Sunday, November 11, 2012

Doctor Who: The Face of Evil (Story 89)

starring Tom Baker as the Doctor and Louise Jameson as Leela.

Aiming for Hyde Park, the Doctor (4th incarnation) unexpectedly lands in an alien jungle instead; being the Doctor, he decides to have a look round. Much to his astonishment, the local savages recognize him immediately as the Evil One who is holding their god, Xoanon, captive behind an impenetrable wall, and his protests that he doesn't remember imprisoning anybody and they must be mistaken seem pretty thin even to him once he sees his own face carved on a cliffside in the style of Mount Rushmore. With the help of Leela, a young woman who has been cast out of the tribe for speaking out against both her leader and the shaman who speaks for the god, the Doctor sets out to discover exactly who and what Xoanon is, and why he himself made such an impression the last time he visited this planet.

When my boyfriend decided that he'd enjoyed Paul enough to own a copy, he also went through Amazon looking for a Doctor Who story with Tom Baker to give me, partly because he'd enjoyed Shada as well (but chiefly, I think, so that he'd be buying enough to qualify for free shipping; Amazon has a lot of frivolous purchases to answer for with that policy). He'd already ordered this one when he asked me what I thought of it, and was vastly relieved when I told him that as the introduction of Leela it was a fondly remembered favorite.

I was pleased to see that the story held up really well, in spite of the admittedly cheesy no-budget sets and effects. The writing is very sharp; this is the source of one of my favorite lines from the whole series, when the Doctor points out to Leela, "The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common: They don't alter their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views. Which can be very uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering."

Tom Baker's Doctor is more imperious than I remembered, but Leela is still five kinds of awesome. What I didn't know when I first saw this story back in the 80s is that it was actually quite rare for the show at that time to present a story about the Doctor having to clean up the consequences of his own previous good intentions. His own assertions to the contrary (and he says it at least twice in episodes of this very serial), the Doctor doesn't always have all the answers.  All in all, a very good story to show my boyfriend why I loved Doctor Who so much in high school!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Paul (2011)

starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and the voice of Seth Rogen.

Clive and Graeme are best friends and artistic collaborators--Clive is a writer, Graeme an artist--who travel from their home in England to the San Diego Comic Con, and then set out to make the most of their trip to America by renting an RV and touring the famous UFO sites of the southwest, going by the Black Mailbox and Area 51 and finishing up at Roswell. This plan quickly goes awry as they witness a car wreck, only to find that the driver is a foul-mouthed, genre-savvy alien, who introduces himself as Paul and says he needs their help to get back to the spot where his spaceship originally crashed and where his people are due to pick him up.

Pegg and Frost wrote the movie as well as starring in it, and the geek references fly by thick and fast. Both Clive and Graeme are evidently fluent in Klingon--only Clive is shown to speak it, but when he gives Graeme an instruction in that language, Graeme promptly obeys. Star Wars, Aliens, E.T., The X-Files all get their shout-outs. For somebody who's seen all that stuff, this movie is hysterically funny. I'm not sure how well it would play for somebody who would miss all the references, but fortunately I'm not in that position.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Everyday Witch Book of Rituals

Prominent Pagan author Deborah Blake adds another volume to her "Everyday Witch" series from Llewellyn Books with The Everyday Witch Book of Rituals: All You Need for a Magickal Year, offering ritual and spellwork suggestions for each New Moon and Full Moon in a calendar year as well as the eight Sabbats and selected special occasions such as Wiccaning (baby blessing) and handfastings (marriage/commitment ceremonies).

It doesn't really match the other books in the series, as the various occasions included are more or less by definition not something hat happen every day, but it is nonetheless an extremely useful manual for either solitary witches or groups; the introduction helpfully includes a section on "Adapting rituals from solitary to group and back again" for those who sometimes work in both modes. Also very useful is the advice for including non-Pagan guests, not only in family-oriented rituals like handfastings, but also for some of the full moons where the ritual theme is something that individuals of any spiritual path can apply to their own lives.

I'm not generally a fan of the conceit than an author's pet, or even her familiar, is a collaborator on a book, but the advice presented here by Magic the cat is mostly pretty straightforward and useful, and not nearly as twee as it could easily have been. The only other point I had any reservations about was the lack of a Blue Moon ritual, a relatively glaring omission given that we just had a Blue Moon this past August.

Overall, this book is highly recommended, easily up to the standard set by Blake's earlier Circle, Coven and Grove (a favorite of several Wiccans I know), and should prove every bit as useful a resource.

