Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Wheel of the Infinite by Martha Wells

Wheel of the Infinite by Martha Wells, 355 pages,
Cindy recommended this to me and I really enjoyed it. Maskelle is wandering her world accompanied by a swordsman she rescued from marauders, a troop of actors, and a man-sized puppet in need of an exorcism. Once, she was the sure and certain Voice of the Adversary, second highest in the religious hierarchy of her kingdom, now she wanders the world trying to figure out what caused her to misunderstand her vision, alienate the emperor, and cast herself into doubt and confusion years ago. She speaks for the power that, unlike the other prominent spirits, the Ancestors, was never human. It always spoke to her truly until her false vision. Since then, she has wandered in exile, but now she has been called back to the capital city of Duvalpore. The yearly Rite of the Wheel of the Infinite has been disrupted. The sand map of the world, carefully remade annually, and bound to the real world is being destroyed as it is being remade. Maskelle and all around her must find and fight those who seek to destroy her world. The book seems to take some odd turns towards the end. but the explanations for the course change ring true and the story rights itself and ends well. Great for fans of Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light, and Joe Abercrombie or Megan Whalen Turner's books.
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By Nightfall by Micheal Cunningham

By Nightfall by Micheal Cunningham, 238 pages, downloadable audio-7 hours 27 minutes
Peter Harris's solid, satisfying marriage to Rebecca, and his Manhattan gallery, also solid, but not first rate are buffeted by the winds of change around them as family matters interfere, colleagues sicken, and beauty remains elusive. Peter is not young anymore, he cannot see where his gallery, and his career are going and the marketing of art wears on him. He is estranged from his daughter Bea, but doesn't really understand why. When his wife's youngest brother Ethan, called Mizzie (the mistake), comes to stay with them, Peter's equilibrium is thrown off still further. Mizzie, his family's bright star, has been promising everyone that he is no longer using. Rebecca urges Peter to let Mizzie come and work at the gallery and the circumstances leave Peter seeing his life unwind. A beautifully written book whose author cares deeply for, and forgives his characters. One of the year's best. Audio read by Hugh Dancy.

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Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by P. G. Wodehouse

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by P. G. Wodehouse, 231 pages, Downloadable Audio-5 hours 40 minutes, Humor.
Stilton Cheesewright believes that Bertie Wooster has grown a mustache as part of a plot to win the affections of Cheesewright's fiance, Florence Cray. And as Cheesewright is one of those largish, ex-policeman types who wants to beat Bertie senseless, and as Florence does seem strangely moved by the mustache, and as Bertie is busy trying to steal his Aunt Dahlia's pearl necklace (on Dahlia's behalf), there doesn't seem to be much for Bertie to do except drink a bit, try and find a cosh (that's a blackjack to the Yanks) and ask Jeeves for his advice. Read by Jonathan Cecil. One of Wodehouse's best.


This is my best effort to show the totals from November.  Let me know if you have corrections.

Participant/Books /Pages

Patrick 10/2,685
Karen 4/1,624
Christa 9 / 2,220
Susie 7 /1,532
Cindy 15 / 4,472
Annie 9 / 2,442
Linda 5/ 1,867
Eliana 3/
Kathleen 5/1,534
TOTAL 62/ 16,690

Side Jobs / Jim Butcher

Side jobs: stories from the Dresden files by Jim Butcher (Dresden files series). 418 p.

In addition to publishing a new novel in this series every year, Jim Butcher has been writing short stories that mostly appear in themed anthologies. This collection brings together all of the stories published to date, plus a new novella, "Aftermath," that follows this year's novel Changes. (Since Changes ended on an enormous cliffhanger, that's a big deal.) I had read some of the stories previously but not all of them, and of course I wanted to read the novella. "Aftermath" doesn't resolve the cliffhanger in any way, but managed to be satisfying nonetheless, and gives us the perspective of a long-running supporting character. That's something that you can see Butcher has gotten better at over the course of his writing career, as exemplified in these stories--learning to write from the perspective of a character who's not Harry Dresden. He's still not terribly good at differentiating character voice--all of the stories are in first person, and everyone's internal narration sounds pretty similar--but he's improved on character perspective. Still, these are short stories designed for enjoyment, and I had a good time with them, even the early ones.

Agnes and the Hitman / Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer 368 p.

I owe the recommendation for this highly entertaining tale to Cindy. Agnes, in addition to working frantically to get a new cookbook launched, has problems with the business of life in general. She's engaged to a loser, someone is trying to kill her dog, a handsome and highly skilled hitman shows up in her kitchen without warning, and she has a week to plan a flamingo-themed wedding for some old Mafioso friends. The outlandish events are anchored by realistic (and funny) dialogue and believable emotional responses.

Freakangels volume four by Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield

Freakangels volume four by Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield Graphic novel, 144 pages.
The story continues in volumes two, three, and four. We hear more about the banished member of the clan, Mark, and what he did to deserve this treatment. We also meet the remaining clan members, Miki, the doctor, and Kait, the cop (with a taste for minor torture). Luke, whom we met in volume one, seems to be following Mark's example of using normal people to do his bidding by controlling their thoughts. This is against their code. Shooting other people and random bits of mayhem are not against the code, so there is plenty of action in all three volumes. This is an ongoing web-based graphic novel and volume 5 is due out sometime soon. Good fun (in a violent, post-apocalyptic way).

Freakangels volume three by Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield

Freakangels volume three by Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield Graphic novel, 144 pages.
I'm going to cheat and review volumes 2, 3 and 4 together.

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Freakangels volume two by Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield

Freakangels volume two by Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield Graphic novel, 144 pages.
I'm going to cheat and review volumes 2, 3 and 4 together.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

I'm with Fatty

I'm with Fatty: losing fifty pounds in fifty miserable weeks/Edward Ugel 244 pgs.

