Monday, March 31, 2014

Everybody's a Critic: Found Reviews of Books

 Compiled by Kristin

Back a few years ago—well, perhaps more than a FEW years ago—our library books had an insert in the front.  It was a mostly blank page, with the following instructions:

 “Dear Patron:  After reading this book, please write one or two sentences giving your impressions of it.  These comments will help others decide if they want to borrow this volume.  Please keep comments short, so others may also participate.  Thank you.”

Recently, while checking  in some books I started making notes of some of the comments.  For example, here are the ones for A Dead Giveaway by Stella Allan:
    “Good reading.  You’ll enjoy this book!”
    “Very good—I enjoyed it.”
    “Very good.”
    “Too much sex.  Unnecessary to story line.”
    “The sentence above is my comment which ruined the story.”
    “I liked it.”
    “Well written—enjoyable.”

St. Peter’s Fair by Ellis Peters drew these comments: 
“Very good—I enjoyed it.”
“Dull, could not hold my interest.”
“Like all Brother Cadfael mysteries, a great read!”
“Very good like all his other books.”
“’Moguing, pleached, quintain, posset, seisia, palatine,’ her use of archaic and little used words is a delight and enriches our vocabularies.  The middle ages come alive!”
(A note on the gender of Ellis Peters—this was a pseudonym for Edith Pargeter, a female British author.)

While the insert for comments was discontinued a long time ago, some patrons apparently can’t stop the habit of writing their mini-reviews in books.  While this definitely not something we encourage, I have to admit I find some of them very interesting and entertaining, such as:

 “Dirty words” –a book by Ethan Hawke  (I went back to try to find the title of the book—it was checked out.  So I guess someone else didn’t mind the dirty words or else thought that was a recommendation.)

“Excellent AAA.  Zane Grey is, no doubt, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.”  --Union Pacific by Zane Grey.

“Too Corny and Vulgar for me.” –Blue Eyed Devil by Robert B. Parker

“Excellent A++!” and “Just OK.” (in the same book, which goes to show how much opinions can vary!)

“Odd, but good!” and “Almost Agatha Christie plot—too many twists and turns!” –The Doctors Were Brothers by Elizabeth Seifert

“Wow—Great read” –Stolen Magic by M.J. Putney

“Interesting…..” –The Girl Who Passed for Normal by Hugh Fleetwood

“I read in 1 day!  I couldn’t put it down!” Zoya—by Danielle Steel

“Weird, strange subject matter, off the wall. Not to my liking.” –Witch and Wizard: The Fire by James Patterson

“Very interesting, not very clean.”  --The Senator’s Wife by Karen Robards

“Good story but crude & foul language” and “A++ The Best” –The Savage Trail by Jory Sherman

“Fantastic!” --On Hummingbird Wings by Lauraine Snelling

“V. Good—so true to life” –Home Song by Thomas Kinkade and Katherine Spencer

“Really Great Story” and “Silly” –Word of Promise by Dorothy Garlock

“Good, but didn’t like the ending!” –Summer of the Midnight Sun by Tracie Peterson

“V. Good Story but unfortunately should be rated ‘X’.” and “Oh So Good (heart)” –Pop Goes the Weasel by James Patterson.

“Weird story but good reading.” and “Just OK.”  --When the Wind Blows by James Patterson

“Couldn’t understand it.  Very odd.” –An Irish Eye by John Hawkes

“One heck of a story.” –The Hunter by John R. Erickson

“Hot steamy romance, loved it (heart)” –Never Lie to a Lady by Liz Carlyle

“Science Fiction but a very good read” Toys by James Patterson

“Never have you seen the hero do so many stupid things, but it ended well.”  --Pursuit by Lewis B. Patten

“Hot! Great book (heart)” –Running Hot by Jayne Ann Krentz

“Great novel.  Too bad he chose to use such crude language.”  --Conviction by Richard North Patterson