The publication date is October 8, 2012; thanks to Llewellyn Books and for providing me with an electronic advance copy. This was my first book from NetGalley, but mostly likely not the last!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

In the Woods

by Tana French.

Rob Ryan and his partner Cassie Maddox, detectives on the Dublin Murder Squad, happen to catch the call when the body of a young girl is found at an archeological site near the suburb of Knocknaree. What no one else on the squad knows is that nearly thirty years earlier, Rob--then known by his first name, Adam--was the lone survivor of a mysterious incident in the woods by Knocknaree, in which his two best friends disappeared without a trace and Adam was found, mute and amnesiac, clinging to a tree with his shoes full of blood that wasn't his. Rob knows he ought to disclose all this to his captain and remove himself from the modern case, but the two incidents can't possibly be connected. Can they?

This was our book club selection for September, in a not entirely successful attempt to get away from the Gothic. Not everybody finished the book, which kind of put a lid on the discussion as we tried to avoid spoilers, both for the solution of the mystery and some of the personal developments of the characters. Those of us who did get to the end found it frustrating--is it too spoileriffic to say that while some questions are answered, some pretty big ones are not?

Still, the beginning was good enough that I kept going even when I started to suspect I wasn't going to like the end, the characters were psychologically interesting in a believable kind of way, and the description of the second book in the series sounded intriguing to a couple of us; I can see myself putting it on the List of Books I Want to Read Before I Die.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

All Roads Lead to Austen

by Amy Elizabeth Smith.

The subtitle is "A Year-Long Journey with Jane," and it does just what it says on the tin. California literature professor Amy Smith meets an intriguing man on a vacation in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, and conceives the idea of traveling around Central and South America to have book group discussions of Jane Austen novels in Spanish translation in six Latin American countries: Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay and Argentina. First, of course, she has to learn to speak Spanish.

I downloaded this to my Nook through Barnes & Noble's Free Friday offer; it's not the kind of thing I would necessarily have read otherwise, and definitely not the kind of book I would buy. Though if I'd stumbled across it at the library I might have given it a try, especially if I'd glanced at the introduction; the author's description of her American students' reactions to Austen was pretty engaging, particularly the part about which characters most deserve a dope slap or two. The whole book ended up being equally entertaining, not least because Smith isn't afraid to make herself look goofy with stories about her own bad assumptions and missteps.

The book definitely assumes a thorough knowledge of Austen, not just the three novels the author used for her discussions--Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma--but also Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey (Smith's acknowledged favorite), though my personal favorite, Persuasion, was only mentioned in passing once or twice. But if you know Austen, this book is both amusing and informative.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Whispers Under Ground

by Ben Aaronovich. Third in his "Rivers of London" series.

When your unit of the Metropolitan Police Department consists of one chief inspector and yourself, a lowly constable, it is not the inspector who has to answer the phone in the middle of the night. Thus PC Peter Grant, still the only official apprentice of the last wizard in the Metropolitan Police, finds himself called out to the site of a murder in the Baker Street Underground station, just to check for anything weird about it. Of course, there is some weirdness, and the fact that the victim turns out to be the son of an American Senator who gets an FBI agent assigned as an observer is the least weird part.

I really liked the first two books in this series, and the third installment doesn't disappoint. It's an interesting take on urban fantasy, being at least as much police procedural, and the police procedures are extremely authentic; you don't see a lot of urban fantasy protagonists wondering how to phrase an official report so that it doesn't come right out and say "I detected the presence of the murder weapon by the magical residue it left in the tunnel." Once again, the voice of Peter as narrator is frequently so funny I had to stop and read out-of-context bits to anyone who happened to be nearby.  A lot of these had to do with shout-outs to other fantasy, like Peter being told that Gandalf could probably drink him under the table; and I have some thoughts about the provenance of a beer referred to only as "Mac's," which we're told comes from a microbrewery in the States.

There are a couple of plot threads with no beginning or end in this novel--I would definitely recommend starting with the first one; the author has said that what he has in mind for this series is something like Ed McBain's 87th Precinct books (of which there were 55 in all, according to Fantastic Fiction), so there may end up being a lot to keep track of. I'm already looking forward to the next book, Broken Homes.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Kingmaker's Daughter

by Philippa Gregory. Fourth in her "Cousins' War" series.

Anne Neville, the younger daughter of the 16th Earl of Warwick, walks behind her mother and her sister Isabel at the coronation feast for King Edward's queen Elizabeth knowing that nobody likes this queen, that Edward should not have married her against Anne's father's advice. Warwick's support had been instrumental in putting Edward on the throne, and Warwick had expected his advice to be followed afterwards as it had been beforehand; his ambition to be the power behind the throne in England will shape the rest of Anne's life, first as he attempts to use her as a pawn and finally as she grows up to play the game herself.

