30 June 2019

Books Completed Since June 1

book icon  The Perfectionists, Simon Winchester
Not so far in the past as history goes, tools and instruments were hand made, one at a time. So long as they worked properly, there was no need for them to be extremely precise. Then came the age of exploration and the age of invention. Such inventions, especially, were required to be precise if they were to work properly: to measure time and/or distance accurately to make scientific measurements, or for machinery (like steam engines) to work properly without the danger of leakage, or, worse, explosions. This is Winchester's history of the art of precision, from medieval navigational equipment to John Harrison's stunning chronometer to the boring of cannon in a manner that the barrels would not explode, all the way through steam engines, tools, screwmaking machines, clocks, interchangeable parts on everything from firearms to washing machines, locks, jets, GPS, atomic clocks, and more.

I know little about engineering, but this book was fascinating. Winchester traces his own interest in the subject to his father's engineering job, and also explains the difference between "precision" and "accuracy" (it's a significant one). Each of the chapters "ups" the precision of the instrument in the previous chapter, until we reach a tolerance of 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 01. I've really enjoyed all of Winchester's other books, especially Atlantic, and this one does not disappoint. Page turning from front to back.

book icon  A Death of No Importance, Mariah Fredericks
This is the first in the Jane Prescott mystery series (I reviewed the second book, Death of a New American, previously). Jane, an orphan raised by her uncle (who works to save prostitutes from their lives on the street) previously worked for the late Mrs. Armslow, and, as the book opens, has worked for the nouveau riche Benchley family for a year as ladies' maid to Miss Charlotte Benchley. She and her shy sister Louise are just Out in society, and Charlotte has shocked everyone by becoming engaged to fast living Norrie Newsome, who supposedly had an understanding with Beatrice Tyler. But at the party to announce their engagement, Norrie is found with his face bashed in, and Charlotte is implicated in the death, even though the real suspect is considered to be an anarchist who has been threatening the Newsome family since a horrendous accident in a coal mine that they owned.

I enjoyed this book just as much as its sequel, and admire Fredericks for writing a historical novel where the protagonist is not a 21st century women dressed up in long frocks. While Jane, with her unconventional uncle and friend Anna who is an activist for worker's rights, has a more liberal view of the world than some women would have had back then, she is still bound by the conventions of her time. She's not a suffragette or an activist, but she is learning, as other women are in her time, that there may be other choices for her rather than traditional roles. The mystery itself is good, the historical underpinnings sound, and once again we discover that the veneer of the wealthy often had sordid underpinnings. Can't wait for more of this series.

book icon  Brief Cases, Jim Butcher
This is a second collection of short stories set in the Harry Dresden universe. I saw several complaints and bad reviews about this collection since it collected all of the Dresden stories about his encounters with a Bigfoot named River Shoulders and his half-human son Irwin, which were previously collected in a Bigfoot story collection, and some of the stories had been in other collections. I think that's an unfair criticism; some of us do not purchase every single volume of urban fantasy short stories just for one Dresden story, so for me this was a welcome collection of stories I hadn't read, except for the very first story with Irwin. No fair knocking down a book's score for that!

Besides the three Bigfoot stories, we have a tale where warden Anastasia Luccio and a demonic nacken (horselike animal) go to Tombstone, Arizona, to arrest an errant warlock, and help Wyatt Earp defeat the warlocks protecting him; a fun story where Harry takes on the curse of the Chicago Cubs; a story featuring John Marcone; another with Molly Carpenter's anguish after a traumatic event; a Waldo Butters story (Butters was supposed to be a one-off character); and even a nifty three-part Rashomon-like narrative about Harry taking his daughter to the zoo, as told by Harry, daughter Maggie, and Harry's temple dog, the enigmatic and fey Mouse. The story taking place in Alaska was also a page-turner. Dresden fans should enjoy these additions to the Dresden-'verse.

book icon  Bite Club, Laurien Berenson
I've read this series from the beginning, and there are some times when I love Aunt Peg and some times when I want to swat her. The latter is my reaction in this book, where Aunt Peg bodily takes over the small mystery-novel reading group that our protagonist Melanie Travis, special needs teacher, mom, and poodle handler, has formed and invites a half dozen more people to participate, all dog show people, of course. One of the guests asks to bring along her new neighbor, Evan Major, who seems to not have any friends. Evan asks if Melanie will help him train a bulldog puppy he purchased, but on her first training day, Evan doesn't answer the door, and when Melanie looks in his window, she sees him lying injured or dead in his home. The police are called, but the neighborhood busybody tells the detectives that Melanie went inside the house, and now she's a suspect in his murder.

