Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Bookwoman's Last Fling

Cliff Janeway, once a Denver homicide detective, now the owner of a used book store, travels to Idaho to appraise and investigate a rare book collection for the estate of a recently deceased racehorse trainer.  The books were assembled by his late wife, the bookwoman of the title, who died from her peanut allergy many years before.  Now it turns out that some of the valuable first editions have been stolen and replaced with cheaper reprints, and there are some people who wonder who fed her those peanuts in the first place.

I first became aware of John Dunning's series of Janeway mysteries back when I was working in a bookstore myself; booksellers in particular were interested in the series, for obvious reasons.  The character of Janeway reminds me vaguely of Robert Parker's Spenser, if only because they share a certain erudition you don't always find in hardboiled detectives.

This particular volume combines the book mystery with the horse racing setting, à la Dick Francis, whom I also love.  Can't go wrong with that, even though I did guess the villain about halfway through purely from the Law of Conservation of Characters.

Originally posted at MySpace on 6/22/06

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Girls Who Went Away

I've been on a nonfiction kick lately.  I normally read medieval history and a little biography, so this study of unwed teenage mothers who gave up their children for adoption between World War II and the Roe v. Wade case in 1973 is sort of out of character for me; especially since I am quite possibly the least maternal woman on the planet.  You wouldn't think I'd be at all interested in stories like these, but I found the book unexpectedly absorbing.

The author, Ann Fessler, is an adopted child herself, as was her own mother.  The book starts and ends with her own story of finding her birth mother, but the largest part of the book is based on hundreds of oral histories she recorded.  They have a lot in common; a recurring theme is that these girls weren't given a choice.  A lot of them went to homes for unwed mothers where they were treated like dirt, and a lot them believed in their own worthlessness for years afterwards, sometimes all their lives.

When I was looking for a gynecologist after I moved to this town, the first one I called told me up front that she doesn't prescribe birth control pills.  I've been hearing a lot lately about Catholic hospitals refusing to give rape victims emergency contraceptives, and Christian pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for the Pill--sometimes not even giving the woman her prescription back, so she could take it to another pharmacy.  I really don't want to see this society take a giant leap backwards to the conditions described in Fessler's book, but I wonder which way we're going sometimes.

Originally posted at MySpace on 6/16/06

Eight of Swords

Warren Ritter is not a typical hero for a murder mystery.  For one thing, "Warren Ritter" isn't his real name, and is only one of several he goes by.  He's been living under the radar for thirty-odd years, ever since his activities as a political radical and leader of the Weather Underground went sour.  These days he doesn't really have to work for a living (one of his identities had the foresight to invest in Microsoft a couple of decades ago), but to keep busy he reads Tarot cards on a street corner in Berkeley, California.  The book gets started when his reading for a random young woman is filled with warnings, and later that same day she is kidnapped.

The author, David Skibbins, has written a second book featuring the same character.  It's also named after a Tarot card: High Priestess.  With 78 cards in a Tarot deck, he's got the possibility of a really long-running series ahead of him; it'll be interesting to see if the character of Warren Ritter/Richard Green/Dave Ellbruck et al. can support such a series.  The character is the best thing about the first book, Eight of Swords; he's not only a fugitive with understandable paranoia issues and a deep distrust of authority, he's also got rapid cycling bipolar disorder.  The supporting characters of his paraplegic hacker love interest and his octogenarian therapist are equally intriguing.

Originally posted at MySpace on 5/23/06

The Advocate

In mid-fifteenth century France, young lawyer Richard Courtois (played by equally young Colin Firth) leaves behind the decadence and corruption of the big city to live a more authentic life and do some real good in the country town of Abbeville, only to find himself embroiled in defending a woman accused of witchcraft, a farmer who killed his wife's lover--and a pig accused of murdering a Jewish boy.

I enjoyed this movie, but I'm not sure what to make of it.  I ordered it on DVD for the library where I work after the IMDb featured it as their movie of the day; their review remarked that the courtroom trial of the pig is a real giggle to watch, and I figured that any movie with Colin Firth naked couldn't be a total waste of time.  A couple of other reviews I read treated it as a farce, or a satire, and a lot of it was pretty funny.  I particularly liked the exchange between Courtois and the local priest, Albertus, played by Ian Holm, after Courtois learns that Albertus coerces women in the confessional to sleep with him:

Courtois:  Hell must be full of priests.  
Albertus:  Can't move for 'em.

But the overall tone is really too dark for comedy.  Interesting film, though.

Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt

This book by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart was recommended to me by a coworker at the library.  I really had no familiarity with the story; I like to read history for fun, but the Gilded Age is not a time period I'm usually interested in.  So I wasn't previously aware that Alva Vanderbilt, a granddaughter-in-law of the famous "Commodore" Vanderbilt, pretty much forced her daughter Consuelo to give up the man she was in love with and marry the Duke of Marlborough instead.  I certainly didn't know that both Consuelo and (oddly enough) Alva went on to become pioneering feminists, active in the British and American movements for women's right to vote.

