28 February 2023

Books Completed Since February 1

book icon  (not quite) Mastering the Art of French Living, Mark Greenside
I confess, I read this doing research for a piece of fanfiction. I don't know if I got much information out of it, but it was fun to read, if I thought the anecdotes were overlong, but Greenside inadvertently gave me the title I needed for the story.

Basically it's a fish-out-of-water story of what happens when Greenside decides to spend part of each year in Brittany. He loves the French lifestyle eventually, but has to navigate around different traffic regulations—his story about getting into his first accident in France is rather jaw-dropping—getting permits, renting a car for the part of the year he's in France, getting repairmen to work at his house, etc. Luckily he has some very patient French friends who help him, since the French legal system is legendary for its strictness and complicated procedures (how true that is I don't know, but I have read this in more than one book).

If you've always wanted to live in France but wanted to check out the pitfalls, you might want to read this book if just for some chuckles.

book icon  Crayola: A Visual Biography of the World's Most Famous Crayon, Lisa Solomon and Crayola LLC
This is a book best found half price or on remainder, but if you've been, like me, a Crayola junkie since childhood, it's a delight. It contains the history of the Binney & Smith (now Crayola, LLC) company, who made a product now known around the world (they also created the first dustless chalk). The majority of the book is a history of the current and some of the past colors, and trivia about the older colors ("flesh," of course, became "peach" in the 1970s when some kind souls pointed out that not everyone had pale skin, and "cadet blue" was first called "Prussian blue" but was finally changed because kids didn't know where Prussia (part of Germany) was any longer, etc.).

Of interest are old full-page Crayola advertisements and projects done with Crayola crayons by professional artists. Color junkies, rejoice!

book icon  The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry
This looked like a mystery story so I picked it up. And I have to say Perry writes a compelling tale with complex characters. But it's not really a mystery story, it's a psychological one set in 1893 England. There is an old legend on the Essex coast that a monster exists in the shadows, and suddenly dead bodies begin to turn up on the shore. Cora Seaborne, a widow with an intense interest in the growing science of paleontology, believes the "monster" may be a prehistoric life form that still survives, so she arrives at the seaside in the company of her overprotective maid Martha and autistic son Francis to check out the rumors. There she's introduced to William Ransome, the local vicar, and his vivacious wife and their lively children. Ransome insists there's no "serpent" or "monster," and hates that his parishioners believe in the old tales, but a few dead bodies on the shore and a mysterious sound put the whole small town on edge. This turns villager against villager until the mystery of the sound is finally revealed. Ransome and Seaborne have a romantic moment, and at the close of the book it looks like she's about to insinuate her way into his life the way she insinuated herself into the life of a talented surgeon—and then basically forgets him—during the story.

That's all that I took away from the story. There's also a do-gooder rich couple who help the poor, and a medical friend of the talented surgeon who sticks with him through his most difficult hours, and Martha hooks up with a radical protestor. I kept reading because the prose was excellent, but the fact that basically "they discover that ________ is the source of the sound and everything else was just people's imaginations and so we see what rumor and paranoia do to a formerly close-knit community" was rather a letdown.

book icon  The McMasters Guide to Homicide: Murder Your Employer, Rupert Holmes
This is the first in a planned series of mysteries written by the multi-talented Holmes, who has done two previous books, a television series called Remember WENN, Tony- and Edgar-award winning plays like The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Accomplice, and much, much more—but of course he's best known for his bestselling late 70s-early 80s rock song "Escape" (known to most people as "the Pina Colada song").

Think of the McMasters school as Hogwarts for homicide. That's the hook in this delightfully diabolical, tongue-in-cheek novel in which people attend a university to learn how to commit the perfect homicide; the twist is that the person must really need killing and there is no other way to keep them from continuing to ruin other people's lives. You follow our main protagonist Cliff Iverson, the young Englishwoman Gemma Lindley, and Hollywood actress Doria May as they seek to rid the world of an overbearing employer who caused the deaths of two of Cliff's friends, a woman who's building her career by blackmailing Gemma, and the Howard Weinstein-like monster movie producer who holds Doria in servitude for turning him down. Half the story follows their training on the "god only knows where" McMasters campus (which reminds you more than a little of "the Village" in The Prisoner television series, which is no accident), and then they're let free to pursue their final exam: killing their bete noires. Filled with more twists than a Six Flags roller coaster, more clever quips than Bob Hope's stable of writers could manage, and more double crosses than a game of tic-tac-toe, it's a wild ride full of unexpected turns, incredible training sequences, and a big dollop of sly humor, with all sorts of references hidden in the text.

Rupert's almost finished with the second volume, Murder Your Mate, and I can hardly wait to see what he comes up with. But first, a re-read...!

book icon  A Book, Too, Can Be a Star, Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Jennifer Adams
I'm a Madeleine L'Engle completist, which means I had to get a copy of this charming children's picture book that simply tells the story of how L'Engle as a child began to write and dream and eventually published both adult and young adult books, but finally came to fame for writing the now immortal A Wrinkle in Time. The artwork is lovely as well. I have Voiklis' children's biography of her grandmother and wish someone would do an adult version!

book icon  Rivers of London: Deadly Ever After, Ben Aaronovitch, Celeste Bronfman, Andrew Cartmel
In the newest of the graphic novels taking place in Aaronovitch's "Rivers of London" universe, Beverley Brook's sisters Olympia and Chelsea, goddesses in their own right, are attending a gathering in the woods when they remove an invisibility charm from a mulberry tree growing there. Unfortunately it frees the angry spirit of a Victorian fairy-tale illustrator named Jeter Day. The next thing they know, Day's spirit is invading people and forcing them to re-enact fairy tales. With the aid of Abigail Kamara and her friends the talking foxes, the pair must rectify this error without letting Thomas Nightingale or his apprentice Peter Grant know what happened.

