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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Christmas Blessing

I'm still reading Christmas books because for me, Christmas isn't over until January 6th, despite what the commercial world tells you.  I've just finished Donna VanLiere's The Christmas Blessing (#140), a sequel to The Christmas Shoes.  The theme of this book was faith, hope and especially, love, in keeping with the season.

Nathan Andrews was the young boy in The Christmas Shoes who was trying to buy his dying mother the best possible pair of shoes to wear as she entered heaven.  In The Christmas Blessing, Nathan is a third year med student who is having doubts about whether or not he's suited to be a doctor, especially when he's assigned to Dr. Goetz' rotation in Pediatric Cardiology.  With Dr. Goetz continually riding him, it promises to be a nightmare fall.  That is, until he literally runs into Meghan Sullivan on his unit.  She's a star runner at the local university and also a heart patient of Dr. Goetz.  How that encounter changes Nathan's life and teaches him some important truths about love and loss, and the gift we're all given to share with the rest of the world is the heart of the story.

Be prepared to read this small book with a box of kleenex by your side - I guarantee you'll need them by the time you're through!  But if you like your Christmas books with some substance behind them, and some thoughts to meditate on long after you've finished reading, this is a book for you.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Play Dead

I'm still catching up on previous books in David Rosenfelt's defense attorney Andy Carpenter mysteries with Play Dead (#139).   This book features (what else?!) a golden retriever sequestered at the local pound. Because he's bitten his owner,Yogi has been deemed a dangerous dog and is scheduled to be put down.  But the man in charge of the pound doesn't agree, so he calls Andy Carpenter, dog advocate, to the rescue.

Andy causes quite a stir with the media in the dog's defense, with a ruling in Yogi's favor.  But in the course of the television coverage of the trial, Yogi has been recognized.  A woman approaches Andy and claims that Yogi is not, in fact, Yogi; he's Reggie, and has been presumed dead for the last five years.  Reggie belongs to her brother, who has been convicted in the murder of his then fiancee and his own attempted suicide on his boat off the New Jersey coast.  Karen Evans has always believed her brother innocent of the crime, and with Reggie's resurrection, she's hoping Andy will re-open her brother's case and fight his conviction.  Since Andy has never been strong on the whole work ethos, he's reluctant to take on the case, but when his phone is tapped, and someone tries to shoot him on the highway, he knows there's more to this case than meets the eye.  His blood is up, and he's out to win.

I always enjoy Rosenfelt's writing style and humor and I hated having to keep putting it down over the holiday.  One small quibble; I do wish he had tied up some plot ends a little more neatly, though.  Those dangling threads did have me asking "But what about...?  What drew those particular people together...?"  Even that wasn't enough to spoil this book for me, and I'm glad things worked out for Reggie.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ivy & Intrigue: A Very Selwick Christmas

I've read through my pile of Christmas books and finally arrived at the one I was saving for last: Ivy & Intrigue: A Very Selwick Christmas (#138) by Lauren Willig.

In this novella, the Pink Carnation's series modern day heroine, Eloise, is at loose ends before she flies home to New York for Christmas.  She decides to spend her time visiting the English country house Uppington Hall.  In its day it was the home of  Richard Selwick, the Purple Genetian, one of the Napoleonic era spies  Eloise is researching.  Coincidentally, she also is dating one of the Selwick family descendants, so she's checking out his family background at the same time. 

When she arrives at Uppington Hall, Eloise finds the place infested with Regency re-enactors for the Christmas season.  They set the stage for the 1803 story of Lord Richard Selwick's first Christmas at the house with his new bride, Amy Balcourt.  Amy and Richard are  both missing the adventures they shared as a spy team in France, but different emotions are set in motion when Richard's first love who jilted him arrives on the scene with her obnoxious mother.  It's enough to make Amy re-think her choices in marriage and career.  What would Christmas be at the Selwick's without a bit of holly and ivy intrigue?

I thoroughly enjoyed this Christmas romp with its humorous dialogue.  It was well worth the wait, but made my sorry I didn't plan on including mince pies in my own Christmas dinner!

A Christmas Journey

Somehow I managed to miss Anne Perry's 2003 Christmas book: A Christmas Journey (#137) when it was first published.  I'm glad I caught up with it this year. 

Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould (a familiar character from the Thomas and Charlotte Pitt mysteries) in the 1850s as a young woman attends an English country house party at the home of her friend Omegus Jones on her own.  One evening a public and catty remark by Isobel Alvie to Gwendolen, another young widow who appears to be on the verge of a proposal by an eligible bachelor, results in a tragedy.  The woman's body is dragged from a pond the next morning and the house guests are quick to blame Isobel.   The company is coerced into agreeing with their host's proposal of a medieval trial if Isobel is found guilty.  Gwendolen has left behind a note for her mother.  If Isobel undertakes to deliver the letter and break the news of her daughter's death to Mrs. Naylor, and agrees to accompany her back to London if she so wishes, all who are attendance at the house party will be bound to forgive and accept Isobel, and never to speak of the incident to outsiders.  Faced with social ruin if word should get out, Isobel is reluctant to agree.  Lady Vespasia is the only person there to speak up on her behalf, and impulsively volunteers to accompany Isobel on the difficult journey to the wilds of Scotland.  The journey tests both Isobel and Vespasia who must come to terms with physical and mental barriers that must be overcome to set things right.

Although its theme of expiation and forgiveness, responsibility for one's own actions, and the burden of peer pressure do not at first glance appear to fit the Christmas theme, I found this book exemplified the spiritual journey each person must undertake to achieve his or her own form of salvation.  Ms. Perry ties it together very neatly in the end as the true meaning of Christmas through the character of Omegus Jones.   Most of the other Christmas books I have read this year have been fun, but none affected me as profoundly as this little book.  A great time to pause and reflect...

Monday, December 19, 2011

Queen of Kings

I picked up Maria Dahvana Headley's Queen of Kings (#136) at the library, expecting an interesting historical account of Cleopatra's life; after all, it does have the subtitle: The Immortal Story of Cleopatra.  I didn't bother to read the cover flap before I added it to my pile of books.  I was surprised on reading it as my husband drove home that this novel was something different, and I was even more intrigued when I saw a video trailer for Queen of Kings on the Good Reads blog site.   Good Reads blogsite.

In Ms. Headley's novel, the action begins when Octavian's troops surround Alexandria.  Cleopatra awaits her beloved Mark Antony in the tomb where she intends to perform a rite invoking the ancient Egyptian goddess Sekhmet in order to gain immortality for herself and Mark Antony.  But things don't go as planned.   Instead of committing suicide with an asp, she does perform an immortality ritual missing some vital elements of the spell from the scroll containing it.  Cleopatra is bound to Sekhmet, but without the protections for her own soul, or ka.  Sekhmet demands blood, and a chain of events is set in motion that could mean the end of the world if Augustus does not take steps to prevent the destruction Cleopatra causes as she fights to preserve Antony and her children.

This book was an intriguing take on the relationship between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Octavian, Caesar's great nephew and heir.  The interplay between the main characters and their beliefs  in the gods of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and Norse mythology seem a natural outcome in the wonderfully chilling pictured paranormal events described here.  This is way more than your average vampire novel, even though there are some aspects of that.  If your reading of historical fiction does not demand a narrow following of the known historical sources, you will find this "what if" imagining of an alternative ending to Cleopatra's story a real page turner.  Dark, but vivid, and a highly recommended read.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Gift

I'm still in the holiday mood with a reissue of two of Nora Roberts' novellas in The Gift (#135).  Light and easy romance where you know all will turn out for the best. 

Home for Christmas has Jason Law returning home to his tiny New Hampshire town at Christmas time.  He's been away ten years and has become a successful globe trotting journalist in the meantime.  But he's never forgotten Faith Kirkpatrick, even if she didn't keep her promise to wait for him.  The old feelings haven't gone away on either side, but Jason's world will be changed forever by the Christmas gift he receives from Faith.

All I Want for Christmas has identical twins Zeke and Zack (with their dog Zark!) writing to Santa to bring them a special present: the mom.  Their father Mac Taylor is bringing up the twins on his own, but the boys think all three of them need that one special person with yellow hair who loves little boys, big dogs and making cookies.  When Nell Davis, the new music teacher, hits town, Zeke and Zack know that Santa is working on their present.  If only Mac doesn't blow it!

Both stories were new to me, and just the thing to read under the Christmas tree.  I rate this one three candy canes!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

1225 Christmas Tree Lane

Debbie Macomber's Christmas books are a staple for the holidays.  In 1225 Christmas Tree Lane (#134) she wraps up her popular Cedar Cove series.

Although this book is nominally about Beth Morehouse's Christmas tree farm in Cedar Cove, and her mission to find the ten adorable Labrador Retriever puppies abandoned on her porch good homes for Christmas, it jumps from character to character in the extensive Cedar Cove community in an effort to wind up everyone's stories.  If you haven't read all of these novels, (as I have not!) it sure makes for confusing reading.

If you're a devoted Debbie Macomber fan, you probably won't mind anyway.  After all, it's Christmas in Cedar Cove and there will be snow and mistletoe with a little of the Christmas miracle thrown in for good measure.  Curl up with some eggnog and enjoy!

Monday, December 12, 2011

When Elves Attack

And now for a completely different Christmas story - Tim Dorsey's When Elves Attack - A Joyous Christmas Greeting from the Criminal Nutbars of the Sunshine State (#133).

Serge A. Storms and his sidekick Coleman are back to celebrate the holidays in their own inimitable way.  Since Christmas is a time for families, Serge decides he wants to spend the holiday near Jim Davenport, his ideal family man.  There just happens to be a house for rent across the street from the Davenports on Triggerfish Lane in Tampa.  Serge and Coleman don elf costumes to catch the criminals that Serge knows will be repeating the annual Florida holiday headlines.  These elves can make the malls and parking lots safer places for the average shopper.  They practice their own wacky form of justice, giving back to the criminals just what they deserve with a holiday flair (and applause from the neighbors!).

