Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Challenge for Gianna

Recently, after I mentioned the title of a book I had enjoyed ( One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead" by Clare Dudman), my friend Gianna said that she'd never heard of it. In fact, she insisted, she'd never heard of ANY of the books I talked about, and she accused me of making them up. So I thought I'd create a little challenge. I'm going to post a bunch of descriptions. Most will be of books that I've enjoyed (all released in the US, most from major publishers). One will not. Can you spot the thing that's not like the others? No fair Googling!

1. In an alternate, steampunk Victorian England, an opium-addicted special agent must help his assistant and the Queen's chief investigator to find a killer.

2. A secret service agent in love with a married woman gets involved with a covert baseball game between the Secret Service and the CIA, and falls into disfavor when he fails to stop the White House chef from serving Spam to the President and an honored guest.

3. Raleigh Hayes, an upstanding citizen of Thermopylae, N.C., and Mingo Sheffield, his needy next-door neighbor are on a two-week odyssey. They encounter a bizarre cast of characters during their adventures, including Raleigh's criminal half-brother Gates, his prison buddy Weeper Berg, and aging jazzman Toutant Kingstree. Their quest is to recapture Hayes's ailing father, who has escaped from the hospital with a young black woman in a recently-purchased Cadillac convertible, and who has left Raleigh a strange set of tasks to fulfill before a planned rendezvous in New Orleans.

4. Frank has built an elaborate device in a giant clock wherein a different death awaits the wasp put into it behind each number. He believes the death 'chosen' by the wasp predicts something about the future. He kills other animals as well, and uses their bodies to "protect" his territory. He occupies himself with his rituals and an array of weapons to control the island and occasionally gets drunk with his dwarf friend Jamie in the local pub. Frank's older brother Eric is in an insane asylum. He escapes and rings Frank from phone boxes informing him he is coming to visit.

5. A scientist in a surrealist society kidnaps children to steal their dreams, hoping that they slow his aging process. When his little brother is kidnapped, a strongman joins forces with a young girl to rescue the children.

6. A pilot for a cosmetics company crashes the company plane while having sex. This event causes him to be blacklisted from flying in the United States, so he accepts a lucrative offer from a doctor-missionary on a remote Micronesian island to transport cargo to and from the island and Japan. He moves to the island, along with a male Filipino transvestite navigator and a talking fruit bat.

7. When their traveling circus begins to fail, a couple devise an idea to breed their own freak show, using various drugs and radioactive material to alter the genes of their children. The results are a boy with flippers for hands and feet; Siamese twins; a hunchbacked albino dwarf; and the normal-looking baby of the family who has telekinetic powers.

8. Doug Hoover never liked work and he changed jobs and women frequently. Dissatisfied with his current life, he hooks up with Sue Jean and takes off. When he comes to the end of his journey, a wonderful town where everything costs a nickel, he realizes he has died and must decide whether or not to go back in another form. Some of the people he discusses this with are Billy the Kid, the Red Baron, and assorted Wild West and World War I aces. The heaven they are in has cars, dogs, cats, ribs, saloons, and sex.

9. Since the death of his young daughter, a successful children's book author has begun seeing the fantastical creatures from his book come to life. He's also being stalked by a lunatic who claims to be his biggest fan.

10. The president agrees to appear in a series of dangerous illusions for a magician. All seems well, but when the president dies mysteriously hours later, the magician has to flee the country. Pursued by hapless of FBI agents, he falls in love with a beautiful blind woman and confronts an old nemesis bent on destroying him.

11. Recovering from the death of his wife, Jack, an engineer living in Austin, Texas, meets and falls in love with Lily, a perfect beauty except, perhaps, for her wings and clawed bird-feet. Lily is the goddess of the moon and can meet Jack only when the moon is full, and then only if he awaits her outside, stark naked. When this requirement leads to his being arrested for indecent exposure, a motley crew of friends comes to his aid.

12. In the hospital recuperating from an attack by a rabid squirrel, Hap wonders why his best friend hasn't been by to visit. Turns out that Leonard, upset by his boyfriend leaving him, goes to the biker bar and beats Raul's new man up.When the biker turns up dead later that night, it doesn't take long to guess who the primary suspect is--especially with Leonard nowhere to be found. After Hap checks himself out of the hospital and finds Leonard hiding in his bed, they stumble onto a conspiracy involving gaybasher pornography and Leonard's ready to exact some vigilante justice.

