31 October 2023

Books Completed Since October 1

book icon  Creatures of the Kingdom, James Michener
This is a compilation of all the nature and animal chapters from Michener's sprawling novels like Centennial, Alaska, Chesapeke, and more. I've been wanting it for ages and finally found it in a used book store. These sequences are always preludes to the human dramas of his books and I look forward to them. Some of his most memorable characters are Rufous the bison and the two competing water dogs in Chesapeake.

book icon  The Bride Test, Helen Hoang
Damn, this book made me cry.

Khai Diep is autistic, but all he sees is that he has no feelings. When his favorite cousin Andy dies, he doesn't cry, so he feels he is unfit for a "regular" life that includes falling in love and getting married. His troubled mother travels to Vietnam to find a woman she feels might change his mind. She returns with Mỹ—now known as Esme Tran—a young woman who cleans bathrooms to support herself, her mother, and her secret child. Esme will try to woo Khai, and his mother will pay for her summer in the United States. If it doesn't work, she will go home, at least, with some savings. Khai can't believe what his mother's done, and Esme will do just about anything to get this handsome young man to love her. Except surrender her principles.

Everything about this book feels right: the young man who feels like an outcast because he can't seem to feel, the young woman who wants a better life, even the older brother who's desperate to help. A fulfilling romance read.

book icon  The Murder Room, Michael Capuzzo
This is the story of the Vidocq Society, founded by an FBI agent turned private eye (William Fleisher), a self-taught forensic artist (Frank Bender), and an eccentric profiler (Richard Walter): a group of professional crime fighters who get together once a month to take on cold cases of murder (others include people like Robert Ressler, the basis for the Jack Crawford character in Silence of the Lambs and a forensic pathologist, Hal Fillinger). It's an interesting book, first chronicling the three founders' initial interest in crimefighting and then going on to cover some of the more interesting cases the Vidocq Society had investigated.

However, Capuzzo goes on and on about such things as Bender's "open marriage" (his wife allows him girlfriends, but he has to bring them home and she has to approve them). Bender weaves through this book like a forensic sculptor Hugh Hefner, constantly on the make. Richard Walter is described as precise and eccentric, a living embodiment of Sherlock Holmes, chain smoker, living in a Victorian home. He and Bender partner like oil and water, and if I'd heard him described one more time as "the thin man" I thought I was going to scream. The crimes are fascinating, but there should have been less focus on some private lives.

book icon  A Curious History of Sex, Kate Lister
I bought this for Valentine's Day, but only read it now. With tongue firmly in cheek, Lister takes us through the wonderful world of human sexuality, from a discussion of that four-letter word (not the "f word," but the "c word") to a history of the "boy in the boat" (the clitoris), whores, sexual racism, the "evils" of masturbation, sexual gland transplants, sex and food, vibrators and other sex toys, condoms...well, name it, it's here, and illustrated with many examples of Asian sex manuals, "French postcards," and erotic Victorian photography.

Lots of fun to read.

book icon  Star Trek Strange New Worlds: The High Country, John Jackson Miller
This was recommended to me by a friend who usually doesn't like tie-in novels. Thanks, Bill!

Captain Christopher Pike, First Officer Una Chin-Riley, Science Officer Spock, and Cadet Nyota Uhura are testing out a new shuttlecraft to be used on Prime Directive landings. This will keep advanced technology away from planets that are being explored. But as "Eratosthenes" approaches planet FCG-7781 b, on which the Starfleet vessel "Braidwood" disappeared some years go, all her sensors go out and the ship loses power. The crew is evacuated safely, but each person lands in a different place: Pike near what looks like an old West town, Chin-Riley in a forest, Spock underwater, and Uhura near a volcano. What Pike discovers on the planet is incredible: humans from Earth transported from the 1800s and not allowed to progress technologically. But one of them isn't from that era; it's someone Pike knew back on Earth.

This book is a sequel of sorts to a Star Trek: Enterprise episode called "North Star" in which Drayko and his people were introduced, but you need not have watched it. It's a corker of a good SNW story, with inventive plotlines for each of the missing characters (although Spock gets slightly short shrift), great worldbuilding, interesting original supporting characters, chase scenes along with thoughtful processes. Should not disappoint any Star Trek fan.

book icon  Witcha Gonna Do?, Avery Flynn
Matilda "Tilda" Sherwood is a powerless witch—an outrĂ©—in a family of witchy overachievers. All of the other witches turn up their noses at her. (Think of her as Rudolph.) Even her presence on a dating service doesn't help, because the darn thing keeps matching her up with Gil Connolly, who she considers a jerk. Actually, it keeps happening because the Witch's council thinks Tilda is faking and keeps sending Gil to check her out. If he makes good on his investigation, they just might let his parents back from banishment. And then, somehow, even without power, Tilda manages to mess up one of her sisters' spells and quick freezes the whole family. The only hope: stealing a heavily guarded spell book. Who's gonna help? Gil, of course, because he's discovered Tilda's real secret (the one so secret she doesn't know about it).

As opposed to the Asher book below, this is a much more whimsical book. I liked Tilda and Gil, but the whimsy got tiresome quickly.

book icon  Not Your Ex's Hexes, April Asher
Another rom-com from Books-a-Million's clearance section, this is the second in a series about the magical Maxwell sisters, Violet, Rose, and Olive, who live in a world where vampires, werewolves, angels, demons, and witches live side-by-side with humans. The first book was about Violet; this volume is about Rose. When the story opens, Rose, her sisters, and her bestie Harper are trying to rescue two emaciated horses, not knowing they've already been rescued by veterinarian Damian Adams, half-demon. Rose, as the organizer of the rather illegal rescue, is given community service rather than arrest, service at Damian's animal rescue. Predictably, sparks fly, but Damian's keeping a secret: he can't fall in love because his ex-girlfriend hexed him. If he does, he'll lose his soul.