What could be more entertaining than Serge and Coleman's mayhem dressed up for Christmas?  A few chuckles and a few "Atta boy, Serge!" moments lead to a suitably sentimental ending when Serge gets a  Christmas surprise.  If you're a Tim Dorsey fan (and even if you're not, but follow the news!) you're bound to recognize the annual stories we've already starting reading about or seeing on TV locally.  Enjoy with a candy cane shiv!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Christmas Note

I confess.  I'm a sucker for a good Christmas story.  There's nothing like curling up on the couch with the tree twinkling away and something seasonal to read to complete the mood.  The Christmas Note (#132) by Donna VanLiere fits that bill admirably. 

The story is told from two viewpoints; Melissa, a young woman who lives on her own and seems to have no life; and Gretchen, a woman with two young children who has just moved into the condo next door to be near her mother in town.  Their lives intersect when a man comes looking for Melissa.  He's her mother's landlord and he wants her apartment cleaned out within the next week, or he'll dump the contents of Ramona's apartment.  He sticks Gretchen with the task of telling Melissa that her mother has died, something that she at first refuses to do.  But her Army Ranger husband Kyle's voice in her head is her conscience, telling Gretchen that she needs to do this.  Gretchen surprises both of them when she offers to help Melissa with the cleanup, but when they find an unfinished note by the side of Ramona's bed, neither woman can guess how that note will affect their lives. 

I found this a very satisfying Christmas read.  It is sentimental, but it also illustrates the power of doing good and the unexpected and wide-reaching consequences a small act of generosity can have.  If that's not the basic message of Christmas, I don't know what is.  I didn't see the plots twists of this story coming, but it did bring a lump to my throat, and that's also in the best tradition of Christmas!

Friday, December 9, 2011


Anne Patchett's book State of Wonder has been a darling of the critics this year.  For me, not so much.  I couldn't decide whom I disliked the most in this morally challenged group of characters (See my posting of 10/25).  Perhaps it's shallow of me, and I'm not capable of grasping the intellectual insights that others seem to find in this book.  On the other hand, maybe it's what I've always suspected: that literary critics are most enthusiastic about the books they understand the least.  If they can use enough erudite language to convince the rest of us that they know what they're talking about we'll believe that they really are smarter than the rest of us.  So it was with profound relief that I devoured one of James Rollins' earliest books on the same topic: Amazonia (#131). 

Dr. Nathan Rand's father disappeared into the remote Amazon jungle with the rest of his party four years ago.  When a member of that party stumbles out of the jungle at a tiny mission station he is sick and emaciated.  Despite the priest's efforts, the man dies before he can reveal who he is or where he came from.  The villagers are terrified of the man who bears a strange tattoo on his abdomen that marks him as belonging to the mysterios Ben-ali - the Blood Jaguars.  A medallion sewn into his clothing identifies him as Gerald Clark, an Army Ranger assigned to Carl Rand's missing exploratory party. There's just one problem: when Clark's body reaches the CIA laboratory in Langley, Virginia, he has two arms.  When he left with the expedition, he was missing an arm due to a sniper's bullet.  Where has he spent the last four years, and what has caused his arm to regenerate and yet left him ravaged with malignant tumors?  The government is determined to find out and recruits Nathan Rand from his own researches in Indian villages to join the CIA and Army Ranger joint task force in retracing Clark's footsteps to find out what really happened.  But they're not alone in the jungle pursuing the answers.  They are being tracked by both human and animal predators, the likes of which they have never encountered.  Can they survive long enough to penetrate to the heart of this mystery?

The parallels between Amazonia and State of Wonder are quite strong; scientist goes missing in remote Amazon jungle and is presumed dead, cannibals, snakes, a mysterious Indian tribe with botanical secrets that promise life-changing potential drugs to the outside world.  But I much prefer the more straight forward story telling in Amazonia. There are the twists and turns of the plot, a budding romance, a pandemic that can only be stemmed by the members of the expedition and genetic mutations.  Really scary genetic mutations.  The body count is extremely high in this book, as it is in Rollins' other thrillers, but also in keeping with Rollins' work, there is a strong scientific component that makes this a more intelligent thriller.  Unfortunately, this book predates the time when Mr. Rollings began to add a section at the end of his books discussing the scientific theory behind his plots, and recommended reading if you want to know more. 

All I can say is that I'm thinking very seriously before I book any tours in the Amazon!

Saturday, December 3, 2011


To me, P. C. Doherty's medieval mysteries always have a "you are there" quality to them.  In just a few pages, you're in the filth and stink of early fourtheenth century England where the freezing cold is constant and the sun never seems to shine.  That is certainly true of Nightshade (#130), a Hugh Corbett mystery. 

As the Keeper of the King's Secret Seal, Hugh has been abruptly summoned to the court of Edward I as the Christmas celebrations with his family are barely over.  The royal treasury at Westminster Abbey has been looted  and objects from the treasure trove have surfaced in the rural Essex town of Mistleham.  Lord Oliver Scrope, the local landholder, has caught and hung the man who offered a certain Saracen dagger from the Westminster robbery.  The king is not pleased with Lord Scrope's actions in the matter, nor the fact that the baron has promised to turn over a valuable item, the Sanguis Chrisi, a solid gold cross set with five priceless rubies he looted from the Templars' treasury during the fall of Acre in the Holy Land.  So far Scrope has failed to do so.  The king wants these returned immediately.  The Templars are rumored to be in pursuit of their lost treasure as well. Will they beat Hugh to the prize? 

Nor is the king happy about Lord Scrope's massacre of a group of heretics, the Brethren of the Free Spirit, living in a deserted village outside Mistleham, preempting the king's justice.  Now the townspeople are being stalked by an assasin armed with a longbow who strikes at random.  The king wants his due, and peace restored to the region.  Hugh and his faithful clerk Ranulf are charged with the task.  Is the root of the problem at Mistleham greed, heresy, inheritance, jealousy or all of the above?  Or could the the situation in Mistleham have its roots in the past?  Hugh must step carefully to put together the pieces of this puzzle, but not before a key player is murdered.

This is a cleverly plotted locked room mystery based in part on the actual robbery of the Royal Treasury in Westminster Abbey in 1303.  P. C. Doherty weaves the threads into a story that will keep you guessing until the end while you shiver in the atmosphere of the past.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Scones & Bones

A Pirates and Plunder exhibit at Charleston's Heritage Society is the scene of a daring theft of a diamond crusted cup reputededly made from Blackbeard's skull and the murder and assault of two of the Society's staff in Scones & Bones (#129), the latest entry in Laura Childs' Tea Shop Murder series.

Theodosia Browning is in attendance at the gala party with her master tea blender and right hand assistant Drayton Conneley who just happens to be on the Board of the Heritage Society.  As a favor to Drayton's friend Timothy Neville, Director of the Society, Theodosia allows herself to be drawn into investigating what really happened that night.  Not that anyone, especially the Chief of Homicide, Burt Tidwell, could stop her!

Plenty of Charleston atmosphere and a cast of colorful characters with an interest in pirate loot are sprinkled through the pages as Theodosia and Drayton simultaneously deal with tracking down clues and hosting a prestigious wine and tea pairing at the Indigo Tea Shop for the annual Charleston Food and Wine Festival.  It's never in doubt that Theodosia will tease (pardon the pun!) out the identity of the murderer/thief in the end... 

Laura Childs throws in some bonus recipes at the end, along with some hints on how to hold a successful tea party.  I personally was disappointed in the recipes, though!  She mentions caramel scones in the text, among a number of different kinds of yummy-sounding scones, but gives us goat cheese (ugh!) truffles and cheesy bruschetta instead!  With a title like Scones & Bones, I expected more than one lonesome scone recipe.  Sigh...

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Knitting Diaries

A new friend passed along The Knitting Diaries (#128) after we had lunch recently and chatted about some of our favorite authors.  This book was a natural when she learned that I was a knitter, too.  This is actually a collection of three novellas by Debbie Macomber, Susan Mallery and Christina Skye, all of whom are avid knitters as well.

Debbie Macomber's story The Twenty-First Wish features Ann Marie and her adopted daughter Ellen from the Blossom Street cast of characters.  A move to a new home is big emotional transition for Ellen, but Ann Marie is having to deal with her own emotions when it comes to choosing which relationship to pursue.

Susan Mallery's story Coming Unraveled is set in Texas where Robyn Mulligan has returned home from New York City to help her grandmother through her hip surgery.  Her grandmother's yarn shop is thriving, which is more than Robyn can say about her dreams of a career on Broadway.  She's glad to be back home, but T.J., the scruffy cowboy she finds ensconced in the cozy knitting group at Only Ewe, accuses her of taking advantage of her grandmother.  Why has he taken such an instant dislike to her, and how can Robyn convince him she's in it for the love, not the money?  And why should it matter so much to her?

In Return to Summer Island, Christina Skye's heroine Caro McNeal has suffered a devastating accident in Chicago that has left her right hand and arm severely damaged.  Her grandmother takes her home to Summer Island to recuperate and work with a physical therapist in Portland, Oregon.  Caro is afraid that she will never be able to knit again, but that desire is a key to her recovery as she battles through the pain.  What she never expects is to open the door one day to a Marine who is about to be re-deployed to Afghanistan.  He's come by to pick up a painting by her grandmother, an internationally known artist.  Circumstances force Gage to leave his beloved animal companions behind at the Summer Island shelter, but the cat and dog provide a connection between Gage in Afghanistan and Caro in Oregon in a most satisfying way.  I do have to say, I've never read any of Christina Skye's work before, but the parting between Gage and his cat and dog brought a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye.  Way to go for personalizing the sacrifices each member of the armed services makes for our benefit, and making it real, Ms. Skye!

