Friday, February 28, 2014

Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

Reviewed by Kristin

Letters from Skye is a grand love story told in letters.  In March 1912, poet Elspeth Dunn is living on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.  She receives her first piece of fan mail, a letter from American college student David Graham.  The two embark upon a friendship and eventually a romance, before they even have seen each other face to face.  One small problem—Elspeth is married.  All too soon, World War I erupts and disrupts lives around the world.  Before the United States joins the war, David impulsively volunteers for the American Ambulance Field Service with an assignment driving for the French army.

The letters jump from the days preceding World War I to the days when tensions are mounting right before World War II.  But it is not just Elspeth writing letters in 1940, it is her daughter Margaret.  Margaret is writing to her mother, as well as to her young man Paul, and eventually to her long lost Uncle Finlay.  Margaret is caught up in a romance with Paul, despite Elspeth’s admonitions not to rush into anything serious.  Very soon, family secrets begin to surface.

I enjoyed this book very much, although it is not the type of thing that I usually read.  Yes, it is a love story, but the historical setting made it much more interesting to me.  Just imagining Elspeth living and writing her poetry on a remote Scottish island made me feel the wildness of the place.  Being an American, and originally a Midwesterner, I could easily picture David in his home setting of Chicago.
The alternating chapters moving from one time period to another were well connected, and kept me engaged.  The interaction between mother and daughter, as well as other family members, was well written.  Even though there is a very conspicuous lack of information about Elspeth’s husband early on, that is explained in later letters.

Secrets are kept, but eventually are revealed.  Elspeth is a very believable character who I connected with right away.  Spanning over 25 years, this is a love story that carries the reader quickly through the pages, arriving at a satisfying ending.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Nevermore: Scientology, Cold Comfort Farm, Darwin's Doubt, and Humans of New York

Reported by Kristin
Jud began the book club discussion by talking about Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright.  The Church of Scientology, founded in 1954 by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, has attracted many well known personalities such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta.  Sometimes seen as cultish, the group has come under harsh criticism from some quarters.  The book club members who have taken a crack at this book found it to be comprehensive and meticulously documented, probably to avoid lawsuits. The author also wrote The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.

A humorous novel moved into the spotlight next: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibson.  Originally published in 1932, this book was reported as the perfect picture of British wit and satire.  20 year old Flora Poste finds herself unexpectedly orphaned when her parents die within a week of each other in a flu epidemic.  Flora had always been kept at boarding schools and she never expected to have to work for a living, so she begins writing to various relatives in the hope of finding a place to live.  With only her 100 pound per year inheritance, Flora is invited to live with her cousins the Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex.  Finding a gaggle of eccentric relatives, Flora manages life in the country.  The book was made into a movie in 1995.

Another reader brought up Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen Meyer.  A staunch proponent of evolution, Charles Darwin realized that there were inconsistencies in the fossil record, but went ahead and wrote down his theories anyway.  This volume is a scholarly work, but our reader believed that it provides a balance between religion and science.  The author makes a case, and a good one, for intelligent design.

One of the last books discussed was Humans of New York, by Brandon Stanton Humans of New York started as a simple photography project.  The author planned a tour through several large cities, but came to a stop in 2010 in New York—the city with so much personality that he found things and people to photograph day and night.  With a burst of attention due to social media, Stanton attracted widespread interest.  Tumblr and Facebook played a major role in the popular spread of his work.  Stanton takes beautiful photographs capturing the cultural diversity present in New York City.  From kids playing on bikes to people in extremely creative garb, Stanton looks at the city and finds faces with a story to tell.  While some of the photographs in the book have been published on his social media sites, many can only be seen in this volume.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Best of Connie Willis

Reviewed by Jeanne
I’ve been a Connie Willis fan for several years now.  It’s hard to say exactly what draws me to her writing, though strong characterization, a sharp sense of humor, and inventive plotlines are certainly involved.  So is accessibility:  she doesn’t talk down to her audience, but neither do you need to have an advanced degree in physics or computer science to read and enjoy her work. I admit a bit of trepidation about going from novels to shorter works, fearing that some of my favorite aspects might suffer with brevity.  I needn’t have worried. These stories all carried the indelible imprint of a Willis work.  

Written over the course of thirty years, these stories still hold up very well for the most part.  As Willis herself comments, things are changing so quickly now that before long even the sheet music which plays a role in one story will be an oddity, probably calling for a footnote.   