I liked this much better than Witcha; the sister dynamic is fun, the animal work is cool, and the troubles Rose and her sisters have seem more realistic, but, as I notice other people complained about this book, these folks are supposed to be in their thirties, with responsible jobs. Most of them act more like lovesick teens or college students.

book icon  Better Hate Than Never, Chloe Liese
This is book two in Liese's Wilmot sisters trilogy. I didn't like it as well as the first because Kate is just so angry. She says her parents loved her and Christopher back in their childhood was like a brother, but she never felt loved, but always like a third wheel because her parents had each other and Beatrice and Juliet were twins. The parents sound very supportive, so I don't understand the self-hate.

The story: Kate, the youngest sister, grew up knowing Christopher Petruchio as a good friend, but they have always argued. Christopher, knowing her hostility, tried to keep away from her, but has always been attracted to her. When Kate comes home for Thanksgiving, not wanting to admit she's down and out, as well as out of a job, she immediately gets hostile to Christopher again and he responds in kind until Kate makes a drunken admission that she always thought he hated her.

The absolutely best thing about this book is that near the end there is one of those romance story situations that almost always happens: "the misunderstanding." Almost, but it doesn't, because the characters act like adults and trust that they've heard the wrong thing. Thank you so much.

30 September 2023

Books Completed Since September 1

book icon  Dear Little Corpses, Nicola Upson
This is the tenth book in Upson's "Josephine Tey" mysteries in which the writer (the real Tey's actual name was Elizabeth McIntosh; Upson writes of Tey as an original character who wrote McIntosh's novels) is enjoying a quiet stay in at the country cottage she inherited from an aunt in the village of Polstead with her lover, Marta. It is the day before World War II is declared and the village is preparing for the arrival of evacuee children from London. Unfortunately the buses arrive with more children than expected and in the chaos a little girl named Annie from the village vanishes. The longer the search goes on, the more dire the consequences appear to be. In the meantime, an eccentric family take on one little girl but refuse to take her 10-year-old brother, who is temporarily billeted with Josephine and Marta, who are in conflict when Marta's demanding director, Alfred Hitchcock, requires she come to Hollywood early.

I love Upson's writing; she has the talent to make these mysteries sound as if they were written in the 1930s without the unfortunate racism and classism that was rampant at the time. This also captures the spirit of the day leading up to and then the days after Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, and the attitude of a small town preparing to take in frightened and bewildered children. The menace of secrets held within the village limits is also well portrayed. I really enjoyed this one.

book icon  Border Crossings: A Journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway, Emma Fick
This is the niftiest travel book I've seen in a long time. Fick and her "then-boyfriend, now-husband" Helvio, inspired by a used book about traveling the Trans-Siberian Railway, decide to do just that. They start in Beijing and end in Moscow. The unique thing about the book is that it's narrated in Fick's watercolor sketches and hand-lettered narrative. The whole thing is priceless...sketches of Mongolian nomads, Chinese train officials, countrysides, local houses, decorations, foods, passports, tickets, customs, animals, even the Moscow subway stations. It's fascinating, a real treat for the eyes.

book icon  The Make-Up Test, Jenny L. Howe
Picked this up off the remainder table in Books-a-Million and discovered with amusement that it was set in a fictional college in Rhode Island (and the protagonist is from Maine)—it even features the Jack O'Lantern Spectacular at Roger Williams Park in one chapter. Allison Avery and her ex-boyfriend Colin Benjamin find they're going to have to work together in graduate school. Allison's looking forward to talking about literature and especially with working with Professor Wendy Frances, but the thought of teaching a class has her flummoxed. A whole book about people who obsess about books! And although Allison is plus-sized, it's not mentioned on every page of the book but exists as an undercurrent of the difficult relationship she has with her father. No crazy gay friends; they're all sane here. And Professor Frances is a wonderful, supportive character.

book icon  The Rediscovery of America, Ned Blackhawk
An exhaustive scholarly history of how European exploration and settlement of North American, primarily the United States, ruined the thriving Native American settlements all over the continent. I was quite pleased to find an expansion of a history of the southwestern settlements like Acoma that Alistair Cooke touched on briefly in the second episode of his 1972 series America. Also enjoyed a further exploration of my home region of New England, if "enjoyed" can be properly used to refer to a narrative of steady betrayals and brutalities. I was also interested to learn of the contributions of Native American women like Laura Cornelius Kellogg and Elizabeth Bender Cloud in the fight for Native rights, since I had never heard any historical references to Native women, just modern ones like Wilma Mankiller. One must be strong-stomached to read the endless litany of broken agreements, unfulfilled treaties, and flat-out removals of indigenous people from the lands where their ancestors had fished, farmed, and hunted for ages, not to mention the terrible boarding schools and removal of children from their parents into foster care, where the kids were forbidden to speak about their heritage and they were often abused physically and sexually. Note that early settlement is covered more thoroughly than modern events.

I did find a minor error in the chapter which talks about the popularity of Westerns on television/in movies in the late 1950s featuring stereotypical and more than often offensive Native characters. Blackhawk states that Disney's "Peter Pan...Americanized the English tale Peter and Wendy and incorporated Indian characters and music in its depiction of Never Never Land." The "Red Indians" (as the British called them) in Peter Pan were ported directly from J. M. Barrie's book, which I read for the first time only a few years ago. Tiger Lily and the other members of her tribe were already there in glaring racist display, with Tiger Lily talking in a horrific "Pidgin Chinese" manner, substituting "Ls" for "Rs" ("Velly velly good" and similar dialog). It was repulsive. The British were apparently fascinated by American and Canadian "savages" and loved to see them in adventure tales.

book icon  Truly, Madly, Sheeply, Heather Vogel Frederick
This is the last of the Pumpkin Falls mysteries, according to the advertisement, and I will miss Truly Lovejoy, her ex-military family, and her new home in New Hampshire. It's a busy autumn for the Lovejoys: Aunt Truly is marrying her old sweetheart, and they're buying a dilapidated farm on which they plan to raise sheep to make specialty yarn, plus at school they're building catapults in science class for the annual pumpkin toss. But someone seems to be trying to drive True and Rusty off their farm, not to mention decorative pumpkins are disappearing all over town. It will take Truly and her friends to solve both mysteries. And what about the new boy in school? Will he take Truly's mind off her friend Calhoun?

