Sunday, November 29, 2009

NIght at the Vulcan

By Ngaio Marsh

Martyn Tarne is a young actress recently arrived in England from New Zealand. On her arrival her travelers checks were stolen and, since it will be a few weeks before she can get her money refunded, she needs to find work quickly. After making the rounds looking for acting jobs, she arrives at the Vulcan theater only to find she is too late. Despairing and loitering in the theater to rest her weary feet, she overhears that the leading lady's dresser has taken suddenly ill and a replacement dresser is needed immediately. Martyn steps forward to apply for the job since being a dresser is better than sleeping on a bench in the park.
All is not well with the play that is to open in a couple days. The main problem is the young actress hired to play a small but significant part in the play. But the part is beyond her limited acting skills. Her uncle got her the part and is insisting on her staying in the play against everyone else's objections and this is causing a lot of tension.
When the other actors meet Martyn they are all astonished at how much she looks like the leading man, Adam Poole. And since the part taken by the other young actress calls for her to resemble Adam Poole's character and when they all find out that Martyn is also an experienced actress, the push is on to replace the other actress. But the uncle won't back down and Martyn is signed on as understudy to the other actress, who has hysterics on opening night, giving Martyn her chance at the role.
However the uncle has been making threats and he ends up dead before the night is through. Although his death was an apparent suicide, when the police arrive, a little investigation reveals he was murdered. Since he was a rather unpleasant person, there are lots of suspects to choose from.

This book grabbed me from the first page. Martyn's predicament and the timely arrival of a job and the details of life in a theater all hit the perfect note. Reading this book I could practically smell the greasepaint, it was a real trip into a strange world, full of interesting characters, with just enough detail to interest and yet not overwhelm or bore. I really enjoyed the book.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Hard News

By Jeffery Deaver

Rune is a young camera person with the local news. She becomes interested in the case of a drifter convicted of murder and she believes the man is innocent. She talks her bosses into letting her do a piece on the man, a piece that may air on a national news show.
But when word leaks of Rune's investigation into the case, a hired killer comes looking for Rune, determined to put a stop to any more questions that may prove an innocent man is in prison for a crime he didn't commit, opening a closed case to a new investigation that may enable authorities to track down the real killer.

This was an OK story. It has some interesting and unexpected twists and turns and the main character has an appealing personality and youthful innocence that draws the reader in more than the actual mystery plot does.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Rogue Hunter

By Lynsay Sands

Book 10 in the Argeneau vampire series.
In the world of Lynsay Sands' vampires, which are not like the old-fashioned kind of vampires, each vampire gets one life mate. How does he or she know their life mate? Because they can't read their life mate's mind. Normally they can read minds, so when they come across someone they can't read it can only mean they have finally found their life mate, a person to love for forever.
Garrett Mortimer is a vampire and a rogue vampire hunter. He tracks down vampires who are feeding off of humans which is forbidden by the vampire council, as it attracts unwanted attention from humans. Such a vampire is suspected to be located near a lake in the woods so Garrett moves into a cabin on the lake. In the cabin next door are three young women spending a few weeks on summer vacation. One of the women is tall, lanky, flat-chested Samantha Willan. Garrett isn't attracted to Samantha at all and is very dismayed to discover he can't hear Samantha's thoughts. In all his 800 or so years he has never had this happen to him. Looks like Samantha is his life mate. Too bad for a guy vampire whose ideal mate resembles someone like, in his words, Jessica Rabbit not Olive Oyl.

Maybe he will learn to love Samantha. But how will Samantha take the news that her hot new boyfriend is a bloodsucking fiend?

This was an pretty good story. But these new modern goody-goody vampires are a little white bread for me. Also, while the title of the book implies it will be about tracking down the rogue vampire, that actually plays very little part in the story. Mainly it is about Samantha and Garrett getting together. It's not a great story but I did find some parts of it surprisingly amusing.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