Speaking of footnotes, they were used to delightful effect in the story “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” which is ostensibly a research paper on two poems of Emily Dickinson from a “Wellsian Perspecitve.”  Why becomes clear when the author begins to postulate that the letters “ulla” in a newly found poem refers to the sound made by dying Martians, dating to the time of the invasions in England, Missouri, and the University of Paris. Trust me, this is one funny piece.  

Two other stories would make excellent Twilight Zone episodes and I mean that in the best way possible.  “A Letter From the Clearys” and “Death on the Nile” (which offers salutes to Agatha Christie and the movie Between Two Worlds, among others) are short but filled with memorable characters and images that will linger long after you reach the end.

 “Inside Job” has Rob, the editor of a magazine devoted to debunking paranormal phenomenon, investigating a medium who seems to have a novel shtick:  in the middle of her performances, her voice not only changes drastically, but she begins to abuse the audience for being incredulous rubes.   It doesn’t seem to be particularly good for business, so what is the scam? This is vintage Willis, with some great references to historical events and people, humor, and a bit of romance.  Unlike some reviewers, I don’t want to spoil most of the surprises so I’ll refrain from going into more detail.

Another excellent piece is “All Seated on the Ground,” in which the world has been stunned by the arrival of space aliens in Denver.  With Earth’s attention focused on them, the aliens proceed to do—nothing. Nada. Scientists and researchers converge, all trying to communicate or at least elicit some response, all to no avail.  Our narrator is the latest in a long line of linguists attempting to communicate, though by this point she feels she’s just another cog in the bureaucratic machine and even if she had anything to offer, no one would listen.  Sure enough, the aliens fail to respond to various stimuli and field trips. . . until they go to the mall.  This story is another gem, with twists, turns, humor, and romance.  And you may never quite think of Christmas carols in the same way again.

If there was any let down for me in the book, it was “Fire Watch.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very good story; it was just a case of reading in reverse order.  Several of Willis’ novels have time traveling students who go back to the past to observe events.  In “Fire Watch,” a young man travels to the London Blitz to St. Paul’s Cathedral. The story has much to recommend it, with an excellent sense of place (and time!), strong characters, and some insights into human nature.  In fact, this was such a strong story that Willis later turned out one very long tale set in the same location and era—so long that it was split into two books (Blackout and All Clear).  I enjoyed that saga thoroughly, as I had some of her other time travel novels, all of which have the same general premise:  a premise which, incidentially, was first appeared in this 1984 story.  Had I encountered it then, I think I would have been enthralled. It’s nice to see where it all started, but since I’d already seen what would come of it all, it didn’t bowl me over.

I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys thoughtful, well-written stories with a sense of wonder and a sense of humor. I also highly recommend her novels The Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, and the aforementioned Blackout/All Clear.Links to previous reviews of Willis' work are posted below.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Five Days At Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink

 Reviewed by William Wade

This is not a fun book to read.  Not by a long shot.  But it’s important, and a great many of us need to know this story and to consider the consequences of the events unfolded here.  Five Days at Memorial is the graphic account of what happened to a major hospital in New Orleans during the Katrina hurricane in September and October, 2005.

The first part of the book deals with the immediate aftermath of Katrina.  Initially the staff of Memorial Hospital thought they had survived the hurricane reasonably well – some blown-out windows, but they could be repaired.  City electricity was off because of downed power lines, but their own auxiliary generators were working well.  Then came the ominous news that a far worse disaster was upon them. The streets of downtown New Orleans were filling with water!  The main levees protecting the city had been breached!  City services such as water, sewerage, and electricity would all be disrupted for an indeterminable time.  Unfortunately, the auxiliary generators at Memorial were located on the first floor, and the rising water would put them out of operation.  The entire building would become dark, life-giving machines for patients would cease to work, elevators would be out of operation, and the water supply would be contaminated.  Clearly, Memorial Hospital had to be evacuated and the sooner the better.

