Friday, December 30, 2011

In the Belly of the Bloodhound

By L. A. Meyer

Another installment in the adventures of Jacky Faber, girl sailor. Jacky has found out that the British government has charged her with piracy and ordered her arrest. She returns to Boston and once again enrolls in the Lawson Peabody School for girls. Soon after, an outing to a nearby island is proposed and a group of the girls board a boat to the island only to find themselves kidnapped and taken away to an ocean-going ship. This ship, the Bloodhound, is a slave ship and the girls are destined for the slave markets of North Africa. Jacky organizes her fellow students and develops a daring escape plan. They have about a month to get everything ready and with a little luck, courage and a friend in the crew, they are going to save themselves from a fate worse than death!

What an exciting and entertaining story this was. You wouldn't think that a story that takes place mainly in the filthy, dark hold of a slave ship would have much scope for adventure and excitement, but it sure does. I really enjoyed this story very much.

Mission of Gravity

By Hal Clement

Mesklin is a huge, cold planet with liquid methane seas and crushing gravity from three to 700 times that of Earth, depending on where you were on the surface, with the lightest gravity at the equator and the heaviest at the poles.
Inhospitable to human life, still Mesklin is not a barren planet. It teams with plants and animals and also has intelligent denizens who are not technologically advanced.
Humans have a scientific outpost on a moon of Mesklin and have sent a survey rocket down to the poles. It is the only rocket they have that is designed to withstand the tremendous pressure it will encounter there. But something has gone wrong and the rocket, which apparently landed as intended, is not responding to their communications.
Fortunately, a scientist at a station on the planet's equator (the only location where a human can survive the planet's gravity since it is only three times that of Earth's there) has established friendly relations with a few the natives of the planet, a group of intrepid explorers and traders. Led by their captain, Barlennan, they have agreed to travel to the pole and, with the advice of the humans, attempt to salvage the rocket's mission. But this will be a journey of thousands of miles, across strange territory, inhabited by unknown perils. Why would Barlennan and his crew undertake such a risky and dangerous expedition? Because they want to get their pinchers on human technology!

This was a really good story. Barlennan and his friends have lots of exciting adventures and, with the advice of the humans communicating with them from the moon base, manage to reach the disabled rocket and conclude their mission, helping not only the research scientists but gaining a lot for their own people. Just a fun read, with a lot of hard science for the science buffs to enjoy.

The Candle of Distant Earth

By Alan Dean Foster

Book three in the Taken Trilogy, finds Marcus, George, Sque, and Braouk traveling in a convoy of three Niyyuuan spacecraft, searching for their home planets with the help of their Niyyuuan allies. Their first productive stop on the journey is the planet Hyff, home to an unassuming people who live in fear of their maurading neighbors, the Iollth. Marcus and company arrive in time to help the Hyff mount a successful resistance against the Iollth. Plus the Hyff are familiar with Braouk's people and are able to give the wanderers a heading to take them to to Braouk's home planet.
Looks like they are all well on their way to getting back home...maybe.

This was an good read, a lot better than the second book in the trilogy but not quite as interesting as the first book. George and company face various challenges and triumph and attain their goals but discover in the process that maybe they already had what they were looking for.


By Sarah Waters

Susan was raised in a den of thieves in Victorian London. The matriarch of this den was Mrs. Sucksby. Mrs. Sucksby was not Susan's mother, but had been a foster mother to her since Susan's infancy. Mrs. Sucksby ran a "baby farm," a kind of black market orphanage. She received orphaned and unwanted infants and took care of them until they could be placed with a family or work situation. She also sometimes received young women in trouble who needed an out-of-the way place to bear their bastard children. At about the time that Susan was born, an unfortunate young woman from an upper class family took refuge with Mrs. Sucksby and gave birth to a baby girl, a baby girl who would be the sole heir to a vast fortune. But there was a catch to this inheritance: the girl had to be married before she could receive her inheritance. This is what the young, pregnant woman confided to Mrs. Sucksby and Mrs. Sucksby held on to this information until the time was ripe to act upon it.
So almost 18 years later, Mrs. Sucksby, Mr. Richard Rivers, a young man and confederate of Mrs. Sucksby's, and Susan come together in a plot to get their hands on this vast fortune, due to be inherited by a young girl living in a lonely and isolated mansion about forty miles outside London. The plan is for Mr. Rivers, posing as an art expert, and Susan, posing as a ladies' maid, to insinuate themselves into the lonely mansion and seduce the young woman, Maud, away from the protection of her uncle and thus gain access to the vast fortune by Mr. Rivers marrying Maud, getting her wealth and then abandoning her to an insane asylum.
That's the plan, anyway. But the plotters have plots of their own and things go awry and some will end up in places they never expected and some will gain all and some will lose all.

