30 April 2016

Books Completed Since April 1

book icon  Closer to the Heart, Mercedes Lackey
This is the second book in Lackey's "Herald Spy" series, featuring Mags, the Chosen mine-slave now grown up and on the eve of his marriage to Amily, once the crippled daughter of the King's Own Herald and now King's Own herself. Mags continues to develop his spy network in this book and assist the street kids who help him in his intelligence surveillance.

Several interesting new characters are introduced in this story, including Lady Dia's husband Lord Jorthun and what sounds like an autistic craftsman, Tuck, who can make marvelous tools and inventions. Thankfully, the Romeo-and-Juliet plot from the preceding book is almost forgotten, but the story moves slowly in the middle as Lackey illustrates the setup of the spy network. However, a new danger is introduced almost immediately: Valdemaran weapons are being used to help overthrow a king in the neighboring country of Menmillith, which is determined to fight back, even if it means war.

So the threat builds and a lead is then followed—but the actual "villain" of the piece is identified very late in the story, there's another interminable Kirball game, Mags is kidnapped yet again (not to mention Amily), and it's as if Lackey realized she was coming to the end of an established page count and suddenly wraps it up in the last twenty pages with a speech! At least Mags and Amily do get married, because after the mess they certainly deserve some happiness. To sum up: it's rather uneven, but it does progress the storyline. And a thread right at the beginning was never wrapped up, so I'm wondering if it's going to show up in a future book. Same time next year, I expect...

book icon  Poems and Sketches of E.B. White, E.B. White
Having lulled myself with Charlotte's Web and two volumes of meticulous and lovely essays followed by a surfeit of letters, what do I come upon but this book, which has not only the very beautiful—I love White's poetry; he favors sonnets, but uses all forms—but the very strange, like one piece called "The Door," and the inevitable essay about strange servants in which James Thurber also indulged, even a piece about pigeons addressed to what White considers a very unobservant essayist in another magazine.

I particularly love the poems written to his wife Katharine Angell, especially this one called "Wedding Day in the Rockies":
"The charm of riding eastward through Wyoming
Is not so much the grandeur and the view
As that it is an exercise in homing
And that my fellow passenger is you.
In fourteen years of this our strange excursion
The scenic points of love have not grown stale
For that my mind in yours has found diversion
And in your heart my heart could never fail.

It's fourteen years today since we began it—
This sonnet crowds a year in every line—
Love were an idle drudge if time outran it
And time were stopped indeed were you not mine.
The rails go on together toward the sky
Even (the saying goes) as you and I."
Isn't that lovely? There's another great one called "Winter Trees," too, that isn't love poetry but which is just as beautiful. Read this if just for the poetry.

book icon  The Grapes of Math, Alex Bellos
I confess I didn't enjoy this one as much as Bellos' predecessor, I'm Looking at Euclid. Most of the mathematics made sense, and I enjoyed learning about how certain numbers are more "right" than others and the Benford progression, the stories behind trigonometry and calculus, and tau as a more compelling number than pi.

On the other hand, imaginary numbers just completely lost me (I couldn't figure out what they were good for) and the cell "Game of Life" had me completely baffled until he finally revealed that it could help predicting growth of cities and traffic flow (and the pattern made by the cells was pretty cool). And the fractals were kinda neat. I just guess I am not made for higher math. :-)

book icon  Journey to Munich, Jacqueline Winspear
Maisie Dobbs, now widowed and fresh from a year helping the victims of the Spanish Civil War, is back in England, living with her friends the Partridges but knowing she will need to be taking some direction in her life now that she has returned. One day she is waylaid by her old compatriot from the secret service, Robert McFarlane. He has a mission he wishes her to take: play the part of an imprisoned Englishman's daughter so her father (who is of some use to the government) can be freed in her custody. With misgivings Maisie takes the role.

Of course this being a Maisie Dobbs book you know it can't all be that simple. Maisie is also asked to locate Elaine Otterburn, the woman she secretly holds responsible for her husband's death—and once Elaine is located, Maisie's mission becomes doubly hard. As the Germans continue to delay the release of the imprisoned man, it becomes more and more dangerous for Maisie to keep up her cover as his daughter.