Fifty pounds in fifty weeks seems so doable if you break it down to 2.28 ounces a day which is how the author started his quest to bring himself back from the unhealthy weight that he had crept up to. Maybe a better description...a weight he had sprinted to after gaining 10 pounds in one month! Ugel has a way with a phrase and some funny stories about his efforts but mostly he talks about the work that went into it and how much easier it was to fall off the cart even as he was making progress. This is a guy with serious willpower issues...as in LACKING willpower and once he went off the path, he kept moving away from it for quite some time, or at least until his wife came back to town. Dude, all I can say is you better be nice to your wife and never get a divorce or there won't be anyone there to pull you back. - Christa

The Savior

The Savior/Eugene Drucker 208 pg.

I chose this because it is about WWII. - Susie

A secret in Salem

A secret in Salem/Sheri Anderson 308 pg.

I recommend this for Days of Our Lives fans. - Susie

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu 239 pp.

The main character of this story is Charles Yu who lives in Minor Universe 31 where he works as a time travel repair technician. He spends his non-working hours visiting his mother who lives in a time loop of endless Sunday dinners and searching for his lost father who is somewhere in time. His working hours are spent in his time travel vehicle with an operating system with low self-esteem and a "weird ontological entity" that looks and acts like a dog. He has job security because what people want to do is go back in time to their worst moment and with the idea that they can change it. The mostly sci-fi related amusing one-liners make this existential journey a fun read.

The Sacred Book of the Werewolf

The Sacred Book of the Werewolf: a novel by Victor Pelevin 335 pp.

This is not your typical werewolf story. The main character A. Hu-li is, in fact, a 2000 year old Chinese werefox living in present day Russia and working as a 17 year old prostitute. She ends up in a relationship with Alexander, a Russian intelligence officer who just happens to be a werewolf. This book is part love story, part fantasy, part political/social commentary, and part eastern philosophy. Convoluted, interesting, somewhat confusing, intriguing and very hard to explain.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec / Jacques Tardi

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec. Vol. 1, Pterror over Paris and The Eiffel Tower demon by Jacques Tardi. 96 p.

Set in Paris in the 1910s, these serial Eurocomics feature bumbling policemen, convoluted criminal plots, and a cynical young adventuress named Adele. Oh, and at least one pterodactyl. Adele Blanc-Sec's adventures have been popular in Europe but barely released in the States; Fantagraphics is re-translating and re-releasing them in these handsome volumes. Tardi's style, at least in this story, is the distinctive "clear-line" style pioneered by Herge in his Tintin comics.

Illuminating Torchwood

Illuminating Torchwood: essays on narrative, character and sexuality in the BBC series (Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy, 21). 241 p.

Since I'm a big fan of the TV show Torchwood, as well as a former English major, I thought I'd enjoy these essays. A couple of them were quite good, and at least one of them was abysmally overblown--I'm sorry, but every time a male character disagrees with the female lead and doesn't do what she tells him, it's not symbolically rape--but many of the essays were either dull or arguing in bad faith, selectively ignoring text to make the argument work. I was particularly annoyed by one essay discussing the heroine's journey that acted as if team Torchwood had only one female member rather than two. Granted, the Gwen character gets a lot more screen time than the Toshiko character, but you don't get to pretend she doesn't exist if you're discussing women and their roles. The other thing that really bothered me is that a number of essays incorrectly quoted characters, got their names wrong, or mixed up the order in which actions occurred. That's just sloppy work, and if you're getting details wrong about the primary text you're discussing, I'm much less likely to believe you when you discuss other critical theories and such. Overall I was disappointed by this book.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Downloadable Audio,14 hours 19 minutes, read by Martin Jarvis.
Jarvis does a wonderful job of reading Dickens' classic tale of love and redemption during the time of the French Revolution. Doctor Manette, Lucie, Charles Darnay, the Defarges, and Sydney Carton all come vividly to life in this enjoyable edition. In London we have the tale of a man recalled to life after a long imprisonment for a crime he will not discuss, his long suffering daughter, and the two men who love her; the one whom she loves, who has a secret of his own, and the dissolute lawyer who would do almost anything to redeem himself in her eyes. Set against this we have the French side of the story with the soon-to-be-dead Marquis, and Monsieur Defarge and his friends the Jacques, and Madame Defarge, with her knitting, and with her followers, such as the Vengeance. A timeless classic.
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Freakangels volume one by Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield

Freakangels volume one by Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield, 144 pages, Graphic Novel
There were twelve in the Freakangels clan, together since they were young, and they did a very bad thing and it brought about an end to the world, or at least an end to London. In this first volume we meet the remaining eleven Freakangels when the twelfth, now banished, sends someone back to kill them. Killing them isn't going to be an easy thing , since they all have great mental powers, and can communicate with each other over great distance, hearing each others thoughts. They can read the minds of others and move objects telekinetically. When they work together they have seem to have more power than they can control, and they are still picking up the pieces from the last time they tried. They live in Whitechapel now, growing their own food and helping a group of refugees find enough water and other supplies to survive, while fending off marauding neighbors. There are four volumes so far. It is a well drawn and interesting start to a series. Patrick.

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Life by Keith Richards

Life by Keith Richards-Memoir, 564 pages.
This much ballyhooed autobiography by one of the founding members of the Rolling Stones is as interesting as everyone is saying it is, but it is also a bit overlong and too forgiving of its subjects many faults and flaws. Keith Richards tells his own story, about his childhood, the forming of the band, about his friends, family, and drug problems. He gives his own, more prosaic versions of Rolling Stones mythology: the song "Angie" wasn't written about David Bowie's wife, and "Wild Horses" wasn't Mick's farewell song to Marianne Faithfull, they were just songs, and the words just sort of fit. And Keith never had a blood transfusion to remove traces of heroin so he could travel, he was just going into rehab and being glib with the press who were gullible enough to believe what he told them. Overall, Keith comes across as a good guy, funny, and not totally self-involved. But as the story goes on and on, I found it hard to overlook or forgive some things such as the way his kids were farmed out and ignored, and it was hard to take his word that once again some mishap on the road wasn't his fault (how many fires caused by "faulty wiring" should one man have in his lifetime?). A fun read, but in the end I found it all just a little too self-indulgent. Patrick

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Grave Goods / Ariana Franklin 336 p.

