March 31st, 2011

Dead Dog Cat


Earlier this week, I finished reading a book of essays by John McPhee called Silk Parachute. I've enjoyed most of McPhee's work, an eclectic body of material indeed. He writes well and deeply about a lot of non-fiction topics. This book includes a piece on the history of lacrosse in the US, the difficulties of long-exposure camera work, and the geology of the Dover cliffs, along with several others. Enthralling.

The Perfect Mistress by Victoria Alexander

The Perfect Mistress by Victoria Alexander

B&N Synopsis

Widowed Julia, Lady Winterset, has inherited a book — a very shocking book — that every gentleman in London seems to want. For a charismatic businessman, it’s a chance to build an empire. For a dashing novelist, it could guarantee fame. But to a proud, domineering earl, it means everything…

Harrison Landingham, Earl of Mountdale, can’t let the obstinate Julia release the shameless memoir that could ruin his family’s name. But the only way to stop her may be equally sordid — if far more pleasurable. For his rivals are intent on seducing the captivating woman to acquire the book. And Harrison isn’t the sort to back away from a competition with the stakes this high. Now the winner will claim both the scandalous memoirs and the heart of their lovely owner…

A quick and easy evening read. The addition of the ghost was a bit odd, but I got used to it. The fact that the ghost was a hoot probably helped, too. A fun book if you're looking for a quick escape.

Book 9/40

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Book 22 for 2011

Drowned Wednesday by Garth Nix. 389 pages

Third in the Keys to the Kngdom series. Still recovering from his encounter with Grim Tuesday, Arthur is once more drawn back into the affairs of the House as Drowned Wednesday invites him to lunch and won't take no for an answer.

Another enjoyable story in this series with a sympathetic protagonist who's unsure of himself but trying his best in the  bizarre but believable world he's pulled into. I can't help thinking that certain parts of this one were inspired by a Monty Python sketch which I won't name for fear of spoilers...

Book 33: Death and the Maiden by Frank Tallis

Book 33: Death and the Maiden (Liebermann Files 06).
Author: Frank Tallis, 2011
Genre: Historical Mystery. Gothic. Psychology.
Other Details: Trade Paperback. 374 pages.

Another utterly engrossing outing for psychiatrist Dr. Max Liebermann and his good friend, Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt in 1903 Vienna. Music has always played a role in these novels as the two friends share a deep love of music and regularly meet to play together and discuss compositions. In this volume the case they are investigating centres on music.

When Ida Rosenkrantz, an operatic diva, is found dead it is initially thought that she either committed suicide or had accidentally overdosed on laudanum. However, a broken rib is discovered during the autopsy which suggests a darker possibility. As they probe deeper into Rosenkrantz's life they discover connections to a number of powerful men, including the demagogue anti-Semitic Mayor of Vienna, who could prove a dangerous enemy.

There are also two musical sub-plots. In the course of their investigation they meet with the director of the court opera, Gustav Mahler, who is struggling against various factions that are seeking to depose him and seeks Liebermann's aid. In addition, Liebermann finds himself becoming obsessed with the death of an obscure young composer some years previously and a piece of piano music that may contain a coded message. There is also his continuing attraction to his former patient, the Englishwoman Miss Amelia Lydgate.

As always Tallis does a superb job of recreating fin de siècle Vienna in all its beauty, while not neglecting to touch upon issues such as political corruption, anti-Semitism and a distant rumblings that we, as readers, know will eventually lead to the outbreak of the Great War and the rise of National Socialism. There is always a Gothic touch to his novels, in its themes as well as in the architecture of Vienna and Max's melancholic musings on love and death.

Books #20-29

20) Swine Not? by Jimmy Buffett (General Fiction, 233 pages)
This was a book on the clearance rack at Borders. I haven't read any others by Jimmy Buffet, though I want to. This one sounded like it would be funny and quirky. I mean, a pig in a upscale NYC hotel? Well, it didn't really live up to expectations. I'm not quite sure why I didn't like it more - maybe it was too superficial. Maybe it felt a little like “and the kitchen sink” plotting after a while. Maybe I just couldn't suspend my disbelief enough (which is a big problem for a book, since I read a lot of science fiction). At least I didn't pay cover price. 2/5

21) Enna Burning by Shannon Hale (Young Adult Fantasy, 317 pages)
This wasn't as good as The Goose Girl, but was still a very good read. There's war! Intrigue! Fire magic! New and strange lands! Enna Burning explores the darker side of the nature gifts, including Isi's wind power. There is a prevalent theme of control - both over powers and over yourself - while the story is set in a situation where the characters have no control. A neighboring kingdom has invaded Bayern and declared war. In this setting, the characters we first met in The Goose Girl have a harsh coming of age, and trial by sword and fire to deal with. 4/5