I like Philippa Gregory's novels a lot, and I like this series better than her later Tudor ones. She's very good at taking limited information--and women from this period, even royal women, left few traces on the historical record--and using it to develop plausible characters. I particularly like her take on Richard III: neither the thoroughly and self-consciously evil villain of Shakespeare nor the thoroughly noble, slandered king some other authors have described, but an ambitious man who saw his chance and took it. This is a Richard I can believe in (especially since Gregory takes the line that Richard did not kill the princes in the Tower).

Very interesting to see the same events from a different perspective; Jacquetta and Elizabeth Woodville, both presented very sympathetically in their own novels earlier in the series, make great villains from another point of view!  But we've gone over these same events three times now, or in some cases four; I'm very much looking forward to The White Princess, which I hope will carry the story forward a little farther.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Little Stranger

by Sarah Waters.

Dr. Faraday remembers Hundreds Hall, where his mother had once been a servant, from his childhood before the war, but the house is very different when he is called there as an adult to treat the lone remaining housemaid. The family--Mrs. Ayres, daughter Caroline, and son Roderick--live in a few rooms, having closed off much of the house, and can only afford to turn the generator on for electricity a few days a week; the doctor remarks to himself that the house looks like it's starting to melt away. As Faraday finds reasons to continue visiting the family, horrifying things start to happen in the house.

This was our book club selection for this month, and a much more successful choice than last month's attempt on The Wings of the Dove. We had a very lively discussion on what exactly was haunting the house--one of us thought the building itself was possessed; we dismissed the suggestion of an actual ghost (brought up by one of the characters in the novel itself), and though a couple of us liked the idea of poltergeist activity caused by a still-living character, we couldn't agree on who was causing it.

It's a very leisurely novel, but once things started happening it got pretty creepy. I'd read more by this author.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Far West

by Patricia C. Wrede. Third in her "Frontier Magic" series.

Francine Rothmer, known as Eff, has mostly overcome the stigma of being a thirteenth child, considered unlucky by some, and mostly grown out of the shadow of her magically gifted twin brother, the seventh son of a seventh son, but she still isn't entirely sure what to do with her own life. She just knows she wants it to involve the Far West, the still largely unknown lands beyond the Great Barrier Spell that runs down the center of North Columbia, along the course of the Mammoth River. Western settlements within a hundred miles of the river notwithstanding, there's a lot of country and a lot of wildlife, both magical and otherwise, that have never been seen before. Eff has traveled that way twice, and is already thinking about a third time even before the government announces an upcoming exploratory expedition.

I'm normally quite interested in fantasy that takes on frontier America, as opposed to the vaguely medieval, vaguely European settings of so much high fantasy from Tolkien on. I think it was Jo Walton who referred to it as the Matter of America, as the Matter of Britain is the stories of King Arthur. Aside from Orson Scott Card and Lois McMaster Bujold not many writers have given it a shot yet. But I'm not sure what to make of this series. I love the author, and I enjoyed the first book in the series pretty well...and then ran across an internet controversy about the author's choice to depict a fantasy American West with no Native Americans. I hesitate to even try and summarize the two about twenty sides of that argument, but I came away from it feeling that my own initial acceptance of the premise (that the ancestors of the Native Americans had, in this world, stayed in Asia) as a reasonable enough starting point for the story says something not very flattering about my own biases.

In any case, the second and third books in the series came across as kind of repetitive anyway, and Eff is so self-effacing a character that if she weren't the first-person narrator she'd practically disappear.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Haunted Honeymoon (1940)

When Lord Peter Wimsey, amateur criminologist, marries Harriet Vane, professional writer of detective stories, they make a pact to give up crime. I'm not sure why they bother, since that's obviously never going to last, even before the former owner of their new country home is found dead in the basement the morning after they move into the house.

This movie version from 1940, starring a wonderfully miscast Robert Montgomery as Lord Peter and a rather more appropriate Constance Cummings as Harriet, is not available on DVD. The only way I got to see it was by pure luck; my boyfriend just happened to check the listings for Turner Classic Movies a couple of weeks before it was due to air, at 7:15 in the morning on a Wednesday. We checked to see that the VCR still worked, bought a blank videotape (still available at Walgreens), and I started taping it before I went to work.