From the Mistress of the Art of Death series, in which Adelia Aguilar is medieval England's answer to Quincy, M.E. (OK, my TV references are a little dated.) Here Adelia is set the task of determining whether 2 skeletons buried deep under Glastonbury Abbey are the lost corpses of Arthur and Guinevere. In the course of the complex plot Adelia meets a German knight of superhuman skill, a band of thieves with hearts of gold, and a psychotic forest dweller and his truly bizarre ex-priest fellow savage. The story is completely improbable - could that really be Excalibur they've found in that mossy cave? - but the plot is carefully constructed and held my interest. The audio reader, Kate Reading, was especially good.

Cooking for Geeks / Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food / Jeff Potter 412 p.

Dedicated to the proposition that cooking is everybody's business, this fun and informative book looks at the underlying mechanisms that make good food. If understanding that different proteins change shape at different temperature will help you put more tender meat on the table, take a look at this title. Loaded with charts and graphs (it's for geeks, right?) and interviews with some famous foodies, as well as not-so-famous food scientists, this is an amusing read in or out of the kitchen.

Oh No She Didn't / Clinton Kelly 201 p.

Surprised to see this on a business list? Don't be! Clinton Kelly makes it clear that fashion disasters such as 'nipping out' (I'll leave the specifics to your imagination) can be very bad for business indeed. He warns 20-somethings new to the workforce to leave 'the girls' under cover, and advises that tatts at the office are a no-no. Pretty obvious stuff, but the photos and writing are great for a laugh. And no, I don't think there's anything wrong with my old striped turtlenecks. (Staff picks entry)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Castle Waiting / Linda Medley

Castle Waiting. Vols. 1 and 2 by Linda Medley. 457 p. and 375 p. respectively.

I was very excited to get Vol. 2 of this--it just came out last week--and after I read it I had to pull out vol. 1 again. Castle Waiting was the castle whose population slept for a hundred years during Sleeping Beauty's curse. When she awoke and ran off with her handsome prince, the castle was mostly abandoned. Now just a handful of people live there, and it's known as a place of refuge. The first volume follows Jain's travels to reach the castle and claim sanctuary for herself and her child, who is born shortly after their arrival; we get backstory on a couple of the other inhabitants. Volume two gives backstory on a few more, and visitors drop in for a while. I really enjoyed the visit by the hammerlings (dwarves) and how they shed new light on Henry, one of the long-term residents. These books are very domestic, with much of the action being the day-to-day lives and concerns of the people in the castle, and the stories they tell each other. Yet they are never dull.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hector and the search for happiness

Hector and the search for happiness/Francois Lelord 165 pages.

Hector is a young psychiatrist who takes a trip around the world looking for the secrets of happiness. During his various adventures, he develops about 20 observations that bring him closer to his quest. Then, he visits a professor who studies happiness and learns even more. This book is translated from French and written in simple parables. I enjoyed it but didn't need it to figure out what makes me happy. - Christa

POD/Stephen Wallenfels

POD, by Stephen Wallenfels; science fiction, survival, young adult; 214 pages

I picked this up because one review compared it to Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer. That's one of my favorite books, so I was eager to read this one. The plot is pretty cool: one day, a group of strange spheres (one character calls them "pearls of death" or "PODs") appear all over the world, and anyone who is out of doors vanishes. For the next weeks, anyone who leaves the shelter of their home is taken or killed by the vessels, and those that are trapped inside are slowly dying of thirst and starvation. The story is told from two points of view: Josh, a teen trapped in his home with his increasingly compulsive father, and Megs, a 12-year-old hiding out in the parking garage of a hotel that's been taken over by a power-crazy security guard. It's a dark, suspenseful read (and it doesn't pull any punches), but it provides a lot to think about. There's an environmental message that runs throughout, but it's subtle enough that I didn't find it preachy or annoying (it's mostly coming from one character, and it fits with his personality). To top it off, my favorite character turned out to be a librarian! I recommend this to people who love a good post-apocalyptic story.

Dogs of Riga

Dogs of Riga: a Kurt Wallander Mystery/Henning Mankell 326 pg.

This book exposes Kurt Wallander to some political intrigue and some violent action as he travels to Latvia to help solve the murder of a Latvian police major. Of course there is a little time to fall for the major's widow even though the most "action" we get in that arena is a chaste kiss on the cheek. I do enjoy Kurt I guess because we are at similar stages in our lives and he is a bit cynical. I listened to this on audio and I'm glad to know the correct pronunciations of all the Latvian names. Looking forward to the next book in this series and thanks again to Kathleen for turning me onto it. - Christa

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Justice: What't the Right Thing to do by Michael J. Sandel

Justice: What's the Right Thing to do by Michael J. Sandel -308 pages, philosphy.
Sandel's book, like his PBS television show of the same name, presents us with moral dilemmas and and hot-button topics and asks us to think about the options. What would we do and what should we do? He then gives us several philosophical contexts in which to view the problems he presents, from gay marriage to government bailouts to affirmative action and he then asks us what the individual owes society and what society should leave to the individual. A clear and compelling read.

