Monday, March 26, 2012

Detectives, witches, vampires, and a little anthropology...

Again, it's been a long time between books read. I hate to use the excuse, again, that I'm busy. But I've been busy. I'm working on two writing projects, one fiction and one non-fiction, and I've been putting a lot of time into both of them this month. I've even been doing a lot of reading as research for the non-fiction project, but bits here and bits there, but not usually in the way of reading a book all the way through.

Some of the books I've been in for that include:

Evolution: The Human Story (Doring Kindersley Limited, 2011; 256 pages), by Dr. Alice Roberts

The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors (Doubleday, 2006; 306 pages), by Ann Gibbons

The Fossil Trail: How We Know What We Tink We Know About Human Evolution (Oxford University Press, 1995; 276 pages), by Ian Tattersall

I've read Gibbons's book, and Tattersall's, in their entirety in the past; this time I'm mostly just mining data and checking facts with them. The book by Dr. Roberts is very up-to-date as far as checking dates and catchng up on the (almost) latest theories and discoveries. I've also been reading a lot of joural articles online, especially thanks to my library system's remote access to their online databases. I have a love/hate relationship with the Internet, but I love being able to do research without having to drag myself down to the downtown library in person to access journal articles.

Aside from all that (I'm pretty sure you really didn't want an update on the state of my writing life), I have done some recreational reading this month. Not much, but some.

I read Jonathan Kellerman's most recent Alex Delaware novel, Victims (Ballantine Books, 2012; 338 pages). Since it is a mystery, I won't go into details. Instead, I'll just say that both Alex and his LAPD detective friend, Milo Sturgis, are in top form looking for a serial killer with a particularly gruesome way with his victims. I'm not as big a fan of Mr. Kellerman's as I am of his wife, Faye Kellerman, whose books I've reviewed here recently. But I couldn't put this book down, and in fact stayed up until late at night trying to finish it and ended up falling asleep with th light on when I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer. It's one of his better recent outings.

Now I'm reading A Discovery of Witches (Viking, 2011; 579 pages), by Deborah Harkness. I'm very particular about the fantasy I read, and so I rarely pick up a fantsy novel just by browsing the flyleaf description at the library. I've discovered most of my favorite fantasy novelists this way - Tim Powers, Kage Baker, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro among them - but I'm not quick to take a chance on a writer I've never heard of before within the genre. So far, however, I'm really glad I decided to take a chance on this book. I'm 127 pages in and enjoying it thoroughly.

A Discovery of Witches is the story of Dr. Diana Bishop, Oxford-educated historian and witch. Dr. Bishop, the daughter of a powerful witch and an equally powerful wizard, is trying her hardest to be a regular person and not use her powers. However, as the story opens she is back at Oxford on sabbatical from her teaching job in the United States, researching old alchemy manuscripts. One day, while working in the Bodleian Library, she encounters a manuscript that has had a spell cast on it. Her touch overrides the spell and she is able to open and examine it, but the volume frightens her, and she sends it back to the stacks, which reactivates the spell. However, while it was in her hands, every witch in the vicinity becomes aware of its existence. And so does every daemon and every vampire within range. While Dr. Bishop just wants to forget she ever saw the book, all the other creatures (as opposed to humans, who are just oblivious) want to get their hands on it.

One of the vampires who wants the book is Matthew Clairmont, a physician and geneticist, who has been alive at least since the time of Henry VIII. But complication arise when in his efforts to secure the manuscript for himself, he begins to fall in love with Dr. Bishop. Thus, he finds himself protecting her from the crowd of other vampires, daemons and witches clogging the reading rooms of the Bodleian, watching Dr. Bishop and waiting for a chance to pounce on the manuscript, just as the students are returning for a new term.

Also complicating matters is the fact that except for a very few individuals, witches, vampires and daemons do not get on with one another and are, in fact, actively hostile. Even within each group, there are animosities, and just where I am reading now, it becomes increasingly clear that some witches are not above intimidating and threatening their own to get that book.

I'm enjoying Ms. Harkness's writing immensely. The characters are well drawn, and the story is moving right along. I'm going to be very disappointed if the rest of the book is not as good as the beginning has been.

