Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Catfantastic edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Andre Norton

Very good anthology. Only a few that were forgettable or not likable at all. This one had a few more eerier tales than Catopolis (perhaps Norton's influence) and I've already got myself on the wait list for Catfantastic II and I think there are about four or five in this area.

"The Gate of the Kittens" by Wilane Schneider Belden - A librarian happens upon Feathers who was the intended sacrifice for this gate between worlds, but three kittens allow for safe passage and sabotaging something sinister out there. This was a little bitter sweet, but I'm sure the librarian will have a good life, it's still sad about the kittens and the bus.
"The Damcat" by Clare Bell - There's more than one way to ensure the structure of a dam. Pretty interesting story about Native American healing helping secure a dam.
"Borrowing Trouble" by Elizabeth H. Boyer - Trouble lands in the lap of a wayward apprentice. This one was cute.
"Day of Discovery" by Blaka Cahoon - A doctor's accident/murder, pushes his former lover to test the edge of science and finds out cats are aliens. This isn't saying anything new, is it?
"Wart" by Jayge Carr - Wart is a space ship cat who comes across an intruder and deals with it as any cat would. Told from Wart's point of view and I like how the author got the cat's POV.
"Yellow Eyes" by Marylois Dunn - A cat runs across Yellow Eyes, a unique hound, who helps a cat and his friend find the solution to a unique problem. Sorcerers and cats, a perfect fit.
"It Must Be Some Place" by Donna Farley - How to find things in the land of the lost. Perhaps my least favorite because all the references to lost things, Time and Socks, it just became too much after a while.
"The Dreaming Kind" by C. S. Friedman - Trouble is brewing as a super computer tries to find the origins of the world and only an genetically altered cat and kitten are able to stop it. This one was a little eerie and scary.
"Trouble" by P. M. Griffin - Trouble and his kitten (girl) land out of trouble. Cute tale.
"SKitty" by Merecedes Lackey - SKitty makes a grand entrance to the negotiation table. SKitty's adorable -- I want one!
"The Game of Cat and Rabbit" by Patricia Shaw Mathews - The ship cat finds a mutant rabbit aboard the ship. This one was a little odd, but pretty decent.
"From the Diary of Hermoine" by Ardath Mayhar (I think the inspiration for the cover) - Hermoine finds out she taught her kittens how to hunt a little too well and that the magician she's with wasn't too swift. I liked the tale told from the mother and how her children teach her a lesson.
"It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's … SUPERCAT!" by Ann Miller and Karen Elizabeth Rigley - Clark Kent and his owner help an alien retrieve a missing bird. Cute story with aliens, tension, and romance.
"Noble Warrior" by Andre Norton - Noble Warrior saves his new princess from the evil governess with the help of Hob. I've heard how Siamese and their derivatives are often protectors of their home and I thought this interesting of how a cat might view his position and protect his assigned mistress.
"Bastet's Blessing" by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough - A cat travels to Egypt to keep his human safe. A little odd, but otherwise amusing.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

Harry's at it again. Susan's fighting the vampire urges after suffering being infected in Grave Peril and won't let Harry help her. Harry's trying to dig around anyway and letting himself go. It's not pretty. Billy the Werewolf (from Fool Moon) decides to step in and help out, by picking things up and ensuring Harry keeps a client. After it rains toads and a botched assassination, Harry thinks his day couldn't get worse, but it's only the beginning. Turns out his client is the Mab, the Winter Queen. Good news, Harry's no longer indebted to his Fairy Godmother. Bad news, Lea sold Harry's debt to Mab and she's willing to settle his debt with him for three favors and calling in her first marker. Someone killed Reuel, the Summer Knight, stole his mantle, and framed Mab. Mab is pulling in a marker by, uh, requesting Harry figure this mystery out. Harry says he'll think it over. As if things weren't bad enough, the vampires of the Red Court are mad as hell and taking their vengeance out on all wizards, primarily Harry, but any wizard will do. They attack a wizard citadel in Russia, which ticks off the White Council. The vampires promise they cease and desist, if the White Council produces Harry on a silver platter. White Council doesn't see a problem with this, but Harry does. They come to an agreement. If Harry can grant safe passage through Nevernever, they'll not turn him over to the Red Court. In short, Harry talks to several of the faeries, takes a look at the crime scene, picks up another case of a missing girl, runs into his ex-girlfriend who he thought had died, figures things out and saves the world.

I can rely on Butcher to deliver a good story with lots of action. This one starts off with a bang and doesn't let up. Butcher does a good job at pacing the action by breaking it up with Harry's thought process, explanations, or observations, however, I tend to believe he drags a bit in those areas. I think the Dresden books are a good writing learning tool for someone to figure out how pacing is done, though I wouldn't take it to the level Butcher does, as he tends to slightly get carried away. I was also glad Butcher brought back some of the other characters. Murphy is pretty much in all the books, Bob made a small appearance as does Mister. But Billy and crew weren't in the first or the third and I'm glad to know they aren't forgotten. Butcher also brought back Toot-Toot, a small pixie who has an insatiable appetite for pizza and who has organized a small pixie army for the impending doom which later play a vital role in the battle. I should be sad Susan's AWOL, but for some reason I'm not. Harry might love her, but I don't. Maybe it's just one of those things. Another question I have for Butcher is, "Do werewolves 'woof'?" I'm inclined to think they don't, but because Billy is a mortal who knows the one spell to shape shift, perhaps his mortal persona takes over and he can 'woof'.

Cross Country - James Patterson

2008; 406 pages; 158 chapters. Genres : Action-Crime; Airport Novel. Overall Rating : C.
When two families in Washington D.C. are hacked to pieces with machetes, it's up to Detective Alex Cross to track down the killers. And he's determined to do so, since one of the victims is his ex-GF. The trail leads to Africa, where the tables are turned, and Cross finds hinself treading on the home turf on a lethal, well-connected foe.
What's To Like...
Not enough action in the last book you read? Then this one's for you. It's no exaggeration to say that every page has some sort of killing, beating, shooting, chase, or other assorted danger.
It's also obvious that Patterson wanted to write about the plight of Africa, a continent that seems to be cursed by God. He manipulates the story to take Cross to places like Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Darfur. He also manages to avoid blatant stereotyping. Our hero is a black cop, raising two kids, and living together with his GF. And Al-Qaeda terrorists don't get blamed for any of killings.
OTOH, there are some serious lapses of believability. Two families get the benihana treatment, and the CIA says, "Back off; we'll handle this"? Sorry, but that would never happen. Then Cross decides to handle it on his own (cliché!) and flies to Nigeria, but without seeing any need to contact the authorities there for help? Uh-uh; not a chance .
Finally, there's the Ultimate Evil himself. Most of the foes in the earlier Alex Cross stories are complex, crazy, and diaboloically clever. Our UE here has all the personality of Idi Amin.
The Bane of Authors - Airport Novels.
The best way to read this book is as an airport novel. Pretend you're boarding a plane; shut down your brain; and go with the flow. You'll be done in no time - the PCQ ("Patterson Chapter Quotient") here is about 2½ (406 pages ÷ 158 chapters), and half of each Chapter Title page is blank space. If you try to read it as anything else (say, as a piece of literature), you'll rate this book very low..
So I'm giving Cross Country a "C", because it was enjoyable escapism, and because Patterson deserves kudos for trying to give us a glimpse of the horrors going on in Africa. But if you've never read one of Patterson's Alex Cross books, this is not the one to start with. Instead, pick up Pop Goes The Weasel, Jack And Jill, or Along Came A Spider to see how good of a story he used to write.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Catopolis edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Janet Deaver-Pack

It looks like I'm going to have to stick with Greenberg for anthologies. Some of the stories made me laugh, a few made me sad, one actually made me cry, and there were only a few I didn't really care for or understand. Overall, a great anthology.