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Monday, November 22, 2010

The blindness of the heart, by Julia Franck

So many Grimm fairy tales are just that, grim. The opening of this award-winning novel, translated from the German, is so reminiscent of one of those tales -- a confused young child is abandoned by a distant and seemingly uncaring parent -- not in the woods this time, but in a busy railroad station in post-WWII Germany where those trapped in the East are struggling to move to the West. But the real beginning is at the end of the first World War, when the mother's father returns home to die. Helene and her older sister Martha escape to Weimar Berlin from the small village of their birth, leaving behind their increasingly disturbed and disturbing Jewish mother. There Martha slips into a debauched and drug-addicted world while Helene studies to become a nurse like her sister had been. She meets Carl, a philosophy student, with whom she falls in love, but circumstances are against them and she ultimately ends up married to a self-centered civil engineer. By the end of the novel, one understands the act that began the book, but it doesn't make one feel any better, frankly. With some college background in German literature and this period in particular, I had hoped to like, and to understand, this book better than I did. 424 pp.

The Walking Dead 6/Robert Kirkman

The Walking Dead volume 6, by Robert Kirkman; horror, graphic novel; 304 pages

The story of life after the zombie apocalypse continues in this new volume. Here, human beings continue to be far more dangerous monsters than the zombies, which our crew has gotten quite adept at killing. I would have thought that, after some of the previous volumes, that nothing else in these books could shock me, but I was wrong. This isn't something to be read while eating, and you don't want to think too hard about what's going on between the lines. The most chilling part of this book, for me, was the implication that our group of core characters are starting to become every bit as monstrous as those they face. This is going to stick with me, and I'm eagerly awaiting the next volume.

Relapse/Nikki Turner

Relapse by Nikki Turner; urban fiction; 304 pages

This was my first encounter reading urban fiction, and for the most part, I liked it. I realize this isn't the best example of the genre--most of the reviews I've read agree with me that the ending is weak and the story loses some focus about halfway though. However, that doesn't stop it from being an action-packed, drama-filled story about one young woman making her mark on the world. Beijing Lee is THE concierge at one of the top hotels in the nation. She can get anything for anyone, and does, no matter what she has to do. I admit, one of my favorite parts of this book was seeing how smoothly Beijing dealt with her clients' outrageous requests. Of course, there's romance (Beijing has a number of men interested in her throughout the book), action (kidnapping, shootings, robbery, and getaways), and family drama as well, all adding up to a really entertaining read.

Running the Books / Avi Steinberg

Running the books: the adventures of an accidental prison librarian by Avi Steinberg. 404 p.

There's some really fascinating stuff about prison culture in this book, and we meet some interesting individual prisoners. Learning about the rules involving prisoner-staff interactions, and the consequences and rewards of ignoring or following them, was equally engrossing. However, I really didn't like our narrator, although he's an acute observer and a good writer. I assume Steinberg intentionally played up every marginally stupid thing he thought or did, but much of the time it made me dislike him rather than sympathize with him. Also, I found the structure of the book somewhat problematic. Steinberg doesn't stick to a linear timeline, but in many instances I'm not sure why he chose to discuss things in the order he did; I couldn't see the thematic reason for some of it and just found it confusing. I do recommend the book, though.

The Tiger in the Smoke / Margery Allingham

The tiger in the smoke by Margery Allingham (an Albert Campion mystery, #14 ). 249 p.

I read somewhere that this title is Margery Allingham's best Campion book, so I decided to give it a try. Campion himself is a relatively minor character in the story, which I was not expecting. Also, this isn't really a mystery novel as such; that is, the characters are trying to figure something out, but there aren't clues that the reader can follow and deduce things from. (Which is fine, but I was expecting a traditional mystery.) I felt somewhat detached from the characters, so I wasn't all that invested in hoping for a happy ending. Particularly when one of the characters does something incredibly stupid to make a philosophical point, and another does something almost as dumb for no reason at all that I could see. Anway, I'm not on fire to read more Campion books based on this sample.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Mary Ann in Autumn

Mary Ann in Autumn by Armistead Maupin  287 pp.

This is the latest installment in Maupin's Tales of the City series. All the old characters who hadn't died in previous books return to this one. Mary Ann, now 57, returns to San Francisco to visit Michael after her second marriage fails and she is diagnosed with cancer. The now frail Mrs. Madrigal no longer lives at 28 Barbary Lane but shares a condo with Jake, a transgendered gardener going through transition. Michael is living with the love of his life, the much younger Ben, and Roman, the Labradoodle. Add Shawna, Mary Ann's estranged adopted daughter, her clown boyfriend, Otto, and a crazy drug addict homeless woman named Leia and you have classic Maupin. The lives of all these people intersect in a myriad of ways and a mystery from the early days of 28 Barbary Lane is solved. Will the story continue in another volume? I hope so. I couldn't put this one down.  

Death With Interruptions-Jose Saramago

Jose Saramago is a Nobel Prize winning author, so I was kind of intimidated when I first started reading his book. Stylistically, he is very unique. He doesn't use quotation marks or paragraphs when writing dialogue, so conversations between characters flow together in a very interesting way. It can be a kind of difficult read for that very same reason, plus the fact that his syntax is very sarcastic but at the same time, heavy-laden with tons of difficult vocabulary words (for a seventeen year old reader, that is).
The story itself is quite interesting though. Most of the book analyzes the situation that occurs when after New Year's Day, all the people in Portugal stop dying. For seven straight months, nobody dies, and all sorts of practical and philosophical problems come up. This first 3/4 of the book can get a bit redundant and long, but then at the end, Saramago introduces the character death, who refuses to capitalize her name since she is only responsible for the death of humans, and even more specifically, humans within Portugal. Death falls in love. It's a beautiful story. The last paragraph made me cry. A good book for sure.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Hetalia vol. 1 / Hidekaz Himaruya

Hetalia: Axis powers. Vol. 1. by Hidekaz Himaruya. 147 p.

