Friday, August 30, 2013


Ignorance: How it drives scienceIgnorance: How it drives science by Stuart Firestein
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a short essay with case studies by scientist Stuart Firestein about the power of ignorance in advancing scientific knowledge and inquiry. Firestein suggests that the right kind of ignorance is actually more important to scientists than factual knowledge. The facts may mislead us, or be themselves wrong: therefore being able to ask the right questions is essential.

Firestein discusses what he calls strategies of ignorance, which scientists use to help them decide where to start looking for new knowledge. He ends the book with four brief and fascinating case studies in very different fields that all indicate the new frontiers of ignorance that scientists are broaching. It's all written to illuminate the process of scientific inquiry to laypeople. For a taste of the book, check out his 2013 TED Talk "Celebrating Ignorance".

The first connection I made while reading was to a book I often think of: So Many Books by Gabriel Said. It's another small punch in the gut, giving me a powerful sense of the scale of my own ignorance of an area I know a lot about: literature and book publishing.

Reading Ignorance and So Many Books as a librarian whose job it is to "find the answers", was a helpful reminder about the vagaries of human knowledge. Highly trained scientists spend their entire careers working on problems that may or may not have solutions - but no one will know until someone is curious enough to look. In reference librarianship, the first thing you are taught is how to conduct a reference interview to get at the patron's real question, which is almost never the first thing they ask. (Finding the real question, in fact, often takes longer than finding the answer.)

Firestein points to a microhistory by Mary Poovey called A History of the Modern Fact, which is another good follow-up for those interested in how we came to our modern definition of knowledge.

"Knowledge is a big subject. Ignorance is bigger. And it is more interesting." - 10

"Curiously, as our collective knowledge grows, our ignorance does not seem to shrink. Rather, we know an ever smaller amount of the total, and our individual ignorance, as a ratio of the knowledge base, grows." - 13

"Libraries are both awe inspiring and depressing. The cultural effort they represent, to record over generations what we know and think about the world and ourselves, is unquestionably majestic, but the impossibility of reading even a small fraction of the books inside them can be personally dispiriting." - 14

"The universe is not deterministic; it is probabilistic, and the future can't be predicted with certainty." - 36

"This is an example of why the brain is so poor an instrument for understanding how it works - at least through introspection. You can think about it all you want, and you will never get access to what your brain is doing computationally at any given moment. You only have access to a result, a behavior or perception, that could have been reached in numerous indistinguishable ways." - 147

"We often use the word ignorance to denote a primitive or foolish set of beliefs. In fact, I would say that 'explanation' is often primitive or foolish, and the recognition of ignorance is the beginning of scientific discourse. When we admit that something is unknown and inexplicable, then we admit that it is worthy of investigation." - 167

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Edward Gorey...

...sums up my reading life right now:

"If I do not seem to be mentioning anything I’ve read lately, it is because I am in one of those periods of undifferentiated flux or something in which I am reading about fifty, at a minimum, books at once, so of course I seldom finish one. Eventually this phase will pass, and I’ll discover I have about ten pages to go in all of them, and will sit down and systematically finish them, one after another." - Edward Gorey, Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer (quotation found at So Many Books)

Which is my roundabout way of explaining why there's no review today. I'm in the middle of a long biography of Charles Dickens and a handful of other books have been calling my attention away in brief bursts.

More intriguing books also keep creeping up on me, which of course must be acquired to read right away, or maybe later, when I have time. The only thing keeping the books stacked on my bedroom floor moving right now are library due dates! (What do you mean someone else wants this book?!)

So Many Books, so little time...

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Dark Lord of Derkholm

The Dark Lord of Derkholm (Derkholm, #1)The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a magical world devastated by packs of other-worldly tourists, a good-hearted wizard Derk is named Dark Lord and must organize the scenic evil - and just maybe free his world from tyranny.

A long time ago, an off-worlder named Mr. Chesney gained an exclusive monopoly on extravagant "Pilgrim Parties" to Derk's world. These tours trample the countryside, deplete resources, demand the energies of all the wizards in the world, and often cause fatalities during epic battles between sham forces of Good and Evil. But Chesney has a powerful demon on his side, so no one dares to break the contract - even though Chesney is the only one benefiting from the arrangement.

Led by a powerful female wizard named Querida, the world's leaders are fighting back: as part of their plan they elect the modest Derk as Dark Lord. He in turn enlists the help of his seven talented children (five of whom are griffins of his own design) and his wife, Mara. Along the way Derk enlists his menagerie of winged pigs and horses, hyper-intelligent geese, invisible cats, and dragons to organize night attacks and epic battles. In spite of these helping wings, paws and claws, everything that can go wrong inevitably will go wrong.

Serious things are at stake in this story, because every year people die on the tours (so the funny premise is actually pretty dark in execution). In a cold-blooded arrangement of Mr. Chesney's, some Pilgrims are marked down for assassination by grasping relatives - they are "expendables" - criminals are forced to work as mercenary armies, and the natives of Derk's world supply bodies for Pilgrims to fight and sometimes kill. It's pure exploitation, infuriating and inescapable.

There are a dizzying number of characters to keep track of, both human and nonhuman. (My personal favorite is Pretty, a derpy winged colt who can talk and causes plenty of mayhem wherever he goes.) Derk is sympathetic, as are his children, and the obstacles of organizing a planet-wide fantasy cliche for the Pilgrims provides plenty of action and interest. It's an entertaining story, a few notches below my absolute favorite Diana Wynne Jones book, Howl's Moving Castle. (Howl is a lighter, funnier send-up of fantasy tropes; less extravagantly plotted but more cohesive as a result.)
Derpy flying around in Cloudsdale S1E16
Another read-alike would have to be the very funny To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, a time-traveling story that features some expert juggling of multiple characters and chaotic events. If you're a true Diana Wynne Jones fan, don't miss The Dark Lord of Derkholm. If you're not so sure you like her brand of storytelling but still want to check her out, start with Howl instead. For more of Derk and his oddball family, check out Derkholm's sequel, The Year of the Griffin.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tooth and Claw

Tooth and ClawTooth and Claw by Jo Walton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this inventive fantasy that re-imagines the Victorian era, members of a genteel family struggle to make their way in the world after the death of their father - and they happen to be dragons.

A short pitch for this book could be Jane Austen with dragons. If that isn't a great hook, I don't know what is! The cast of characters is a respectable dragon family whose patriarch has died, scattering his heirs into the uniquely dangerous world to make their fortunes. Each character seems to have an analog in the Austen universe: for example, the clergyman Blessed Frelt is both Mr. Collins and Mr. Elliot.