I enjoyed all three stories, and there are also three knitting patterns included, one with each novella if you're so inclined.  They did spur me on to work on my own knitting projects.  It's hard sometimes to choose whether to read or to knit.  I know some people are proponents of audio books so that they can combine both, but for me, nothing beats the act of reading and imagining the sound of the characters myself.  If you enjoyknitting and are a sucker for romances, you can't help but get tangled up in The Knitting Diaries!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

Alan Bradley's unlikely girl detective Flavia de Luce is back in this Christmas entry I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (#127).  It's a week before Christmas and all through the house a film crew is busy setting up to shoot a movie complete with famous stars at Flavia's home in rural England, Buckshaw.  Colonel de Luce has already sold about everything of value there is in Buckshaw, and post WWII he's struggling to hold on to the huge old country house that belonged to his deceased wife.  Renting out Buckshaw as a film set should help.  Except that just as the cast and crew arrive, so does a monster snow storm.  Flavia, however, isn't going to allow the bustle in the house or the storm outside to deter her from her chemical experiments to prove or disprove the existence of Father Christmas!

After Phyllis Wyvern graciously agrees to put on performance with her co-star Desmond Duncan for the benefit of St. Tancred's Roofing Fund, the Rector arranges to transport most of the villagers to Buckshaw for the evening behind a tractor-drawn sleigh.  The evening doesn't go off quite as planned and the audience is now marooned at Buckshaw because of the storm.  Late that night after everyone is bedded down all over the house, Flavia is able to hear the soundtrack of a Phyllis Wyvern movie playing in her room and decides this would be an ideal opportunity to chat with the famous star and score points on her two older sisters.  The problem is that Phyllis won't be doing much chatting since she's been murdered.  Flavia's curiousity leads her to put her nose in where's it's obviously not wanted, and now she's oblivious to the fact that she's a target, too.

This latest entry into the Flavia de Luce collection does not disappoint.  Family secrets are slowly being revealed, relationships developed and Flavia continues to plot hideous imaginary revenge on her enemies - all involving chemistry, of course!  Flavia in my opinion grows up quite a bit in this book, and becomes a much more fully developed character.  She's always been fun in a bratty kind of way, but now we're getting some real glimpses of what drives her to do what she does.  Besides, who wouldn't love a heroine who can wax poetic about the chemical miracle that is snow, fill her thoughts with arcane chemical facts and simultaneously believe in Father Christmas?    If you haven't met Flavia yet, I would highly recommend that you start with her first adventure The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  If you're already acquainted, this mystery will be a welcome Christmas treat.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Janet Evanovich's re-issued romance Thanksgiving (#126) is just the ticket for an easy afternoon read if you can snatch the time away from your own Thanksgiving preparations.

Megan Murphy is enjoying her lunch outdoors on a break from her job in Colonial Williamsburg when she realizes an enormous lop-eared rabbit is busily eating his way through her skirt.  The rabbit's owner happens to be a cute new pediatrician who has just moved to town.  When Megan has to return Pat Hunter's rabbit a second time, she's there when a distraught young mother deposits her infant son with Dr. Hunter (and Mrs. Hunter, as she thinks!) and takes off.  One thing leads to another and next thing she knows, Megan is baby-sitting Tim during the week while she works at her potter's wheel and sharing feeding and sleepovers with Pat.  Domesticity is nice, but Megan is gun-shy of marriage.  No matter how wonderful Pat is, she's determined to draw the line at marrying him.  But when her parents show up unexpectedly for Thanksgiving, and Pat's entire family joins him for a home cooked meal, their joint families assume that a wedding is in the very near future, especially if they intend to adopt baby Tim.  What's a girl with emotional baggage to do?

I like Ms. Evanovich's romances because they're light and funny.  The sex is romantic, not too explicit, which is just how I think a romance should be.  The tie-in to the holiday made it a really fun escape this week.  Check it out for yourself this year, or maybe put it away as a treat during next year's Thanksgiving rush.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sisters of Fortune: America's Caton Sisters at Home and Abroad

I was browsing in the new non-fiction section of my library the other day, hoping that a copy of In the Garden of the Beast might be available when the title Sisters of Fortune (#125) caught my eye.  When I pulled the book off the shelf, Sir Thomas Lawrence's portrait of the beautiful Marianne Caton Patterson hooked me.  Jehanne Wake's group biography of the four Caton sisters - Marianne, Elizabeth (or Bess as she was known), Louisa and Emily - is straight out of a novel, and just as compelling a read.

Born into the wealthy and prominent Catholic Carroll family of Baltimore, the girls were raised in the extended family household of their grandfather, John Carroll of Carrollton, signer of the Declaration of Independence.  To protect their inheritances from their charming but feckless British father, John Carroll tied up fortunes for each of his granddaughters so that they would always be financially independent.  In return, he expected them to be able to manage their own money by keeping scrupulous accounts, a life-long habit for the sisters. 

Moving in the highest social circles, the Caton sisters met just about everyone who was anyone.  With an uncle in the US Congress, they also spent considerable time in Washington, DC mingling with and debating politics in the highest political arenas as well and becoming staunch supporters of the Republic in the process.

In light of the Caton sisters' backgrounds, it is surprising that only one of the sisters married an American.  Marianne, considered to be the true beauty of the family with a personality to match, married Robert Patterson.  She suffered terribly from asthma and physicians recommended that Marianne go abroad for her health.  Bess and Louisa accompanied her to Europe taking London by storm in the finest tradition of Regency romances.  Marianne caught the eye of the Duke of Wellington who commissioned the portrait of her on the cover of the book.  The sisters moved on to be met with an equally warm reception in France, the first experience they had of being able to openly practice their religion in public.  Although Marianne Caton Patterson returned to the United States with her husband, she was widowed shortly thereafter and was beset by Patterson family claims against the validity of her husband's will.  It was with great relief that she returned to Europe where she eventually married the Duke of Wellington's elder brother becoming Lady Wellsley.  Louisa had married the English Lord Hervey but was also widowed young.  Her courtship by the younger Lord Carmarthen caused a rift with his father, the Duke of Leeds, who objected to Louisa principally because of her religion, but also on the grounds that she was an American nobody.  The breach was never healed with Carmarthen's father, but Louisa and Car's marriage was otherwise a happy one.  Bess, the remaining sister, was most involved in financial speculation and held shares in various companies for her married sisters and friends.  She never planned to marry, but succumbed to the sixty-four year old Lord Stafford's proposal, much to the surprise of the rest of her family.  By all reports Bess's marriage was a successful one.  Even Emily who had remained at home in America married a Canadian of Scottish descent, John McTavish.  After beginning their marriage in Montreal, the McTavishes moved to Baltimore and there Emily remained, taking care of her grandfather, her parents and her growing brood of children. 

Life was never dull with the Catons.  They lived through tumultuous times in both Europe and America and the sisters were in a position to observe and even influence events.

What I found most surprising in reading this book is that I had never come across any references to the Caton sisters in any of the other books I've read.  They were all so well known that they were the subject of many contemporary diarists and correspondents.  The author does make the point that just as Louisa, the last surviving sister died, Jennie Jerome married Lord Randolph Churchill, and a few years later Consuela Yanga de Valle married the heir to the Duke of Manchester.  The era of the Dollar Princesses had begun and the brilliant swath that the Caton sisters had cut during the Regency period and beyond was extinguished. 

Once again, the cover art of this book was an important factor in my choosing this book, so kudos to the editors who selected the cover portraits of the four sisters.  If you read Sisters of Fortune you won't be disappointed in the Catons' story.  In this case, you can judge the book by the cover!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Hiss of Death

I usually enjoy Rita Mae Brown's mysteries co-written with her cat Sneaky Pie Brown.  However, if you have even an ounce of flab on you, you might want to give Hiss of Death (#124) a miss or you risk being offended.  In this outing Harry Haristeen is diagnosed with breast cancer, and though people are murdered, the whodunit aspect takes a distant second place to Ms. Brown's soapbox.

Okay, I get that Ms. Brown hates obese people, that only the really serious "gym rats" are worthy of consideration (Harry even criticizes her eighty-five year old grandmother for having a little bit of flab on her upper arms that revolted her!) and that the government is evil, as are the pharmaceutical companies, and basically pretty much anyone who isn't furry and four-legged don't deserve the air they breathe.  I wondered as I read her extended rants whether or not Ms. Brown was ever going to get back to the story.  When she did, it was in a very premptory manner - "Oh, yes, I must name the murderer, and hey, I'd better work the animal characters Mrs. Murphy, Pewter and Tee Tucker into the plot a bit more."

Her pencil illustrations of the animals are as charming as ever, but as far as I was concerned, they aren't enough to save this book.  The only reason I kept going was that I was too sick to get out of bed to find something else to read.

Unless you absolutely must read it because it's the next book in a series, I'd skip Hiss of Death, and hope for better in the future.  Or maybe not.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Dick Van Dyke: My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business

Growing up, Dick Van Dyke was always one of my favorite actors.  In my generation, who didn't dream of having Rob and Laura Petrie as parents?  Not too long ago, Dick Van Dyke appeared as a guest on NPR's Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me news quiz show to play Not My Job.  He was just as entertaining and charming on the show as Peter Sagal fired off-the-wall questions at him as I remember him being on his classic Dick Van Dyke Show.  Reading his memoir Dick Van Dyke: My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business (#123) pretty much confirms this with a few surprising twists.

The surprises here have nothing to do with Hollywood shockers.  He states that right at the beginning of the book.  If you're looking for dirt, this isn't the place to find it.  What you do find instead are some amusing anecdotes about his life in show business and the many talented people he's had a chance to work with, and musings on just how lucky he was that the things he most enjoyed doing seemed to fall right into his lap, especially after he made the conscious decision to not appear in anything he would be ashamed to take his whole family to see.  How I wish there were more people like him in the entertainment business today!   He literally puts his money where his mouth is because he's a long way from being done with his mission of entertaining people.

