Monday, January 30, 2012

A Rum Affair by Karl Sabbagh

Who would have guessed that the world of academic botany was such a seething cauldron of intrigue?

Karl Sabbagh, his interest sparked by an unusual line in an obituary for the noted botanist John Heslop Harrison, starts a quiet investigation of the man in order to assuage his own curiosity. What he finds shocks him: an unpublished report of an investigation into Heslop Harrison's findings, complete with allegations of fraud. In other words, some of the rare plants Heslop Harrison discovered on the Scottish island of Rum showed evidence of having been planted for the sole purpose of being "discovered."

The book is a careful, quiet account of Sabbagh's research into the allegations. He looks at the main players in detail, Heslop Harrison himself and his accuser, amateur botanist John Raven, and at the atmosphere of the time, early to mid 20th century Britain. It's not a bombastic book at all; rather, it's filled with a low-key wit.

While it's readable and interesting, it's not exactly riveting. It would have been easy to put the book down and never pick it back up. I'm glad I didn't, though.

B&N link

Sunday, January 29, 2012

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

It took me a while to get around to this one because the Tiffany Aching books have never been my favorite Discworld series. But I was really surprised with this one. Maybe because Tiffany's older in this one (sixteen, I think, or almost sixteen), the book has a darker, more sophisticated tone.

Tiffany Aching is the witch of the Chalk, the only witch in the area. The people are still getting used to having a witch, and Tiffany's still coming to terms with the workload and the lack of help. When the old baron dies, Tiffany volunteers to go to Ankh-Morpork to notify his son, who's gone to the city with his fiancee and her mother. But people in the big city are strangely hostile toward witches, and Tiffany keeps seeing a monstrous vision of a man without eyes--a man who hates witches and seems to be following her.

The plot isn't particularly unusual if you've read a lot of Discworld books. It's well-done, though: entertaining, funny, touching, interesting, and funny (I put funny twice because no one's more consistently funny than Pratchett). The wee free men are of course part of the story, although without as central a part as in the earlier books. And while Pratchett often has his other major characters do cameos in other characters' books, there was a lot of that in this one, including one character I was very surprised to see (no, not Death. He's in all of them).

I think this is the last Tiffany Aching book, from what I've heard. I liked this one so much that I hope I'm wrong. I'd like to see what Pratchett does next with the character.

B&N link

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Gemini Bites by Patrick Ryan

Kyle Renneker used to be best buddies with his twin sister, Judy, until their parents separated for a year and took one of the twins each. When the family got back together again, Kyle wanted to be friends with his sister again, but she no longer seemed to like him. Now, at sixteen, the two are constantly at each others' throats. It doesn't help that they have five other siblings, all vying for their parents' attention. When Kyle announces to the family that he's gay, he's annoyed when his sister promptly announces that she's a born-again Christian.

In reality, Judy doesn't give two hoots about religion. She's just interested in getting to know a cute football player who runs a Bible study--and it doesn't hurt that she can needle Kyle with her new-found religion. But then their parents take in high school student Garret Johnson so he can finish the school year after his parents move, and both Kyle and Judy crank up the competition. Garret is a mysterious loner who says he's a vampire. And both twins are interested in him.

I think this is what you might call the highest of all high concept novels. It's a lot of fun, too. The story is told from both twins' points of view in alternating chapters. Kyle is a nice guy, and Judy is not very nice at all--but she's an oddly sympathetic character. And Garret is fascinating.

The book is sometimes funny, sometimes sad. It's not terribly deep, but it's a sweet, fast read. The Renneker parents are a little too good to be true, though, and the last chapter wraps everything up so neatly I found it kind of unrealistic. But I really like that Kyle is so okay about being gay, and in fact is better-adjusted than his sister. The way the twins use Garret to further their own agendas is clever and funny; the way Garret uses the twins in turn is even cleverer.

B&N link

Friday, January 27, 2012

Cryptozoology, ed by Chad Arment

This is a collection of essays about cryptozoological animals: animals that are unknown, or presumed extinct although the occasional unverified sighting still occurs, or known only to locals and not to scientists, etc. I love well-researched books about cryptozoology, and since Karl Shuker hasn't published anything new recently, I was pleased to find this book.