I'm glad to have seen it. I now have some recording of every Peter Wimsey story committed to film: the Ian Carmichael versions of Clouds of Witness, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, The Five Red Herrings, Murder Must Advertise, and The Nine Tailors from the 1970s, and the Edward Petherbridge versions of Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, and Gaudy Night from the 1980s, all of which I bought on DVD, and this odd little version of Busman's Honeymoon.

But it is odd, and the changes they made to the characters of Peter and Harriet are the oddest part. In the books it was obvious to both of them from the beginning that neither should have to give up a career for the other. The one thing that made Lord Peter think that maybe he ought to give up crime--his feeling that by pursuing monsters he was becoming a monster, and that sending a man to the gallows for murder was not substantially different from committing murder himself--is never mentioned here. Nor does his PTSD make an appearance.

I'd be quite interested in seeing a production of the original play now. I wish the BBC could have done this for television with Petherbridge and Harriet Walter, who had great chemistry in the three stories they did, but apparently they couldn't get the rights to it. Pity.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Confusion of Princes

by Garth Nix.

Khemri was taken from his parents as an infant, to be raised in isolation as one of the ten million Princes of the galaxy-spanning Empire. As such, his mind and body were augmented; Princes are stronger and faster than ordinary humans, mentally connected to the Imperial Mind, and capable of being reborn in a new adult body if killed in the service of the Empire and judged worthy of continuing to serve the Emperor. Khemri is somewhat shocked to learn that the reason why Princes pretty much have to be tough to kill is that other Princes are constantly scheming to eliminate rivals, to increase their own chances of becoming Emperor; only when officially on duty in one of the six Imperial Services are they more or less safe from murder or challenge, so Khemri joins the Navy. An offer to join a seventh, secret service sends his life in a wholly new and unexpected direction, but the chance of becoming Emperor remains at the back of his mind.

The world building in this teen science fiction novel is pretty amazing. The book is told by Khemri, who takes things like bitek, psitek and mektek for granted and explains very little; and he can't explain much about how the Empire works and what Princes actually do because he doesn't really know it himself. Nevertheless, the structure of the society becomes clear to the reader. Khemri starts out thoroughly self-absorbed and conceited; on becoming a full-fledged Prince at 18, he assumes that of course he will be the next emperor because, really, why else does he even exist? Lessons that come as a shock to him--like the concept that people may not always jump to obey his orders--do start to improve his character.

The book is episodic, and some characters in the first part who look like they're going to be important end up not playing much of a part in later episodes.  I enjoyed it, though.

(And it made me want to look up a book I read a long time ago: The Princes of Earth, by Michael Kurland, also a science fiction book for teens. I don't remember it well enough to know how much else it has in common with this one. What I mainly remember about it is some wordplay the main character engages in with his classmates at the University on Mars, which leads them to conclude that he may be worth getting to know better; it revolves around replacing an important word in a phrase with 'tomato.')

Thursday, July 19, 2012

book club fail

A coworker and a former coworker, both of whom are my friends on Facebook, have a monthly book club that meets at a pizza parlor. I happened to mention I was really impressed by their choice for last month (they read The Bell Jar! for fun!) and got invited to the next meeting.  This month's book is The Wings of the Dove, by Henry James, which had the advantage of being available for free through Project Gutenberg.  So I put it on my Nook and gave it a shot.

Now, I like old novels. Jane Eyre is one of my all time favorites, and The Age of Innocence was a beautiful book.  I like Jane Austen and Walter Scott, and lesser known writers like Anna Katharine Green. I even managed a good bit of James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne for fun. And I could not get through The Wings of the Dove. Henry James apparently couldn't use one word when fifteen would do.

I plugged through Volume One (174 pages in ePUB format), but quickly bogged down in Volume Two (236 pages, a very discouraging number).  The book club meets tonight, and I am so not going to finish that book in time. Or, possibly, at all. I'm still going all the same, to eat pizza and say rude things about Mr. James' prose style.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Original script by Douglas Adams, novelization by Gareth Roberts.

The Doctor (4th incarnation), with Romana and K-9 in tow, returns to England in response to an urgent message from an old friend, an elderly Time Lord living in quiet retirement as a Cambridge professor. It turns out Professor Chronotis brought some things with him from Gallifrey that he technically isn't supposed to have, and one book in particular has the potential to be appallingly dangerous...and that book was among a handful borrowed by a grad student who means to use it to impress a girl.

It seems my theme for my week off was humorous science fiction. Where Redshirts obliquely evokes Star Trek, this is a direct tie-in with Doctor Who, but it's the Doctor Who of the 1970s, not the current version.  I may as well admit up front that Tom Baker was, is, and always will be my Doctor. When I was in high school the local PBS affiliate ran a half-hour episode of the show every weekday at 6:30, and it was the Tom Baker stories that were airing when I first tuned in.  

