Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Antiques Disposal by Barbara Allan *****

Antiques Disposal by Barbara Allan (pseudonym for Barbara Collins and Max Allan Collins) for fans the of TV show Storage Wars. The tongue-in-cheek style includes asides by the two protagonists, Brandy Borne and her mother-cum-grandmother (you have to read this for yourself) Vivian Bourne, critiquing each others actions and writing. Occasionally the editor even interjects to referee.

The story includes a couple of murders and a half-dozen suspects and many complex familial relations - relatives lost and found, and estranged and reconciled. A charming story and a fun summer read.

Friday, May 25, 2012

True Sisters by Sandra Dallas *****

True Sisters by Sandra Dallas is an historical novel of the Mormon Trail and the ill-fated Martin Party that left too late in the season of 1856 ... pushing handcarts. About 25% of the party died of accidents, starvation and exposure. To put this perspective, the Donner Party had a death rate of almost 50%, but because the Donner group was so much smaller, Martin Party deaths were four times as great. This might be the worse disaster of the many treks across the plains.

The story is told through the eyes of several of the women ... a woman who was living well in England and gave up everything to be with her husband and children, even though she did not convert to Mormonism; two sisters, one married and one not; a midwife with knowledge of herbal remedies; and a young girl who escaped forced prostitution.

The women deal with cooking and washing on the trail, delivering babies, and mourning the death children and parents. This is a saga of death ... at almost every point of the journey people are dying ... those that don't die, have limbs amputated to save their lives.

Though this is a novel of strong women and sisterhood, the mid-18th century and the Mormon doctrine of plural marriages leaves these women with little alternative but to obey and support their husbands and the male leaders.

Though the Mormons are presented as friendly and supportive, the leadership seems to embody the worst of religious demagoguery. The author presents a stark contrast between the arrogant male hierarchy and the caring, supportive females caught up in the voyage. The book is a wonderful story of the historical migration across the plains to the west and the strong women who made so much of it possible.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Into the Hinterlands by David Drake ****

"The Continuum lay outside of reality ..." and didn't allow metals or combustion, but it did provide a shortcut across interstellar space. Vehicles were constructed of ceramic and carbon fibers and powered by human pedaling --- think Tour de France.  Weapons were restricted to spring-power --- think sling shots and spear guns. So the stage is set for warfare by cyclists armed like SCUBA divers.

Into the Hinterlands by David Drake and John Lambshead follows the career of Allen Allenson ... a gentleman, a younger son without any real assets or power. Traditions dictates that younger sons join the clergy or the military. Allenson joins the military, accompanied by his rough and tumble buddy Hawthorne, and their gentleman student (think Darwin) friend Royman Destry.

The battle is about competing interstellar colonies and the tactics are mixture of asymmetric frontier skirmishes and World War II air battles. In fact many of the interpersonal issues from managing recruits and enlisted men to conflicts between big armies and small squads are very reminiscent of World War II movies.

If you like WWII movie like Dirty Dozen and The Bridges of Toko-Ri, you enjoy this science fiction rendition of similar themes.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Sonoma Rose by Jennifer Chiaverini ****

Sonoma Rose by Jennifer Chiaverini is a charming historical novel of prohibition in Sonoma Valley ... the hardships to the vineyards and the families that had practiced the ancient art of wine making from generations ... the introduction of crime and violence from gangsters, bootleggers, and corrupt prohibition agents to this beautiful and peaceful area of northern California.

The saga centers around Rosa. As the novel opens, Rosa is living with her abusive husband and four children. She has had eight children, four of whom died of a mysterious disease that caused chronic digestive problems and ultimately death by malnutrition. Two of the remaining children have similar symptoms. Her husband refuses to spend the money for specialized doctors. This same husband probably murdered Rosa's mother. Oh yes, the two healthy children were fathered by her childhood sweetheart and sometime lover Lars.

The author juggles the history and Rosa occasionally forgetting one or the other. For example, the sweet poetry of Rosa's lover sleeping on the sofa  runs away from the plot with
Lars understandably didn't want to be with someone else's wife.
This being the same Lars that has fathered two children with Rosa. By the end the Rosa and the history are pleasantly integrated as Rosa overcomes her obstacles and becomes a part of the post-prohibition prosperity on Sonoma Valley.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

An African Affair by Nina Darnton ***

An African Affair by Nina Darenton is about Lindsay Cameron, an American reporter, who is uncertain about her life: should she risk her life for a news story? should she forgo a relationship for a news story? should she keep writing news stories? While these might be real issues in some alternate universe, in this novel they are trite and contrived. In this formulaic mystery/romance, our heroine tracks down multiple mysteries ... is her lover Mr Right or manipulating drug dealer and murderer? who is behind the latest Nigerian coup? who really murdered that CIA agent? ... and who cares?

This novel reads like a checklist ... dark lover - check; evil secret organization - check; heroine kidnapped - check; heroine rescued - checked; red shirt killed - check; and so on and so forth.

Unless you are interested in Lagos Nigeria - author lived there for a couple of years and has a fine descriptive memory and style - this is easily skipped.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins ****

If your cable was cut by werewolves and satellite dish destroyed by vampires, I might be the first to let you know The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is about Katniss Everdeen: a teenage girl, who has a healthy disrespect for authority, an analytic mind, and neatly poaches game with  arrows that always go through the eye socket, making her the best trespassing archer since Robin Hood.

For reasons that are often explained but rarely clear, each year a boy and girl, from each of 12 districts, gather in an arena as modern day gladiators. The winner is the last one alive. In this near-future YA novel, the entire event is televised with high-tech cameras following each participant.I don't consider it a spoiler to report that Katniss wins, after all she is too wonderful and there are already three volumes in this series.