A couple of quibbles: What kind of fourteen-year-old still believes in haunted houses and ghosts, especially in a military family? And then there's the matter of the names of the sheep: One of the ewes (all but the ram named after famous women) is named "Frances" Scott Key? Couldn't another female historical figure have been found rather than turning a man's name into a woman's? Dolley after Dolley Madison, who saved the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington? Sybil for Sybil Ludington who rode through the night to call the militia to help at the Battle of Ridgefield? Anne for Anne Hutchinson, who was a woman minister in Rhode Island who was persecuted because women weren't supposed to preach the gospel? Celia for Celia Thaxter, famous New England artist? Sheesh.

This has the most beautiful cover of any of the Pumpkin Falls mysteries. I'd love to have a print of it to frame!

book icon  Travels With George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy, Nathaniel Philbrick
A delightful voyage with Philbrick and his wife (and their Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever Dora) as they retrace a tour of the entire United States as taken by George Washington by mostly carriage (but some by ship) between 1789-1791 to rally the states to accept the new Constitution. Like our first president, the Philbricks do the tour in stages following Washington's route via his journals and diaries, so it's a travelogue, a history of Washington's life, and a slice of life in post Revolutionary America all at once. I loved this book to death.

book icon  The Ghost and the Stolen Tears, Cleo Coyle
The eighth book in the "Haunted Bookshop Mystery" series taking place in the fictional Quindicott, Rhode Island. Jack Shepard, the New York private eye shot dead in the entrance to the old bookstore now owned by Penelope Thornton-McClure and her aunt Sadie. Penelope, a widow with a school-age son, returned to her hometown and revived the fading shop, is the only one who can see Jack's ghost, now haunting the store. Alas, in this outing, as in the seventh book, Jack has turned into a martinet again, talking too much slang and bullying Penelope. As always, Penny's travel "back in time" sequences via Jack's lucky nickel are the most interesting parts of the book, and her two buddies Seymour the postman and Brainert the professor get more annoying by the day. Oh, the plot has to do with a missing necklace and a nomadic woman who travels around in her trailer.

book icon  The Director: My Years Assisting J. Edgar Hoover, Paul Letersky with Gordon Dillow
This is Letersky's story of being an assistant to the famous and sometimes infamous J. Edgar Hoover. Letersky is evidently a Hoover fan, although he's not silent about Hoover's likes and dislikes. One hears so much about Hoover's buddy Clyde Tolson, but in this narrative he's a tottery cranky old guy. The best part of his book are Paul's stories about Helen Gandy, Hoover's private secretary for over fifty years, and about his own career as an FBI agent.

book icon  It Happened One Fight, Maureen Lee Lenker
This book would be a lot shorter without the male and female protagonists constantly shoring up each other's egos once they finally begin talking to each other. It has its good parts—a lively 1930s based romance between Dash Howard (based on Clark Gable) and Joan Davis (based on Joan Crawford and Bette Davis), who find themselves married after a prank. So they go to Reno to make a film, after which they will be publicly divorced. But they've always had feelings for each other. and things don't go as planned.

Lenker has a nice sense of the 1930s, and so many of the things the actors endured back then (including the casting couch and pleasing gossip columnists, even if the latter costs your soul). In the end, though, I felt a bit empty.

book icon  Pony, R. J. Palacio
Silas Bird is an unusual 12-year-old. Some years earlier he was struck by lightning and survived. Brought up in a solitary cabin by his photographer father in the 1860s, one night rough riders abduct his father to help with some sort of project that will make him a fortune. His father tells him to wait at the cabin until he returns, but after two days he packs up and mounts the bald-faced pony the kidnappers had brought with them and then apparently escaped. The pony leads him—and his "imaginary companion" Mittenwool—to a wood where he teams up with a grizzled marshal looking for counterfeiters, and this is only the beginning of Silas' adventure. Silas is a very peculiar boy and I was irritated by the narrative at first, but the story soon becomes very compelling.

Warning: some people have had problems with this story because there's a very subtle gay character in it. Big deal.

book icon  The Best American Travel Writing 2021, edited by Padma Lakshmi
I don't know what possessed me to buy this book after what happened in 2020...but I was pleasantly surprised! Many of the essays had to do with staying home during the pandemic and missing travel or discovering new things about staying at home, or what happened to travelers during the pandemic, like the first story about quarantine on a cruise ship "Mississippi: A Poem, in Days" and "Out There, Nobody Can Hear You Scream" are the two best, and most sobering, essays about Black travelers and the challenges they still face in America's tourist places. Deep sea diving, the residents of Las Vegas, bathhouses, traveling and suicide—I don't think I caught a bad essay here.

book icon  Heat Rises, Richard Castle
This is the third in the series of "Nikki Heat" novels supposedly written by the author hero of the television series Castle. The stories are basically extended Castle stories with the characters' names changed and a couple of tweaks. Kate Beckett = sexy Nikki Heat, Richard Castle = magazine journalist Jameson Rook (Castle/Rook, get it?), Captain Montgomery = Captain Montrose, Ryan and Esposito = Raley and Ochoa, Laney Parish = Lauren Parry. (Rook's mom is also an actress, and has a part in this novel as well.) In this outing, Heat is called to a crime scene at a bondage dungeon where the victim turns out to be a priest. As she works on the case, she's supported by someone from "higher up"—until she gets too close to information no one wants revealed. Surprisingly complicated and nonstop plot includes a nail-biting chase through one of the tunnels under Central Park. Really enjoyed this one.

book icon  Yesterday's Britain: The Illustrated Story of How We Lived, Worked and Played, by Reader's Digest
This is a delicious coffee-table sized book (a little over 300 pages) summing up the years 1900-1979 (with a brief coda to the end of the 20th century) in Great Britain starting with chat about the new century, through agonizing Edwardian fashions to the terror and carnage of "the Great War" to the sparkling Twenties that landed, like the United States in a 1930s crash, to explode into World War II.

