Friday, June 30, 2006

Maison Ikkoku

Rumiko Takahashi
Fiction, Manga, Romantic Comedy

Maison Ikkoku is the name of an apartment house in a suburb of Tokyo. The story begins when a new manager appears; she is young and beautiful, and the student (okay, he's studying to get in to college) Yusaku Godai falls for her, hard. Their romance, and its various pitfalls and complications, continues for seven years and fourteen volumes of collected manga (old style; they are being re-released in a new format which restores several chapters and is read in the original right-to-left.)

Takahashi is one of the contemporary masters of manga in Japan today, and this series, one of her earliest, shows why. Her characters are not only extremely expressive and distinct, but her humor translates well to English, partly because she does not eschew physical comedy. (Many new readers of manga are often baffled by certain conventions that do not translate. While there are certain Japanese customs apparent in Takahashi's work, they are often clear to American readers through their context, instead of merely being baffling.) Americans can sympathize with her characters and their shyness without having to know that, for example, circumlocution is more common in Japan, or that a kiss is considered far more serious and intimate.

For people who want to introduce people to manga, and to let them know that this isn't just a kids' medium, Maison Ikkoku is a good entry point. It deals well with the difficulties involved with loving someone who might not love you back, and for whom you feel inadequate, and how it might just work out in spite of it all. And it does it with people you might know yourself - though if you know someone like Yotsuya, I am sincerely sorry.


Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Man In the Iron Mask

Alexandre Dumas
Fiction, Classic

You know the story of The Man in the Iron Mask, right? Decadent, tyrannical boy-king imprisons man with identical face behind an iron mask, that man is eventually broken out, and replaces tyrannical boy-king with no one the wiser, while the real king is imprisoned in his stead?

Well... no.

It's actually impossible for the great amount of lore accumulated around the legend of the man in the iron mask to have come from the book of the same name, because the subject of the title is dealt with in a few short chapters at the beginning of the novel, and then abandoned entirely. The plot to have him replace the king is completely UNsuccessful, and is mostly used to point out how rigid one of the Musketeers is in his old age.

Yep, one of those Musketeers. This is the fifth book in the series, and could more accurately be called The Four Musketeers Get Old and Die. Porthos, Athos, Aramis, and D'Artagnan all feature in this book and all - you guessed it - die in various manners. The major problem with this book is that it is heavy on plot and short on character interaction between the Musketeers, which is what made the series enjoyable in the first place.

In terms of long novels, this feels much longer than other ones of comparable length. Read it if you've enjoyed the Musketeer saga, but don't expect to enjoy it by itself, even with imagining Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role.


Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Les Misérables

Victor Hugo
Fiction, Classic

Let me begin with an explanation of why I prefer unabridged to abridged versions. An abridgement is a version that is shorter, usually heavily edited to streamline the narrative. The problem with abridging is that the parts that are excised are usually the parts that give the book its unique feel. While a plot is important to a story, when we buy a novel we are not buying a story; we are buying the way it is told.

Victor Hugo is the king of digressions, diversions, tangents, and red herrings. He would seem to be a prime target for abridgement. However, once you have done that, you remove the history, the societal context, and much of what makes his novels unique. For example, I once picked up an abridgement of Les Misérables, and discovered that the version started several chapters in. The first part of the novel does not deal with Jean Valjean, but instead with the kindly Bishop of D-- (usually assumed to be Digne). The part the abridgement had skipped dealt entirely with narratives illustrating the Bishop's charitable nature, which is essential for understanding his interactions with Jean Valjean later.

If you have seen the musical, the interesting part is that most of the actual plot of the novel made it in. Hugo's digressions last for chapters and are not often directly related to the plot. (A particularly memorable one is his twenty-odd-chapter explanation of the battle of Waterloo, a part I regularly skip on re-reads but something that might be of interest to the military scholar.) However, it's the little bits that slip out, such as the very fact that referring to Napoloeon as Buonaparte marks you as of a particular fashion, that bring the sense of mid-nineteenth century France to life. One could almost use the novel as a snapshot of the culture of the time, illustrated by the lowest components of society, the 'misérables' of the title.

I do, however, wish that my version of the novel (in two books!) translated all the French. I took Spanish instead, and wish I knew what some of those enticing couplets meant. Still, this is one of my favorite novels of all time, and if you are not the sort to be put off by length, I can highly recommend it.


Tuesday, June 27, 2006

James and the Giant Peach

Roald Dahl
Fiction, Fantasy, Children's

James Henry Trotter is a happy little boy in a house by the sea until his parents are eaten up (in broad daylight, mind you) by an escaped rhinocerous. Prepocerous? Of course! Dahl's storyline does not require logic or any other of those tiresome adult strategies for turning a simple novel into a literary exercise; it merely requires something horrible and shocking that is out of the experience of children. After his parents' death, James is sent to live with his miserly aunts Sponge and Spiker, who resemble their names. And after four years of misery (in the original editions, James is depicted in exactly the same outfit at four and at eight, with it obviously outgrown and worn in the latter case), a chance for hope occurs in the shape of a bald little magician, who gives James a bag full of something which will make wonderful things happen to him. However, when James spills the bag, the peach tree (with assorted insects) is the beneficiary, which allows James a chance for adventure and happiness at last.

As in most Dahl books, those who are good-natured are rewarded in the end, while evildoers get their comeuppance (in Sponge and Spiker's case, that comeuppance is a well-deserved flattening.) It is a classic through and through.


Monday, June 26, 2006

Danny, Champion of the World

Roald Dahl
Fiction, Children's

This is the story of a wonderful father and his relationship with his beloved son. Danny's mother is dead, so his father is the sole parent, and it is obvious that he lives for his son and wants to do right by him. Danny is not his only love, however... it develops that his father is irresistably drawn to poaching pheasants from the land of an extremely obnoxious landowner nearby. Once this revelation takes place, the plot spirals out of control as it becomes evident that everyone in town knows about the poaching... and are, in fact, in favor of it! Several poaching dodges are described, and eventually Danny comes up with one of his own to put into practice the night before the local landowner has everyone up for a pheasant shoot.

This is one of Dahl's lesser-known books (as it has not yet been made into a movie) but rightly deserves a place in the canon.


Sunday, June 25, 2006

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

Roald Dahl
Fiction, Fantasy, Children's

This sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is full of wildly implausible adventures, space stations, magical youth pills and Vermicious Knids. It also has Charlie Bucket's entire family, though you'd be forgiven for not noticing Charlie's parents, who only have a few lines in the whole book. Willy Wonka is in full manic form, and with the help of the great glass elevator, they're going back to the factory. With a slight detour to the USA's new Space Hotel.