Telephone service was also non-existent, and the staff had to communicate through internet and cell phones.   Emergency messages went out immediately, but all New Orleans was in a crisis no one could have imagined.  City and state authorities had no contingency plans for such a catastrophic emergency.  A call went out to the parent company in Texas which owned Memorial, but they had little to offer, and the hospital seemed to be on its own.  Memorial did have a helipad on the roof, but this rusted structure had not been used for a decade, and no one knew whether it was safe.  And so the staff acted on their own, triaging the patients and deciding to try to evacuate the least desperate cases first.  Over the next several days the National Guard sent some helicopters, and the landing pad did hold.  But it was an onerous task carrying each patient  through narrow dark stairwells to the roof, and the process was exceedingly slow.  Pilots complained that they could work much more efficiently by plucking  individuals from rooftops all over the city.  Finally a fleet of small boats was sent to take away those who were walking patients and could be deposited on a roadside beyond the flooded area.  This left the sickest patients, generally elderly and on life support.  Many were in a vegetative state and near death; they could probably not survive any kind of transportation.  Could the medical staff remain behind, waiting until they died?  And so a decision was apparently made, led by Dr. Anna Maria Pou, a prominent physician on the staff, that these last patients would be administered a lethal dose of morphine.  Was it an act of mercy, or was it murder?  One of the doctors asked the question: “Should we be doing this?”  Those words would come back later to be remembered again and again.  Finally all of the staff departed, and Memorial Hospital was left vacant and empty.

Part Two of Five Days at Memorial is a full and detailed account of the tangled aftermath that would ensue for weeks, months, and even years.  As the waters gradually abated, curious persons, chiefly the news media, approached Memorial Hospital and ventured inside.  The structure was unbelievably fetid from days of accumulating human waste and decaying bodies.  Some individuals fainted.  Others took pictures, and the grisly scenes were soon displayed on local television.  Authorities entered and carried away forty-five human bodies.  Questions soon arose: what happened at Memorial Hospital?  How did this come about?  Accusations were made; it became a major theme of the local news media, and before long questions were being asked nationally.  It was a feature on “Sixty Minutes.”  Relatives of the deceased wanted explanations.  Inevitably the authorities were brought into the picture and an official investigations was underway. The leading members of the staff, including Dr. Anna Marie Pou, were subpoenaed and their testimony taken.  Local citizens began to take sides.  In general Dr. Pou and her colleagues gave a similar response to questions: “ you were not there and cannot believe how horrible the situation was.  We acted in what we thought was best for our patients.”  But was it murder?  Finally it came down to the decision of a grand jury which had to decide whether Dr. Pou and others should be formally charged and tried for a criminal act.  By then most of the public was sympathetic to Dr. Pou, and the jury refused to indict.  Ultimately the whole matter was dropped, although fears lingered that it might resurface.

One of the most valuable parts of the book is a concluding Epilogue in which author Sheri Fink asks what lessons are to be learned from this episode.  After Katrina, did authorities throughout the United States take steps to prevent the repetition of Memorial.  For her answer she considers the actions of authorities when superstorm Sandy struck major Northeastern metropolitan areas and also the response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.  Much has been done, but Fink finds our governmental authorities, our institutions, and our people in general remain unprepared for any kind of major catastrophe, whether caused by nature or through human design.  This is a book for all of us to read and to consider: how can we best prepare for the unthinkable?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Nevermore: Baby Boom, Happy City, and Rocket Man

Baby Boom is P.J. O’Rourke’s attempt to describe the Baby Boomers and how their generation shaped America.  With a subtitle like How It Got That Way and It Wasn’t My Fault and I’ll Never Do It Again, a reader would likely expect a humorous take on things—and that reader would be right.  Part memoir of growing up in the 1960s, part discussion of U.S. policy, and part social commentary, O’Rourke can make even the driest topic funny.  Our reader thought it was hilarious while being forthright and honest.  O’Rourke apparent did his share of drugs while growing up, which makes for some laugh out loud reading.  O’Rourke is a libertarian humorist and former editor of the National Lampoon who once appeared at the Bristol Public Library as a speaker for the Discovery Series.  He has written a number of other political humor books, including A Parliament of Whores which is an attempt to explain how the U.S. government works.

Happy City by Charles Montgomery is a journalist’s view of how cities can be made not only more habitable but enjoyable for people.  He visits a number of cities around the world, seeing how cities can work for people and not against them in order to make the inhabitants—well, happy.  Cities can encourage more positive human interaction, can make life more convenient, and enrich lives, but this does take planning.  Transportation is a major factor, and one of the detriments of the suburbs where people often feel they must drive from one destination to another.  Mistakes have been made, but Montgomery does offer a hopeful view that cities can be improved and perfected. He draws on anecdotal evidence as well as newer theories in a variety of disciplines (including psychology, climatology, and environmental studies) to show how cities can become a perfect environment for humans. Our reviewer thought the book was really kind of fun and certainly made some interesting points. 