“Too much philosophy, not enough mystery.  Ridiculous ending!” and “Just enough mystery to hold the reader’s attention and enough philosophy to help understand the mystery.  Excellent, entertaining read.”  --The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith

“Another great story.  A true love story.  I cried at the last chapter. (heart)” –The Wedding by Nicholas Sparks

“Boring.” –Collateral Damage by Stuart Woods

“Waste of Time!” –The Perfect Murder: Five Great Mystery Writers Create the Perfect Crime

“Heartwarming.  I read it in one afternoon.  A tribute to the Appalachian way of life; a moving story.  I would like a copy of my own!” –Patchwork by Ila Yount

Another patron felt a book deserved more than a one or two word review:  “Highly recommended. Somewhat risqué; however, ignore the four letter words & enjoy a good Italian mystery!  RLF 12.20.02” This didn’t seem to be quite enough, so added below in the same handwriting is, “Surprising insights into Italian political & police procedures.”  If this has whetted your appetite, then check out The Shape of Water:  A Novel of Food, Wine, and Homicide in Small Town Sicily by Andrea Camilleri.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolick

 Reviewed by Christy Herndon

In 1957 Little Rock, Arkansas agreed to comply with the Supreme Court ruling that segregated schools were unconstitutional and carefully selected nine black teenagers to attend the local Central High School. Of the Little Rock Nine, perhaps the most recognizable is Elizabeth Eckford – or at least the fifteen year old version of Elizabeth.

On the first day of the segregated school year the National Guard blocked the students of color from entering the school at the order of the Governor of Arkansas. He wanted to appease segregationists. Walking by herself, Elizabeth made her way up the street, through the crowd, towards the school only to be denied again and again by the soldiers. Finally deciding to retreat Elizabeth headed for the bus stop as the angry crowd followed close behind. They hurled racial epithets at her and told her to “go home”. One young white girl, the same age as Elizabeth, fell in line right behind her and joined in. That’s when Will Counts snapped his famous photograph.

In Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, David Margolick tells not only the story of that picture but the aftermath as well – how it affected the lives of each girl. Elizabeth, probably already dealing with depression beforehand, sank even deeper during her thirties after the birth of her two children. She was so depressed she couldn’t work and soon fell into poverty. The white girl in the photo, Hazel Bryan, married young and went on to have several children and grandchildren. Neither woman particularly felt they fit in anywhere, however. Elizabeth was withdrawn and slow to open up. Hazel always had a bit of a wild, independent streak – even in her older years when she stopped going to church and took up belly dancing.

Each anniversary of that September day brought new interest to the photo and Elizabeth herself. She was often asked to speak at events and sometimes did so even though it petrified her. With the 50th anniversary looming in 1997, Will Counts suggested another photo be taken with Elizabeth and Hazel. This time a photo of reconciliation. Both agreed and soon the picture was printed on posters to be sold in the local visitor center. Soon after, much to everyone’s disbelief, Elizabeth and Hazel became friends. Between their speaking engagements, they went to flower shows, took day trips, and went out to dinner. Many people were skeptical of this new found friendship. How convenient Hazel had a change of heart during the 50th anniversary. What they didn’t know, however, was that Hazel had actually tracked down Elizabeth’s phone number and apologized to her decades earlier.

Unfortunately, the friendship lasted less than two years. Although at first she seemed to believe Hazel to be sincere in her apology, Elizabeth felt that Hazel wanted forgiveness too easy. She wanted to gloss over their history without any real introspection and begin anew. Hazel, on the other hand, felt Elizabeth was stubborn and lived too much in the past. Their relationship soon dissolved. They have only spoken twice since the end of their friendship (once right after 9/11) and Hazel sent her condolences when Elizabeth’s son died.