But the first Doctor Who story I ever saw was actually "The Five Doctors," which used footage from the unfinished "Shada" to shoehorn Tom Baker into the story when the actor declined (or was unable, I forget) to return for the anniversary special. So the Doctor's first appearance in this book was remarkably familiar to me!

About the same time I was memorizing the names of the Doctor's companions in order from 1963 to the present, I was also discovering The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, both the books and the radio series, and memorizing those through pure repeated exposure. I have not brought myself to read And Another Thing, the sixth Hitchhiker book by Eoin Colfer, but I couldn't pass up a new old Doctor Who story. And I think Gareth Roberts did a pretty good job of capturing Douglas Adams' tone; it's a very funny book. My boyfriend, who loves Douglas Adams but has never watched Doctor Who, also approved.

Monday, July 16, 2012


by John Scalzi.

Ensign Andrew Dahl and his old friend Jimmie Hanson meet Maia Duvall while waiting for the shuttle to their new posting, the Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union fleet. Two other ensigns, Hester and Finn, are on the same shuttle, newly reassigned from other ships.  The five of them soon realize that the old hands are seriously paranoid about away missions, and not without reason--every time a party leaves the ship, someone dies; and it's always someone of low rank, never the captain, the science officer, the doctor, the chief engineer, or the astrogator (though the astrogator does get beaten up a lot).  Something deeply weird is happening on the Intrepid, and Dahl and his new friends are going to have to do some really weird things to get to the bottom of it.

I'm a big fan of Scalzi, so of course I read this new one as soon as I could get my hands on it. I had inadvertently read some reviews with spoilers, so I knew a couple of places the novel was going; but it still surprised me towards the end. Parts of it were fall down funny, and parts were quite poignant, and all of it was very meta.  Great fun overall.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Death out of thin air

by Clayton Rawson (writing as Stuart Towne).

In two short novels from the 1940s, professional magician Don Diavolo gets mixed up in a couple of homicide cases where his experience in creating seemingly impossible effects for the stage works to his advantage in debunking apparently supernatural causes for (in "Ghost of the Undead") the death of a woman in his dressing room at the theater, evidently by vampire bite, and (in "Death Out of Thin Air") the murder of a police detective in his office at headquarters and a number of highly publicized thefts by an invisible man.

Clayton Rawson was himself a magician, and also wrote mystery novels featuring the Great Merlini, another professional illusionist who also ran a magic shop; I'm told that Don Diavolo appears in one of the Merlini novels, and a character in one of the Don Diavolo stories mentions that Merlini's store ships mail orders to India with all the instructions carefully translated into Hindustani.  The Don Diavolo stories all originally appeared in the pulp magazine called Red Star Mystery; the other two ("Claws of Satan" and "The Enchanted Dagger") are collected under the title Death from Nowhere.

These and five Merlini books have all been released as ebooks from Open Road Media; I stumbled across them in the OverDrive catalog of downloadable ebooks available from the library where I work, which I think is all kinds of cool, not only that these are available but that somebody in my library consortium bought them for our collection.  To be honest, if a new paperback reprint of pulp stories from the 1940s came out, we probably wouldn't buy a copy for the shelf, so it's grand that somebody took a chance on them in electronic form.

This was my first exposure to Don Diavolo.  I read them and dutifully trotted off to Shelfari to log them and was a little startled to see that I am the only Shelfari user to have done so!  I read the Merlini novels years ago; I forget which library had them, if it was a college library or a public library. But I think it may be time to read them again.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Dead Reckoning

by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill

Jett Gallatin, riding into Alsop, Texas, in search of a brother missing since the Civil War ended, is sure that no one will suspect she is a girl, but wouldn't be surprised to run into trouble. Honoria Gibbons, driving across the west Texas plains in a steam-driven auto-tachypode of her own invention, confidently expects not to find what she is looking for, as her scientific turn of mind will not admit the existence of the phantom airships reported to her gullible father without a good deal more evidence than she has been able to turn up so far. White Fox, on leave from his duties as an Army Scout, is following a trail of mysterious disappearances, sometimes of whole wagon trains or even small towns.  None of them expect zombies.