22) River Secrets by Shannon Hale (Young Adult Fantasy, 290 pages)
Following on the heels of Enna Burning, Bayern sends an ambassador to Tira to try and cement the uneasy peace. Razo, Enna, and Conrad are part of the expedition, and quickly discover someone is trying to frame the Bayerns on a series of murders and restart the war. I really liked this one, but then I always love seeing the worldbuilding behind a new land. 4/5

23) The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession by David Grann (Essays/Investigative Journalism, 304 pages)
This is a collection of essays that Grann had previously published, the majority of them with a true crime bent. Despite the subtitle, not all of Grann's essays deal with murder or madness, but they all touch on obsession to some degree, whether it's a famed Sherlock Holmes scholar, a giant squid hunter, or con man who wants to belong, or a detective bent on finding a murderer. The more light-hearted essays are a bit jarring in a book that is mostly dark. They also left me frustrated as they didn't have a plotline with an ending. 3.5/5

24) Forest Born by Shannon Hale (Young Adult Fantasy, 389 pages)
The fourth book in the Bayern series. I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I did stay up past 1 AM on a Sunday night to finish reading this. On the other, I never jived with Rin that way I did with the other, previously introduced, characters. Also there was a plot twist that just seemed very contrived and a shoe-horned in plot element. 3.5/5

25) The Frog Prince's Daughters by Wendy Palmer (Fantasy, 184)
In a world in which fairy tales were an accepted way of life, one princess finds out she's not getting her happily ever after. Her cousin, Rana, leads an expedition to find the Three (maiden, mother, crone) to learn how to save Anura's life. I really liked this story. It was fresh, well-written, and kept me guessing throughout. It was a really fast read - it was both short and engrossing, and I was cheering for Rana throughout. 4/5

26) Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale (Young Adult Fantasy, 320 pages)
I really liked this. The story is told via journal entries of Dashti, a lady's maid who is imprisoned with her mistress in a tower for seven years by the lord of the land. But before those seven years are up, they run out of food. Dashti breaks them free to discover that the world has changed and their survival is up to her. Hale retells the fairytale Maid Maleen, set in medieval Mongolia. Dashti is likeable in her Pollyanna way, though too passive in my opinion, despite all her intelligence and perseverance. I'm glad that I read this. It was a quick, and very enjoyable read that introduced me to a new fairytale, and a new culture I'd never learned much of before. 4/5

27) Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster (Juvenile Fiction, 188 pages)
I remember reading this as a kid and really liking it, and it is rather remarkable how well I remembered the story and how much I still enjoyed the book. The story is relatively simplistic: an orphaned girl is sponsored by a nameless benefactor to attend college, with the stipulation that she write to the nameless benefactor, whom she dubs “Daddy-Long-Legs” regularly. Following the initial set-up, the story is told entirely in the letters Judy writes to DLL. As an adult, I am slightly put off by DLL's manipulation of Judy's life, but only slightly. I still found the book utterly charming. And now I discover there is a sequel! Or frappulous joy! 4/5

28) Every Living Being: Representations of Nonhuman Animals in the Exploration of Human Well-Being by Marie-France Boissonneault (Sociology/Psychology, 326 pages)
Very long, critical review at Goodreads. 2.5/5

29) City of Masks by Mike Reeves McMillan (Fantasy, 128 pages)
I love epistolary stories, and I love political intrigue, and I love masks. This book was all three wrapped into one delicious package. Reeves-McMillan has created a fascinating society with Bonvidaeo where all the citizenry wear masks and take on the persona of the character - and are legally their mask. Bass, by virtue of being the brother-in-law of Calaria's Undersecretary to the Foreign Minister, is assigned to be envoy to Bonvidaeo. Not only is he thrown into a confusing new culture but he soon stumbles into the middle of a serial murderer's killings and political machinations to disrupt the current political order. This was a fascinating story, and I only wish that there had be. Reeves-McMillan nicely captured the different voices of the characters, and did a great job telling the store through Bonvidaeo's journal entries. I loved the twist ending. Part of it I was expecting; the other parts, not at all. 4/5

Books 9 to 12

Book 9: "The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire" by Doris Lessing

'After I left the hotel, through a lobby all excitement and noise – a trade delegation from the Sirian HQ on their planet Motz were just leaving, looking pleased with themselves – I walked straight into the park opposite. Some freely wandering gazelles came to greet me. They originate, as it happens, from Shikasta, stolen by Sirius and presented as part of a state gift. They licked my hands and nuzzled them, and I knew my emotional apparatus was nearly at Overload. Plant life in every stage of growth. The songs of birds. In short, the usual assault on one's stabilizing mechanisms. So hard did I find it to keep my emotional balance that I nearly went back into the hotel to join Incent.
Oh, the glamour of the natural life! The deceptions of the instinctual! The beguilements of all that pulses and oscillates! How I do yearn for Canopus and for its... but enough of that. Forgive my weakness.