As usual with these books, I get bored once I get to the 50s with all the rock and roll and later hippie stuff, but it's all good with photos, pamphlets, maps, advertisements, and personal recollections. Found this at the library book sale. Would love if there was one for France...I wonder!

book icon  Her Name, Titanic, Charles Pellegrino
This is a nifty combination of a narrative of the voyage of the Titanic alternating with Pellegrino's interviews of Bob Ballard and the story of how Ballard and his crew found the wreckage of the doomed liner. Even if you've already read other Titanic books, Pellegrino's narrative of the night of April 14, 1912, is compelling and interesting, and even contains trivia I didn't know. The latter includes Pellegrino talking about his dad, who worked on the Minuteman missile program. There's an interesting parallel introduced by Pellegrino between the Titanic and the space shuttle Challenger, since both were done in by ice.

Not your typical Titanic book!

31 August 2023

Books Completed Since August 1

book icon  The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey, Douglas Brinkley
I bought this at the book sale because I was writing a story about a cross-country book tour and it looked fascinating. It is fascinating, but sort of disappointing at the same time. The book chronicles a course Brinkley taught out of Hofstra University on a six-weeks' odyssey on a tour bus: "An American Odyssey: Art and Culture Across America." They visited not only historical sites, but cultural sites, visiting people like Bob Dylan, Ken Kesey, and William Burroughs. They rented a bus from a strange but manic man named Frank Perugi, who didn't even have the bunks for the students to sleep in when they first started out. The students didn't seem to mind, though, and they have some nifty adventures. It just bothered me that they seemed to concentrate so much on cultural figures who were drug users or frequently bombed on alcohol. 

book icon  People We Meet on Vacation, Emily Henry
Poppy Wright works at a travel magazine and comes from a happy, messy family; Alex Nilsen is a teacher and comes from a fractured one; they meet at college discovering they both come from the same home town. One year they drive home together and then for ten years they go, as friends, on a summer vacation together—until they give in to romantic feelings.

Now Poppy feels dissatisfied: with her job, with her life, and realizes the last time she was happy was on her last vacation with Alex. So she invites him to take one more vacation to her, on what turns out to be a disastrous trip to Palm Springs, in hopes she can get him back. But even the course of friendship doesn't run smooth this time.

Not quite as good as Beach Read, but enjoyable.

book icon  The Book of Books, text by Jessica Allen
This is the book PBS put out when they did "The Great American Read" (which I'm still pissed at because they didn't include The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). It includes summaries of all one hundred books covered in the specials, plus pullouts about banned books, literary terms, famous book characters, movie adaptations, book covers, and more. I got it on a remainder table. It's worth that.

book icon  The Seven Year Slip, Ashley Poston
I liked The Dead Romantics so much I tried this one, and while I didn't like it as much, it's a sweet story about book publicist Clementine West, who is devastated when her beloved Aunt Analea dies. She's inherited her aunt's New York City apartment, which her aunt once told her had a magical component, a pinch in time. Grief-stricken Clem finds consolation in her job at a publishing house which specializes in cookbooks and who's trying to obtain a new author, the brilliant chef James Ashton.

And then one morning she wakes up to find a strange guy named Iwan in her apartment with a note from her aunt saying he's subletting the apartment for the summer while they're abroad, her aunt's old furniture back where it used to be, and a calendar saying it's seven years earlier. Iwan's time slip continues to pop in and out of Aunt Lea's apartment, and Clem becomes very fond of the young chef...and then more than fond.

It didn't give me the "feels" as much as Romantics, but enjoyable all the same.

book icon  Unmasked: My Life Solving America's Cold Cases, Paul Holes
As a kid, Holes loved the series Quincy, and that's what he finally decided to do for a living, work as a crime analyst in California. His single-minded devotion to his job cost him his first marriage; when he married a second time it was to a woman who also did crime work, so she could better understand him, but there were times even she was dismayed. Holes was there when Laci Petersen's body was found and knew there was foul play; he and a fellow officer were there when Jaycee Dugard was discovered, kicking themselves for having obvious clues. And he was the one who finally tracked down the infamous Golden State Killer, who turned out to be a police officer.

This is the story of Holes' career, from his early days working in a makeshift lab to the final days until his retirement when he picks up the loose ends about Joseph DeAngelo, of sleepless nights spent away from his family because he was so obsessed over catching criminals. It's a fascinating insight of how one man worked, yet sad, too, because so many times he couldn't make the connection, and there were more victims.

book icon  The Sign of Fear: A Doctor Watson Thriller, Robert Ryan
Alas, this is the last of Ryan's wartime mysteries featuring Dr. John Watson, and, as the book opens, he is worried about his old friend Sherlock Holmes, who is in the hospital after suffering a heart attack. Soon, however, he is involved in two mysteries: who has kidnapped members of a wartime board of governors who will decide how much pensions for wounded soldiers will be, protesting that no amount of money is comparable to what they have suffered, and also in the disappearance of an evacuee ship called the Dover Arrow, which was carrying Watson's friend Staff Nurse Jennings. Plus the Germans are plotting a new incendary bomb that threatens to wipe out London.