In an unusual subplot, Melanie's dog-show friend Terry Denunzio suspects his older partner Crawford may be becoming attached to a younger man who has been assisting them at the shows. As Melanie owes him a favor, Terry asks if Melanie can scope out what's going on with the younger guy and Crawford. I usually like Terry, but this was very unfair of him.

Despite the behaviors of Aunt Peg and Terry, I enjoyed this installment as always. The mystery was convoluted enough, and we got to revisit some old friends like Alice Brickman, and also got to see Melanie's teen son Davey mature more in his dog-show efforts. Melanie's husband Sam as usual is good as gold and endlessly patient; I hope sometime Berenson is going to let us see him get frustrated and lose his temper, but this is not the installment. I twigged to the possible murderer the moment Melanie interviewed that person, but it was late enough in the book for that not to matter. Enjoyable as always!

book icon  The Illustrated Walden, Henry David Thoreau
Thankfully, I never had this as required reading, so it wasn't ruined by well-meaning teachers who made you hate what might have been a good book. This copy had nifty illustrations (impressionist paintings, vintage and new woodcuts, pen-and-ink artwork, and bordered pages) to prettily mount Thoreau's most famous publication, so I figured I'd go for it.

I enjoyed this as long as he chronicled his life in his little cabin, talked about the natural world around him, and waxed philosophical. I could have done without the continual lectures about how everyone should live like he did, with minimal possessions and eating vegetarian. Snore. He does this for sixty pages at the beginning of the book, and then dotted throughout the text thereafter. Then there's the lecture about the uselessness of reading popular fiction instead of reading the classics. Sure, Henry, encourage everyone to march to a different drummer, but then call what people choose to do wrong. You sound just like the Puritans.

book icon  Throw Out Fifty Things, Gail Blanke
In searching for Marie Kondo, I found this book on the shelves as well. Blanke walks the reader through tossing out unneeded things in your life: old completed work projects, used up makeup containers and spice bottles, tattered books and even more tattered furniture, broken items, clothes you never wear, and more. The gimmick to this is that once you discard the obligatory fifty items (or more), Blanke encourages you to do the same with emotional items: toss out old grudges, bad feelings, negative emotions, toxic relationships, etc. An okay reference to getting rid of not just things, but emotions that hold you back, but I'm glad I read it as a library copy.

book icon  The Forgotten Arts & Crafts, John Seymour
This is a combination of two books, one about vintage building methods and crafts, and one about household items that used to be common (like churns and hand-dashes for washing clothes). The author talks with affection about hedging, thatching, plowing behind horses, logging, and all sorts of hand work that used to be done in the 19th century, and all the old skills that are being lost, and does the same for household items like dashes, churns, sadirons, hand sewing, cooking over a woodstove, etc. (apparently he's never asked women about this, because, while I like to look at these items as a curiosity, I sure as hell don't want to use them!). A great look at the effort our ancestors required to survive.

book icon  The Fifth Heart, Dan Simmons
In 1885, Marian "Clover" Adams, wife of Henry Adams (grandson of John Quincy Adams, great-grandson of John Adams), committed suicide by drinking developing fluid. Clover, a quick-minded woman with an interest in photography, was known to suffer from "melancholy," yet in 1893 her brother Edward asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate what he suspects was murder—Holmes is about to leave for the US when he stops noted writer Henry James from committing suicide, taking a reluctant James with him on his investigation. James provides Holmes with an introduction to the Five of Hearts, a small club formed by the Adamses, John and Clara Hay, and an archaeologist named Clarence King.

Thus begins a long, long adventure that mixes Holmes, James, the Five of Hearts "club," and such other luminaries as Samuel Clemens, vice president Adlai Stevenson, and Theodore Roosevelt, and mixing in Holmes' thwarting of a Washington, DC, drug ring (but only after obtaining a new drug to help wean himself off cocaine, a promising new "heroic" drug called heroin) and his attempts to stop the assassination of the President at the Chicago Exposition.