The subtitle is "The Investigation of Lesser-Known Mystery Animals," which particularly appealed to me. Who wants to rehash bigfoot over and over when you can learn about bioluminescent spiders and possible new habitats of coelacanths? (Blogger's spellcheck is freaking out at this post.)

The essays tend mostly to the scientific and are well-researched and with citations and foot/end notes, although a few that are more informal in tone. It's all readable, though, and all fascinating. The last chapter is an interesting mishmash of reprinted articles from old newspapers that need to be verified by researchers. As the editor points out, journalists from the late 19th/early 20th century sometimes made up stories of strange animal sightings to fill space. He gives tips on how to spot phony articles.

I enjoyed the book very much. If you're at all interested in cryptozoology (and why aren't you? It's fascinating!), this is a great addition to the more readily available bigfoot and Loch Ness Monster books out there.

B&N link

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Beyond the Grave by Mara Purnhagen

This is the last book in this series, which consists of three actual books and two novellas that take place between the books' events. I didn't read the second novella, since I found the first one weak.

I have read the other two books, though. I really liked the first one, Past Midnight, and was disappointed with the second, One Hundred Candles. Beyond the Grave has been out for a while, but I didn't buy a copy until recently because I had lost interest in the series.

The problems that I saw in the second book are still present in this one, unfortunately. Charlotte is still passive and doesn't make connections between events/people that are glaringly obvious to the reader. There's not as much of the goofy new age crystal beliefs, but there's a character who's not-a-guardian-angel-but-really-he-sort-of-is, although I think he's actually called a protector. The plot is all about Charlotte being pursued by a demonic entity (not-a-demon-but-really-he-sort-of-is).

I got really tired of Charlotte waffling back and forth about her boyfriend Noah. Noah lies to her, has stopped attending school and bathing, and admits to chronic insomnia and severe bouts of sleepwalking. He has a non-healing bruise on his neck from where the demon from the last book touched him. Yet Charlotte only worries about him intermittently, and when they're together, she convinces herself that everything's okay. This is one girl who is all ready for her first dysfunctional adult relationship.

Part of the plot concerns Charlotte's mother, who is in a coma after the events of the previous book. Charlotte's grief and uncertainty about her mother, and her relationship with her father, is more compelling than anything else in the book, eclipsing the rest of the plot and frankly making all the woo-woo ghosty stuff seem frivolous. There's also a subplot of two characters getting married, which got way too much page-time.

I like Purnhagen's writing, though. I'll be interested to see what she does next. I hope it doesn't include crystals.

B&N link

Sunday, January 22, 2012

How to Learn Any Language by Barry Farber

I'm trying to teach myself Irish Gaelic from language CDs, so I'm after any help I can get. I don't know if How to Learn Any Language will actually end up helping me, but it made me feel better about not retaining much of the languages I studied in high school and college.

The book is a quick read, breezy and upbeat. My edition is a bit dated (1991) and talks about language cassettes and Walkmans, the surge in people needing to learn Russian, and things like that. But the basic information is still current.

While much of the book is a cheerful insistence that anyone can learn another language, there's a lot of solid advice. While Farber says grammar is important to learn, he also stresses that having fun is even more important. Grammar shouldn't overshadow the fun. He gives lots of suggestions of methods that will increase both comprehension and enjoyment, like getting a newspaper or magazine in the language you're learning--meant for native speakers, not students--and learning the vocabulary and grammar to read the first article as a major goal. He also suggests a multi-prong approach to learning: not just listening to tapes or doing paper/pencil lessons, but making your own flashcards to study during down times, using travelers' pocket guides of phrases for quick mastery of useful phrases, and making your own language tapes (not as practical these days--one thing about cassettes, they were really easy to make recordings on without special software or equipment).

There's also a section on various major languages of the world and how difficult they are to learn and how they help you learn other languages that are similar. Farber definitely wants everyone to learn a lot of languages. Just not Celtic languages, because although there's a huge long list of the Principle Languages of the World in the back that goes on for eight pages, it doesn't list any Celtic languages. Not even Welsh. So I guess I'm on my own.

B&N link (nook book)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Detection Unlimited and Penhallow by Georgette Heyer

You knew I'd be back to reading Georgette Heyer's mysteries soon. I had a couple of them on my shelves and wanted some comfort reading. Not the best choice, as it happened.