This book never grabbed me the way the first did. The first had a veneer of plausibility; if an eccentric candymaker wanted to mix his chocolate by waterfall, or to have his walnuts shelled by squirrels, why not? This book, however, has trips to Minusland, where those waiting to be born go, and huge subterranian tracts of candy mining (despite the fact that the first book clearly states that chocolate comes from cacao beans, they are seeking out chocolate wells in this book), and the belief from the first book that this place could possibly exist is stripped away by the lack of logic in this book. Plus Grandma Georgina is whiny and greedy, not at all like the loving grandparent described in the first book.

Not a bad sequel, but it loses its luster compared to the first.


Saturday, June 24, 2006

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Roald Dahl
Fiction, Fantasy, Children's

Most grown-ups are familiar with this tale of Charlie Bucket, who lives in a shack with his parents and four grandparents, and who for his birthday gets one bar of delicious Wonka chocolate. And they know how five children - only five - get the opportunity to take a tour inside Wonka's factory, which resides in Charlie's own town. And they know how Charlie, poor, starving, shivering Charlie, finds a dollar in the snow and buys himself two candy bars, the second of which holds the last of the Golden Tickets.

What they may have missed as children is the essential sense of fair play that permeates the book. The "fat shopkeeper" who sells Charlie the candy bars and shouts out when Charlie finds the ticket protects him from the curious and mercenary and tells him "I think you needed this break." (As Charlie is chronically starving at this point, it's obvious, but give the shopkeeper points for sympathy and good sense.) There's overheard comments from the crowd that indicate that people realize how hard a life Charlie is leading, and even Wonka himself - with suspicious deafness only when asked annoying questions - treats Charlie with kindness. And, of course, the greedy children get picked off in manners of poetic justice, leaving us with thoughtful Charlie and his joyful Grandpa Joe.

This is a book where the righteous get what they deserve, and the scheming and greedy and disobedient get their comeuppance, never fatal but always hilarious. And where you can truly believe in a chocolate factory run by two-foot-tall happy, singing, Oompa Loompas.


Friday, June 23, 2006

Gates of Winter

Mark Anthony
Fiction, Fantasy
Fifth in a series of six

It all comes back to Travis. His travel to the past made it so that one of the Stones of power was in two places at once. That opened up a rift that allowed the dark god Mohg to influence Earth. That also brought Jack Greystone to Castle City, where he would later befriend Travis, and make him a runelord, one who would become the prophecied Runebreaker, the one to destroy the world...

Of course, Travis doesn't want to destroy the world. He'd settle for destroying Duratek, except that he's out of resources and is homeless at one of the coldest times of the year in Denver. And it's a bit hard to come up with a good plan when you're cold and hungry.

Grace isn't much better off. She's in charge of the defense at Gravenfist Keep, the best point to defend from the Pale King's assault. However, the bulk of the force may not get there in time, and though she has the key to the keep's magical defenses, she has no idea how to use it.

Anthony has a way of putting in absolutely ludicrous moments that set the scene precisely. My particular favorite is a group of stalwart knights wandering around a forest, sniffing the trees... because Grace just said that they smelled like butterscotch, and they're curious to see what she meant.

Everything comes to a head in this book. The prophecies get fulfilled, the battles get fought, the visions come to fruition. And yet this is not the last book in the series...


Carnival of the Recipes Roadtrip Edition

MarinaThis week's theme is Roadtrip. The premiere cooks of the blogosphere— by which I mean the people who make my mouth water just by reading their recipes— have been hard at work, thinking up new ways to travel tastily. Whether you plan to walk, bike, boat, fly, ride a train or drive a car, there's something you can pack along to make your journey a little bit tastier.

Train In the RockiesWe start with a few tips for travel. Clean out your cooler, because you don't want any surprises moldering away. Once it's clean, don't pack it with ice; instead, buy a few bottles of water (or a plastic gallon jug) and freeze them instead. They cool just as efficiently, as they thaw you can drink icy fresh water, and if somebody overturns the cooler, there's nothing to leak.

Not that that has ever happened.

Pack the essentials. It never hurts to have a few cups, or a few basic utensils, and it definitely is a plus to have paper napkins, plastic bags for trash, and perhaps some wet naps to clean fingers. Especially before putting your hands on the steering wheel.

"Cooking gear?"
"I," said Tazendra, "intend to eat at hostelries along the way."
"And, if we are between hostelries?"
"Then we shall bring bread and cheese."
"Very well, said Khaavren, "then we also have no need for napkins and tablecloths."

The Phoenix Guards, Steven Brust

Historic LandmarkKeewee's Corner has the scoop on the bread and cheese with Ham and Cheese Scones. While munching those down... before you take off, I mean... make sure to pack the Trail Mix provided by Homeschool Blogger. The intrepid homeschoolers suggest that you pack this in individual baggies for single servings. It seems to me that would cut down on the problems with sharing.

Snoqualmie FallsKicking Over My Traces has an oh-so-simple recipe for Banana Bread, which is durable, travels well, and is a great favorite. I remember once my mother left on a trip and left me the oldest, blackest bananas you could imagine to make bread. I took the standard recipe, added sunflower seeds and raisins, and, well, squeezed the bananas out of their skins into the bowl. That was really, really good banana bread.

Terence's idea of roughing it consisted of pork pie, veal pie, cold roast beef, a ham, pickles, pickled eggs, pickled beets, cheese, bread and butter, ginger beer, and a bottle of port. It was possibly the best meal I had ever had in my life.
To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis

Trail Mix is good and Banana Bread is tasty, but the cooler's still empty. Luckily, there's quite a selection of sandwiches to pack. Riannan of In the Headlights tells us of Muffuletta, a Dagwood-worthy sandwich that increases in taste through sitting around. Men In Aprons submit Sweet and Spicy Chicken Salad Sandwiches, a recipe that includes both apples and hot sauce. (Kinda reminds me of my husband's propensity to put horseradish in tuna salad sandwiches.)

PostcardAs a snack, why not consider frozen grapes? Wash and dry your seedless grapes— Thompson are best, but any seedless will do— and carefully remove them from the stems. I find a gentle twist works better than a pull. Drop them into a freezer bag— you did dry them, right?— and freeze overnight. They're ideal for those hot, stuffy days when your car doesn't have an air conditioner, because they're tasty even after they've thawed. (They don't last much past thawing, though. Throw away any leftovers at the end of the day.)

"What do you do on your half-day off?" asked the young man interestedly.
"We go to the forest. Mr. Pemberthy and Peter Aurelious and me— I mean I. One of the cooks lets me take any old scraps of bread and cake that are left over, and we have a picnic. We have a lovely time."

The Ordinary Princess, M.M. Kaye

Laura Rebecca has a Hasty Chicken Salad that sounds pretty well ideal for those picnic lunches. Toss it in the cooler! And to clear your palate, Jami Leigh suggests cool Mint Cucumbers.

