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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Christmas at The Mysterious Bookshop

Christmas at The Mysterious Bookshop (#27) is a compilation of stories written by famous mystery writers for the owner of New York's The Mysterious Bookshop, a specialty mystery/crime/suspense bookstore located in Tribeca.  Otto Penzler, the editor, commissioned these stories which were originally published in pamphlet form as gifts for his customers beginning in 1993.  Some stories are murders, some simply mysteries, but they all have two elements in common: The Mysterious Bookshop itself, and the Christmas season. 

I thoroughly enjoyed these stories.  Otto Penzler himself appears as a character in many of the stories written by author friends ranging from Donald Westlake through Mary Higgins Clark with a wide variety of well-known names in between.  If you're a mystery fan, chances are this anthology will include some your favorites.  Both the former location of the bookstore on West 56th Street and its current Tribeca address on Warren Avenue are featured locales as many of the fictional events take place there.

Since I couldn't get my hands on this library book until after Christmas, I've made a New Year's resolution after reading it: the next time I'm in NYC, I'm going to make it my business to visit The Mysterious Bookshop in person!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Wolfsbane And Mistletoe

More Holiday reading!  Wolfsbane And Mistletoe (#26) is a collection of never before published short stories edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni Kelner with two elements in common: werewolves and Christmas.  I got a few chuckles from J.A. Konrath's story SA (for Shapeshifters Anonymous) where the assorted weres (not just wolves) are the heroes, and Santa and his minions (the Salvation Army!) are the evil ones.  Even the disclaimer at the end of the story absolving the Salvation Army is amusing.  I also enjoyed Donna Andrews The Haire of the Beast - talk about a fitting revenge for your ex... 

I think, though, that the two stories that best meet what I expected to be the spirit of this book were The Star of David by Patricia Biggs and Keeping Watch Over His Flock by Toni Kelner.  Both stories involve the saving of a child from mortal danger, and a theme of redemption and reconciliation for the characters who rescue them.

The rest of the stories were a mixed bag of blood, guts, and not too much Christmas spirit, unless you count delivering live victims to werewolves as Christmas gifts uplifting.  I don't.  Not for cozy reading by the fire with your mug of cocoa!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Christmas Odyssey

A Christmas Odyssey (#25) is this year's Christmas mystery by Anne Perry.  She sets this story in Victorian London using characters from her William Monk series.  Henry Rathbone, Sir Oliver's father, is asked by his friend to find his prodigal son, Lucien Wentworth, and bring him home.  Henry decides to consult Hester Monk because the patients she treats in her clinic could provide Henry some leads in his search.  Instead at the clinic, he meets up with Squeaky Robinson, whose mission is to protect Hester.  He winkles Henry's reason for calling out of him and they, along with one of Squeaky's acquaintances, "Doctor" Crow, wind up as an unlikely alliance searching for Lucien.  Along the way they also acquire Bessie, a very young barmaid who provides their first real lead to finding Lucien. 

Although this is possibly the darkest of the Christmas novels, set as it is in the London underworld, ultimately it is a novel of redemption for several of the characters.  A quick, sometimes harrowing, but satisfying and unsentimental read that's just right for the holidays.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lost To Time

In his collection of essays Lost To Time (#24), Martin Sandler tells the stories of persons and events that are significant, but have been "lost to time".  He begins with a black slave from Baghadad who emigrated to Andalusia in Spain.  Music, meals, hygiene and fashion have all been influenced by this man down to the present day.  Mr. Sandler ends the book with the story of Exercise Tiger, a disasterous and deadly rehearsal off the coast of England for the D-Day Invasion.  In between, he includes chapters on an enormous fire in Wisconsin the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, two Revolutionary riders whose missions were even more critical and ardous than Paul Revere's, a secret subway built beneath the streets of New York, and the story of Gustave Whitehead who almost certainly made powered aircraft flights two years before the Wright Brothers (but the Smithsonian has signed a contract that does not allow them to ever mention or display his work!).

I find this stuff fascinating.  It's provided hours of lively car conversation for me and my husband of the "Did you know....?" variety.  I hope you decide to read Lost To Time, it will be time well spent!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Lady of the Butterflies

The protagonist of Fiona Mountain's debut historical novel Lady of the Butterflies (#23) is based on a real person, Eleanor Glanville.  Eleanor lived in Restoration England and left her mark on the study of butterflies through notes and specimens that are included in the British Museum's collection and through the Glanville Fritillary butterfly, which is named for her. 

Normally I love finding out about obscure historical figures and their lives.  So after I had read about a quarter of the way through Lady of the Butterflies' five hundred plus pages, I Googled Eleanor Glanville to see if there was a portrait of her available on line and some more concrete information.  No luck on the portrait, but I did find a lovely photo of Tickenham Court, her home.  I also found two British websites with snippets of information on Eleanor Glanville and citations of articles written about her in British Entomology publications.  And that was my mistake.  What I discovered was that the name and butterfly connection was accurate, as well as the name of her home estate, and that she did, in fact, have two husbands, named Edmund Ashville and Richard Glanville. But that was the extent of it. It left me feeling very ambivalent about this novel.  It bothered me that the little that is known about  Eleanor did not jibe with Ms. Mountain's book.  Yes, she does say that the ending of the book is her own flight of fancy, but that gives the impression that the rest of the book is substantially true.  I wish she'd simply written a novel that took the time and place of Eleanor's life and her pursuit of butterflies and transformed it into a work of fiction with differently named characters, where I could have been totally comfortable with the fictional story she weaves.  It's interesting enough, but I could never separate the ficitonal Eleanor's obsession with the men in her life from the real Eleanor's life.  I could not reconcile the two different Eleanors I now had in my head.