"Gut Feeling" by Esther M. Friesner - Lulu, Seer of Catopolis is in a quandary about giving a false prophesy so Senor Pantalones can become king of Catapolis; however, Huey the Hamster might be able to give her a hand. Fresner is quickly become a favorite of mine with her off-beat, quirky stories.
"Black" by Richard Lee Byers - Black cats are missing and Silent, the cat wizard, goes off to find out why and save them. A cat Harry Dresden, naturally, I liked it.
"I am King!" by Edward Carmien - A stray cat, king of the roof, falls from grace and has to rebuild his kingdom. Weird and I didn't really understand the whole thing.
"Old Age and Sorcery" by Lee Martindale - Wizard Myrrrthin helps King Ambrose save his pride. A King Arthur and Wizard Merlin type story, not too bad.
"Kitty and the City" by Paul Genesse - Kitty Cassie has relationship problems with Big-Paws and discusses the issue with her three friends. A kittish Sex and the City, because I don't watch the show, this one didn't appeal to me.
"For the Birds" by Jana Paniccia - An election between Whittington and Churchill goes awry when the birds start protesting. An odd story, but I liked how the cats used mice as ballots, however, one of the counters ate a ballot.
"Eye Witness" by Donald J. Bingle - The mystery of how cat food is canned; it's too impossible to be believed. A funny look at how cats might see us and our tasks.
"Mentor of the Potala" by Bruce A. Heard - Tai Pan teaches his Buddha protégé how to astral project and runs into a little trouble. While it was good, not one of my favorites.
"The Guardian of Grimoire Hall" by Christopher Welch - Tenja and company keep the Book of Apedemak (and the world) safe Delavayne. I like Tenja
"After Tony's Fall" by Jean Rabe - Vinnie the Mouser steals Tony's Fall so the boss can play it. A feline version of the Godfather.
"Ink and Newsprint" by Marc Tassin - Sophocles tries to save his human's newsstand and learns what's really important. This one made me cry.
"Burning Bright" by Elaine Cunningham - Mhari, a Serval, helps track down a human killing cats and discovers the reason behind all the whole scheme. Really didn't understand this one and I think it was a feline take on Spartacus.
"A Cat, A Thief" by Robert E. Vardeman - Robie robs from the rich to give to the poor alley cats, but someone's infringing on his turf so he decides to return the favor. A sweet Robin Hood story with a hint of romance.
"Scent of Death" by Elizabeth A. Vaughn - A cat play cat and mouse with Death. An interesting take on why some animals can sense death before it happens and I loved the interaction between the cat and Death.
"The Persian, the Coon, and Bullets" by Matthew Woodring Stover - Drags, Hacky and Coon, have a run in with Bullets the dog. Didn't really understand this one either, but loved the Maine Coon in it.
"Father Maims Best" by Ed Greenwood - Sam's a ghost hunting kitty whose Father Dearest pays her a visit on one of the jobs. I wanted to like this one, but it fell kind of flat.
"Cat Call 911" by Janny Wurts - Scamper (Copper Cat), Bouncer (Maine Coon), and the Chief figure out and defeat the cloud of despair hanging over the city. Nice twist on cats saving humans and humanity by showing them to enjoy life, like a cat.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Murder Most Crafty edited by Maggie Bruce

Yet another disappointment. I found very little to like in this set of stories. I'm familiar with some of the authors. Naturally, a few of the stories I found palatable were by the authors I like. Some of the stories I found just plain confusing or uninteresting and easily forgettable. On a MST3K list, there was a game to explain the premise of a movie in five sentences. I shall incorporate the idea of that game and describe the story in one sentence along with another sentence to describe my reaction to it. Here goes.

"The Collage to Kill For" by Susan Wittig Albert - China Bayles, who runs an herb shop and part time sleuths, tries to figure out who killed a tenant who made collages. Tried to read her first book and couldn't get interested in her, the characters, or the story, this one didn't change my mind.
"The Gourd, the Bad, and the Ugly" by Maggie Bruce - Think of the shell game played with gourds where the winner comes up with a winning lottery ticket worth millions and the losers walk away with nothing, but it's all for naught. Couldn't get into this one either.
"Call It Macaroni" by Jan Burke - Thanks to a broken arm, one sister has to cover for the other sister for this crafts project and decides to go the simple route via macaroni instead of resin, oh, and a possible murder happens somewhere. When will this torture end?
"No Good Deed" by Dorothy Cannell - Three retired ladies decided to stick their collective noses where it doesn't belong and off the husband of one of their crafty savvy slave, er, friend, in hopes of bringing her back to finish the crafting projects to make their homes the envy of all others. A little better and this one proves the adage, be careful what you ask for…
"If You Meet the Buddha" by Susan Dunlap - This guy sews a garment for the Buddha as he's hiding out from the fallout of a mob hit. What the heck was this?!
"Strung Out" by Monica Ferris and Denise Williams - Parents find a marijuana seedling in their son's room, but he insists it's not his and Betsy steps in to find the culprit. Finally, an author I like and a story that's better than what I've read so far.
"Oh, What a Tangled Lanyard We Weave" Parnell Hall - A coach is strangled with his lanyard, while the police think they have the killer, Hastings isn't so sure and uncovers the lies surrounding the murder. This story could easily have been cut down by a third and nothing would be missing.
"The M Word" by Judith Kelman - A basket weaving contest ends in murder or does it? I don't get and I'm not willing to waste the brain cells to try to figure this story out.
"Bewreathed" by Margaret Maron - It's New Year's Eve and the family's celebrating and pondering the mysterious robberies plaguing their small town until they figure out who and how it was done. I think this one's my favorite in the whole book because it had mystery, suspense, and romance.
"The Deepest Blue" by Sujata Massey - A Japanese fabric supplier runs across a unique indigo fabric and wants to know more about, but ends up opening old wounds. Not much to say about this one except it seemed more of a closure story then a mystery.
"Waxing Moon" by Tim Myers - Harrison uncovers who stole money from the caterer. I really like Myers story and he didn't disappoint me with this one.
"Light Her Way Home" by Sharon Newman - The Anchoress dies and a couple figure out who did and why. I don't remember the names, but it was a better mystery than most of the stories in this one.
"Ellie's Chair" by Gillian Roberts - A furniture restorer finds the chair of an old friend, restores it, and uncovers murder. This one dragged on a little too long as the narrator tended to go on and on about how she annoyed people because she was content, no, she annoyed people because she kept reminding the reader she annoyed people.
"Motherwit and Tea Cakes" by Paula L. Wood - Motherwit moves from New York to California and comes across Medicare fraud. This didn't have much to do with crafts except for making a collage for a dog, mystery was shaky, characters were flat, and what the heck do tea cakes have to do with crafts?!

Overall, not very good for an anthology. Maybe five good stories out of seventeen. Of course, that's my opinion, others will vary, I'm sure.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Don of the Dead by Casey Daniels

sigh The disappointment rages on.

Pepper Martin started life off normal. The daughter of a wealthy plastic surgeon, a country club mother, and her life stitched out in Prada; all of which unraveled when Daddy was hauled away for Medicare malpractice, Mom moved to Florida for a brand new start, Pepper got dumped, then hit her head and that's when her trouble really starts. Enter Don Augustino Scarpetti, aka, Gus. Gus was killed thirty years ago and now he wants to find out who did it and Pepper is the lucky jamoke to figure things out. She figures she's hallucinating due to the bump on the head and returns to the ER to figure out what happens. She literally bumps into Dan who's interested in her brains and not her body and she takes offense to that, but agrees to meet him and discuss her brain. Meanwhile, she's still investigating and meets some of Gus's family, in the business and literal sense. Somebody doesn't like her poking her nose into the family, especially hunky cop Quinn. After a few sidetracks, including losing a potential job to Saks courtesy of Gus, Pepper buckles down and figures out who iced Gus so he may move on and so can the reader.

Got bosom? Apparently the main character does and she's not afraid to use her 38Cs. I've got more than that, but derive less attention than the narrator. I'm missing something here. I guess it must be the twenty-something model body in chic clothing to go with the breast. Maybe it's me and I'm not too hip to understand the latest fashion crazes and not attractive enough for the male gender. Despite all this, I didn't need to be reminded every so many pages about Pepper's breasts and the amazing super power they have. She loves them so much, she can have them.

Thanks to Ms. Daniels, I found a new pet peeve, overuse of the hyphen. Apparently, Miss Pepper or the author felt the need to hyphenate words in a feeble attempt to be cute or create a new word or phrase or whatever. It turns out to be plain annoying. If it had been maybe two or three words hyphenated together occasionally, I might not have gotten annoyed, but when the author hyphenated six or seven words together, I got fed up. It's not even worth looking for an example, plus I've already given the book away.

The only thing that kept me going was Gus. Despite his bad guy status, I really liked the guy, probably because he annoyed Pepper. I had to find out who killed him and if his soul would find peace. That's the only saving grace in this book and I'm a little leery that the author pulled a coincidental piece of information to solve Gus's murder. Oh, well, as long as it came to an end.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ten Days in a Madhouse by Nellie Bly

Ten Days in a Madhouse is a very simple book - I hesitate to call it a book. More like a particularly long pamphlet, or a serialized newspaper special more accurately. The premise is simple: Nellie Bly was a reporter at the turn of the century who, in order to uncover what conditions were like for people who lived in insane asylums, moved anonymously into a poor district of town, and pretended to go crazy, so that she might be declared insane and committed to an asylum in New York. The book recounts her experiences.
The writing is less than stellar, and it's very strange to read Journalism that is more focused on the journalist than the subject - much of the book involves the reader worrying, with Nellie, that she'll be caught in her little ruse. But, that's hardly the point. Nellie Bly is sort of like reading Aeschylus, except in investigative journalism instead of drama - it feels dated, pompous, and artificial now, but only because she was helping to invent the genre from the ground up. The Muckrackers like Nellie Bly were creating a new role for journalism - instead of simply recording public events, they were exposing and describing the parts of the world that they felt needed to change, inventing the modern 'fourth estate.'
And the book certainly WAS an expose. If one is able to read through Nellie's highbrow attitudes, you can see her genuine outrage at the way the women are treated. Many seem to be perfectly healthy, but the doctors she describes are more interested in diddling the nurses than treating patients. The furnaces in the place aren't turned on until November (in New York City, on an island in the bay, mind you). The women are stripped naked (forcibly if necessary) and thrown one after another into the same, frigid bathwater,regardless of their level of health or if they have pussing boils on their skin. The butter they eat is so rotten as to be uneatable. The nurses cannot even take a temperature or read a scale, and take delight in beating patients, or torturing their diseases - one woman who is described as having a hypersexual disorder of some sort, is encouraged by the nurses to flirt with the doctors, for instance. And it goes on in the same vein. This article alone, more or less, triggered reforms across the Mental Health System. It feels stodgy and self-important now, yes, but when you read it in it's context, Nellie is a courageous, idealistic fighter, working for the rights of the forgotten of New York.

Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Whenever you see a legend, you can be sure, if you go to the very bottom of things, that you will find history.
Vallet de Viriville

Joan Anglicus is a frustrated young girl. The brightest and most scholarly of all her siblings, she is often denied the chance to learn because of her sex. The Dark Ages were a time when womens brains were thought to be smaller than a man’s and only needed for child bearing. Why teach a girl to read and write? Joan cannot accept this. She runs away with her older brother, and after he is killed in a Viking attack, she disguises herself and assumes his identity at a Benedictine monastery. As Brother John Anglicus, she is sought out for her great healing abilities and religious intellect, until eventually she is elevated to the highest throne in the world at the time, the papacy.

The story of Pope Joan, a woman who lived disguised as a man and rose to become pope of the Church in the ninth century, is one of the most fascinating in Western history, and one of the least known. Most that have heard of her regard her story as a legend contrived by Protestant reformers, or so the Catholic Church would have you believe, not at all based on facts. But as Viriville said, legend and history are often one in the same.

Even though much is not known of the Dark Ages, Woolfolk Cross has done her homework here. This book is well-researched and well-written. I was completely sucked in and had a hard time putting it down. I found the history fascinating. These troubled times were especially difficult for women - as they still are today in some countries. They had no property rights, no opportunity for education. They could be beaten and raped by their husbands at will. So it seems completely logical that a woman would chose to disguise herself as a man. She certainly wouldn’t have been the only woman in history to do so.

So why deny she existed at all? Extreme mortification of course, that a woman could deceive so many. History provides many examples of the deliberate falsification of records to suit the masses. But what of the proof? What of the so-called chair exam, where each candidate was examined to prove his manhood as part of the medieval papal conservation ceremony for almost six centuries? What of the “shunned street” in Rome on which Joan reportedly “John Anglicus gave birth to a child…” An interesting article is here, if you're wanting to know more about the legend.

Even with these facts, given the confusion of the ninth century it is impossible to know for sure if she existed. We may never know if there really was a Pope Joan. True or not, I sure had a good time reading about it. An excellent book. 4.5 stars

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Same Kind of Different As Me by Ron Hall & Denver Moore (with Lynn Vincent)

I don’t know what it is about my book club picks this year. They seem to be taking a religious, emotional turn at full speed around a curve with no side rail. Perhaps it’s because of the difficult times we are facing. Perhaps people are drawn to inspirational tales of overcoming obstacles and wanting to discuss them in an open forum. So far, 3 of the last 5 books we’ve read have dealt with death on some level and it’s not even Halloween yet. Not Sherlock Holmes solving a mystery type of death, but long drawn out, miserable suffering sort of death. Do I want to read about this stuff in a time of crisis? In the words of Charlie Brown, good grief, no, no, no. Not one right after the other. I’m starting to have nightmares. Seriously.

With that said, if you’re still even reading this depressing ink (if I were you I’d have stopped long ago) my third tale of woe in this series of “inspirational” reading, is one of Denver Moore, a man born and raised in Louisiana in the 40’s and 50’s, and until the late 60’s worked for “the man” on a share-cropping farm. He’s never been to school a day in his life. Never gotten a birthday present. Never owned a home or a car. He’s a man who’s skimmed along the surface of life without anyone noticing. Until he meets Ron Hall and his wife Debra at a homeless shelter, two rich people trying to make a difference. They notice him, and everything changes for all three of them.

If this book had only been about Denver, I probably would give it 4 stars. His story was very interesting and almost unbelievable. A modern day slave on a cotton farm, he worked for nothing but food and a roof over his head until he literally jumped on a train to Texas, and while there remained homeless for almost thirty years. Somehow what he said rang true.

However, Ron Hall’s part of the story (as it is told from both their perspectives) I found to be self-indulgent and (here’s that dreaded word again) preachy. He talks of his “poor” beginnings in a white middle class family. How he smoked pot with “fat chicks” in college and how later he rose from Campbell Soup salesman to a fantastic and super rich art dealer of the famous. Somewhere along the way with the help of his saintly wife, and after he’s caught having an affair, he finds God and a purpose in life. His wife drags him to a homeless shelter where the two of them come across Denver, who is of course all too happy to be hounded by two rich people with a cause. It’s not hard to guess what happens next.

So, I’ll say no more of this get happy tale but this: ugh. 2 stars

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Well Of Lost Plots - Jasper Fforde

2004; 373 pages. The third book in the Thursday Next series. Genre : Literary Fantasy. Overall Rating : B+.
With Spec-Ops, Goliath Corp., and Aornis Hades after her; and since she's with child and without her husband; Thursday decides to get into a book. Literally. It's a great place to hide. Caversham Heights is an atrocious yawner of a novel that no one in his right mind will ever read.
Of course, the peace and quiet is short-lived. Murder and mayhem are afoot, and Aornis implants a memory worm in Thursday's head, meaning all her recollections about her hubby Landen are fading fast.
What's To Like...
98% of the book takes place in the literature world that Fforde's created. And what a world! The generics (minor characters initially without any character development) are cool. Grammasites run rampant, not to mention a 420-pound, 7'4" feral Minotaur. There's murders to be solved and lots of book-jumping.
Splitting hairs over loose ends...
Fforde manages to tie up most of the plotlines he creates in WOLP, but no progress is made on any of the loose ends carried over from the first two books of the series. Landen is still MIF (Missing In Fiction); Thursday's dad is still on the run, and her brother Anton's death promises to be a major topic at some point in the future. About all that's changed by the end of WOLP is that Thursday has trouble buttoning her pants.
The 923rd Annual Bookworld Awards ("Bookies")...
The book culminates with this spoof of the Oscars. Dastardly deeds are laid bare, and the murderer is unmasked, but it's the awards that steal the show. Among the hundreds of Categories are : Most Implausible Plot in SF; Most Creepy Character in a Dickens Novel; Most Troubled Romantic Lead; Best Talking Cat; Most Incomprehensible Plot; The Shakespearean Character You'd Most Like to Slap; and Best Dead Person in Fiction. Hey, I'd certainly tune in to watch this Awards Ceremony.
In summary, WOLP is good, but not great. The plot takes a while to get going, and the book has the overall feel of existing merely to set up the next one. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it, what with all its book-jumping and literary allusions. Perhaps the whole series will only appeal to a dyed-in-the-wool bibliophile. Then again, doesn't that describe everyone at 5-Squared?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Wicked Weaves by Jim and Joyce Lavene

sigh It looks like my string of good authors has come to an end and I've embarked on a new set of authors/series to avoid. This is the first one I've made a note not to pick up again. In fact, I'm invoking the "avoid" tag on this one.

Jessie Morton attends the Renaissance Faire Village every summer to work as an apprentice for her dissertation on Renaissance crafts. This year, she's working with Mary Shift to get the lowdown on basket weaving at Wicked Weaves. Everything is going fine as Jessie keeps poking her fingers on the baskets and grumbling about tending customers and not learning much about the craft as she'd like. To add to her troubles, a dead man is found close by. Turns out to be Mary's ex-husband, Joshua, who she hasn't seen in over 20 years. She's not too shaken up by the death, even though she's the prime suspect. Jessie's more distraught than she is and more determined to find the killer. Further complicating her summer, she falls into a relationship with Chase Manhattan, even though he shares the lack of ambition with her twin brother, Tony. A lot of stupid things happen, the authors call them crazy, but it's just downright stupid. I don't know why I continued to read especially when I no longer cared if the killer was caught. I'm not sure what annoyed me more, Jessie's rambling (through the village and in her theories), finding out she's the wench of the summer, her and Chase's romantic encounters all over the village (TMI) or what. I just gave up trying to make sense of the book and now it's done and over with and I can forget I ever read this book and steer clear of this series. It's akin to having a cavity. It's not good, the dentist drilling is not good, but it is good when it's all over. Why did I continue to read it? I don't know; I lost control of my senses and plead insanity. Yeah, that works for me.

