Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Curse of the Spellmans

By Lisa Lutz

Izzy Spellman is the middle child. She has an older brother who is "perfect": smart, educated, successful, polite, tidy, and good-looking. She has a younger sister who is just turning sixteen and is ripe for trouble. Izzy herself had a troubled adolescence but now she is a grown woman, grown, but not a grown-up. For years she has worked in her parents' private investigation firm but Izzy has often tried to disentangle herself from her parents' lives, so far unsuccessfully.
Growing up with investigators for parents kind of created a climate of distrust and suspicion. Her parents were notorious for spying on their children, which is one of the reasons that Izzy wants some space. But her parents' bad habits have certainly rubbed off on Izzy and she uses the same tactics her parents used on her on her own relationships. The result is that she runs through boyfriends pretty fast.
When an attractive fellow named John Brown moves in next door, he and Izzy start dating. But Izzy can't get over her suspicious ways and soon starts to snoop. John is not the sort of man who will tolerate having his privacy invaded and the relationship is quickly over. But Izzy is convinced that John Brown is not his real name and that he is up to no good and proceeds to make him the target of a surreptitious investigation, an investigation that lands her in jail for breaking and entering.

Not your typical mystery story, as there is no dead body and no real crimes committed. Izzy plunges headlong into her investigation of the suspect neighbor with the occasional help and hindrance of her little sister. Other mysteries in Izzy's life require some looking into also: Why is Dad going to the gym and dieting? Why is Mom leaving the house in the wee small hours and vandalizing a motor bike? Why is Brother at home, drunk, not working and where has his wife gone? Why has her loner sister apparently gained friends and even, possibly, a boyfriend? Lots going on in the family and no one is talking. It is up to Izzy (or so she thinks) to figure it all out.
Little sister is not as bratty in this book as she was in the first, which was a relief. She was so bratty in the first book that I didn't like her at all. Also, Izzy's parents seem less intrusive than they did in the first book, which made them more likable too. I enjoyed this book a lot more than I did the first in the series as the characters are less extreme and more human than before. All in all, even with Izzy's obsessive behavior, I liked this story a lot.

Still River

By Hal Clement

A mixed group of young scientists consisting of one human woman and four nonhumans are sent to the planet Enigma for what is, in effect, their final exam for what we would call their doctorates. The planet is called Enigma because it is very small, too small to retain its atmosphere, but it does. The young scientists must determine why Enigma has an atmosphere.
From the get-go there are problems. While Enigma has an atmosphere, since it is small, it hasn't much gravity. But it does have wind, as Joe, the first scientist off the ship, discovers when he is quickly blown away. Fortunately, he was unharmed as was the next person to run afoul of Enigma's treacherous environment, Carol, who was briefly buried in a sand pit. What the scientists didn't know was that the numerous sand pits on the surface of Enigma were bottomless, with sand blown by the gale force surface winds and into an extensive network of caves and tunnels.
Joe has designed a group of levitating robots meant to track Enigma's wind patterns. But one of the robots ends up down in the cave system and Molly (the only human), trying to reclaim the robot, falls way down into the cave system too. She latches on to the robot because its power supply can also power her space suit. She can't stop the robot from travelling with the cave winds because her fingers are too big to reach inside the control panel. (Joe, who built the robots, is a tiny creature compared to Molly.) So she has no choice but to go where the robot takes her and hope that her teammates are able to effect a rescue. So everyone puts their planned research aside in order to figure out how to find Molly in the extensive labyrinth of caves with which the planet is riddled.

The main thing I liked about this story is the interactions between the members of the team. All of the are different species and of an assortment of body types consisting of a human, a small humanoid, a centipede-like being, and two spherical beings, one small and one large. Despite their differences and occasional misunderstandings and a few disasters, they manage to come together to save Molly and Carol and even figure out the riddle of Enigma.
The traverse through the cave system of Enigma was less interesting. The book has a lot of physics and chemistry and I think someone who understood that stuff better than I do would get a lot more from the story than I did. At times it seemed like the story would never reach its conclusion, as Molly and Carol wandered endlessly through the dark, monotonous caves. Also, for a bunch of people in line for advanced degrees, they sure made a lot of stupid mistakes! But, overall, I think I liked the story pretty well, Enigma is a strange and interesting place and I liked the characters.