Monday, March 12, 2012

"The New Book of Lists"

I think I've probably mentioned before here that I love books of lists. If I haven't, let me do that now.

I love books of lists.

So, I'm not quite sure how I missed the fact that David Wallechinsky and Amy Wallace, to of the three compilers of the original Book of Lists, published in 1977, put out a new volume, The New Book of Lists (Canongate; 600 pages) in 2005.

The original, which I loved just for the sheer novelty of it, spawned several sequels and numerous and varied imitators of differing quality over the years. I've read, or at least perused, a lot of them. Maybe it's because I love trivia, or perhaps it's because I'm a list-maker myself. Whatever it is, I can't seem to put books like this one down. When I got this new volume home from the library, I sat down to glance through it, just to see what was new. I ended up spending over two hours with it, thumbing through it and read what seemed most interesting to me at the time.

That is another thing that I think attracts me to this sort of book: They don't need to be read in sequence, from cover to cover. That has a lot of appeal to someone like me, who more often than not reads a magazine back to front and who often writes longer pieces of writing from the middle out. With books of lists, you can pick them up, turn to a page, and start reading. Additionally, you can pick up a book of lists for five minutes if that's all the time you have to spare (and if you can stand to put it down after so short a time), or you can spend hours with it and not get bored.

As with the original volume, the lists in this book span the breadth of topics and the complete spectrue from the sublime to the ridiculous. You can read about "15 Notable Events That Happened Under the Influence of Alcohol" (including the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the Boston Tea Party, the Battle of Little Bighorn, and the failed 1991 coup in the former Soviet Union). Or, you can learn about "20 Famous Gurus and Their Former Jobs". Did you know that the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (who famously taught Transcendental Meditation to the Beatles in the 1960s) had a BS in Physics? It is less of a surprise that Werner Erhard, the founder of the EST movement, was once a used-car salesman.

While those examples lean more towward the ridiculous end of the spectrum, a little more sublime is the list of "9 Valuable Art Works Found Unexpectedly". This list includes the couple in a Milwaukee suburb who discovered that the van Gogh reproduction hanging on the wall in their living room for years was not a reproduction, but an original that brought $1.4 million at auction. Or the librarian in Hollywood who found 665 handwritten pages in an inherited steamer trunk that turned out to be part of Mark Twain's original handwritten manuscript of Huckleberry Finn.

And then there are the lists that are just outright funny, like "36 Great Slips of the Tongue in American Politics." Some of these are familiar, and some are not, but I would be willing to bet that it is impossible to get through the entire list without laughing...and becoming more than a little frightened if, indeed, there is any valididity to the concept of the Freudian slip.

I suspect that every word in The New Book of Lists is probably not strictly true; a few of the entries seem to be a bit tongue-in-cheek. Still, it is a fun book that I would recommend to anyone who needs a break from serious, linear, plot-driven reading.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

What have they done to my library?

I just got back from a trip to the central branch of the county library downtown,and don't know right now whether to be sad, or frustrated, or angry.

They've remodeled, and as port of that remodeling, they've gotten rid of a lot of books. A lot. The adult non-fiction section doesn't seem to have suffered as badly as the adult fiction section, although both are considerably reduced. It is the state of the adult fiction section that has me dispirited, possibly because the non-fiction section has never been as up-to-date or inclusive as it could have been. But the fiction section seems to have been reduced by at least half and hidden in a back, ill-lit corner of the library. It seemed so...forlorn.

They have also gotten rid of over half the table space for patrons to sit down and read a book or work on projects. There are plenty of computers, and table space reserved only for those who have brought a laptop to work on. Which is not a bad thing. But the lack of seating makes the place seem much less welcoming.

I don't know what he idea is behind the changes. Maybe they've decided that no one really reads anymore. Or, perhaps, that the only people in the future who will have a right to read are those who can afford an e-reader. And perhaps they are trying to make the library less hospitable to the homeless. If that is so, I think it is unfortunate.

I don't know what they've done to the children;s and young adult sections. I was afraid to look, after seeing what they've done to the adult collections. I might not want to know.

I can't really write any more about this now. I'm still too upset about the changes to be entirely coherent.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Book that Wouldn't End...