My brother-in-law and sister-in-law are twins; meaning, they were conceived at the same time, but not from the same egg. Many people know the difference between maternal and fraternal twins, however, the authors don't, especially because the narrator (female) keeps insisting the narrator's brother are split from the same egg. I'm surprised no one else in the printing of the book caught this or thought it was a cute family moment. I don't care. It's a major flaw in the book which I couldn't recover from.

At one point, one of the characters alludes to Jessie's annoying quality, calling her "scatterbrained." Jessie vehemently denies this fact and claims she's very well organized. Another lie! Jessie's so scatterbrained (so are the authors), one could use her brain as a mental obstacle course. She runs through theories, then backtracks them, especially when one calls her on the invalidity of her arguments, then she adopts those invalidities when someone else tries to use them. I believe this is referred to as brush out, a method used by people who pick up a branch and brush out the tracks so the person tracking doesn't know where the trail begins or ends. She also has awkward conversations at inappropriate times (such as her and Chase discussing their relationship while trying to sneak up on a potential killer). She also gives herself too much credit when she tries to repair the mother-son bond of Mary and Jah. Oh, I give up, on Jessie and the whole shebang.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Previously Engaged by Elodia Strain

I've been so excited to read Previously Engaged by Elodia Strain. I read Strain's debut novel, The Icing on the Cake, and have been anticipating this sequel. I love Annabelle Pleasanton, the hilarious, quirky, always-getting-out of scrapes main character. She is dating Isaac Matthews, and she gets the feeling that he's going to propose. He asks her ring size and hints that she should get a short lease on an apartment, but Annabelle keeps waiting for it to happen. In the meantime, she wins a $50,000 "Dream Wedding." Although he hasn't technically proposed yet, Annabelle begins to plan her "Dream Wedding." There are a few obstacles keeping her from that dream wedding. First, there's Alex who dumped her at the prom, but seems to have had second thoughts. Then, there's Chloe, Isaac's agent, whom everyone seems to think is perfect for him. There's also the fact that Isaac is not into the high end designer suit and fancy food that her dream wedding require. To top it all off, an amazing job offer threatens to come between Annabelle and Isaac. This is a funny, laugh-out-loud story about a very endearing woman. Through this first-person account, I felt like I really knew Annabelle. Strain's comical and crisp writing style brings the reader into the story like you're listening to your best friend and rooting for her to get out of the awkward situations she manages to get into. Despite Annabelle's penchant for designer bargains, beneath that cashmere sweater, is a huge heart. She writes "Pink Notes" in a notebook which contains lists of people who inspire her. Amongst her "Pink Notes" are women who run a flower business and bakery whose proceeds go to charity. Inside, Annabelle knows what's important in life and it's a fun ride reading as she makes meaningful decisions with that $50,000 she won. I love a story that makes me laugh and inspires me at the same time. Elodia Strain's Previously Engaged is that story. You'll find a well-written book with fleshed-out characters who feel real. Funny dialogue and interior monologue accompany this gem. With her clever writing style, Strain has composed a charming book that makes me want to read the next book she has to offer.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Fifth Elephant - Terry Pratchett

2000; 370 pages. Genre : Satiric Fantasy. 24th book in the Discworld Series. Awards : #153 in the "Big Read". Overall Rating : C+.
The Dwarfs' "Scone of Stone" has been pinched by miscreants unknown. For that matter, a replica of the Scone of Stone has also been pinched. The newly-elected Dwarven King of Uberwald can't be crowned without it. This is a job for Sam Vimes of the Night Watch, although he doesn't think so. So the Patrician deftly appoints him Ambassador to Uberwald, and Sam finds he has to go to there, and has to learn something called "Diplomacy" to boot.
What's To Like...
It's Discworld; it's Terry Pratchett; it's cool. There's a sharp, talking dog named Gaspode who is probably the brightest bulb in the book. There's a slew of Frankensteinish Igors who prove to be useful servants in all sorts of roles. There are werewolves, and vampires, dwarves and trolls, humans and DEATH. Only the Hobbits and Treebeard are missing.
OTOH, there's a lot less zaniness and wordplay here than in the earlier Discworld books. It's certainly darker than Guards! Guards!, and there's a lot of killing going on. The themes of T5E are rather serious : diplomacy, racial prejudice, and interspecies dating.
And for the first time for me, there were some irritations. All the Igors speak with a lisp. "Ith thith yourth, mathter?" and all that. Funny the first time; tiresome the thousandth time. Then there are the vampires, who replace W's with V's. "Ve vill vant you to vatch our vishing vells." Here's hoping you are enamored by Sergeant Schultz on Hogan's Heroes.
Finally, there are the plot lines themselves, normally a forte of a Discworld book. Sam deduces what happened to the true Scone of Stone, but never really proves it. And the subplots just sort of fizzle out into oblivion. The Night Watch office is plagued by disappearing sugar cubes. By the end of the book, they're down to only one. But if Pratchett ever gave an explanation for this, I didn't catch it.
Still, a mediocre effort by Pratchett is better than most fantasy books, and the insight he gives on the three themes listed above will make you sit back and re-evaluate your opinions about them. I think I've read somewhere that the Discworld series gradually evolves from silly spoof to a subtler shade of satire as it goes along, and I guess I'll have to get used to this. We'll give T5E a "C+". but recommend that your first Discworld book be something else, like Guards! Guards!

Custard and Company - Poems by Ogden Nash

Children aren't happy with nothing to ignore, And that's what parents were created for.

In honor of National Poetry Month and my son whom I inadvertently named after this man, I decided to delve into some poems by Ogden Nash , selected and illustrated by Quentin Blake.

Very much along the lines of Shel Silverstein of Where the Sidewalk Ends fame, Nash's genius is fun and wonderfully unadorned. At the time of his death in 1971, the New York Times said his "droll verse with its unconventional rhymes made him the country's best-known producer of humorous poetry".

From terse masterpieces like "The Kitten" (The trouble with a kitten is THAT Eventually is becomes a CAT) to the longer "A Watched Example Never Boils," and "The Tale of Custard the Dragon," this funny collection tickled by funny bone on more than one occasion. And I particularly enjoyed the frenetic illustrations by Blake. (His work is also included in another favorite of mine, Roald Dahl.) They added the perfect amount of whimsy to these animated tales, of mostly animals. Nash loved to write poetry about various animals (The turtle lives 'twixt plated decks/Which practically conceal its sex/I think it clever of the turtle/In such a fix to be so fertile.) And food. (I'm mad about mustard-even on custard.)

I had a lot of fun reading this book. It made me want to try it myself - ha. I'd prefer someone else to fill in the blanks instead, or better yet write your own and include it in the comments. Happy poetry month!

Once I was slim and oh so skinny
Now I'm all wide and oh so ________.
Giving birth isn't something to hide
So I must ______ on the _____
His ruddy cheeks and pouty lips
Make me grateful for my big ______.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Odyssey - Homer

I promised (aka, threatened), in the comments on the Iliad, that you'd all get to here me rant again, on the Odyssey. That day, my friends has come.

The Odyssey is a very different book from the Iliad. It's much more focused - there is one guy, and the whole book was about him, pretty much (excepting the three chapters at the beginning that follow his son's search for him). I'd never read it all the way through - I think I just read the juicy parts before. I had no idea that half of the Odyssey is devoted to Odysseus killing off his wife's suitors. Actually, all of the juicy parts (cyclops, Circe, etc), are actually a little less than a quarter of the book. The Lotus Eaters - my favorite part, and the inspiration for a story I wrote once - are actually like... oh... a paragraph. That's it.

The Iliad I disagreed with, but I could relate to it. Odysseus, on the other hand, is not someone I could admire. The entire book has this feeling of power-worship that didn't grate on me - it made me angry. It's the sort of book that one wants to read while imagining it through the eyes of his long-suffering wife, or one of the lovers of the suitors, or one of the citizens that he suppresses from popular revolt, or from one of the girls he 'wins' as a spoil from Troy, or any number of other people whose lives are just chaff to Odysseus. Odysseus has real feelings yes, but it was... the idea of greatness was not great, to me. The ending line of the book, written masterfully again by Mr. Pope, summed up my feelings on Odysseus:

"And willing nations knew their lawful lord."

This, after he has marched out with his close supporters and thrown a spear at the leader of a group of angry citizens, a man upset because Odysseus just killed his son. But, his son's life was not as important as Odysseus's. Honestly, the book made me think of the Old Testament. You feel sort of betrayed, because God keeps acting in a way that you can't reconcile with the goodness that you keep hearing about. It's frustrating and painful. The world is completely amoral - worship strength and power, and you will make it. Remain loyal to your masters, and they will take care of you. These are practically very wise statements, I suppose. But I don't like them.

PS - This image comes up under Odysseus in Google Image Search. Seriously.

Ragtime - E.L. Doctorow

This book had a lot of sex in it. Let me just start with that. The sex was not explicit, but more incidental. Aside from the sex, there were several... strange situations. A woman gives a young girl a sponge bath, for instance. These were all strange, unsettling scenes. They were not pleasant scenes. I didn't enjoy them. I am of the same school as many others here, that sex is an overused sales tactic, more than anything else (not that these sex scenes will pull in the classy-porn audience so much...).