This was a really good read, with lots of plot twists, and double-dealing aplenty. And I liked the ending, too.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

All the Dogs of My Life

By Elizabeth von Arnim

A memoir of all the dogs that shared von Arnim's life, starting with Bijou, who she only had for a few weeks before her parents sent the dog away. She later, as a child, briefly had another dog, a Pomeranian, who was also soon sent away. Her parents didn't care for dogs.
It wasn't until she became a woman that von Arnim was able to really have a dog and she did, ending her memoir with dogs 13 and 14, Woosie and Winkie, of which two, Winkie was still with her. Like all dogs, her dogs had their ups and downs, their illnesses and misadventures and their tragic ends.

When she wrote this book, it was intended to be a story of her dogs and not an autobiography. And she kept to her intention, which at times made for rather awkward reading. Maybe she figured her readers would be familiar enough with her to be able to read between the lines. But I found her coy references to her own past to be rather annoying, like when she referred to the appearance of her next husband as her "doom" without ever explaining why he was her doom.
However, she is open about the mistakes she made with her dogs, like leaving one behind in Switzerland for several years and then coming back for it only to find it was dying. And having one neutered and then blaming herself when the dog became fat and lazy. Anyone who has ever had a pet should know those feeling of guilt and regret when the pets have to suffer the consequences of our decisions and failures to act.

Anyway, it was a pretty good book written by a woman who truly did love her dogs even if she made some mistakes along the way. But who hasn't?
She was also the author of Enchanted April, which was made into a very fine movie in the early 1990s.

The Moon By Whale Light

By Diane Ackerman

Ackerman travels the world to see animals in their native habitats, focusing in this book on bats, American alligators and crocodiles, whales and penguins. For those who are not particularly familiar with these animals, this book is an excellent introduction. I found the section on bats to be the most interesting, followed by that of the penguins, mainly for it very evocative descriptions of the scenery. The sections on whales and gators were less interesting to me, since they didn't have a lot of information that was new to me.
As for the section on bats, what I most enjoyed were the adventure stories provided by Merlin Tuttle, bat expert and founder of Bat Conservation International. I don't know if he has ever written a book about his adventures, but if he hasn't he sure should. He has led a very exciting life, out in the field studying bats. What a guy!

First Grave on the Right

By Darynda Jones

Charley Davidson is a grim reaper. She is the gate to the other realm that the dead pass through. As such, she can see and talk to the dead, which comes in handy for her day job, private investigator. Through her contacts with the police, she is able to pass on the information she gleans from her dead witnesses and thus solve crimes.
Talking to dead people has been a skill Charley has possessed since her birth. In fact, the first person to pass through her portal was her own mother, who died at her birthing. Even as a tiny child, Charley saw and spoke to the dead, confiding the information thus gained to anyone who cared to listen. That is until her stepmother slapped her silly for claiming that Charley saw a missing (and dead) child.
But bad relations with her stepmother is the least of Charley's problems. Lately she is being haunted by a devastatingly handsome man, a man who enters her dreams and makes hot, passionate love to her. Now he has started appearing in the daytime, with his burning kisses and caresses, sending Charley into a tizzy. And reminding her of an unrequited love from her high school days. Does this mean the man for whom she has carried a torch for so many years is dead? Or trapped in some sort of limbo, unable to cross over? She doesn't know, but she means to find out, even if she has to go knocking on the gates of Hell to find him.