It is probably appropriate that Blood and Ice (Bantam Books, 2009; 675 pages), by Robert Masello is a vampire novel. More or less, anyway. Because it was the book that wouldn't end. It went on forever.

Sometimes I like that in a book. When it is a really good story, for instance. Other times...well, let's just say that I only finished this book because I had promised myself I would. I've got to quit doing that.

Now, it wasn't a bad book, exactly. It has an interesting premise: Vampires in the Antarctic. And it cuts back and forth between the story of the two vampires, who come from the mid-1800s, and how they got to be vampires, and the present-day story of the Antarctic research station where writer and photographer Michael Wilde has come to get his career as a journalist back on track and forget that his girlfriend is lying in the hospital in a persistent vegetative state after a climbing accident that he wasn't able to save her from. Only, I found the present-day story much more interesting than the story of Eleanor, a nurse with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, and Sinclair, the soldier who should have fallen during the Charge of the Light Brigade. We find out how they met, how they were parted, how they came back together. But we are given only the slightest hint about how they became vampires. Not all that interesting, at least to me.

The bigger problem with Masello's book was that the end was awfully anti-climactic. I won't say more about that, but while the journey was moderately diverting, the destination left a lot to be desired.

I only picked up Blood and Ice in the library because of the blurb on the front cover of the paperback edition, from USA Today, which described the book as "What would happen if H. G. Wells, Stephenie Meyer and Michael Crichton co-wrote a suspense novel." Sounded interesting. H. G. Wells was promising; whatever you thought of him personally, Michael Crichton did write books that kept me turning the pages, and I figured that the Stephanie Meyer reference meant vampires, and I do like vampire stories. Just not hers. Unfortunately, there was more Stephanie Meyer here than either Wells or Crichton.

Maybe that'll teach me to read cover blurbs, or at least to not take them seriously.


Now, to catch up with what else I've been reading.

I finished my re-read of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Hotel Transylvania (St. Martin's Press, 1978; 252 pages). A much better vampire novel than Masello's book. I had been going to write a joint review of the two books, but this is so much better than Masello's book that I couldn't even begin to compare the two.

If I recall my chronology correctly, this was the second of Yarbro's Count Saint-Germain novels, following The Palace, which I wrote about here previously. This one takes place in Louis XV's court in France, where Saint-Germain takes on a group of Satan-worshipers in order to save a beautiful and innocent girl whose father, a former member of the group, had promised to them to do with as they pleased. I don't love this novel as much as I love The Palace and some of Yarbro's other entries in this series, but it is a good book and I enjoyed the re-read.

I've also recently read a delightful Star Trek novel by Barbara Hambly, Ishmael (Pocket Books, 1985; 256 pages), which sends Spock back in time to the universe of another television series, "Here Come the Brides". I just recently became aware of the book, and considering that I was a fan of both shows as a young girl, I had to read it. If you have any fondness for either show, read this book. It captures the atmosphere of both of them very well, it tells a good story. And we find out something about Spock's ancestry that I found sort of delightful.

Hambly seems to have gotten the idea for the book from the fact that the same actor who played Spock's father in the series, Mark Lenard, also played the resident villain in Here Come the Brides. It was a good idea. Although I am a fan, I don't habitually read Star Trek novels. I'm very glad I read this one.

Another book I finished in the past week or so was Hangman (HarperCollins, 2010; 422 pages), by Faye Kellerman. Another good novel, one in her Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series of police procedurals, some of which I've mentioned here in the past. Kellerman is one of my favorite writers, and this series continues to please.

This installment actually is the book preceding Gun Games, which I wrote about here a few weeks ago. It tells the story of how Gabe Donatti, the son of a physician and a hit man, came to live with Decker and Lazarus, at the same time Decker is investigating a series of murders that seem to point to there being a serial killer on the loose. Except that it very soon starts looking like there are two serial killers instead of one, operating independently. Decker and his team have to sort out the threads of that case at the same time he and his wife are trying to sort out whether or not offering Gabe a place to live is a good idea, considering his family situation, and as Decker gets ready to celebrate his 60th birthday.

As always, with Kellerman's books, I can just say, read it.