What was different about this book, was that I thought the other really believed the sex. He really thought it belonged there, and he really wanted me to see it, for his own purposes. That sort of sums up this book for me. So much of what frustrates me in modern literature was there: that deep desire for a hero and a villain, combined with a self-aware coolness towards anyone who approaches either extreme. If something is ugly in this book, Doctorow refuses to just leave it ugly - he must find a way to show us that it isn't that simple. And vice-versa. Booker T. Washington must be shown as a bit pompous and self-important. The man who whips his wife with a razor strop must be shown to be pitiable. Normally this just frustrates me - not because it isn't true, but because it isn't WRITTEN true. Literature is so often just the work of phonies congratulating themselves on being so damned smart (I have a natural tendency to hate this because I've caught myself doing it in my life). I don't imagine the current day is unique for this, but I'm IN the current day - maybe it's just because I'm more experienced with present day variety of snobbery. IT's difficult to read a book like this and not think the author is someone I'd rather not have dinner with.

But, the difference is, I felt like Doctorow really believed it. I don't think this book will make me be a different person, but it made me think I could respect this kind of writing. I felt the same way I feel when I speak to a Libertarian who is willing to stop ranting and start talking - like I deeply disagree with what they are saying, but like I wish I could meet more people like them. It helps, as well, that there are some powerful ideas that I DID agree with him on, and that he talked about some of my favorite topics (Emma Goldman, for instance, and Muckrackers). I am glad I read this book, and will probably never read it again.

The Devil's Gentleman: Privelege, Poison, and the Trial That Ushered in the Twentieth Century by Harold Schechter

This is my first time reading a true-crime novel and it is a bold one. I have been plugging through it for awhile and it has kept me riveted. This book was smartly written and was researched very well. It reads like a novel yet it is non-fiction and can be quite scholarly, almost like a textbook, in places. I can't really say that I liked it because although it was captivating it was particularly sad. After all, it struggles to answer the age old question of how someone like this with substance, propriety and a seemingly upperhand on the world could become a murderer? So, I don't feel the need to recommend it, unless and perhaps I knew the person was interested in true-crime, simply because it was full of vivid descriptions and a lot of explicit details, some of which was uncomfortable for me to read, personally.

In the beginning of the novel, there is a lot of thought-provoking set up and it is hard to imagine in the world we live in today how this could ever happen. This was in the 1890's, Schechter vividly gives us a fact based explanation of how society at that time was set up and what surrounded this early age of an almost incomplete methods of forensic science. I love how Schechter uses all of these items to capture the people surrounding this tumultuous legal case which forces their characters out, good or bad, right or wrong, before and after the case was even revealed.

As this, understandably at the time, glossy, sensational case based out of New York City colorfully unfolds, it is like dynamite. It explodes the main persona, Roland Molineux, and all those who surround him in changing their life vastly and utterly complicated than ever before. Personally, I don't like Mr. Molineux and felt like he was the villain of the novel.

(Possible Spoilers below)

Allegedly, a poison was sent in the mail, packaged in a small blue vial commonly used for Bromo Seltzer being an ailment for headaches at the time. No one knew exactly who sent it, as there was no return address, but it came out that it was sent to one of Molineux's known rivals, Harry Cornish. Another fated poison was also sent to another rival of Molineux's, Henry Barnet which makes a little bit more sense because of Henry's connection to Blanche. Although, in the end Blanche does marry Molineux. For either man, enemies mostly in Molineux's mind, there was not really a super strong or valid reason for them to become fateful victims of the poison. Only one of the intended victims actually dies and the other comes close but recovers only at the expense of the dreaded personal loss of his cousin, Mrs. Katherine Adams, who took the poison meant for him.

Prominent people are not what they would seem to be, this case of poisoning would always have questions attached to it in this turn of the century society. The main people being of privilege, obsessed with the "on the surface" appearance of propriety, but secretly shady with sexual scandals, murderous mania and grudges on their minds. This trial could have very well marked the beginnings of what we now refer to as a media circus known then as yellow journalism. For me, this was one of the most educational and compelling parts of the book. I learned a lot about what it must've taken to be a journalist or to own a newspaper at this time when newspapers were so valuable. It was a gruelling world and these were tough people. The rivalry between Hearst and Pulitzer was absorbing and fascinating as portrayed in this quote:

"Not to be outdone by his archrival Hearst - who continued to run periodic pieces on the trial by Clement Scott- Joseph Pulitzer brought in his own celebrity from the theatrical world: famed American playwright Bronson Howard, author, among other hits, of the enormously successful Civil War drama Shenandoah."

Instances like this were brought out time and time again. I've never known what it must've been like to get your news only from the newspapers. I did get a real feel for the way journalism was like during this time. It was entertainment hinging only on a few collective bits of truth. Sensational.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

This book proved to be a simple read and I was forewarned by a couple of people that they hadn't really liked it. So, I went into reading this book without expectation at all. I also tried to give up any preconceived notions I had on heaven. Perhaps, this is best way to read it because, surprisingly, I enjoyed it better than I thought I would.
Eddie is the main character and it begins with his death. Of course, the story is predictable but I think it is meant to be.

It might seem strange to start a story with an ending. But all endings are also beginnings. We just don't know it at the time.

Eddie has five encounters with people in heaven. Albom writes in flashback format, so you learn different things about Eddie while he was alive with these people on his birthday's. I wish there was a different way this could have happened without the chapter heading "Today is Eddie's Birthday" because it did get a little old. I can't think of how this could be different in order to make sense though. It was fun to discover each of these five people and how they fit into Eddie's life. I think Eddie expected them to teach him, which they did, but they also needed to see and tell him something in order for them to progress in heaven. I thought this was interesting because Eddie is always thinking about how they relate to him when all they needed was for him to listen to them. So, it goes from a feeling of knowing what is real in Eddie's perception to a feeling of what is real in the other character's perceptions. Kind of like selfish to unselfish. That was the best thing for me I think to get out of it.
I wouldn't tell everyone to read this because I think I liked Tuesdays with Morrie better by the same author overall, so I would mention that first to someone.
In the end, I enjoyed it just as Marguerite, Eddie's wife, did: For the bitter and the sweet.

The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci and illustrated by Jim Rugg

After I read Amanda's review on this graphic novel, I put my children to bed and stayed up until I finished reading it straight through. I was initially impressed, so much so that I read it again the very next day. I think that is saying a lot. It's only my second time reading a graphic novel and it was terrific!
A really great talent finds its happiness in execution. -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I can just imagine how much fun it must have been for Castellucci and Rugg to create this novel. I really enjoyed the characters, thoughts, and mystery (about John Doe) within it. I couldn't help but love the art. I've kept looking at it again and again, trying to find out what I missed and take it all in.
I did want a bit more in the ending of this story. It left way too many questions for me and I'll be looking to read the sequel. Hopefully, it will provide some answers.
I would recommend this book for girls around 13-17, perhaps the girls in the story deal with things that most teenage girls can relate to. Yet, I don't think age matters since I'm well into my 30's and I found things I related to in it. I suppose some things in high school for me were too defined, as an experience, for me to forget.
In the end, A life without P.L.A.I.N is boring. Art saves.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

I don’t know about anybody else, but I’d want to return to my high school years about as much as I’d want to see the IRS on my caller ID. Those years are tough on all of us, a time for our rapidly growing ideas and minds to catch up with our rapidly growing body parts, a time to figure out who you are. My path through those hormonal years was rarely clear of debris and thorny sticks, and I always watched with a little bit of envy those whose path seemed clearer and more focused than mine.

Amal is one of those people. She’s a typical teenager in her Melbourne prep school. She’s on the debate team, has a close circle of girlfriends, is concerned about her clothes matching and whether she has a zit, and most importantly, if the cutest boy she’s had a crush on for ages is noticing her. But there’s one thing that’s not so typical, she’s a Palestinian-Muslim, the only one in her school and this year she’s decided to wear her head scarf (hijab) full time as a statement of her faith.

It’s 2002, a year after the September 11th attacks and a few months away from the Bali explosion in Indonesia. Tensions against Muslims are running high everywhere, in her school, her neighborhood, and in her city. Yet, Amal is a strong young woman who has come to the decision to stand up for what she believes in, despite the obstacles, and in the end they only seem to increase her resolve to stick with what she believes in.

What’s not to like about a story about a young teen who clearly knows what she wants? For someone who knows nothing about the Muslim religion, I found what was discussed here a light taste of something infinite. The author was clearly trying to explain to non-Muslims that Muslims are just like everybody else, through Amal’s interactions with her parents, her extended family and her friends, but I might’ve liked seeing a deeper look, like why Muslim women wear the hijab in the first place. Not all Muslims are terrorists, I get it. The majority of them are peace loving people trying to do the best for their families. This was probably the main point of the book, over and over and over again.

