Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

I recommend this book with reservations (see below under "bad language").

One of my book clubs chose this book to read. I assumed it was another dogs-are-great, feel-good book. And it was, but it also was different from what I expected.

In this book our narrator is Enzo, dog of racecar driver Dennis. Enzo is convinced that he's meant to be human and, while embracing the qualities that make dogs superior, he also yearns for the day he will be reborn (as he supposes) as a human and greet his master, Dennis, man-to-man. Meanwhile, Enzo tells the reader about the experiences that Dennis has during their life together. 

The back of the book describes this book in some pretty glowing terms...."The perfect book for anyone who knows that compassion isn't only for humans, and that the relationship between two souls who are meant for each other never really comes to an end" (Jodi Picoult)...."a meditation on humility and hope in the face of despair" (Wally Lamb). Hm. 

This was a very engaging book. One of the things I love about books is that, in all but the most shallow of them, the reader's interpretation can be completely subjective. The reader sees what he/she wishes to see. In this book I saw the story of a man of integrity. Dennis, while being a regular guy, was also kind of a hero, practicing loyalty, restraint, tact, endurance and honesty in the face of extreme provocation. That was really cool. There was a lot of stuff about racecar driving. There was a lot of stuff about the relationship between dog and man. That was all fine. But it was Dennis' integrity that stood out to me. I liked him. It was a sweet book.

Sex: well, yes there were references to sex. No actual sex scenes, per se. Just pieces of interludes that the dog witnessed and noted.
Bad language: too much of it. The dog had a potty mouth. He referred to his bodily functions with crude scatological terms. He used the "f" word three times. I've been thinking about all the bad language I feel I've encountered in the books I've read lately (and on Pinterest when I browse the "everything" or "popular" categories!?!). I generally try to avoid it, but am just as capable as the next person of rationalizing it as acceptable if the book is "good" enough. But the other day I noticed how easily one of those words slinks across my mental landscape when my mind is in neutral. And I didn't like it. So perhaps it's time to renew my efforts at eschewing it altogether, no matter how engaging a book is or how redeeming its message seems to be. Anyway, if you read the book, be aware of the language you'll be encountering. It's not widespread, but it's consistently there. This is why I cannot wholeheartedly recommend this book as a good read.

The Diet Survivor's Handbook by Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel

This was a very interesting book.

I've been convinced for many months of the idea that diets don't work. I've read several books that give basic instructions on how to eat mindfully, and it makes sense to me. Not sure it's actually good for losing weight, but pretty sure it's good for self-confidence and peace of mind.

And for the first chapter or two, this book repeated the same kind of information that I've already read about leaving diets behind, the harm they do, and how to eat mindfully. But the title claims SIXTY lessons in "Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care" and that is what this book delivers, actually. Some of the 60 lessons were derivative of each other (does that phrase make sense?), but many of them were fresh--at least to me. Every "lesson" was accompanied by a writing exercise and suggestions for application. And every lesson was followed by a pertinent quotation, some funny, some just cool. My favorite lesson was #54. 

If you are interested at all in this kind of thing, this book would be a thoughtful addition to your study of leaving diets behind. It was a quick read, worth re-reading the parts that seem most applicable to you.

Sex: no
Bad language: no

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Clean Gut by Alejandro Junger

I recommend this book.

Mostly. This is a follow-up to Junger's book "Clean". Apparently, Dr. Junger has scented big business, cuz this book is part of a much bigger program that has all sorts of components to it. This part is his diet plan. Yup.

Because of his personal story at the beginning of the book and the diet plan at the end of the book (neither of which I was particularly interested in), the "meat" of this book was not hard to get through. Junger explains how most of today's diagnosed ailments can be traced back to an injured/irritated gut. Much of what he said seemed believable. Some seemed to be a stretch. And the very restrictive diet at the end of the book was too extreme for me. I cannot believe that a diet heavy in meat and protein is better than one that includes whole grain and is conservative with animal products. I also don't like diets that call for expensive/unusual ingredients and/or lots of supplements. I'm just not on board with that at this point. Still, the middle of the book was interesting and very worth reading, and I feel even more motivated to take better care when I choose what I eat. I probably should read his first book, "Clean" too. Hm.

Sex: no
Bad language: no

Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss

I recommend this book.

I'm thinking lately that eating fewer refined/processed products would be a lot better for me and my family. So I'm reading a bunch of books on the subject. Awhile ago I read "The End of Overeating" and found it totally fascinating. It started my thinking on this subject. (And so far it's the best book I've found about this kind of thing.)

Michael Moss' book is on these same lines, only it's more of a report, even a history, of the processed food industry and its unhealthy relationship with salt, sugar and fat. It seems like a pretty even-handed report to me. I didn't feel that Moss was viciously condemning the industry, just reporting on the facts that govern it, no matter the efforts made to cut down on the use of these three potentially harmful ingredients. 

It took me awhile to get through. I wasn't expecting so much history and, frankly, I wasn't all that interested in it either. But it was all very informative and adds to the big picture I'm starting to build up in my mind about a lot of the food that we Americans have been blithely eating for decades now. I get tired of hearing about the "obesity epidemic"--I get particularly tired of hearing what the government should be doing about it. Ultimately, I believe that every individual has his/her own choices to make about what to eat. I guess what I would find most valuable is truth in advertising and full, clearly explained disclosure of ingredients. And better education about the effect that salt, sugar, fat and all those chemicals that are included in our processed foods--better education about what these do in our bodies. When once I can understand these things, I like to think that I am smart and powerful enough to make good decisions without big brother weighing in. Hm.

Anyway. It was a good book, both interesting and surprising in some ways too. A great addition to my collection on this subject.

Sex: no
Bad language: no

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

I highly recommend this book.

I really, really like Brandon Sanderson. His books definitely take a commitment, though, because they are detailed and deeply imaginative. He is an AMAZING world builder and it seems to me that he'll never run out of ideas.

This book (a stand-alone), takes place in T'telir, capital of Hallandren, where color and the power of Breath govern life, determine deity, enable the powerful, and define the powerless. We follow the story of Siri, who has left her home to be the wife of the God King, and the story of Vasher, a powerful figure shrouded in mystery and carrying the sword Nightblood, a living entity with its own mind and will. And of course, since this story is written by Brandon Sanderson, there are many other characters, bright, well-developed and filled with life. It's a big book with a complex set of stories all woven together.