The BBQ General submits not one recipe, but a whole picnic. His Red Truck Picnic includes Right Off the Jar Potato Salad (nb: "Hellman's" mayonnaise is sold under the name "Best Foods" west of the Mississippi), Blue Smoke Devilled Eggs, and Championship Chicken. Take a look through his whole site. He is a great proponent of the idea of doing new and tasty things as well as the tried and true.

"It's too hot," Garion advised critically as the rat-faced little man prepared to lay strips of bacon in a smoking iron pan.
"Do you want to do this?"
"I was just warning you, that's all."
"I don't have your advantages, Garion," Silk replied tartly. "I didn't grow up in Polgara's kitchen the way you did. I just make do the best I can."
"You don't have to get grumpy about it, "Garion said. "I just thought you'd like to know that the pan's too hot."
"I think I can manage without any more advice."
"Suit yourself— but you're going to burn the bacon."
Silk gave him an irritated look and started slapping bacon slices in the pan. The slices sizzled and smoked, and their edges turned black almost immediately.

Castle of Wizardry, David Eddings

CanyonOnce you've reached your destination, it's time for the main meal. Are you taking a grill out to the beach? Are you cooking over a campfire? Gullyborg of Resistance is Futile has a suggestion for Pacific Rim Salmon With Rice and Asparagus. Now, I can figure out how to adjust to cooking the salmon over a campfire, but the rice is a stumper. Perhaps this is the recipe for when you've reached your friend's house with the brand new gas range. But Everything and Nothing has a recipe for Fresh Corn Sauté with Tomato, Squash, and Okra that is a single-skillet meal. You could be the envy of a campground with such a meal.

"Cooking over an open flame is its own art, and doesn't have much to do with oven cooking or stove cooking. I'm not really good at it. But I know that wine always helps."
Athyra, Steven Brust

ShorelineFor the grill on the beach (or by that mountain lake!) we have several selections. Grilled Shrimp Kabobs (With Southwest Citrus Marinade) sound utterly heavenly, and they're from the healthy eaters at A Weight Lifted, so you know they're good for you. Trub (the sediment of life) supplies a recipe for Spice Rubbed Pork Tenderloin Steaks with Honey-Chipotle Sauce. You should refrigerate these for several hours... but it seems to me that appropriate prep before driving and proper storage in the cooler might do the same thing.

While we're on the subject of grilling, I should reveal that kabobs are far easier than I had thought, for some reason. You soak your wood skewers in water so they don't burn, and you cut your veggies in chunks (I prefer red onion, bell peppers of varying colors, and cherry tomatoes), and then comes the meat. When last we did kabobs, it was nothing more than flank steak cut into cubes. I rubbed a little kosher salt on mine, grilled it, and it was amazing.

The feast began with a mild culinary skirmish. Riyan's cook opened with cactus soup made from an Isulki recipe. Pol's cook countered with small fish broiled in wine, presented on waves of puff pastry as if they leaped through the ocean. Then came the lobsters, steamed to succulence in silk wrappings, one claw clutching a tiny pearl to be kept as a remembrance of the occasion.
The real battle began. Chunks of elk and lamb glazed in mossberry and onion sauce were accompanied by dark Gribain red wine in goblets that were part of Chiana's silver service. Riyan's cook, disdaining the obvious accompaniments, concocted a salad of an astonishing variety of greenery, dressed with vinegar-and-something that set Sioned's tongue deliciously atingle.
Until now, the war had been pretty much a draw. But both cooks knew Pol's weakness. The final weapons were pinenut pie oozing honey, and a more suitable fruit pastry, countered by small mountains of taze ice festooned with candied flowers.

Skybowl, Melanie Rawn

CourthouseWhat goes well with grilled food? Corn, that's what. Blog d'Elisson takes us back to simple summer days with his easy corn recipe. (You can also lay those ears of corn on the grill, shucked or not as you prefer.) I am now looking forward to the time when Sloughhouse Corn is available. It's only a twenty-mile drive...

Of course, Disease Proof has not one, but three tasty, healthy stews. Dutch ovens were made for things like this. Just set up your stew in the coals, and let it go... and those ingredients aren't going to be hurt by a ride. The Headmistress of The Common Room also sends a recipe for something that could go in a Dutch oven... but Asian Style Pot Roast for 36 (and Ginger-Sesame Slaw for Twelve) makes me think we're going to need a bigger pot! Maybe an imu!

Continuing with the vaguely Asian-style cooking, Triticale has determined how to make Chicken-Fried Rice, or you might think of them as fried-rice balls. Mmm. Sticky Americanized-Chinese goodness.

Me-ander has a recipe for Goes With Everything Sweet Kugel that, obviously, goes with your grilled stuff. And your corn. It sounds quite refreshing and different.

Mt. Shasta
There were petit fours in their pale colors, with frosting flowers— no, preserved flowers, roses and violets and marigolds and nasturtiums; there were perfect miniature fruits, each with the color and bloom proper to its skin: apples, peaches, pears, plums, oranges, none bigger than a large marble— marzipan, those must be; there were rolled up lacy cookies dipped half in chocolate and filled with cream; there were candied orange slices and ginger chunks and whole red strawberries all sparkling with sugar; there were slabs of shortbread pricked with a fork in patterns of flowers; there were small cakes like chrysanthemums; there were piles and drifts of the glistening red seeds of the pomegranate; there were, in fact, exactly as Keats had said in "The Eve of St. Agnes," candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd (by which he meant melon, and Melinda Wolfe provided cantaloupe); jellies soother than the creamy curd, and lucent syrups, tinct with cinnamon, all right, Janet could smell it from where she stood, and dates, too— all of which Porphyro had brought to seduce Madeline.
"Shall we go eat some of the artwork?"
"So you think it's safe?"
Molly hadn't even read "The Eve of St. Agnes."
Janet said, "With Anne around, what would she want with us?"
"It's the pomegranate seeds that worry me," said Molly. "Blackstock isn't really my idea of Hell, but its physics program is a pretty good imitation."
Janet patted her on the shoulder. "We'll confine ourselves to the marzipan, then; there can't be anything sinister about marzipan."

Tam Lin, Pamela Dean

FinaleAnd what is a roadtrip without sweet stuff? Seriously Good— whose whole blog deserves a deep culinary inspection, and do bring a towel to wipe up the drool— has some seriously good Marscapone Brownies. Oh. My. And The Glittering Eye, unable to decide between three tried and true crème brûlée recipes, presents all three recipes for our edification.

