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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?