Brandon Sanderson is amazing. I am never disappointed by his books. I do sometimes get bogged down in the many, many details contained in his worlds. Like I said before, I sometimes feel his books take commitment to finish. They drag a reader in and take over his/her whole imagination until they're finished. Pretty amazing.

Sex: no
Bad language: no

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

I recommend this book.
I like Georgette Heyer. Her writing is classy and complex. My favorites are, of course, her Regency romances which are incomparable. "Penhallow", however, is one of her mysteries. I haven't read more than 3 or 4 of these. They are interesting, but not as engrossing as her Regencies.

Penhallow is the name of our main character: a crusty, infirm, autocratic old man who takes pleasure in cruelly antagonizing his family, friends and neighbors. He is more than unpleasant; he is vicious. At last, one day before his birthday, Andrew Penhallow is murdered. And this death, which was seen by his murderer as a relief to many, turns out to be the epicenter of a destructive quake for the entire Penhallow family.

This was not your ordinary whodunit where our canny detective fingers the murderer and life goes on happily for all the rest. We read more about the effect of Penhallow's death on his family than we do about the investigation of his murder. In fact, we know who the murderer is from the very beginning! And the murder doesn't even take place until well over halfway through the book!  Since it was obvious from the beginning (and was included in the blurb on the back of the book) that Penhallow was our victim, it seemed like it took FOREVER for him to be murdered. I kept waiting for the mystery to "start". This didn't take away from my enjoyment of the book, though. It was just unexpected.

It was all involved and interesting and very well written. The atmosphere was thick and dark and the setting was beautifully illustrated. It was a long book--457 pages, but it went quickly. I love Georgette Heyer!

Sex: nope
Bad language: nope

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Tuesday the Rabbi Saw Red by Harry Kemelman

I highly recommend this book.

     I forget how much I like this series until I run into a random Harry Kemelman book somewhere and add it to the "to read"shelf....and eventually pick it up and rediscover the quiet, intelligent, balanced, rational and dedicated Rabbi David Small. 

     In this book, Rabbi Small, teacher and guide to the Jews in the small town of Barnard's Crossing, is hired to teach a course in Jewish studies at Windemere Christian College. He believes he knows what he's getting into, but he is unprepared for the modern college student...and for the murder that takes place among the small college population.

     This is an intelligent series. Kemelman's main character, David Small is a Rabbi, which means that one of his main purposes in life is to seek education just for the sake of learning. When we see the world through Rabbi Small's eyes, we get to take a thoughtful and rational view of all things. Rabbi Small, trained in the art of Talmudic argument, has the gift of eminently logical thinking. He states and restates all aspects of whatever problem he is considering and, in his hands, confusing situations suddenly gain clarity. This is what makes him so good at illuminating the solutions to the mysteries that he encounters. 

    Kemelman has a really wonderful way, too, of describing the Jewish community and the temple, and of explaining the Jewish religion and view of the world--all without losing the interest of the reader. I feel like I learn a ton every time I read one of his books. And I'm in awe of his ability to show the small-mindedness that a church community can get caught up in without disrespecting Jews or the Jewish religion in general. So he provides what we imagine is a realistic picture of a Jewish community while preserving the integrity of the Jewish religion. Very cool.

   Also, since this book was published in 1974, it's a little time capsule--filled with Women's Lib, civil rights, civil unrest, the disrespect of the modern college student and the like. So much fun! I really liked it and I think I'll make a better effort at collecting some more Rabbi David Small books. 

Sex: Yeah--it was 1974, (aside: did you know that the early seventies are included in the sociological delineation of the world-changing decade of the 60s? They call it the "long 60s", since the effects of that decade lasted beyond the years from 1960-1970). Anyway, it was 1974, so free love was still in vogue and we get affairs here and there. No descriptions, though and no titillating situations at all. In addition, these sexual situations are not glamorized at all. I do appreciate that. 
Bad language: nope

J.R.R. Tolkien: a biography by Humphrey Carpenter

     I highly recommend this book.

     Can you read the blurb on the front cover? It says, "Carpenter has an eye for the magic in what's pedestrian, and in his charge a 'quiet life,' such as Tolkien's, becomes an in-depth act of relish." (Paul West, Washington Post)

     This book was a lovely portrayal of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien--a quiet, brilliant man and the creator of a brilliant set of books that started with the creation of a quiet, brave little Hobbit.

Here's the author's note from the front of the book:

"This book is based on the letters, diaries, and other papers of the late Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, and upon the reminiscences of his family and friends.
     "Tolkien himself did not entirely approve of biography. Or rather, he disliked its use as a form of literary criticism. 'One of my strongest opinions,' he once wrote, 'is that investigation of an author's biography is an entirely vain and false approach to his works.' Yet he was undoubtedly aware that the remarkable popularity of his fiction made it highly likely that a biography would be written after his death; and indeed he appears to have made some preparation for this himself, for in the last years of his life he annotated a number of old letters and papers with explanatory notes or other comments. He also wrote a few pages of recollections of his childhood. It may thus be hoped that this book would not be entirely foreign to his wishes.
     "In writing it I have tried to tell the story of Tolkien's life without attempting any critical judgements of his works of diction. This is partly in deference to his own views, but in any case it seems to me that the first published biography of a writer is not necessarily the best place to make literary judgements, which will after all reflect the character of the critic just as much as that of his subject. I have however tried to delineate some of the literary and other influences that came to bear on Tolkien's imagination, in the hope that this may shed some light on his books."

It was an interesting and well-written book. I learned a lot about J.R.R. Tolkien and also quite a bit about the famous Inklings and C.S. Lewis. I learned a little about England and Oxford too. And I really think I need to read Silmarillion. Soon.

Sex: none
Bad language: none

The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis

     I unreservedly recommend this book.

    I really like C.S. Lewis. I love his fiction and I've enjoyed most of what I've read of his non-fiction. Of course, I haven't read even close to all of it. C.S. Lewis' non-fiction is not the kind of stuff I can hurry through, and I tend to wait until I'm in the mood to use my head before I pick up one of his books (or anything else that has teeth). Of course, lots of times I just want to coast and not think about my current book. But I'm not sure that's actually good for me as often as I do it. I've been reading more substantial things lately and not only am I spending more time thinking about meaningful things, but I think I've also been more productive and more in touch with the spiritual things in my life. Hm.

     The Abolition of Man is not a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, but it is a series of connected lectures. It is subtitled "Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools". I thought about what our government requires our kids to be taught today in school and how Lewis' observations and arguments apply to us now.