These are excellent, complex tales with grim wartime themes and this one is no exception; great reads, but the levels of violence are sometimes high—beware that as you go into them.

book icon  The Usborne Science Encyclopedia
This is ostensibly for older children, but I found it a great science refresher, starting with atomic structure and ending with the human body. It covers the elements, plant and animal life, electricity, geology, chemical reactions, and more. Plus the book contains QR codes which can be scanned to show additional videos about the subjects addressed.

book icon  The Secret History of Christmas Baking, Linda Raedisch

31 July 2023

Books Completed Since July 1

book icon  Boundaries, edited by Mercedes Lackey
Finally found, having not seen it in any bookstore, used! A much better collection than the next book, Shenanigans. There are several excellent stories that take place in Karse, where anyone with "magical" powers are burned at the stake. There are installments in the running sagas of Lady Cera of Sandbriar, Sparrow and Cloudbrother, the Haven City Watch (this one "The Beating of the Bounds" is particularly good), and Nwah the kyree. Several of the stories involve healers or bards along with the famed Heralds, and a baker is the protagonist of one dangerous tale. All in all a satisfactory read for Valdemar fans.

book icon  Oh, Florida!, Craig Pittman
It happens every day on the news: "Florida man" (or "Florida woman") does something bad, weird, way out, or hateful. Pittman, a Florida resident himself, pulls no punches talking about the crazy state of Florida politics, tourism, everyday living, land-rush past, Disneyfication, and anything else odd that happens in the "Sunshine State." (Me, I think they're all crazy with the heat and from the insect population.) Very funny book, but I'd find a used copy. Really, Florida isn't worth that much.

book icon  Something in the Heir, Suzanne Enoch
Emmeline Hervey doesn't want to leave the home she was brought up in, Winnover, but her grandfather, the stuffy Duke of Welshire, requires the home to go to someone who's married and will have a family. She's known William Pershing since childhood, and knows he's tired of being "matchmade" with suitable women. So, to keep the family home, she offers Will a proposition: they will be married, and she will live her life and he will live his, and she will support his future endeavors in politics. And for eight years they live a satisfactory life, until her grandfather bids them come to his birthday celebration and bring their two children, two children Emmeline made up to make him happy. So they decided to "borrow" two children from the orphanage for a while, and teach them to act like own—except the eldest, George, is determined he and his five-year-sister won't go back. And then their older brother James shows up, determined to make money from the sham whatever way he can. A fun little book, although I wasn't fond of the initial lie that started the plot.

book icon  The Electricity of Every Living Thing, Katherine May
I really enjoyed Wintering, so I was eager to read this one, too. What a surprise to find it was a journey not only of her walk of the South West Coast Path, but one of personal discovery. She had always felt she didn't fit properly into the world, and then she heard a broadcast on the radio, in which a woman being interviewed talks about being on the autistic spectrum. May realizes that the woman's revelations mirror her own, and she spends some of the book trying to understand herself as well as getting a diagnosis. I was very surprised to recognize I had some of the same traits, in a more muted form. I also love the fact that May's husband, "H" as she calls him, has such patience with the challenges she has. I love the way he respects her feelings and tries to see things as she does, and understands that she loves him and their son, but has a hard time with dealing with elements of the modern world. The hiking bits are also lovely.

book icon  Hot and Sour Suspects, Vivien Chien
Her best friend Megan convinces Lana Lee, now the manager of the family business Ho-Lee Noodle House, to host a speed-dating event at the restaurant. It works out well, too, except that their friend, Rina Su, who runs the Asia Plaza cosmetics shop, hooks up with a guy called Gavin Oliver. And very soon Oliver is murdered, and Rina is the chief suspect. It's the usual: Lana's police officer boyfriend tells Lana to keep her nose out of it, while Lana, Megan, and Kimmy Tran investigate behind the scenes. I think the killer eventually gives themself away in this outing, because it literally can't be anyone else.

book icon  Apollo 1: The Tragedy That Put Us on the Moon, Ryan S. Walters
Early warning: only about half of this book is actually devoted to the fire and the aftermath. About half is a history of the early space program up to the fire. However, the half of the book about the fire is very interesting and ties in with the From the Earth to the Moon episode "Apollo 1." We have a lot of books about the Apollo missions and many of the astronaut biographies, but there were still things in this book that I didn't know about the fire, including the controversy about the Block I capsule, the animosity between Joe Shea and Harrison Storms, and the results of the fire investigation and the hearings, especially the Phillips report.

book icon  The Golden Specific, S.E. Grove
The sequel to the fanciful The Glass Sentence, in which "The Great Disruption" divided Earth into different time eras: the U.S. is "New Occident" which never went beyond 15 states; the British Isles are trapped in the medieval era, Canada is trapped in prehistory, and the Papal States rule under an Inquisition-like government. Sophia Tims, who in the previous book rescued the orphaned Theodore Thackeray, asks him to accompany her on the search to Ausentinia, where she believes her parents are located. But she ends up sailing to Europe alone on a strange odyssey while Theo becomes involved in the murder of a government official; the accused killer? Sophia's uncle Shadrack the mapmaker. Just as wonderful and fanciful as the first book. The conclusion is The Crimson Skew.

book icon  Bones: A Forensic Detective's Casebook, Dr. Douglas Ubelaker & Henry Scammell
Just what it claims to be: a true-crime book by a forensic pathologist illustrating how different crime evidence points out what happened to the victim. For instance, criminals many times burn bodies thinking they can destroy the evidence, but even the smallest clue left on a bone can tell the tale. Each chapter is about evidence found on a certain part of the body, or based upon a certain kind of wound. It's lengthy and kind of dry, but at the same time interesting.

book icon  In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon, edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger
This is a collection of Sherlock Holmes-related stories that almost never puts a foot wrong. I was delighted, even if I felt as if the Ellison and Wilson entries were a bit disappointing considering what came before them. My absolute favorites in this volume: "The Adventure of the Laughing Fisherman" in which an at-sea young man takes his therapist's suggestion and gets into detection (maybe others figured out the twist in this one, but I didn't and was delighted), the stirring "Dunkirk" in which an elderly gentleman named Sigerson "does his bit," and "The Thinking Machine," in which the protagonist reminded me so much of Robert Goren on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Also of note: a coda to the story of Silver Blaze, told by the horse himself, and an amusing tale recounting The Hound of the Baskervilles in the style of Facebook. The other stories are good, too. But those three!