One For the Money

By Janet Evanovich

The first novel in the popular Stephanie Plum saga, finds Stephanie desperate for money after losing her job. She has hocked most of her furniture and appliances and her car was repossessed and she is in danger of losing her apartment. So she turns to her cousin Vincent for temporary work. Vincent runs a bail bonding business and part of the business is tracking down people who failed to appear for the court hearing, putting the bond in danger of forfeit. So Vinnie needs people to track these folks down and haul them in to the police, for which the recovery agent receives a percentage of the amount of the bail as their fee for the recovery. Vinnie doesn't really want to hire Stephanie, but she has some juicy info on Vinnie that he also doesn't want his wife to hear about so he reluctantly gives Stephanie some bond skips to trace.
The most important of these is Joe Morelli, a policeman accused of murder. Joe and Stephanie have a history going clear back to childhood and Stephanie has never forgiven Joe for taking advantage of her when she was a teen. Tracking him down and turning him in will give her a real feeling of satisfaction. On the other hand, Joe is an experienced police officer and a pretty intimidating man so getting the drop on him will be practically impossible. But Stephanie, though plagued by bad luck and some dumb errors in judgment, besides being a rank amateur, may surprise everyone and accidentally launch herself in a new and dangerous career.

This was a pretty good story. Though not as funny as the later books in the series, still it was entertaining. Somehow I never read the first book in the series and it was interesting to see how different the characters in the first book are from the later books. Joe comes across as kind of creepy and scary while Ranger, who in later novels becomes the creepy, scary one, seems a lot more talkative than he is in later books. But Grandma Mazur is the same wacky old broad she is in the later books. However, I think if I had read this book first I might not have continued to read the others in the series. What appeals to me in this series is the humor, and while this book has its moments, they are not as strong as in most of the later books.

Case Histories

By Kate Atkinson

This is a book about unhappy marriages, unhappy families and terrible tragedies. In Case #1, set in 1970, an indifferent father and a stressed mother let two of their young daughters sleep out in a tent one hot summer night. The youngest daughter disappears without a trace. Much later, after both the parents are dead and the children are middle aged, while cleaning out their parents' house prior to selling it, they discover the missing child's favorite toy that supposedly had vanished along with the child locked in their father's desk.
Case #2, set in 1994, a lawyer's teen daughter has her throat cut by a stranger in a yellow sweater. The killer was never caught.
Case #3, 1979, a young mother axes her husband in the skull when he wakes up the baby. She goes to prison and her baby goes to be raised by her incompetent in-laws.
These three old cases come to the attention of a private investigator, Jackson, who also had an unhappy marriage and has a young daughter. He also has a history of tragedy in his family: his sister was murdered when he was a boy.
Case #1 is brought to him by the missing girl's sisters who want to know why her little toy was in their father's desk. They fear that maybe their father is implicated in her disappearance. They also hope she may still be alive and want her found.
Case #2 is brought to him by the dead teen's father who has never given up trying to understand why someone would kill his lovely, bright daughter.
Case #3 is brought to Jackson by the killer's sister. She wants Jackson to find her missing niece whom she lost track of years ago.
Although this is a book of murder mysteries, mainly it is about these sad families, including that of the investigator, Jackson. It is a really interesting book, full of strange characters and compelling histories. It was a real pleasure to read, even though it is about very sad events and unhappy families. I enjoyed it a lot.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Classic of Tea

By Lu Yü

Lu Yü was a man who not only appreciated tea, but who appreciated the ritual of tea making. He wrote this book about 760 AD and in it he describes the steps and the importance of proper preparation for making tea.
In this edition, the translator, Francis Ross Carpenter, had added quite a bit of historical information about China, tea, and Lu Yü. This section of the book really adds a lot to the author's original work.
Lu Yü's part of the book has three sections, the first about tea production, the second about the correct utensils used to make tea and the last about tea quality and famous tea drinkers and more.
An excerpt from Lu Yü's book:
The first cup should have a haunting flavor, strange and lasting. There are those who allow it to continue simmering to nourish the elegance and retain the froth even through a first, second and third cup. After the third cup, one should not drink more than a fourth or fifth cup unless he is very thirsty.

Sometimes such items as onion, ginger, jujube fruit, orange peel, dogwood berries or peppermint are boiled along with the tea. Such ingredients may be merely scattered across the top for a glossy effect, or they can be boiled together and the froth drawn off. Drinks like that are no more than the swill of gutters and ditches; still, alas, it is a common practice to make tea that way.