What was surprising to me was that while he was in the midst of his successful TV career that he was active in his church and involved in various social justice causes.  While he has a number of photos in his memoir of his stage, screen and TV roles, he also chose to include photos of himself on stage with Martin Luther King, Jr., and in Lyndon B. Johnson's Oval Office with a group receiving a proclamation for the Brotherhood of Christians and Jews. 

Not that his life has been entirely sunny.  He has survived and overcome personal problems and tragedies but he doesn't make himself the hero of his own story.  Instead, he's put his energy into trying to understand the meaning and life lessons that can be learned from these episodes.  I've got to admire someone who will turn to the likes of Dieder Bonhofer for inspiration in times of trouble.

And I was also impressed with his loyalty to those who helped Dick Van Dyke along his way from a childhood friend who used to do magic tricks with him and showed him how much fun it was to have an audience, and writers like Carl Reiner who knew just what to do with the raw talent that launched Dick into the public's eye on his hit TV show, to the young fellow Dick met in a Starbucks a few years ago whose group of musical friends continue to entertain with him at charity events and hospitals now and into the foreseeable future.

How nice to find someone that someone whom I've always admired has given me even more reasons to be a fan.  You go, Dick!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Altar of Bones

Be warned!  You may wind up with bags under your eyes once you start reading Philip Carter's Altar of Bones (#122).  If you're  like me, you won't be able to put this thriller down.  A bag lady killed by a mugger in Golden Gate Park, a Russian gulag just before World War II, a parish priest murdered in Galveston cathedral, an attorney for battered women in San Francisco and a ruthless corporate billionaire in Boston with his own personal lover and assasin on the payroll.  What ties them all together?  The altar of bones with its promise of immortality, of course.

The action never stops in this adventure as the connections between these people and events are pulled together.  What's not to like about a book that features Russian magic people with a secret in Siberia, Rasputin, and a DEA agent's father's secret past and his role in the "big kill" with a concealed film to prove his puppet masters' culpability?  It's not very plausible, but oh, such a lot of fun to read.

Philip Carter is credited as a pseudonym for an internationally acclaimed author.  If he's writing more serious minded books as his mainstay, he ought to step forward and add this entertaining thriller to his credits.  I'll be looking for more from him in the future.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Home Improvement Undead Edition

Home Improvement Undead Edition (#121) is a collection of short stories brought to you by Charlaine Harris and Toni L. P. Kelner.  Like the previous anthologies put together by these editors, the authors of these stories were given a theme to write about - home improvement projects.  Since the other requirement is that the paranormal world must also feature into the stories, the home projects might not be quite what you're likely to see on reality TV.

Take the wizard who's having problems with his security system after a break-in, or the house that is a link between the mortal and supernatural worlds that human and elf inspectors both want to alter to meet building codes - simultaneously; or the bori who just want the Homeowners's Association in their development to approve a fence to protect their young ones.  The frustrations that the homeowners feel as they're refused permits, made to jump through bureaucratic hoops, overcharged, and forced to live with delay after delay on their projects is something any homerowner can relate to, even if they're not the usual problems.

Fairies, elves, wizards, raisers of the dead, ghosts, malignant houses, and vampires all play a part in these stories.  I must admit I liked some of the stories a lot more than others, and I learned that I don't know anything at all about the fantasy world of fairies and elves, nor am I likely to in the future.  There is a new Sookie Stackhouse story for all the Charlaine Harris fans, but I think my favorite story was The Path by S. J. Rozan.  It features the ghost of a Buddhist monk whose Chinese monastery was discovered by nineteenth century explorers who removed the head from a statue of Buddha in the monk's meditation cave.  The ghost can't move on to his next life until the head is recovered from a museum in New York City.  Unlike many of the other stories, it's not a violent tale, but it certainly is an imaginative home improvement project with a satisfying ending.

I'm not normally a short story fan, but my husband found this book and recommended it based on the collections Death's Excellent Vacation and Wolfsbane and Mistletoe (See my posts of 12/3/10 & 12/27/10) also edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner.  If you like the supernatural, you'll undoubtedly enjoy Home Improvement Undead Edition.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Daughter of Siena

When you think of Siena, Italy, you probably think of the medieval pagentry surrounding its famous horseraces every summer: the Palio.  The plot of Marina Fiorato's historical novel The Daughter of Siena (#120) revolves around fictional poltical intrigue surrounding the 1723 Palio races. 

Despite the fact that one of the last of that famous family, Duchess Violante Beatrix de' Medici, is the governess of Siena, the real political power in the city lies in the contrada, or neighborhoods of Siena.  The heads of certain contradas are willing to fix the outcome of the July and August races to regain power and oust the Duchess.  They will use any means necessary to achieve their aims - race fixing, bribery, murder and marriage.

Pia of the Tolomei has been raised as a marriage prize by her father, head of the Civetta, or Owl, contrada.  She is reputedly the most beautiful woman in Siena, but as her nineteenth birthday approaches, she is still unwed.  There are eligible candidates among the Civetta, but on the night before her birthday, her father announces that she will be married the next day to the heir of the Eagle contrada.  Vicenzo is infamous for his misdeeds, so all Pia can do the next day is pray that he is killed riding in the dangerous Palio.  When the scion of the Panther contrada carelessly whips Vicenzo during the race, he sets off a series of events that will have dire consequences for him, for Pia, the Duchess, and the handsome unknown rider of the Torre contrada who stops to help Vicenzo, indeed for the city of Siena itself.

Although the romance between Pia and Riccardo Bruni, the Torre horseman, is a large part of the story, the Machevellian manuevering for power centered on the horse race is really the heart of this book.  Ms. Fiorato does have a few surprises up her sleeve and she maintains the suspense right up to the end.  She also highlights the very real rivalries that exist in the running of the Palio to this day.  It is interesting that Ms. Fiorato reveals the influence that the real-life Duchess Violante exerted on the running of the Palio in her own lifetime and beyond in the Notes at the end of the book.

Ms. Fiorata has also included a list of recommended reading and a film documentary if you enjoyed The Daughter of Siena.  I will be following up on several of her recommendations, and will pass along her two previous novels also set in Italy as my own recommendations:  The Glassblower of Murano and The Botticelli Secret.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

An Ice Cold Grave

If you're a Sookie Stackhouse fan (and even if you're not, but like a touch of the paranormal in your mysteries) you'll enjoy An Ice Cold Grave (#119) by Charlaine Harris.  This is the third book of her Harper Connelly mystery series, but the first one I've read.

It seems that Harper has a special talent she's acquired after being struck by lightening; she can locate the dead and determine their cause of death.  It's not the most comfortable talent to have, but Harper's found a way to make a living from it for both herself and her stepbrother, Tolliver.  She consults with families of the dead sometimes to confirm identitiy, sometimes to make sure the deceased died of natural causes.  Sometimes Harper and Tolliver work with skeptical law enforcement officers to locate victims of foul play.  That's the case in An Ice Cold Grave.  Teenage boys have been going missing in a rural mountain town in North Carolina.  After the previous sheriff dismissed the concerns of the family by labeling the cases runaways, the grandmother of one of the missing teens has insisted that the new sheriff call in Harper.  Harper succeeds in finding his body, and more besides.  She could wind up becoming the latest victim if she doesn't get out of town soon enough...

A chilling read for Halloween, but a good introduction to a series that I'll definitely make a point of reading in the future.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

State of Wonder

In Ann Patchett's State of Wonder (#118) the situation is as murky as the waters of the Rio Negro deep in the Amazon jungle, the seetting of much of the novel.  Snakes, jungles, insects, mysterious Indian tribes, cannibals, new botanical discoveries - State of Wonder includes them all. 

Dr. Marina Singh is content working as a pharmacologist for the Vogel phamaceutical company in Minnesota.  That is until the day the company CEO, Mr. Fox, arrives at her office door to tell her that her office mate, Anders Eckman, has died from a fever while visiting Dr. Annick Swenson in her remote Amazonian lab.  His mission had been to see what progress Dr. Swenson has made in developing what could be an extremely lucrative new drug for Vogel.  Dr. Swenson's terse letter has given no further information than that Dr. Eckman has been buried.  Mr. Fox wants Marina to help him break the news to Ander's wife.  From that point, it's only a matter of weeks before Marina finds herself on a plane to Manaus, Brazil, to dig out the details of exactly what happened to Anders, and where, precisely, Dr. Swenson, her distinguished Johns Hopkins medical school teacher, is with the research for Vogel's new mystery drug. 

How is Marina to get in touch with Dr. Swenson who refuses to use a satellite phone or e-mail and who has her own gate keepers working for her in Manaus?  When contact is finally made, Marina finds that the jungle lab is not at all what she expected, nor is the exact nature of Dr. Swenson's research.  And no one can tell her what has happened to Anders Eckman's body...

The reader, like Marina, is left with the feeling that the answers are there, just out of reach beyond the next bend of the river or turn of the page.  They are the answers you necessarily anticipated, but at the end of the adventure, it's a relief to leave the jungle behind...

Friday, October 21, 2011

Florida Roadkill

Florida Roadkill (#117) by Tim Dorsey tells the twisted tale of how serial killer with a conscience Serge A. Storms and his sidekick Coleman got their start.  This is a Florida series that I think has definitely improved with time as Dorsey has toned down some of the raunch and focused more on Serge's ingenious methods of righting wrongs.  (See also my posts on Electric Barracuda 3/22/11, Gator A-Go-Go 5/26/11, and The Stingray Shuffle 6/9/11.)  In the later books, a true Florida miracle occurs with the resurrection of Serge's best sidekick, Coleman, who is killed off in Florida Roadkill.  It couldn't have happened to a better spaced- out road trip buddy.

As scary as this is to admit, there is a grain of truth to all of Dorsey's criminally-inclined "businessmen" and social climbing outlandish characters.  It's enough to make me nervous about driving around in my own town... 