Almost everyone knows who the Wright Brothers were but have no idea about many other people who made significant contributions to flight.  The Rocket Man and Other Extraordinary Characters in the History of Flight by David Darling is an entertaining and exciting look at some of these lesser known figures. Many of these people took risks we would consider unimaginable today—and some paid the price.  Madame Sophie Armant Blanchard, a balloonist in the early 19th century, went aloft at first with her husband and then, after his death, by herself in an effort to pay off debts.  She enlivened her performances by setting off fireworks, which proved to be an unfortunate choice. John Stapp may not be a household name, but he subjected himself to incredible forces in the name of aeronautic study.  This human crash test proved human beings could survive more than double 18g and therefore perhaps some safety devices such as harnesses were in order.  Stapp still holds the record for a human on a rocket sled at 46.2 g, g being the force of gravity. Stapp’s injuries, especially to his eyes, took their toll and he was finally forced to stop his testing.  Darling’s obvious enthusiasm for his subject shines through, causing our reviewer to recommend Rocket Man as one very interesting book.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton

Reviewed by Kristin

Humans of New York started as a simple photography project.  Brandon Stanton was working as a bond trader, but wanted to explore urban photography in Chicago.  After a period of time as the economy continued its perilous ups and downs, Stanton lost his job and turned to full time photography.  He planned a tour through several large cities, but came to a stop in 2010 in New York—a city with so much personality that he found things and people to photograph day and night.  With a burst of attention due to social media, Stanton attracted widespread interest.  Tumblr and Facebook played a major role in the popular spread of his work.

Stanton takes beautiful photographs capturing the cultural diversity present in New York City.  From kids playing on bikes to people in extremely creative garb, Stanton looks at the city and finds faces with a story to tell.  While some of the photographs in the book have been published on his social media sites, many can only be seen in this volume.  Most of the photographs have a “seen in _____” (neighborhood) tag, or perhaps a quote from the subject.  Here are just a few examples:

A  little girl in a school uniform with a red student of the week ribbon pinned to her chest.  Her quote:  “I listened to my teacher and went beyond and above.”

A man’s tattooed calves.  Stanton commented:  “He put his mother, two grandmothers, and great-aunt on his right leg.  He put his father on the other leg, probably so he could have a little peace.”

A man wearing bright yellow shoes, shorts, sunglasses and hat, sitting in a wheelchair.  “This is Banana George,” explained his caretaker.  “He’s the world’s oldest barefoot water skier.  He’s ninety-seven now.  When he was ninety-two, he set the world record for the oldest person to water-ski barefoot.”

A man walking three leashed dogs, engaged with a man walking with a toddler wearing a safety harness.  Stanton commented, “I saw them walking on two opposite ends of the plaza, and started praying that they’d end up in the same place.”

An artist sitting on a doorstep with a canvas painting, a painted mannequin top, and a painted mannequin bottom.  Comment:  “Some art costs an arm and a leg.  Some art is an arm and a leg.”

A picture truly is worth a thousand words, so I won’t try to explain too many of the incredible photographs in this book.  From everyday life to the weird, wild and wacky, Stanton has captured a vibrant view of the masses of humanity in New York City.  If this has piqued your interest, be sure to check out Humans of New York, either in book form or at:

Friday, February 14, 2014

Cookbooks Galore!

Reviewed by Kristin

Feeling stuck in your cooking routine?  Feeling a lack of inspiration about finding something to cook during the cold months?  Check out the great selection of cookbooks at your library!  The general area for non-fiction cookery is 641.5, but be sure to search the catalog or ask at the reference desk if you want to find something in particular.

Cook This Now: 120 Easy and Delectable Dishes You Can’t Wait to Make by Melissa Clark presents month by month suggestions to take you through the entire year.  “Fragrant Lentil Rice Soup with Spinach and Crispy Onions” is one of the suggestions in the chilly month of February.  If you’d like to dream ahead to summer, try the “Corn Salad with Tomatoes, Avocados, and Lime Cilantro Dressing.”  The recipes are a little elaborate, but they might just inspire you.