Lackey and Edghill have collaborated on a fair number of novels now, both for adults and for teens. This steampunk zombie Western is apparently the start of a new series for teens, though the plot is wrapped up nicely in one volume with just a couple of teasers for possible future installments.  I quite liked the characters, though it took a while for Gibbons to grow on me, and I still think she speaks with too many exclamation points.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Shape of Desire

by Sharon Shinn

Maria has spent nearly half her life now lying about her lover Dante. She doesn't mention his name to her family or friends. Her coworkers aren't even aware that she's seeing someone. Keeping him hidden is easier than coming up with an excuse for why he's only around for about a week out of every month, and much easier than telling the truth: that he spends the rest of the month in some kind of animal shape, living the life of a wolf or a mountain lion or a bear.  When he is with her, Maria is blazingly happy; when he vanishes again, usually with no more farewell than a terse note ("Had to go"), her heart breaks again. And then she starts seeing news reports from places near her home of people mauled to death by some unidentified creature.

Interesting departure for Sharon Shinn in that it has a contemporary setting; she usually goes for intricately designed secondary worlds. This is a fast moving story with great characters; Dante's siblings (also shapeshifters) and Maria's coworkers are sharply drawn.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Books that shaped America

So the Library of Congress has come up with a list of 88 books written by American authors which, they say, shaped America.  I gather they do not intend this initial list to be definitive; it's meant to spark discussion.  So of course I'm going to turn it into a book meme, and highlight the titles I've read.

"Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain (1884)
"Alcoholics Anonymous" by anonymous (1939)
"American Cookery" by Amelia Simmons (1796)
"The American Woman's Home" by Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1869)
"And the Band Played On" by Randy Shilts (1987)
"Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand (1957)
"The Autobiography of Malcolm X" by Malcolm X and Alex Haley (1965)
"Beloved" by Toni Morrison (1987)
"Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" by Dee Brown (1970)
"The Call of the Wild" by Jack London (1903)
"The Cat in the Hat" by Dr. Seuss (1957)
"Catch-22" by Joseph Heller (1961)

"The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger (1951)
"Charlotte's Web" by E.B. White    (1952)
"Common Sense" by Thomas Paine (1776)

"The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care" by Benjamin Spock (1946)
"Cosmos" by Carl Sagan (1980)
"A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible" by anonymous (1788)
"The Double Helix" by James D. Watson (1968)
"The Education of Henry Adams" by Henry Adams (1907)
"Experiments and Observations on Electricity" by Benjamin Franklin (1751)
"Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury  (1953)
"Family Limitation" by Margaret Sanger (1914)
"The Federalist" by anonymous/ thought to be Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (1787)
"The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan (1963)
"The Fire Next Time" by James Baldwin (1963)
"For Whom the Bell Tolls" by Ernest Hemingway (1940)
"Gone With the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell  (1936)
"Goodnight Moon" by Margaret Wise Brown (1947)

"A Grammatical Institute of the English Language" by Noah Webster (1783)
"The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck (1939)
"The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
"Harriet, the Moses of Her People" by Sarah H. Bradford (1901)
"The History of Standard Oil" by Ida Tarbell  (1904)
"History of the Expedition Under the Command of the Captains Lewis and Clark" by Meriwether Lewis (1814)
"How the Other Half Lives" by Jacob Riis (1890)
"How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie (1936)
"Howl" by Allen Ginsberg (1956)
"The Iceman Cometh" by  Eugene O'Neill (1946)
"Idaho: A Guide in Word and Pictures" by Federal Writers' Project (1937)
"In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote (1966)
"Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison (1952)
"Joy of Cooking" by Irma Rombauer (1931)
"The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair (1906)
"Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman (1855)
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving (1820)
"Little Women, or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy" by Louisa May Alcott (1868)

"Mark, the Match Boy" by Horatio Alger Jr. (1869)
"McGuffey's Newly Revised Eclectic Primer" by William Holmes McGuffey (1836)
"Moby-Dick; or The Whale" by Herman Melville (1851)
"The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" by Frederick Douglass (1845)
"Native Son" by Richard Wright (1940)
"New England Primer" by anonymous (1803)
"New Hampshire" by Robert Frost (1923)
"On the Road" by Jack Kerouac (1957)
"Our Bodies, Ourselves" by Boston Women's Health Book Collective (1971)
"Our Town: A Play" by Thornton Wilder (1938)
"Peter Parley's Universal History" by Samuel Goodrich (1837)
"Poems" by Emily Dickinson (1890)
"Poor Richard Improved and The Way to Wealth" by Benjamin Franklin (1758)
"Pragmatism" by William James (1907)
"The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, LL.D." by Benjamin Franklin (1793)
"The Red Badge of Courage" by Stephen Crane (1895)
"Red Harvest" by Dashiell Hammett (1929)
"Riders of the Purple Sage" by Zane Grey (1912)