30 June 2023

Books Completed Since June 1

To anyone still reading this blog, I've realized in the last year or so I just don't have time to do the things I want to do and do big book reviews anymore. I still want to keep a monthly list of what I read and whether or not I liked it and if there was anything special about it, but I don't have time to do three/four/five paragraphs or more. So it's shorter stuff from now on.

book icon  The Education of a Coroner, John Bateson
The story of Ken Holmes, who started out in the Marin County (CA) coroner's office as an investigator and later was elected head coroner. Marin County was very popular back in the 70s after a series of films; it's an expensive place to live and gorgeous, but is also home to San Quentin State Prison and has above-average drug overdoses and lots of suicides, mainly jumpers off the Golden Gate Bridge. Yeah, more of my reading spurred on by Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Lots of interesting facts here, like that government coroner's offices like to hire former mortuary workers (Holmes was one; they are used to death and know how to talk to families) and that the state coroner doesn't even have to be a medical doctor; a lot of time sheriffs are appointed coroner. Also liked this because there were lots of times the crimes didn't get solves and Holmes is straightforward about it.

book icon  CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: Killing Game, Max Allan Collins
The seventh in a series of novels based on the series, and we're back to the intertwining plots. This takes place after asshole Conrad Ecklie broke the nightshift CSI team into two teams, one working nights, one working mids—and makes me wonder if Catherine ever sees her daughter Lindsay because she's always on overtime; I can't blame "Lindz" for becoming a handful as she got older. Grissom, Sara, and newbie Sofia get a case in an exclusive neighborhood, while Catherine, Warrick, and Nick investigate one in a shabby apartment, and once again Collins works his magic and the two crimes are connected. I think you'll twig to one of the baddies right away when an antagonist for Grissom is introduced, so I'll give you that spoiler straight up. Why? Well, that's what you get when you read the book.

book icon  How to Speak Science, Bruce Benamran
Fun history of science, except after a while the author's constant jokes started to get on my nerves. We start with basic "matter" and work all the way through relativity. Your mileage may vary based on your tolerance for bantering narration.

book icon  Love, Theoretically, Ali Hazelwood
Seriously, I am so glad after reading Hazelwood's books that I am not in academia. It sounds even more hateful than Congress. Elsie Hannaway is a physicist who's stuck in a teaching job, but hopes to go into research. To earn extra money, she acts as a fake girlfriend, but she discovers her favorite client's brother is the man who discredited her beloved mentor. It's only as she gets to know him that she finds out why he did so, and by then she's starting to like him. Likeable story, and a good sex scene, but, again, the politics of academia give me a rash. If this is what university instructor life is like, I'll work in a factory any day.

book icon  Lost Providence, David Brussat
History Press' publication about the lost architecture of Providence, RI, my beloved "downtown." The buildings covered are even older than my memory; the building on the cover, the Butler Exchange, was razed to build the Industrial National Bank building, a.k.a. the Superman Building (it's not; that's Los Angeles City Hall) in the late 1920s. Covers some gorgeous buildings that were bulldozed for those ugly concrete and glass monstrosities (although luckily Providence didn't get anything as ugly as Government Center in Boston!). A delight if you like old buildings and architectural edifices and enjoy authors who aren't afraid to label ugly as ugly.

book icon  Together We Will Go, J. Michael Straczynski
A surprisingly upbeat story about a group of people who plan to board a bus driving to California—and then drive off a cliff when they get there. The passengers are varied, but all are done with life, including Lisa, the bipolar woman on whom drugs have never worked and she's weary of having no friends due to going from calm to manic in seconds; Vaughn, the elderly man who was happily married but still holds a dark secret; and Karen, who has been in chronic, unforgiving pain all her life and can't bear it any longer. Like it or not, they bond to each other in a series of picaresque events as they cross country—and then the police chase begins. I wasn't sure I'd enjoy this, but I really did and was in tears by the end.

31 May 2023

Books Completed Since May 1

book icon  A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L'Engle, Sarah Arthur
Where else but here in the U.S. could a woman who wrote a book with deeply Christian themes be accused of being non-Christian because she talked about "witches" and "unicorns" since they are obvious symbols of the devil!

But that's Madeleine L'Engle.

Title is as it says: Arthur's examination of the ways L'Engle's faith shone in her storytelling, even if certain "Christians" said it wasn't "real" Christianity because she didn't adhere to their particular brand of Christianity. In fact, L'Engle and C.S. Lewis were both listed as authors who wrote pornographic children's literature. Seriously?

Arthur isn't blind to L'Engle's faults, especially her disconnection between her family's memories of the past and her family as portrayed in her nonfiction, and that she couldn't really come to terms with her son's death from alcoholism. Enjoyable summary of L'Engle's portrayal of Christianity in her books and in her life.

book icon  Naked Heat, Richard Castle
While the Castle series, which I loved except for the loathsome final season, was on, a series of tie-in novels were published supposedly written by "Richard Castle" (the actual author was mystery writer Tom Straw), both his superspy "Derek Storm" books and his later series "Nikki Heat."