Cooking in the Moment: A Year of Seasonal Recipes by Andrea Reusing is another year-round collection of recipes.  For winter, “Overnight Pot-on-Fire” sounds mighty tasty with beef short ribs, mushrooms, onions, radishes, carrots, and a variety of spices.

Healthy Family Meals by the American Heart Association includes 150 recipes promised to be enjoyed by adults and children alike.  From “Ginger Beef Stir-Fry” with colorful vegetables to baked “Zucchini Boats” to creamy “Chill-Out Sundae Pie”, the pictures are enough to make your mouth water.

If you’re feeling adventurous, check out The Best Recipes in the World by Mark Bittman.  More than 1,000 international recipes are included in this hefty volume.  Try Chinese “Lemon Chicken”, Spanish “Sauteed Piquillo Peppers”, North African “Couscous with Vegetables” or French “Baked Apricots”.  Some recipes are fancy with many intricate steps, and some are simple enough for any ability level.

Rachael Ray’s Book of Ten is a collection of more than 300 recipes gathered in groupings of ten, such as ten recipes for “Family Faves” or “Cheap Dates”.  With entertaining names like “BBQ Sloppy Chicken Pan Pizza” and “Drunken Tuscan Pasta”, there are plenty of tasty options here.

If you love the convenience of a slow cooker, check out the Fix-It and Forget-It Big Cookbook by Phyllis Pellman Good.  With over 1400 recipes, this book includes a wide variety of meals for vegetarians, and meat-lovers alike.  Sections of full color pictures make “Boston Brown Bread”, “Convenient Slow Cooker Lasagna”, and “Hot Fudge Cake” look oh-so-appealing.

Another slow cooker recipe book practically jumped off the shelf to be reviewed:  Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Recipes for Two by Beth Hensperger.  Written for a small slow cooker, these recipes will help you whip up just a couple of servings of “Chipotle Black Bean Vegetable Soup”, “Red Wine Risotto with Mushrooms”, or “Cashew Chicken Lo Mein”, among many others.  Additionally, there is a section of quick side dishes which can be made to accompany the slow cooker main course.

Saving the sweets for last, take a look at Sweet & Skinny: 100 Recipes for Enjoying Life’s Sweeter Side without Tipping the Scales by Marisa Churchill.  With 100 low-fat recipes, including many which have sugar-free variations, these delicacies will satisfy your sweet tooth without breaking the calorie bank.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Nevermore: Enchantments, Bring Up the Bodies, Assassination Vacation, and Home

Reported by Kristin

Jud kicked off the book club discussion with Enchantments, novel of Rasputin’s daughter and the Romanovs by Kathryn Harrison.  This fictionalized version of events begins after the killing of Rasputin,when his daughter Masha is taken in by the Romanovs as the czarina hopes that Masha will have the same healing effects on the czarevitch Alexei.  This particular work of fiction portrays Rasputin in a positive manner alongside the royal family.  Jud said that it was interesting to see the use of modern technology so soon after the beginning of the 20th century—the wealthy Romanov family had a telephone, electric lights and an electrical generator.  This book was declared a quick read, especially for a novel based on Russian history.

Next up was Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.  Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII, is again the main character in this second part of the Wolf Hall trilogy.  Set at the beginning of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, this installment continues to show the royals as all powerful and amoral, not particularly caring how their actions affect others.  The vicious political maneuvering of the era is plainly described in this trilogy.  The time period covered here is short, only nine months, as opposed to the several years covered in Wolf Hall.

Talk of historical violence brought the group back to a book discussed previously: Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell.  While the author wrote of trips to visit historically significant sites related to the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, the book club discussion quickly turned to questioning why individuals wanted to see places and things bordering on the macabre.  In addition, the discussion included the role of gallows humor as a coping mechanism in difficult situations.  The author describes her family interactions alongside the trip in a very dynamic and compelling manner.  A humorous ten year old nephew breaks up the serious and tragic bits.

Home by Marilynne Robinson rounded out the week’s selections.  The author visited King College a couple of years ago and was remembered by some of the readers.  In this book, Jack is the son who never quite fit in with the family, although his family loves him very much.  His sister Glory has come home to care for their dying father, and Jack ends up back at home as well.  Jack has always been manipulative, and the plot is based around the family interactions during the difficult time of the father’s decline.  Our reader said that it was a bit heavy, but worth reading.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Grey Howl by Clea Simon

Reviewed by Jeanne

Note:  I was given a copy of this book by the author, with no stipulations attached. It did not affect my review.