  Not all of Lewis' logical arguments made complete sense to me. (I'm not nearly as educated, nor so intelligent). I did, however, come out with several ideas of value. C.S. Lewis argues against the debunking of traditional values in the name of intellectualism and on the path to (imagined) human ascendance to the absolute conquest of nature. He logically argues that without traditional values we become creatures ruled by pleasure or by the pleasure of others (i.e. those who are in positions of power or influence over us). He also argues that when we eschew traditional values (he calls that canon the Tao) in the education of our children we make them "easier prey to the propagandist". Lewis assures us that "a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head." (p. 14). I'm sure he had Hitler's disastrous (and successful) propaganda in mind when making this argument (but I can see our potential weakness to ANY propaganda--consider today's politically correct agenda and how vulnerable we all are to having our opinions taken over by the opinions continually put forward in the media and at school). I seem to see the effect of this kind of education in the morality of the rising generation. They don't seem to take any stands on moral issues independent of the current populous thought. What they learn in school becomes their reality. They don't seem to think for themselves--they ape current cultural values. What they can't see or touch they won't validate. (Etc etc) Are they "Men Without Chests", subject to the kneading of their educational masters? Hmmm.

     Finally, Lewis argues that when we abandon the Tao and replace it with man-made "values" in the name of prevailing against nature, we set the stage for the abolition of our own species. He says:

"The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves. The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary color, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in."

Here's a less illustrative (but more substantial) statement of this same idea:

"We have been trying, like Lear, to have it both ways: to lay down our human prerogative and yet at the same time to retain it. It is impossible. Either we are rational spirit obliged forever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own 'natural' impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery."

     Interesting stuff, with plenty of pithy quotables such as: "The schoolboy . . . will believe two propositions: firstly, that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional statement of the speaker, and secondly, that all such statements are unimportant."

Or this one: "It may even be said that it is by this middle element [magnanimity/sentiment] that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal."

I like this one; it seems particularly applicable to people today: "Their skepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people's values; about the values current in their own set they are not nearly skeptical enough . . . A great many of those who 'debunk' traditional or (as they would say) 'sentimental' values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process." 

And lots, lots more. I'll end with his final statement (which I like a lot): "To 'see through' all things is the same as not to see."

Sigh. I like this kind of thing. And, my apologies to anyone who has managed to keep reading to this point, but writing about this book has really helped me clarify my own thoughts about it; it's one of the reasons I love writing. So if you're still reading, thanks! And read the book yourself. Then sit down and write me a long email. I'm interested in what YOU hear in the book. Happy reading!

Sex: nope
Bad language: nope

A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable

    I cannot recommend this book. 

All too often I end up reading books that I don't feel I can recommend on this blog. You know, when you are a reader, you run into the really good ones as well as the really not-so-good ones. And generally I don't post the not-so-good ones at all. But I feel kind of conflicted about that: To me this blog should be about good books that one could recommend to anyone. You've probably noticed that from time to time I do post books that I cannot fully recommend as "good books"--sometimes I overlook the yucky stuff if I really like the book (I know, I know.). But there are quite a number of books that I don't post because I can't recommend them at all as "good books". But! I do think it's useful to post reviews of books that I don't recommend--negative reviews can be just as useful as positive reviews, don't you think? I know that when I look up product (or book) reviews I read a bunch of the positive stuff, but I also make sure to read a lot of the negative reviews too. It helps me get what I hope is a balanced perspective. SO, from now on I'll post books that I've read and wished I hadn't, I'll post books I read and liked but can't wholly recommend, and I'll post books that I started but couldn't finish because they were objectionable to me. And, of course, I'll continue to post the books that are unobjectionable--some better than others, of course, but all "clean".

     This book falls in the "books that I've read and wished I hadn't" category.

    The premise of this book was a good one: April Vogt, Continental furniture specialist and employee of Sotheby's New York auction house, is summoned to Paris to evaluate an apartment full of valuable furniture and artwork.  On her first day in the apartment, April also discovers the journal of the apartment's owner--renowned courtesan Marthe de Florian. She (April) begins to read it to establish provenance for the many valuable pieces in the apartment (especially the life-size painting of our courtesan), but quickly becomes fascinated with Marthe and her story.

     Sounds good, doesn't it? But it was really just a series of sad and dirty stories. April's husband cheats on her. She cheats on him (with a guy who is cheating on his girlfriend). Marthe sleeps with everyone and schemes in every way she can think of to get money. It was a book full of amoral people and distasteful choices. No happy endings here. A very "modern" book. I was disappointed.  Give it a pass if you prefer your stories uplifting and clean.

Sex: Yup. No titillating scenes, though. This wasn't a romance.
Bad language: yup.

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

     I highly recommend this book.

     I bought this book ages ago on some clearance table at some book store--you know, a classic that I planned to read "soon". And of course it's been sitting on my "to read" shelf for several years (I like to think that I'm just savoring all those books--anticipating the delight of reading each one of them when I get around to it. My daughter thinks it's more accurate to say that I'm just procrastinating the good stuff in favor of the more lightweight stuff I tend to accumulate on my Kindle. Ha.). But the book club here in my neighborhood chose it for this month's book, so I finally sat down to read it. I'm in the middle of a pile of books right now...can't seem to settle to the one that I'm "in the mood" to read. I'm tired of some of the "fluff" I've been reading lately and so I'm hopping back and forth between some more substantial stuff that requires a bit more concentrated attention. I finally had to just make myself sit down and finish this one so I could participate in our book club discussion.

     This is the story of one man, Wang Lung, and his struggles, his beliefs, his family, his strengths and weaknesses. We meet him as he marries and we follow him until his life ends--when he's an old man, the proud father of 3 sons (and 2 daughters too, but they, of course, are nothing to be proud of). The story is set during the reign of the last emperor, right before the revolution that changed China forever.