Wow. What can I say about this book? It is crammed full of historical detail, from the slums of DC to the splendors of the "White City" in Chicago, from Clover Adams' extraordinary monument to Clemens' ill-fated investment into the Paige typesetting machine. I found it fascinating, except that if you took all these details out, you would be left with about half the book. Holmes' effort to stop the assassination is interesting, but it's buried under such minute details that most people won't find it worth the effort. Plus, frankly Henry James, who fills the Watson role, is a bore. He moans about his clever brother William, the psychologist; is jealous of his late sister's partner in a Boston marriage; fears being found out when Holmes first introduces himself to his friends as a Norwegian explorer; and complains endlessly that no one in the US appreciates his books. God, what a kvetch. If I keep it, it's just for the historical details.

book icon  Clark Howard's Living Large for the Long Haul, Clark Howard
Another one of savings guru Howard's books about people who have either managed to turn around bad credit/bad spending habits or who have started on the right foot by saving money early. Featured are a couple who paid off $40K of debt in two years, another couple who now ride bicycles exclusively (sorry, guys, would not do this in Atlanta; I want to remain alive), a 32-year-old woman who's already saved $200K, a married pair who run their cars on used cooking grease, a man who traveled to India to save money on a surgical procedure, and more inspirational financial stories. Some good tips here, but I'm not sure I'd go to a foreign country for surgery or burn oil in my car.

book icon  WHOology, Cavan Scott & Mark Wright
This is a chubby book of Doctor Who facts and trivia that I thought was a little too expensive for what it provided, since I have so many books about Doctor Who that contain similar facts. So only when I found a nice discount copy did I pick one up. Of interest: a timeline of significant events in the series' history, times the Doctor had a double, adventures mentioned but never seen, what's known about the Time Lords, the Doctor's family tree, and lots more bits and pieces about Daleks, Time Lords, and even about the Doctor's vintage car "Bessie." Enjoyable for fans.

book icon  Lonely Planet's Best of Great Britain, Damian Harper, etc.
I confess, I ordered this for reasons you might think odd. We have no money to travel, let alone overseas, and husband has no vacation time after a company reorganization and several years of medical problems. But it has always been my dream to travel Great Britain, and I love listening to the Lonely Planet reporters come on Rick Steves' radio series and talk in enticing words about the glories of  historic buildings, beautiful landscapes, and wonderful food. I'd never read a Lonely Planet guidebook.

I was actually a little disappointed. This didn't seem much different than any other guidebook I've purchased, including Rick Steves' himself. I guess from the way the Lonely Planet people talked on the radio show, I thought it would be more nicely written. My bad, not Lonely Planet's, I guess. If you want to read a beautifully written travel guide (but not to Britain), try Journey to New England: a Traveler's Guide. I guess I was hoping it would be more like that.

book icon  How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, Chris Taylor
I've seen all the films in the SW "saga" and enjoyed them (even the prequels, even though the Anakin/Padme stuff made me gag), but I've never been a SW junkie. I don't go looking for SW fanfic, or cosplay; I read a few of the early tie-in novels, but, like most of the Star Trek books, usually find them dull. Really, it was the amazing interplay of the main characters in the original trilogy that made Star Wars for me. Plus I followed all the Star Wars "making of" stories in "Starlog" magazine, so normally a making-of book would not be something I would have considered.

However, looking through this book, I discovered that it wasn't just the story of skinny George Lucas, the imaginative kid from Modesto, CA, and his complicated voyage that culminated in creating space-opera for a new generation, and the evolution of the first film and then its sequels and prequels, but contained stories about how Star Wars changed the lives of some of its fans. The introduction is the fascinating story of the first time the original film was shown to a Navajo audience with the dialog in the Navajo language. Chapter three talks about the founding of the Stormtrooper group "the 501st," created by an amputee and SW fan who wanted a costume that would not show his disability. Other chapters cover fans who have studied Jedi philosophy, action figure collectors, the Joseph Campbell mythology books, and people who build their own working R2-D2 robots. The Expanded Universe books and animated series get their due, and there's even a chapter about Star Wars spoofs.

I enjoyed the entire kit and kaboodle here, and did learn lots of things about the creation of the films that "Starlog" had never covered.

book icon  Rough Magic, Lara Prior-Palmer
The description of this book sounded wonderful: 18-year-old girl enters a wild Mongolian horse race, despite the fact her father hates horses and at first forbids her to go; turns out her aunt is a famous British equestrian rider. She has always been a restless soul, flitting from one thing to another.

The reality is somewhat less. I was hoping for an introspective book, in which lonely riding on the Asian steppes brought her to a different consciousness, or learning through her ride about the Mongolian countryside and the people. Very little is learned, and although she chronicles her thoughts and some very bizarre nightmares, it all seems very superficial. She doesn't even seem to prepare for the trip in even a minor way (even to forgetting to pack sanitary napkins, which kind of grossed me out when she talked about her blue jeans turning purple), and seems to resent the people who did prepare, including a highly regarded rider from Texas, who comes with all sorts of equipment. This rider seems to be hated just because she is from Texas, even though at the end it is also noted that she has pushed her horse too hard. (The race strictly regulates how hard the horses can be ridden, how far, and they are vetted at each stop, the rider penalized if the horse is slow to recover.) This seems to make the Texas rider sound callous, but it's apparently okay for Lara to whip her "lazy" horse when he doesn't want to go fast, or to stimulate him by scaring him with a motorcycle. In fact, Lara states at the beginning of the race she will be happy if she finishes and experiences the race, and that she isn't all that competitive. By the end all she wants to do is beat the more prepared riders, especially the Texas girl.