While its recommendations about tea preparation are of little use now, still it serves as a fascinating glimpse into a bygone era and ancient tea culture. Makes for a pretty interesting and charming read.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bless Your Heart, Tramp and Other Southern Endearments

By Celia Rivenbark

Celia Rivenbark is a newspaper columnist with the Myrtle Beach Sun News. This is her first collection of humorous columns and it focuses on Southern living and the Southern point of view. Some of the titles of columns featured are: "Happy Meal Hostage"; "Home-Depot Blues"; "Lady Viagra"; "Revenge of the Amish Friendship Bread"; "Southerners vs Snow"; "Southern Measurements: A Dab or a Teense?"; "Lard Is Good, Lard Is Great"; "Fake Dog Testicles"; "Tofu Shrinks Your Brain"; "Is That a Penis in the Petunias?" and many, many more. All of the columns are amusing, some more than others, and some are just plain funny. All in all, a good time will be had.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Finger Lickin' Fifteen

By Janet Evanovich

Another in the Stephanie Plum series, this one finds her friend Lula on a killer's hit list when she witnesses a hit. A famous chef comes to Trenton to participate in a barbecue cook-off but he is beheaded by a giggling maniac and cohort right in front of Lula's eyes and naturally the killers want to kill the witness. Usually Stephanie is the one being chased but this time Lula is getting all the unwanted attention, including getting shot at, having her apartment broken into, and having her Firebird bombed. Of course, Stephanie being Stephanie, some of Lula's bad luck rubs off on her, including having one of Ranger's loaner cars burned up, having her apartment set on fire, and other fun things. Meanwhile, the barbecue contest sponsor is offering a million dollar reward for info leading to the arrest of the killers of their star chef and Lula has decided she wants that reward. Together she and Stephanie's Grandma Mazur enter the barbecue contest thinking it will lead them to the killers. They have to try to create a barbecue sauce for the contest that doesn't give its victim the runs, which they haven't managed to do so far. In the process they set the backyard on fire, give food poisoning to several people and explode a pressure cooker full of barbecue sauce in Stephanie's kitchen. No wonder Stephanie is spending a lot of time at Ranger's place.
Ranger is having problems too. Some of his security business clients have been robbed and it looks like it might have been by someone working for Ranger. So he asks Stephanie to help him figure out who the culprit may be. She gets to spend a lot of time at Ranger's, which is OK with her because, once again, she is on the outs with on again, off again boyfriend Joe Morelli.
Throw in the usual wacky bond skips that Stephanie and Lula go after and it makes for another grand and very enjoyable entry in the Stephanie Plum series.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Joy in the Morning

By Betty Smith

Annie and Carl are young and in love and they want to get married. Never mind that neither of their families are in favor of it. Never mind that Carl is still in school and that Annie never even graduated from high school. When Annie turns eighteen, she leaves her home in Brooklyn and joins Carl at the university in the Midwest were he is studying and they are shortly married by a justice of the peace. And so the fun begins.
This is a year in the life of a struggling yet eager young couple, determined to be adults and live their lives on their own terms. Carl struggles to support his young and soon pregnant wife and still stay in school. Annie struggles to maintain a nice home for her husband and to prepare for the birth of their first child while trying to develop her budding talent as a writer. They have a lot of hard times, a few quarrels and misunderstandings, but through it all they manage to stay in love and adapt to changing circumstances and with a little luck and the help of their friends it will all work out.

This was a pretty good story. Most romances end with the couple coming together but that is where this one begins. Reading about how she and Carl managed to cope with and overcome adversity was interesting and brought back memories of what it was like to be a young married couple. At times, Annie's ignorance and naivety grew tiresome to read about. Towards the end of the story it felt like she was never going to manage to have that baby, that part dragged on way too long. Then after the baby comes, I guess the author got tired of the story because she sums up the last year before Carl graduates in just two brief chapters and then they get to go on to have their happily-ever-after. But even with these quibbles, I enjoyed the story of Annie and Carl.