The motivating factor for the action in this novel is five million dollars in drug cartel money that has  gone astray in the Tampa area, and the race by various factions to be the first to recover the money and spend it before anyone else can.  Just for good measure, there are the harmless Floridians who accidentally wander into the plot and muddy the waters even further.  Only one ingeniously rigged Serge A. Storms murder in this one; not to say that the body count isn't extremely high despite that.

There are too many threads to this loosely woven plot to tie up neatly at the end of this book, but we're promised that the story will continue in Hammerhead Ranch Motel.  I guess that will be my next stop, too.

Monday, October 17, 2011

And Only To Deceive

And Only To Deceive (#116) is Tasha Alexander's first entry in her Lady Emily Ashton suspense series. 

Set in England in the 1890s, Lady Emily admits that she married mainly to get away from her mother.  Viscount Ashton seemed pleasant enough, but she barely knows him when he dies on an African safari.  Mourning is serious business for a widow in Victorian London and after nearly two years, Emily is looking for something to occupy her for the remainder of her enforced seclusion.  When one of Phillip's old friends wants to publish one of his papers on classical Greece as a tribute to Phillip, Emily finds herself intrigued by a side of her dead husband that she never knew.  As she delves into Phillip's papers and journals looking for that monograph, she finds that her husband was truly in love with her and her own feelings about him change. 

He was an avid collector of Greek antiquities, but Emily slowly comes to suspect that he was involved in a profitable art forgery ring along with his best friend, Colin Hargreaves.  Emily must unravel the mystery of her husband's character as she evades her mother's machinations to marry her off again as soon as she is out of mourning.  She is willing to defy some conventions, but she may be playing with fire if she flouts them all. 

This is very much a novel of manners, somewhat in the vein of Deanna Raybourne's excellent series.  I'm glad I have the next four books in Tasha Alexander's series sitting on my bookshelf so I can find out just what does happen to Lady Emily in her less than conventional future.

Fish Out of Water

Half mermaid, half human, that's Dr. Frederika Bimm of the New England Aquarium in MaryJanice Davidson's totally entertaining Fish Out of Water (#115).  I bought this paperback as a disposable read for my Australian trek because I have enjoyed her Betsey Taylor vampire Queen Undead and.. series so much.  (See my posts of 12/13/10 & 7/18/11.)  In the end, it was too much fun to just leave behind, so I passed it along to another member of my tour group. 

This is the third book in this series, but Ms. Davidson always brings you up to date on the action in the series so far, so you can join in at any time.  Fred's mother is human but her father is a member of the Undersea Folk, as mermaids prefer to be called.  She'd happily blend totally into the humans around her, but her green hair and eyes (Thanks, Dad!) make that impossible.  She has had contact with her father's people (?), though, and has been able to act on their behalf as a spokesperson as they cautiously come out to humans.  Not all of the Undersea Folk are in favor of this, but Fred has caught the eye of Prince Artur, the heir to the throne.  The problem is that Fred is in love with a dashing doctor/marine biologist who just happens to write best-selling romances in his spare time.  He also doesn't even seem to know that Fred exists beyond casual friendship.  To rub salt into Fred's romantic wounds, her best friend is marrying her boss (yuk!) at her new house in Florida!  And he expects her to wear a salmon pink dress and heels for the occasion.  What could be more distressing?  How about finally meeting dear old dad?  Things don't go quite as planned for Fred, but it's a great ride for the rest of us.

I'll have to go back and hunt up the first two books of this trilogy, it was so entertaining.  It was fun to read the Florida references in this one, but I think more of the action in the first two books takes place in Boston and the New England Aquarium itself.  If you've never been there, it's a wonderful place to visit on the Boston waterfront.  Not that I'm prejudiced, mind you, because I did part of my student teaching there...

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Mask of Atreus

Believe it or not, The Mask of Atreus (#114) by A. J. Hartley, was only the third book I started while traveling to and from Australia, but it is a thriller that kept me occupied for a great deal of the time on journey home.

A mysterious phone call sends Deborah Miller back to the small Atlanta museum where she works in order to check on the welfare of her boss and beloved mentor, Richard Dixon.  She finds his body, and a cache of Mycenaean artifacts in a hidden room.  She soon finds herself a suspect in Dixon's murder, but also a target as someone waits for her in her apartment, and tries to run her car into a concrete barrier on the highway.  Why was Dixon keeping the Greek articles secret?  What did Richard have in his possesion that was worth mudering him and what did his murderer take with him?  Who is the anymous caller who tipped her off?  And what do events at the end of WWII have to do with what is happening now?  Deborah tries to find answers in Greece and in Russia to solve one mystery only to have the entire puzzle shift.  Can she find out what is really going on before the forces behind the series of murders connected to the case get to her, too?

Twist, and twist again, the plot keeps you turning the pages.  Is it really Greek antiquities everyone is after, or something else, darker and more dangerous?  The answer didn't turn out to be what I was expecting at all.

I particularly enjoyed this thriller because of its locales in Athens and Mycenae.  It helped me envision the action when I could picture the sites Hartley describes.  When Deborah is at Mycenae and she is looking down the valley towards the sea and listening to the goats, that is exactly what I remember about the place, the sounds of the goats' bells tinkling as they climbed the hills around the site as they grazed.  Ah, memories...  I'm just glad no one was pursuing me through the ruins with deadly intent.  I wouldn't have been nearly as resourceful as Deborah!


If you're looking for something light to read on a plane, Janet Evanovich's Manhunt (#113) will do the trick.  It was originally published back in 1989 and is a straight romance, but being a Stephanie Plum fan, Janet Evanovich's name on the cover sold it. 

Wall Street corporate VP quits her prestigious New York job and exchanges her New Jersey condo for a cabin in Alaska and a hardware store sight unseen.  Off to Alaska with her dog Bruno, a two-seater sports car and an entirely unsuitable wardrobe, is it any wonder that Alex immediately finds herself in deep waters? Literally?  Enter the successful, rich and handsome guy in the cabin next door (with electricity!) and you can see where this is going a mile away.  Even her dog switches allegiance to Casey, the hunk next door - what's a girl to do? 

I realized as I was reading this book that I don't read too many romances anymore that don't have something else going on in the plot - mystery, suspense, history or a combination of the above, but this was still a fun read, with the humor amped up and the sex not too graphic, thank you.  It's easy to see from this book how Ms. Evanovich developed such a popular off-beat heroine in Stephanie Plum and why she's become so successful. 

The Lost Years of Jane Austen (Revisited)

I did, in fact, finish reading The Lost Years of Jane Austen in Australia, and I must say that I found the book disappointing.  There was no romance in Australia.  Indeed, quite the opposite, in which the vestiges of Jane's romantic notions are entirely stripped away from her, and she is imbued with the urge to return to her writing in England as soon as may be.  Problem dealt with, from the author's perspective.  However, Jane was never really central to this story, nor was there any other compelling storyline in its place.  The narrative rather meandered through some British and Australian history before petering out entirely at the end.  It took me almost two weeks in Australia to finish reading The Lost Years of Jane Austen, when normally I would have gobbled up a book like this in a couple of days.

I guess in summary I would not recommend this book.  Dyed-in-the-wool Jane Austen fans may want to add it to their collection, but my enthusiasm for it is tepid at the best.  Glad it had interesting cover art.  Am looking forward to reading P.D. James' Jane Austen effort due out soon - Death At Pemberly.  I need something to restore my faith in the genre!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Lost Years of Jane Austen

I am not quite halfway through Barbara Ker Wilson's novel The Lost Years of Jane Austen (#112) but I thought I'd better post on this now, since both Jane Austen and I are on our way to Australia, and it will be mid-October before I can post again.

Ms. Wilson has written her book in the style of, and as a tribute to the works of Jane Austen.  What is interesting about this book is that it is not entirely fiction.  The deus ex machina to get Jane out to Australia is the true story of her aunt, Jane Leigh Perrot, who was a victim of a shoplifting con.  Although she was eventually aquitted, the trial caused quite a scandal in Bath.  Transportation to Australia was a real possibility under the circumstances. 

In the novel, Jane has met her soulmate while visiting the seaside town of Sidmouth with her parents.  His intentions are plain to everyone, but her hopes are dashed when news is received of his death.  Her uncle, in the meantime, has grown fascinated with the idea of Australia and the wonders to be found there.  He is determined to see it for himself, but realizes that his wife cannot face the trip on her own.  Why not ask one of his unattached nieces to be her companion?  The entire family is shocked when Jane jumps at the chance. 

That is as far as the plot has advanced in the first one hundred twenty plus pages I've read so far.  Jane is only mentioned briefly in passing until eight chapters of exposition have passed.  Since the book is supposed to be about Jane's trip to Australia, it would be nice if she a) played a larger role in what is supposed to be her story, and b) traveled out there a little sooner.  Since Ms. Wilson is speculating on the time in Jane's life between 1801 and 1804 when her sister Cassandra burned all her letters, not much is known, so anything could have happened to Jane.  This is a nice imagining, but let's get on with it, please.  (I think that Syrie James does a much better job with this in her The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, told in Jane's own voice.  Most of my friends who are Austen fans think that this book is a cut above the average in this genre.)

Oh, and did I mention the shocking use of vulgarity in the book?  Ironically, in The Lost Years of Jane Austen, Jane's lost love is a clergyman, who upon meeting her in the circulating library in Sidmouth, strikes up a conversation about her taste in reading.  He quizzes her about Fielding's Tom Jones and Sterne's Tristam Shandy, and is surprised to learn that she not only has read them both, but thinks them somewhat "morally lax".   Therefore I was suprised at some of the situations and language used by Ms. Wilson.  Would Jane Austen approve?  I think not!  I wonder what will happen when romance blooms again for Jane in Sydney?  Will Jane be a party to improper conduct?!  (The cover blurb promises a "passionate and risky romance")  I'll have to let you know...