If you decide to read this book for yourself, do yourself a favor and treat it as a pure work of fiction, and if you're like me, don't research Eleanor Glanville and her world until after you finish the book.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Undead And Unreturnable

Undead And Unreturnable (#22) is MaryJanice Davidson's Christmas offering in her Betsy Taylor Vampire Queen series set in Minneapolis.  This is not a new book, but one I found in my library's Christmas books display.  This book does plug in some gaps in the action of the series for me, but it really isn't a Christmas book in my opinion.  I have the feeling that since this is a popular series, MaryJanice Davidson had reached a point where her publishers told her they wanted a Christmas title for the mass market.  Add a few passing references to Christmas shopping to the story, a pink Christmas cover, and viola!, one Christmas book without the bother of having to add seasonal plot points or re-work her original premise.  Don't get me wrong.  These are very light and humorous books which I do find enjoyable, but this one is hardly worth the effort of labeling as a Christmas read.  You'd hardly notice the holiday.  If you're looking for something more suitable to the season, you'd be better off with Lauren Willig's Mischief of the Mistletoe, or any one of Debbie Macomber's Christmas titles.  (See Call Me Mrs. Miracle.)

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Mischief of the Mistletoe - A Pink Carnation Christmas

Lauren Willig has done it again in the Mischief of the Mistletoe (#21).  Her Pink Carnation series is head and shoulders above the normal offerings in this romantic costume drama suspense series.  Think a historically accurate version of The Scarlet Pimpernel with the added delight of recurring characters sparring with French spies, sometimes literally and sometimes with witty and humorous dialogue.  It's better than the best box of Christmas bon-bons (with the added advantage of being calorie free!).  Mischief features Turnip Fitzhugh who blunders into a situation at his sister Susan's boarding school in Bath.  Ms. Willig finds several creative uses for Christmas puddings and even manages to work in a plausible appearance by Jane Austen.  Find a cozy nook to curl up in and savor this one, even if you do have to wait until after Christmas to get your hands on it!

If you've read my previous blogs, you know that I have a thing about a book's cover art.  Apparently this is the last book in this Pink Carnation series that will use the charming portraits featured as cover art to this point.  I have tracked down and enjoyed the artwork used on the original A Secret History of the Pink Carnation, The Black Tulip, The Emerald Deception and so on.  They were interesting, unique, and tied into the story being told in that volume.  Shame on Dutton and The Penguin Group for making the next book in the series, The Orchid Affair, look like every other generic Regency romance novel out there!!!  Re-issues of the previous books in the series are getting the same bland, vanilla treatment.  Lauren Willig and her cast of characters certainly deserve better than this.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Real Murders

Charlaine Harris of Sookie Stackhouse fame introduces a new character in the first novel of her Aurora Teagarden series Real Murders (#20).  Aurora, or Roe, is a suburban Georgia librarian who is interested in true crime.  She's found some like-minded citizens in Lawrenceton, whose aptly named club Real Murders meet monthly to discuss famous and infamous murders of the past.  That is, until someone starts picking off members of the club in duplicates of famous murders.  Aurora is right in the thick of things with not one, but two potential suitors, red herrings and experiences way too close for comfort. 

This was a fast, entertaining read and it will be interesting to see how the relationships develop in the series.  If you're looking for fantasy or the supernatural be warned.  This one is firmly grounded in the possible.  There are no hints or vampires, werewolves or ghosts anywhere, nor will this librarian need any of these props. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Death's Excellent Vacation

Death's Excellent Vacation (#19) is an anthology of "Paranormal R & R" short stories edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner.  All of stories in this collection are new, by a number of noted sci-fi, fantasy & horror writers: Charlaine Harris (the Sookie Stackhouse series), Katie MacAlister, Jeaniene Frost, Jeff Abbott and Lilith Saintcrow among them.

I'm not generally a fan of short stories, but I did enjoy this collection which is more on the light side than the "hide under the covers and don't turn off the lights" category.  I particularly enjoyed Katie MacAlister's The Perils of Effrijim about a sixth class demon who is a victim of a plot, and Toni L.P. Kelner's Pirate Dave's Haunted Amusement Park whose subject you can pretty much guess from the title.  Lilith Saintcrow's The Heart Is Always Right about a love-struck gargoyle was a sweet tale of sacrifice and virtue rewarded.

My husband is like me - he's not really a short story fan, either.  If he picks up a collection like this, he tends to pick and choose his favorite authors from the anthologies and will sample, but rarely read all of the stories (He's left Warriors for me to read which contains some of my favorite authors, but we probably won't read the same stories from it, for example).  It surprised me that he picked this book up at all but especially when he admitted that he read every single story in this collection.  He knows I read Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse books, but hate the HBO True Blood series (The series just doesn't match the mental pictures I have.).  He had nothing to read on hand so was willing to read a vampire tale, but got hooked on the stories in Death's Excellent Vacation.  That's two thumbs up from this household!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


This month's book for my Literary Circle is Rudyard Kipling's Kim (#18).  It was recommended as one of the best buddy adventure stories ever written, although I'm not sure I'd agree with that description of this book.