13. A split-brained data processor is summoned by a deranged scientist and his granddaughter and told that the scientist has devised a perfect secret code by operating on the brains of selected computer workers. Alternating between these encounters with the scientist, the scientist's granddaughter, Lauren Bacall, Bob Dylan, and various thugs, librarians, subterranean monsters and bully-boys bent on finding out what he knows, there is the story of the ancient walled town at the end of the world.

14. In a near-future city, there's a private dick in a world where asking questions is taboo,leaving memory as his sole resource. Government-distributed mind-altering drugs are everywhere, and each citizen carries to keep track of his or her karma points. Most of the menial work is done by genetically engineered English-speaking, bipedal "evolved" animals, and a kangaroo is gunning for the detective.

15. A highly unorthodox detective and a conjurer by profession whose act has fallen on hard times has cracked some of the city's most notorious murders. Now, he's leading the investigation into a shadowy religious group aiming to overtake London and do away with its oppressive, bourgeois tendencies. His partner—a giant, milk-swigging mute—doesn't appear to be human at all, yet serves as the detective's moral as well as intellectual compass.

I'll post the book list after everyone has had a chance to guess.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

July Reads

Summer is in full blast now (or should I say blast furnace), and any time spent outside causes me to wilt like the delicate flower that I am (shut up, Klaw). In times like this, the only thing that makes sense is to stay indoors and get to reading. 27 books make this month's list, ranging from silly, gross schoolday tales to true stories of some extraordinary women. Both The Tin Ticket and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks should not be missed and Margaret Atwood's In Other Worlds was a sheer pleasure to read. Fictionally, it's safe to say that I'm completely hooked on George Mann and can't wait to get my hands on The Osiris Ritual. For those keeping count, I think this brings my total to 173 books read since January. That's a lot of books!

Anderson, M.T. The Game of Sunken Places

Called to visit an eccentric uncle, 2 boys find themselves competing in a game that no one can (or will) explain. Some adventure, and a couple of likeable characters, but overall an unpleasant bunch of folks to spend time with.

Atwood, Margaret In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination

In this collection of essays and reviews about science fiction, Atwood proves herself to be an savvy writer, a deep reader, and a charming companion. Elegant and wide-ranging, insightful and humorous—it's a delight to spend time in Ms. Atwood's company.

Black, Holly & Justine Larbalestier Zombies vs. Unicorns

Back in 2007, Black and her co-editor Justine Larbalestier began an argument over the relative merits of unicorns (Black) and zombies (Larbalestier). This anthology is the culmination of that argument. The stories are good, but the joy of this anthology is the continual sniping between the editrixes before each story. Favorites include Naomi Novik's “Purity Test,” Scott Westerfield's “Inoculata,” Meg Cabot's “Princess Prettypants,” and Libba Bray's “Prom Night.”

Buford, Kate Native American Son: the Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe

Buford takes an in-depth look at the life of Jim Thorpe. She wades admirably through the layers of myth and legend and gives us a portrait of a greatly gifted man who was victimized by others, but who also caused or worsened many of his problems through his own behavior. Buford also gives a detailed portrait of Native American life at the turn of the century and the government and society's attitudes toward Native Americans.

Cremer, Andrea Nightshade

Teen werewolves, along with some other supernatural elements. It's a new spin on werewolves, and there's some interesting story going on. What there wasn't was any indication that this was “book 1 of some indeterminate number,” so the complete non-ending was intensely irritating.

Durham, David Anthony The Sacred Band: Acacia, the War With the Mein 3

You know, until the little “The Story So Far” introduction, I had forgotten just how many plot threads were left dangling at the non-end of book 2. Re-connecting to the multitudinous characters and plot threads without a re-read is not easy, but the characters are so well done and the plot threads are so intriguing that you get all caught up in them anyway. I would have thought that it would take a much bigger book to bring things to a satisfying conclusion, but Durham manages very well. The story moves so fast it fairly sings, and the conclusion is extremely satisfying.

Irwin, Stephen M. The Dead Path

The first flat-out horror book that I've read in a while, The Dead Path really keeps you hooked. It's fast-moving and admirably creepy (and the book cover glows disturbingly in the dark). After a short stint in London, the bulk of the book takes place in Australia, and Irwin is adept at putting a plot that involves the highly British legends of the Green Man into the more rough-and-tumble Aussie language and setting. One thing—if you have a problem with spiders, you might want to give this one a pass. Seriously.