I already suspected that the Canopean Empire was not as altruistic as it at first appeared, but in the fifth and final book of the series it also becomes apparent that its agents are fallible. The usual dispassionate stance of Canopus towards members of lesser species can be rocked, as its agents sometimes fall into a state where they are overtaken by emotion and easily swayed by rhetoric. When this happens agents are admitted to a Hospital for Rhetorical diseases to undergo treatment designed to bring their emotions back into check and stop them from being affected so powerfully by words.

In this book Klorathy, who previously appeared in "The Sirian Experiments", guides the inhabitants of Volyen, its inhabited moons and neighbouring planets through the break-up of the Volyen Empire, while helping a junior agent called Incent through illness, relapses and recovery, and just about warding off the illness himself.

This isn't my favourite book in the series, although this book's stance against rhetoric and the power of words to rouse emotion and sway people to behave unreasonably was though-provoking. Incent's constant relapses and his alternating attraction to and shamed rejection of Shammat soon became tedious, although I was interested in the inhabitants of the Volyen system as they faced the break up of the Volyen Empire and invasion by Sirius and their reaction to the manipulation by Canopus.

Book 10: "A Loyal Character Dancer" by Qiu Xiaolong

The food poisoning incident made him think of Inspector Rohn. First the motorcycle, and then the accident on the staircase.
They might have been followed. While they were talking with Zhu upstairs, something could have been done to the steps. Under normal circumstances, Chief Inspector Chen would have treated such an idea like a tall tale from Liaozhai, but they were dealing with a triad.
Anything was possible.

A woman from a small village disappears while waiting for a passport to join her husband in the US. The woman's husband is refusing to testify in a trial of a people-smuggler unless his wife is allowed to join him, and an U.S. Marshall Catherine Rohn has been sent to Shanghai to escort the woman to her husband. Inspector Chen is put on the case and asked to look after the American because of his good English, and good-standing within the party, although she does speak some Chinese. Chen is well aware that this is a politically sensitive case, as it is imperative that the woman is found and handed over to the Americans quickly, so that China does not lose face, but he comes to suspect that some people would rather the woman was not found and handed over the the Americans

An interesting police procedural with plenty of politics, but this time there's added Triad action, flirting and Doctor Zhivago!

Book 11: "Only Human" by Tom Holt

In the mirror he saw a short, bald, middle-aged man with rosy cheeks and square, black-rimmed glasses; not entirely unlike what he saw in his mirror at home, except for the lack of horns and the regrettably uncloven feet. Trying to balance on these flat nan-bread-shaped things was a nightmare in itself; to someone who was used to the functional elegance of the hoof, it was like trying to do a Fred Astaire dance routine in snowshoes. The lack of horns was something else he’d have difficulty getting used to if this strange state of affairs lasted for any length of time. He’d often wondered how mortals managed without them; particularly office workers. How else did they pierce paper for filing in box files, or remove staples, or open Cellophane-wrapped packets of biscuits?

When God and his oldest son go fishing, his younger son Kevin is left in charge, but causes chaos on Earth and in Hell when he signs on to Mainframe and presses the wrong key. Down on earth, four English men and women find that they have swapped 'bodies' with a piece of industrial machinery, a medieval painting of the Madonna and child, a lemming and a Duke of Hell (albeit a demon who runs the payroll rather than torturing the damned). One of my favourite sub-plots involved the Prime Minister (now in a lemming's body) becoming leader of the lemmings by promising a brave new world in which there wold be no great leaps forward (or down) and everyone would stay where they were, while the lemming in the Prime Minister's body sat on top of a wardrobe in 10 Downing Street, periodically jumping off onto a pile of cushions and biting people.

A quick read, with convoluted sub-plots all coming together at the end, and a couple of loose ends involving Kevin's parentage and his relationship with the help desk girl from the computing company leaving room for a sequel.

Book 12: "The Keeper" by Sarah Langan

'I'll start, and you finish', the woman said. 'Once upon a time there was a little girl and she was very unlucky She was born in a haunted place where nothing ever died.'

Susan Marley is crazy. Betrayed by her family and friends, she stopped speaking when she was a teenager and wanders mute through the streets of Bedford, Maine. And everyone in town dreams about her, although they don't talk about that, and try not to think about it either. But although Susan is the townspeople's scapegoat, things were badly wrong in Bedford long before she was born.

What I really liked abut this book is the way the author casually introduces the horrific and macabre. You are reading along and all of a sudden you read something like "Just then, the closet door opened and a monster stepped out of it." that you hardly notice at first until you are brought up short and have to go back and re-read it. I found it a very effective technique, as it mirrored the way the townspeople skated over the strange things that happened in their town. Later in the book, when the dead stalk the town menacing those townsfolk who didn't sense them coming and flee town, the horror becomes more overt, and that fits too.