The characters in this manga are all anthropomorphic representations of countries--America, who's always eating and thinks he should be in charge; England, who can't stand France; Italy, who's cowardly and obsessed with pasta. Now, I haven't read a lot of manga. I know there are artistic conventions in them that differ from western conventions, and I think I probably failed to understand a lot of them in this book. I didn't have any trouble with the right-to-left panel organization, but a lot of the jokes seemed to be riffing off of cultural jokes that I wasn't recognizing. Also, I had a lot of trouble differentiating the characters, especially when they changed costume. So, basically, this book didn't really work for me, but I think that's my fault.

Dead Man's Chest / Kerry Greenwood

Dead man's chest by Kerry Greenwood (a Phryne Fisher mystery, #18). 258 p.

Phryne Fisher is a wealthy, clever young woman living in Australia in 1928. Her life in Melbourne can be fairly sedate--at least compared with her hardscrabble youth before her father inherited a title, her stint as an ambulance driver in WWI France, and her life as an artist's model in postwar France--so she sometimes takes cases as a consulting detective. Throughout the course of the series she has collected a fairly large supporting cast, but in this volume she's gone to the seaside for a vacation with only her hard-working maid and adopted daughters (and their dog). Despite her intentions to have a quiet trip, circumstances embroil her in two cases.

This series is particularly interesting because of its historical setting; the author always includes a bibliography at the end of the books. In this one specifically we have the filming of a movie and a dinner party with a cadre of Surrealists.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

xkcd. volume 0

xkcd. volume 0/Randall Munroe 120 pg.

Why should I read this book? After all, I've had this comic on RSS feed for a long time and have read every single one of them more than once. Well, for one, it is a book and reading books is what I do plus, you can never get enough of xkcd. Thanks Randall Munroe for all the nerd comedy. I've forgotten almost 100% of the calculus that I even knew but boy those equations sure are funny. I'm a believer that the world needs more cat loving engineering/physics/math geeks. - Christa

Pegasus/Robin McKinley

Pegasus by Robin McKinley; young adult, fantasy; 404 pages

Wow. I'm biased about this book, because I love Robin McKinley. That said, this is definitely one of my more favorite books by her. Like many of her recent books (Dragonhaven comes to mind), this is the story of a character who can communicate with a mysterious, non-human race--in this case, the Pegasi, a group of winged, horse-like beings who long ago allied themselves with humans, despite the fact that they can't talk with one another. Until now. Princess Sylvi and her pegasus, Ebon, are the first in recorded history to be able to speak to each other, but some members of the king's court see this as a threat. If that's not enough, ancient enemies of both the humans and the pegasi are starting to reappear, threatening both peoples. Sylvi is a more timid character than many of McKinley's other heroines, but she definitely grows on you. It's Ebon that really got me roped me in, though, and I often found myself forgetting that he's not human. It's not a fast-paced book, or one with sweeping romance, but it is a compelling story, and I was sad to see it end (although "end" is a poor word here--this is part one of a two-part story, so there will be more to come!).

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Good Neighbors vol. 3

The Good Neighbors Book 3: Kind by Holly Black & Ted Naifeh  111 pp.

In this volume, the fae have taken over the city and half-fae/half-human Rue is caught in the middle. Her grandfather is dead and her faerie mother is in charge. Her human father seems to be in his own little world. A group of humans led by Amanda, Rue's father's girlfriend, have armed themselves with weapons that can kill the fae. Rue must figure out how to use her grandfather's magical daggers to prevent an all out war between the humans and the faeries. This might be the last of the series but it has been left with enough of an open ending for further episodes.

Louisa May Alcott: a personal biography, by Susan Cheever

"Everyone" knows that Jo March in Little Women is really Louisa May Alcott-- and that her sisters Anna, Lizzie and May mirror the characters of Meg, Beth and Amy. In actuality, the latter more exact than the former. Louisa had much more fascinating life as well as a troubled relationship with her father, the philosopher, Utopian, and progressive educator Bronson Alcott (nee Amos Alcox -- a largely self-educated and self-invented man). Perhaps that's why in her famous "book for girls" she keeps him off-stage for the majority of the action. Like her volatile and long-suffering mother, Abba, Louisa had a hot temper, independent spirit, and ended up supporting the family financially and emotionally while Bronson gave his "Conversations," and failed as a teacher, writer, and farmer. Constantly worried by the family's debts (they were often desperately poor and forever being rescued by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who Louisa worshipped), Louisa early turned to writing both as an escape and to put food on the table. Jo lives more or less happily ever after with her husband and boys but Louisa remained unmarried, still worried about her family even after her financial troubles were solved by the success of her children's books, and suffered from a variety of ailments until her early death at 55. Susan Cheever, despite her pedigree (she's John Cheever's daughter) isn't a particularly engaging writer, but the book couldn't help being interesting because of the many well-known people in Alcott's circle (Thoreau, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller) and her involvement in the Civil War, as a nurse, in civil rights, abolitionism, and women's suffrage. 257 pp.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Bad Science

Bad Science: Quacks, hacks, and big pharma flacks/Ben Goldacre 288 pg.

The funny thing is how research works...ok, maybe the really funny thing is how it does NOT work...Ben Goldacre's work here shows us that you have to be careful about making assumptions about results from scientific studies. Just because I say I did it scientifically, doesn't really mean I did, and even if I did, I might not be giving you all the facts about my study in the hopes that you interpret the results in a way that pleases me. Even more important, I might have come up with an answer that absolutely displeases me, in that case, I might just forget to mention I even did that study at all. These are just some of the possibilities that make some of the proclamations made in the media that seem often contradictory to the last study a little hard to believe. Also, think back to your statistics class(es)...how much do you really remember about the application of those numbers to real life? This book gives you some ideas about what to look for and what it means. Ignore some of the hysteria and think for yourself! A great introduction to doing so in the context of scientific studies and the "facts" that they uncover. - Christa

Monday, November 15, 2010

Watching the English / Kate Fox

Watching the English: the hidden rules of English behavior by Kate Fox. 424 p.