The author makes a good case that Alva's conversion to the suffragist cause was not as out of character as it might seem in light of the way her social ambitions led her to decide her daughter's future without regard to Consuelo's wishes.  This is mostly a well-written book, though it's the author's first and the style is occasionally repetitive.

Originally posted at MySpace on 4/4/06

The Postman Always Rings Twice

A lifelong drifter finds a reason to stay put for a while when he sees the gorgeous young wife of the man who offers him a mechanic's job.  She thinks he's pretty swell too.  But if they're going to be together they'll have to find a way to remove the only obstacle: her husband.

Let me admit up front that I have never seen the movie with Lana Turner.  I'll have to look it up now, and see how it's different from the book; a lot will depend on whether they made it before or after the institution of the Hayes Code, I reckon.

The book is pretty steamy, in that 1930s elliptical way.  The sex is not described, but you're left in no doubt what's going on.  There's nobody to like; the two principals are both pretty sleazy.  I guess that's the point.  But the book is so well written it kept me flipping pages.

Originally posted at MySpace, 3/25/06

Saturday, February 13, 2010

V for Vendetta

I read V for Vendetta, the graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd, a long time ago.  It knocked me flat.  I picked up my own copy some time in the late nineties, when the bookstore where I worked at the time got hold of some remaindered paperback copies of the then-out-of-print book.

When I saw the movie it pretty well knocked me flat too.

I noticed the obvious changes from the source material.  As every single article and review about this movie is compelled to mention, Alan Moore had his name taken off the credits--and he's getting more publicity for that act than he would have gotten for being the credited original writer, though I don't suppose that was his point--presumably because the movie is so different from what he wrote back in the 80s.  For the most part, I think the changes work, and I didn't miss the excised characters and subplots too much.

Hugo Weaving does a fabulous job as V.  It's got to be a tough assignment for an actor, spending an entire movie hidden behind a ceramic mask, but he carries it off well, defining the character with voice and body language.  Natalie Portman does an equally fabulous job as Evey, and is convincing as both the passive media flunky at the start of the movie and the tough bald chick who has to decide whether to flip the switch on the explosives at the end.

I do wonder how one man in an oppressive totalitarian society could manufacture and arrange to have delivered some 200,000 Guy Fawkes masks.

Originally posted at MySpace on 3/20/06

One O'Clock Jump

In Kansas City in 1938, Doria Lennox is an operative working for private investigator Amos Haddam, an expatriate Brit who took a lungful of mustard gas in World War I.  Her first solo operation seems to go bust when she sees the woman she's tailing jump off a bridge, but something's not right: the client wants her to keep looking into the woman's life.  At the same time, the case that her boss leaves unfinished when his lung condition worsens and he is hospitalized blows up in Dorie's face when a stranger breaks into her room to deliver a warning she doesn't understand.

A while back I read a similar book, This Dame for Hire by Sandra Scoppetone, about a woman who takes over her boss's private investigation agency when he goes off to the war.  This book, the first of a series by Lise McClendon, is set a little earlier, when the war is just beginning in Europe.  I liked this one a little better.  Scoppetone's book is told in first person, and the forties slang didn't entirely ring true.  McClendon has some trouble with abrupt POV shifts, but the tone is a little more genuine.

I can see Faye Quick, from This Dame for Hire, being played by Ginger Rogers.  For Dorie Lennox they'd need someone more like Barbara Stanwyck.

Originally posted at MySpace on 2/23/06

Canongate Myths

One of the coolest things about being a librarian is that I get to hear about all the nifty new books in advance (and put my name first on the hold list).  I was immediately intrigued when I heard about the new "Myths" series from Canongate publishing: the kickoff would be a nonfiction Short History of Myth by religious writing superstar Karen Armstrong, and two short novels by Jeannette Winterson (Weight, a reflection on the myth of Atlas and Heracles) and Margaret Atwood (The Penelopiad, retelling the Odyssey from Penelope's point of view).

Most of the reviews I've read say that The Penelopiad is slightly better than Weight, and I'd have to concur; but only slightly better.  Both are excellent.  Weight in particular has an interesting take on the nature of myth, with its recurring line "I want to tell the story again."

Maybe The Penelopiad has an advantage in being a better known myth.  I already knew that Heracles once took over Atlas's job of holding up the cosmos, and had to trick Atlas into taking it back, because I have been a mythology geek from childhood, but everybody knows the story of the Odyssey, if only because they were forced to read the thing in school: how Odysseus went off on twenty years of adventures and Penelope was stuck at home in Ithaca fending off the men who wanted to marry her and take over the kingdom.

It's interesting to look at that story again from a 21st century feminist viewpoint.

Originally posted at MySpace on 2/11/06

Arthur and George

Arthur was of Irish descent, but born in Scotland.  He trained as a doctor, specialized as an oculist, and became famous as a writer, though the fictional creation he was (and is) most famous for was one he didn't much care for.

George was the son of a vicar.  His mother too was Scottish.  He never seemed to have many friends, but didn't seem to feel the lack of them.  He studied to be a lawyer, and while still quite young wrote a guide to railway law, not for the man on the street, but the man on the train.