This book was fascinating and heartbreaking. Both women suffered for their brief friendship. Neither whites nor blacks could understand why they were doing this, and both Hazel and Elizabeth dealt with harassment.  However, some good came from it. Hazel helped Elizabeth come out of her shell a bit (she began speaking at more engagements with a little more ease), and Elizabeth offered Hazel simple companionship – something not in particular abundance for Hazel. I must admit I did want them to reconcile once more. Who doesn’t want a happy ending? Especially after reading that Elizabeth admits to missing Hazel, and how Hazel’s eyes tear up when speaking of Elizabeth. So there’s no happy ending for now but I suppose there’s still time for them to come around. In the meanwhile, I’d highly recommend this book.

Psst! Speaking of women and history, March is Women’s History Month! Here are some other books about historical ladies if you’re interested:
Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Invention of Hedy Lamarr, the World’s Most Beautiful Woman by Richard Rhodes
Pink Sari Revolution by Amana Fontanella-Khan
Girls of Atomic City: the Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win WWII by Denise Kiernan
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
I Am Malala: the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Nevermore: Things to Worry About, The Man Who Loved Dogs, and Chasing Shackleton

Nevermore March 18, 2014

Reported by Kristin

Non-fiction kicked off the Nevermore discussion with What Should We Be Worried About?: Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night by John Brockman.  Prominent thinkers were asked what their greatest concern with the modern world was—and a variety of answers were returned.  Some worry about the future of technology, or how the convergence of technology will affect the people in our world.  One commented that there isn’t so much a need to worry about nuclear weapons, but a need to worry about out of control world leaders.  Concerns from the group included the decline of the older population, worldwide food availability and the profit motivations of corporations balanced against the needs of people.

Next, Jud ran through a quick stack of books which he had ordered based on positive reviews.  He gave a few of them one sentence descriptions, or just let the titles stand for themselves.
•    The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile and Return by Kenan Trebincevic and Susan Shapiro
•    Fire Up Your Life in Retirement: 101 Ways for Women to Reinvent Themselves by Catherine DePino
•    The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living by Amit Sood, MD
•    Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
•    Phil Jackson: Lord of the Rings by Peter Richmond
•    Dear Abigail: the Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters by Diane Jacobs
•    Bob Dylan: American Troubadour by Donald Brown
•    The Agent: My 40-Year Career Making Deals and Changing the Game by Leigh Steinberg
•    Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture by Erez Aiden & Jean-Baptiste Michel

A novel popped up as another reader mentioned The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura.  A fictionalized version of the assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940, the book was declared a bit of a slow-starter, but very worthwhile to read.

Finally, another reader enthusiastically recommended Chasing Shackleton: Re-creating the World’s Greatest Journey of Survival by Tim Jarvis.  In the winter of 2013, explorer Jarvis re-created British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s attempted voyage to Antarctica from 1914 to 1916.  Not only did Jarvis mimic the path, he pursued the sea and mountain journey with authentic equipment and food that would have been available to Shackleton in 1914.  This book was declared a great adventure story with excellent pictures from both the original voyage and the modern re-creation.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Murder as a Second Language by Joan Hess

 Reviewed by Kristin

Claire Malloy is bored. She has recently turned over the day-to-day operation of her bookstore to her clerk Jacob, and she just doesn’t have that much to do.  While she and her family have just moved into her newly remodeled dream house, not much needs to be done there either.  After a semi-successful stint at learning French cooking, Claire sets aside her bouillabaisse, coq au vin and soufflé au chocolat and begins searching for something else to do.  In the meantime, looking for ways to fluff up their college applications, Caron and friend Inez have signed up to volunteer as ESL tutors with the Farberville Literacy Council.  After hearing much moaning from the teenagers about how the unexpectedly longer hours will cut into their mall and lake time, Claire decides that she will volunteer alongside the girls to reduce their tutoring load.

The Farberville Literacy Council has strict rules for their tutors, the first of which is that they must attend an introductory training session.  The next orientation isn’t for a couple of months, so Claire is turned down politely.  However, (stretching the limits of believability,) Claire is asked to join the board of directors as they are unable to get enough board members together during the summer for a voting quorum.  The Council’s financial accounting is a mess, and they need to get it straightened out or they might be forced to an imminent closure.  As Claire attends her first board meeting, many members already seem to be aware of her reputation as an amateur sleuth.  Roped into the responsibility, Claire reluctantly accepts the board appointment.