The Infernals

By John Connolly

The second book in a series of which the first book, The Gates, has the main character coming up against the demons of hell. The demons came through the gates between the two realms and young Samuel Johnson was instrumental in sending them back to hell and sealing the gates.
Samuel Johnson's main adversary from the first story was a demon called Mrs. Abernathy. Since Samuel's triumph, Mrs. Abernathy has been in disgrace for its failure. So when it sees a brief opening in the gates, it reaches out to snatch Samuel to hell intending to deliver him to the Lord of hell and thus get back in favor with the head demon. But during the process not only does Mrs. Abernathy snatch Samuel (and his dog), it gets a police car (with cops inside), an ice cream van and its attendant, and a van full of dwarfs.
So Samuel and various others find themselves wandering through the strange, frightening and depressing realms of hell without a clue as to how to get themselves back to the land of the living. But then Samuel meets some old friends from the previous novel and together they and the cops and the ice cream guy and the dwarfs will stand against all the dire forces of hell and especially Samuel's old enemy, Mrs. Abernathy.

This was an okay story. It was in the adult section of our library but it is really meant for older children or possibly young adults. It was often funny but clearly geared for a younger reader, with footnotes on how to annoy your parents and explaining things that an older reader doesn't need explained, like what a chancellor is or what truculent means.
There isn't a lot of meat to the story. The humans mainly just wander around experiencing the nastiness of hell. The most interesting part of the story was the power play by the demons who are moving to take over Mrs. Abernathy's position and gain favor with the ruler of hell.
So I did enjoy the humor but found the plot a little light but I think older kids, 12 to 15, would enjoy it.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Grey Mask

By Patricia Wentworth

Charles never knew why his fiancee dumped him just a few days before their wedding. In anger, he left home for several years. When he finally returned, he was surprised to discover that she was unmarried and barely getting by as a sales clerk in a hat shop. He had always thought she jilted him for another man.
Meanwhile, society is buzzing over the recent death of wealthy Edward Standing, swept overboard at sea and presumed drowned. He left no will and his only child, beautiful, young Margot has no papers to prove she is his child or that her parents were ever married. And if she can't produce her parents' marriage certificate, her cousin Egbert gets everything.
Charles, who is currently staying at a hotel, pays an unannounced visit to his house, a house that is supposed to be empty, with only his caretaker in residence. Charles, arriving at the house, finds the garden gate and the back door both unlocked. Thinking to surprise a burgler, he creeps in and finds no burgler but a criminal gang, led my an anonymous man in a grey mask, in the midst of a plot. They are plotting to get rid of some girl before she can produce "the certificate." (Charles later realizes that they were talking about Margot Standing.) He decides he will go get the police when his ex-fiancee joins the gang. When he realizes she is involved, he changes his mind about informing the police. Charles and his ex will end up trying to protect Margot from those out to get rid of her, with the help of Miss Silver, a private investigator.

This is the first story in the Miss Silver series. It was written in the late 1920s. Miss Silver is an older British woman, similar to Agatha Christie's Miss Marple but Miss Silver is a professional investigator who works discretely to bring miscreants to justice with the minimum of scandal.
I liked this book a lot. The plot is interesting, the characters are pleasant and familiar, and it has secrets aplenty waiting to be revealed, with a couple of romances for another element of interest. And despite it having been written more than eighty years ago, it holds up really well. It was a good, and at times, even humorous story.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