Kakalios, James The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics

It's no secret what drew me to this book: the subtitle is A Math-Free Exploration of the Science That Made Our World. Math-free? That's for me. Sadly, as Kakalios admits in his introduction, it's not really math-free, merely math-simple (as defined by a physicist). Still and all, it's an enjoyable read. Kakalios is a self-admitted nerd and geek, and he draws his examples and illustrations from comic books. He's got a very accessible, conversational style, and he's not above a bad pun or two. Do I understand quantum mechanics now? No. Am I closer to understanding quantum mechanics? Definitely.

Kinney, Jeff Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules

Greg Heffley is back, and his problems haven't gotten any better. Greg's jokes all backfire, his schemes come apart, Rowley is more popular (especially with the girls), and his older brother Rodrick gets away with everything, including making Greg's life miserable. Do you think Greg will ever realize that 98% of the problems he faces are his own fault? Nah, probably not.

Knowlton, Nancy Citizens of the Sea

A compact compendium of facts about the ocean and its critters chock full of gorgeous photos and fascinating tales. Awesome!

Lockhart, E. The Boy Book

School has started up again, and Ruby Oliver is still a pariah. None of her former friends are speaking with her, she has no boyfriend, the whole school thinks she's a slut, and she's still seeing a shrink. When Kim (her former best friend) goes to Japan for a semester abroad, Jackson (Ruby's ex, who Kim stole) starts to get friendly again. Ruby tries to regain her friends, sort out her feelings for Jackson (and Angelo, and Noel) and get some kind of handle on her life. Ruby's not perfect, but she is funny and a delight to spend time with.

Mann, George The Affinty Bridge

Damn you, George Mann! Zombies & steampunk in the same book, and he makes me like it. The man has some kind of infenal powers. The inaugural adventures of Sir Maurice Newbury and Veronica Hobbes is an excellent introduction to the series. A series of murders in Whitechapel may or may not have supernatural origins, so Newbury is called in to investigate. In the middle of this case, the Queen calls him to the scene of a mysterious airship crash which has taken the life of a Dutch cousin. Things are odd at the crash site, with the pilot missing and the passengers perishing while tied to their seats. Is there a connection between the two cases? Zombies, automatons, a smattering of the occult, laudanum addiction, and the revelation that, unbeknownst to Newbury, Hobbes is also an agent of the Queen, hired to keep an eye on Newbury and his addictions.

Perez-Reverte, Arturo The Sun Over Breda

We finally see Captain Alatriste at war, as Spain tries to hold onto its martial glory in Flanders. Despite his worship of Alatriste and a boy's excitement about war, glory, and honor, Inigo learns that there is no glory in war, and honor only in those who fight unflinchingly, because that's what they said they would do.

Raskin, Ellen The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues

Mini-mysteries set inside a larger mystery. Lots of silliness and wordplay, but very dated.

Russell, Thaddeus A Renegade History of the United States

A very interesting way of looking at American history, and some truly fascinating information. But my interests do not coincide with Russell's, and where he spent pages I would have preferred paragraphs, and where he had a few paragraphs, I would have preferred pages. The radical notion that Russell proposes is that democracy isn't about freedom; in fact, it's often more repressive than other systems of government, but the repression comes from the individuals rather than the government. He also takes pains to point out the freedoms we enjoy today that would not have been possible without prostitutes, drunkards, and organized crime. Fascinating stuff.

Sachar, Louis There's a Boy in the Girl's Bathroom

Bradley Chalkers is the boy everyone avoids, students and teachers alike. He's weird, he's mean, he doesn't do homework, and he doesn't have friends. But then he meets the school counselor, Carla, and discovers what it's like to not be judged and to not have to hate all the time. It's a quick read, with a lot of humor, and Bradley Chalkers will charm your socks off and break your heart.

Schroder, Monika Saraswati's Way

Akash has a gift for math, but his family is in debt and cannot afford to continue his schooling. When his father dies, his grandmother gives him to the man who holds their debt, who forces Akash to work at his quarry. When the first payday comes, Akash's abilities allow him to see that he will never be able to work off the debt, so he runs away. Falling in with a gang of street kids, Akash finds himself challenged: exactly how far is he willing to go to earn the money for tutoring? Fast-moving, and Akash is certainly likeable, although you never really get the sense that he won't succeed.