It's fascinating to see how Walton translates Victorian ideas about human nature into dragon society: female dragons are much smaller than males, and lack claws or fire (dragons vary wildly in size, ranging from servants who remain seven feet in adulthood to the giant nobles who achieve seventy feet or more). Females change color when they bond with a mate, and a female alone in the world is in real danger of being "pressed" (something much like rape) or simply killed and eaten. Yes, eaten. That brings us to a central point in this world: dragons eat their dead, for some very good reasons. It's an idea Walton uses to full potential, and as strange as it is to think of Dragon Mr. Darcy eating his dear dead dad, it works. Dragon society is genteel on the surface, but beneath every interaction lurks the reality that these are large carnivores, ready to fight tooth and claw to improve their social standing.

The characters are interesting, but some of the love stories between dragon couples lacked zest. I think it's because Walton doesn't have the knack for dialog that you see in the classic British authors - Dickens and Austen in particular. (It's unfair to make the comparison, but impossible not to.) Still, the concept and execution are so charming I'm happy to overlook this quibble. In fact, I want Jo Walton to write generations of dragon stories, progressing through every era of human civilization. Dragon Greatest Generation! Dragon hippies! Dragon yuppies! (A dragon Gordon Gecko would be fantastic: good.) There are so many interesting directions this universe could take, and the way Walton uses her premise to reexamine human society is exactly what good fantasy should do.

The obvious ideal readers of this book are Jane Austen/fantasy lovers, so brush up on your Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility before (or after) Tooth and Claw. I would also suggest another alternate-history fantasy series, one I love: His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik (the first in the Temeraire books). Think Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander - with dragons, naturally. I'm pretty sure everything's better with dragons.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Thank You For Smoking

Thank You for SmokingThank You for Smoking by Christopher Buckley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Big Tobacco spokesman Nick Naylor slings BS to pay his mortgage - but after getting death threats he worries that he may have smoked his last cigarette.

Nick's boss, BR, has his eye on making room for his secretary in the VP slot, so Nick has to keep spinning inventively to keep ahead of the ax. His rhetoric is sharp and he's nimble in an argument: switching seamlessly from ad hominem to reductio ad absurdum, poking holes in his sanctimonious opponents, and scoring temporary victories to keep tobacco sales up. The truth doesn't trouble him (much), since he only gets paid to blow smoke.

My  favorite scenes are the conversations between Nick and his lunch buddies from SAFETY (the pro-gun lobby) and the Moderation Council (wine, beer, and spirits). Their chatter is hilariously honest as they discuss their goals of getting their products into the hands of consumers, and it's like reading The Screwtape Letters set in a bar in D.C. They refer to themselves as the Mod Squad: Merchants of Death.

There are also a few very funny sex scenes - all weird suggestion and grunting. This book is hardly PC in its depiction of women, but does that surprise anyone? Women in Nick's white, male-dominated world are either sexy or scary - there's no in-between, though some do manage to be both.

The dialog and character descriptions are razor-sharp: some important celebrities - Oprah! - and politicians - Margaret Thatcher! - get skewered (and though it was written in 1994, this book may just as well have been published last year when it alludes to politicians' transgressions). I love the hilarious movie starring Aaron Eckhart (a movie about smoking in which no one smokes!) Fans of one will certainly love the other - though there are some substantial differences, most notably with the character of Nick's son and the ending.

Christopher Buckley has written other political satire, including Boomsday, about a blogger who suggests that the government encourage people over 75 to off themselves to relieve the overburdened Social Security system. Buckley's father was William F. Buckley, a well-known libertarian writer who died of emphysema in 2008. He wrote an opinion piece before his death entitled "My Smoking Confessional", about his personal experience and views on tobacco.

So Quotable:
"Nick Naylor had been called many things since becoming chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, but until now no one had actually compared him to Satan." - 3

"A direct steal from the Jesse Jackson School of Meaningless but Rhymed Oratory, but it worked." - 4

"It was crucial not to pause here to let the stunning non sequitur embed itself in their neural processors." - 5

"The Mod Squad in ways resembled the gatherings of Hollywood comedy writers who met over coffee to bounce new jokes off one another. Only here it was sound bites deemphasizing the lethality of their products." - 24

"They were the Cavaliers of Consumption aligned on the field of battle against the Roundheads of Neo-Puritanism." - 29

"He had seven daughters: Andy, Tommie, Bobbie, Chris, Donnie, Scotty, and Dave, upon whom the burden of her father's frustrated desire for a male heir had perhaps fallen hardest." - 53

"Ninety-nine percent of everything that is done in the world, good and bad, is done to pay a mortgage. The world would be a much better place if everyone rented." - 89

"I don't have all the answers on that. I'm not a doctor. I'm just a facilitator. All I do is bring creative people together. What information there is, is out there. People will decide for themselves. I can't make the decision for them. It's not my role. It would be morally presumptuous." - 170

"In a hot medium, coolness is all, limpidity is better, and not picking your nose is key." - 195

"A bit tortured, perhaps, but he'd at least kicked a little putative dirt onto the shoes of a venerable doctor, a pediatric surgeon, at that. A men who saved the lives of ... little children. Don't think about that! Thank God Koop looked like Captain Ahab with that scary beard of his." - 197

Friday, August 23, 2013

Life of Pi

Life of PiLife of Pi by Yann Martel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this spiritual fable of survival, an Indian boy is stranded in the Pacific ocean for 227 days - accompanied by a Bengal tiger.

Piscine Molitor Patel, called Pi, grew up in Pondicherry, the son of a zookeeper. He tells his story with charm and earnest believability, starting with his religious life as an adherent of three faiths at once (Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity) and describing the events that led to the sinking of the ship that was carrying him to Canada with his family and a small menagerie of wild animals.

The most unbelievable circumstance is not his survival at sea in an open life raft for 227 days, but his survival with an unlikely companion: a full-grown, 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Pi suffers the usual thirst, hunger, and exposure of a survivor, but also mortal terror of the giant predator sharing his boat. He comes up with a strategy that preserves not only his own life, but also that of the tiger, who becomes his own reason for staying alive.

I read this book around the time it first came out (it won the Mann Booker in 2002) and loved it, and on the second reading I am still a big fan. My favorite part of the story is when Pi and Richard Parker land in a sinister island paradise. That section is so outlandish it could have come from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels or Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, but Pi is such a credible narrator that everything he recounts feels true. Life of Pi is one of those rare prize-winners that is not only well-written with vivid characters, but also has a plot hook that appeals to anyone hungry for a good story.

The most obvious next read is the classic survival story, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. You might also pick up The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. In 2010 Yann Martel published his second novel, Beatrice and Virgil. It garnered very mixed reviews, and for me it didn't work as well as Life of Pi. That said, it contains a wonderful description of a pear (shades of Pi's conversation with the Frenchman about a banana) that could be read on its own - but overall the story and characters in Beatrice and Virgil are far less engaging.