Basically the Nikki Heat books are Castle stories under a different name and a couple of tweaks. Kate Beckett becomes sexy Nikki Heat, Castle morphs into a magazine journalist Jameson Rook (Castle/Rook, get it?), Captain Montgomery becomes Captain Montrose, Ryan and Esposito are Raley and Ochoa, Laney Parish turns into Lauren Parry. Rook even has an actress mom; the only character missing is Alexis. The story begins when Heat, smarting over the article Rook wrote in the first book Heat Wave, is called to the murder of Cassidy Towne, a well-hated gossip columnist from the New York Ledger (the Ledger is also the newspaper that turns up in Law & Order: Criminal Intent). At Towne's apartment? Jameson Rook, who was doing a story on her.

Of course a gossip columnist has a lot of enemies, so Heat has her job cut out for her: the suspects include a singer and a baseball player. She doesn't remain unscathed, either; she's assaulted and almost killed. Rook is driving her crazy for half the story, but their attraction remains unmatched. And what's going on with another murder victim who was found with a coyote standing nearby?

Fun fluff, and good for Castle fans who were sorry the series ended on such a rotten note.

book icon  Re-read: Born Free, Joy Adamson
I was ten and a half years old when the film Born Free came out. I was a passionate animal lover (heck, at that time I liked animals more than people) and saw every film that came out involving a dog, cat, horse, etc. The story, about a lion cub raised by a game warden and his artist wife in the African bush in the 1950s and then their efforts to teach her to hunt so that they could release her to the wild instead of confining her to a zoo, enthralled me. Of course, I wanted the book. It wasn't a children's book, and I didn't care. Mom bought me the Bantam paperback with the Virginia McKenna cover and I read that book so many times it literally fell apart, and I ended up buying another copy as an adult.

The copy I recently re-read is the 40th anniversary edition and I jumped into it gleefully. There are a couple of cringey lines now (Adamson observing the lion cubs didn't like Africans but liked white people, except for the Adamsons' assistant Nuru and other employees), but otherwise it was still fascinating. I never realized as a child how much of the text was devoted not to Elsa, but to George's job of helping the local people rid themselves of predatory lions, about the natural features of Africa, and about the political situations that sometimes made the bush an unfriendly place for both whites and Africans.

Liberally illustrated by photos of the real Elsa and the Adamsons. There was a sequel, Living Free, about Elsa's cubs, and a third book about releasing the lions from the Born Free film to the wild as Elsa had been.

book icon  Two Wrongs Make a Right, Chloe Liese
Back in rom-com territory: Jamie Westenberg and Bea Wilmot don't exactly hit it off the first time they meet, but their friends conspire to match them up with each other. So they decide to get revenge by pretending to fall in love long enough to then dash everyone's hopes with a spectacular breakup. But in pretending to be lovers, guess what, Bea and Jamie start to learn about each other and, whaddya think: maybe they could be friends? Maybe they even could be...more.

This is the first of a trio of stories about the Wilmot sisters: Bea and her twin sister Juliet, and their older sister Kate, all based on Shakespeare plays (this one is "Much Ado About Nothing," Kate's story is next, based on "Taming of the Shrew," and I think you can guess who Bea's twin's story is based on). I liked Bea; she states she's neurodivergent and autistic, but she reminds me a lot of myself, so maybe I'm those things? I just thought I was shy.

The series is amiable enough. I'll probably check out Kate's book when it comes out.

book icon  Life in Five Senses, Gretchen Rubin
This is another enjoyable read in Gretchen Rubin's pop psychology universe. When, after an eye exam, she discovers that no one has ever told her she has a higher-than-usual danger of losing her sight due to a retinal problem, she realizes she's been going through her life not noticing the world around her. Indeed, it's a common problem today with the rise of social media; people pay attention to their gadgets and not what's unfolding around them.

These are basically experiences based around the five basic senses (there are others, Rubin explains, but these are what people think of as the primary ones): finding the newness in what one sees everyday (like what kind of clothes your husband prefers), finding what grabs you at a museum or on the street, discovering music as not just something to dance to but which revives memories or sets a mood, doing a scent tour and realizing there are scent memories, trying new tastes but rediscovering special tastes of the past, eating a meal in without seeing the food, the power of our sense of touch: not just comforting but sometimes rousing bad memories.

The end of the book has suggestions for different exercises to help you rediscover your five senses. As someone with her nose always stuck in a book or writing, I liked this in telling me to pull back and observe the world around me.

book icon  Re-read: A Courage Undimmed, Stephanie Graves
Once again, I got much more reading the non-ebook version. Olive Bright, daughter of the local vet and, like her father, a pigeoneer (one who breeds and trains racing pigeons), continues to help the British war effort by volunteering the Bright birds for messenger service. As a FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) volunteer, she also works at Bricktonbury Manor, headquarters of Baker Street, a top-secret World War II spy organization, under the aegis of Jameson Aldridge (her feigned love interest), but hopes to become an SOE agent who would be dropped into Nazi-occupied France.

Alas, Baker Street has a new commander, who thinks women have no place on the front lines; he not only tells Olive her pigeons may not be needed any longer, but assigns her to escort an annoying Royal Navy officer who's eager to interrogate a new resident of the village of Pipley, a Mrs. Dunbar who claims to be a spirit medium. In her first appearance in the village, Mrs. Dunbar said she was in contact with the dead souls of a British battleship on which several residents of the village served. Now everyone's uneasy, including the Naval representative, one Ian Fleming, who tells Olive that the ship is fine, but Mrs. Dunbar knows too many unique details for a civilian. But when Olive takes Fleming to a seance where Mrs. Dunbar dies, the question is whodunnit and why.

I love these books and the characters, but this latest one fell slightly short of the mark for me at the beginning. I think it's because I've read one too many mystery books centered around spirit mediums who are murdered. Plus Jamie is missing for the first half of the book, so a lot of the sparring between Olive and Jamie that brightened the previous two books is missing here. The solution to the mystery is rather pedestrian, too. Positives: we get a look behind the scenes at a wartime Christmas, and when Jamie does return he has a great surprise for Olive (including a hint of what his real name is!), and the training that Olive is observing is based on a real-life spy mission during the war.

book icon  The Fourth Enemy, Anne Perry
I have just finished what turned out to be Perry's final book, which I hoped I could give a rousing review to, but, sadly, until the last third or quarter of the book, it frankly had me struggling through.