And just a note about the cover art.  I thought the picture was perfect for the cover.  I got the impression that it was a Victorian re-imagining of the Regency period, but it's a delightful picture nontheless.  The cover illustration only credits the London Art Archives, so it's not possible to track down the painter or see any other examples of his work.  Too bad....

Just because I won't have an opportunity to blog while I'm traveling, doesn't mean that I won't be reading.  In fact, I've been stockpiling paperback books that I won't mind leaving behind for others to enjoy.  I've got my notebook from the library to keep track of what I'm reading on those twenty two hour trips out and back, and the commutes by plane around Australia.  I promise to fill you in when I get back.  Keep reading, and look for my next post after October 10th.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Rape of Nanking; The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II

I seem to be bumping into twentieth century Asian history in a number of books I've read lately.  I believe I found the reference to Iris Chang's 1997 best seller The Rape of Nanking; the Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (#111) in Lisa See's Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy (See my post on 6/22/11).  I decided it was time I read more about the history behind some of the novels for myself.  Based on the condition of the paperback edition I checked out of the library, this volume has had a host of readers.

Ms. Chang's interest in the subject of the fall of  the Nationalist Chinese capital of Nanking to the Japanese in 1937 and the subsequent atrocities arose from the whispers she heard from her parents growing up in Illinois, and as she grew older, her failure to find any information on the subject readily available.  The result of her research is The Rape of Nanking, a story that is both easy and difficult to read.  Easy, because of the way Ms. Chang has organized the materials; she tells the story of the capture of Nanking first from the Japanese sources available, next from the Chinese witnesses, and finally from the viewpoint of the Western foreigners who did their best to save as many Chinese lives as possible.  It is hard not to be caught up in this narrative.  Difficult, because the litany of torture, rape and murder so surpasses the bounds of civilized behavior that it is impossible to read without a shudder.  The accompanying pictures are almost unbearable to look at.  It is estimated that more than 350,000 Chinese lost their lives in Nanking during that six week period in 1937 - 1938.

But what may be the worst outcome of all for those victims in Ms. Chang's opinion is that they have been forgotten.  Germany had its Nuremberg Trials.  War criminals were actively pursued and punished, and the German government made restitution to many of the victims of the Nazis.  The same cannot be said of the War in the Pacific.  Although a few Japanese military commanders were tried and executed by the International MilitaryTribunal of the Far East, the majority were not, and because of the politics of the time, many resumed their positions of power and influence.  Any hint of atrocities committed during World War II are routinely whitewashed to this day.

This book certainly changed my perspective on Asia.  I know that I will be thinking about the news from Japan and China in a different light, because, after all, the future is built on the past...  I hope you find this book as worthwhile and interesting as I did.

Monday, September 5, 2011

In A Sunburned Country

I've been saving Bill Bryson's book on Australia In A Sunburned Country (#110) as a special treat before leaving for Australia myself.  It was recommended both by the tour company Grand Circle Tours/Overseas Adventure Travel, and in a recent posting on NPR Book Notes as an ideal read  for "stay"cationers.  I'm happy to say that for me, this book lives up to the hype.

In fact, when I started reading about his first trip to Australia and the tour he got from one of his reporter friends and family around Sydney, my husband asked me if I could please go and read it someplace else.  I was making the bed shake I was laughing so hard.  That's what I love about Bill Bryson: he's so funny, yet full of really fascinating information you just won't find anyplace else while veering both off and on the beaten trail to make his observations.  This book is a result of several trips to tour different parts of Australia -  Western Australia, the Outback, the rainforest and Great Barrier Reef of Queensland , the cities of Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney among others.  And Bill Bryson loves Australia.  That comes through loud and clear.  That's encouraging for someone like me who has spent her whole life dreaming about going there.  After reading this book, how could I possibly be disappointed?

That is, if I make it back alive...  I first discovered Bill Bryson when wandering around a decent bookstore in the Atlanta airport in search of what was new, different and interesting in between flights.  The bear on the cover of A Walk In the Woods was staring at me at eye level.  I bought it and I was hooked.  I certainly did gain a new appreciation for bears after reading the book.  Imagine what Mr. Bryson can do with a whole continent of deadly and scary creatures - mammals, insects, fish, invertebrates, snakes, and even innocent-appearing sea shells!  He does talk about sitting in a cafe one evening casually reading a field guide called something like Australian Animals That Can Kill You (Volume 19).  I'll be fine as long as I don't go in the water (either fresh or salt!), brush against anything, walk under any trees or take my shoes off - EVER! 

Gotta love a book that gets you so psyched up to go and visit Australia despite all that!  Even if you never plan on traveling to Australia, you're bound to thoroughly enjoy the experience of reading about it.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I've been aware of The Immortal Life of HEnrietta LAcks (#109) by Rebecca Skloot for quite awhile, but it took my Literary Circle choosing it as their initial selection for the 2011 - 2012 season to get me to read it.  This non-fiction New York Times best seller tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a young black woman who died in 1951 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore of cervical cancer.  Tissues from that tumor were taken and successfully cultured by scientist George Gey at Hopkins.  Those cells form the basis of the HeLa strain used for research on diseases and development of drugs to treat them all over the globe.  They are still alive today.

Henrietta's family knew nothing of the research that was being carried out for many years.  When they did become aware, they struggled both to accept and understand what had happened, and to gain recognition for their mother's role in advancing medical science.  The story is not pretty, but it is compelling.  It raises a number of issues about privacy and the consent of the patient donating tissue samples knowingly or unknowingly.  What is truly frightening in today's world of multi-billion tissue research is how little has actually been resolved concerning the protection of the patient and patient rights.  (And just where is the gall bladder they removed from me a couple of years ago; who's using it, and for what purpose?!)

Rebecca Skloot has done an admirable job in making Henrietta Lacks and her family real to the reader.  She also writes about the complex scientific discoveries and processes in a way that is easily understood by the lay person.  In the process she has raised a number of troubling ethical and moral issues.

If you've ever so much as given blood for a lab test, you'll want to read this book.  I can't wait to discuss it at our upcoming Literary Circle meeting.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Russian Winter

I really wanted to like Russian Winter (#108) by Daphne Kalotay, but I could only muster an indifferent reaction to the book after I trudged all the way through it.  After all, the book jacket promises "...a luminous first novel - a literary page-turner of the highest order..." in this book about a prima ballerina from the Bolshoi Ballet who defects to the West during the Stalin era.  She dances in Paris and in London, but eventually winds up at the Boston Ballet as an artistic director for many years.  She decides late in her life to sell her fabulous collection of jewelry to benefit the Boston Ballet.  But Nina Revskaya has been keeping many secrets, and as news of the impending auction spreads, instead of purging her secrets along with the jewels, she finds that they are catching up to her instead.

Sounds like it should be interesting and exciting, yes?  Nyet!  Several times I almost gave up on this book, and I'm sorry I didn't.  The plot kept switching from Boston to Russia, from the past to the present, and from character to character at a glacial pace without moving the plot forward appreciably, but with heavy emphasis on the literary style. The feeling this reader got is that this is literature and that if I didn't appreciate it, it's because I'm not intellectual enough.  Ms. Kalotay has many literary credentials; she has taught at my alma mater Boston University, and has been a Fellow at a number of prestigious writers' workshops, but I think she's forgotten that the most important thing in a novel is the story.  If the author foreshadows events so heavily that the denoument elicits a yawn instead of a gasp, or creates characters with whom you can neither empathise or care enough to want to know what happens to them, what's the point?

I didn't learn anything new about the world of ballet; yes, I used to be a season ticket holder of the Boston Ballet when I lived in New England, but still...  The jewels that play a featured role in the plot are a set of Baltic amber, complete with an insect inclusion in every bead.  Ugh!  I found the idea so repulsive it was hard to even read about them in such detail.  The one thing that surprised me about this book is the poetry she includes that is supposedly written by the ballerina's husband, a minor Soviet poet.  I don't normally care for poetry, but if Vicktor Elsin were a real person, I would be looking for a translated copy of his work.

Would I recommend that you hunt down a copy of this book for your own collection?  Reader, I wouldn't.  I'll be glad to return my copy to the library and get on to something more meaningful.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Town Like Alice

I read A Town Like Alice (#107) by Nevile Shute because it was on the recommended list for my upcoming tour of Australia with Outdoor Adventure Travel.  I had vague recollections of seeing a Masterpiece Theatre version of the book many years ago.  I do remember Bryan Brown being crucified by the Japanese commander in the miniseries, but not much else.  I am so glad that I finally took the time to read this marvelous book.

Noel Strachan, a London soliciter, tells the story from his involvement with one of his Scotch clients who wishes to draw up a will for his brother's widow and her two children.  It's veddy, veddy British and a tad dusty to begin with, but once Mr. Stachan meets the surviving daughter after World War II and starts to learn her story, it's all the more compelling because of of its understatedness.  Jean Paget, it turns out, is a force to be reckoned with in her own quiet way.  Because her uncle didn't believe women could handle money, Strachan knows he and Jean will have a working relationship until she turns forty, many years in the future.  The legacy is a surprise to Jean, and she takes time to consider what she will do with it.  She decides to return to Malaya, where she and other British women and children were Japanese prisoners of war.  She feels she has a debt to pay to the Malayan villagers who allowed them to settle there for the duration of the war.  One debt she can never repay, however, is to Joe Harman, the Australian prisoner of war who tried to help them with food and other vital supplies, and who was beaten to death by the Japanese Captain Sugamo in front of them.  A chance encounter in Malaya sends Jean to Australia on her way home to England.  She's determined to see Alice Springs, the "bonza" town that Joe used to talk about.  That detour has quite an astounding effect on many, many lives, including Noel's.