Next week's Carnival is hosted at Caterwauling. Please submit your links to recipes to before noon Central Standard Time on June the 29th. Don't forget, it's Independence Day— think of all the classics that you serve. (Anybody have a recipe for red, white, and blue cheesecake? Strawberries and blueberries?)

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Blood of Mystery

Mark Anthony
Fiction, Fantasy, 'Weird Western' portion
Fourth in a series of six

When I read the premise of the book, I wasn't sure how Anthony could pull it off. One group of characters ends up in 1883 Colorado, fer cryin' out loud. However, not only does the conclusion of the previous book make such a premise perfectly reasonable, the effects of the journey are far-reaching, and the hoary old time travel cliché of having the same object in two places at once is so very important (though don't blink, you'll miss why) that it explains how most of the series happened in the first place.

Did that make sense? Anytime you bring time travel into the mix, it immensely complicates the language...

While our intrepid band of time travelers is stuck in the last heyday of a mining town, dealing with prejudice, vigilante justice, and a blood sorcerer, the rest of the group is working to prepare for the Last Battle, when the armies of the dark god Mohg will break out and clear his passage for him to destroy the world. If Travis doesn't do it first. Which revelation means that even the good guys aren't on his side, so when he comes back, he'll have to avoid them both.

Highly enjoyable, and surprisingly plausible. And it's getting harder to do spoiler-free reviews as the series progresses...


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Dark Remains

Mark Anthony
Fiction, Fantasy
Third in series of six

What do you do with a badly wounded knight? Take him to the ER, of course. In this installment of the Last Rune series, Dr. Grace Beckett has made the decision to take her Eldhish companion Beltan to Earth because, frankly, the medical facilities on Eldh leave much to be desired. She and Travis have to hide from the authorities, as they have been so kindly described as 'dangerous fugitives' by the Duratek corporation, which seems to be taking over a shell-shocked Denver. And Beltan is in a coma - at least, until he disappears.

If that weren't bad enough, back on Eldh the familiar companions have to travel south to find out about a powerful magic that has started killing off the New Gods...

Most of this book is devoted to the parallel stories taking place on Earth and on Eldh. Denver residents will recognize the topography and be able to place Duratek's base of operations to within a few blocks. And yes, there really is a godforsaken piece of land known as Commerce City - it usually smells like sulfur. It's an ironic underscoring that non-natives won't notice.

In this book, the protagonists finally get some self-confidence (a bit delayed, as they're both in their thirties) and a little willingness to use their powers as necessary. We get introduced to a new form of magic, blood sorcery, and its consequences. (One of which is that you end up scarred. The blood has to come from somewhere, after all.) And there's a different method of travelling between the worlds, one that non-magical groups like Duratek can utilize. If only they can synthesize the right ingredient.

As with all of these books, Anthony's writing style speeds up at the conclusion, and it is very important that you note the details, because if you miss them, the finale will make no sense.


Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Keep of Fire

Mark Anthony
Fiction, Fantasy
Second in series of six

It's interesting to read customer reviews of Mark Anthony's books, because people either love his work or hate it. There's very little in-between. That said, I think that the books gain momentum as the series progresses and that Anthony's writing style is suited to the subject material. His handling of characters, particularly in interaction and dialogue, is increasingly similar to David Eddings, but in my view that's a good thing. (I certainly don't read Eddings for original plots.)

In this second book, Travis Wilder has returned to Earth while Grace has remained behind on Eldh. Even though Travis has slipped back into his life rather easily (it's one of those towns where so many people end up when they're escaping their pasts that people don't ask questions) there are indications that all is not well. A man comes to his bar and bursts into flame; there's the thoroughly creepy corporation Duratek, and a mysterious plague starts appearing - on both worlds.

And you get your first hints that Travis is the focus of a prophecy that says that he will destroy the world...

One of the most original aspects of this series is the degree of interaction between the worlds. Most series simply use one world as a stepping platform for the other, a sort of shorthand to get the reader to identify with the characters. Moreover, when the protagonists are given magical capabilities, their first instinct is to not want it. I've read several complaints about such "whininess" but being afraid of power is a very human reaction.

My one complaint about this series is the way that Anthony draws out certain revelations about the protagonists. It plays very well cinematically - one can almost see the fragmentary flashbacks as they are described - but a reader occasionally gets the sense of just tell us already! Still, this is a nice continuation of the series, and one that whets your appetite for more.


Monday, June 19, 2006

Beyond the Pale

Mark Anthony
Fiction, Fantasy

Full disclaimer: I happen to be an acquaintance of Mark's (he's a sweetie), and this is why I looked into this first book. However, I continued with the series on its own merits. You'll find a number of complaints on Amazon about its derivative tendencies, but in most of those cases the posters are mistaking certain parallels for pure derivation ('There's runes SEALING off a PRISON, so it MUST be derivative of Jordan!')

This first book starts off with the hoary old cliché of people from our world pulled into a fantasy world, where they must save the day, yadda yadda. However, there's a few differences right from the start, beginning with the fact that the protagonists are first threatened in our world by creatures from the other - or to be more exact, by creatures that have been directly influenced by that other world, but are from ours. Though this interesting development is not dealt with in this initial novel, one gets the sense that such crossovers are not entirely unheard of. And then there's Brother Cy's Apocalytic Traveling Salvation Show, a revival circus that has a more practical view of the darkness it's fighting than you might expect...

This is Anthony's first novel, and it shows in a few places. Certain Dark Secrets from the protagonist's pasts are telegraphed to the point where you just want them to get out and be dealt with, already. Sometimes the dialogue is a little stilted. The first time I read this book, it seemed to start off slow. The second time, I did not notice, because what had seemed to be a slow opening was actually fairly important in terms of character development. Overall, however, the book is well-written; to compare its flaws to the polished novels of veteran writers is unfair - but when it is done, Anthony's book actually comes off fairly well.

Anthony's first love is anthropology and old towns in the hills, and this book was his first attempt to display it. I recommend this book for people who enjoy fantasy on its own merits but not for those who dislike any fantasy series that hints of another; in epic fantasy, archetypes abound, and you will think you've read this before, even though it might surprise you.


Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Two-Income Trap

Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers are Going Broke
Elizabeth Warren, Amelia Warren Tyagi

Nonfiction, Sociology

Face it. When you hear the title of this book, your immediate impulse is probably one of two things: 1) You think that the reason for rising bankruptcy is that most people are going into huge credit-card debt because of luxuries, and/or 2) The authors of this book are going to advocate that one parent gives up an income to stay home with the kids - probably the mother.

But you'd be wrong on both counts. Warren and Tyagi have spent the last decade or two looking at bankruptcy statistics and, more importantly, doing in-depth interviews with bankruptcy filers, and they've come up with a surprising conclusion: Middle-class families are filing bankruptcy because they've spent all their funds on necessities, not luxuries. The deadly math behind this is simple. If something is a luxury, such as CDs or theater tickets, when bad things happen they can be dropped from the budget immediately. If it is a necessity, such as a mortgage or car payment, it comes back month after month without a letup, and the back payments accumulate as well.