Kim was originally published in 1901.  The plot is very loosely based on the workings of Britain's spy network in India - the Great Game, as it was called.  Kim, the title character, is an orphan street urchin living in Lahore with the papers that prove he is a sahib, a white man, in a bag around his neck.  He has managed to avoid being caught up in the sahib's world for all of his short life so far.  But one fateful day he does befriend a Tibetan lama on a quest, and becomes his disciple for a lark and a chance to see the world.  As they set out on their journey, Kim encounters another old friend, Mahbub, a wily Afghan horse trader who turns out to be a British spy.  Kim performs a service for him, and so is dragged into the white man's cloak and dagger games.  Creighton, the British spy master, sees Kim's potential, and insists he obtain an education that will allow him to move freely in India to gather intelligence. 

What makes this book so interesting, though, are the descriptions of the people and places of what was then British India.  Much of the action takes place in the northwestern territories, which is today's Pakistan. The incredible diversity in the landscape alone is amazing, as are the many different types, sects, and castes of people, none of whom seem to have much in common with their neighbors.  Kim fits right in, having spent his entire young life observing the calvacade of humanity in the Lahore market place.  He is at home with the wide variety of beliefs and customs and can easily adapt to fit in with whomever he is with.

It struck me while reading this book that in many ways, it is more accesible to us today than it must have been when it was originally published.  Many of the exotic words used have passed into our own everyday language - madrassas and curries are familiar to us.  The ongoing conflict in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan with Western involvment really hasn't changed, only we can see pictures of it on our TV, so even the landscape is recognizable.  Those of us who have read Greg Mortensen's book Three Cups of Tea, or read Doug Stanton's tale of American GIs in Afghanistan right after 9/11 Horse Soldiers, have even more background in the politics and perils of the area.

John Cobb in the Afterword of the version of the book I read makes the point that only two British authors ever wrote novels about the British colonies at the height of the Victorian Empire: Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling in Kim.  No matter how carefully a book is researched, you can't beat an eyewitness account told by someone with a great deal of respect for his subject.  No wonder Kim is a classic.  Hope you find the time to read it, too.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Stork Raving Mad

Meg Langslowe is back, and she's about to have twins - any minute!  In Stork Raving Mad (#17) by Donna Andrews, Meg doesn't even have to leave home to solve the latest mystery involving the Caerphilly College community.  The murder happens right in her own sprawling Victorian house with a cast of dozens of suspects; the heating plant is out at the university and she and her professor husband are housing students, guests, interns from her brother's software company and a visiting Spanish playwright. 

How she manages to uncover the murderer between trips to the bathroom and arduous journeys around her own house is amusingly told, as always, in this series.  The culprit is eventually unmasked, but the biggest mystery is left unsolved: is Meg having boys, girls, or one of each as she goes into labor?  Tune in next time...

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Sixteen Pleasures

I found this book on an NPR website's Guilty Pleasures.  It included a group of books that evoked a different time and place for their readers.  I expected the time period of The Sixteen Pleasures (#16) to be Renaissance Florence, but instead, it was about the Florence of the 1960s, just after the flood that devastated so much of the artwork there.  The protaganist of The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga is an Italian-American book conservator from Chicago who spent a couple of her high school years in Florence with her art professor mother.  She longs to do something for her adopted city and thinks her skills could be used, so off she sets without a plan and without much money.  She does eventually get an assignment at a convent library and in the course of the restoration the nuns uncover a one-of-a-kind pornographic book of engravings and sonnets concealed in a prayer book - the long-lost and banned Sixteen Pleasures.  How to sell it for the benefit of the convent without the bishop's knowledge drives the rest of the tale. 

I almost gave up on this book not very far into it.  To be honest, I was afraid the male author would go overboard with his descriptions of the workings of the female mind and emotions in the opening scenes set on the train, but he seems to have gotten that out of his system.  The rest of the book was convincingly evocative of what life must have been like in a Florence of the 60s overrun with international do-gooders. 

I learned more about how a book is put together in this novel than in the equally captivating People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, also about book conservation.  There are also interesting glimpses of life in an enclosed convent, Italian love and marriage, and the Church's dominance of both religious and marital life, and the mysterious world of rare book dealers and auctions.  There was definitely enough here to make the perservance worthwhile.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Dead Man's Chest

My library got in the latest installment of Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher mystery series, so I spent the weekend devouring Dead Man's Chest (#15).  The Hon. Phyrne, her companion/maid Dot, and her two adopted daughters Ruth and Jane, are off to an Australian seaside resort to stay in a borrowed house.  But Phyrne being Phryne odd and mysterious things keep cropping up until she and her household (and Dot's fiance the police detective sargeant) are able to resolve things satisfactorily for everyone except the criminals, of course.