     I really liked the book. I don't think I can write anything that hasn't been written before--it's a Pulitzer Prize winning book, after all, a "great modern classic". So I'm sure my thoughts just scratch the surface. One of the themes that I found most interesting, however, was how Wang's poverty strengthened him, but his wealth weakened his sons. I think a lot about this idea as it applies to kids today. Most parents want their kids to have stuff that they themselves didn't have. They don't want their kids to feel deprived, they want to provide comfort and ease, and our culture is particularly indulgent when it comes to children (we buy them stuff, we take them places, we dress them up, we pay for sports, we pay for lessons, etc....), but is this really good for kids? I'm not sure. I don't think it's particularly good for kids to be always told "we can't afford it"--I think it might make money overly important to them and give pursuit of wealth a disproportionate importance. And I think it's hard for well-off parents to tell their kids "no" when they have no concrete reason to--making it all too easy for kids to end up getting way too much of what they ask for. That is if parents even think these things through BEFORE they have their kids. I know I didn't think a whole lot beyond allowance, making the kids save, encouraging them to get jobs after each one turned 16, etc. Just the basic stuff.

I was visiting yesterday with a friend from Malaysia. She talked a lot about financially helping her brother, her nephews, her mother. In her culture, the parents support the kids until the kids can support the parents. The family members that have money share with the ones that don't, until those family members make good and can contribute as well. Makes it a give-and-take family relationship that lasts a lifetime. That's not how we do it here. Many (most?) American kids take take take for their entire childhood and they aren't really expected to give back. Parents are expected to save, to invest, to have a retirement, to make themselves comfortable and hopefully to leave something to the kids after they die as well. I wonder if that lifestyle turns kids into permanent entitled takers. Of course, sometimes kids do end up having to help their aging parents. But it's not the desired outcome for either parents or kids in our culture. It's a very interesting idea to me. Makes me think that I probably should have/should now encourage my kids to financially help each other. As the elders get financially stable, perhaps they should help the ones still in school? Instead of every man for himself, it should be share and share alike? That's a strong Christian principle, you know. Hm. Don't know if it's a good idea for families or not. Deserves more thought on my part, for sure. Anyway, it was just one of many interesting themes in The Good Earth. 

Sex: It's there, of course, and part of the plot revolves around Wang's "lustful" period of life. But it is not titillating; it's simply an accepted part of life.
Bad language: nope

Monday, May 19, 2014

A Wanted Man by Lee Child

Yup, finally I have begun reading the Jack Reacher books. I have a friend who recommended them to me. I saw the Tom Cruise version of Jack on Netflix one time (little man Tom Cruise as very big man Jack Reacher? Really? Hm.). And I even bought this book at Costco and stuck it on my shelf a few months ago. But now my son has started reading the series and I kinda want to see what he's reading. He's all grown up, so it's not like I gotta check these things out for his protection, but I'm curious... And he'll be flattered that I'm reading what he's reading. Ha.

So, I started with "The Affair" (which I cannot recommend because of the gratuitous sex that it contained), but my son assured me that most Jack Reachers don't have that stuff. I think he's read, like, one or two, so he probably can't really assure me anything about "most" of them, but I thought I'd try another. So I picked up this one from my shelf (I had kind of forgotten it was there!). And it was free of all sex scenes. So there you go.

In this book our Jack, who apparently is capable of vanquishing any bad guy, hitches a ride with the wrong group of people. He gets in the car with 2 friendly men and one quiet woman and gets himself into a very complicated situation. Secrets, adventure, danger....and you know what I mean.

I liked the book. And I'll read more (unless they're more like "The Affair" than they are like this one). I like invincible heroes. I like spy stories. I like cops and robbers, especially when the cops win (unless the robbers are more worthy, of course :D). It was a very engaging book.

Bad language: a sprinkling of cursing--no f-words (which for me are the deal breakers)
Sex: none

It Had To Be You by Susan May Warren

Here's another Christian romance. And, due to my heightened sensitivity to reformed rakes (a la Candice Horn), I can't help but observe that our hero in this story, Jace Jacobsen, is a reformed rake. Yup. There's that element again, and this time in a Christian romance. Of course, in Christian romances, the hero can "find Christ" (and I don't meant to sound cynical here, because I do believe in repentance and God's forgiveness, through the atonement of Christ) and be all cleaned up. As long as he can forgive himself.

Which is our Jace's challenge in this book. He feels trapped by the image that he's inadvertently created for himself. He's a hockey player, a star hockey player--a violent star hockey player. He's an "enforcer", in fact which means (I gathered) that he's a particularly violent hockey player. But his health and his personal peace of mind, his honorable manhood is in danger if he persists in his current lifestyle. Can he really change?

And, by the way, can he hang onto our likeable but self-effacing Eden Christiansen's love? I liked Eden too. She was interesting and had her own misconceptions to overcome.

There are many other characters that have stories to tell in this novel--it's one in a series about the Christiansen family and we get to meet many of their friends along the way. They have their own struggles.

This was an engaging novel with some substantial messages to share. It's clearly a religious book, but not too heavy-handed. It also didn't skate over Christian principles with facile conclusions and catchy sayings. Well, not too many catchy sayings, anyway. Hm. It was not the best, nor the most memorable book I've read, but it was sweet in many ways and I enjoyed reading it.

Bad language: nope
Sex: nope

A Change of Heart by Candice Horn

Sorry about the Amazon image over there. I read this as an ebook and so couldn't easily take my own photo of the cover. So.

I think I like Candice Horn. She writes "clean" Regency romances. Here's the library journal summary of this one: "When the unconventional spinster Lady Mary Haviland offers to help the confirmed rake and libertine Jack Raeburn, Marquess of Pemberton, find a wife, she has no idea that she and her money will soon become the object of his pursuit-with surprising results."

Why are rakes and libertines so stereotypically attractive in Regency romances? Why does the coupling of the innocent woman and the experienced man still persist in appearing as the "ideal" in these so-called clean romances? I did NOT like Jack Raeburn. When he's misunderstood and jilted by his true love, he goes on a harlot binge, a bimbo bender. Really, he just goes to bed with as many women as he can get. YUCK. Who wants a guy like that? He's not just used, he's practically used up. Ew. He was a user from top to bottom and yet he was our hero, the match to our damaged and love-starved heroine. Sigh. Not my idea of romance.

It was an engaging book with a thoroughly soiled male protagonist. I guess I can swallow a less tarnished reformed rake from time to time (what Regency hero isn't a reformed rake? I'm going to start noticing this a little more often), but I couldn't fall in love with our Jack. Ick.

Oh, I'll read more Candice Horn. Perhaps I should stay away from the "The Regency Rakes Trilogy", though. I'm not sure this one could really qualify as "clean".

Bad language: nope
Sex: Well, yes. Lots and lots. But absolutely no titillating descriptions, no sex scenes really. We were told about Jack's behavior, not shown it. I felt bad for all the females that Jack burned through. It just felt so ugly.