Fox is an English anthropologist who decided to study her own culture. She uses the participant-observation method, as she would if she were studying a completely foreign culture, and attempts to determine the underlying patterns of English customs and behaviors. For example, the fact that one does not tip the English bartender, but rather offers to buy him a drink, is an outgrowth of the underlying English mania for ignoring class differences even when they are obvious; the polite fiction is that you and the barman are social equals enjoying a drink together, rather than one person engaging in trade (horrors!) by selling the other one a drink. Fox does manage to generalize some underlying general ideas, but the joy of the book is reading about all of the specific social rules, and how to tell class from behavior, and stuff like that. (Apparently one of the best ways to determine an English woman's class is to ask what she buys at Marks & Spencer. Everyone but the very upper classes shops there, but they buy very different things.) Plus, Fox can be very funny. I think my favorite bit was where she described an experiment: she would bump into an English person in a public place like a train station. Her hypothesis was that even if she was clearly at fault, the person she bumped into would say "Sorry." She verified her hypothesis--about 80% of English people reacted that way; but she had great difficulty carrying out the experiment because, being English herself, she had a tendency to blurt out "Sorry!" before the other person had a chance to. She ended up having to bite her lip to keep herself quiet.

At home: A short history of private life, by Bill Bryson

Taking the 150-year-old parsonage in England where the author and his family live as his jumping-off point, , Bryson has concocted a thoroughly entertaining and discursive history of practically everything of importance that happened in the past century and a half. Room by room he discusses the hall (originally what a house mainly was -- one large room), kitchen, dining and drawing (living) rooms, bedrooms, baths, the attic, and even the garden. Somehow he manages to drag in the Eiffel Tower, the Erie Canal, Darwin, the Spice Islands, and much more into the discussion without it ever seeming forced. Even the Ice Man gets into the act, and he's been dead for several thousand years. The book is always interesting, often enlightening, and frequently very funny. Bryson has the wry wit of a modern-day Mark Twain. His American English, overlaid speech mannerisms developed during his years of living in England, make his word choice and diction very appealing. Loved it! 452 pp.


Red/Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner 126 pgs.

I guess it goes without saying that is you train a guy to be a killer and you train him well and he does well for years and years, maybe you should give him a little peace in his retirement. If you don't, you can't imagine he forgot everything he did on his "day job" can you? Great art in the graphic novel and the basis for a movie.

Talking to Girls about Duran Duran

Talking to Girls about Duran Duran: One Young Man's Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut/Rob Sheffield 274 pgs.

This coming of age memoir includes so many of my favorite songs, it was hard not to see myself in every chapter even though I was never a teen age boy. There are so many experiences that are typical to teens, almost anyone who has any memory of that time in their life can find something to relate to here. If you are a product of the era, and you know this music, you can get lost in this book. You will find yourself making lists and checking your old albums and tapes (yes, cassettes, can you believe that is how we used to share music?...making a mix tape took TIME and EFFORT and was a labor of love). Whatever you do, don't get on You Tube and look up Haysi Fantayzee and watch "Shiny Shiny" because it will depress the hell out of you if you remember liking that song. Trust me, focus on the book and the songs you have heard in the last 20 years. - Christa

A dollar and a dream

A dollar and a dream 206 pgs.

I chose this to see what happens when several characters win a lottery.  Some plot points are disturbing with showing greed. - Susie

A Jew Must Die

A Jew Must Die/Jacques Chessex 92 pg.

I chose this because it's based on facts about WWII.- Susie

No Backup

No Backup/Rosemary Dew 278 pages

I chose this for an insider's view of the internal workings of the FBI.  It was very troubling to read about the arrogance, crimes, sexual and racial harassment carried out by some agents. - Susie

Hardboiled Hollywood

Hardboiled Hollywood/Max Decharne 206 pg.

I chose this because I enjoy any book that gives an insiders' view of movies. - Susie

Cop Speak

Cop Speak/Tom Philbin 234 pgs.

I chose this to learn some of the lingo cops use. - Susie

Friday, November 12, 2010

Christmas Mourning / Margaret Maron

Christmas mourning by Margaret Maron (the 16th Deborah Knott mystery). 289 p.

Deborah is a judge in Colleton County, North Carolina, where she grew up the youngest child (and only girl) of 12. She's surrounded by family--many of her brothers, their children, her elderly father, and her (fairly new) husband Dwight, a sheriff's deputy, and his family, including his son. Like many long-running series, the continuity of characters and setting is the main delight of the books. I enjoy Deborah's voice--she's snarky, and no pushover, but her background is so different from mine that it's interesting for me to visit a member of a large, loud, close family whose "home place" farm is still the family's heart. I liked this book more than some other recent entries in the series; Deborah does most of the narration, and the third-person section is mostly from the point of view of Dwight, who's one of my favorite characters. The plot plays to the strength of the setting, with the intricate web of relationships amongst the long-time residents leading to the solution of the mysteries surrounding four deaths. As often with Maron's books, family is at the heart of everything.

The Business of Fancydancing

The Business of Fancydancing: stories and poems by Sherman Alexie  84 pp.

I've been a fan of Sherman Alexie for awhile but never read his first book until now. This slim volume of stories, vignettes and poetry is an honest, not romanticized portrayal of Native American life on the reservation. There is alcoholism, crime, violence, selling blood, drunk driving and government stupidity but there is also warm relationships, family, laughter, memories, and basketball. This book is the basis for the movie of the same name.

My favorite line in the book: "Electricity is just lightning pretending to be permanent." 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Woman with the Bouquet / Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt 217 p.

A collection of 5 short stories, I was attracted to this because they were described as 'fairy-tale-like.' After reading them, I wouldn't describe them that way - they weren't Isak Dinesen - but I did like them very much. Set in France and Belgium, they are essentially stories about love and the misunderstandings that go with it. There are dark events in the stories, but the tone is humorous and happy, somehow. I smiled a lot as I was reading this - how's that for an evaluation? My favorite story, Trashy Reading, includes a stuffy bachelor who will read only non-fiction until he is sucked in by a lowbrow American thriller. A clever, funny defense of genre fiction of all stripes...or is it?

xkcd / Randall Munroe

xkcd. Book 0 by Randall Munroe. 120 p.