Is Pi's story true or not? The final scene of the novel calls this into question. Life of Pi falls under the difficult-to-define genre of "magical realism" (a term a friend of mine objects to because it contains an inherent assumption that "realism" is only what falls into the Western thought tradition: rational and nonmagical). So how you respond to the horrific "realistic" story Pi tells to placate the shipping company investigators (this one starring an all-human cast) says more about your own worldview than about what the "true" story of Life of Pi is supposed to be. Knowing both versions doesn't invalidate either story, but rather deepens the novel's meaning. It's a difficult hat trick to pull off, but Martel does it gracefully without undermining the beauty of Pi's tale.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie

The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll's History and Her Impact on UsThe Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll's History and Her Impact on Us by Tanya Lee Stone
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You don't have to be an academic to enjoy this illustrated look at the history and cultural impact of that controversial fashion doll, Barbie.

Stone keeps her tone even-handed, though she personally seems to fall on the more positive side of Barbie, noting "There is not much middle-of-the-road when it comes to Barbie." The doll is supposed to be a toy, but there is nothing simple about the way we respond to Barbie. She is a polarizing icon, and "it is worth examining why she inspires such distress - and such devotion" (109).

Stone starts with a brief overview of Mattel founder and Barbie creator Ruth Handler's life before delving into Barbie herself, exploring the doll's impact on body image, racial politics, and art. Along the way Stone incorporates quotations from ordinary girls who love or hate the plastic bombshell, as well as the opinions of writers, artists, and fashion designers. Who knew there was so much to say about a child's doll?

Barbie started out as a blonde with cat eyes and a coy expression, and now has a seemingly infinite variety of incarnations - she's represented different cultures and ethnicities, had hundreds of different careers and hairstyles (many of the latter child-administered). She has inspired artists, from an Andy Warhol portrait to a jewelry designer who uses hundreds of Barbie bodies to make her creations. (The best part of this book are the plentiful illustrations, including several pages in full-color.)

For a palate-cleanser if you're a Barbie hater, check out a book the School Library Journal called one of the best of 2011: Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) by Sue Macy. If you can't get enough Barbie and want a deeper look into the history of the famous doll and her creator, check out Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her by Robin Gerber.Or you can venture into Mattel's glitter-pink world online to see what's happening with Barbie today.

My perspective on Barbie? To most kids she's just a toy, albeit it one with really cool clothes. She's not meant to be realistic, but people believe in her reality anyway. I think the term "hyperreal" fits Barbie like a sparkly evening gown. I had a couple of Barbies as a kid (and a box of pretty clothes, plus cut-up socks we used to play shipwreck Barbie), but I mostly invested all my toy money on Legos, Playmobils, and Breyer Horses (and simply lusted after nifty miniatures or the pricey American Girl dolls, with their cool historical accessories).

"This realization reminded me of something my dad told me during my impressionable twenties, when I was upset by someone's (obviously misguided) opinion of me - that however many people there were out in the world who knew me, there would be that many different perspectives of who I am. We all impose our own ideas and perceptions on the world, and Barbie may just be the ultimate scapegoat." - 109

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


SunshineSunshine by Robin McKinley
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Though monsters haunt the darkness of her world, Sunshine is still unprepared to be taken prisoner one night by a group of vampires - or to make herself an ally of the otherworldly Constantine.

Sunshine is an ordinary woman, a baker at her family-run coffeehouse in New Arcadia. Humans are a species in constant danger of being overrun by the many kinds of monsters and magic in the world, though the end of the Voodoo Wars bought some breathing room. But the scariest monsters are the vampires: Vampires have an edge over humans because of their agelessness and their brutality. (It's an open secret that they control much of the world's wealth.) Sunshine fully expects to die horribly. Instead she makes an ally out of one of the deadly predators and discovers untapped abilities in herself that lead her to some disturbing truths about her family. And some serious soul-searching.

I mean, a lot of soul-searching. There's more soul-searching than plot, to be honest. I found myself getting impatient at McKinley's habit of overexplaining stuff I don't care about (like Sunshine's daily work routine, which sounds brutal) and then leaving someone called a "goddess of pain" up in the air. McKinley could have used a more thorough editor: sometimes the action of the magic and the flow of Sunshine's thoughts were difficult to untangle. I found myself rereading passages asking "What just happened?" and still not quite understanding.

To her credit, McKinley is creating an incredibly complex urban fantasy world with her own take on mythical monsters, alternate history, and system of magic. She also creates an intriguing mix of characters, many of whom would be interesting to see developed more. (Sadly, Sunshine delivers us most of the information about this world in large chunks of exposition/supposition in between baking and having repetitive conversations with friends.)

Sunshine feels like the first of a series, with a potential new villain set up and plenty of unanswered questions at the end. It's being held out as a must-read for Buffy fans, which I'm not sure I agree with. (Vampires may be Buffy's thing, but there's a lot more to the show's appeal than that.) Sunshine does lean toward the classic vampire myths, so I'd say fans of Anne Rice or Bram Stoker will be pleased. It's not a good a match for Twilight fans, though.

Since setting is key in Sunshine, my two next read suggestions are based on big world-building ideas. For urban fantasy, Kraken by China Mieville has a fascinating system of magic, all in orbit around a missing giant squid. The ultimate eerie gothic trilogy is Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (mentioned in passing by Sunshine), which takes place in a vast castle with very strange inhabitants.

A sexually explicit scene took me aback at one point - I was not expecting the c-word to pop up in this novel. (But then there it was!) And there is a lot of gore - but this is clearly intended to be a horror novel, so caveat emptor.

P.P.S: So apparently there's no sequel planned, which makes the failings of this book that much worse. Annoying. (And I got my facts straight from the horse's mouth.)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Aunts Aren't Gentlemen

Following doctor's orders, Bertie goes out to the country for rest - only to have his life interrupted by an overly friendly cat, a lovelorn couple, and his amoral Aunt Dahlia's betting schemes.

This is the final Jeeves book, and though it still sparkles with Wodehouse's usual wit, the wheels of the plot move with less complexity than they did in The Code of the Woosters or The Inimitable Jeeves (which contains "The Great Sermon Handicap," possibly the best Jeeves short story). Aunt Dahlia only gets a scene or two in her best form, plus Bertie's usual chucklehead Drones friends are noticeably absent and our hero seems a bit lonely on his solitary adventures. (Instead of staying in an overpopulated country house, Bertie has a cabin of his own.) Bertie's resigned despair at being unexpectedly engaged to a woman who seeks to ban his smoking and drinking is muted as a result.