With a variety of students from around the world, the Literacy Council is a busy place.  Keiko, the young Japanese program director, quickly ropes Claire into volunteering to answer the phone.  Keiko is prone to panic, and her inability to pronounce the letter “L” is over emphasized by the author as Claire is called “Mrs. Marroy” repeatedly.  Claire quickly becomes involved with all the players and is learning the group dynamics when an abrasive older Polish woman comes to a bad end.  Of course, Claire’s law-enforcement husband Peter tries to keep her out of the investigation, but Claire just can’t stop sticking her nose where it does not belong.

This is certainly a colorful, eye-catching book with international flags attached to police tape strung across the cover.  I like the flow of the author’s writing, even if she sets up her sleuth in situations that may stretch my fiction reading suspension of disbelief.  While this is a series, enough background is provided in each book that you can just jump in anywhere.  As this is the 19th installment in the Claire Malloy series, I have grown fond of the characters and look forward to further adventures. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Profiles in Leadership: Historians on the Elusive Quality of Greatness, edited by Walter Isaacson

Reviewed by William Wade
Profiles in Leadership: Historians on the Elusive Quality of Greatness, edited by Walter Isaacson.  New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2010.  331 pages.

What is the essence of leadership?  What qualities enable some individuals to become leaders of all the rest of us?  Walter Isaacson, well known biographer of Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Kissinger offers some intriguing insights in his recent book, Profiles in Leadership: Historians on the Elusive Quality of Greatness.  In short, this book consists of thirteen essays by significant historians, highlighting individuals in our history who have been awarded the distinction of greatness.

Isaacson and his essayists suggest that the qualities that make for greatness are varied and elusive.  No simple formula can account for this distinction.  George Washington is included in this book as are more recent figures such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower.  So are others whose names will not be at all familiar to you.  Who has heard of John McGraw and why does Glenda Gilmore appear?  And that is a characteristic feature of this book –  a valuable one at that.  If only the pantheon of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln – you can suggest others – made up this book, what would that tell you?  It is the introduction of other names, the stories of those whose careers were not in the spotlight of attention, that makes this book valuable, for it forces you to reconsider that essential question: what are the elusive qualities of greatness.

There are also some interesting comparisons of individuals facing similar circumstances or in different aspects of their careers.  One essay compares Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt in their efforts to fight the Great Depression.  In another essay David M. Kennedy asks the question: why was Eisenhower so successful as a military leader, but had much less success in his later role as president?  He suggests that certain basic inner qualities within the man made the difference.  As the sub-title suggests, those qualities are elusive.

The book is well written, for Isaacson has chosen authors of established literary skill.  And much of the pleasure in reading the book will be your introduction to individuals unknown or perhaps barely known to you.  How much do you know of Chief Joseph and his leadership of the Nez Percé Indians in the Rockies? And read Robert Dallek’s essay on “When Presidents Become Weak.” It will give you new insights into leadership in the White House.  In sum, it’s an engaging book that will leave you thinking – and that’s not a bad thing!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Nevermore: Anxiety, Slow Reading, Jesus & Solomon Northup

Summary by Jeanne

My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel was a  featured book at a recent Nevermore meeting.  Our reviewer said that this wasn’t a book he particularly wanted to read, but he became fascinated by it. He compared to it Awakenings, the book by Oliver Sacks, about patients in a mental hospital.  Stossel is a very anxious man, a man of many tics and phobias, who uses his own problems with the disorder to examine anxiety in general.  A basic question is, “When did anxiety/ panic attacks start?” There was no listing for either as a diagnosis as recently as 1979 in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Since then a number of such disorders have been added.  This led to a discussion of the various disorders which have been added to dropped from the DSM. Stossel examines various theories as to the cause of anxiety disorders (cultural, environmental, genetic, etc.) as well as a general history. He also details the various treatments, including his own, which have been employed with mixed results. Our reviewer said that Stossel is an intelligent and good writer who, in an effort to understand his own afflictions, has produced a book that is both interesting and enlightening.  It comes well recommended.