This is a fanciful, if lesser effort in the "Rivers" series. The story is a little slight and frankly Olympia and Chelsea are not that compelling as main characters. Abigail also seems drawn a bit older than she is and it throws the story off a little. Still, another peek into Aaronovitch's magical world until the next real book comes out.

book icon  True North: Travels in Arctic Europe, Gavin Francis
I knew this was the book for me from the blurb: "In this striking blend of travel writing, history and mythology, Gavin Francis offers a unique portrait of the northern outposts of Europe." And boy, what a book—I thoroughly enjoyed Francis' journey.

He begins in the Shetland Islands, following the stories of the earliest explorers who went north looking for "Ultima Thule," including St. Brendan. He then continues to the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, Svalbard, and finally Lapland, telling each region's myths and history, along with a portrait of the people who live there (most of whom long for warmth, but grow homesick and return) and the natural features and native birds and animals. He explores the areas mostly by hiking, but also takes the rare aircraft and travels by ship as well. His writing is beautiful, not flowery but very evocative and descriptive; it's a pleasure to read and certain descriptions, especially of the tough inhabitants who remain living there, stick in your mind long after you're done reading that portion. If you dream of cold weather and Arctic exploration, this is definitely the book for you!

book icon  CSI: Grave Matters, Max Allan Collins
The fifth in Collins' series based on the original CSI series. Once again, the team is working two cases: Rebecca Bennett insists her mother's death was probably foul play on the part of her stepfather, and she convinces the sheriff's department to dig the body up for an autopsy. But when Grissom, Sidle, and Stokes open the casket, a different body is contained in it instead. In the meantime, Catherine and Warrick are summoned to an eldercare facility, where their own assistant coroner, David, feels there's something suspicious about the death of Vivian Elliot, a woman who was recovering quite rapidly from surgery until she was found dead; they also discover from the head of the facility that more deaths of elderly women seem to be occurring than usual.

Collins has the characters down pat—you can hear Petersen in Grissom's dialog, Fox in Sara's, etc.; you could practically convert each of his CSI books into a television movie. And as always, the two cases have a connection to each other, but Collins works it so skillfully that you don't expect it until it happens, and the getting there is suitably complicated. CSI fans should enjoy, and they work well as a forensics mystery as well.

book icon  Beach Read, Emily Henry
January Andrews writes bestselling romance novels, but after her father dies and she learns a terrible family secret, she doesn't believe she can write another "happily ever after" tale again. She retreats to the family lake cottage in order to clean and sell it, only to discover that renting the cottage next door is Augustus Everett, her old college rival, who writes deep, meaningful novels, the kind that make the bestseller lists. Turns out Gus is also suffering from writer's block, and once they begin talking to each other, thanks to the local bookclub, they come to an agreement: Gus will spend the summer writing something with a happy ending and January will write a serious novel, and each will teach the other about the successful ingredients of their craft (so January will take him to fluffy rom-com settings and Gus'll take her on his interviews with a cult member).

This book did make me cry. There are themes of betrayal and secrecy woven through the tale, so it's more than your usual fluffy rom-com stuff. The relationship builds naturally and the supporting characters (even a couple of less savory ones) are realistic. I enjoyed this one.

book icon  Testament of Trust, Faith Baldwin
This is the third of Baldwin's nonfiction books which cover a year in her life, but, rather than only discussing the seasons and her home, she talks about issues of faith, belief, and love. While I don't find these as compelling as Taber's "Stillmeadow" books, they contain much food for thought about relationships, positivity, and the folly of negative thinking.

book icon  Bonk, Mary Roach
After reading Gulp, I wanted to investigate more of Roach's science books. Once again she writes with a light touch while imparting loads of information.

This book is, if you hadn't guessed from the title, is about sexuality, and each chapter focuses on a different study of human sexuality, from impotence ("ED") remedies to analysis of orgasm to the role of the clitoris in sex, all the way to an absurd chapter about how pleasurable sex among pigs produces more piglets. There's an examination of the early research of Alfred Kinsey as well as the later work of Masters and Johnson, how early treatments for "hysteria" were just doctors diddling their patients, and a doctor who reconstructs penises.

Roach has a nice, easygoing way of approaching science topics, People who like their science texts completely serious should avoid, however.

book icon  My Name is America: The Journal of Brian Doyle, A Greenhorn on an Alaskan Whaling Ship, Jim Murphy
This is actually one of the better of the "Dear America" books devoted to male historical characters. Brian Doyle has run away to sea to make life easier for his older but sickly brother Sean Michael; their hard-working father often comes home drunk and Brian argues with him instead of keeping silent, so he leaves to give his brother peace. He signs on the whale ship "Florence" and is thrown bodily into shipboard life. Onboard he meets all sorts of people, from York the profane one and Nathaniel, who is devoted to his Bible. The captain has very bad luck in locating whales in warm Hawai'ian waters (this takes place in 1874, when whales were starting to be overfished), so they head north into the Arctic, only to be caught in the winter ice.

The story is grim and uncompromising, but never reaches the level of despair that proliferates when Barry Denenberg writes one of these books. Instead it is realistic in that even in despair it retains some small bit of hope. Recommended with the usual warnings about mature (death, etc.) subjects.