The Great Gatsby

By F. Scott Fitzgerald

Jay Gatsby seemed to be a very wealthy man, living a riotous lifestyle in a mansion on New York's Long Island. His parties lasted until the morning and pretty much anyone who dropped by was welcome. With catered food, lots of booze and a live band, things were pretty lively. But when asked just who Gatsby was his guests could only supply conjecture and rumor. Where did Gatsby come from? Where did he get his money? Some said he had killed a man...
When young Nick Carraway moved into the humble house next door to Gatsby's, he didn't know that he had a connection with Gatsby. A connection that Gatsby, when he learned of it, was eager to exploit. Nick had a cousin, named Daisy that Gatsby knew before she was married. Daisy and her very wealthy husband Tom live just across the bay from the Gatsby mansion, in the old money community of East Egg. In fact, Gatsby bought his mansion because he knew it was just across the bay from Daisy.
As Nick settles in to his new home and renews his acquaintance with his cousin he finds out that Tom is cheating on Daisy with the wife of a man who owns a small, failing car repair business. Nick is invited to the love nest Tom has set up for this woman in the city and witnesses the lovers' quarrel and Tom breaks the woman's nose. But that doesn't end the affair because the woman is too fond of Tom's money and is willing to endure the abuse. Daisy is aware of the affair but seems content to live with it too.
Nick gets invited to one of Gatsby's parties and upon knowing him better agrees to set up a meeting between Gatsby and Daisy, inviting Daisy over for tea, her not knowing that Gatsby will be there too. So the two ex-lovers finally meet and their love affair is rekindled with Gatsby's ultimate goal of getting Daisy to leave Tom and come away with him. His beautiful mansion with its sparkling swimming pool, manicured lawns and lush gardens, fine furnishings and his high-flying parties were all just a lure to get his Daisy away from her wealthy husband and back into Gatsby's life.

This was a pretty good story. It doesn't have a happy ending. Gatsby's dream turns into a nightmare and his lovely Daisy turns out every bit as selfish and callous as her husband, Tom. One of the key scenes to Daisy's character is where the nanny brings Daisy's young daughter in to visit for a few brief minutes. Daisy gushes over how pretty her daughter is but shortly tires of her and she is sent off with the nanny. Gatsby must have a pretty good idea of her real character since she sent him packing because he didn't have enough money to suit her. Still he longs for her and everything he has done since she dumped him has been part of a plan to get her back. He is a man obsessed but the object of his obsession is not worthy of it.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Out of the Deeps

By John Wyndham

Earth is invaded by alien spaceships that land in the deepest parts of the oceans. At first nothing happens but then gradually ships start disappearing until all shipping is shut down except for non-motorized sailing ships. The next thing is strange vessels rising out of the deep waters off the shores. These vessels launch forth huge sticky tentacles that grab onto people and haul them, willy nilly, into the vessels, often tearing them into pieces as they go. At first these attacks are widespread and sporadic but then nearly every sea shore is besieged. Of course, counter measures are taken and are largely successful. The vessels withdraw and people begin to think the crisis is over.
But the next attack is not against humanity but against the polar ice caps. Somehow the aliens have managed to get the ice caps melting. As the sea levels rise, the main problem is no longer dealing with the aliens, it is mere survival. As populations are crowded into smaller and smaller areas, strife and disease break out and millions perish. And again the aliens send their tentacles to take their cruel harvest but still people manage to fight back, crowded and diminished and starved though they may be.
This story centers on two British documentary broadcasters who are in on it from the beginning, being among the first to get footage of the aliens tentacles in action. It follows them as the crisis worsens and as London becomes flooded and dangerous. Still they and their fellow broadcasters manage to stay on the air until civil disorder sends the British government into retreat.

This was a pretty boring story. At first the aliens were kind of scary and intriguing but then the story turns away from them to center on the effect of the flooding on society, especially on the British Isles and to chronicle its disintegration. At times, the story read more like a newspaper report and became very tedious. The two main characters are safe in their broadcasting tower and never experience for themselves much of the trauma that has affected their fellow countrymen. The story takes a very detached tone, especially towards the end when we find out that 41 million British citizens have died from exposure, civil strife, hunger and disease. But that's OK, we are told, because 5 million have survived, a cold-blooded way of looking at it, it seems to me. But never mind the cold and indifferent tone of the story, what really sucks about it is that the reader never finds out exactly what or who the aliens were and exactly what they wanted as communications are never received or established nor are any alien bodies ever recovered. Turns out they are merely a plot device used to put mainly the British Isles through the wringer.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Open Season

By Archer Mayor

An old lady finds her pet cat gutted and laid out for her to see. Then she receives a message that she will be next. So when a man walks into her house uninvited at night, she does the logical thing and shoots him dead. Too bad when it turns out the man was the innocent victim of a set-up.
So begins this murder mystery. As the detective in this story, Joe Gunther, follows the clues, a convoluted puzzle is revealed involving a young murdered woman, the jury that convicted a possibly innocent man of her murder, and a masked stranger who doesn't hesitate to kill to further his cause: justice. But just who he wants justice for remains to be seen.