And here is where the "two-income trap" of the title comes into play, because two incomes added together is not equivalent to one larger income. When there is one income, and something happens to the income provider such as injury or layoffs, the second wage earner of the household can step up to the plate while the first recovers. But if both wage earners are already earning wages, there is little the second member can do. So if both incomes are dedicated to necessities already, there is little to be cut from the budget.

Furthermore, the authors provide figures that show that a modern two-income couple has less discretionary income as a percentage than their single-income counterparts from thirty years ago. The fact that most couples nowadays have two wage earners has driven the middle class into the Red Queen's race, running furiously to stay in the same place. This is also shown in seemingly unrelated items such as housing cost - because there is a perception that schools are failing, the cost of homes in the districts of "good" schools is skyrocketing badly, so that the same floorplan in houses a few blocks apart can be priced in widely different ranges. A couple may feel pressured into an outrageous mortgage because the alternative is abandoning their kids to a substandard school.

The authors are careful to point out that these couples are not trying to "keep up with the Joneses." Most of the needs of these bankrupt couples are ones we can identify with: the need to provide for your child, the need for reliable transportation, the need to keep a clean, safe place to live. Too many couples, however, don't know that two incomes are not the same as one, and fall into the trap. One little setback is all it takes.

The solution, for the most part, is fairly simple: one income is all that should be dedicated to necessities, including bills, mortgage, and food. The second income in a relationship is the discretionary one, used for saving, or even frivolities - because frivolities, you remember, can be ruthlessly cut when the need arises. Thus the couple can escape the trap.


Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Working Poor

Invisible in America
David K. Shipler

Nonfiction, Sociology

Shipler's book is a portrait of those folks who, for whatever reason, are working but still cannot be called anything but 'poor.' They live paycheck to paycheck, run out of food, live in bad housing or none at all, live without health or dental care, and generally live a life that we think that working should help them transcend. But there the similarities end.

Shipler documents a myriad of reasons for this borderline lifestyle. Many of his subjects blame themselves for bad choices, and their histories agree with their claims; some consider themselves unable to succeed because they have never known what success is like. Some of the people are poor due to misfortune, and some due to fiscal practices that have counselors shaking their heads. One subject chose poverty over never seeing her kids (as she would have had to work almost continuously); her involvement in their lives is vindicated by their studies at top-of-the-line colleges. Others don't know how to interact with their kids at all, and abuse is rampant.

The chapters are documentaries of various lives and show how the problem of poverty - not only fiscal, but emotional, mental, and spiritual - is not easily soluable due to its complexity. There is a noted lack of partisan sniping in the main book, something for which I am grateful, and the little that is present in the introduction and conclusion seems to be from the need to try and come up with some answer, though the book itself states that an answer is not that easy. One can sympathize with the author, though, because poverty is something we'd rather do without.


Friday, June 16, 2006

Ella Enchanted

Gail Carson Levine
Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult

The story of Cinderella has been told time and again through every form of media. Levine's story puts a new twist upon the old; instead of cheerfully doing everything she is told, Ella is not happy at all. But she still does everything she is told to, because she can't help it. She was blessed at birth by a well-meaning fairy to be obedient, and she has to do anything she is told to.

Her mother knows, and is careful to only phrase things as requests, but when she dies, and Ella's father remarries, her stepsisters quickly discover her secret and torment her. What makes it worse is that Ella and the young prince of the country are falling in love, and Ella knows that her curse could only be a liability to the kingdom. Yet Ella's every effort to end the enchantment backfires, and she is left in the clutches of her money-greedy stepmother...

Gail Carson Levine's books are justifiably popular with teenaged girls, as they are honest and unflinching about the internal struggles that any girl has to deal with (even when they are externalized into fantastic settings.) They can easily be read and enjoyed by adults as well - at least, adults who are not afraid to admit that they like fairy tales from time to time.


Thursday, June 15, 2006

Travel By Train

When you travel someplace, people assume you are going one of two ways: by car or by plane. The car is time-consuming but interesting; you can stop at places along the way, you can get the food you want, and the bathrooms are usually better. The plane is fast but expensive and is, for some people, "a two-hour panic attack" (as expressed by Evil Rob.)

Buses are not to be thought of. You get the slow speed of a car— and usually even slower; you get the uncomfortable seats and bathrooms that are scarier than a plane's; and you get the recycled air of a plane as well. If you are minorly prone to motion sickness this is a recipe for disaster. And for an added treat you get to deal with the bus stations. I don't know why, but I've never been in a bus station that wasn't to a certain degree scary.

But nobody seems to think of trains anymore, which is a pity. Sure, if you're in a hurry, they're a bad idea, and because freight gets priority the timetables will often get screwed up to the point of absurdity.

A little side note here: Certain routes are more prone to delays than others. The Coast Starlight, which runs from Los Angeles to Seattle, has over sixty "wait orders", where a passenger train has to wait until a freight, on time or late, passes by. This makes that route prone to appalling lateness, as one setback sets off a cascade of delays. The Califronia Zephyr only has a dozen or so wait orders, and also has a few long stops of an hour or more built in to regain time if necessary.

But start adding up the advantages to a train route. Even with minor delays, a trip of two days or more averages out to the same timing as a car, since you don't stop for the night. The seats are far superior in comfort to those of a plane and many car seats, and you can stand up and walk around. The bathrooms are small but there's lots of them, and if the ones in your car are broken there's several others you can try. The cost, once you start figuring in hotel rooms, is actually cheaper than driving... at least if you don't get a sleeper. Since the sleepers run to six-foot-long beds, it's not really any better than coach if you're tall anyway.

And then there's the scenery. Oh, yes, there is scenery. And because you're not driving, you don't have to worry about looking and driving at the same time. Or worry about highway hypnosis. Or road construction.

Last Christmas we took the Coast Starlight up to Eugene. It was four hours late on a fourteen-hour run, so we spent about eighteen hours on the train starting at midnight. We decided that, cricks in the neck aside, this was a good way to travel, so we planned a trip over Memorial Day Weekend to Denver to see our friends. I was only able to get one week off, so we spent four days on the train, coming and going, to get three days of friends.

But oh! the scenery...

Time To GoSo the train was scheduled to leave shortly after eleven in the morning on Thursday. We'd packed pretty carefully. I had one small bag full of clothes and sundries, and one large bag full of books and food. Rob had one small bag full of clothes and sundries, and one very large bag full of pillows. On a train you are allowed two decently-sized carry-ons, not including purses or laptops. I had a purse, Rob had a laptop; neither of us had baggage to check.