I picked up Detection Unlimited first. It was a slight, mostly fun read, just want I'd expected and no more. It's very much a typical Heyer mystery, although I wouldn't say it's close to her best. It has the usual motley cast of characters, jaunty dialogue, and baffling crime. I did guess the murderer, but not why the murderer did it; in fact, I was overthinking it, and the murderer did it for a very obvious reason. So, kind of disappointing plot-wise, but the characters were worth the read.

Then I picked up Penhallow, and my goodness was that a mistake. I wish someone had warned me. First of all, although it's marketed as a mystery, it's not. We get to witness the murderer doing the deed, and we know why and how. And it doesn't even happen until around page 300 (457 pages in my edition--a very long book). Even though by then I was baffled and annoyed at the wordiness, the grim tone, the relative lack of dialogue (jaunty or otherwise), and the slow pace, I still held out hope that Heyer would pull a twist--that the murderer would turn out to be mistaken, that Penhallow would have turned out to be murdered in some other way. But there is no twist.

The first 300 pages of the book are set-up on how monstrous Penhallow is, Penhallow being the bitchy, controlling head of the Penhallow family, and how much everyone hates him. Then he's murdered, and the remaining 150 pages are about how the family members react, and how surprised they are that they're not actually happier now that he's gone. Whee.

It's a good thing Penhallow wasn't the first Heyer mystery I picked up, because I would have missed out on a lot of her fun books.

Detection Unlimited B&N link
Penhallow B&N link

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Night of the Living Deed by E.J. Copperman

I'm a sucker for ghosts, apparently. In this one, Alison Kirby has recently bought an old Victorian house and has started restoring it herself. She plans to make it into a guesthouse, and she and her nine-year-old daughter Melissa will live there too. Melissa claims that someone died in the house, which Alison chalks up to her daughter's imagination. But after an accident with a ladder and a bucket of joint compound leaves Alison with a concussion and the ability to see ghosts, she has to face the fact that her daughter's right: not one but two people died in the house--recently, in fact. Last year. And they were murdered.

Alison is a likable character, often funny and always spunky. I hate the word spunky, but she is. She's just not annoying with it. The plot is pretty good and I didn't guess the murderer, mainly because I thought I'd figured it all out early and refused to change my mind despite evidence to the contrary.

The ghosts are the weakest part of the book, actually. I found them kind of annoying and not much help with the plot. I think there was supposed to be a little bit of a spark between Alison and the male ghost, but I didn't feel any chemistry between them. Alison's relationship with her daughter feels much more natural and realistic. I'm happy to see that there's a second book available and a third book about to come out. I'll probably read both.

B&N link

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Rats by Debbie Ducommun

This was an impulse buy and I don't intend to get any pet rats. On the other hand, if I did want pet rats, I'm set because this book is very thorough. It covers everything from nutrition and vet care to teaching tricks and showing rats. The pictures of rats (and people) are adorable, and the book is well written and nicely laid out for easy reading and quick reference.

The only thing the book doesn't have, surprisingly, is a section on different types of rats. Different breeds are touched on during various sections of the book, but I really wanted a page or two with pictures of different types of rats and some description of each.

Now I kind of want pet rats. To stop myself, I may have to glance through the section on rat diseases again.

B&N link

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Specimen Song and Wolf, No Wolf by Peter Bowen

Last summer I read the first book in this series, Coyote Wind, but before I could review it my mother had a stroke and I stayed in the hospital with her for a month--which is why the review, when I was able to get around to it, was so perfectly awful. I did really like that book, and I want to emphasize that now because I'm about to dump on the next two books.

Actually, the second book, Specimen Song, isn't that bad. I mostly wasn't happy with it because I picked out the murderer so easily. Basically, the murderer is the only named character who wasn't around in the first book. It was still atmospheric and I enjoyed the unusual setting: partly Montana, partly dense Canadian riverland. Main character Gabriel Du Pre is a French-Indian brand inspector who plays the fiddle and sometimes helps the sheriff out as a part-time deputy.

Then I got to the third book. I really hoped the plot would be better, and at first it seemed to be. Two extreme environmentalists are killed after cutting fences and shooting cattle, and Du Pre is depressed to think the murderer is probably someone he knows and likes--and someone he'll have to help arrest. Then more people are killed after environmentalists release wolves into the nearby mountains, and Du Pre is worried there's a serial killer around.