This was a pretty typical entree in the supernatural romance genre. It is also clearly meant to be a series, since the ending is very open-ended with many strings left dangling. It is also supposed to be "hilarious" but I didn't find it so. I did get rather tired of the main character constantly being injured or beat up. That was really off-putting, as I don't find abuse particularly entertaining. Also, I'm sure the sex scenes are appropriately steamy, but overblown depictions of the sex act don't appeal to me. As far as the plot goes, it is basically a murder mystery, when three dead lawyers visit Charley after they have been murdered, all three lawyers working for the same law firm.

I am such a sucker for any book that claims to amusing, funny, or hilarious. Here lately, though, it seems I am usually disappointed when the book turns out to be, at the most, mildly amusing. That is the case here, where a book is hyped as hilarious but isn't. Sure, it has a few lighter touches but mainly it is not a funny book. How could it be with the subjects of human trafficking, child abuse and murder as its topics? Overall, the book is a pretty good murder mystery with an intriguing supernatural mystery attached. But it is not hilarious. I am not going to hold the misleading blurbs against it, though. I was disappointed that it wasn't the humorous book I was looking for, but it was a pretty good read.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Hons and Rebels

By Jessica Mitford

Born in 1917, Jessica tells the story of her growing up years as the daughter of British lord, Baron Redesdale. From what she says, Jessica was not a particularly happy child. Hers was a large family, she had several sisters and a brother and perhaps Jessica got lost in the shuffle. Living in what she felt was a kind of isolation, she longed to go to school but her parents insisted on her being educated at home, although she didn't learn much beyond proper English and French, as those where just about the only subjects deemed relevant for the education of an upper class female. She was not taught anything practical, like how to take care of a home or family, since it was assumed she would marry into her own class and those things would be provided by servants.
But Jessica was not interested in society boys. Early in her life, Jessica developed a social conscience when she became troubled by the differences between how she lived and how most other people lived. She felt the best way to equalize that difference was through Communism and she became an ardent supporter of the Communist cause. But her parents and her sisters were at the opposite end, politically, in that they supported the British Union of Fascists and were fans of Adolph Hitler.
Eventually Jessica ran away from home with her cousin, Esmond Romilly, who had fought in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. (Romilly was the nephew of Winston Churchill.) Esmond was planning to rejoin his comrades in the Spanish Civil War and Jessica wanted to be involved. But it didn't work out, and pressure from Jessica's family pretty much forced them to get married and return to Britain.

This was an OK book. I can't say that I cared much for Jessica's family, in that they were Jew-hating fascists and supporters of Hitler. Nor did I care for Jessica's politics, not being a fan of Communism myself. I didn't know about her family's shocking history when I started reading the book and when I did find out, it really put me off the whole book. It's probably not a reasonable attitude but that's how I felt.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

This Is My God

By Herman Wouk

Author and Jew Herman Wouk attempts to answer the question, what is the Jewish faith? He gives a brief history of the Jewish people and how the Jewish religion came to exist. He also looks at the evolution of Judaism from its beginnings in Middle East, to its adaption to exile over the centuries and to its modern existence in the forms of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Hasidic Judaism. It's a very informative view of the religion designed for the reader who is totally unfamiliar with Judaism but it is also of value to others. The author presents his information in an easy-to-read style without a lot of complex and confusing detail. I am not familiar with Judaism but I still think he does a good job of explaining it.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

My Dog Skip

By Willie Morris

Willie Morris' memoir of his boyhood in a small Southern town, centered around his pet dog, Skip, a terrier. Morris was an only child and Skip became the brother he never had. The two did everything together, hunting, fishing, playing ball. Morris had lots of friends and an active social life and Skip was a part of it all. He even learned to play football and other sports. Together he and Morris lived an almost idyllic existence. Of course, there were tough times, like when Skip was poisoned or when he got trapped in an abandoned refrigerator. But he managed to squeak through and the two remained nearly inseparable until Morris went off to college.