In Dead Man's Chest Ms. Greenwood gives us a taste of Twenties seaside resort living, early cinematography, class attitudes, anthropology, cookery and a most amusing Surrealist party.  She also most obligingly includes several recipes and a bibliography at the end of the book.  I will have to check the cookbook that Ruth uses throughout -  The Gentle Art of Cookery by Mrs. CF Leyel - and see if I can find the recipe for pottage a bonne femme.

I couldn't help thinking what a contrast Phyrne is to the heroine of Mark of the Lion, Jade del Cameron.  Both served on the front lines during WWI, both are single and independent, and both are involved in mysteries.  But what a difference.  I never could warm up to Jade.  She seemed selfish and self-centered.  Phyrne on the other hand is rich enough to have her eccentricities overlooked, but she is very observant, an implacable and frightening foe if you cross her (love how she dealt with the criminal mastermind!), yet she rescues strays (Ruth, Jane and Tinker), and gives them a chance to forge a new life based on their own actions and aspirations.  In other words, you can plainly see why her household is so devoted to her.

But the best thing about this series is that I still have a lot of previous volumes to hunt down and read!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Poison - A Novel of the Renaissance

The official poisoner to Cardinal Borgia is murdered in Rome in 1492, and his daughter steps up to take his place in Poison (#14), the first book of this intriguing series by Sara Poole.  Papal politics, Ferdinand & Isabella's expulsion of the Jews from Spain, a fallen priest and of course, poison, all play a role in this fascinating book.  Francesca's principal duty is to protect Il Cardinale and his family from rivals seeking to bring down the Spanish prelate.  In this book, Cesare Borgia at 16 is Francesca's sometime lover, and Lucrezia at 12 amazes her with her ability to gather and analyze information since she's not yet out in society.  Francesca leads us through the landscape of late 15th century Rome with aplomb, but it's a dark and crumbling world as the various factions plot to raise themselves at the expense of others.

This was a page turner told from a different perspective.  It's Sara Poole's first published work of fiction.  I've got to love someone who tells her interviewer that her all time favorite novel of historical fiction is The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara.  My co-worker who went on the solo safari to Kenya introduced me to The Killer Angels, and I agree with her assessment of it as the finest work of historical fiction ever written.  With such high standards in place, it's no wonder I enjoyed Poison so much.  I look forward to reading Ms. Poole's next book Serpent, and her third which is already in the works, Malice.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Mark Of The Lion

British East Africa just after the end of WWI, a missing second son and a mysterious pre-war murder are the hooks on which the tale is hung in Mark of the Lion (#14) by Suzanne Arruda.  Jade del Cameron is an American female ambulance driver in a French unit on the front lines during the war.  Her close friend David, a pilot, is shot down in a dog fight and dies in her arms.  His dying request is that she locate his brother.  She is determined to carry out his last wish and conveniently combines the trip to Africa with a travel magazine assignment. 

The descriptions of the country and colonial society around Nairobi are fascinating, as is the lore surrounding the laibons, or witch doctors, capable of controlling aminal familiars, or in the case of particularly strong witches, turning themselves into the aminals.  Suzanne Arruda says she based this plot device on a story written by Baron Blor Blixen, husband of Isak Dinesen (Out of Africa).

Less compelling to me is her heroine, Jade.  I did not find this character either likable or sympathetic, though she engenders strong loyalities amongst her friends.  How and why are the big mystery.  She is supposed to be portrayed as strong, independent, brave and adventurous, but a lot of that comes across as selfish and pig-headed.  She can shoot better than the men (with the rifle her parents gave her when she was 16!), she can fix any motor vehicle better than a man, she's won the Croix de Guerre in France for her actions, hates wasting time on frivolous talk about fashions, and she's fluent in Swahili after being in Africa only a few days!  What a paragon!  Her wealthy British friends shower her with gifts - a new evening dress, a top-performing rifle and letters of introdruction from a lordship! - which she seems to accept as her due.  Her family apparently supplies her with money and freedom to quench her wanderlust, but the only one she seems to feel any obligation to is the dead David, and that seems to be largely motivated by guilt that she didn't love him enough to marry him. 

I can't say that there were any surprises in this book; no plot twists to make me think "I did NOT see that coming!"  but it was interesting enough to hold my attention when I wasn't thoroughly annoyed by Jade.  It made me long to go on safari and see Africa for myself.  A number of years ago, one of my co-workers was fortunate enough to do that.  He went by himself on a safari trip to Kenya and shared the pictures and his experiences when he came back.  My sister-in-law on the other hand, is the only person I know who could announce she was off to a librarians' international conference in Nairobi and have a blind date set up for her there!  (She went to the modern day equivalent of the Muthaiga Club mentioned in the book and had a miserable date, so maybe there is some justice.)  Maybe someday...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Wicked Appetite

Janet Evanovich reintroduces some characters from Plum Spooky in the first book of her new series Wicked Appetites (#13).  Lizzy Tucker is a pastry chef working in Salem, Massachusetts, after she inherits a house in nearby Marblehead from a great aunt.  Lizzy's talent is for fabulous cupcakes, but it turns out she has other talents useful to someone who's not so nice - Gerwulf Grimoire.  Enter Diesel, sent to protect her, as they partner to try to assemble the stones that control the Seven Deadly Sins.   Carl, the monkey, is back, too!  Eep!