"The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
"Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" by Alfred C. Kinsey (1948)
"Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson (1962)
"The Snowy Day" by Ezra Jack Keats (1962)
"The Souls of Black Folk" by W.E.B. Du Bois (1903)
"The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner (1929)
"Spring and All" by William Carlos Williams (1923)
"Stranger in a Strange Land" by Robert E. Heinlein (1961)
"A Street in Bronzeville" by Gwendolyn Brooks (1945)
"A Streetcar Named Desire" by Tennessee Williams (1947)
"A Survey of the Roads of the United States of America" by Christopher Colles (1789)
"Tarzan of the Apes" by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)
"Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee (1960)
"A Treasury of American Folklore" by Benjamin A. Botkin (1944)
"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" by Betty Smith (1943)
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
"Unsafe at Any Speed" by Ralph Nader (1965)
"Walden; or Life in the Woods" by Henry David Thoreau (1854)
"The Weary Blues" by Langston Hughes (1925)
"Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak (1963)
"The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum (1900)

"The Words of Cesar Chavez" by Cesar Chavez (2002)

So that's 25 out of the 88 I've read, of which at least 8 were required for school (notably The Sound and the Fury). And it's kind of hard to brag that you've read something like The Snowy Day or Where the Wild Things Are, neither of which (as I recall; it's been a long time) includes a whole lot of text, influentially though they obviously were and are.

I do have some questions, which I suppose means that the Library of Congress has succeeded in their aim.  Why is there no James Fenimore Cooper on this list? His works may be really snooze-inducing for readers today, due to the evolution of literary style from the 19th century to now, but he was really popular and innovative for his day. 

Out of all the works produced by the Federal Writers' Project, why pick the one on Idaho? (Some quick research on the LoC site tells me that Idaho was the first one, which I guess answers that question; I learned something today!)

At any rate, this gives me a reason to move some of these books higher of the list of Books I Want To Read Before I Die...but I really don't see myself hunting up a copy of Idaho: A Guide in Words and Pictures.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


by Nicholas Clee

The subtitle is "The Story of the rogue, the madam, and the horse that changed racing forever," and it does just what it says on the tin.  Eclipse won every race he ever started in, without ever feeling the touch of whip or spur; in many of them, he was the only entry and all he had to do was walk over the course, since his winning was considered such a sure thing that other horse owners saw no point in actually contesting it.  It's not completely verified which race was the one that inspired his owner to predict the finishing order as "Eclipse first, the rest nowhere"--a couple of different ones have the anecdote attached to them, but it could have been almost any of them.

I had read very little about Eclipse before, just a paragraph at the end of King of the Wind, Marguerite Henry's book about the Godolphin Arabian.  I was interested to read in this book that there's some dispute about exactly who Eclipse's sire was, and one of the options would remove the Godolphin Arabian from the lineage (and add in the Byerly Turk); I was oddly distressed by that.

I was also quite interested in this book's portrayal of the Turf at the time; it wasn't a time period or a venue that I knew much about.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Elsie and Mairi Go to War

Elsie Knocker was 30 years old in 1914, a divorced single mother (though such was the stigma of divorce at the time that she told people she was a widow). When war was declared, she called on a friend from her motorcycle club, 18-year-old Mairi Gooden-Chisholm, and suggested they should volunteer as dispatch riders; after going to Belgium as part of Hector Munro's Flying Ambulance Corps, they ended up running their own independent first aid post at Pervyse, bare yards from the front lines, where they remained for nearly the whole course of the war.

Elsie and Mairi, it turns out, were the most photographed women of World War I, and were huge celebrities at the time.  The Madonnas of Pervyse, as they were called, were specifically exempted from a directive that no women could serve at the front lines, and received some 17 medals apiece.  Fascinating story!  And I'd never heard of them before this book by Diane Atkinson, so I learned some stuff too: bonus.  It could be a little tough to keep track of the cast of characters, especially once various soldiers starting coming and going at the front, but otherwise this was great.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Home from the Sea

Mari Prothero worries when her father Daffyd goes out fishing on the sea during storms, because she's not a fool; just because he's always come home safely before, logically that doesn't mean he always will. But at the same time, she knows he always will, thanks to the Prothero luck. When she turns 18, her father finally tells her the price that Protheros for generations have paid for their luck--a price she is now expected to pay in her turn.

Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters series is always great fun, and this installment is no exception to that rule, though it does seem a little light weight, compared to some of the previous volumes. It's nice to check in with a couple of recurring characters from earlier in the series, but Mari's journey of discovery and learning is something we've seen before, and the threats she faces don't feel particularly threatening. The fairy tale theme that all these books have isn't very strong in this one, either; in some other books in the series it took me a while to recognize the underlying story, but I eventually got it, and usually felt kind of tickled to be in on the secret. For this one I had to resort to the internet to figure out exactly which tales were involved, and then squint a little to see how they fit.

This is all just nitpicking; I quite enjoyed the book, and finished it in a couple of days, which I hardly ever have the chance to do any more.  But I don't think this one is going to stick with me the way some of Lackey's other work has done.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Glamour in Glass

After the defeat of Napoleon, when travel from England to the Continent once again becomes conceivable, professional glamourists (and newlyweds) David and Jane Vincent decide to visit Belgium, where a colleague of Vincent's has developed an interesting new technique of the decorative illusion. Jane is pleased for the chance to practice her extremely rusty French, and for an excuse to get away from her mother's urging to present her with a grandchild at the earliest opportunity. But not everyone they meet agrees that Bonaparte was rightly exiled; and why is Vincent locking up his letters?

This is a better book than the first one (and I loved the first one).  Even though Mary Robinette Kowal explains in an author's note how careful she was not to use words that Jane Austen wouldn't have known, the tone of this novel is less like Austen and more, I guess, like Kowal. Still a fantasy of manners, but now when Jane Vincent has a pressing reason to do something that would have horrified Jane Bennet it fits the story and the characters instead of seeming like a jarring departure.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England

I've read a lot of English history, just because I like that sort of stuff, but didn't know too much about the reign of Henry VII. He tends to get skipped over a lot, in favor of the fascinating complexities of the Wars of the Roses before him or the glamorous (and scandalous) years of the next Henry after him. So when I saw advance copies of this one at the PLA conference back in March, I picked one up; it was the only free book I brought home with me, since I was trying very hard to travel with only a carry-on bag in both directions.

It turns out that Henry VII's reputation for avarice was founded on some thoroughly frightening practices which also served to keep his nobles and the merchants of London in line. Powerful lords were forced to go into debt to the crown, and sell off their properties to royal favorites at knockdown prices. People were accused of awful crimes, then allowed to purchase a royal pardon. Henry himself initialed every page of every account book.

Very informative, and a well written introduction to an otherwise shadowy figure.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Fifty shades of grey

No review or summary, since I haven't read it. I just have a couple of observations about the book as a cultural phenomenon.

The library where I work practices what's called patron-driven acquisition, which basically means that if you ask us to get a book we'll do our best to get it for you. Sometimes, if it's an older book or something really specialized (or if the wholesaler with the statewide library contract doesn't have it), we'll borrow it from another library just for you. But if we get multiple requests for the same title, we will almost certainly buy at least a couple of copies for the collection.

When we got the first five requests for Fifty Shades of Grey, including one from a (male) coworker in the IT department, they presented something of a dilemma; the book was just taking off in this country and was still only available as a self-published paperback from Australia. I had heard the title and had a vague idea it contained some questionable content, so I read up on it; that's when I learned the whole backstory of its origins as Twilight fanfic and subsequent self-published success.

I also ran across some reviews that cast aspersions on the actual writing. So I decided we'd give it a miss; not because it was BDSM erotica, because we've certainly got that in the collection already (hello, Anne Rice, and all of your pseudonyms!), but because it appeared to be not very well-written.  The librarian who handles requests sent out his usual boilerplate email to the patrons, including the IT guy, saying that we were unable to get the book at this time but would be happy to try interlibrary loan in six months, which is the usual time before most library allow new books to be loaned to other libraries.

(The IT guy promptly emailed back to ask why, so the librarian told him it was because Baker and Taylor didn't carry it and because it was porn. I'm told this led the IT guy to have a very interesting conversation with his wife about how it's not always a good thing to ask the library for the top ten books on Amazon without finding out what they're about!)

But we kept getting requests for it, and I soon realized I'd have to break down and buy the thing. By then, it had been picked up for reissue by Vintage, so we could finally order it from the wholesaler without issues. I didn't get enough copies at first; we've had to reorder it twice, and we ended up with 30 copies across the ten branches in our system.

And here's the part that amazes me: the hold list. There are 171 people waiting for those 30 copies. We also added it to our ebook catalog--the seven library systems in our consortium have added 30 digital copies as well, but there are 252 people on that hold list.  I find it oddly fascinating.  I have no interest in reading the book; not that there's anything wrong with erotica, it's just so not my thing.  But I keep checking every couple of days to watch the numbers go up.