tense detective, his mortal enemy "Dale the Whale" is being transferred from prison to hospital for surgery. When Dale escapes, it's Monk's good friend Captain Stottlemeyer who gets the blame.

Goldberg neatly ties up all his own plot threads before leaving the books to be taken over by Hy Conrad, including the return (no spoiler—you knew it had to happen) of Natalie. I'd figured out some aspects of Dale's part of the crime about halfway through the book, but it was great to see Natalie now as a partner, and for Ambrose's happiness to be complete. No goofy jokes in this one, just a satisfying conclusion.

book icon  The Visitors, Sally Beauman
Perhaps it's because I read so many mystery books or fantasy or nonfiction where events usually have a conclusion. In a mystery one finds out who committed the crime, in a fantasy the quest is resolved (whether for a ring or a magic land), and nonfiction usually comes to some conclusion, or at least summary, about a factual event.

The Visitors achieved one goal flawlessly: I did keep turning the pages to see "what happened." If there is a superlative to this book, it is that I could feel like I was there in Egypt in the 1920s, faint with the hot wind on my face and shivering in a cold drenching of a sudden storm and choking on the dust and arid air of a newly-opened tomb, seeing the arid valleys and the sweating workmen and the perpetual tourists looking for thrills, the souks and the marketplaces, and the opulent hotels where "the better half" lived. The author's conceptions of the historical figures like Howard Carter and Lord Carnavon made them, to use an overworked term, "real living breathing people," with weaknesses, egos, and sorrows rather than flat names in the pages of a history text. I also enjoyed her fictional characters, from young Lucy who is coming to terms with the death of her only emotional tie, her mother, and longing for attention from her distant father, to her friend Frances, the precocious daughter of an American archaelogist who is knowing beyond her years, but still childlike in her emotional responses. I did want to know what happened once Lucy's trip was over and she returned to a mercurial tutor who not only suffered from monthly hormonal mood swings, but had other secrets in her life, and a father who has seemingly turned his back on her.

But in the end I was left asking: is that all there is? Lucy has adventures in Egypt, she learns some secrets about the historical figures portrayed in the story, she grows up, has the usual adult relationships, endures some tragedy like all of us do, and then has her Egyptian memories all brought back to her by a documentary filmmaker doing a miniseries on the discovery of King Tutankhamun. It just seemed a letdown after the beautiful descriptive passages of foreign life in the 1920s. Still, I'm glad to have read a book that made post WWI-Egypt so vivid.

book icon  Boston and the Dawn of American Independence, Brian Deming
Yeah, a book about colonial Boston and its role in the Revolutionary War. How could I resist? The narrative opens in 1760, with an account of the Great Fire, and ends with the reading of the Declaration of Independence. In between there are Stamp Acts, acts of rebellion, and "the shot heard 'round the world."

My favorite part of this book are the descriptions of everyday Boston—the sights and sounds and smells of the streets, tar, ocean breeze, livestock, the hammers and squeaks of pulleys and shouting from the waterfront—and the people who lived there, from the poor apprentices at the wharfs to the solid working people to the opulent rich like John Hancock. Populated by the characters of the Revolution you know (Samuel Adams, John Adams, Paul Revere, Israel Putnam, Joseph Warren) and ones you probably don't (Samuel Prescott, William Dawes, Josiah Quincy, Robert Newman, Mercy Otis), it's a vivid narrative of the passions of the opening salvo of the Revolutionary War. A super epilogue follows up on the fates of all the people, and some of the places, mentioned, including the Tories forced out of the city after the British evacuation.

book icon  The Dark Enquiry, Deanna Raybourn
Lady Julia Grey and her husband, investigator Nicholas Brisbane, are once again home in London, with Julia trying to persuade him to make her a more active partner in his cases. She is stunned to find him working for her impeccable eldest brother Bellmont, the stolid "white sheep" of the erratic March clan. When she discovers a connection to the celebrated spiritualist Madame Seraphine, Julia's foray in investigating on her own only leaves her trapped in Madame's home—only to find her husband hiding there as well.

The story starts out a bit predictably with Julia's experiments and the expected bantering with Brisbane, whose reluctance for her to participate in investigations still persists despite promises made to her in the previous novel. This is growing a bit tiresome, but at the end of the novel it appears it may have been resolved. My favorite part was the sequence with the gypsy camp, and the mystery was excellent. Several old favorites appear, including Julia's headstrong father, her sister Portia still doting over her former lover's child, and her younger brother Plum, whose growing attraction to a young woman brings out another aspect of the mystery. Sometimes Julia, and Brisbane, the  stalwart moody Victorian hero, are both over the top, but they're fun to read. Remember this is a cozy mystery with romantic interruptions and it should work fine for you.