Author David Mikics sees another disorder of modern times in the way that people read—or rather, the way they often fail to read.  In his book Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, Mikics argues that people now skim instead of actually reading, without really absorbing what is written.  The result is distracted reading, intended to glean information but not enrichment, and causes today’s readers to miss out on how rewarding literature can be.  To remedy that situation, he offers suggestions for people on the best ways to read for appreciation.  Our reviewer wanted to like the book very much, but said that this book should have been better written:  it should have engaged the reader and been more about the excitement of reading.

Changing from current social trends, the next book was Jesus:  The Human Face of God by Jay Parini which was described as a more traditional view of Jesus than that found in the recent book  Zealot by Reza Aslan.  Parini is a professor of English and Creative Writing, and an author of novels and poetry as well as non-fiction books.  His writing is insightful and engaging, making this a thoughtful book which is a pleasure to read.

Twelve Years a Slave  by Solomon Northup is, of course, the autobiography of the man who was kidnapped and sold as a slave and whose story was the basis for the recent award-winning movie of the same name.  While the book was published well over a century ago, the movie has brought the book back into prominence. Its age makes it a public domain book, so the selling point for new editions are the various extras a publisher provides or else material that reflects a tie-in with the film, as in the above example.  The version Jud brought in had added maps, photographs of the real people involved, reproductions of documents, and other such material.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Baby Names Made Easy: the Complete Reverse Dictionary of Baby Names by Amanda Elizabeth Barden

Reviewed by Kristin

Whether you are preparing to name your upcoming bundle of joy, fur child, or researching names for the next New York Times fiction bestseller, check out the wide variety of baby name books available at the library.  Baby Names Made Easy takes an alternative approach to the standardized alphabetical listing.  These 20,000 names are organized by meaning, so you can be sure to name your baby (or character!) a name that perfectly matches their personality.  Perhaps we should go back to the tradition of waiting to see what fits a baby before assigning a name.  I’m pretty sure that most children would be named before they headed off to kindergarten, although in many families “Sonny” or “Junior” sticks as a forever nickname.

To name someone based on physical characteristics, how about Nigella,  meaning “dark haired?"  Or maybe you should go with Crispin, from the Latin for “curly” or “wavy."  If your baby has chubby cheeks, try out the French name “Gifford."  “Bronwen” summons up the image of a woman on the cover of a bodice-ripper paperback.  And that’s appropriate, since the name is of Welsh origin, meaning “fair-bosomed."

Have a girl who is filled with happiness and joy?  From the Italian, meaning “merry” or “cheerful”—how about “Allegra?"  Wait, suddenly I feel the need for a tissue.  Maybe the pharmaceutical companies have been reading this book and want us to feel happy at the prospect of taking their latest pill.

Want to encourage hard work with a name?  “Emily” and its many variations means “energetic” or “hardworking."  For a boy’s version, try “Amery” (also “hardworking”) or “Trevor” (“industrious.”)  Perhaps try “Zola” for a girl, which is of African origin and means “productive."

Large family?  Running out of names?  “Bathsheba” means “seventh daughter” or “daughter of the oath."  Hmm, there might not be too much of a call for that name these days.  But you never know—names do go in and out of style.

Want to hint at a connection to royalty?  Maybe “Duke” or “Princess” is too obvious, but you can also try “Darius," meaning “king," “Elmer," meaning “noble," or “Tiana/Tatiana," both meaning “fairy queen."