Our TrainI should perhaps mention the food. They have a diner car, fairly expensive, on the train. They also have a café car, less expensive but still a little pricy, and the selection is not always what you want. So I went a little crazy at Trader Joe's and got three kinds of trail mix (with the Mango Ginger Go Nuts and a macadamia pineapple cranberry one being my two favorites), ginger cookies, and "dunkers", the latter being oatmeal cranberry delicious cookie things. I also bought little fruit juice boxes and bottled water, the latter of which we froze. Several Fuji apples made it into the bag, as did M&Ms and Jelly Bellys, the latter being my favorite ward against motion sickness. (Ginger, I should mention, is also superb against motion sickness. Pack ginger cookies the next time you take the small fry on a road trip. Or ginger ale, carbonation being helpful as well.) There were also breakfast bars of varying types, my favorite being Quaker Oatmeal Raisin Breakfast on the Go. Tasty and filling.

What I forgot to pack (seeing as we took an alternate driving route to get to my parents') was breadstuff. I had intended to stop at a favorite bagel place and have them slice (bread-style) a baker's dozen worth of bagels. I also found that I had a craving for cheese. Since I had the frozen water bottles (and a little sixpack cooler in the bag) I could have easily packed some cheese to nosh on. If you plan this kind of trip, pack a few veggies as well. Mini carrots and sliced red peppers and cherry tomatoes (VERY carefully packed!) or grapes... but the apples will always be good, and they're hard to smash.

Ahem. Anyway, our train did, in fact, pull up on time. As it only had to come from Emeryville (the Bay Area), this is not that surprising. Evil Rob noted that the cowcatcher had what looked like jerky on it... as the cowcatcher is designed to scoop animals up off the track and away from the wheels, it was apparently doing its job.

We boarded the train and lugged our bags upstairs. Yes, upstairs. Take a look at that picture. Passnger trains are two-story affairs, with nearly all of the seating on the upper story. The lower story is primarily for storage, bathrooms, and handicapped seating. All inter-car routes are through the upper story. And it seems that there is a certain consistency to the setup on passenger trains. The sleeper cars are up front, followed by the diner, then the observation and café car— more on that later— and then the coach cars. In the case of the California Zephyr, those were followed by a couple of cars that possibly contained supplies, but on the Coast Starlight there had been nothing behind, which meant that one gentleman with a film camera set it up out the back window with a delay, so it took a picture every half minute.

The Truckee RiverI wish I could see that film. Snowfall in the dark.

At any rate, the route between Sacramento and Reno has some volunteer docents from the California State Railroad History museum, and they give the history of the rail as you go along. The line between Sacramento and Reno is part of the original Transcontinental Railroad— at least the westbound. The eastbound has a detour in between Roseville and Lincoln where the track is newer and the grade more level.

The grand irony of the docents is that I already knew most of what they were saying. I know who Theodore Judah was, and I even know that sometimes he was referred to as "Crazy" Judah. He surveyed the rail line through the Sierras, and he was a proponent of running the line through Donner Pass— a pass that, mind you, was too difficult for the Donner Party to pass for five months. The final line tops out at over 7500 feet. I knew about the Chinese laborers, and the fact that they were usually healthier because they ate vegetables and boiled their water (for tea.)

In fact, I knew so much that I talked the ear off of a gentleman from Indiana. He had a habit of phrases such as "Is that right?" and "You don't say!" I'd be supplementing the history that the docents were giving us, and then I'd veer off into geology, and then I'd mention the very, very wet winter we just had. He found it hard to believe the depth that the snow could get in the Sierras. Sixteen and twenty feet is not only not unheard of, it's fairly common. Sierra Nevada does mean "snowy mountains."

Actually, Sierras Nevadas would mean "snowy mountains", but that's just trivial.

So I talked about Frémont and the Bear Flag Republic and the effect of the Gold Rush on the Civil War and, not incidentally, The Age of Gold, which is where I got all of that information in the first place.

And I talked about the water, and the Truckee River, which flows from Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake and never reaches the sea, and the Humboldt Sink which the pioneers followed as it cut its way through the ranges of Nevada, only to dry up before it ever reached the Sierras.

Nevada LandscapeIn fact, even the mighty Colorado no longer reaches the sea, but that's because of human intervention and human needs, not natural ones.

Heck, I even got on to the Columbia River Gorge and Lake Missoula which cut it. And Lake Bonneville, of which the Great Salt Lake is the final remnant. And earthquakes and alluvial soil and far, far too many things. I talked at him for hours— usually I'm a better conversationalist, allowing the other person in more, but he seemed to want to listen to me talk. He was enjoying it, so who was I to balk?

Of course, by that time I was hungry and thirsty, and it was getting toward dinnertime, so we bid one another farewell and I went back to my seat. Evil Rob had never left his seat, but then, he had the window side. I got a drink and some money and bought myself a sandwich from the café. Then after a while I went back up.

The Sierra Nevadas create what is known as a "rain shadow." Literally, the Sierras are so high that the water-laden clouds rolling in off the ocean— California weather always comes from the west— dump virtually all of their moisture on the western side. Truckee is moist, but Reno, less than an hour's drive to the east, is desert.Mountain


You know, the West.

It has always amused me that the West was east of where I grew up.

I should mention at this point that Nevada is an infuriating state to drive across. Some states are boring drives, flat and featureless. Some are endurance tests— Wyoming on Interstate 80 springs to mind. Those states you cope with. But Nevada... Nevada has something special. Nevada has range after range after range. And when you're travelling along the east to west route, you cross virtually every one.

It's like you're stuck in an infinite loop. Flat, rise, small pass, downgrade, flat, rise, small pass, downgrade, sagebrush, sagebrush, sagebrush, have we been here before? And at night, it's nothing but darkness with occasional neon.

Sunset Over WinnemuccaIt's not that it's not pretty. There's some beautiful country there. But repetition dulls the effect.

I eventually got tired of staring out the window and went back to my seat with my book. They had a "smoke break" stop at Winnemucca, which is in the middle of the state of Nevada. The sun was setting, so I took the opportunity to get out, breathe some fresh air, and take a few pictures.

And finally, as the train rumbled its way across Nevada and, ultimately, Utah, it was time to face the prospect of sleeping in a coach seat. They recline further than airplane chairs, and have leg supports like recliners do, but they do not spread out flat. We'd discovered that a large seat becomes less comfortable when you are trying to wedge yourself in.

Enter the big bag of pillows. We had one king pillow and one standard pillow each. I have since heard that a neck pillow is invaluable for comfort purposes, and I suggest that a night traveller pack a small foam mattress so as to smooth out the bumps of the segments of the seat. We also discovered that using your bags to bridge that last bit at your feet is good... or at least, Evil Rob discovered it, since he hogged them all.