This is a really fun read (like all of her books!) but I do have a couple of small bones to pick with Ms. Evanovich.  First, in one scene, Lizzy finds herself in a penthouse apartment in downtown Boston overlooking "the park".  No Bostonian (or anyone who watches the Boston TV stations) would EVER call the Common or the Public Gardens "the park".  It's always either The Common (on the downtown/Beacon Hill side) or the Gardens (the Back Bay?Ritz side).  And secondly, I wish there really was a Dazzle's Bakery, but even better, I wish there were some cupcake recipes in this book!  I could have used some to snack on while I was reading this...

Friday, November 12, 2010

Must Love Dogs - Claire Cook Classic

How have I missed Claire Cook for so long?  She spoke on a panel at my library's Bookmania! event in January this year.  I wanted to attend the panel presentation because Elaine Viets, author of the Dead End Job series set in Fort Lauderdale, was also on it, and I've enjoyed her . 

I found The Wildwater Walking Club by Claire Cook on the library shelf a couple of weeks before the Bookmania! event and decided to read it in preparation for hearing her speak.  Well, by the time I finished reading the book, I felt Claire Cook was channeling me.  Heroine cheated out of her job by a slick corporate operator?  Check - I'd been fired by phone long distance in the middle of writing a report.  By the time the brief phone call explaining the company had been bought out and my services were no longer required, I'd lost my VPN access to the internal company network.  A period of anger and self pity? Check. Had those in spades.  Deciding to walk as a means to get moving again?  Check!  I didn't go for the 10,000 steps a day, but walking every day introduced me to a lot of new people (and dogs!) in the neighborhood.  The only thing I didn't need was a new relationship - I already had a solid one.  When I started talking about The Wildwater Walking Club to one of my friends, she told me that she had read it and loved it, but that she felt at the time that it was perhaps a little to close to what I was going through to recommend it to me, so I knew it wasn't just me that felt the connection to what Claire Cook was writing about. 

On the panel, Claire talked about Must Love Dogs (#12) and the stroke of luck that led to it being made into a movie.  She also did say that even though she consulted on it, that the movie and the book actually have little in common except for the title, but that was fine with her.  It's taken me some time to actually get my hands on Must Love Dogs because it always seems to be checked out.  (And what does that tell you?) The book follows a fortyish divorcee whose large family are trying to push to get out there and meet some men.  Her sister finally writes and places a personal ad in the newspaper for Sarah to light a fire under her.  Her family is so much like the ones I grew up with that the book seems real to me, but more amusing than my own life would have been in the same situation.  This book didn't end the way I expected either, so that's a plus!

I think what appeals to me and her legion of fans so strongly is the warmth in her books.  They aren't jaded or cynical, and there's always hope. Some may want to brush Claire Cook's books aside as "chick lit", but they have something that rings so true that they deserve a closer look and appreciation for the skill it takes to pull that off.  

I signed up for Claire Cook's newsletter so I can keep track of what's coming out, plus she has great contests on line for her fans.  I am counting myself as one, and if you'd like to be, too, check out her website:

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Welcome To Temptation

I'm getting caught up on Jennifer Crusie's novels.  I read Agnes And The Hit Man awhile back, which made me laugh out loud (It takes a lot to make me do that!).  She co-wrote that one with Bob Mayer and it was so funny, kinky and entertaining that I got my husband to read it, too.  I recently introduced one of my new neighbors to our outstanding library system and recommended it to her.  She told me just the other day, "Wow, lots of sex, but I really liked it!"  That's kind of how I feel about her books.  There is a lot of sex, but she manages to make it funny and original and germane to the plot.  (I really dislike the "bodice ripper" novels that just string overdone sex scenes together for page after page with hardly (hah!) any plot to hold them together.  If you start skipping over them in these books, it will take you only about twenty minutes to read one!  Had to get that off my chest.)

Back to Jennifer Crusie.  Welcome To Temptation (#11) is one of her earlier books, and I did find it hugely entertaining, especially the ongoing joke about the town's water tower.  When the two sisters of a "bent" family arrive in Temptation, Ohio, to video a comeback tape for a fading bombshell, you know that nothing will go smoothly.  Get the town's mayor and police chief involved and things are bound to go bad.  Mix in a little porn, a murder and an election and you have a winner.  If you enjoy a humorous take on romance, you'll enjoy this book.

I just put another Jennifer Crusie book on hold at the library before I posted this.  Fortunately, it's going to take awhile for me to read through them all. Yippee!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Pirate Latitudes

My husband picked up Michael Crichton's unfinished novel Pirate Latitudes (#10) at the library, so I decided to read it, too.  I really enjoyed Crichton's time-travel book Timeline.  (Hated the movie version of it, though!)  Pirate Latitudes concerns Charles Hunter, a Massachusetts Colony born English privateer, who is determined to go on a raid to capture a Spanish treasure ship stranded at the Spanish island outpost of Matanceros after the fleet sails.  The Royal Governor learns of the ship from his newly arrived and morally outraged secretary who has seen the ship in the Matanceros harbor.  Since the Governor's object is to make money for the crown and for himself, he summons Hunter to grant him letters of marque as a privateer to raid Matanceros in the guise of logcutting.  Once Hunter assembles his motley crew, they set sail for the invincible fortress to steal the treasure ship.  Nothing comes easily on this voyage to Hunter and his crew as they overcome one deadly obstacle after another in pursuit of untold riches.  Piracy is a risky, violent business and the action never stops. 