Naming someone after a geographical location can be quite stylish.  Greek “Olympia” somewhat obviously means “from Mount Olympus”.  Listed as popular geographic names, “Virginia” is great for a girl, and “Tennessee” is listed in the boy category.  What’s next, naming someone “Bristol?"  Oh, wait, that's already happened.   If you’re feeling exotic, try “Waikiki," “Fuji," or “Vegas."  Maybe not.  After all, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Rope by Nevada Barr

Reviewed by Kristin

Anna Pigeon is a national park ranger who Nevada Barr has been writing about since 1993, beginning with Track of the Cat.  After adventures in a variety of locations, including the Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns, Ellis Island, the Nachez Trace Parkway, Yosemite and more, Barr takes Anna back in time to her very first job within the national park system.  After the sudden death of her young husband, a broken-hearted Anna takes a seasonal job at the Glen Canyon National Recreational Area in Page, Arizona.  New York City’s sidewalks were the closest to wilderness Anna had experienced to that point.  So, when Anna goes missing ten days after her arrival, her co-workers think she has just gotten spooked and run back to the big city.

But Anna didn’t run back to New York.  On her day off, she takes a hike, ill-prepared as she is.  After borrowing a hat from a co-worker, Anna sets off with less than a liter of water, a map, and a plant identification pamphlet.  Wearing black jeans, a black t-shirt and thin black tennis shoes, Anna is soon overheated and wondering how in the world what looks like a mile walk up a canyon could be so much more difficult than tramping all over Manhattan.  Sunburned, out of water and without any food, Anna is soon lured into a trap.

Anna wakes and finds herself down a hole, naked and defenseless.  As she tries to recall how she got there, she realizes that someone is working against her.  Someone is providing food and water to keep her alive but helpless in isolated captivity.  Anna eventually does escape (we had to know that up front, since we know there have been many other adventures written, didn’t we?) and then goes on a quest to figure out who did this to her, as well as to figure out how to be successful in her new life as a national park service seasonal worker.

This latest book in the Anna Pigeon series was very enjoyable as it provided a look back into how she began working in the national park system.  Seeing a younger Anna closer to the pain that drove her away from big city life showed me more of what formed her character.

I always enjoy reading about the variety of landscapes as Anna moves from one national park setting to another.  The constantly changing background keeps the series feeling fresh, as Anna meets new people in new locations.  Barr is a compelling author who moves the story along seemingly effortlessly.  Her next book in the series, Destroyer Angel, is set in the northern Minnesota woods, and due out in April 2014.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Winds of Fate by Mercedes Lackey

Reviewed by Holly White

The next novel written in the Valdemar series, Winds of Fate, centers around a woman named Elspeth, Herald and Heir to the throne of Valdemar (daughter of Queen Selenay).  We first met Elspeth as a young girl.  Series readers will know Elspeth’s early background from the first Valdemar trilogy  (Arrows of the Queen, Arrow’s Flight, and Arrow’s Fall) which centered on Talia, the Queen’s Own Herald, who served as confidant, advisor, and protector to the Queen and to her daughter.  In Winds of Fate, Elspeth is the adult Heir to the throne.

In this installment of the series, an all-out mage war threatened the kingdom.  Valdemar had had no mages, adept or otherwise, since the death of Vanyel, the last Herald-Mage, long before Elspeth’s time.  Now the mage war loomed; their enemies had mage power, and Valdemar did not.  Nevertheless, Elspeth believed that the mage ability had not left the people of Valdemar; it was simply that no one currently had the power to recognize it in its latent state.  Moreover, even if they were to find someone with mage potential, there was no one to train them. To Elspeth, the best course of action would be to send an emissary to other trusted nations (and potiental allies in the conflict) to ask for someone to seek out and train mages in Valdemar. This emissary would have to be someone with the authority of the throne—either Elspeth or the Queen. Since the Queen could not be spared, Elspeth was the logical choice.

Elspeth’s idea was opposed by the Queen and Council.  Elspeth felt they still thought of her as a little child, and no amount of training or maturity would ever change their minds.  However, Elspeth’s plan received the unexpected support of her plan from a group of allies whose advice the Queen and Council were forced to respect.  Queen and Council reluctantly agreed, on condition that Elspeth take along one other Herald for advice and added protection.  The Queen and Council chose Herald Skif to accompany her.  Elspeth was glad that if she had to bring someone along, it was Skif, for he had always been like a big brother to her.