It's My F---ing Birthday

By Merrill Markoe

Told in first person by the unnamed narrator who writes a sort of memorandum to herself about the events of the past year, starting with her 36th birthday and concluding with her 42nd. In the first chapter, she writes that she is still grieving over her break-up a year ago with long-time boyfriend Carl. Oddly, Carl sends her a huge bouquet of flowers with a card signed only, "Happy Birthday Carl" with no punctuation between birthday and Carl. She doesn't know what to make of this and it just brings out her bad feelings again. Meanwhile, her parents are there to take her out for her annual birthday dinner, an event she doesn't like and dreads every year. Her relationship with her parents is rather rocky: her mother constantly criticizes her and her father is a conceited bore and a bully.
She concludes each chapter with a review of what she learned that year and also what she hopes to learn and in the first chapter she claims she wants to learn more about quantum physics but by the last chapter she gives up on quantum physics with a quote from Richard Feynman: "I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics."

I enjoyed this book although I found it hard to understand the main character's reluctance to stand up to her emotionally abusive parents. I should think that by the time one is 36, one would be able to tell the parents where to get off.
So the main character is a bit of a pushover but despite that, her story was interesting and a little bit amusing and, while not a real engrossing book, still made for a pretty good read.

Monday, February 06, 2012

The White Lady

By Leonard Dubkin

When Leonard Dubkin was driving home one evening, he passed a field that he recognized from his childhood. It was a small wilderness within the confines of the city of Chicago, a place with a low, rocky hill, some grass and weeds and a few trees. So he decided to stop and take a look around at his old stomping ground. As he wandered through the area, he came upon a tree which had growing around its trunk a large and dense collection of vines climbing up the tree to almost twenty feet high. Curious to look inside the thicket, he tried to push through the vines but failed. So he climbed up the outside of the vines and up on to the tree trunk. Once above the vines he could see an opening in the vines close to the trunk, big enough for him to stick his head in if he wanted to. But as he gazed at the hole, he became aware of some kind of movement inside the vines. He tried to see what it was but he lost his grip and tumbled into the midst of the vines, landing on a thick carpet of dead leaves at the base of the tree. Looking up toward the hole, Dubkin saw that the inside of the vine structure was full of little brown bats.
Dubkin was fascinated by the bats and that whole summer and into fall made repeated visits to observe and enjoy the bats. He came back the next summer also and that is when he discovered the little bat he called the White Lady. He was able the observe the little white bat as it was being born and, over the summer, he and the bat became friends of a sort with the little bat taking insects from his hand after it learned to fly.

This was a sweet story of a man getting to know bats in a way that most people would never wish to try. In fact, he was bitten several times but he never seemed worried about getting a disease. His mother, with whom he still lived at the time, strongly disapproved of all the time he spent with the white bat, at one time saying, "I was just coming to the conclusion that if you had to choose between us, the white bat would win." In fact, it was the time he spent with the bats that helped him to realize that he was too much under his mother's thumb and that he needed to break away and make a life for himself.
Dubkin's descriptions of the antics of the bats make them seem very appealing and endearing and even people who don't particularly care for bats might find this book interesting and informative. And maybe even improve their opinion of these mostly harmless and often very beneficial creatures.

The Shadow of the Wind

By Carlos Ruiz Zafon

When Daniel was a boy verging on manhood, he encountered a book that captured his imagination. Wanting to know more about the author, Julian Carax, he began an investigation that lasted almost ten years.
In due time and with the help of his friends, Daniel finds that Carax's life is a mystery: what happened to him, why did he disappear. It is a story of blighted hopes, blighted love and blighted lives. And if Daniel is not careful, his name will be added to that sad list.

I started reading this book months ago but put it aside as I found it rather boring. But I kept hearing what a great read it was and how much people were looking forward to reading it so I gave it another go.
Just like the first time, I found it kind of boring. It just seemed to go round and round without really getting anywhere. But I stuck with it and finally finished it.
It is a kind of murder mystery, set in the mid 1940s to mid 1950s, in Barcelona, Spain. It has lots of mysterious characters (maybe too many mysterious characters); dark, rainy nights; creepy, deserted buildings; a real Gothic atmosphere. I can't say I disliked the book but it was just too long. I did like the ending, which is not as grim and dire as the rest of the book.