 As a lone hunter, it is not surprising that Katniss tends to spend much of her time in introspection, which is a good fit for the target audience of traditionally introspective teenagers. For the more mature readers, Katniss is presented with a series of puzzles as different opponents corner her and she cleverly figures out a way to emerge victorious ... once again reminding me that the voyage is often more interesting than the destination.

If you've avoided this book so far, I can recommend it as a nice summer read to kill a few afternoons - in keep with the YA genre, the book is short.


Thursday, May 3, 2012

Night Sins by Tami Hoag ****

Night Sins opens with Hannah Garrison, head ER doctor, staying late to (unsuccessfully) treat the victims of an car accident and her husband Paul Kirkwood ignoring his phone while with his mistress. If you are a Tami Hoag reader, you know what to expect: their Cub Scout son, Josh, was abducted. Welcome to a world of guilt and recrimination.

Our protagonists are Megan O'Malley, the first female agent of the Minnesota equivalent of the FBI - BCA - Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and the local Police Chief Mitch Holt. As might be expected, they come with their own personal demons (dysfunctional families, murdered families, and major relationship issues), but the real story is their investigation of the abduction, with a side show of annoying reporters exploiting the story for their personal needs.

The story progresses hour-by-hour as they play cat and mouse with the kidnapper, uncovering one wrong suspect after another, until it is impossible to put the book down for the last 100 pages.

This excellent mystery is marred in three ways...

First, too many of the characters are severely deranged. As a reader, I felt that too many times one subplot after another was revealed to by motivated by insanity. This takes away some of the fun of mystery reading if all the solutions begin with "He was crazy."

Second, Ms Tami Hoag is enamored with the "No" means "Yes" schools of relationships. In a novel trying to set Feminism back 50 years, our protagonist spends way too much of her time fighting off sweet Mitch, when what she really, deep inside, unknown to herself, wants is to have him take her to bed. Of course, true to this 1950s cliche, afterwards she is unhappy with the result, but still continues the her cycles of "No" means "Yes."

Finally, as a 20th century author (vs someone like Dickens), Tami Hoag feels no compulsion to tie up all the subplots at the end. While thousands of students have been taught to revere this approach at the alter of "The Tiger and The Lady," I am forced to wonder if the author just ran out of time and interest --- as a reader I feel short changed.

This is a great book for reading on the airplane, especially a long one like I just took between California and South Africa.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

P is for Peril by Sue Grafton ****

"P" is for Peril by Sue Grafton again finds Kinsey Millhone struggling to make ends meet in Santa Teresa, California. Once again, in what must be the murder capital for southern California, private investigator Kinsey is working on solutions for several murders ... more because she is curious and wants to bring evil doers to justice, than because she would like to pay her bills ... which she does ... though it seems never from the activities reported in this long string of mystery novels.

The first (murder?) is a mysterious disappearance of a nursing home doctor/administrator mixed up in a Medicare fraud investigation. The second is a couple of (hot?) young men accused of murdering their parents for an early inheritance. As usual Kinsey solves her mysteries in a mixture of data gathering from odd characters --- rebellious teenagers, ex-stripper second wife, jealous first wife, ... --- and clever deductions.

Sue Grafton is a consistent writer, and her many fans for enjoy this installment, though the ending pins the crime on someone with ample opportunity, but (I felt) insufficient motivation.


Vital Signs by Robin Cook ****

Marissa Buchanan can not been able to conceive after three rounds of IVF and now, going into the fourth round, the stress, hormones, and emotional rise-and-falls have begun to strain her relation with her husband. While Vital Signs by Robin Cook promises an investigation of the emotional issues of IVF, the plot quickly spins out of control to include international conspiracies together with organized and disorganized criminals, and surprising number of cold-blooded murders.

On the plus side, Robin Cook often gets bogged down in technical medical jargon and endless descriptions of medical procedures; this book has very limited amount of this stuff. The plot is ever changing as Marissa tracks down the killers and conspirators in spite the her friends and associates being murdered. She follows the trail from Boston to the Australian outback and Hong Kong, and finally into the PRC itself.

On the other hand, the plot is so contrived and fantastic that no ending would be satisfactory, and the actual ending is probably only comforting to the author and maybe a few geeky medical professionals.

In summary, for the Robin Cook fans, this is one of the best, and for readers new to Robin Cook, this is ideal place to start with this prolific writer to medical thrillers.

Carrie by Stephen King *****

Carrie (by Stephen King) is the target of cruel jokes and teasing throughout her school experience until that fateful day in high school when she has her first period and the girls throw tampons at her ... and laugh ... and she discovers she is telekinetic --- this is the beginning of the end for those girls, ... the high school, ... and the entire town.

 A cautionary tale of sorts,King's horror novel is a darker, rated-R variation of Roald Dahl's Mathilda --- published over a decade before Dahl's juvenile comedy. This is King's first published novel which famously received a stack of rejection before it was published and became a best seller and movie starring Sissy Spacek. I doubt the rejection slips were for the writing. King began writing very young and was prolific and proficient by the time he wrote Carrie. I expect the teenage protagonist and Prom theme influenced first-readers to think of it as a YA novel in the Sweet Valley genre. If they didn't reject it immediately, the sex and violence landed it in slush pile hell. Another cautionary tale of sorts.

Regardless, Carrie demonstrates the power and attraction of Stephen King's writing. I am not a fan of movie violence and gore (you listening Quentin Tarantino?), but I found the book very enjoyable,
even though I would never watch the movie.