Skloot, Rebecca The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

When Henrietta Lacks, poor and black, went to the doctor because of pain, a doctor took a sample of her cancer cells without asking her (or even telling her). Henrietta died, quickly and in great pain, and for her family, that was the end of it. For doctors, however, the story was only beginning, because Henrietta's cells lived on, becoming the first strain of cells hardy enough for testing and experiments. Doctors, hospitals, and labs around the world made great breakthroughs (and, not incidentally, a ton of money), while Henrietta's family couldn't even afford health insurance. Skloot covers issues of privacy and ownership and scientific gain, but the heart of this story is Henrietta's family, cut off and wounded, and their rediscovery of their mother.

Starr, Douglas The Killer of Little Shepherds

Although certainly not the first serial killer, Joseph Vacher was the first to be caught using what we would think of as the modern tools of criminal investigation: careful autopsy, scientific testing, profiling, and correlation of data from different areas. Vacher was an odd and interesting killer, but the real fascinating stuff here is the birth of modern forensics and the personalities involved in it. Good read!

Stine, R.L. Rotten School 4: Lose, Team Lose

Early chapter book for kids with no supernatural bits and no horror (except for the gross-out factor of frequent hurling or a gassy bulldog). Bernie tries to turn around the football team's losing season and ends up having to spend time with Jennifer Ecch, who's totally, horribly in love with him. Light and funny with some terrible puns (i.e., Coach Manly Bunz).

Stine, R.L. Rotten School 5: Shake, Rattle, and Hurl

Bernie schemes to win the school talent show by using Chipmunk, the shyest kid in school. Fast-moving shenannigans and a hero who just won't quit.

Stine, R.L. Rotten School 6: The Heinie Prize

Bernie's slave, er, friend Belzer gets a letter telling him his parents are tired of hearing about Bernie, so they're going to pull him out of school. Unwilling to loses a well-trained slave, Bernie pulls out all the stops to make sure Belzer wins the Heinie Prize for outstanding student.

Swiss, Deborah J. The Tin Ticket

Just prior to the reign of Queen Victoria, the British government attempted to solve two of its problems (the threat of losing its Australian colonies due to a lack of colonists and a massive underclass of working poor forced to steal simply to survive) by transporting its prisoners to the far-flung colonies and forcing them to serve their time there. Some 25,000 of these transportees were women (their dependent children were often transported, too), most convicted of petty theft. Their lives in Britain were miserable and cruel, prison was worse, the transport itself was dangerous, and the life awaiting them was no improvement. Swiss uses the stories of a few women to illustrate the whole situation, and does a remarkable job. It's impossible to read about these women's lives and not be moved by their sheer stubborn survival. Awesome book.

Thomas, Scarlett Our Tragic Universe

Intricate character detail and some heady science and philosophy about heaven, hell, and the nature of existence weakened by an insistence that, if a novel has a plot, it is generic and somehow inherently less (artistic, literary, worthy) than one solely concerned with ideas.

Tolan, Stephanie S. Surviving the Applewhites

Jake Semple has been thrown out of every school he's been put into, the last time, it's rumored, for burning the school down. As a last ditch effort, he's sent to the Applewhites, a disgustingly creative family (mom's a writer, dad's a director, the kids are dancers, sculptors, etc.) whose kids are given free reign over their own education. E.D., the only non-artistic Applewhite, is also the only Applewhite who cares about schedules, organization, school, & she & Jake clash from the start. There's a lot of humor in the Applewhite's chaotic household, but there are a lot of jerks, too. Everyone is selfish, forgetful, and neglectful, and dad's an outright jackass. Sure, they all pull together to put on a show out in the barn, but you never get a sense that they have any idea just how awful they've been to Jake, to E.D., and especially to 4-year old Destiny.

Trevino, Elizabeth Borton de I, Juan de Pareja

Juan de Pareja was born a slave in 17th century Spain. When his mistress died, he was sent with the rest of her goods to her nephew, the painter Diego Velasquez. Despite their differences in station, the two men become friends, and eventually Juan becomes an artist in his own right, despite it being illegal to teach a slave any of the arts. Very interesting story, with a lot of detail about life in Spain and Italy during that time.

Yovanoff, Brenda The Replacement

Mackie Doyle is an outcast at school—too pale, eyes too dark, sickly, faints at the sight of blood. He hates being different, but the thing is, he IS different. Mackie Doyle isn't really Mackie Doyle at all—he's a replacement, left behind when the real Mackie was taken away, never to be seen again. Kids have always gone missing in Gentry, but now it's the little sister of a girl Mackie likes and he's determined to get her back. Along the way he meets his own people and discovers the dark secret that links his people and the town of Gentry.