I would also suggest that you try to pick a short seatmate. Two tall people get in each other's way.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Every Secret Thing

Laura Lippman
Fiction, Thriller

This novel cuts to the heart of a question we have yet to answer: How can children be killers? Two little girls, seemingly normal, encounter a baby in a carriage, all alone, and take her. The baby is not found alive, and when the truth comes out, the girls are imprisoned until they reach majority. The novel takes place after they are released - and another little girl disappears, leaving the reader to wonder if killers, however young, can be rehabilitated.

Lippman's novel is intriguing in that there are no truly sympathetic characters for most of the book. She introduces the mother of the abducted and slain infant, and she is shrewish and selfish, wanting the girls to suffer for what they did - and she doesn't care if they are rehabilitated or not. The single mother of the "nice girl" could have been merely an eclectic, principled teacher, but Lippman shows us how she looks down on her students and worries about how people will see her when her daughter comes home. She also displays an inability to understand her daughter's longing for popularity and acceptance, and never quite grasps why her daughter isn't more eclectic and unique - like herself. The "bad girl's" family isn't worth much text, but the little there is shows them to be the epitome of "white trash." And the girls themselves are an enigma, their years of incarceration making them withdrawn and difficult to connect with.

Somehow these unlikeable characters are made compelling through Lippman's prose, and the book is propelled toward the truth of the first baby's death. As in real life, however, there are few happy endings, and one wonders how lives so deceptively strong can be so fragile.


Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Buried Evidence

Nancy Taylor Rosenberg
Fiction, Thriller

Things aren't going so well for DA Lily Forrester. Her divorced husband is sinking into insolvency and drunkenness. Her daughter's rapist is out on parole and possibly stalking her. And when her ex is accused of fatal hit-and-run, he pressures her to help him - or he'll expose a deed from the past that, while justified, will ruin her career and send her to prison.

I think the most amazing part about this book is that with such an involved and seemingly ludicrous premise, the author manages to pull off a plausible story. Lily is an amazingly strong character, and the story reflects that, but it also shows that she has her moments of idiocy or ill-temper, and that those moments often happen around her ex-husband, as though he manages to bring out her worst. Her ex is an ass, not totally irredeemable, but weak and likely to continue in the easy path despite his love for those who might get hurt by his actions.

The story works because within its context, it is solid in its assumptions. It does not give too much detail, and its foundations are based upon characters that are likely to jump to conclusions based on their personalities. It's a nice quick read.


Monday, June 12, 2006

The Third Victim

Lisa Gardner
Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

This book was published in 2001, when people were afraid that school shootings were going to become the new paradigm. Every six months brought news of a new tragedy, or of an averted attempt, the latter becoming increasingly common as people learned to recognize danger signs. Now, three years after this story takes place, zero-tolerance laws get increasingly silly and we're beginning to worry more about the effect of school policies on our children's lives than of the distant fear that some bullet will end them.

But at the time of The Third Victim, the fear is still near and present, and the unthinkable happens when a school shooting happens in an Oregon farm town (in Tillamook country, if you're interested.) The trouble is, though the boy has confessed, there's more to the story than meets the eye - there's the possibility that he was coerced, and that a killer is loose in rural Oregon.

This is a very satisfying little thriller, including a protagonist with A Hidden Past™ that isn't nearly as bad as she thinks it is, a profiler whose dedication to his work helps him avoid the family problems he has at home, and a state investigator who is annoyed to find the local hick isn't as stupid and complacent as she was supposed to be. Gardner invests the characters with enough real personality that I am looking forward to her other books.


Sunday, June 11, 2006

Touching Evil

Kay Hooper
Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

Continuing on with her exploration of psychics in law enforcement, Kay Hooper gives us the story of Maggie Barnes, a sketch artist with surprisingly accurate depictions. Seattle is being stalked by a killer who removes his victims' eyes, a quirk that just happens to throw an unexpected problem into Maggie's path. Maggie is an empath - and she can only see what her victims did.

The difficulty for Maggie is that she doesn't just see her victims' sights; she feels their pain as well. And yet she feels driven to take others' pain and continue working with the police, as if expiating some forgotten crime from long ago...

I did not feel that the resolution of this story was as complete as the one in Stealing Shadows. There's a sense of urgency to the book that does not feel fully justified by the ending; while there is conflict, and the principle characters are in real and present danger, there are a few assumptions made at the end that deflate the tension a bit prematurely.


Saturday, June 10, 2006

Stealing Shadows

Kay Hooper
Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

A lot of people wonder what use psychics would be in police work. Kay Hooper explores the possibility of psychic talents, *real* psychic talents, helping detectives. How would they convince them that their powers were real? What could they do to help? And what are the consequences?

In Stealing Shadows, Kay Hooper's protagonist Cassie Neill has been helping police for years, submersing herself in killers' minds in an attempt to track them down before they kill again. However, she is traumatized enough by what she sees - and what she doesn't see in time - to leave that behind and move across the country in an attempt to escape her abilities. It goes without saying that she fails, and worse, that her past comes back to haunt her in a way that she was unable to foresee.

Hooper is smart enough to give her psychic protagonists more problems than benefits from their abilities. In Cassie's case, she is afraid that one day she will delve too deep and lose herself in the mind of a madman. The disbelief that she suffers in her longing to help only deepens the isolation that she feels. It's an interesting trap to get out of, and Hooper pulls it off believeably. If you don't mind a little fantasy in your mysteries, this is not a bad choice.


Friday, June 09, 2006


The Day the World Exploded
Simon Winchester

Non-fiction, Earth Science

I have to admit it. I'm a big geek when it comes to disasters. I love National Geographic specials on earthquakes, floods, and tornados, and if I got the Discovery Channel you can bet that I would be watching that too. So a book on one of the largest volcanic explosions in the history of mankind is right up my alley. (In contrast, Mt. St. Helens' explosion a little over two decades ago barely registers on the scale, and Mt. Mazama - the caldera of which forms Crater Lake in Oregon - is considered pretty decent, but not quite as big.)

So Winchester's book is the ideal non-fiction reading for my tastes. The book details the events leading up to the explosion of the island known as the forested paradise of Krakatau (he explains how the likely misspelling of the word led to the infamy of the incorrect Krakatoa), including the political climate of the Dutch colony at the time. While this may make readers impatient for the explosion and immediate aftermath, Winchester's timeline allows the reader to better understand the social aftermath of the destruction, and the consequences that have carried on through until today.