I liked this much more than the proceeding book; and enjoyed the Hitchcockian sense of suspense that follows Maisie's trail. But I like best the final pages of the book, which establishes a new direction for her. I look forward to the next one!

book icon  Dial H for Hitchcock, Susan Kandel
This is the fifth and final (so far that I know) book in the Cece Caruso mystery series. I didn't realize this book was out for a long time after it was published and it has since sat languishing in my to-be-read pile. Cece is an author of mystery writer/filmmaker biographies who also has a taste for vintage clothing. She has an earthy daughter named Annie who has given her one grandchild, plus another from Annie's marriage to Vincent, and when we last met her in Christietown, she was planning her wedding to police officer Peter Gambino.

Except when this book begins she has walked out of her wedding, telling Gambino she isn't good enough for him, and has just come back from what should have been her honeymoon cruise. She returns home to find she has new neighbors, some type of odd people who are Hollywood types. Her troubles being when she goes to a revival showing of Hitchcock's Vertigo and after the show finds a cell phone which is not hers in her bag. In attempting to return it, she sees a woman pushed from a hiking trail by a man, who then threatens her. But, bizarrely, she discovers that she has apparently threatened this young woman.

I've read some bizarre mysteries in my time, but this one takes the cake. The previous Cece mysteries were always a little dippy, as is Cece herself, but this was just oddly off the wall, with Cece trying to figure out how she threatened someone she didn't even know. And when she goes on the run because she knows someone is trying to frame her, she just keeps getting in more and more absurd situations, and it turns out to be the dumbest thing at the end. Frankly, if this hadn't been the last book in the series, I would have quit reading here anyway.

book icon  The Twilight Zone FAQ, Dave Thompson
First, do not buy this as a complete Twilight Zone reference book. That honor is reserved for Marc Scott Zicree's classic Twilight Zone Companion. Second, a warning: Dave Thompson hates modern television. Be prepared for many insults at reality television.

Is this book worth buying? Actually, I liked it if you don't count on it too highly for facts. I think it was badly edited on a computer and bits of text just dropped out, and of course no one proofreads books anymore. In one place the end of a sentence is clearly cut off. In another, the writer seems to be referencing something a character said, but that reference is gone. And there are facts that are wrong; in a section where Thompson is talking about UFO abductions, he mentions Betty and Barney Hills, not Hill.

On the other hand, I sort of liked the goofy way it is arranged: starting the narration with Rod Serling itself and his career in TV, then gives a season by season overview, and within that arranges the episodes under themes (World War II, cold war tensions, aliens, just desserts, etc.). He also talks about some of the noted writers who were regulars on the series (George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, even Earl Hamner). I liked the theme sections because he talks about some of the history and stories that lay behind the episodes. But many of his "discussions" of episodes themselves are just a rehash of the plot, with nothing new learned from reading the synopsis. Now I did like that he addressed the revival series in the 1980s (with classics like "Paladin of the Lost Hour") and the one season 2002 show. So there are pluses and minuses to the volume. I'd say if you are a TZ fan, buy it, but find a used copy on Amazon or Bookfinder.

book icon  The Beginner's Photography Guide, DK Publishers
This is a nice basic photography guide, which will work best for cameras with adjustable features (aperture, shutter speed, etc) and DSLRs.

book icon  Great War Britain: The First World War at Home, Lucinda Gosling
"The Tatler" and "The Sketch," and also "The Bystander" and "The Queen," were the "People" and "Us" of their day in Great Britain, but instead of concentrating on media celebrities, they focused on royalty and society. The wealthy read them to keep up with all the gossip in their society; the middle class to imagine themselves living that opulent and privileged lifestyle. Then Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated.

This delightful history book tells the story of "the Great War" as seen in the four greatest society magazines of that age: how even Princess Mary volunteered for nursing and society matrons raised money, eschewed frivolity, and knitted and packed parcels for "the boys over there." Women became "land girls" and worked on farms, made do with inferior foods and no meat, and eventually became conductors, munitions workers, and other positions formerly reserved for men. It was debated if racing and football should be continued in the face of horrible war losses. The fictional "Eve" in "The Tatler" and "Phrynette" in "The Sketch" commented on the war, most times humorously or facetiously, but sometimes in contemplative form as the body count increased.