I have the feeling that this manuscript outline is what Crichton wrote first - the action sequences strung together with the main characters in place, but not enough of a backstory on any of them to really make the plot hang together satisfactorily.  It kept me turning the pages to see what would happen next, but failed to make Charles Hunter a real person or to explain what motivated him, his crew or even his enemies.  (Well, except for Hacklett - Hunter did get his wife pregnant!)  If Michael Crichton had had more time to develop this aspect of his novel, it might have been a spectacular book.  But that's exactly the part that cinematographers would have excised right out of the movie version, so maybe this is enough for some people.  I'm not sorry I read it; I think it did a good job of entertaining me this weekend.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Wild Child

Because I really enjoyed a couple of her recent books, I went back to read one of Mary Jo Putney's older titles The Wild Child (#9), published in 1998. Beautiful young heiress, mute since she was the sole survivor of a massacre in India, is to be visited by her suitor, the heir to an earldom, to finalize a match arranged by their parents when they were children.  One of her uncle guardians approves, the other does not think she is normal or capable of leading a normal life, so things must be wrapped up before said uncle returns from his European tour.  Young suitor has other plans and bribes his identical twin to take his place temporarily.  The girl is not in her right mind, so who will know?  You can see where this one is going right from the beginning, but again, the fun is in the journey to get there.  Some unexpected plot twists and turns to keep your interest throughout, not to mention menace to more than one lady.  Meriel, the main character, never leaves her estate, but her particular talent is for plants and the various gardens described make me wish there was an accompanying coffee table book.  Wish I could see the topiary garden!

It's funny, but the Indian subcontinent seems to be a recurring theme in the books I've read lately. There is Meriel's traumatic experience while traveling there with her parents and her subsequent captivity.  She's accompanied as a child back to England by a mysterious Indian bodyguard.  In Ms. Putney's latest series Loving A Lost Lord, her first book deals with a British Duke who is half Indian, and ostracized because of it.  Then there was A Passage To India by E.M. Forster, a book that my book club felt we ought to have read (and are glad we did!).  And finally there was Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson, which tells the tale of an unlikely cross-cultural relationship between a Pakistani widow who runs the local English village shop and the ever-so proper Major Pettigrew.  If you haven't read this one yet, do yourself a favor and get a copy of this novel.  It's Helen Simonson's first book, and I devoutly hope it's not her last.  If Jane Austen were alive today, she'd be telling this story. 

I've always dreamed of seeing India, but it's not high on my husband's list of places to go, so it's not very likely I'll ever see it in person, but one never knows.  The plus side is that you can always visit it in a book.  Maybe while I'm on this Indian roll, I should go back and dig up my copy of M. M. Kaye's The Far Pavilions.  That was a wonderful read...

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Call Me Mrs. Miracle

The latest installment in Debbie Macomber's series of Christmas books is Call Me Mrs. Miracle (#8).  Sending a copy to my aunt with an "Open Me Early" tag has become a Christmas tradition in my family.  I find Ms. Macomber's books warm and life-affirming, not a bad combination for this time of year.  Mrs. Miracle (not her real name!) seems to know an awful lot about the lives of the principal characters: Holly, a single woman who has custody of 8 year old nephew while her widower brother's National Guard unit is deployed to Afghanistan, and Jake, the son and heir of New York City's last big family-held department store.  Yes, you can easily guess how the book will end, but the journey to get there with a few extra twists thrown in made me both laugh and shed a few sentimental tears .  Plus, there are recipes!  How can you beat that for a few hours' entertainment?

Sorry, but I have to go order my aunt's copy on Amazon...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Passage To India

The Literary Circle, my book club, has decided to read selections this year from "The Modern Library's 100 Best Books" list.  This month's book is E. M. Forster's A Passage To India (#7)Forster wrote this book in 1924 when the British Raj still ruled in India, but anti-British feeling was rising among the Indians.  Adela Quested is escorted out to India by Mrs. Moore whose son she may or may not marry.  Adela chafes against the tightly-knit provincial society of Chandrapore where her intended is City Magistrate.  Both Mrs. Moore and Adela express their desire to meet Indians socially and see more of the sights of the country.  She has no idea that she is asking the impossible because of the divisions between races, religions, education, politics and the sexes, but she persists.  Her meeting with Dr. Aziz at the home of Cyril Fielding, head of the Government College, results in an outing to the inconviently situated Marabar Caves.  The incident upon which the novel turns takes place here at the Caves.  Mrs. Moore has a bad experience in the first cave, and urges Adela and Aziz to explore the rest of the caves on their own with a guide.  Adela upsets Aziz with a personal question and he goes off to another cave to avoid her for a bit.  Later, when he looks for her, he sees Adela in the distance getting into a car with another woman and driving away.  He returns to Mrs. Moore to find that Fielding has just arrived.  He is upset that his guest has left without a word.  Upon their return to Chandrapore, Dr. Aziz is arrested and put on trial for an attempted assault on Miss Quested.  Aziz and Fielding both want to know who is responsible for charging Dr. Aziz. Why, Miss Quested!  Mrs. Moore and Mr. Fielding both believe in Dr. Aziz's innocence and are ostracized from the British community for their support.  Mrs. Moore is bundled off back to England so she can't interfere in the trial.  The strongest anti-British advocate volunteers to defend Aziz during the trial.  The community in the meantime is torn apart by the whole episode, and visions of the Mutiny of 1857 invoked by the British as things get uglier and uglier.  On the witness stand, Adela recants her sworn deposition to the consternation of the Anglo-Indian citizens and in turn, is ostracized herself.  Mr. Fielding provides a place for her to stay until she can return to England when things die down. 