The explosion was, by any standards, horrifying in its death toll; the tsunami caused by the collapse of the smoking island had bodies washing ashore thousands of miles away. The sound from the explosion was heard almost three thousand miles away, making it the loudest unaided sound ever heard. (For comparison, this would be the same as if someone in Washington, D.C., had heard the explosion of Mt. St. Helens - a sound that people were surprised to have heard two or three hundred miles from its source.) And the plume from the volcano induced a drop in global temperature that persisted for two years.

But more than anything else, the fifth biggest explosion in global history (that we can measure from geological studies) gains its infamy from the technology that had only been introduced: the telegraph. News of the explosion and its aftermath traveled around the globe while those effects were still being felt. Another new technology, the barograph (an ancestor of the seismograph), introduced for the first time the ability to track seismic events from other parts of the world, and the pattern of such effects.

And most of all, the author is quick to point out, one must remember this: a still-active Krakatoa is growing, and may one day explode again.


Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Island at the Center of the World

The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America
Russell Shorto

Non-fiction, American History

The prologue to this book states that most Americans think of the early Dutch colony of Manhattan as less than a footnote, a collection of unmotivated layabouts who did little or nothing until the English took them over. (I would argue that most Americans think little of pre-Revolutionary history at all, with the Pilgrims, Jamestown, and the Salem witch-trials alone rising out of the fog of ignorance.) This view is commonplace for two reasons: the English of the seventeenth century were largely at war with the Dutch, and would not like to give props of any kind to a defeated enemy, and the grand majority of records surrounding the Dutch colony were either lost (thrown out, in one famous instance of house-cleaning) or languished untranslated.

The lack of records has only recently been addressed, with one man, Charles Gehring, spending the last thirty years translating a huge number of records that have somehow managed to largely survive fires, mold, bad storage, and moves between continents. (One can only hope that someone is making facsimilies as well; two previous partial translations perished to fire, though one was so bad that its loss is probably a mercy.) It is on these records that Shorto bases his narrative and shows that, far from being a wasted effort, the Dutch colony laid foundations for much of what this country has become, including its religious tolerance, its upwardly mobile character, and its district attorneys.

Shorto traces the history of the colony from its discovery by Dutch-hired English explorer Hudson, to its settlement by the West India company (responsible for the historian-reviled housecleaning mentioned above), to the mismanagement by various company officials (and the development of the idea of an independent government because of them), to the final surrender to the English - by the will of the people, and contrary to the will of its governor. (The colony would go on to change hands again a number of times, something glossed over in standard histories.) The book touches on the few bits of history that somehow survived, including the infamous purchase of Manhattan for "twenty-four dollars' worth of household goods," a nineteenth-century historian's attempt to translated the amount into modern terms. (Two things are pointed out about that: the first is that the value of sixty guilders is much higher in today's terms, and the second that the Indians didn't just pack up and move away after the sale, but hung around, hunted, fished, farmed, and expected further presents and entertainment for up to fifty people at a time for decades after. As the author points out, the Indians of the area were not poor, simple, savages, but were a lot sharper than many histories give them credit for.)

Shorto makes a persuasive argument using material that has been largely unavailable before now. And as he points out, since its discovery, possession of Manhattan has been critical in world affairs. It was true in the seventeenth century, and it is true today.


(Please note that this book will not be published until mid-March.)

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Scent of Danger

Andrea Kane
Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

Lest you think that everything I read is scholarly (which is far from the truth, but I picked up a bunch of advance reader copies lately), it's time to delve into some of the other things I've been reading lately. When searching through a free book pile (yay! free books!), mysteries will always get consideration from me because they're usually fun.

Scent of Danger is your typical thriller. Someone gets shot in the opening pages, and much of the book is speculation as to who did it, as the protagonists end up in more and more danger. Typically, the protagonists include a very sharp, attractive woman, and a very sharp, attractive man. Not so typically, though their initial meeting is fraught with tension (*not* due to their personalities), they don't carp at each other before falling in love. Likewise atypically, though the cops don't solve the case, and though they don't make much progress along the way, they are generally considered to be competent at their job, and their missteps are chalked up to typical human inability to be perfect. That's fairly refreshing, and makes me suspect that the author has actually spent time in the presence of real police officers.

The book touches on a few topics that you wouldn't expect to see in a mystery novel, such as the process of kidney donation, and the morality of industrial espionage. It also touches on perfume - the person shot at the beginning of the novel is the CEO of a leading perfume manufacturer and, tellingly, the premiere fragrance of the company has a formula that only he knows. (This is what is known as a "trade secret" and enjoys permanent protection in courts until the secret is leaked. Coca-Cola's formula is a trade secret.) So the people in the book have to find out why the CEO was shot... and if someone will try to finish the job, and stop the production of the pheromone based perfume phenomenon.

Not a bad little book for a quick read. I didn't feel that the characters were ever in excessive danger, which tones down the thriller aspect some. Overall, I'd say ***.5/*****

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Devil In the White City

Murder, Madness and Mayhem at the Fair that Changed America
by Erik Larson

Non-fiction, American history

The Chicago World's Fair of 1893 is not something that your typical 21st-century reader cares much about, or is even aware existed. However, the legacy of that fair is still with us today, from the carnival legacy (the midway, the Ferris wheel (the original of which was a behemoth, with cars that held 50 people at a time), and the exotica such as belly dance) to the Neoclassical revival (from an arbitrary decision to paint everything white to stop arguments about the colors) to the simple everyday things (such as zippers, AC current, and Shredded Wheat.) Larson's book gives a thorough breakdown of the process of acquiring and implementing the World's Fair in an incredibly short span of time, and the difficulties that had to be overcome in order to have not only a world-class fair, but to make such a fair better than all the previous ones and prove to the world that America was not longer a cultural backwater.

The designers had to overcome incredible difficulties, not limited to the architectural difficulties of building on Chicago's unstable ground. Committees did what committees do, which is take valuable time to come to decisions, labor strikes and lack of funds threatened the project, and critical people dropped dead or fell ill. And yet the overall effect came through, and the Fair came to be known as the White City, a vision of what the future could be.

Enter the Devil. Of course, nobody knew him at the time; the charming young doctor who called himself H.H. Holmes was personable and extremely convincing. He managed to build a city-block sized hotel almost entirely on credit, and directed its construction in such a manner that nobody truly knew what its purpose was.

It was only after the Fair when its use became clear. The hotel was a chamber of horrors, and dozens if not hundreds of women had met their deaths within its walls. H.H. Holmes was what would later be called a serial killer, and he used his charm to lure girls to lodge with him-- specifically, girls who had left their rural homes for the first time in their lives to come to Chicago's White City. Larson's account of Holmes is interwoven with the difficulties of the Fair, and the two stories drive home the fact that sometimes, decisions have unexpected consequences.


More about the Chicago World's Fair
More about H.H. Holmes