Havoc by J. Phillips Oppenheim

E. Phillips Oppenheim, another of my favorite classic suspense novelists. I'm sure I've mentioned before that all of his novels (or at least many of them) can be obtained for free electronically--they're part of the Gutenburg project. He's prolific; he's written over 100 novels (and not all of them suspense, either). I spent about 5 minutes the other day downloading about 15 of his novels, so I'll  be making my way through all of them.

The main action in this book takes place in London and involves the frantic pursuit of a document that will certainly start a war. Critical alliances must be made, and only this document will make them possible. Our hero, Bellamy, (King's spy) and his lady friend, the divine Louise, involve themselves in intrigue and deception to rescue this document. On the other hand, our everyman, brave Laverick, finds himself accidentally involved, and will aquit himself with honor, we hope. And survive it all too, we hope. Romance, adventure, danger, international intrigue...it's all here. I love E. Phillips Oppenheim.

Bad language: nope
Sex: nope

Cover Her Face by P.D. James

Another P.D. James. I'm pretty sure I've read this one before, too. I was checking out a bunch from the library at one time and I'm sure this was among them. P.D. James is pretty memorable. Of course, this IS me we're talking about, so I didn't remember who the killer was. One of the lovely side benefits of an iffy memory: you can read the same mysteries over and over and still feel surprised at the endings (given enough time between readings, of course. I'm not totally without a brain). Ha.

This one starred the unpleasant, lovely and secretive Sally Jupp who, from the beginning of the book, you know is gonna get herself killed. Poor, crafty Sally. She really shouldn't have. Adam Dagliesh is in charge of finding her killer and he will. He always does. Darn it.

This was in the classic style of P.D. James. I've already gone on about her in my earlier blog about Devices and Desires, so I won't add to that. It was a good book. I enjoyed it.

Bad language: none or very little
Sex: nope

Assignment in Brittany by Helen MacInnes

Here's the teaser from the back of the book:

"Hearne looked at the man in the hospital bed and saw himself....Even Matthews, his commanding officer, had been fooled by the Frenchman's resemblance to Hearne. But once Matthews knew the truth, he decided to make good use of it. So Martin Hearne would become Bertrand Corlay, right down to the birthmark and the missing tooth. Then he would go 'home' to Brittany--and try to stay alive long enough to win the desperate game he was about to play."

We can add: "....and get the girl." Because there's always an aspect of romance in a MacInnes political thriller. Which I really like.

I didn't like this book as well as I like some others of Helen MacInnes'. For one thing, the premise made me on edge to begin with--going into a dangerous situation almost totally blind. From the very beginning of Hearne's stay in Brittany it became clear that there were big and important things that he didn't know about Corlay, things that could all too easily become fatal for our hero. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop through every single chapter. I guess that's what suspense is all about, right? But it made me uncomfortable, so this ended up being a book that I kept on picking up and putting down, until about halfway through when I became so drawn in that I didn't stop until it was all resolved. Oh, and the ending, well, it was a little bit ambivalent. Sigh.

Still, Helen MacInnes is, as you know, one of my very favorites. And I have a big pile of hers waiting for me--all found during my latest used bookstore orgy. I'm looking forward to them all. Of course, you'll be seeing them all too. Soon.

Bad language: none (or if there is any, it's very mild and forgettable)
Sex: none

The Saint Meets His Match by Leslie Charteris

I bought this book in that same kitschy little Boise, Idaho store that I mentioned in my last blog post (I think). I paid far too much for a used book, but I couldn't resist. I have to admit that part of its charm is that it was once the property of the Bibliotheque Municipale de Villepreux and I so enjoy picturing its possible journey from its nascent Great Britain to France. And was it in the "English language" section of that bibliotheque? And how did it get to an obscure little store in Boise Idaho? Anyway, I like The Saint. Mostly.

The Saint is in the best tradition of classic heroes--devil-may-care, attractive, honorable, immortal (can't kill that guy no matter what happens to him), clever, witty....oh, yes. In this book he meets a strong, angry, beautiful girl who is caught up in some bad behavior...but justified bad behavior (if there is such a thing). Can he help her banish her demons? Can he beat the bad guys? Will he romance the girl? Will she be his in the end?

This is a novel length adventure, by the way. And I found it difficult to get into, for some reason. I guess it moved a little bit slowly at first. And, I gotta say, The Saint's clever, flippant, daredevil approach to everything...well, it's easier to enjoy in small doses. I really did enjoy the collection of Saint short stories that I read, but this one was not quite as enjoyable. Still worth reading if you like that kind of thing (and I pretty much do), but not as engaging as many other things that I've read.

Bad language: nope
Sex: nope

Gideon's March by J.J. Marric

I found this book in some little store full of "vintage" kitsch somewhere in Boise Idaho. The shop was stuffed with overpriced junk, mostly, but different things appeal to different people, of course, and I found a few books that I considered a sort of treasure and I'm sure others find their nuggets as well...

But of course when I got home I found that I already had this book, only with a much less interesting cover. Sigh. I need a better portable system of remembering what books I own, since my own built-in portable system (my memory) doesn't seem to be working properly. Fortunately, that faulty memory also allows me to enjoy re-reading books, especially if there are years between readings. Ha. So I read this one again and I didn't remember anything about it. Nice. (And a bit alarming at the same time.)

I really, really like Commander George Gideon. I think he might be my favorite literary policeman. He's stoic, pensive without being maudlin, impressive without being arrogant. He's smart, experienced, a good family man, a considerate boss. I just like him. In this particular series installment, Commander Gideon is put in charge of preparing his force for a summit conference to take place in London. Important statesmen must be protected from possible attacks...and at the same time regular crime investigation must continue to take place. I thoroughly enjoy J.J. Marric's Gideon books.

Bad language: possibly a few mild curse words...but maybe not. I don't remember any.
Sex: nope

Devices and Desires by P.D. James

     I am going through a mystery/suspense phase, I guess. I tend to be a streak reader. If you follow my reviews, you will probably have noticed this.

     P.D. James is one of my favorite mystery authors--you know I especially like police procedurals--but I have to be in the mood to read P.D. James because she's rather dark.

    In this tale, starring Commander Adam Dagliesh, Adam inherits his aunt's windmill and the attached cottage on a sparsely inhabited stretch of Norfolk coastland. He isn't sure what he plans to do with it, but he takes some time off and travels there to stay for awhile, sort through the house and decide what its future will be. Of course, this book is a criminal mystery book, so while Adam is exploring his house, the coast, and getting to know his neighbors, there's a serial killer on the loose. Aaaaand lotsa other stuff going on. Because it's P.D. James and nothing is simple.