Graduate student Dulcie Schwartz has even more on her plate than usual.  She’s the university liaison for the ELLA conference, in which the Big Names in English Literature will be gathering to present their papers.  Dulcie will be presenting one too, albeit in a decidedly more humble setting. The big problem is managing all the visiting scholars, all of whom seem to have their own agendas. At least some of them are in the running for the job as department head, a position now occupied by Dulcie’s advisor, Dr. Thorpe – and one he would like to keep.  Things get off to a rocky start as various prickly personalities start showing up, often bringing a lot of old grudges along with them.  Then one of the star academics has her presentation stolen, accusations are thrown, threats are made, an untimely death occurs, and the unearthly howl that sounded in the previous book is back to slice through the night.
At least things seem to be looking up in Dulcie’s personal life. Her boyfriend Chris is working more regular hours, giving them time to be together.  Dulcie feels she’s making great progress with her thesis.  She’s found some leads as to the identity of the mysterious Unknown Author, thanks to some genealogical help from another student, and now not one but two professors have expressed interest in the work. It should be a boost to her career—unless one or the other of professors has an ulterior motive.

Since Dulcie’s thesis is on an 18th century gothic novelist, it’s only fitting that a few of the chapters begin with what could be an excerpt from that author: vivid descriptions of stormy skies and sickly dawns, lurking Evil, ghostly presences, sputtering tapers, and ghastly howls in the ebon darkness.  It’s no wonder that Dulcie’s imagination sometimes runs away with her.  In the real world, though, things are no less dramatic: Stella Roebuck, the prima donna presenter who dresses to mirror her subject matter, seems determined not to let anyone upstage her.  There’s also some gossip that she has at least two ex-lovers attending the convention.  And there is a LOT of gossip going on! Like most places, academia seems to run on rumor. 

Then of course, there’s the fact that Dulcie’s deceased cat, Mr. Grey, is still hanging around to keep an eye on his favorite human kitten.  She hears his voice at odd times, offering cryptic advice and comfort.  Her current cat, Esme, also communicates—but definitely on her own terms.  She is, after all, a Principessa.  Dulcie’s mother also gets into the act, calling with warnings gleaned from dreams, tea leaves, and other such methods. 

This entry in the series reminded me of a traditional village mystery.  A reader doesn’t need to know much about literary criticism or academic settings to enjoy this one, and many of the clues are handled the way Agatha Christie would have done:  through gossip.  The trick is to sort the true from the false.  There’s a small population of suspects in one general area, and almost everyone can be a suspect.  It’s just all draped with some otherworldly trappings, though the mysteries are NOT solved through supernatural intervention. As with most of my favorite books, it’s the characters I enjoy most.  Dulcie is the modern day gothic heroine, sometimes rushing in or jumping to conclusions, while trying to be logical.  Chris is the steady hand, ready to help.  The cats are a delight, especially Esme who, like many cats, perceives herself to be the center of the universe and gets her dainty little nose out of joint if this isn’t recognized. The supporting cast members always add their bit, from Dulcie’s New Age mother to Griddlehaus the librarian. (You knew I’d have to mention the librarian, didn’t you?) I did have the sense that groundwork is being laid for the next book, but this doesn’t interfere with the pleasure of reading this one.

Finally, I really like the way that Simon pays sincere homage to the gothic tradition while having a lot of fun with it.  Some books end up making it all way too silly, too over-the –top, but Simon never does.  There’s no deep message, unless you want to say that it’s to enjoy books and literature for what they are.

As regular readers will know, I’m one of those who prefers to read a series in order. However, I think this is a book that can be read and enjoyed without having read others in the series.