The real question is: what happened to Adela in the Caves?  Was she assaulted or not?  I read somewhere that even E.M. Forster himself didn't know the answer to that one.  It was a device on which to hang the plot, and to express his views.

I did watch David Lean's 1984 film version of A Passage To India to see how it compared to the book.  It was a pretty accurate adaption of the book, and visually beautiful, except for changing Cyril Fielding's first name to Richard, and moving the final section of the book from Mau to Srinigar (which of course had stunning cinematographic possibilities).  There was also the inexplicable casting of Alec Guiness as Professor Godbole, a Hindu professor, and a really annoying (and dated!) film score that made me think of Ryan's Daughter and not at all of India.  Small quibles, really.  The reason I don't generally like film adaptations of books I've read is that I've created the characters in my head - they look a certain way, they sound a certain way - and I'm always disappointed when I see them on screen.  Also for a book like A Passage To India, so much of the meat of the book exists in the interior life of the characters and the influences of time, place and culture.  You can skim off the action and come somewhat near, but you never capture the heart of the book.  I felt that way about James Clavell's Shogun.  I think that was one of the best novels I've ever read.  I was convinced by the time I finished it that I could think in Japanese.  That, of course, is a fantasy, but it does show how powerful an effect the immersion in Japanese culture had for me.  Richard Chamberlin sure looked great in the miniseries adaption, but I felt that they had gutted the novel by removing all the political and cultural aspects that made this book so interesting.

Anyway, my overall impression is that A Passage To India is not a quick read, but a worthwhile way to spend some time.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell was a mixed bag for me.  Being brought up on stories of Admiral Perry opening Japan, I never really gave much thought to the Dutch East India Company's influence in this part of the world.  The window this book opened on the Dutch trading island of Dejima at the turn of the nineteenth century, and its relationship to the forbidden Japan of Nagasaki and beyond was fascinating. 

But - and this is a big but - at the same time there were a number of things that annoyed me about this book.  The frequent cutting between interior dialogue and exterior action was distracting.  Mitchell evoked some beautiful images of the place, but dropped characters and plot lines without resolving them.  I found myself for the last third of the book wondering "But what about Orito?  Whatever happened to her?"  She shows up again on the last pages, but it was too little, too late.  Apparently the virtuous Jacob de Zoet got over his disappointments in love rather quickly.  Rather a let down for this character.  And the evil Lord Abbott who kills a cobra with a mere pass of his hand?  I wondered if the book was veering into the supernatural.  It seems not, but how did he do it, then?  Too many loose ends for me.

Still it did keep me turning the pages to see what would happen next.  And I did pursue the British entry into Japan because I was curious about how accurate that was (The HMS Phaeton did not sail into Nagasaki until 1808.) so there was sufficient material to interest me throughout.  If you find books about feudal Japan interesting you might like this book.  I did not recommend it to my husband even though he is a fan of the Tales of the Otori book cycle, but I did find it worth reading for myself.

What do you think?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Book Cover Art

I am currently reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (#6) by David Mitchell and really relishing it.  However, it has occurred to me several times that if I had just seen this book displayed somewhere on a shelf, or on a table at a bookstore, and not heard about it on NPR, I probably would not have even picked it up. 

You know the old saw "Never judge a book by its cover."?  I can't do that.  The cover of a book influences my decision to pick it up and read the end flap or back cover to see what it might contain.  If I'm browsing the shelf at the library and a title sounds promising, I'll pull it out.  Sometimes the cover art or photograph sends the message "not your type of book" and I'll put it right back.  On the other hand, sometimes the cover is so intriguing that I'll find myself flipping to look at the artwork while I'm reading, and each and every time I pick the volume up or put it down.  I almost always look for the source of the artwork or the cover design to see how the cover concept was put together.  It's one of the reasons I've resisted acquiring a Kindle or other electronic reader: black and white covers and illustrations! 

Occasionally the thing I like best about a book turns out to be the cover.  I had heard about Peter Carey's book Parrot and Olivier In America.  It was billed as a comic novel about de Touqueville's tour of the early American republic in the reviews I read.  My library's catalog used the phrase: "...irrepressibly funny new novel set in early nineteenth century America."  Right up my alley, I thought.  I like Mark Twain, Dave Barry, MaryJanice Davidson, Douglas Adams and Lindsay Davis to name a few authors who make me either laugh out loud, or at least bring a smile to my face.  But I obviously don't have the same sense of humor as the literary critics do.  Parrot and Olivier In America has been short listed for the Mann Booker prize.  If it wins, I'll just wonder if it was just me that failed to get the humor. 