     It was a good mystery with lots of diverse elements that all resolved themselves in the end. As usual in a P.D. James book there's at least one perverted sexual relationship, there's plenty of bleak scenery, Adam is pensive and thoughtful and a little conflicted, and there are a series of grisly and tragic murders. Every P.D. James novel is poetic, stark, richly worded (can both of those things be present in the same book?), complex and completely engaging. This was, as usual, an enjoyable read.

Bad language: mild and infrequent
Sex: several characters are having sex outside of marriage and none of it is pretty (or titillating). P.D. James only does sex when it's pitiful or perverted. And not detailed.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Coffin Tree by Gwendoline Butler

I'm kinda tired of reviewing Coffin books. So here's my lazy Amazon-contributed summary:

"Two of [John Coffin's] policemen have died in apparent accidents. Coffin, suspicious, dispatches Phoebe Astley, a onetime paramour, to a clothing boutique suspected of laundering money, as part of an undercover operation. Then a charred body found near a strange tree seems to have belonged to the wife of one of Coffin's dead cops. But little is what it seems to be. Phoebe disappears and an unattached head (one item in a large body and body-part count) is sighted floating in the Thames. The frightened woman in charge of the store and the secretive pensioner who labors on artistic artifacts beneath the eerie tree are just two of the many odd souls who inhabit this brooding tale. Butler has fun teasing us with the identities of the dead, and Coffin's actress wife Stella Pinero, who manages to be both likable and thoroughly theatrical at the same time, adds some levity to these dark proceedings."

I liked this book. I really like the relationship between Coffin and his wife Stella. I also liked the explanation of the setting of these books that the author gives us at the beginning of the book. Here's what she said, "One evening in April, 1988, I sat in the Toynbee Hall in the East End of London, near to Docklands, listening to Dr. David Owen (now Lord Owen) give that year's Barnett Memorial Lecture. In it, he suggested the creation of a Second City of London, to be spun off from the first, to aid the economic and social regeneration of the Docklands. The idea fascinated me and I made use of it to create a new world for my detective, John Coffin, to whom I gave the task of keeping the Queen's Peace there." It was so nice to get an explanation about the Second City that we keep hearing about in these books!

Yup. I like the series. Interesting, engaging, entertaining...they're good.

Bad language: don't think so
Sex: nope

The Whisper of Shadows by J.L.H. Whitney

The cover of this book promises "Gothic terror and romantic suspense in the Victoria Holt-Mary Stewart genre--the compelling story of a desperate girl caught in an unholy web of evil."

Ooooh. Sounds promising, doesn't it?

I have a few questions for you, dear reader: When was the last time you found a moody, violent, surly man irresistible? Could you allow yourself to fall in love with a man you suspected of murder or would you (sensibly) run like crazy in the opposite direction? Do you find pain from the man you love just as acceptable as pleasure? When you are warned to stay away from a psychotic killer, do you go to his house when you are pretty darn sure he's not home or do you (sensibly) stay far, far away? When a string of murders take place in the neighborhood you are staying in, do you stay safely in the house or do you go for long walk alone in the surrounding woods?

If you are sympathetic towards a heroine who chooses the risky behaviors optioned in the above questions, then you will identify with our main character in this novel, librarian (unconsciously beautiful librarian, doncha know) Ruth Carson. So dive in and enjoy this book.

As for me, I'm a cautious soul. I found Ruth Carson a bit exasperating. Our author, J.L.H. Whitney, is compared to Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart. Of course, you know that I LOVE Mary Stewart and consider her to be the queen of this genre. I don't think J.L.H. Whitney measures up. I spent a few hours entertained by this story, but I probably won't read J.L.H. Whitney again. 

Bad language: nope
Sex: nope

Agent In Place by Helen MacInnes

I so enjoy these Helen MacInnes novels! This one was written 1976 and chronicles yet another cold war incident (fictional, of course).

Here we meet physically unexceptional (just right for a secret agent, right?), charming, ultra-competent British secret agent Tony Lawton. His friendship with Tom Kelso and his beautiful wife, Thea, both of whom become accidentally involved in a Russian plot against NATO, lead our Tony into an affair that he may not escape from alive. (Did you see how long that sentence was?)

I remained totally engaged in this story despite the fact that it was an account of a relatively small incident. Seems like so many political suspense stories usually involve world domination or destruction or something...but this one is about Russian spies and their attempts to infiltrate NATO. Nothing world-ending about it, but still very interesting. I love Helen MacInnes!

In fact, I am to the accidental-double-buying phase in my collection-building process of all of Helen MacInnes' books. Yup. Much to the delight of my daughter (who gets my accidental doubles), I now have read enough Helen MacInnes to kind of lose track of what I already own. Time to start putting lists on my phone. I keep thinking I'll remember what I've read, but I walk into a used bookstore and my mind goes blank. (Same thing happens to me in grocery stores--when faced with all those choices, I totally forget what I came for). Ha!

Bad language: no
Sex: no

Cracking Open A Coffin by Gwendoline Butler

Wow, that's a teeny, tiny picture. And this is another John Coffin book.

Just for fun, here's Amazon's summary of this one:

"The latest of the accomplished Commander John Coffin mysteries, after Coffin on Murder Street , revolves around the disappearance of two students from the university of the Second City of London. Although Amy Dean and Martin Blackwell have been missing only two days, Coffin, head of Second City police, starts to investigate, impelled by the still unsolved murder of student Virginia Scott the previous year. Amy and Martin's friends are markedly reluctant to offer information, as are the folks at the home for battered women and children where both Amy and Virginia did volunteer work. Not so restrained is Amy's father, former policeman James Dean, who is convinced his daughter is dead and points his finger at Martin. Formerly Coffin's partner, Dean is adept at finding ways to intrude on the investigation. Adding to the pressure on Coffin are anonymous phone messages warning him to "watch your back" and "tidy up your private life"--presumably a reference to his relationship with actress Stella Pinero. Butler deftly integrates the past and present into Coffin's personal and professional lives, portraying him as a pensive character as ready to turn a critical eye on himself as on those whose lives are caught up in the tragedy he hopes to untangle."

I liked this John Coffin offering best of the ones I've written so far. It was a great plot with an unexpected bad guy. And I'm liking our Stella Pinero more and more.