This was a pretty good mystery story. The killer's motives remain pretty murky till nearly the end of the book, as does the truth behind the dead girl's murder. The detective, Joe Gunther, is an appealing character, an every day kind of guy who makes mistakes and doesn't always figure things out real fast. He is no brainiac type of detective but he has a real strong sense of justice, and will dig to solve the puzzle no matter the opposition his superiors may have about stirring up trouble. And trouble there is as the police force is made to look like dummies or patsies when it become more clear that the original investigation was seriously flawed. Made for a good and engaging read.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Labyrinth of Dreams

By Jack L. Chalker

Brandy and Sam Horowitz are private investigators but they aren't doing very well. In fact, they have pretty much admitted that it's over. Sam has even looked into getting a job. So when a small time hood hires them to track down a man who stole several million dollars of mob money, they think twice about it, but end up taking the job, since it comes with a hefty advance and two credit cards to use for their expenses.
It isn't too far into the investigation before it becomes clear that something hinky is going on. Because it seems that there are way too many Martin Whitlocks, the man they have been hired to trace. And that maybe Martin Whitlock isn't even a man or he is possibly a cross-dresser. Just when it looks like they are on to something, their client calls and cancels the deal. Tells them to back completely off the case. But Brandy and Sam have had their curiosity peaked and they follow the investigation on their own time out to Oregon where G.O.D., Inc has their distribution center.
G.O.D., Inc. stands for General Ordering and Distribution and they specialize in selling gimmicky stuff on TV like table top ovens, over-priced juicers, and blankets with sleeves. Whitlock's trail leads to the small Oregon where the company's plant is located. The Horowitz's follow along and Brandy shoots and kills one Whitlock when that Whitlock tries to kill the two Whitlocks that the Horowitzes trailed to Oregon. The Horowitzes find themselves legally trapped in the small Oregon town, but despite that they inflitrate the G.O.D. plant and that's where it really gets weird.

This is another entry in the alternate universe stories that have become so common in science fiction now. Turns out that all but one of the various Whitlocks are from different versions of our Earth, with similar but slightly different histories and that the G.O.D. plant is a station with connections to these alternates. This book is basically a murder mystery with an organized crime slant with a little science fiction thrown in just to complicate things. What with various doubles popping in and out of the story and with double agents and turncoats behind every door, things get a little convoluted.
So basically, this is a mystery story with a sci-fi twist and I didn't really care that much for it, finding it pretty slow-going. Too many doubles, too many traitors, too hard too follow, I can only rate it fair.

Confederates in the Attic

By Tony Horwitz

About 150 years ago, the United States fought a war over whether states had the right to continue practices that had been outlawed by the Federal government and the right they wanted to continue to practice was the enslavement of their fellow human beings. (Never mind the irony of a society that claimed to be Christian and yet ignored the Golden Rule.)They lost that war and the right they fought and died for to keep people in bondage. Surprisingly, they are still bitter about that. You'd think any decent person would be glad that slavery was ended because it was a foul blot on American history. But NO! The South is still pissed!
This is what Tony Horwitz discovered on his odyssey through the south tracing the progress of that old war by visiting battlefields, partaking in battle reenactments, and just plain talking to folks about the subject. It's a fascinating journey, full of local color and surprising and often disturbing details. One such detail: the Civil War isn't taught much in many parts of the South, the history classes pretty much concentrate on US history dating from 1877 and on. Which explains a lot if you have ever watched Jay Leno's Jaywalking where young people can't even tell him who George Washington was.
Bottom line, many in the South are still wallowing in the past, and like those nutty people in Europe who are still upset about things that happened 500 years ago, they are bound and determined to hang on to their grievances.

Over all, this was a very interesting book and I enjoyed it a lot. There were a few parts that kind of dragged, but mostly it was a pleasure to read and certainly very informative, especially the parts about those people who like to dress up like soldiers and pretend to refight the old battles. I never realized the degree to which they go to get the details just so. I was also surprised to find out how angry Southerners still are about the Civil War and how they still feel put down by the North and how they still tend to blame the North for their problems. That was rather shocking and disturbing. Also disturbing to read about was the race hatred that still exists in many places in the South. This book is a revelation.