Still, the inconvenient cat makes for a very funny plot device, and Wooster lovers will eat this one up like Anatole's cooking.

Monday, August 19, 2013


DeathlessDeathless by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Spun with vivid magic, the Russian folktale "The Death of Koschei the Deathless" is reimagined as a love story between Koschei, the Tsar of Life, and warrior woman Marya Morevna during the early days of the Soviet Union.

Catherynne Valente showcases her dense Rococo style, each sentence brimming with adjectives, like bibelots tucked between spare syllables. She brings in a number of creatures native to Russian folklore that were new to me: leshy (a male woodland spirit), vintovnik (a rifle imp, a type invented by Valente), domovoi (like a cross between a brownie and a poltergeist), vila (fairies), and rusalki (mermaids). There are also appearances by the ever-terrifying Baba YagaZmey Gorinich (a Slavic three-headed dragon, adapted appropriately for Stalinist Russia), and the prophetic harpy-like Gamayun.

The main event, though, is the battle that takes place between Koschei the Deathless and his newest wife Marya Morevna, both of whom seem to be incarnations of Bluebeard (a story you can find for free here). Marya starts out at a disadvantage to Koschei, who has the advantage of infinite age and magic, but she learns quickly and the struggle of wills between them is an equal one. The plot is much less important to Valente than imagery of life and death, mixed in with the Siege of Leningrad.

Reading about folklore from another culture can be rewarding and disorienting as the stories re-present familiar figures, all transmuted enough to be recognizable and still strange, lending a frisson to the experience that must carry the reader through bizarre landscapes. Marya and Koschei's struggle is portrayed as a cyclical one, an unavoidable balancing act of fate. Valente has the narrative style of fairy tales down cold, but the style creates a distance between character and reader. The characters are less real people than they are types enacting symbolic actions (though rarely predictable ones). This isn't a story you read to find out what happens next, but rather to enjoy being told it by Valente's distinctive voice.

There are plenty of great books to go to for those who love Deathless. (And I love Russian literature in general, so it's been difficult to whittle down the options!) I would suggest moving on to The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. It's about a later period in Soviet history, but just as strange and compelling: the devil comes to Moscow, a city where no one believes he exists anymore, to wreak havoc on the good comrades there.

A classic short story with traces of humor and a generous dose of magical realism is "The Nose" by Nikolai Gogol (set in St. Petersburg).

Throughout Deathless, Valente quotes the poets Anna Akhmatova and Alexander Pushkin, two important Russian poets. Pushkin was an unparalleled literary genius, touchy as a porcupine: he fought 29 duels and was killed in one at the age of 37. Americans are more familiar with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, but Pushkin is the Russian whose reputation in his homeland is as towering as Shakespeare's in the English-speaking world. You may want to start with his poetry or with The Queen of Spades and Other Stories.

The story of the uncanny immortal lover reminded me strongly of Meredith Ann Pierce's Darkangel Trilogy, which starts with The Darkangel. For more twisted fairy tales for grownups, check out Angela Carter's reimagining of the Bluebeard story: The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories.

"And morality is more dependent on the state of one's stomach than of one's nation." - 65

"Everyone is a criminal! We are beset on all sides by antirevolutionary forces. Naturally, then, humans fall into three categories: the criminal, the not-yet-criminal, and the not-yet-caught." - 131

"Many things in Buyan are mixed-up and backwards - mossy rocks and guns that speak, birds that turn into men and buildings like youths - but you will notice that everything living has a mouth. Mouths bite and swallow; they talk; they taste. They kiss. A mouth is the main tool for living." - 146

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Three Musketeers

The Three MusketeersThe Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The fearless d'Artagnan befriends three noble Musketeers and together, all for one and one for all, they oppose Cardinal Richelieu and his deadliest spy, the seductive Milady de Winter.

The Musketeers are the most glamorous and dangerous regiment of the King's army, so naturally nineteen-year-old d'Artagnan's lifelong ambition has been to join their ranks. But on his first day in Paris, the awkward young Gascon manages to annoy three of the most prominent Musketeers: Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. In spite of their unpromising beginning, the four men become close friends and together help subvert Cardinal Richelieu's jealous plots against the French queen.

The three Musketeers each have their own secrets and ambitions, humorously shown when the men are separated after a dangerous mission. Aramis is a beautiful fop whose interest in the church waxes and wanes with his mistress's faithfulness; Porthos is an epicure whose dearest ambition is to own a gilded coach; and Athos is a brooding nobleman with a mysterious past.

Our dashing heroes take advantage of rich women and adore violence. The perpetually penniless gallants gamble, drink, and preen because they are magnificent Musketeers - always ready to die for king, honor, or love. Actually, there isn't much they wouldn't throw their lives away on as long as it looks amusingly dangerous. There's a particularly effective scene where they have a picnic under enemy fire just to find a private place to talk.

Their greatest enemy is as deadly and effective, but more subtle about it: she is Milady de Winter, with an angel's face and a devil's heart. We get plenty of scenes of Milady using her wit and beauty to subdue weaker minds (and let's face it, everyone has a weaker mind than this ultimate femme fatale, with the possible exception of Richelieu). She's a spy with an endless thirst for revenge, and a special hatred of d'Artagnan. She's by far the most chilling and resourceful villain I've come across in a long time.

There is plenty of historical detail in this novel, since Dumas uses real people and events in French history (he wrote it in 1844, but the action occurs around 1628). For example, the infamous Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers, was a real person - though Dumas neglects to mention that Buckingham was King James I's lover as well as the lover of the French Queen, Ann of Austria. For the full gossip, read The Queen's Diamonds by historian Roger MacDonald.
Historical hottie, George Villiers
You can't do much better for swashbuckling action and tales of revenge than the prolific Dumas, so pick up my other favorite book by him, The Count of Monte Cristo, next. (There are lesser-known sequels to The Three Musketeers, too: the series is known as the d'Artagnan Romances and includes The Man in the Iron Mask.) For action of another sort, but with treacherous villains that might have given Milady a run for her money, read Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Three Free Books: Overlooked Women

Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland A.D. 1803 Dorothy Wordsworth (1771–1855) - The neglected sister of the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth was a well-educated writer and poet who kept journals of her travels. These were unpublished until after her death, but give insight into her walks with her brother and her keen interest in the natural world.
Dorothy Wordsworth
Dorothy Wordsworth
The Works of Aphra Behn Aphra Behn (1640–1689) - Aphra Behn's plays were criticized during her lifetime because what she wrote wasn't considered proper for a woman in 17th century England (her homoerotic themes may have had something to do with that). This didn't keep her from maintaining herself on her writing after her husband's death. That, and of course the spying she did for the ill-fated monarch Charles II (though he failed to pay her and she landed in debtor's prison after her service). Behn is best known today for her short novel Oroonoko, about an enslaved African prince who gains his freedom. The story is a precursor to Rousseau's idea of the "noble savage," but is actually one of the first English novels to positively depict an African protagonist. There are plenty of good reasons to check out Behn's plays, poetry, and novel.
Aphra Behn
Letters of the Right Honourable Lady Mary Wortley Montagu Lady Mary Wortley Montagu ( 1689–1762) - Lady Montagu was an aristocrat most famous for her marvelous and witty "Turkish Embassy Letters" (that's this collection), though she also stood toe-to-toe with the poets of her day and wrote satirical attacks on Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope (the latter of whom she accused of plagiarizing her verses). The lady had some serious mental muscle. She was also a bit of a snob and estranged most of her friends before her death. But she was self-taught, being denied the classical education of contemporary males, and her letters are worth reading for a look into the lives of aristocrats of her era, as well as for remembering a great writer and poet.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
Lady Montagu

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Poisoner's Handbook

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New YorkThe Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Using cutting-edge science and hard-nosed determination, New York's coroner Dr. Charles Norris exposed poisoners, cleared the innocent, and revived American forensic medicine during the wild days of Prohibition.

This is a fascinating account of the craziness of Prohibition in New York. It reads like the best of true crime, recounting accident, murder, and poison, poison everywhere. In the 1920s poisons lurked in unsuspected places: in radium-infused skin cream, a leaky gas pipe, the speakeasy's martinis - or offered in the soup by your nearest and dearest.

The coroner's office was one rarely occupied by someone with an actual medical license, and the corruption at Tammany Hall ensured that poisoners could escape with their crimes undetected. Enter an age of reform, which made the skillful Dr. Charles Norris the chief medical examiner. Along with his assistant, chemist Alexander Gettler, Norris revolutionized techniques for the detection of poison in the human body and brought much-needed credibility to forensic medicine.

He had plenty of obstacles to fight: malice as well as ignorance combined to make deadly accidents. A well-liked elderly couple found dead in their locked apartment. A man whose entire family went bald before dying. A drunk Irishman whose friends tried - and repeatedly failed - to kill by various means. And, of course, the government itself, adding poisons to industrial alcohol to discourage law-breaking drinkers.

One test of illicit alcohol had disturbing results: "Every drink contained methyl alcohol but they also found gasoline, benzene, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, and acetone. No wonder the newest nickname for the stuff coming from the tenement stills and grocery store moonshiners was 'white mule': the clear liquid, it was said, left the drinker feeling kicked in the head." -p. 159

Blum excels at providing clear descriptions of chemical processes as well as outlining the events and personalities that shaped the tumultuous decade of Prohibition. Norris and Gettler are mostly background characters, outshone by a parade of colorful villains and victims. But their tenacity does them credit, and their hard work and rigorous technique makes them the clear heroes of the story. I learned a lot, and was entertained along the way.

Some of the episodic storytelling reminded me of the wickedly fun Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart, which will give you a botanical view on deadly poisons. For another superb look at historic crime, my favorite book is The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale, about the murder of a young child in Victorian England. Goodreads has a fantastic list for forensics junkies called Forensics: If It Doesn't Walk, We Bring Out the Chalk that includes books about some of the cases Blum touches on in her book.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty

The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone--Especially OurselvesThe Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone--Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A prominent psychologist shares his insights into the causes of humankind's tendency to cheat - something we all do, whether we admit it to ourselves or not.
Diogenes couldn't find an honest man, and neither can Duke professor Dan Ariely - though with a bit of prodding and a few reminders to the better angels of our nature, Ariely thinks we can make improvements. We're neither as good as we hope, nor as bad as we fear: "It's not that 98 percent of people are immoral or will cheat anytime the opportunity arises; it's more likely that most of us need little reminders to keep ourselves on the right path" (p. 38).

Through a series of experiments with volunteers, Ariely tests the causes and limitations of people's propensity toward fudging facts and justifying our bad behavior afterward. His findings are fascinating and challenging, as he concludes that "certain forces - such as the amount of money we stand to gain and the probability of being caught - influence human beings surprisingly less than one might think. And at the same time other forces influence us more than we might expect: moral reminders, distance from money, conflicts of interest, depletion, counterfeits, reminders of our fabricated achievements, creativity, witnessing others' dishonest acts, caring about others on our team, and so on" (p. 238).

Some of the most intriguing findings are in a chapter called "Why We Blow It When We're Tired," where Ariely tests Roy F. Baumeister's ideas about "ego depletion" (aka decision fatigue), which says that willpower is like a muscle we can tire out with use. Baumeister writes about his ideas with John Tierney in Willpower (there is also a fascinating article by Tierney in the New York Times).

The cumulative consequences of cheating (even just a little bit!) are huge for society, and Ariely points to the financial crises of last decade as proof. Ariely's tone is light and fun, but he still warns that "Passed from person to person, dishonesty has a slow, creeping, socially erosive effect" (p. 214). Much of his insight made me remember all the lessons from my parents and pastors, and Ariely makes the point that many religious rituals are designed to prevent a fall down the slippery slope of dishonesty.

The (Honest) Truth is a great companion to Ariely's previous books, Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality. It's a book that may change the way you think - but only if you're honest with yourself.

"Once we start violating our own standards (say, with cheating on diets or for monetary incentives), we are much more likely to abandon further attempts to control our behavior - and from that point on there is a good chance that we will succumb to the temptation to further misbehave." - 130

"High-fashion companies aren't the only ones paying a price for counterfeits. Thanks to self-signaling and the what-the-hell effect, a single act of dishonesty can change a person's behavior from that point onward. What's more, if it's an act of dishonesty that comes with a built-in reminder (think about fake sunglasses with a big 'Gucci' stamped on the side), the downstream influence could be long-lived and substantial. Ultimately, this means that we all pay a price for counterfeits in terms of moral currency; 'faking it' changes our behavior, our self-image, and the way we view others around us." - 135

"We have an incredible ability to distance ourselves in all kinds of ways from the knowledge that we are breaking the rules, especially when our actions are a few steps removed from causing direct harm to someone else." - 184

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks: The Trailer

This is a trailer I made during a project for graduate school. My partner was Breann Kay, and all of the images and sounds are Creative Commons-licensed.

The book is The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, one of my all-time favorite YA novels (reviewed by me at the link). It all starts when Frankie Landau-Banks goes from "Bunny Rabbit" to criminal mastermind during her sophomore year at the exclusive Alabaster Prep boarding school.

We had a great time making this, and I hope you enjoy it (and want to read the book)!