Bad language: I think there were 2 f-bombs in this one (or was it one of the others? I read 4 of them right in a row and some of the details have kind of run together )
Sex: Yes, our John and Stella are definitely sleeping together. No details, no sex scenes.

Why We Get Fat And What To Do About It by Gary Taubes

First, let's just acknowledge that this guy, Gary Taubes, is a journalist, yes, a reporter. Not a doctor. Or a dietician. Or a fat guy. He's a skinny, award-winning health reporter. Just saying.

You will like this book if you subscribe to the idea that carbs are fat-creating, cancer-causing, bad little gremlins that should be avoided at all costs, and that protein, fat and fiber are good things that promote leanness and all-around good health. If you find this to be true, then you will eat this book up (ha ha).

If, on the other hand, you are a proponent of the low-fat, high-carb, all vegetable/fruit, animal-proteins-are-toxic-to-humans idea (a la "The China Study"), you will either hate this book OR you will love to totally disagree with it.

It never fails to amaze me how studies and statistics can be used to "prove"just about any point of view. I guess my current conclusion is that you can't really believe anyone and we're all on our own in figuring out what works best for us. If Mr. Taubes is to be believed, the entire American health system is wrong when they recommend low-fat diets, when they encourage avoidance of red meat and consumption of whole grain bread, crackers, etc. Oh! And when they recommend regular exercise. Wow.

I'm not really feeling quite as cynical about Gary Taubes' conclusions as all that. Actually, I think he's probably right about some things. I read lots of diet books, though, and they're all sure that their conclusions are THE conclusions. It's hard to figure out what the truth really is. And let's remember that science changes its mind from time to time, also. So we are told this and that...sigh.

This was an interesting book. I'm glad I read it. If you're into diet literature, you'll want to add this to the diet soup in your head.

Bad language: none
Sex: nope!

In Spite of Thunder by John Dickson Carr

Another vintage mystery...this one was published in 1960 and stars the celebrated and intelligent Dr. Gideon Fell.

Hoping to prevent a murder, Mr. Ferrier, husband of the beautiful Eve Ferrier, (who could be a murderess herself), calls in Dr. Gideon Fell. Can he prevent the murder Mr. Ferrier fears? Does Eve Ferrier's past have anything to do with the future that her husband fears? And can Dr. Fell's friend Brian Innes keep young Audrey Page from getting in the middle of the whole dangerous situation?

Well, I found this book confusingly convoluted. I also did NOT like Audrey Page, who I think was supposed to be one of the most sympathetic characters in the novel. I found her to be spoiled and irritating, always running off when she was told to stay put and stay out of danger (duh! I've got no patience with heroines who run into danger. Who does that?). Too often the tone of the book seemed a little bit hysterical and, to top it off, I really didn't care for Dr. Gideon Fell. I don't think he inspired confidence. He was so self-effacing that I found myself agreeing with him when he claimed to be scatterbrained. Hm.

I think I've read one or two other John Dickson Carrs, but I do not like his writing style and I think I may be giving him a pass from now on. He's a big name in "the macabre, horror, evil and uncanny deduction" (according to the teaser at the beginning of this book), but his style isn't my favorite.

Bad language: nope
Sex: nope

Coffin on Murder Street by Gwendoline Butler

Another John Coffin police procedural mystery! I'm liking this series.

In this story we have a tour bus that disappears--with all its passengers on board, a mutilated stuffed dog, an elusive child-killer, a child porn ring, an active theater group....and lots more diverse pieces of what comes together as a well-plotted mystery.

John Coffin is an interesting guy. He's a little more of a worrywart than some other of our stoic male detectives (I'm thinking of men like Adam Dagliesh, George Gideon and the like), but I do like him. One of my small complaints about this series is that there is less action than some other police procedurals. This is because John Coffin is really a desk jockey--a high ranking desk jockey, of course (he is, in fact, the man in charge)--so we don't get to be a part of the action as often as we might if our main character were out on the streets actually doing the detecting. Aside from this, I am liking the Coffin series and look forward to reading more.

Bad language: very little, if any
Sex: none--although John and his lady love Stella are probably sleeping together, we get absolutely no scenes or details

Murder Within Murder by Frances and Richard Lockridge

Perhaps you have noted (from earlier entries on this blog) my liking for vintage novels. And my love of used bookstores. Yup. This book is a vintage little nugget from my Idaho used bookstore plunder.

Frances and Richard Lockridge, a husband and wife author team, wrote this long-running couple mystery starring Pam and Jerry North. The Lockridges published the first Pam and Jerry mystery in 1936. This particular story, "Murder Within Murder" was published in 1946 (my daddy was just a little boy!).

In this story, tight-laced Miss Amelia Gibson is poisoned in the New York Public Library...and her murder is very similar to another murder that took place years earlier. Pam and Jerry get involved because Jerry had just hired Miss Gibson to do some research for him.

This was a tight little mystery with some very charming bantering between husband and wife--that snappy 40's type of dialogue that seems so quaint to us these days. It was a pleasure to read.

Bad language: none
Sex: none

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Coffin and the Paper Man by Gwendoline Butler

I love used bookstores. I love they way they smell, I love their warren-like corridors, I love their dingy little storefronts and their old scruffy buildings, I love their bargain piles and their bundled bargains. I keep lists of authors I hope to winkle out in their stacks and I take chances on new authors. And have you ever noticed how well-read your average used bookstore employee is? I ask for their recommendations, I complain about the authors I can't find, I share new discoveries and these book people share, locate and enthuse right along with me. Love it.

Because of used bookstores (and ebay--a good source of titles once you've discovered who you like), I have developed a strong affection for all titles vintage. I love the mysteries, the noir, the Gothic horror, the suspense, the romance...all vintage. I have shelves of vintage romances (all published before 1980, cuz somehow they all get a little tawdry after that), piles of vintage mysteries, hoards of vintage Gothic horror and suspense...well, you get the idea, right? Some of them I value because of the quality of the writing, some because of the melodrama, some because they are little period jewels. I just love them.