Skif and Elspeth set out on their journey, alone except for their Companions, horse-like creatures who share a mental bond with their Chosen human. Then the complications really began.  Disagreements between Skif and Elspeth constantly arose: when to go in disguise and when to wear their Herald Whites, when to spend money and on what, and most importantly, whom to trust with the truth of their identities and their mission.  To make matters worse, Skif began to have feelings for Elspeth that were anything but brotherly, but Elspeth did not reciprocate.  This heightened the tension between them.  Before long, Skif began to challenge Elspeth’s every decision with critical disdain at best and outright argument at worst.  On top of all that, they had to change destinations and plans mid-journey.

They finally reach the Hawkbrothers, humans with a magical connections to birds, who might be able to help.  Unfortuanately, they found the Hawkbrothers on the eve of battle with an adept mage named Mornelithe Falconsbane, a man  both powerful and evil beyond imagination.  Exhausted from the journey and from attacks along the way, Elspeth, Skif, and their Companions were then forced to prove they could both be trusted to help and also that they could be of some use in the upcoming battle.  They finally joined forces with the Hawkbrothers to fight Mornelithe Falconsbane.  Would their strategies be enough to defeat him?  If so, would the Hawkbrothers be convinced to help them with recognition and training of mage ability for Valdemar?  Moreover, what would happen in the relationship between Skif and Elspeth?  Find out by reading Winds of Fate, the first in The Mage Winds Trilogy of Valdemar.

I found this book hard to read in places, but that may just be the fact that I do not like to read about the antagonist and his motivations and/or actions.  There were whole sections written form the point of view of Mornelithe Falconsbane, and I found it difficult and unpleasant to get into his mind even for a short time.  However, there were also whole sections written from the point of view of Darkwind, one of the Hawkbrothers, which I also found difficult to read in places.  Perhaps that was difficult for me because Mercedes Lackey, the author, is personally involved in the conservation of American falcons, hawks, and other birds, and I felt she included far more technical bird information than I wanted to know.  It seemed to me to slow the story down some.  However, with all of that, it is still and good and interesting story, and there were places where I could not put it down.  I would not recommend it for children, though, due to the intense journeys into Mornelithe Falconsbane’s twisted mind and activities.  However, any adult who loves fantasy, stories about mages and magic, or even someone who loves birds and the conservation thereof, will probably enjoy this book. 

My next review will be about the sequel to Winds of Fate, called Winds of Change, and the one following that will be the final book in the trilogy, Winds of Fury.  For an overview of the Valdemarian universe, please visit this link:  Valdemar..

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson

Reviewed by Jeanne

The recent spate of strong winter storms across the eastern U.S. has wreaked havoc in many cities, most notably Atlanta where motorists were stranded in cars, children had to bed down in school gymnasiums, and state officials were raked over the coals.  The first statements from the aforementioned officials blamed the weather forecasters and the forecasters in turn blamed the officials.  

This current conflict made an interesting backdrop for reading Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson, a book I had on my TBR (To Be Read) pile for quite some time… like a decade.  It was well worth the wait. 

Around the turn of the last century, the branch of the Signal Corps designated as a weather service was struggling to make itself seen as a respectable scientific institution. This was not easy.  Not only was the science itself in its infancy, but the some of the early official forecasters weren’t exactly the most reliable of characters.  Capt. Henry Howgate, the Chief Financial Manager of the Signal Corps, had been found guilty of embezzling nearly $250,000 at a time when, as Larson notes, “dinner at a nice restaurant cost thirty five cents.”  As if this weren’t bad enough, Howgate promptly escaped and went on the lam, dodging police, private detectives, and the Secret Service. Nor was this the only problem with personnel.  My personal favorite was the agent had all his daily readings made up ahead of time, leaving the telegraph office to send them out one by one while the agent went on his merry way. Another did his daily readings at the local pawnshop, where he had hocked all the weather instruments to pay his gambling debts.