The cover of this book, though, grabbed my attention.  Peeking out from behind the invitation card on the book jacket was the face of an 18th century gentleman.  The more I looked at this portrait, the more I thought this looked liked someone who would be a lot of fun at a dinner party; full of wit and humor, and not too hard on the eyes.  So I did my usual tracking on the internet and found that this was a self portrait of Maurice-Quentin Delatour.  If you moved in French court circles during the reign of Louis XV, you might have had your portrait done in pastels by Delatour.  The Wikipedia entry for Delatour contained external links including one to his portrait of Madame de Pompadour in the Louvre which turned out to be one of the best links I've ever come across:
Check it out for yourself.  After reading this material about Delatour and his work, I think I was right about him as a dinner companion!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Weekend Reading

I must admit to a guilty pleasure.  I love Regency romances.  After my mother shared her Georgette Heyer paperbacks with me, I was hooked.  In fact, The Toll Booth played a key role in how I met my husband in London.  But I digress.  This weekend I read Mary Jo Putney's Loving A Lost Lord (#4), first in that series.  I had previously read Never Less Than A Lady from that collection and enjoyed it.  This book did not disappoint.  I think the reason I liked them was that the plots had interesting twists and more depth to the characters.  I wouldn't want to read a steady diet of them, but the occasional Regency bon-bon keeps me happy.

This weekend I also spent This Time Together (#5) with Carol Burnett's anecdotal memoirs.  Some touch on her family, some on the cast and crew of the "Carol Burnett Show", and some on the guest stars and celebrities she's met though the years, all done with a humorous touch.  Makes me nostalgic for her show!

Friday, October 22, 2010

First Up

Yesterday I finished Me, Myself and Why? (#1 - I've decided to keep track of how many books I read in this first year by numbering them.) the first book in a new trilogy by MaryJanice Davidson.  I've been a fan of her vampire series featuring Betsy Taylor because they are irreverent and funny.  This new book introduces an FBI agent with Multiple Personality Disorder.  The story constantly switches between her three distinct personalities in pursuit of a serial killer.  I can't say I enjoyed this one as much, but I do think the series has potential, and I will undoubtedly read the next two installments.  Maybe by then I'll have a better handle on what is going on.  I couldn't complete this week without mentioning the two other books I've read so far:  The Doomsday Key (#2) by James Rollins and Women Food and God (#3) by Geneen Roth.
Our local library system puts on an amazing event each January called Bookmania!.  It features over two dozen authors speaking solo or on panels over the course of one Saturday.  Last year my husband and I were excited to go and hear Steve Berry, one of our favorites.  On the program, he was paired with James Rollins talking about his latest thriller Altar of Eden.  Neither of us had ever read any of his books.  The hour these two authors and friends spent together on the stage was one of the most entertaining book events I have ever been to.  Needless to say, we started reading his books.  Rollins does write stand alone books, but he also has a series of novels about The Sigma Force, a US super secret agency of special forces operatives recruited and trained in various branches of science to aid them in their work.  The Doomsday Key is the latest offering in this series (although Devil Colony is about to be released - already have a hold on it at the library!).  Rollins' thrillers contain enough science to make it work as the kernel of a crisis and to prompt reading beyond the books themselves.  High body count, but you have to love a novel that wrecks part of the Coliseum, the Svalbard Seed Bank ( )and Clairveaux Abbey all in the same book.  A page turning read that gives you something to think about.

I believe I was number 92 on the hold list for Women Food And God at my library.  I finally got it this week.  Do yourself a favor and if you're inclined to pick up this book, turn immediately to the last page.  That's the whole book, and more than Ms. Roth includes in the 200+ pages of Eastern philosophy and workshop anecdotes (ones she's both attended and led) leading up to these common sense recommendations.  I fail to see why this book is so popular, but perhaps it's an example of the saying "Common sense isn't common."

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Why I Started This Blog

I have always loved to read.  I can't remember a time when I wasn't surrounded by books at home - spilling out of bookcases in my room, plus the kitchen, the dining room, the living room, the hallways, and of course, the library books piled on top of the radiators that belonged to my parents and my brother.  I thought everyone lived like this until I went to school and brought a friend home one day.  She looked around our house and asked in disbelief, "Does anyone actually read these books?!"  Well, yes, we did.

But why did I start this blog now?  I've been at loose ends since I was laid off when the company I worked for was bought out.  I was the senior person in my position, and the prospects have not been looking good out there for someone my age and salary history (What a surprise!).  The upside is that I'm no longer traveling constantly, and I have plenty of time to indulge in my love of reading.  I've had to throttle back my Amazon book-buying habit, but fortunately my excellent local library system has taken up the slack. I mostly read fiction and I particularly like historical fiction and mysteries.  But I also read biographies and straight history with forays into anything else that takes my fancy.  You just never know!

So I've decided to keep a record of what I'm reading and comment on it. I'll let you know whether or not I liked a book, and if it led me to explore other interesting related reading matter or websites.  I make no claims to be a literary critic, but I've read long enough to know what I like and share my opinions.  I hope you'll respond, since it's always interesting to share other people's take on the same books and get their recommendations.

Watch this space for my post on Me, Myself and Why? A Modern Threesome by MaryJanice Davidson.