This is one of the most satisfying stories I've read in a long, long time.  Mr. Shute says that this is the only one of his books that he based on an actual incident.  He borrowed the story of eighty Dutch women and children in Sumatra who endured two and a half years of marching around Sumatra because none of the Japanese wanted to be bothered with them.  By the time the war ended, there were fewer than thirty survivors.  Shute was fortunate in staying with one of the women and her family after the war and hearing of her experiences first hand, so Jean's story is based on fact.  You can find out more about this subject by following this link:  Women POWS in Sumatra - WWII

You can also see bits and pieces from various video versions on YouTube if you search "A Town Like Alice".  It really does bring the book to life, but as for me, I preferred reading it!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Devil Colony

James Rollins does it again with his latest Sigma Force novel The Devil Colony (#106).  A Native American protest gone wrong at an archaeological dig in Utah sets off a deadly chain of events.  Only this time it's personal for the Sigma team; Painter Crowe's niece is identified in pictures from the incident and now she's being pursued by both the US Government and unknown deadly forces.

In the meantime back in Washington, Gray Pierce is dealing with personal problems of his own with his aging parents as he and former Guild operative Seichan try to unravel a set of clues from the Utah disaster in the bowels of the National Archives.  It seems that Thomas Jefferson had a secret purpose behind the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the key to preventing the spread of the problems in Utah lies with the information Meriwether Lewis uncovered on that trip.  The Founding Fathers knew the fledgling Republic had deadly enemies buried so deeply they could not be rooted out.  Are they behind the events taking place now?

One thing I really like about Rollins' books is that besides keeping you up at night to find out what happens next, and how the crew is going to get out of this seemingly impossible to survive situation, I always learn something new that is intriguing.  I almost always go on to explore more about the science or the sites or the history in the plots of his books.  From The Devil Colony I've added Meriwether Lewis and Chief Canasatego of the Iroquois to research some more.  I've also added Sunset Crater National Park in Arizona to my bucket list of places to visit, and regret that I won't be attending my national professional association conference in Salt Lake City this fall.  And what about that Damascus steel?  How did those craftsmen in the Middle Ages produce something so astonishing that still cannot be replicated today?  Hmm..

If you still haven't discovered James Rollins and enjoy intelligent thrillers, this book is a good place to start.  You can always go back and read the previous volumes!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

I probably wouldn't have read this book if my friend hadn't told me she thought I'd enjoy it.  She described it as "sweet".  Well, I did enjoy reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (#105) by Jamie Ford, but I wouldn't call it sweet.  That's too condescending a term for this novel as far as I'm concerned.

The hotel in the title is the Panama Hotel in Seattle (a real place).  It's been boarded up since shortly after WWII when it straddled the edge of  the Chinatown and the Japan Town districts.  When the hotel is bought in the 80s and renovations are begun, the possessions of 37 Japanese families forced into relocation camps were discovered stored in the basement (also a fact).  Henry Lee, who grew up in Chinatown, has just lost his wife of many years after a long battle with cancer.  When he stops by to watch the news conference at the Panama Hotel, he is sure he recognizes the parasol on display as belonging to Keiko Okabe, his best friend during the war years.  The novel weaves together Henry's experiences during those war years when Keiko and Henry were the only non-white students at an exclusive prep school in Seattle, and his father was zealously supporting the Nationalist Chinese cause against the Japanese, and his present day struggles to mend the distant relationship with his own son.  Mix in his black jazz musician friend Sheldon and his brush with fame and fortune, and what happened to the once vibrant Nihonmachi Japanese district of Seattle and you have plenty of material to keep the plot spinning along.  Mr. Ford manages to resolve the plot in a satisfactory way that brings Henry to a new chapter in his life.

Since I grew up in New England, I really didn't know anything about the American concentration camps for those of Japanese ancestry until I was a young adult.  This novel shines a spotlight on racial tensions from a number of different perspectives in a way that is not comfortable for anyone.  But it does give you pause to think, and that's important.  I admired Henry all the more for the way he survived and ultimately thrived.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Mozart Conspiracy

My husband passed along this thriller because he thought I would be intrigued by the premise of questioning Mozart's death.  The Mozart Conspiracy (#104) by Scott Mariani follows "rescue and retrieval" specialist Ben Hope, former British Army Special Forces major as he responds to a desperate phone call from former flame Leigh Llewellyn.  Her brother Oliver died in a tragic accident in Vienna several years ago.  Ben remembers it well as Oliver was his best friend and the last time he saw Leigh was at his funeral.  Now Leigh is being stalked in London.  Is it because Leigh is a renowned opera diva, or could it have something to do with the research Oliver was working on for his book on Mozart's death?  Ben promises to help as they race around Europe barely ahead of their shadowy pursuers.

This is a very high body count thriller - ritual murder, murders arranged to look like suicides or accidents, collateral damage.  You do have suspend disbelief as you're reading because the bad guys really can't be everywhere, can they?  Well yes, in this book they are.  Of course our hero Ben Hope has incredible physical endurance and the skills to help him evade his enemies.  And Leigh is not only an established opera star and former flame, but wealthy and beautiful, too.  (Do any of these heroes ever bother to rescue women who aren't a 20 on the 1 - 10 scale?)  And then there's Ben's nemesis from his SAS days.  He's working for the enemy, but wants to kill Ben - slowly and painfully - just for the fun of it.  I did still keep turning the pages, though!

The book did raise an interesting question, though.  Did Mozart die of natural causes, or was he murdered?  He himself suspected that he was being poisoned and his son later claimed that he was. It could be, and Mr. Mariani states his opinion on the subject in the concluding Author's Note.  The document at the heart of the novel is being hunted because it may provide the proof.

One note of interest after I looked up Scott Mariani.  This is the only book by Mr. Mariani that our library has and I had never heard of him before.  He's really a jack-of-all trades himself before he turned to writing professionally.  You can tell he had confidence in his own talents since the second book he published was How To Write A Thriller!  There are other Ben Hope novels out there and I may just track them down.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

One Dog Night

One Dog Night (#103) by David Rosenfelt is the latest outing in his Andy Carpenter mystery series.  It's all Tara's fault in this case.  Andy thinks Tara, his golden retriever, is better than people.  Considering the kind of people that he runs across in his job as a defense attorney when he's forced to work, he may very well be right.  The last thing he wants is to get involved in defending a man accused in the infamous arson murder of twenty-six people in an apartment house fire six years ago - espcially when the client is convinced of his own guilt.  But Galloway's wife comes to see Andy and reveals that her husband is the one responsible for making sure Andy adopted Tara in the first place and begs Andy to defend him.  At the time of the fire, Noah Galloway was a drug addict, and the apartment house is question was the source of his supply.  Now he's a highly respected fighter in the war against drugs, and about to be appointed to an important White House Commision.  How can Andy not defend someone who was capable of making such a hard choice for Tara's benefit all those years ago?

Once Andy and his team begin to dig deeper, he is convinced that Galloway is innocent and that there is something much, much bigger going on, and that he'd better get to the bottom of things before everyone who knows anything about the case is murdered.

In his usual fashion, Mr. Rosenfelt has constructed a plot full of unexpected twists and turns and filled with quirky characters.  Laurie Collins and Marcus Clark play pivotal roles in investigating the circumstances, but it is really Sam, his accountant and computer whiz, who really comes through for Andy, aided by his cadre of senior citizen computer students.  They're up to any challenge.  Just don't ask them to do it after 9:00 p.m! 

With the case hanging in the balance, the outcome will depend on the courtroom action.  A nail biter right down to the last page - the very best kind of mystery!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Smokin' Seventeen

It's the seventeenth outing for Janet Evanovich's bail bonds agent Stephanie Plum in Smokin' Seventeen (#102).  And she still can't make up her mind between cop Joe Morelli (who can't seem to commit, but who does own Bob, the dog...) and super sexy Ranger (who smells great, always has a car ready for Stephanie, but whose conversation seems to consist mainly of the ever versatile phrase "Babe").  Since Stephanie's mother would like to see grandchildren sometime, she's on a mission to fix up Stephanie with a new prospect - Dave.  Dave was Big Man on Campus in high school, but now has returned from Georgia to live with his parents without a job, a spouse, a house or his dog and with a whiff of corruption from running fraudulent mortage schemes.  But hey, he's presentable and the Plums know his parents, so why not?  Besides the man can cook!

At work, Stephanie's dealing with skips who include a senior citizen vampire and a dancing bear.  Stephanie does seem to have an affinity for animals.  There have been dogs, her hamster, an alligator, and monkeys to name a few.  It's hard to find the office when it keeps moving because it's an RV belonging to the eccentric Mooner.  Can Connie and Lula cope? Oh, and there are the bodies that keep showing up in the currently vacant lot that used to be her cousin Vinny's bail bonds office before it was destroyed in a fire.  No one can make a connection to why they keep showing up there, but Stephanie has at least three people who have her on the top of their "To Kill" list.  How Janet Evanovich rolls up these threats to Stephanie in the climax (!) of this book is a thing of beauty.  I had to bore my husband with the details I got such a kick out of it.  Did I mention that Joe Morelli's Sicilian grandmother and Trenton strega has put the eye on Stephanie?  Evil things keep happening to her that seem to be somehow connected.  It takes Stephanie awhile to figure out the companion curse, the vordo...  And she still hasn't solved the relationship issues... 

There's more promised in the next installment due in November.  Looking forward to the next adventure!

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Real Macaw

Meg Langslow is back in the latest installment of Donna Andrews' bird-themed Meg Langslow murder mysteries, The Real Macaw (#101).  As if life isn't complicated enough with twin four month old baby boys, one night Meg is roused from her sleep deprived torpor by a dog barking.  Not her own tiny little monster, but a big dog.  When she goes downstairs to investigate, her newly-decorated living room is overrun with animals; dogs, cats, puppies, kittens, birds, guinea pigs, and hamsters.  Her father, brother, grandfather and other assorted animal lovers have rescued the animals from the county shelter where the formerly "no kill" policy has been changed by the new County Administrator.  Not that Meg is opposed to harboring these animal fugitives from "death row"- far from it; but couldn't the male members of her family have consulted her first, or at the very least put the animals in the barn? 