Munroe talks in his introduction about how all of the comics in this book are available online for free, but he likes physical books. Me too. Many of the comics are science- and math-oriented, and some go over my head, but the ones I can figure out are generally excellent. Some of his relationship comics really pack a wicked punch. And some are just screamingly funny. One of my favorites, which is in this book: http://www.xkcd.com/231/

A Sickness in the Family/Denise Mina

A Sickness in the Family by Denise Mina (story) and Antonio Fuso (art); graphic novel, mystery, horror; 192 pages

This is a dark, creepy, gothic story that revolves around a seemingly perfect family. On the surface, the Ushers have it all--a prosperous business in an upscale Scottish neighborhood, one son at Oxford, an ambitious daughter, and Sam, the adopted son, who excels at high school. But when they buy the neighboring flat to renovate, things start to go wrong--starting with an accidental fall (or was it?), and slowly growing to touch every member of the household. In case you can't tell, I LOVED this. It's creepy enough to pass as horror, even though the supernatural elements are vague at best. At the root, it's a chilling crime story about lust, greed, and madness. I would love to see more of this from Mina and Fuso.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Beaufort Diaries

The Beaufort Diaries by T. Cooper  90 pp.

This odd little book is about a polar bear who leaves his global-warming melted home and makes his way to Los Angeles where he becomes a star, lives like a human, and ends up being a friend of Leonardo DiCaprio. Um...there's not much more I can say about it except, did I miss something?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Captive Queen

Captive Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir  478 pp.

This is an enjoyable, fictionalized look at the turbulent life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, beginning with her soon-to-end marriage to Louis of France through her love and battles with her second husband Henry II. This version is two parts historical fiction, one part bodice ripper, and one part "The Lion in Winter". Much of the dialogue takes on the tone of the verbal battles in that classic Katherine Hepburn/Peter O'Toole movie. Many of the unsubstantiated legends about Queen Eleanor are included.in the story including her affairs with her uncle and with Henry II's father before her marriage to King Louis. Fans of Alison Weir will love this one.

The Widower's Tale, by Julia Glass

Having enjoyed her Three Junes immensely, and I see you everywhere not so much, I wondered if the author had hit her stride again with this new book. Well, maybe not. The novel was an enjoyable but uneasy mix of autumnal romance, immigrant problems, eco-terrorism, "historic homes" snobbery, gay marriage, long-held secrets, and generational conflict. It also involved a progressive preschool preciously called "Elves and Fairies," and the main character, a 71-year-old man, had the annoying habit of addressing his two children as "Daughter." Percy Darling, a retired librarian from the Widener Library, has never remarried and has lived a solitary and celibate life after the tragic drowning of his beloved young wife, Poppy. Left to raise teenaged Clover and Truthful (known, thankfully, as "Trudy," I found the characters' names problematic throughout the book), he has seen the older daughter flounder and leave her husband and young children, while the younger one has become a successful oncologist whose son, Robert, is pre-med at Harvard. When Percy becomes emotionally involved, for the first time since Poppy's death, with Sarah, a single mother 18 years his junior raising adopted Rico, the various plot threads begin to weave together and come to a unhappy ends for some, although the ending is elegiac and hopeful. 402 pp.

Clockwork Angel/Cassandra Clare

Clockwork Angel (Infernal Devices, book 1), by Cassandra Clare; young adult, fantasy, historical; 496 pages

This was my first experience with Cassandra Clare, but I had heard such glowing things about her Mortal Instruments series that I thought this would be a great thing to try. Also, it seems to tie in to the current steampunk trend (which I love), so I had high expectations. However, after spending weeks slogging to the end of this book, I have to give it a resounding "meh." The writing is rough enough that this feels more like an early draft than a published novel, complete with sloppy editing, poor description, and a plot that's so unfocused as to be nonexistent. That might--might--be acceptable in a first novel, but certainly not in a fourth. The most frustrating this is that I kept seeing a lot of potential for the book, but I kept getting let down every time I hit another patch of stilted dialogue or contradiction. I might still try Clare's original trilogy, since that seems to have better reviews, but I won't be following up on this series.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Library Wars, vol 2/Kiiro Yumi

Library Wars: Love and War, vol 2, by Kiiro Yumi and Hiro Arikawa; manga, romance; 192 pages

This series continues to be the opposite of what I expected (though had I read the reviews, I would have noticed the Shojo Beat name attached, and been less surprised at the first volume's girliness--so really it's only myself to blame). That said, I'm finding this series strangely addicting. This volume continues the adventures of Iku Kasahara, a member of the Library Defense Force, which guards the library against attempted government censorship. Here censorship is a serious deal, with actual shooting wars breaking out in downtown Tokyo. Of course, that's only the setting for the main focus, which is Iku's budding romance with her commanding officer. It won't be for everyone, but fans of shojo manga with probably want to check this out (as will other librarians, if only for the stirring speech about the Freedom to Read given by one of the characters).

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Obama's Wars

Obama's Wars/Bob Woodward 441 pgs.

I thought from the title that this would be about Iraq and Afghanistan but really it had a lot to do with the internal war of trying to figure out what the heck to do in Afghanistan. After letting that "war" simmer for so many years with a lack of strategy and focus, the American public is getting a bit tired of it. Obama's administration spent some time trying to figure out what to do, and how to do it. Obama himself seems intent on not letting this be the continuous quagmire but the various agencies and staff who are advising him are revealed to have some real problems coming together and agreeing. I always marvel at Woodward's books and wonder why they just don't invite him to the meetings since he seems to get all the materials and direct quotes just like he was there. It is always interesting to me to get a glimpse of the "action" and this book has such a different perspective than the ones I've read lately written by soldiers in the field. - Christa

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Indulgence in Death / J.D. Robb

Indulgence in Death by J.D. Robb (book #31 of the In Death series). 373 p.