This, combined with some of her other actions, make her sound willful and spoiled. (At one point she relates that, as a child, she threw someone's dog into a pool because she was angry.) Ultimately I admire her for completing the race, despite its hardships, but I came away not liking her very much.

book icon  The Woman in the Water, Charles Finch
This is the first of three prequels to the Charles Lenox mysteries (the first book which was A Beautiful Blue Death) that takes us back to the days when Lenox first lived in London with his former college scout Graham and was a neophyte trying to become a private investigator. He has solved two minor mysteries, and while he and Graham daily take newspaper cuttings about suspected crimes, nothing has come his way yet, and the police think he's something of a joke. And then one morning a clipping takes their eye: a letter to the newspaper states that its author has committed the perfect crime, so perfect that no one has noticed it, and the author is disappointed in the police force. Both men are alarmed because the letter's author says he will be committing another crime soon. Can they prevent someone from being killed?

As in the second of the prequels, which I read first, I enjoyed this volume better than the more recent of Lenox's adventures, in which he has formed a detective agency. His partnership with Graham, and his unrequited love for his best friend Elizabeth (later to be known as Lady Jane) is very appealing, as are his solo efforts. There is also a touching subplot involving a member of Lenox's family and the scenes with them are a joy. The mystery is reasonably convoluted and takes Lenox and Graham from society venues to the mudlarks who hunt up discards to sell. But the real draw here is the family and the personal drama.

book icon  Mary Russell's War and Other Stories of Suspense, Laurie R. King
This is a volume of short stories based on King's series of books about Mary Russell, an intelligent young woman of mixed British and American ancestry who comes to live in rural Sussex during World War I and encounters a retired Sherlock Holmes, who takes her on as his apprentice in the first book of the series, The Beekeeper's Apprentice. Later, after she attends Oxford, she and Holmes are married. I couldn't get into the series the first time I read the initial book, then came back a few years ago and found I enjoyed it more, so naturally I picked this up at a book sale recently. One of the stories, "Beekeeping for Beginners," I had read online, but all others are new to me, including the titular "Mary Russell's War," which is Mary's diary from the time war breaks out in Europe until she returns to Sussex after the death of her family and meets Holmes. This is probably my favorite of the stories, liberally illustrated by "newspaper" news clippings and other illos. There are also two Christmas stories, one from Mary's childhood, and a very amusing two part tale of an elderly Russell and Holmes on the run from Sherlock-crazy American tourists. Plus there's "Mrs. Hudson's Case," in which that august lady puts one over on Holmes (but not necessarily on Russell).

If you are a fan of the Russell stories, these are a good addition to the canon.

book icon  A Double Life, Alan Shayne and Norman Sunshine
I confess, I bought this because Alan Shayne produced and Norman Sunshine did the commercial-break cutouts for the Addie Mills specials (Shayne also created and produced The Snoop Sisters, but he didn't have much to do with the series itself) and there was a whole chapter about the creation of The House Without a Christmas Tree. At the time I read the preview of the book, it was the first time I knew Shayne and Sunshine had been a couple. This interested me more.

Shayne and Sunshine take turns telling their stories, starting with their first meeting, then going back to their youth of trying to reconcile their attraction to men in a society where this was not only considered repugnant, but in most cases illegal. Shayne originally wished to be an actor and later became a casting director and then producer (he went to acting school with Marlon Brando, who sounded like a self-absorbed twit); Sunshine was always an artist, one who went from designing advertising copy to a full-time artist with gallery showings (Sunshine once worked for Jane Trahey, who wrote Life With Mother Superior, made into the film The Trouble With Angels). As their careers progress, and occasionally rise and fall, so also does their relationship.