Therein lies my problem with this story. Think peachy with an r conveniently situated. The plot was so well calculated it didn’t flow naturally for me. It didn’t seem realistic at all, from her relationship to her parents, to her experiences with prejudice, and especially her discussions with her friends. In college maybe, but 11th grade? Really? What planet is she from? Maturatron. (I wonder if they wore leg warmers there too?) Oh, why couldn’t I have been from there as a teen!

Kudos to you, Ms. Abdel-Fattah, for creating a strong female lead for other teens to look up to, but next time ease up a bit on the moral lessons as it sometimes makes a teen, er…an adult like me rebel and give you a 2.5 stars. Sorry.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

This is a small departure from my reading norm and leaps and bounds above my insignificant intelligence. Still, I'll try to do the review and book some justice. I know I read this book. I remember words connected to form sentences, complete with punctuation. I remember the page numbers going up sequentially until the word "CONCLUSION" appeared marking the end of this journey. After that, it becomes a bit of a scientific blur lost in a haze of terms and theories I might never fully understand even if I had all the time in the world. OK, I might understand it, eventually, but not by the time I finish this book. However, I might pick up this book years later and it may make sense. When I read the Star Wars books a long, long time ago in a house far, far away, I would read paragraphs and chapters without understanding a word and one day it would *click* and I knew exactly what the author was writing about. That's my hope for this book. Of course, having the greatest mind of our time writing this book and expecting a lay-person like me to understand it is akin to giving a giving a four-year-old (who's just started on the Dick and Jane series) a copy of Tolstoy's War and Peace and expecting complete comprehension after one reading. OK, I might be a little extreme on this analogy (who am I to say a four-year-old can't comprehend Tolstoy?), but I think I made my point.

Several things I do remember: turtles! and scientists can and do create their own vocabulary. The book opens with Hawking telling of a scientist who goes through an elaborate explanation of the universe. At the end, this elderly woman informs him, "It's turtles all the way down!" I love that line. I'm not so sure about the concept, but who am I to argue with the powers that be? Suppose they do turn out to be reptiles. I wouldn't want to risk insulting them and turned to dust because I dissed this theory. I figure I stand a good chance by keeping an open mind. Another valuable lesson Hawking felt the need to impart upon readers is the name of quarks where he said came from Gell-Man who liked the name due to his favorite quote from James Joyce, "Three quarks for Muster Mark." I've known scientist have an odd sense of humor, how else do you explain wimpzillas? This is one theory Hawking didn't have to prove to me.

Now for the serious portion of this review. The book starts off with a brief history of science as it relates to defining and explaining the universe. He takes a tour of Aristotle to Galileo to Einstein and how many of the theories have evolved into what we have today. I actually understood most of this. It was like drinking white zinfandel, then came the tequila chasers. Oh, wait, I did mention I would be serious, didn't I? OK, the next of what followed, I tried my best to understand. I even reread paragraphs or certain words, sometimes unintentionally. I've written down names of people and ideas in hopes Google will lead me to the right answers. Things I do recall that make some sense are an astronaut falling through a black hole, the event horizon, Jocelyn Bell, black holes, primordial black holes, imaginary time, string theory, boundaries, he has respect for Einstein and his theories, some kind of kinship for Galileo (Galileo died 300 years before Hawking was born -- on the date!), tolerance for Newton, and there are three theories which describe the possible beginning and end of the world as we know it. Basically, Hawking stated there are three theories which describe how the universe began, but no one knows for sure because they are theories and we probably won't be able to prove any of them in this lifetime and the others will more likely change as we learn new things about the universe. In short, the answers to the universe are still out there and might never be answered, but it's important to keep asking questions.

Aside from having one of the greatest minds of the world, Hawking has a wonderful sense of humor and a bit of a gambling streak as he made several bets on his theories. I actually found myself laughing at some of the things he wrote. Still couldn't understand most of it, but the humor did help. It's difficult not to admire the man. He was diagnosed with ALS, still finished his degree and got married because the disease didn't spread as they thought and he intended to get married to Jane Wilde. Law and Order: Criminal Intent did a show similar to Hawking's story where a astrophysicist type person leaves his first wife for his second wife then goes back to his first wife. Which closely resembles Hawking's marriages. However, I don't think he wanted to think either wife was trying to kill him. Another thing I observed while reading this book is Hawking tread the line of science and religion very carefully. He tends to go back and forth if God existed, then what was the plan for the universe and did God leave humans to figure things out for ourselves. Religion and science is a tough ground to cover and he seems conflicted in his discoveries in science in how they relate to religion, if they do at all. For some reason, this recalls to me Bruce Lee. My husband's a big Bruce Lee fan and studies most of his martial arts techniques. He mentioned Bruce Lee died at a young age from a brain edema (swelling of the brain). Before that, doctor's told Lee he had the body of an eighteen-year-old despite the fact he was in his thirties. My husband often laments the death of Bruce Lee and questions about it. My philosophical theory is when someone has such a strong aptitude in one area, another area must give. If a person is physically or intellectually superior, then some part of the body must give way to that superiority. I related this to a candle that has such a bright flame it is required to burn for so long then snuffs out. Being a Taurus, I firmly believe in symmetry and try to find the balance in things, including body and spirit. This answered satisfied my husband's curiosity. Of course this is all theory and has no basis other than my belief. I might be completely wrong. In short (in theory only), Hawking's did a great job explaining the history of the universe, if only I understood most of it.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Knitting Bones by Monica Ferris

This is the eleventh in the needlework series. Betsy Devonshire owns Crewel World, a needle working shop she inherited from her sister after her sister was killed, thus beginning Betsy's trek into sleuthing. Betsy seems to just put the pieces together after talking with people and gleaming information. She doesn't even have to talk to the killer as evidenced in this latest mystery. She does at the end, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Betsy's best friend, Jill, invites Betsy to go horseback riding. Everything starts off good, until something spooks Betsy's horse and Betsy gets thrown from the mare and breaks her ankle. But life goes on and someone needs to run the store. Her faithful employee, Godwin DuLac, steps in to help run the store and even goes to the EGA (Embroiders' Guild of America) luncheon in Betsy's place. This proves to be more interesting than originally expected. It seems Bob Germaine, who accepted a $24K check for the Heart Foundation raised by the EGA has disappeared along with the check. That very same night, Tony Milan is hit by a drunk driver and ends up in the hospital with a few bad breaks, but the worst news Tony has is he can't figure out what happened to the check he planned on stealing from Bob Germaine.

Days later, Allie Germaine, Bob's wife, approaches Betsy and enlists Betsy's help to locate her husband and hopefully clear his name. Betsy pointedly lets Allie know there's very little she can do with a broken ankle. Allier persist and gives the best argument why drugs (even prescribed ones) are bad for people. Betsy finally relents and says she'll make some calls and do what she can. Goddy meets with Betsy later and begs Betsy to let Goddy help her in this case. Betsy's become something of an idol for him and he's just enamored with her sleuthing skills. Betsy, still under the influence and broken down by Allie's insistence, she agrees to let Goddy help her investigate. I smell an Afternoon Special in this story. Later, Goddy confirms his suspicion that Bob's gay when Goddy's gaydar went off during the banquet. Betsy eventually points out the holes in Goddy's detecting skills and she and Jill coach Goddy on the proper way to interview people and gleam information without really trying. Armed with this new knowledge and a pretty notebook, Goddy sets forth to get more information for Betsy. Meanwhile, Bob Germaine's body's found in a car at the airport. More questions abound. In the interim, Betsy acquires a new houseguest, a crow. Crows are smart. Real smart, and conniving, too. Let the crow do your accounts, but count the money at the end of the day. Meanwhile, Tony Milan is suffering with a broken leg and arm and his life in shambles. He's been fired from his job due to his stealing, unable to close his account with stolen money due to his rudeness, his apartment in smoke due to his negligence during cooking, and missing his money and ticket out of the states due to his predicament. But none of it's his fault and karma doesn't exist. Even non-believers are not safe from karma. I don't feel sorry for Tony and his luck is going to get worse.

I really like this series. Unlike most craft series, this one runs the gambit on all types of needlework: cross-stitch, knitting, crocheting and several others I can't recall or do anyway. I can only cross-stitch at this point and have no desire to do any of the others. Occasionally, the characters drool over technique, patterns, and floss, but it all boils down to the crime Betsy's handling at the moment, which involves needlework in body or spirit. What really touched me was the cat in the story. Sophie is the cat Betsy inherited along with the store and apartment after her sister's death. Sophie kind of resents Betsy because Betsy tried to put her on a diet in the first or second book. Betsy since learned to let Sophie think Betsy disapproves of the snacks visitors sneak the cat. It keeps the peace in the family. In this book, Sophie tries to comfort Betsy by sticking close to her side. When I sprained my ankle many years ago, the vicious cat we had took pity on me and laid by my side. This book reminds me of those times and reinforces how animals can feel our pain and relate their sympathetic nature. Of course, they'll revert to their wily ways once the person they seek to soothe is well again, but take comfort where it can be found, I say.