The other titles in the series are:
  1. Shades of Grey
  2. Grey Matters
  3. Grey Zone
  4. Grey Expectations
  5. True Grey
  6. Grey Dawn

Friday, February 7, 2014

By the Sword by Mercedes Lackey

Reviewed by Holly White
I previously reviewed Mercedes Lackey's “Vows of Honor” series (Oathbound, Oathbreakers, and Oathblood) about the mage Kethry and the warrior Tarma, blood sisters who partnered to fight as mercenaries, then later established a training academy to teach their skills to the next generation. 
In By the Sword, we meet Kerowyn, or Kero, the granddaughter of mage Kethry.   Kero goes to her grandmother for warrior training because fighting is all Kero feels she can do well; she plans to “sell her sword,” working as a mercenary like Tarma and Kethry had done.  Tarma takes her on as a student, training her in strategy and tactics as well as hand fighting and archery.  But Kero did not realize Tarma had also agreed to train a spoiled son of the King as well.  They couldn’t stand each other.  Kero was a better fighter; Prince Daren was only going to slow her down.  Daren, third son of the King of their country of Rethwellan, was obstinate; he couldn’t believe he was going to have to train with a mere female.  To complete their training, they had to learn to work together. 
Kero goes on to fulfill her dream, becoming a mercenary traveling with a mercenary company, a group of fighters who became to her like family.  During one battle, she got separated from her company behind enemy lines.  In trying to rescue herself, she also rescued a Valdemarian Herald named Eldan.  As they traveled together, they each learned about the other one’s beliefs and lives, but they disagreed on even the most basic motives for how they lived.  She journeyed with Eldan as far as the Valdemar border, but then left him to rejoin her company.  But when she returned, she found the company’s losses had been heavy, and even their captain had perished.  The incompetent new captain often recklessly endangered the lives of men and horses with no thought to strategy and tactics.  Kero invoked her right to break her contract with the company, but that decision came with consequences.  Before long, she found herself alone and friendless, working as a bar bouncer for only her keep.
The company had not forgotten her, however.  Indeed they had been trying to find Kero to inform her that she had been voted in as the new captain.  Before long, she was back with her company, but this time she was planning the battles instead of helping to enact them.  Before long, Prince Daren, who was now in charge of the king’s armies, had hired her company to help him fight, as allies with Valdemar, against their common enemy.  This war brought her into contact with Herald Eldan once more, and placed them all in a battle against hitherto unknown forces against unbeatable odds.
By the Sword is one of Mercedes Lackey’s best that I have read.  It keeps you guessing, and is filled with twists and surprises right up until the end.  If you love fantasy, medieval battles, and good vs. evil stories, then please read this book; you’ll be delighted that you did!
I had read By the Sword before I had ever read the “Blood and Vows” trilogy, and enjoyed it.  But when I went back and read it again afterwards, I got so much more out of it because it refers heavily to events in the past from the other three books.  I strongly recommend you read those first, because although By the Sword is designed to stand alone, it will increase your enjoyment if you have read the first three.  This book also makes references to characters I’ve grown to know and love from Arrows of the Queen, Arrow’s Flight, and Arrow’s Fall, so I would also recommend having read them first.  I promise you, By the Sword will delight you all the more for having done so.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Nevermore: Diagnosing Giants, Zealot, Seduction and The Ape House

Diagnosing Giants: Solving the Medical Mysteries of Thirteen Patients Who Changed the World by Philip A. Mackowiak is a fascinating look at the cause of death of thirteen people in history.  Each chapter takes up the case of an individual, describes the circumstances of the times, and then details the person’s condition, including medical history of family members, if known.  Dr. Mackowiak makes his diagnosis.  The twist is that the patient isn’t identified until the end of the chapter, though many readers will realize who it is long before.  The result is a fascinating examination from a unique perspective.  In some cases, the author offers some speculation as to outcome if more modern treatments had been available as well as some theories as to why events unfolded as they did.   Director Jud Barry thought the book was entertaining and fun, and it ended up going home with another Nevermore reader.

Zealot by Reza Aslan made another appearance.  The book has been discussed several times in Nevermore even before anyone had a chance to read it because of an interview with the author, who is of Iranian heritage.  The book is a biography of Jesus of Nazareth that attempts to examine the man instead of the myth.  Our reader thought the controversy was unfortunate, and that it took the focus off of the actual content of the book.

Seduction by M.J. Rose has mythologist Jac L’Etoile come to the Jersey—the island off the coast of France, that is—to investigate an artifact with possible connections to the Druids.  While there, she becomes involved with another incident from the island’s past: Victor Hugo used to hold séances there in a desperate attempt to contact his deceased daughter. Jac’s host believes that there’s a lost transcript to one of those sessions, one in which Hugo makes contact with someone from “the other side.”  Our reviewer enjoyed the book, especially the Celtic history.  Others have been more taken with the Hugo plotline.  This is the fifth book in the Reincarnationist series.