This is my first time reading a book with a real-life narrative of a same-sex relationship. Surprise for those of you who may not like them because you think they are "unnatural": it's just like an opposite sex relationship: the same love, the same feelings, the same misunderstandings, the same up-and-down career choices that affect a relationship. I enjoyed the relationship story and also both career stories (although how Shayne didn't go berserk at his job at Warner Brothers I'll never know). Really enjoyed seeing Sunshine's work in one of the photo inserts (I like the earlier work better than the abstract work, but that's me), especially the country-themed ones, and the ones depicting the anonymity of city living. We get celebrity stories both positive (after their house burned down, Shayne and Sunshine lived at Rock Hudson's home at his invitation, even though they were not close friends) and negative (Lee Radziwell appearing in a TV-adaptation of Laura with a Truman Capote script), some very sad (the Bette Davis tale, and also the final story about Alan's ex-wife Jacqueline), and some very positive, like the Addie Mills collaboration. And I cried when they finally were able to be married.

book icon  Murder in the British Museum, Jim Eldridge
This is the third (or maybe second) book in a series about former police officer Daniel Wilson (he worked on the Jack the Ripper case and is now a private investigator) and Abigail Fenton (archaeologist and explorer, and now investigator). Everyone else whose reviews I've read seems to have enjoyed this book, but I'm afraid I'm going to be the dissenting vote here. I found it terribly difficult to get into and to finish reading, the characters one-dimensional, the romance tepid, even the feud between the male protagonist and one of the police officers was dull. Even worse, the moment one particular character was introduced, I guessed immediately this was the murderer of Professor Pickering, and I usually don't pick up on these things.

Daniel Wilson and Abigail Fenton have to be two of the dullest Victorian lovers ever. Every time they're at home and she's cooking for him I wanted to fall asleep. I don't get any sense of them as living, breathing human beings. Plus Abigail, already unconventional for being an archaeologist, is really bucking convention by living with a man out of wedlock. While they don't go around broadcasting this fact, a lot of people either seem to know or have guessed, so I would expect a lot more negative acceptance of Abigail because they believed or suspected she was "living in sin." Even worse, Americanisms and modern sayings—at one point Abigail talks about someone "hanging around" someone else (while "hang out" goes back to the 19th century, I believe "hanging around" is a 20th century term)—infiltrate every chapter. I'd no sooner gotten into what sounded like authentic British Victorian dialog when up would come one of those anachronisms to toss me out of the story.

There are so many better male/female Victorian crimefighting teams: the Pitts, the Monks, and especially Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson. I eat up their adventures; this was just tedious.

book icon  True Stories of Heroic Dogs, George Watson Little
This is a vintage volume from Grosset & Dunlap's "Famous Dog Stories" collection, and I probably would have killed for any or every one of the books in it as a kid: Jim Kjelgaard, Jack O'Brien, James Oliver Curwood, and more, a great collection of authors who wrote slam-bang canine-oriented adventures. It's a set of true stories, written for a younger audience, of real-life heroic dogs, including a collie who saves her toddler charge from drowning, an early 20th century tale of a mongrel dog who helped the police, a Great Dane who was a true friend of poor slum boys, a hunting dog who saved his owner from a raging river, and more.

I was amused by the acknowledgments page when the editor thanks "Mrs. Julie Campbell Tatham" for her help. Julie Campbell was the original author of the first few Trixie Belden mystery books, and the tale "Pal" appears to have been almost certainly written by Tatham: it takes place in Trixie's old stomping grounds, the Hudson Valley; the mother's name is Julie; and one of the kids says "Gleeps!" just like in the Belden stories. It's very possible Tatham adapted the stories within.

Dog lovers should enjoy this collection, even though it's very old fashioned.

book icon  Moonbound: Apollo 11 and the Dream of Spaceflight, Jonathan Fetter-Vorm
This is a nifty graphic-novel story of the Apollo program, which begins with the astronauts arriving at the moon, then alternating with the story of man's relationship with the moon, from beliefs about it from ancient civilizations to theories about what kind of life might exist there, and then with the first scientific discoveries by men like Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, to the present, where it intersects with the mission. The text is unsparing: you learn about the concentration-camp workers of Mittelwerk who put together those rockets Wernher von Braun and his team created; how Sergei Korolov was treated before Stalin realized he needed him; how women were originally trained as astronauts and even beat the physical records set by men, but who were never seriously considered based on the recommendations of many men (including John Glenn); the story of Margaret Hamilton, who programmed all the computers but got no credit because software wasn't considered important. Scientific principles are also illustrated to make them more easily understood (for instance, why you can't "speed up" in orbit to overtake another spacecraft).

I'm not always happy with the art in graphic novels, but this works pretty well, portraying the "present" in full color while the historical flashbacks are done in three-color combinations, which easily delineate the eras. Some of the art, in fact, is pretty cool, especially the final panel on page 37, a symbolic illustration of Johannes Kepler's breakthrough.

Extremely enjoyable, and probably a great way to introduce a scientifically inclined youngster to the history of the moon landings.