The Code of the Woosters

The Code of the Woosters (Jeeves, #7)The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A coveted silver cow-creamer drops hapless gentleman of leisure Bertie Wooster into the middle of two engaged couples, an incriminating notebook, an insufferable Scottie, and blackmail - in short, a situation impossible for any brain but Jeeves' to unravel.

Bertie's troubles begin with "a sort of silver cow with a kind of blotto look on its face", which Aunt Dahlia needs for her collector husband. But when the cow-creamer is usurped and a friend's engagement threatens to unravel, Bertie springs into action. By the end of an eventful day in the country, Bertie manages to get engaged to two separate girls, join a fistfight with an aspiring dictator, and wind up on the wrong end of the law. Fortunately Jeeves is there to shimmer in and smooth everything out.

Wodehouse one-ups Chekhov's gun with a silver cow creamer and a loaded notebook - two items that both go off by the end of the day. More than once. As complex and funny as the plots are, the real pleasure in reading any Wodehouse novel is his prose. He has a silver ear for getting just the right phrase, piling up slang and classical allusion in a hilarious way that may be imitated but never bettered.

For other humorists known for being quotable and witty, start with Dorothy Parker Stories by Dorothy Parker, or James Thurber's short stories, especially "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" or "The Catbird Seat."

"I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled" - 3

"Aunt Agatha, who eats broken bottles and wears barbed wire next to the skin." - 4

"There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, 'Do trousers matter?'"
"The mood will pass, sir."

"Prismatic is the only word for those frightful tweeds and, oddly enough, the spectacle of them had the effect of steadying my nerves. They gave me the feeling that nothing mattered."

Friday, August 9, 2013

I've Got Your Number

I've Got Your NumberI've Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A breezy comedy of errors that begins with a missing emerald engagement ring and a businessman's stolen phone lead two people to unexpected love.

At a party one night, Poppy Wyatt loses both her antique engagement ring and her cell phone. Desperate to stay in contact in case her ring turns up, salvation appears in the form of a phone in the trash - except it soon turns out that its owner, Sam Roxton, needs the phone back. Their compromise leads to sharing an email inbox, and Poppy can't keep herself from prying into Sam's life - with mixed results.

Poppy's on her way to the altar and Sam's in the middle of a crisis at work, but the purloined cell phone draws them closer together through a flurry of texts and email. It's a romcom plot in book shape, and as fluffy and fun as a meringue.

Techno-haters will likely be annoyed by the amount of time Poppy and Sam spend glued to their phones (even when face-to-face!), but the plot moves forward text by text, smiley face by smiley face. The ending is inevitable but sweet as Poppy's heart is drawn away from her handsome, "perfect" fiancé toward Sam. All in all, it's a great summer beach read for anyone who wants to dive into a modern romance.

Chick lit is somewhat controversial. It has fierce detractors and defenders, like most genres adored and written mainly by women. But I've never let other people's opinions get in the way of a book I want to read!

There are so many fun reads in this genre, of varying levels of depth: Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding is probably the best-known British work of chick lit out there, thanks to the movie version. Kinsella (also British) is best-known for her Confessions of a Shopaholic series (which led to an Isla Fisher film of the same name). You might also try Something Borrowed by Emily Griffin (again, there's a movie).

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Spymaster's Lady

The Spymaster's Lady (Spymasters, #2)The Spymaster's Lady by Joanna Bourne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A battle of wits and wills ensues when French spy Annique Villiers is forced to flee France with British spymaster Robert Greyson Fordham in the tumultuous days of Napoleon's imperial ambition.

Confession: I read this book by accident.

How exactly does that happen? Well....I'm trying to get better acquainted with high-quality romance, an often-maligned genre I'm not familiar with - but which so many Smart Bitches love. I wasn't even planning on reading The Spymaster's Lady at until I got bored one night and saw it available as an ebook from my local library. And then I zoomed through 150 pages in one sitting.

It's an impressive novel by any standards. Bourne is remarkably good at getting the cadence of another language down without it sounding stilted or odd - the dialogue is by far the best I've seen in my limited experience of romances. Bourne masters the rhythms of not only French but also German, all without resorting to dialect or broken English.

What really drew me along was the strong-willed Annique, a woman raised to be a spy from a young age. She reminded me of many of Heyer's French heroines, particularly Leonie in These Old Shades. Annique is charmingly French, bloody-minded, and quick as a whip. She can keep trained spies on their toes even when she's physically disabled. (Think House of Flying Daggers.) She meets her match in Grey, himself a master spy, and they both must team up to escape a villainous enemy. Of course, love and lust follow, though Annique knows it's in her best interest to keep Grey at an arm's length.

If you're a true historical romance lover, you've probably already read this. If you discount all romance as dumb, cliched, and badly written, give The Spymaster's Lady a chance to change your mind. Also, check out Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels for literary criticism of the genre by a pair of true fangirls.

The web review by Smart Bitches, Trashy Books gave it an A-, knocking it down for an unconvincing villain (who doesn't get much opportunity to be really scary or clever). Also yes, this cover is the perfect example of everything that's wrong with generic romance covers.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


PassagePassage by Connie Willis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Psychologist Joanna Lander teams up with a handsome neurologist whose ability to simulate near-death experiences brings them closer to understanding what happens at the threshold of death.

Joanna Lander has been interviewing patients for a while before Dr. Richard Wright arrives at her hospital, and together they make the perfect team to uncover the truth behind near-death experiences (NDEs). Garrulous patients, half-remembered insights, and a labyrinthine hospital are all obstacles to a truth that Joanna begins to dread discovering, especially after she herself is able to experience simulated NDEs thanks to Wright's new technique.

And that's where the plot hangs up. Joanna sprints through the hospital, endlessly avoiding a quack named Mr. Mandrake, feverishly struggling to remember something vague her old English teacher said, and researching the Titanic. It takes a full five hundred pages (this is not an exaggeration) for anything really interesting to happen in spite of all the sturm und drang, which is a frustratingly long time to wait for Joanna to remember a clue or not to get interrupted in the midst of a crucial conversation.

If Willis had cut down the first 2/3rds of the book she would have had a much better novel on her hands, though because it's a Willis book it isn't a complete waste of time. The question of "What happens when we die?" is an ageless one, and I suppose I kept reading to see if Willis would chicken out or have some insight to share. What she comes up with isn't exactly new, but feels profound and hard-earned (or maybe that's because the book was such a slog).

The strongest part of the story is actually Joanna's interactions with a death-obsessed little girl named Maisie. Maisie's fixation on historical disasters makes sense, since she herself is dying by inches as she waits for a heart transplant that may never come. It's tough to write believable and likable kids, but for me Maisie was a success. The other characters are yawn-worthy, with the exception of Mr. Briarley (what can I say? I like random quotations from great literature).