Aphrodite by Isabel Allende

A song I am grooving to right now is Ciara feat. Justin Timberlake "Love, Sex, Magic." If Isabel Allende had anything to add, it would most certainly be FOOD.

In this fantastical yet non-fiction text, Allende outlines some of the most delectable, daring OR disgusting aphrodisiacs from across the world, complete with recipes. Consider, for example, honey (delectable) or bulls' testicles (disgusting). Allende goes further than food, however, also throwing into the mix some interesting facts from history, for instance Napolean's request that his beloved Josephine not wash her private parts. Allende continues to offer information in the form of certain words and phrases, such as the French "cassolette," which is a term for what Josephine would have cultivated if she followed Napolean's request. Other stories and factoids which Allende provides will truly tantalize, take my word for it. As a special treat, throughout the book is wonderful, sensual art.

Allende confirms what most women already know - that the sense of smell and ability to be stimulated through auditory ministrations are more heightened for women than for men, who are reputedly more visual in their "tastes." Paraphrasing Allende - women's g-spots are their ears, no lower; words are aphrodisiac.

I've come up with a Lover's List, items of advice that are based upon Allende's stories and information, which applies to both food and love(making). Here it is:

1.) Delay gratification.

2.) Create variety.

3.) Cook together.

4.) Laugh.

5.) Include and enjoy scent.

6.) Dress up, wear lingerie.

7.) Eat with your hands.

8.) Enjoy formality and manners occasionally as well as wild abandon at times.

9.) Eat slowly occasionally, ravish at times.

10.) Use herbs and spices.

11.) Speak, talk, use words, make sounds.

12.) Play music.

By the way,

fe·cun·di·ty (f-knd-t)
1. The quality or power of producing abundantly; fruitfulness or fertility.
2. Productive or creative power: fecundity of the mind.


phil·ter also phil·tre (fltr)
1. A love potion.
2. A magic potion or charm.
tr.v. phil·tered also phil·tred, phil·ter·ing also phil·tring, phil·ters also phil·tres
To enchant with or as if with a philter.

(two words I learned - I'm embarrassed that they were new to me.)

Finally, I must say that, at times, Allende comes across as an annoying dinner guest, regaling the other guests with her stories of wild experiences in far off places, complete with orgies, while the dinner guests at some point begin rolling their eyes while taking puffs from short cigarettes at the end of long black cigarette holders. I think even Allende is aware of this, because she does at times correct the appearance she is giving off with some direct, self-deprecating truth.

This collection of stories, facts and recipes is of notable interest to those who already have an interest in two of my favorite topics: sex and food. This book is for those with a more sophisticated taste - Allende herself occupies a very clear difference between erotica and porn. While some of it is shocking, Aphrodite is the former. - 4 stars p.s. - The dessert section of the recipes is the best.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Fairy Godmother by Mercedes Lackey

This seems like a departure from the norm, but it's really getting back to one of my roots. I know I read and post a lot of mystery and haven't really delved outside that area recently until now. I love fantasy and science fiction, but just haven't gotten a chance to read much of it lately, except for maybe the Dresden files. I almost forgot how much I love fantasy, when the author doesn't get to carried away with the paranormal and tries to make the fae sound "hip" and ultra-chic. That just annoys the heck out of me for some reason. I guess I feel the author is bending the rules to suit him or her and I feel it's a violation of all the laws of fantasy. I guess I should stay away from a lot of urban fantasy (with very few exceptions) and stick to the classic fantasy.

This one involves the classic tale of Cinderella with Elena Klovis in the starring role, only her prince hasn't been cast yet and she's growing a little restless waiting for him. She decides to take matters into her hands when her standard issue evil stepmother and two stepsisters depart town to get away from the creditors leaving Elena behind to deal with the mess. However, Elena decides she's not staying behind. There just so happens to be a Mop Fair where people can sell themselves for their services (cooking, cleaning, farming, etc) in exchange for a decent wage, wardrobe, meals, and room. Sadly, no one picks Elena, but her hopes don't set with the sun and a latecomer arrives who offers Elena a position as an apprentice. Elena doesn't ask the important question "An apprentice to what?" figuring anything is better then her life here. Turns out it will be. The woman who hires Elena is Madame Bella, Godmother to many kingdoms (twelve I think with more on the horizon). Bella takes Elena to her enchanting (literally) cottage and Elena quickly settles into her new role. After some time of training with magic and potions and learning of the Godmother heritage and how the Tradition works, Madame Bella hands over the wand of Godmother to Elena. Elena doesn't feel she's ready, but there's nothing she can do as Bella flies off into the distance. One of Elena's assignments is to help a sorceress with three Questors, who happen to be prince brothers (Octavian, Alexander, and Julian), seeking the hand of a certain princess. A witch is supposed to handle this task, but has been called away to supervise the delivery of twins or triplets and Elena is left to handle this task. Elena appears and finds the first two brothers act as arrogant asses, Alexander more so, and she turns Alexander into an ass. Later, the third brother appears and Elena gives him some clues to help with the Quest. Octavian wanders around the forest until he "happens" upon a Dark (in name only) Witch who shows him the error of his ways and offers him a chance for redemption. Alexander suffers the same fate under the tutelage of Elena and the brownies who help around the house and grounds. She lets him return to his manly self every seventh day, but he still has to work for his supper. He's not very happy about his predicament and thinks if he can run away, break Elena's wand, or "ruin" her he'll be home free. Elena's already prepared for his tricks with some of her own. Resigned to his fate, he resumes his life until he slowly becomes human in soul and body. That's when the magic really happens. Long story short, Alexander has picked a new fate for himself: he's a Champion. Just in time, too, his brother Julian is in danger. An evildoer has killed the king (Julian's father-in-law), locked away the princess, and has unknowingly thrown Julian in the dungeon. Elena and Alexander hatch a plan to rescue the survivors and set things right. But Elena has bigger problems looming on the horizon: she and Alexander are in love and want to get married, but she's never read anything about a Fairy Godmother taking a lover or a husband. Still, she and Alexander tie the knot once the dust has settled and pity the fool who tries to null their marriage. But the council who meets to discuss such matters wonder why Elena was so worried in the first place and inform her Godmothers are only human too, except for the real Fairy Godmothers and not to worry and to continue business as usual. In case anyone is wondering what happened to those Evil Ones who originally wronged Elena, they returned to their house only to be caught by the creditors and are forced to work off their debt in their former home turned Bed and Breakfast. The Evil Stepmother and one of the Evil Stepsisters are not faring too well, while the third of the bunch might get a happy ending.

What I liked about this was the magic in the book and how Lackey stayed within the rules of classic fantasy. She created her Olde Fairy Kingdoms and stayed in those boundaries. There was the romantic element, even sex, but it didn't overshadow the plot nor extraneous and was woven quite well into the story. I got to see Elena and Alexander grow and develop over a period of time. Bella warned Elena she would be attracted to princes because of her role set down by the Tradition. Elena refuses to let this unseen force make her choices for her, but she is drawn to Alexander, not by his looks, but by his deeds. Eventually, she and the Tradition come to an unspoken agreement. She'll let the Tradition lead her only so far, but her life is hers to lead as she sees fit. The Tradition is an interesting element. It's a force which guides the residents of the 500 Kingdoms. The magic creatures don't know its true nature, only that its will is strong and it doesn't like chaos it doesn't make. In one portion of the book, Bella speaks about Ladderlocks (aka Rapunzel) and the pitfalls of this story. Many Ladderlocks have killed themselves over their captivity and many Questors have lost their lives trying to save the fair Ladderlocks. Bella won't have that in her kingdom. They have a potential Ladderlocks in the village nearby. Bella and Elena devise a plan to satisfy the rules of the story, but turn it around. They turn Ladderlocks into The Princess and the Pea. I also like how practical Elena is. She's not wasteful with her magic (always afraid she's going to run out of it, especially during a crisis) and learns to expect the unexpected when the spells she cast don't always occur in the same fashion (fairy folk sometimes have a hand in that). However, the few things that disappointed me is even though Elena was practical, she needed to find the positive in things. When she turns the Ladderlocks into the Princess and the Pea, she grieves over the mother losing the daughter to the prince when the girl reaches sixteen years of age. She fails to notice the daughter won't die, she'll be married off. She also laments she'll be married to someone she hadn't met before. Bella quickly reminds her about all the arranged marriages that take place throughout the kingdoms and the Tradition will see her husband is kind and fair where the girl might do worse in the village. Elena has a hard time seeing this and I'm not sure she ever did see it. I'm sure she'll have plenty of time to get used to situations like this and her attitude might change over time.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