A pretty standard but enjoyable entry in this long-running series about NYC cop Lt. Eve Dallas and her husband Roarke, set in 2060. I tend to divide these books into "plot" books and "character" books, based on whether the mystery plot or the character developments are most prominent; I generally prefer the character books. This one's a plot book. Because the series is so long running, Robb makes an effort to refer to previous events, to tie the books together; here she refers several times to a previous case from book 21, yet ignores an obvious parallel to the case from book 13, which I would have expected at least one character to mention in passing. Oh well.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Happy Ever After / Nora Roberts

Happy Ever After by Nora Roberts (book 4 in the Bride Quartet). 333 p.

The wrap-up for this series about four friends--baker, florist, photographer, planner--who run a wedding-planning business together. I enjoy Nora Roberts' books in general, but this hasn't been my favorite series; too much focus on wedding details takes page count away from the romances. They're not bad, but the fluff isn't focused on stuff I care about. People who care more about shoes than I do (that would be nearly everyone) may relate to the female characters more than I did.

Bad Science / Ben Goldacre

Bad science: quacks, hacks, and big pharma flacks by Ben Goldacre. 288 p.

For a lot of people, "science" has come to mean that someone in a white coat with the title "Doctor" spews big words and shows you incomprehensible charts to explain something you're too stupid to understand, so you have to take their word for it. The media is complicit by dumbing down and misreporting a lot of stuff. But if people were properly educated in how to understand basic science--how to tell whether a study is well designed, or data are being obfuscated, or the researcher's credentials are worthless, or a claim is logically ridiculous--then ordinary people would be much better informed. Goldacre is particularly incensed by those who try to "sciencize" common sense so that people feel they have to pay experts a lot of money obtain it. Goldacre provides tools that anyone can use to evaluate medical and scientific information so that you can weed out the bullshit from the useful stuff. An excellent book, easy to read and enjoyably snarky in places. I'm not articulating well, but I encourage everyone to read this book.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Autobiography of a Face-Lucy Grealy

In this stunning autobiography, Grealy tells the story of how she dealt with her childhood cancer and its resulting change to her physical appearance. Having a third of her jaw removed, Grealy continuously faces the challenge of outsiders' scrutiny, as well as her own, trying desperately to love herself and to find someone who will do the same. Grealy committed suicide in 2002. Hers is a story that will truly stay with you. Also she went to the University of Iowa's graduate program. Just saying.

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl-Yiyun Li

As part of the awesomeness that is Iowa City, I actually got to see Yiyun Li read aloud from this collection of stories at Praire Lights ^_^ They are truly beautiful, complex, and haunting pieces of literature. Each story is about some person/people suffering from a tragically beautiful sort of isolation. All of the stories take place in China or deal with Chinese immigrants in America. She's sort of like the Jhumpa Lahiri of China except she's won tons more awards, however has yet to receive the Pulitzer. Overall, she's amazing!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Heidegger and a hippo walk through those pearly gates

Heidegger and a hippo walk through those pearly gates/Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein 236 pgs.

Not surprisingly, death has been a popular topic of philosophical discourse for as long as there have been philosophers. This book gives an overview of the "big thinkers" ideas about death, immortality and the future. The jokes help illustrate the ideas and keep this from being a big downer. - Christa

Murder with peacocks, by Donna Andrews

This title was suggested on a listserv for someone looking for humorous books. It was fun, frothy, and light -- a cross between a cozy mystery and chick-lit. Meg Langslow is putting aside her career as a sculptor in iron (a blacksmith really) to return home for the summer to be maid of honor in three weddings -- her mother's second marriage, her best friend's, and her brother's. Most of the principals are also in the small Virginia town where all the weddings will take place, and all three brides are using the services of the local dressmaker, Mrs. Watterson, of Be-Stitched, to make bridal and bridesmaids' dresses. Only she's broken a limb down in Florida and the shop is being looked after by her hunky son, Michael, who town gossips speculate must be gay. All three brides are demanding in their own ways, with the brother's fiance, Samantha, being particularly odious. When Meg's mother's future husband's unpleasant former sister-in-law disappears and is found dead, it is just the first of the several deadly events, luckily all happening to unpleasant people, that mar the string of weddings. A beach read. 332 pp.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Odious Ogre/Norton Juster

The Odious Ogre by Norton Juster (story) and Jule Feiffer (art); picture book; 32 pages

The Phantom Tollbooth is one of my favorite books. It's a book that I literally read to pieces growing up, then got my hand on another copy and started all over again. So when I learned that Juster and Feiffer were teaming up again, I had to check out the result. This is the story of a ogre with such a terrible reputation that everyone just gives him what he wants without his having to lift a finger. Then, one day, he meets a girl that hasn't heard about him. It's a lot of fun, and the art is, of course, half of it.

River Secrets/Shannon Hale

River Secrets (Bayern, book 3), by Shannon Hale; young adult, fantasy; 304 pages (about 7 1/2 hours on audio CD)

Of all the characters introduced in Hale's Bayern series, I think Razo is my favorite. So I was pretty excited to find out he gets his own book. In this volume, Razo is one of the guards sent on a peace mission to the neighboring country of Tira. Once there, he learns that someone is trying to sabotage the peace efforts between the two countries, and he must figure out who. Of course, someone (I won't say who) also winds up learning to control an element--in this case, water. The story was fast-paced, and didn't suffer from the lag in the middle that turned me off to the last book. There's a lot of slinking and skulking and spying, and a little romance thrown in. Overall, it's a lot of fun, and I look forward to the next book.