It's not Willis' best effort. She lets her fascination with the workings of her character's day-to-day research get in the way of telling a compelling story. While all the detail about the Titanic is interesting enough, Joanna's flailings could have been trimmed without losing any resonance, and the plot would have gained some much-needed momentum. The turn at the last third of the book was truly shocking, but after that another character seems to go down the same meandering path to gain an insight we've already gotten. Arg! Bellwether is a book with similar workings that's half as long and much more entertaining. If you're a hardcore Willis fan, you may enjoy Passage, but I don't recommend it to anyone else.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Moll Flanders

Moll FlandersMoll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Moll Flanders tells the story of her checkered past as prostitute, con artist, serial bigamist, and professional fibber.

This is one of the big books that you hear about as an English major; Daniel Defoe's book that isn't Robinson Crusoe. Its heroine is a street-wise orphan with nothing but looks and an ambition to live as comfortably as possible. With nothing to sell but herself, she is unlucky in marriage five times, moves from England to Virginia and back again (twice), and then strikes out on her own in the mean streets of 1670s London. She becomes a pickpocket and scammer, and earns the working name "Moll Flanders" (she never divulges her real one).

She's usually one desperate step away from ruin, which in her case means poverty, disgrace, prison, or death. Moll faces her various circumstances with sharp intelligence and one sacred rule: look out for number one. She has multiple children from different fathers but they barely register (in fact, I suspect Defoe may have forgotten about a few of them as he wrote, or else he's purposefully made Moll herself a very forgetful mother). Here's my Moll Baby Watch:

Lover one: No children
Husband one: Two, left with his parents to raise
Husband two: One child, dies
Husband three: Two living, one dead
Lover two: One son living, two dead
Husband four: One son
Husband five: two kids (later, she says only one son, so either she forgot or the other died, and by this time she's 48 and past child-bearing)
The baronet: no children

And apparently I missed a few lovers in my count, because at one point mid-book Moll claims she's slept with 13 men, when I only count 7 or 8 - in Defoe's introduction he claims to have excised a few salacious details, which may account for the different numbers (though she never bothers to reckon up the number of children she's carried and unceremoniously dumped with relatives or strangers).

Moll makes all of the outward appearances of repenting her life of crime, but she manages to profit well by it and seems happy to do so. The best parts are where we get to watch her use her charm and intelligence to manipulate various men. There is a scene that struck me as being very similar to the opening of Sense and Sensibility (the exchange where Mrs. Dashwood argues her pliable husband to give his mother and sisters nothing of his own inheritance): Moll tricks a man into marriage after spreading a false rumor that she is wealthy. After he's secured, she acclimates him to her limited resources by slowly portioning out her savings like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat.

Moll is a fantastic character, conscienceless but still charming. She enjoys sex early in life, but after an early betrayal, Moll uses sex as a means to her ends. She lies easily and often to everyone, even the people she claims to love. She's an ingenious crook: the most entertaining portion of her adventures comes when she talks about her con games; stealing from children, picking pockets, shoplifting, and even stealing valuables from a neighbor's burning house. She protests her regret over her crimes but tells the story with such evident satisfaction that it's clear she regrets nothing but being caught. When she ends up with a comfortable amount of money in the end she shows no sign of wanting to find her missing children. She even has an (accidental) incestuous relationship with a half-brother. No wonder this book has such a scandalous reputation!

It's a witty look into the difficulties of a poor woman's life in the 17th century, and it's amazing that Defoe's treatment of Moll is so even-handed. (Moll claims she is 69 in 1683, and the novel was published in 1722, to give you a sense of historical perspective.) No one's an angel in this book, particularly not Moll, but no one's a devil, either. The novel is a picaresque, so the events are episodic and it may seem meandering to a modern reader. It's packed with realistic detail (and was originally published anonymously as a fake memoir), and I found Moll's brief account of moving around the American colonies fascinating, though other readers may find the abundant details onerous.

In short, worth checking out if you're an English major or if you love worldly picaros who happen to be fallen women.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Stars My Destination

The Stars My DestinationThe Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After being abandoned to die in space, Gulliver Foyle seeks his monstrous revenge on the people who wronged him.

Gully Foyle is a man of no talents and little worth to those around him: "Of all brutes in the world he was among the least valuable alive and most likely to survive." The actions of the Vorga, a ship that receives his distress signal but passes him by, give his life new meaning. He transforms himself into an instrument of revenge, driven only by a bottomless bloodlust.

The world Foyle inhabits is classic science fiction, vivid and strange: the galaxy is heavily populated, full of human half-telepaths and grotesques. Most of the population has a limited ability to teleport from place to place using psychic power (this is called "jaunting"), a leap in technology that has radically shifted culture and the economy. Women are considered property, values are Victorian, and organized religion is an outlawed perversion. There is war between Earth and the Outer Satellites.

In the tradition of sci-fi, the woman are gorgeous and often prey to instalove with the aggressive anti-hero (though they are still fuller characters than what you'll find in, say, Larry Nivens' Ringworld). There is Jisbella McQueen, a rebel that Foyle meets in a pitch-black prison designed to foil jaunting. Then there is Robin Wednesbury, an unfortunate 'telesend' (a half-telepath: she can only broadcast her thoughts, not receive those of others) who Foyle brutally misuses. And Lady Olivia Presteign, the blind daughter of a business tycoon who can only see the infrared spectrum of light.

Add to this an insane traveling circus, the atavistic 'Scientific People', a tigerish facial tattoo, a mysterious element known as PyrE, and weird visions of a burning man, and you have a perfect example of golden age science fiction at its wildest. It's got the retro appeal of the most outlandish original Star Trek episodes, and the reforged Foyle could easily be a rough-edged version of the irresistible Captain Kirk.
Just like this.
Bester is also known for his novel The Demolished Man (1953), the first-ever winner of the Hugo Award, but I think The Stars Our Destination is a better book. The Demolished Man relies too heavily on Freudian pseudo-psychology, though its story about an impossible murder committed in a society of "Peepers" (more telepaths!), has a great starting premise with plenty of noir appeal. (Some silliness with a love interest who undergoes an infant regression knocked The Demolished Man down from a loved-it to a shaky liked-it for me.)

There is a definite connection to be made between The Stars Our Destination and Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. Both feature men on a quest for revenge who happen into large fortunes and a bit of reeducation.

For more excellent old-school sci-fi, don't miss The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. After a mysterious meteor strikes everyone on Earth blind, giant man-eating plants engineered by the Soviets start taking over the world. It's a zombie apocalypse with walking asparagus. But awesome.