American Gods - Neil Gaiman

2001; 588 pages. Genre : Contemporary Fantasy. Awards : 2002 Hugo Award; 2002 SFX Magazine Award; 2002 Bram Stoker Award; 2004 Geffen Award. It cleaned up, man. Overall Rating : A.
This book has already been reviewed by Amanda here, and by Jim at our godbloggers site here. This is going to be the "yin" to Amanda's "yang".
Summary : The story follows Shadow, a somewhat naive and sunny-dispositioned chap, after he gets out of prison and falls in with a bunch of long-forgotten gods, the main one of which is named Wednesday, and whom we quickly figure out is an incarnation of the Norse god, Odin. Wednesday's rallying lots of old, forgotten gods and legends (like Johnny Appleseed) in preparation to a war against the "new" American gods - such as the Internet; the Media, etc.
What's To Like...
There's a slew of complex plotlines, all of which Gaiman manages to deftly tie up by the end of the book. The plot-twists will leave you mumbling, "I didn't expect that". I found almost all the characters - whether they were major or minor; good or bad; humans or gods - to be 3-D and interesting. Finally, it's a mythology-lover's smorgasbord. Gaiman pulls in gods and folk characters from all sorts of nationalities - German, Norse, Egyptian, Slavic, American Indian; India Indian; Arab, and more.
Can't you say anything negative?...
Not a lot. The book reads like a mini-trilogy. The first 200 pages are fantastic; and so are the last 200. The middle 200 pages (where Shadow is hanging out in Lakeside) drag just a bit. And call me a prude, but the sex scenes were a tad raunchy and unnecessary. They could've been edited out, and Gaiman would still have a bestseller on his hands, but it would now be something that a High School Lit class could read and discuss. I didn't need to know the lurid details about how Salim and the Ifrit managed to meet and swap identities.
What kind of plotlines are there?
#1 : Shadow is on a quest to figure out who he is. #2. : Shadow is trying to find out who his father was. Mom never talked about him. #3. : Shadow's wife passes away (in a most Garpian manner) right before he's let out of prison. She's now a ghost (insert plug here to watch 'Ghost Whisperer' on Friday nights); and Shadow is most persistent in trying to find a way to bring her back from the dead. #4. : Why are kids disappearing at the rate of one a year from Lakeside? #5. : How can Odin (or any other god) be hanging out in America and at the same time have people still believing in him back in Scandinavia? #6. : How can the new American gods be overcome? #7. : That whole Armageddon/Ragnarok thing.
And they all get resolved by the end of the book. No 11-part series here. We'll give American Gods an "A" and look forward to reading the kinda-sorta-but-not-quite sequel, Anansi Boys, in the near future.

The Ghost and the Femme Fatale by Alice Kimberly

This is the fourth in the haunted bookstore series. Penelope McClure co-owns a bookstore with her Aunt Sadie, Buy the Book, which specializes in mysteries. Jack Shephard is a former private investigator who has hung up his license in order to haunt Mrs. McClure's bookstore. Actually, he doesn't have a choice because he was killed years ago where bookstore now stands. To pass his time, he torments people. Penny is his favorite person to torment, especially the fact that she can hear him and, now that she found his old Buffalo nickel, he can leave the bookstore and go with her on cases.

In this case, the town of Quindicott, Rhode Island, is having a film noir festival. Everything is going along swimmingly until opening night when a speaker falls down and almost kills Hedda Geist, b-movie bombshell. Then the next day, an author is killed before the lecture/signing she's supposed to give. The authorities rule it as an accident, but Pen and Jack disagree. So do the three bodies which follow the author's death. With Jack's guidance and flashbacks, Pen solves the case.

What's so interesting is Kimberly is actually Cleo Coyle who has another series out dealing with a coffee house which I refuse to read. I tried to read the first book, but just couldn't stand the author's condescending attitude about the virtues of coffee. I admit, I drink coffee and love a good cup of some of the specialty blends. However, I don't lecture on the proper way to store coffee and snub the drink when my mocha was made too soon. She had paragraphs devoted to the proper way to store coffee and how she cringed when she saw coffee being stored improperly. If I wanted to read a book on the history and proper uses of coffee, I would've bought that book. Instead, I wanted a mystery, which the book was more flippant about. Kimberly's haunted bookstore has none of this. The characters are engaging. It's funny to see Pen interact with Jack, her aunt, son, and other members of the community, and they are a quirky bunch. Pen's a little slow on the take and Jack even called her on (something akin to being as green as a broken traffic light), but Jack really likes her, maybe even loves her, and helps her out. I think Pen would be lost without Jack even if her gets on her nerves. Another quirky thing I like about this book is the quotes before each chapter come from pulp detective fiction stories which I would be tempted to read if I didn't have a small TBR looming over me.

Murder on Astor Place by Victoria Thompson

Sarah Brandt is a midwife in the late 1800s New York. It's a time of change. Theodore Roosevelt is the commissioner and making plenty of reform changes, much the chagrin of Frank Malloy who has high hopes of bribing his way to captain one day. The death of a young girl, Alicia VanDamm, enables the paths of Sarah Brandt and Frank Malloy to cross. Frank is sent to investigate her death, Sarah shows up at the house to look in on the mother and baby she helped deliver the previous night. She recognized the young girl who bore a striking resemblance to her friend Mina VanDamm. Sarah is highly suspicious the girl is pregnant, which is confirmed later by the ME, and wonders what a prominent family member is doing in a boarding house. Unwittingly drawn in by Sarah's demand for justice, Frank agrees, even more so when he's taken off the case. He encourages Sarah to continue, especially when she's brought him vital information. Her ticket with the VanDamms via her family, the wealthy Deckers, allows her some insight into why this sweet, innocent girl was murdered.

I typically don't read historical fiction. But wait, one might say, don't you read Sherlock Holmes and didn't you recently review Holmes on the Range? Yes and yes. I don't really regard Sherlock Holmes by Doyle to be historical. Doyle wrote them during his time. Naturally, I'm drawn to Sherlockian style stories so I had to give Holmes on the Range a try. If it hadn't been so engrossing, I would've dropped it like a hot poker. Kudos to Hockensmith on that. Sometimes when a person writes a historical there feels like the author needed to perform an information overload on the reader, which it seems some authors haven't got it that readers (a) don't like to be lectured, (b) it doesn't show how smart the writer is, and (c) it's unnecessary. Thompson didn't do that. She did throw in historical references, but as they pertained to the story and wove it in so it felt natural. I didn't get the impression I had turned on the history channel in the middle of reading this book. The mystery was good, though I did figure out most of it. What really made the story was the complexity of the characters Sarah Brandt and Frank Malloy. Both so different: upbringing, attitude and profession. The only thing they seem to have in common is trust; neither one trusts the other. Each feels wronged by a member of the other's profession. Brandt's husband's murder has never been solved due to overwhelming corruption in the police force and Malloy's wife died after childbirth and he blames the midwife. Yet, the shattered innocence of this girl brings them together for a common goal: justice. Seeing as there are more books in the series, Malloy and Brandt will have more opportunities to ensure justice is meted out for more unfortunates and maybe their distrust of one another will dissolve.

Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer

I have an embarrassing confession. I’m so excited I’m giddy like a school girl, and I’m also apparently dumb like one. Until recently, I’d never heard of Georgette Heyer. See, told you – dumb. I had no idea of how many books she’d written on Regency England, about 60 I think, and I, who claim to love an excellent classic historical romance, have never read even one of her books. Not – one.

Have I been living in a hole these last 3 decades, stuck in an Austen, Bronte rut the size and scope of my pan-handled state? And so I would still be if not for my occasional scanning of the reading bloggernacle where I recently found a lone review of this book, Black Sheep. Be still my beating heart. This is an excellent book. And I almost took it back to the library unread, shameful, wicked girl!

Miss Abigail Wendover is our 28-year-old heroine who lives in Bath with her much older, often thinks herself ill sister, Selina and their 18-year-old ward and niece Fanny. Abby is quite settled in her life, where she is both nurse and confidant to her immediate family. Romance is the last thing on her mind. All remains unchanged until young Fanny thinks herself in love with a scandalous fortune hunter, a much older Mr. Stacy Calverleigh, and it falls to Abby to make Fanny see the light of this man’s true nature.

When Fanny and Selina remain unmoved in their undying devotion to this man, Abby, who fears there might be an elopement at any moment, enlists the help of an unlikely ally, Mr. Miles Calverleigh, the black sheep of the family and uncle of Stacy who has just returned from banishment in India. He, however has not the temperament or desire to become involved in the situation, but instead turns his attentions toward Abby, who secretly knows she’s met her match, but outright refuses to admit it all costs.

In case I haven't mentioned it enough, I really liked this book. It was written in the style of Jane Austen, but was much easier to read. Heyer has borrowed much from that great writer but in the end I couldn't have cared a wit. While the main characters were clever and sharp as a tack, it was the secondary characters as well, the nosy elderly neighbors, the friends of the family that gave this book real depth.

As I said I’ve not read any of Heyer’s other books so I’ve nothing to compare it to, but for a few days, I was able to escape back in time. No detail was left undone. I felt I was in Bath in the 1800’s. Miles Calverleigh now ranks very high on my list of outstanding male leads, and the ending – well, perfection, sigh... Truly, I can’t get back to the library fast enough. 5 stars***