In Sara Gruen’s The Ape House, primate researcher Isabel understands her bonobos better than she understands humans.  John Thigpin, a reporter for a tabloid, visits Isabel and her charges, watching as they communicate with sign language.  When the lab is bombed, Isabel is injured and the apes escape.  From there, Gruen indulges in a bit of social satire as she explores themes such as animal rights and what it means to be human.  Our reader thought her previous book, Water for Elephants, was the superior novel though she enjoyed this one as well.  She said it was a bit slow at the start, but that Gruen is a great storyteller.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Julia's Cats by Patricia Barey and Therese Burson

I grew up the mountains of Southwest Virginia.  For most of my youth, television viewing was limited to one channel, unless an interesting weather system or persistent twisting of the television antenna attached to the old swing set on top of the hill let some errant signals sneak in.  As a result, my childhood memories of TV shows are largely limited to whatever was on NBC.  As stations began to put up new towers, a bit of diversity began to creep in ever so slowly, but it wasn’t until the 80s that I could see a PBS station on a regular basis.  This is all to explain why my exposure to Julia Child was largely limited to the occasional clip played on those shows about the history of TV or the blooper show (invariably featuring the clip of the chicken landing on the floor and Julia nonchalantly picking it up and proceeding) and the idea that she was THE authority on French cooking for Americans.  In the meantime, I was able to see the show the Galloping Gourmet with Graham Kerr. His recipes seemed to contain all sorts of exotic ingredients not available at the little local grocery store—the big city of Bristol might have carried them, but Newberry’s Market didn’t—including wine. Wine! How high-tone could you get?

Flash forward a few decades and things have changed a great deal.  Now I live in the Big City myself, with well stocked stores; Julia has gone out of fashion and come back into fashion, along with butter and cream; and not only is there wine readily available, the wine is actually produced in this region—and I don’t mean dandelion or elderberry home brew, either.  Now Julia was not only a great cook, but a woman who had worked for the OSS in WW II, and who is inspiring a new generation of American cooks.  There was a Julia renaissance going on, and I found myself a bit more interested in this larger than life lady… but not enough to really seek out a book about her.

Then a friend sent me a copy of Julia’s Cats by Patricia Barey and Therese Burson

Those of you who have read my reviews know that I’m a sucker for a cat story.  This slim little book was not the least daunting, so I settled in for what I thought would be a brief, forgettable tale.  I may be a bit of a cynic, but I rather expected a desperate hunt for any mention of a cat in an effort to pad out a book. Instead, I found a delightful mini biography of a fascinating woman who also liked cats. This book begins when she and Paul settled in Paris, renting an apartment which came fully equipped with mice, a situation remedied when the cleaning lady showed up with a cat.  It was pretty much love at first sight for all concerned—except, of course for the mice.  Minette the cat was the first in a long line of Child cats, dubbed poussiequettes by Julia.  Minette’s story is woven into the more general history of how Julia settled into Paris life and developed her love of cooking.  We learn about Julia’s struggles to learn French, her delight in finding exotic cooking aids and lugging them home, and the devotion she and Paul had for one another.  The authors had access to a number of letters, Paul’s journals, photos; they also interviewed people involved to expand the book.  There are some very amusing episodes—Minette and the dumbwaiter springs quickly to mind as does the episode where cats are hanging off the kitchen screen and yowling while pate is made —but this is mainly a sweet, interesting story about an extraordinary lady who loved her husband, cats, cooking, and Paris.  Julia’s joie de vivre shines through strongly, which made this a most enjoyable book to read.

If you’re in it only for the cats, you may be a tad disappointed as many of them come and go quickly as Julia and Paul move about.  For me, it turned out to be a much better book than I expected, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.  It gave me some added insight into Julia’s life, and I found I respected Julia in a different way: as someone who wanted to live every minute and have fun doing it.  Instead of a stern taskmaster at the ART of cooking, I found someone who loved food and fun, and who made me almost think I would like to try a recipe.  Fortunately, the authors anticipated this and have included a recipe for langues-de-chat (cat’s tongue) cookies.  It looks a bit daunting for someone who believes the two best tools in the kitchen are a microwave and a can opener, but in honor of Minette Mimosa McWilliams Child, I may just give this recipe a shot.