"He was Gully Foyle, the oiler, wiper, bunkerman; too easy for trouble, too slow for fun, too empty for friendship, too lazy for love." - 18

"Olivia Presteign was a glorious albino. Her hair was white silk, her skin was white satin, her nails, her lips, and her eyes were coral. She was beautiful and blind in a wonderful way, for she could see in the infrared only, from 7,500 angstroms to one millimeter wavelengths. She saw heat waves, magnetic fields, radio waves, radar, sonar, and electromagnetic fields." - 42

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Brass Verdict

The Brass Verdict (Harry Bosch, #14; Mickey Haller, #2)The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Returning to the courtroom after a stint in rehab, defense attorney Mickey Haller is suddenly handed a murdered colleague's caseload - along with the secrets that may have lead to his death.

Mickey Haller is an L.A. lawyer struggling to get back into business, and his colleague's murder drops a thriving practice into his lap. Eager to jump-start his stalled career, Haller takes on a high-profile murder case, but slowly realizes that his new movie mogul client may be keeping dangerous secrets. As a thriller the story lacks suspense, but there are definitely a few surprising turns, and the procedural aspect will keep legal junkies enthralled.

This is the sequel to The Lincoln Lawyer, but it's easy to follow even without reading the first book (the well-made 2011 film starring Matthew McConaughey, available on Netflix Instant, can catch you up). Connelly is best known for his long-running series starring loner detective Harry Bosch, starting with The Black Echo. Bosch even makes an appearance, a treat for readers familiar with him and his hidden connection to Mickey Haller (a connection Haller is not aware of, so I won't spoil it).

The two characters often team up in the other Mickey Haller novels, too. Haller is a bright legal eagle who sometimes struggles with the morality of defending criminals, but who knows that his role is an essential one in the U.S. justice system. He protects his clients' interests and sticks to a strong code of professional ethics (unlike Bosch, who follows a personal code).

Connelly knows L.A. and the ins and outs of its court system well, having once worked as a crime beat journalist for the Los Angeles Times. He brings in meticulous research and a sense of the way L.A.'s police and courts work.

There are many great thrillers out there, legal and otherwise, that fans of Haller and Bosch will snap up. Naturally, John Grisham  (start with The Firm - there's also a 1993 movie version starring a very young Tom Cruise) is an obvious next choice for those who find they enjoy legal thrillers and have somehow missed out on the powerhouse writer of this subgenre.

Tom Clancy, The Hunt for the Red October will appeal to readers who are drawn to the procedural aspect of Connelly's series, though this time it's not the law but the military you'll read about. (Bonus, there's another 1990 movie version - these high-octane types of stories translate well at the box office.)

Anatomy of a Murder is a classic best-selling courtroom drama about a rape and a murder, written by Robert Traver (hey presto, a 1959 film! Starring Jimmy Stewart!)

And finally, for a more recent thriller: The Blue by Scott Kelly, about a man unable to recognize faces who is being stalked by a vengeful ex-marine. It's definitely on my to-read list.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Books Read in July

Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon - Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon writes about genres, comics, fan fiction, tricksters, writing, maps, and golems in this engaging collection of essays.

Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor - Seraphim reign triumphant over their defeated chimera enemies, and former lovers Karou and Akiva, separated by war and betrayal, see no hope for restoring peace to their fractured world.

I'm Down by Mishna Wolff - Mishna Wolff's father is white - but he acts like he's black, and he wants his awkward daughter to be just as cool as he is.

Writing Reviews for Readers' Advisory by Brad Hooper - An expert reviewer shares the basics of book reviewing for librarians, using examples and lessons gained from his years of experience writing and editing for Booklist.

Two for the Dough by Janet Evanovich - Bounty hunter Stephanie Plum's new job is taking her places she never expected - to strangers' funerals with Grandma Mazur, out onto a rusty fire escape, and under sexy Joe Morelli.

Three to Get Deadly by Janet Evanovich - Stephanie Plum's been handed her most difficult bail jumper yet: beloved candyman Uncle Mo, who everyone loves but no one really knows; a man whose disappearance coincides with bodies piling up along Stephanie's path.

Riveted by Meljean Brook - Airship engineer Annika is searching the world for her exiled sister, but when she discovers that cyborg scientist David Kentewess plans to survey Iceland, she fears he could put everyone in her hidden village of women in danger.

The Pet Project by Lisa Wheeler - A little girl wants a pet, and her parents tell her to go do some scientific research to find out which pet is best.

The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart - In ten days, high schooler Ruby Oliver went from being popular to a social leper; her shrink and a list of fifteen former boyfriends help her begin to understand how exactly she got into this mess.

The Philosophy Book ed. Will Buckingham - A brief, readable introduction to the thinkers and ideas that have shaped the world.

Hard Times by Charles Dickens - Louisa Gradgrind's hard-nosed education, driven by her factory owner father's ideals, fails her and those around her in one of Dicken's shortest works.

Sidekicked by John David Anderson - Drew Bean is a sidekick-in-training with an absentee Superhero - and now that a deadly villain is bent on revenge, Drew and his friends must step up to save not only the good citizens of Justicia, but themselves.

Four to Score by Janet Evanovich - In the most satisfying Plum adventure yet, lingerie buyer-turned-bounty-hunter Stephanie Plum is on the trail of a missing bail jumper and some funny money.

Any Duchess Will Do by Tessa Dare - When the Duke of Halford's overbearing mother forces him to pick a bride at "Spinster Cove," Griffin bribes a lowly barmaid, Pauline, to deliberately fail at her public debut.

High Five by Janet Evanovich - With no bail jumpers on the horizon, Stephanie Plum's side gigs prove more dangerous than her normal work: tracking down her missing uncle, doing odd jobs for the mysterious and sexy Ranger, and desperately avoiding an old enemy.

The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy - Four princes who hate to be called charming start a quest to win fame and honor - and possibly save a kingdom or two.

Hot Six by Janet Evanovich - When her mentor is suspected of killing a crime lord's son, bounty hunter Stephanie Plum's not so sure her friend is innocent - but even less sure she wants to bring him in.

The Brass Verdict by Michael Connolly - Returning to the courtroom after a stint in rehab, defense attorney Mickey Haller is suddenly handed a murdered colleague's caseload - along with the secrets that may have lead to his death.

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester - After being abandoned to die in space, Gulliver Foyle seeks his monstrous revenge on the people who wronged him.

The Spymaster's Lady by Joanna Bourne - A battle of wits and wills ensues when French spy Annique Villiers is forced to flee France with British spymaster Robert Greyson Fordham in the tumultuous days of Napoleon's imperial ambition.

Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe - Moll Flanders tells the story of her checkered past as prostitute, con artist, serial bigamist, and professional fibber.