There were lots of things that I enjoyed about this book and some not so much. The descriptions of childhood pranks were funny and I liked the excursions into the dense woods nearby and of the closeness between Morris and his dog. In fact, I would have like a lot more about the local wildlife and the woods. What I didn't enjoy so much was the extensive descriptions of the football games and other sports Morris played where the dog was included. Yes, it is remarkable that Skip learned to play those games, but too often it seemed like I was reading the sports report. I got rather bored with the extensive descriptions of sports games. But other than the emphasis on sports, it was a pretty good story and Skip sounds like one of the best dogs ever.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011


By Terry Pratchett

Ankh-Morpork Commander of the City Watch Sam Vimes has finally agreed to take a much-deserved and long put-off vacation. So he and his wife, Lady Sybil and their young son, Sam, are going to spend a couple of weeks at Lady Sybil's family estate in the country.
But it isn't long before Sam's vacation turns into a criminal investigation with Sam set up to take the fall for a local man's disappearance, a man with whom Sam had a brief confrontation at the local pub. Before long, Sam is on the trail of a cruel murderer and after a gang of drug smugglers who are being backed by the local bigwigs.
It all leads to a thrilling riverboat ride on a river in roaring flood. Sam comes out on top and in the process manages to bring a downtrodden local minority into equal status with the rest of the Discworld community.

This was another interesting novel in the Discworld series but not as funny as some of the earlier novels. It does have some amusing moments but its also pretty serious as it deals with discrimination, murder and the indifference of the illegal drug industry to the dire effects of their product on their customers. I appreciate that Pratchett has some important points to make about society. But I don't read his books for their social commentary. I just want to be amused. For the most, I wasn't amused by this book. It was just too serious for my taste.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Worst Hard Time

By Timothy Egan

When the Great Plains were opened to settlement, the area was thought to be prime farmland. The great grasslands were plowed under, the native bison destroyed, and the prairie divided into fenced plots and sowed with crops. At the time, the area was experiencing a period of fairly wet conditions and crops flourished. The price of wheat was high and more and more land was put to the plow. Overproduction resulted and prices crashed. Wheat was piled up on the ground as the elevators filled. Farmers' cost of production exceeded the price they could get for their crop. At about the same time, the country was plunged into the Great Depression and America's buying power was decimated, which didn't help the farmers at all. Then, on top of all that, a drought struck the Great Plains, a drought that lasted for years and years. Farmers tried to plant a crop only watch it wither and die from lack of moisture. Too much acreage was laid bare to wind, wind which is a permanent feature of the Great Plains. Gigantic dust storms ensued, storms so massive that fences were buried, tractors and vehicles buried. The good top soil was stripped off and sent up into the atmosphere traveling at times as far as New York City and Washington DC.
This is the story of those times, of the people who stuck it out and refused to give up on the dream. They dealt with the dust that got everywhere, that destroyed not only the health of their livestock, but their own health. It's a fascinating, heartbreaking and even frightening story as greed replaced common sense and people believed what they wanted to believe and converted marginal, semi-arid land into farmland, telling themselves that "rain follows the plow."


By David Palmer

Peter Cory was a self-made man, confident, smart, athletic, successful and extremely wealthy. So wealthy that he owned his very own tropical island, equipped with the finest security possible. So how was it possible that the lovely young naked woman had managed to elude said security and invade Peter's highly prized privacy? Add in the talking cat who came with her and Peter's life was about to change direction in ways he could never have imagined. Ways that included the power to alter his appearance at will, and traveling across the galaxy to a distant planet and then fighting his way across that planet battling fearsome monsters every step of the way. He will be tested almost beyond endurance and his survival is the key to the survival of the whole galaxy.

Quite an exciting adventure story as Peter faces the challenges he encounters and manages to come out on top for the most part. I did find the fact that the main character is a little too over the top (even Superman had to worry about kryptonite) and the endless procession of monsters gets a little tedious after awhile and I just skipped over the many technical descriptions, but even so I enjoyed the book a lot.