And it really didn’t help when, in 1888, the service predicted fair weather for New York and instead the city got 21 inches of snow and Albany got over twice that amount. Drift were estimated to be 30 feet deep, and over 200 people died in New York City alone.

Those heading this new Weather Service were determined to prove that they could do more than just record basic readings, that they could actually predict the weather more accurately.  They would rely on science, not folklore.  

The trouble was that meteorology was in its infancy.  Assumptions had been made based on incomplete data and on theories—some of which would prove to be fatally incorrect.

Most of the story centers around Isaac Cline and his family, including his pregnant wife, three young daughters, and younger brother and assistant, Joseph. Posted to Galveston in 1889, Isaac was a proud and upright young weather station manager, a graduate of Hiwassee College who also earned a medical degree.  Isaac took pride in his meticulous readings and weather observations. He took his study of weather very seriously, as did Joseph—though the brothers’ relationship was sometimes less collaborative and more competitive.  

Galveston in 1900 had much to recommend it; it was a prosperous city in a beautiful setting with a harmonious and diverse population.  It boasts the largest port in the US. The city fathers also like to brag that the city is pretty much storm proof, due to its shallow bay and position on the Gulf, an opinion shared by Isaac.  In fact, he called the notion that a hurricane might do serious damage to the city “a crazy idea.”

They were about to find out just how wrong some of those assumptions were.

Erik Larson has a real gift as a storyteller.  The book is as gripping as any novel, with his vivid descriptions of people, places, and events.  The account of the storm is nail-biting in its intensity.  He provides detailed notes at the end, just in case someone wants to follow up on something in a chapter.  He uses diaries, interviews, newspapers, memoirs, and other primary sources to craft a truly compelling account of a time, a city, a man, and the deadliest storm ever to hit the United States.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith

Reviewed by Jeanne

While business --paying customers, at least--may be a bit slow at the Number One Ladies Detective Agency, there is still a lot going on.  For one thing, there is the puzzle of how to delicately inquire about Mma Makutsi’s obvious pregnancy which she has studiously refrained from mentioning.  On the one hand, a child would be a cause for celebration for the one-time secretary (now assistant/ associate detective, depending who is asked) and her devoted husband, but it skirts the matter of whether or not she will continue to work with Mma Precious Ramotswe.  This may be the end of their long-time association.

Meanwhile, there are a couple of cases waiting for attention.  A well-known female attorney has approached the Agency with what may be a case of stolen identity.  The attorney has a will drawn up by a late client who is leaving his farm to a nephew, but the lawyer isn’t sure that the claimant is the right person.  Could this be an imposter out to steal an inheritance that should belong to another? And how can it be proven, one way or another? Secondly, it seems someone is out to frighten away the owner of a new beauty salon by sending her threatening items, and starting rumors that her salon might be hazardous to one’s appearance.

Some series wear out their welcome.  What was once fresh becomes formulaic, as characters and plots follow the same path book after book. Somehow Alexander McCall Smith has avoided that particular rut while keeping the warmth, humor, and charm that drew me to the books in the first place.  Granted, there is some measure of predictability: we know there will be red bush tea, that there will be shoes, and there will be minor crimes to be solved through Precious’s observations and knowledge of human nature.  On the other hand, the characters have grown and changed while remaining true to their natures.  Relationships have changed, but this has happened in a slow and believable way which is a testament to McCall Smith’s own insights into human nature.  The setting itself has also changed with the times just a bit, letting political, economic, and health issues intrude just enough to remind us that this is indeed a real place, not a fantasy.  This is done without sacrificing the strong love of place that runs through these books.  

If you’re in the mood for a gentle, positive book with an exotic setting and memorable characters, by all means give the Number One Ladies Detective Agency series a try.