Turns out things didn't go exactly as planned during the rescue mission, and as her grandfather tries to get hold of their missing driver on the phone, the police chief shows up with Parker Blair's cell phone in hand, barking away.  Blair's been murdered and the chief wants to know why Meg has been calling him.  In this case, the "real macaw" provides a vital clue.  If you saw the gorgeously-imagined movie Rio earlier this year, you won't have any trouble visualizing the bird in question. 

Not only are Meg's home and barn turned upside down, but so are the town itself and the county as the mystery begins to unravel.  Although the killer is caught, things haven't settled down in Caerphilly by a long shot at the end of The Real Macaw.  I expect Ms. Andrews' next Meg Langslow book will dig deeper into the skulduggery afoot, and maybe we'll find out if Meg's upholstered furniture and rugs can be saved, along with the rescued shelter animals.

I do have one bone to pick with Ms. Andrews about this book.  One of the characters is a New Englander whose accent sticks out like a sore thumb in rural Virginia.  Having been born and brought up in the Boston area, I've experienced a lot of that myself as I traveled the country conducting software training.  I could always make a joke of it and then get down to business.  But it does bug me that at one point when Meg is talking with Francine Mann, she asks her if her home was originally near Boston.  The character replies "Worcester".  Meg goes on to assume that's what she meant because it sounded like ""Woosteh" in her accent."  If Meg has lived her entire life in rural Caerphilly, why should she think that her pronunciation of Worcester is correct, and not that of the person who actually grew up there?  In a previous book, Meg takes to task those outsiders who cannot "correctly" pronounce Caerphilly.  Isn't this the pot calling the kettle black?  Nothing is more jarring or hilarious to a native than to hear outsiders butcher local names (for Bostonians that would include Worcester, Gloucester, and Woburn to name a few.  And what about those shows supposedly set in Boston that are fond of including insects - ants -  in their family trees?)  Okay, now that I've gotten that off my chest, bear that in mind when you read this entertaining mystery and if your travel plans include New England assume that "Woosteh" will make you sound more like a native. 

Friday, July 29, 2011

On Borrowed Time

David Rosenfelt had me at Dog Tags, the first novel of his that I read (See my post on this 3/11/11.).  I'm still catching up on his Andy Carpenter mysteries.  They're clever with just the right amount of sarcastic wit, and I sure don't see all the twists and turns coming in his legal procedurals.  I've now discovered a new reason to love his writing with On Borrowed Time (#100), a thriller I could not put down with double the number of plot turns. 

Richard Kilmer is a journalist who is living a normal life in New York City.  One day he meets Jen, someone who's smart and savvy on seemingly on his wavelength, who also fits in with his group of friends.  Richard invites Jen to move in with him and their relationship progresses.  He proposes to her at her parents' house in upstate New York over the Christmas holiday and she accepts.  Jen suggests a ride to Kendrick Falls, one of her childhood haunts, to celebrate the occasion.  Except that they are caught in a freak storm, and when Richard finally gets the car under control, Jen is missing.  She hasn't been thrown from the car and there is no trace of her.  After Richard is treated and released for a head injury, nothing is the same; no one remembers Jen - not her parents or her best friend.  When he returns to New York City his apartment has reverted to the way it was in his bachelor days.  None of his friends have ever met Jen.  Is Richard losing his mind, or is something else going on?  Since I don't want to spoil it for you, you'll just have to read On Borrowed Time to find out.

If you're a fan of psychological thrillers, this is the perfect book for summer reading.  I'm a happy camper because now I have more Rosenfelt thrillers to add to my reading list!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton

I'll admit it.  I enjoy following the Royals.  I always have, and it runs in my family.  It may have something to do with my personal encounters with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles...  But I was one of those two billion people around the planet that got up early April 29th the watch the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.  I even baked scones for the occasion.  The English really do know how to do pomp and circumstance right.

So when I was relaxing at the library last week and LIFE's The Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton (#99) was displayed in my sight line, I just had to take it home to spend a little time reading the text, but mostly looking at the pictures.  The text itself veered between reverential and downright funny in some of its comments about the events, the ancestors, the guests (or NON guests!) and their attire.  But the point of the book is really the picture gallery.  I thought the pictures of the young William and Kate and their families were well done, but as for the wedding itself - I would have liked to have seen a lot more included in the book.  I thought since this was the commerative edition that it was kind of short of photos of the main event.  Maybe that's just me, but I'll bet it's not.  I was online looking at pictures of Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden's 2010 wedding - this book compares her wedding to William and Kate's - but it failed to include a single one in the section on notable royal weddings. 

But that's a small quibble.  I saw on the news this week that Kate's dress is now on display in Buckingham Palace.  I saw Princess Di's wedding gown when it came to Fort Lauderdale.  I wish I could see this gorgeous dress in person, too, and not just in the photos. 

By all means, add this book to your collection if you're a royal watcher.  You might want to look around for something else that might be more comprehensive and include a larger photo album to complement it.  If you're not, you probably won't be reading this anyway!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Aunt Dimity Down Under

Aunt Dimity Down Under (#98) takes Lori Sheperd to New Zealand to track down a long-lost relative of elderly identical twins Ruth and Louise Pym.  The twins, who have lived in the village of Finch their entire lives, have taken a "funny turn" after finding a letter to their mother from their banished brother Aubrey announcing the birth of a son.  The Pyms had no idea that they had other relatives, and are anxious to make contact before they die.  They entrust their neighbor Lori with the task.  Since Dr. Finnisterre has made them comfortable but holds out no hope for their recovery, there is no telling how much time Lori will have to carry out their dying wish. 

Aunt Dimity, of course, in journal form goes along in Lori's handbag, and proves to be surprisingly knowledgeable about New Zealand and its inhabitants.  She, of course, claims to have met Kiwis as part of her war work in London.  Seems suspicious to me just how extensive her familarity is, but who knows how Aunt Dimity is spending her time in the other dimension?  Lori spends her journey, accompanied by a college friend of husband Bill, determined to make it back home as soon as possible - grumble, grumble.  Cameron, in fact, is the one who pushes her to go beyond the surface contact.  By the end of the book, she has accomplished her objective, and vows to return for a more leisurely exploration of New Zealand (she's thinking of six months or more - wish I had that kind of time and money!!!) with Bill and her own six year old twins.  Nancy Atherton was apparently doing her research for this book while filming was still going on of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as the text is sprinkled with references to "Ringers", so if you're a Tolkein fan, you'll enjoy this aspect. 

I did hate to say goodbye to Louise and Ruth Pym.  They've always been an entertaining part of the Aunt Dimity series.  Their funeral was particularly touching.  It was nicely balanced by a long-awaited wedding, and we know that the Pym's cottage won't be empty in upcoming books.

Monday, July 25, 2011


Overbite (#97) is Meg Cabot's second book about Meena Harper, the girl who can predict everyone else's death but her own.  Meena is now working for the Vatican's Palatine Guard in their Manhattan branch,  Its mission is to destroy the hosts of demons and banish evil from the world.  That's a problem for Meena, since she's still emotionally tied to Lucien Antonescu, son of Vlad the Impaler and Prince of Darkness.  Although she hasn't seen him since the climactic battle described in the first book, Insatiable, only Meena is convinced that there is still some spark of good in Lucien.  Alaric Wulf, tall, blond, muscular fellow Palatine Guard demon hunter, isn't swayed by Meena's arguments.

Who is going to win Meena's heart in this outing?  And will the reason be the right one?  Will she even survive to enjoy a happy ever after as a human or as creature of darkness herself?  Gotta love a book that features New Jersey as a hellmouth (talk about Real New Jersey Housewives!), an evil New York City waterway, Tiffany jewelry as a weapon, a sinister conspiracy to take over the Vatican and a pistol-packing nun!

A great way to spend a warm summer afternoon!

True History of the Kelly Gang

I really, really should have known better.  Prepping for my trip to Australia in September, I've done some of the recommended reading by the tour company: The Fatal Shore, This Golden Land, etc.  I have Bill Bryson's In A Sunburned Country sitting by my bedside that I'm saving as a special treat.  One of the other books on the recommended list is True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey.  It also appeared in Nancy Pearl's Book Lust To Go: recommended reading for travelers, vagabonds, and dreamers that I happened to pick up and browse through at our local library.  I checked it out, my husband took it first, but I have to confess that I've returned it to the library unread.  Very few books that I open make it to that list.  In fact, since I've started this blog, this is the very first one, but I might have guessed it would be.  So to be perfectly accurate, I did not give True History of the Kelly Gang a number, since I haven't actually read it. 

Personally, I find Peter Carey unreadable.  I've finally reached a point where I've realized that time is too precious to waste on something that is unappealing on every level.  Discard it, and move on to something else.  Everyone else - the critics and the literary set - seem to find Mr. Carey's work amusing and entertaining.  He's on the favorite writer list of people I know.  All I can think of is that in the words of that immortal movie "What we have here is a failure to communicate."  Mr. Carey does not speak to me at all.  It's comforting to know, however, that I'm not alone in my opinion.  When I asked my husband what he thought of the book (and he's just as big a devourer of books as I am!), he came clean and told me that after the first few pages he gave up reading and skimmed it to see what information he could glean about Ned Kelly, Australia's folk hero.  The best my husband could come up with is "They hung him.  They really hated the Irish out in Australia.  (No kidding!  That was evident in The Fatal Shore.) And we're not really going to the area where he lived except Melbourne."  I never even made it that far in the book.  After several attempts to get past the first couple of pages, I gave up and put True History of the Kelly Gang in our return stack.

At least when I read Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America, I loved the cover art the editor chose for the book.  That led me to one of the best sites on the web that I've ever visited - the Louvre's resource on the Delatour's portrait of Madame Pompadour.  So I did get some reward from it.  Unfortunately, the cover art of this book didn't offer any such redeeming quality - very pedestrian and forgettable.  I guess I'll be getting my information about Ned Kelly from other sources!