Gideon Hunter is newly arrived as a barrister at Daniel Pitt's law firm fford Croft and Gibson, just in time to prosecute a smug, ruthless man named Malcolm Vayne who is accused of fraud. (Basically, he has arranged an investment company that we would today call a "Ponzi scheme.") Worst of all, some of his investors are members of Parliament or other government officials, which gives Vayne much power over them. Since Vayne is now so powerful, it is dangerous to cross him, and he is so protected by certain investors that if the firm's prosecution case is not strong enough, it could destroy the firm.

The first 2/3 of the book is very slow, and the conversation is much about financial matters along with Perry's characters' usual soul-searching, except for a section where an elderly woman is threatened. The pace finally picks up near the end of the book, when the evidence against Vayne suddenly turns around and the case—and lives—are threatened. The last few chapters are very suspenseful and would make a good period thriller, but I'm afraid that the lead up is very plodding and you have to like the characters to keep going. Perry tried to give the new man, Hunter, and his wife Rose, some interesting personality, but they were very flat to me.

book icon  The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions, Kerry Greenwood
Apparently I finished this ages ago and forgot to review it.

I first met Phryne Fisher through the novels, later watching the television series. The latter is fun, but, of course for money reasons several characters have been cut from the stories, and Inspector Jack Robinson has become a love interest (in the books he's married with children). This is a collection of Phryne Fisher short stories, based on the novels. Some are long and convoluted, some are short—one's even solved by the time Robinson and Phryne are done talking about the evidence—but as far as I'm concerned they're all enjoyable to read, just from the POV of Phryne's 1920s setting and the attitudes of the characters. Wish there were more stories that involved Dot, as she is my favorite character in the series.

Well worth it for Fisher fans.

book icon  A History of America in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps, Christ West
This is another interesting book I picked up for almost a song at Books-a-Million. West, a stamp collector, does exactly what he says, tells a history of the United States using 36 stamps curated mostly from the Smithsonian Postal museum, starting with the little revenue stamp that started the problems: a stamp from the Stamp Act. The stamps range from portraits of Presidents (Washington, Jackson, etc.), other important figures in U.S. history (Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson Davis, etc.), and finally, from the 1860s onward, other items significant in the country's history, the first being "the iron horse." It addresses some interesting bits of history you don't usually read about in other history volumes, like the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, the Golden Gate Bridge and Charles Lindbergh's flight, the Cold War, "Earthrise," and others.

Nifty little history volume from a different POV.

book icon  Diary of an Early American Boy: Noah Blake, 1805, Eric Sloane
Always lovely to find Eric Sloane books at the library sale as they are now out of print and fiendishly expensive. In 1805 (yes, 1805) a 15-year-old named Noah Blake was given a journal for his birthday. He kept very brief entries for a year, using homemade ink, and Sloane uses Blake's entries to chronicle the work on an expanding farm of the early nineteenth century. Together Noah and his father, along with help from a neighbor, build a working mill, build a bridge over the nearby creek, and expand the cultivated fields of the farm, all without benefit of power tools, cranes, etc. Sloane's beautiful pen-and-ink illustrations of Early American tools and structures clearly illustrate the ingenious and clever ways 1805 citizens improved their life. But Noah's life isn't all work: he talks about neighborhood frolics, and meeting a special girl named Sarah who is working for their neighbors the Adamses for a year.

If you're interested in historic lifestyles, this book and other of Sloane's volumes are for you!

book icon  War Animals, Robin Hutton
I grabbed this from the bargain book stack of Books-a-Million because I've loved Stephanie Graves' Olive Bright books and this has two chapters on pigeons used in war (the U.S. and the U.K.), plus some familiar characters from my childhood. There was this book by Patrick Lawson called More Than Courage, a Whitman book about horses and dogs, alternating chapters, one chapter about dogs and horses in war. It was there I met the acquaintance of Chips (who later had a vastly inferior movie made about him) the German Shepherd/collie/husky who won a Silver Star (only to have it taken away by commanders who said "that's only for humans) and also a Doberman named Andy.

They appear in this book along with other war dogs/rescue dogs/messenger dogs from World War II (including Smoky the Yorkshire terrier who has had two books written about her), Korea, and Vietnam, a short chapter on a ship's cat named Simon, another short chapter on horses, and the pigeon chapters. All the animals in this book received Britain's prestigious "Dickin" medal for heroic animals.

This is an easy read and you learn some great history about animals along the way.

book icon  Ship Wrecked, Olivia Dade
This is the third in a series of rom-coms taking place among the cast members of a television series called Gods of the Gates (think a cheap version of Game of Thrones). Peter Reedton is a character actor ready for his first big role, but it turns out his co-star will be Maria Ivarsson, the woman he wholeheartedly made love to right before the audition—who then walked out on him without a word. Still, he won't wreck his chance at the role. For the next six years, Peter and Maria work side-by-side, getting to know each other as friends. But both still have hangups...and both live in different places. Is their smothered attraction enough to carry them to the next level?

Of course. This is a rom-com, people. In general, I enjoyed this, although it featured yet another clueless dad (only this one wasn't evil like the dad in Hating Game; he actually turns out to be a bit pathetic). Peter and Maria both have secrets in their past that interfere with their getting closer. Enjoyable stuff: their teasing, Peter in Stockholm with Maria's family, Maria's body pride in which she refuses to lose weight or shave/wax for her role (both our protagonists are plus-sized, as the newest description goes).

I liked Spoiler Alert because it was neat to see protagonists who wrote fanfic, skipped the second because I didn't like Alex in the first book, but this one may be my favorite of the three.