30 September 2014

Books Completed Since September 1

book icon  Who's Who in Children's Books, Margery Fisher
I bought this in the mistaken belief it was a book I had seen in the 1960s, but this intriguing volume is from the 1970s and chiefly oriented toward British children's book protagonists, although numerous popular American characters are including, including the Moffats, the Melendys, Harriet M. Welsch, Meg Murry, the Bobbsey Twins, etc. After reading this book, I can tell you two things: Ms. Fisher despises series books (even British series books) almost as much as she despises Disney adaptations.

As with all of these "who's who" type books, you wonder why certain characters are included and some are not. Of course the Pevensies of the Narnia books are here, as well as the children from the Swallows and Amazons books, and I was very happy to notice the inclusion of Christina Parsons. But where's February Callendar? And so many of the modern books are out of print, but not available as e-books because they aren't old enough. That's the trouble with reading "who's who": it makes you want to read more and you can't.

Fisher's book is full of classic illustrations from the books she discusses, from Ardizzone to Baynes to Beatrix Potter and Ernest Shepard and Howard Pyle. If you love children's books, this will be a fine addition to your collection.

book icon  War Dogs, Rebecca Frankel
Frankel offers an absorbing, if a bit scattershot, story of MWD, otherwise "military working dogs," and their relationship with their handlers, their heightened senses that pick up clues that would be otherwise missed, and their devotion to their duty. She tries to define what a war dog is: a tool? a weapon? a partner? What they are are certainly not pets, but the dogs' bonds with their handlers, and vice versa, are not impersonal and the death of either partner is usually devastating to the other. To get inside the dogs' training, Frankel goes on training missions with the K-9 troops: trailing, scent discrimination, practice war scenarios. She also briefly addresses the history of the war dog, from the Egyptian era through Vietnam. The majority of the narrative, however, follows the partnership of American handlers and their dogs who are stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

While I enjoyed the individual stories of the dogs and their handlers, and Frankel's observations during the training mission, it wasn't a page turner, either. I found I could put it down and not be eager to pick it back up. However, reading about the dogs' distress when they were separated from their human partners, I was angered all over again of the fate of the military dogs that were just left behind as "equipment" in Vietnam; they were most probably euthanized after faithfully serving our soldiers. Thankfully, the military has changed their thinking about this practice, but the memory still stings.

book icon  Broadchurch, Erin Kelly
A guy named Harry Brown spoiled me forever for novelizations. And I don't even know if Harry Brown was his real name (or even if Harry was actually a "he").

Over the years I've read novelizations of many television show episodes/movies. They ranged from the totally workmanlike Target Doctor Who novelizations--if you'd missed the episode, you had a true recap of it, even if it was just the basic "just the facts, ma'am"--to Robert Weverka's work on The Waltons (where he managed to blend two episodes seamlessly) and The Magic of Lassie (actually improved by filling in missing scenes, like explaining how Lassie escapes from a home in Colorado Springs, falls off a cliff, and ends up in Zion National Park). Most are just what their name says they are: a plain vanilla novel version of the script, but Harry Brown, the author who novelized the already exceptional Edward Asner/Maureen Stapleton film The Gathering, went one better: he turned the story into a real novel by adding details to the story that perfectly fit the characters as presented on screen, gave supporting characters a complete fleshing out, describing both locations and inner thoughts with care. Harry Brown is a high hurdle to meet.

Unfortunately Broadchurch doesn't meet the Harry Brown test. I was totally absorbed by the miniseries and, having missed at least one part, was happy to have to have the novel to fill in the gap. Since the Broadchurch plot was so complex, I had hoped the text would add some additional insights, bring me back to the seaside town and its people, let me smell the salt air and feel the suspicions and insecurities of the characters involved. I'd say that a couple of times it came close (revealing Beth's internal turmoil, for example, or Hardy's love for his child), but for most of the book the characters didn't come alive as they did on the screen. The novel, in fact, seems to make both protagonists, Hardy and Miller, a little less likeable than they were in the episodes.

The absolute deal-breaker for me in this book was the use of present tense. I understood why the author used it--immediacy, as if you were also in the town of Broadchurch, a voyeur to all the happenings around town. I don't like the use of present tense, and I can't recall any book I've ever bought, let alone liked, that used this technique. To me it distanced the story, made me only the observer, which is never good in a story that is supposed to inspire strong emotions. But this is my own personal quirk; YMMV.

book icon  City of Jasmine, Deanna Raybourn
If someone asked me for a one-word review only: Fluff. It's not only chick-lit, it's a beach book. When I originally read the synopsis, I thought it would be a more serious book; it's not...it's a romance novel dressed up as a historical, with the headstrong gorgeous female lead and the impossibly handsome male lead. (The Raybourn Julia Grey mysteries feature a similarly impossibly handsome male lead, but since it's a mystery story there are other elements that keep the character from overwhelming the story.)

Well, let's say you're in the mood for fluff. Okay. Take a bit of Raiders of the Lost Ark and a bit of High Road to China and a bit of The Thin Man. Stir in one madcap aunt ala Mame, one character reminiscent of another in Disney's film of The Moon-Spinners, several noble Bedouin characters, an archeological dig, a treasure, a Peter Pan subthread, and mix--here's this book. Our protagonists, Evie and Gabriel, argue endlessly. The gay man and the Bedouin chief dispense profound advice. In short, it's a book like a 1930s B-movie adventure flick, without the insensitive racial annoyances. Set mind to neutral and just coast.