Their paths crossed after the half-Indian George Edalji (pronounced Aydlji, not Ee-dal-ji) was convicted of a series of livestock mutilations near his home.  He served three years of a seven-year sentence, but was unable to return to his profession, the law.  He wrote to Arthur Conan Doyle in the hope that the famous author might be able to bring some attention to his attempts to gain a pardon from the Home Office.

I knew the basic outlines of this story, but Julian Barnes' new novel Arthur and George goes into great detail, following both characters from childhood up to their meeting and on from there.  It explores Conan Doyle's growing interest in Spiritualism, and his relationships with both his first wife and his second.  The Edalji family dynamics also come in for some scrutiny.  Very well written, fascinating novel.

Originally posted at MySpace on 1/24/06

Good Night, and Good Luck

I got a copy of Good Night, and Good Luck on DVD in a $3 bin at Big Lots a couple of weeks ago, and watched it with a friend who'd never seen it.  I saw it in the theater when it was new.  When I told my dad, who was 76 at the time, that I wanted to see a movie about journalist Edward R. Murrow's role in the downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy, he said, "I guess you don't really remember that."  In fact it all happened well before I was born, so to me it's history.  Dad remembered it, but he never liked to talk about the past, and I never really asked him about this incident and what he'd thought of it all at the time.

Fabulous movie.  The director's choice to use newsreel footage of McCarthy instead of hiring an actor to play the senator was brilliant; no one can claim he put words in McCarthy's mouth that the man never said.  David Strathairn was excellent as Murrow, and since I don't remember the man himself I can't complain that the actor doesn't look like him.  I kind of wish that Clooney had stuck to directing and had not chosen to play a role in the film as well; he was the only casting choice that I found a little jarring, reminding me that I was watching a movie.

Don't Know Much About Mythology

Kenneth C. Davis, author of several previous "Don't Know Much About" guides to subjects as diverse as geography, history, and the Bible, takes on world mythology.  The book uses a question and answer format along with timelines and alphabetical listings of deities to cover Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek and Roman, Celtic and Norse, Far Eastern, African, Native American, and Pacific Island mythology.  The Far Eastern chapter includes Chinese and Japanese myths; the Native American section touches on everything from Inuit to Inca, and the Pacific Island chapter includes Australia.

Obviously, this is not an in-depth guide to any of the covered mythologies, but it is a good overview of belief systems that the target audience (of Western European descent, mostly) may know little to nothing about.  I've read a lot of Greek, Roman, Celtic and Norse myths, but the other sections were mostly new to me.  I also liked the author's emphasis throughout the book on how mythology influences history and culture to this day.

Originally posted at MySpace on 1/11/06

The Will of the Empress

The four young mages who learned to work as a team in Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic series, then went their separate ways and took on students of their own in the Circle Opens set, come together again.  Noble-born Sandrilene has been content to draw the income from her estates in the empire of Namorn as an absentee landlord, while leaving their day-to-day management in the capable hands of a cousin, but Sandry has another cousin in Namorn: the Empress Berenene, who is becoming increasingly insistent that her young kinswoman take up residence in her ancestral home.  Sandry agrees to visit for the summer, but Berenene intends the visit to be permanent; when Sandry's foster sisters and brother accompany her, Berenene soon recognizes that they too would be assets to the Empire.  And the Empress is not used to having her will disobeyed.

The four central characters of this series continue to grow and mature, as they have throughout the previous eight books.  They're eighteen in this one, so this volume is aimed at older readers than the previous entries; the question of Sandry's marriage is a central theme, and Daja and Briar both carry on romances of their own.  For the most part, though, the intrigues of the imperial court take center stage.

An excellent book, as usual for Tamora Pierce.  I'm not sure if this is meant to be a stand-alone novel or the first of another four-book set; I suspect the latter, since this one (like the first volumes of the previous two sets) was chiefly about Sandry, leaving the others' entry to adulthood for subsequent volumes.  Lots of fun either way, though.

Originally posted at MySpace on 12/24/05.

S Is for Silence

In Santa Teresa, it is still 1987.  Slowly but surely, the Kinsey Millhone novels are becoming historical mysteries.  Kinsey has no internet access, no chance of DNA identification, and no cell phone--and a cell phone would have come in handy in this volume, which sees Kinsey tackling a very cold case: the disappearance of Violet Sullivan on the Fourth of July in 1953, with her purebred Pomeranian and her brand new Chevrolet.  She left behind an abusive husband and a seven-year-old daughter; it is the daughter who, 34 years later, is referred to Kinsey by a friend.

In this book Sue Grafton departs from the usual formula of having the whole novel narrated by Kinsey, as if it were the detective's final report on the case, respectfully submitted to the client.  Interspersed with Kinsey's search for people who might know something are flashback chapters to 1953, told in third person narration and presenting events that the detective three decades later may or may not find out; so for the first time in the series, the reader knows more than Kinsey.  It's an interesting departure, and it works pretty well.

Originally posted at MySpace on 12/22/05.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.

-----J.R.R. Tolkien, responding to criticism of "escapism"