Unfortunately, the plot bogs down into a confusing mess. I've never read a murder mystery where, at the end of the book, I still wasn't clear on who the murderer was. It was that problem that has finished the series for me--I won't bother to read the next book--but I wasn't very happy with the writing either. The books are rather stylized and spare in style, but by the third book it was already starting to feel overdone. And on top of all that, I wasn't all that impressed by the anti-environmentalist message in the book, which bordered on the offensive at times.

It's disappointing that a series that started out so strong fell apart so quickly. I should have stopped reading after the first book.

Specimen Song B&N link (used book)
Wolf, No Wolf B&N link (used book)

Monday, January 2, 2012

Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce

This plot is awesome. The whole book is awesome, but the plot just takes the cake. It reminds me more than a little of a modern Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with eccentric adults and a competition that's far more than it's advertised. But...well, just look at this plot.

Liam Digby is only twelve, but he's unusually tall and has premature facial hair--just a little of it, but enough to make him look stubbly. He doesn't love being called Wolverine or being treated like he's older than he really is just because he's tall (and stubbly), but the worst part is when his mother decides he needs to make friends. He points out that he has "loads of friends. I've got twenty guild members just waiting to do my bidding" (p. 27), but his mom means real life friends, not World of Warcraft.

So Liam's sent to Little Stars drama club, where he's stuck playing the giant alongside his classmate Florida. But a funny thing happens when they hang out at the mall after the meetings: people think Liam is an adult, and Florida is his daughter. Naturally Liam pushes this as far as a Porsche test drive; but when he's mistaken for his own father and wins a competition for great dads where he's one of four dads invited to a brand new adventure park in China--and since he has to show up with a "daughter," he convinces Florida to come with him.

And that is just the beginning of the book.

Liam is smart, thoughtful, enthusiastic, and likable. He applies what he's learned in World of Warcraft to real life--with generally good results. He wants to travel and is frustrated that he lives in a town named Waterloo in Britain when he could live in the Waterloo in Sierra Leone or somewhere equally exotic. Of course he's going to head to China the first chance he gets.

What I love most about the book--and it's a hard choice, because this book is freaking hilarious as well as entertaining--is how it quietly explores what it means to be a dad. It's charming and funny, and the plot zigzags from absurdity to absurdity without anything feeling stupid. My only complaint is the crappy Americanization of Mum to Mom and football to soccer--jarring, halfassed, and needless, since I don't think there's a kid in America who would be confused by the original terms. Other terms, like crisps instead of chips and biscuit instead of cookie, aren't changed.

Anyway, I loved this book so much I may reread it pretty soon just to make sure I caught all the jokes. I also know what book I'm giving my oldest nephew for his birthday this year. Incidentally, the science in this book is good too. It's all good.

B&N link

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Exiles by Hilary McKay

I first read this book about a decade and a half ago, checked out from the library, and remember being utterly thrilled by it. In fact, I remember cracking myself up repeatedly by saying the line "Must have wurrums!" over and over. And I was in my twenties then, so just imagine how utterly hilarious I would have found it in my teens.

The problem was, I forgot the title of the book (and its two sequels) and I could never find it again--not until I discovered a copy at a recent library sale. I reread it and...well, I guess I'm just an old fogy now.

The four Conroy girls are looking forward to a long summer of reading and doing pretty much nothing else. The two older ones are training the two younger ones to be independent-minded, which to the rest of the world translates to "having no manners." Their parents are definitely not looking forward to the summer, so when Mr. Conroy gets an unexpected five thousand pounds, he and Mrs. Conroy plan a kitchen remodel--and take Mrs. Conroy's mother up on her offer to civilize the girls while they stay with her in the country.

I'd mainly forgotten what little shits the girls are. They really are horrible. I wanted to smack them, even though frequently what they were doing was very funny. I don't recall feeling that way when I read the book before. But their behavior does slowly modulate during their stay, without being saccharine at all. The girls have adventures--like hunting for badgers, exploring a cave, cooking over a beach fire--that sound like they could come right out of Disney but which are given a savage (and hilarious) twist by the author: for instance, the youngest girl, six years old, decides to crawl into the badger hole to see if they're home. None of her sisters stop her.

By the end, I'd remembered why I liked the book so much originally. And the line "Must have wurrums!" really is funny. But I just couldn't warm up to the book as much as I wanted to, which means I probably won't bother to read the sequels again.

B&N link