Liberally strewn throughout this book are photographs of the society denizens that found their cultured world turned upside down, original art, the whimsical cartoon "Eve," and vintage advertisements urging people to stretch budgets, menus, and charity to "make do." It's a vivid portrait of a segment of British society from 1914 through 1919.

(I was amazed to find this wonderful book in a Hamilton Books catalog for $8. It's still selling for $40 on Amazon!)

book icon  Dear America: A City Tossed and Broken--The Diary of Minnie Bonner, Judy Blundell
One moment Minnie Bonner is helping her extravagant French father and practical mother run their tavern in 1906 Philadelphia. Next thing she knows, her mother has hired her out as a maid to a stuck-up, social-climbing newly rich couple and their vacuous teen daughter because her father has lost the tavern, and all their money, gambling. Her mother promises she will work hard for the next two years and then send for Minnie, who will be moving out to San Francisco with the nouveau riche Sump [yes, Sump as in the pump] family.

Lonely, unhappy, and angry, Minnie's first morning in San Francisco is more terrifying than she can imagine: because the family has arrived just in time for the great San Francisco earthquake and fire.

When Scholastic brought the "Dear America" series back in 2013 for a few books, they decided the books also needed a mystery element, I guess since "girls like mysteries!" So instead of getting to know Minnie and her family, and get a little insight into her character, we are plunged pell-mell into Minnie being shipped off with the Sumps and then the moment she arrives the earthquake takes place, just after she finds out there is something shady about Mr. Sump. The best part about the book is Minnie's description of the earthquake, its fire aftermath, and how some of the citizens of San Francisco rally to save their neighborhood. It's well described and at times very suspenseful. The rest of the story is filled with a bunch of cliches: the two-dimensional Sumps (who live up to their name), a crooked lawyer (is there any other kind in stories like this?), and another evil character who might as well tweak his mustache and cackle like Snidely Whiplash. When another character is introduced, you know immediately he's the person Minnie will later marry. It would have been nice if we actually saw Minnie with her dad at the beginning instead of having flashbacks, and then Minnie getting used to San Francisco before the fire, but we're just popped into the plot. I suspect the author could have written that story, too, judging by the fire scenes, but she was ordered by her Scholastic editors to "cut to the chase." A pity, as this could have been a much better book.

book icon  Treachery at Lancaster Gate, Anne Perry
Finally! A Thomas Pitt mystery that doesn't involve diplomatic misadventures.

There are two breeds of mystery series. One sets up a popular partnership and all books are kept within that story setup, ad infinitum, and the characters never grow or change. The other, as in this series, allows the characters to progress naturally in their careers and lives: employed people do well. They get promoted and sometimes in their promotion, a popular partnership is broken apart. Perry must be lauded for not allowing Pitt's career to stay static and not writing endless by-the-numbers stories where he and his partner investigates society crimes and wife Charlotte and her sister Emily help him.

On the other hand, I have found Pitt's Special Branch investigations, with their political overtones, to be increasingly tedious, so I really enjoyed this latest book, in which Pitt is called in after five police officers are injured (two die almost instantly) in a bombing that, of course, is immediately tied to anarchists. Instead, Pitt's investigation reveals that a prominent politician's son, a young man addicted to opium, may have some connection with the case, and that police corruption is an ugly possibility in spurring the crime. He is assisted in his investigation by his old partner Samuel Tellman, so we get to see both Tellman and his wife Gracie [nee Phipps and formerly the Pitts' much-loved maid) once more, as well as Emily Radley making certain inquires for Pitt at parties she attends.

Unfortunately, once again Charlotte gets short shrift and basically remains home as moral support and a sounding board for her husband. Emily's husband Jack does get some action, and Aunt Vespasia, now married to Victor Narraway (the previous head of Special Branch), appear at the end once the story comes to a head. There are so many characters in the story now that it is hard to give them all equal time. Plus her newer books still lack that special spark that made the originals so compelling. But this is the closest Perry has come to a "classic" Thomas and Charlotte book in several years, and I really enjoyed that.