Pluses (and there are a few): Aunt Dove and her parrot Arthur (although I'm curious to know how the poor bird stays on his perch when Evie does trick maneuvers in her trusty biplane "The Jolly Roger") and the descriptions of the food--when our heroes are not being kidnapped, trudging cross the desert, being shot at or arguing, they're eating what sounds like the most delicious food. It may make you hungry. Alas, it breaks no new ground, only rewalks the old. Still, for a lazy day on the beach, that may be enough.

book icon  Night of a Thousand Stars, Deanna Raybourn
So no sooner do I give a lukewarm review to a Raybourn romance than another one is offered to me. This book takes place concurrently to City of Jasmine, and Gabriel Stark makes a short appearance in the story, but it begins in England where young Penelope "Poppy" Hammond is about to escape from her wedding. She was supposed to marry the wealthy and nice, but rather boring, scion of a noble family, but Poppy's never done what she's been expected to do, to the exasperation of her mother, and now she doesn't want to be trapped in a routine relationship. Surprisingly, a young minister named Sebastian Caltrip helps her escape, then vanishes. Worried about his fate (and somewhat attracted to him), Poppy follows him, having lucked out on a secretary's job going in the right direction. Next thing she knows, she's in Damascus and in deep trouble.

I enjoyed this outing better than the last since our heroine isn't everlastingly arguing, plus we discover something about Poppy's family that I found very enjoyable. The machinations around Poppy owe a lot to those wonderful old kids' adventure stories where clever teenagers ended up participating in adult adventures and outsmarting their more-experienced elders, but since I enjoy reading those (found like berries in late summer on munseys.com and Gutenberg), this was no hardship for me. I particularly loved finding out about Poppy's relations and meeting her father. I wouldn't mind seeing another story featuring Poppy and Sebastian.

book icon  Autumn Across America, Edwin Way Teale
This is one of four books in which naturalist Teale and his wife Nellie travel across the United States during one of the seasons and observe wildlife and ecosystems. While most fall volumes concentrate on leaf coloration and homely pursuits that include pumpkins, winter vegetables, and animals preparing for hibernation, the Teales' track starts in New England and then takes a meandering way westward through Michigan, the upper Plains states, dip down to the Great Salt Lake, go north to Oregon and end up in Northern California, both at the shore and inland, all done in the days before the interstate. They discover unique bird species, find the places where the butterflies stop over on their migrations, tour the redwood forests, view the autumn sky from a homemade sky-watching station, investigate the roamer of the plains (the tumbleweed), see migrating salmon, discover pikas and fern farmers, and even tell the story of a man's arduous multi-month search for his beloved dog lost in the wilderness. These books are a must for anyone who enjoys reading about wildlife and natural habitats, and there are great views of road travel before the superhighways. Like a virtual nature hike. Enjoy!

book icon  Silent Knife, Shelly Freydont
see review here

book icon  The Secret Journal of Ichabod Crane, Alex Irvine
Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's a tie-in book with the television series Sleepy Hollow, but Irvine takes the idea and runs with it. Crane's journal basically charts the same course as the first season of the series, told from Ichabod's point of view, so it's a pell-mell collection of scraps from Sheriff Corbin's research, recounts of his initial adventures with Abbie, plus bits of things like codes, Ichabod's past, his love for Katrina, etc. Where it shines are the bits where Ichabod states his views, whether it's about the founding fathers (John Adams wrote dirty limericks, Jefferson liked puns, and we won't even repeat his opinions about Benjamin Franklin) or about his reaction to today's living, so there are many snide and humorous reactions to cell phones, television, modern clothing, etc. I doubt if there's any interest here for non-series fans unless they're trying to get into the show, but for series fans it's a hoot.

book icon  Doctor Who: Silhouette, Justin Richards
The Doctor negates Clara's wish to see King Arthur and instead takes them to 19th century London where a unique power spike impossible in Victorian times has just occurred. Despite the Doctor not wanting to bother the Paternoster Gang, they meet Jenny Flint almost immediately; she is searching for a man who was about to seek Madame Vastra's help and then died by mysterious means. Strax is also on a search, for whomever killed his sparring partner, a pugilist named Bellamy. Very soon, the five of them realize the mystery revolves around the Carnival of Curiosities performing at the Frost Fair, and particularly with a shadow play performer named Silhouette.

I'll assume Richards was given copies of the early 12th Doctor scripts and perhaps an outline of where the character was going; he hasn't quite captured the eccentricities of Capaldi's Doctor, but it's getting there. The villain of the piece is pretty typical of what's been on the series before (going back to the classic series as well), but the suspense is well done and Clara's newfound spunk is in full bloom. The story has a "Weng-Chiang/Fang Rock" atmosphere about it that will please fans of the old series, and I found I enjoyed this more than I expected, and more than I have of books based on the previous incarnations in the new series. Strax in particular has some very funny lines. I'd like to see this as an episode of the series!