Whoops! Having veered into my preoccupation with vintage titles, I'll bring myself back to the used bookstore theme I started with. Used bookstores are thin on the ground where in live in Northern California. Perhaps it's because rents are high here and people are extra busy working their 24/7 Silicon Valley jobs. Or maybe they just like all things new or even perhaps prefer e-readers...I don't know. But the only used bookstore within an hour of where I live is Half Price Books and while I do enjoy browsing those chain stores, there's nothing like a "real" used bookstore, owned by a sole proprietor who is in it for the love of books. So I'm in book heaven when I visit my folks in the Boise Idaho area because within an hour or less of their house are something like 5 or 6 used bookstores (that I know of so far). So when I visit them I make time (and budget space) for lots of used bookstore browsing. Blissful. (Happy sigh).

So on my latest trip there a few weeks ago, I found in the bundled bargain section a pile of these Gwendoline Butler mysteries. The oldest ones in my bundle were published in the 90s, the newest ones 10 or so years later, so they're not all that old (not "vintage" :D), but I'd never heard of them, so I was kind of excited to check them out. They're police procedurals, which are my favorite kind of mysteries, and they're set in London--two very good things.

This one, the first of my little pile, was my least favorite of the 4 I've read so far (I still have 3 or 4 more to go). It centers around the life and career of our main character, Chief Commander John Coffin of the Docklands district (the fictional "second London") of Britain's capital city. It was my least favorite, as I've said, but it was still interesting enough to easily hold my attention and invite me to read the rest. I felt the mystery in this one was a bit scattered, with the diverse parts of the story not quite tied up in a satisfying way. The story felt a bit "fuzzy" at times, if you know what I mean. Still, I like John Coffin. He reminds me a bit of J.J. Marric's Gideon (love that guy) in his leadership style, only I like the way J.J. Marric writes better--there are more details, less personal drama for our main character. Still, I'm liking this series. I'll let you know a little more about the others as I read them...

Bad language: very little, if any
Sex: nope, although there are references to it from time to time and our John Coffin seems to be in some sort of a relationship with the beautiful actress downstairs...but it's only vaguely implied, no details.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

World Class: Poems Inspired by the ESL Classroom by J.C. Elkin

 This book was given to me by the author in exchange for an honest review.

You know how I love poetry. I lean towards the classics generally, because I often find modern poetry shapeless or distasteful or both. Still, I was happy to review this book of poems that the author wrote about her experiences as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, and interested to see what they felt like.

I prefer structured poetry, and I am as charmed by rhyme as the next reader--I know how hard it is to write a good poem within the structure of a haiku or a sonnet. The poetry in this book, however, was closer to prose. The author says that her poems are composed in "accentual verse" that "stresses the rhythm of language". When I looked, I could indeed see poetic stresses and half-rhymes, words that please visually (sometimes you can "see" the rhymes rather than hear them, if you know what I mean)....not the structured poetry that I love, but still very satisfying compositions with themes that tug at the reader's heart. I liked every poem. They were touching without being heavy-handed, insightful without being too ponderous. Accessible, understandable--it was a collection that I really enjoyed and highly recommend.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Laughter of Dead Kings by Elizabeth Peters

     This book, #6 in the Vicky Bliss series, was written a good 10 years after #5 was written, yet Vicky is just the same as ever. The world around her has changed, of course, but, as the author says: "So how do we  writers explain the inconsistencies and anachronisms? We don't. We can't.  . . . Ignore them as I have and place yourself in the "current now."  No problem! I  very much enjoyed this final installment in the story of Vicky Bliss, John Tregarth and their companions.
     "Who stole one of Egypt's most priceless treasures?" the inside flap of this book asks. Well, since we know that John has gone straight (for Vicky), it can't be him, right? But that's not what many other important people (and many powerful criminals) think. Now John must prove that he didn't steal this treasure and to do that he must find out who did and he must get it back.

     Of course, John and Vicky are an acknowledged pair by now, so she accompanies him as he gets deeper and deeper into the mystery. They are also joined by some old friends from previous adventures, as well as our lovable and increasingly amazing Anton Schmidt. And just to add a little touch of sentimentality, the author ties herself and her Amelia Peabody characters into the storyline--kind of a fun addition.

     I'm sorry to see this series end; I've enjoyed it so much. I still find it interesting (and doubtful?) that John and Vicky--both so dysfunctional in their personal relationships--can possibly find any sort of a happily-ever-after. Seems like Vicky can never quite trust John. And she's so casual about their relationship still. She holds herself apart, even as he doesn't (or does he?). Hm. I think this book is too fluffy to bear a lot of analysis :). It requires a high degree of departure from reality to get into. But that's what I really like about Elizabeth Peters. She makes that unbelievability so engaging, so entertaining, so much fun!

Bad language: mild cursing, some profanity as well
Sex: Yup. No sex scenes or any other titillating descriptions. Vicky and John have been in and out of each other's beds since book 2 in the series. You know, cuz that's what we independent and liberated women do. Ahem. Sigh.

Night Train to Memphis by Elizabeth Peters

     This is book #5 in the Vicky Bliss series--her penultimate adventure. After months of sending weekly postcards (and making a few visits in between the cards), John stops writing to Vicky. Where is he? Has he forgotten her? Meanwhile, an intelligence agency requests Vicky's help in identifying a criminal aboard a luxury Egyptian cruise. Vicky suspects it might be John they're looking for and she's angry enough to finger him. But when she does encounter John, she's shocked to meet his new woman as well. Angry, hurt, increasingly confused in her role as amateur spy, Vicky blindly steps into a complicated trap set for her and for John. He is in more trouble than he's ever been, it seems, and they may not make it out of this one alive.

     I think I like this book best in the series. I was just as taken in as Vicky was and so the resolution of the mystery was very satisfying to me, the gullible reader. Vicky's headstrong nature consistently leads her into jumping to conclusions and rushing into emotionally-based bad decisions...seems pretty human, doesn't it? And yet John is always there...making it all right, even when it seems hopeless. Of course, Vicky does her share of rescuing once she understands what's going on. I also liked how amazing Schmidt was in this book. I'm liking how much of a starring role sweet (and rich and smart) Schmidt is starting to get in Vicky's adventures.

Bad language: mild cursing
Sex: yup. But no descriptions.

Trojan Gold by Elizabeth Peters

     This is book #4 in the Vicky Bliss suspense series. The photograph that Vicky receives in the mail--it's of a woman wearing the famous Trojan Gold. Is this another summons from John or could it be from someone more sinister? The copious amount of dried blood on the envelope seems to indicate that John--notoriously cowardly (he claims)--was not the mysterious sender. But it's been  months since Vicky's seen him and she decides she needs his help to unravel this mystery.

     A very enjoyable blend of personalities, mystery and adventure, this book is delightful. I liked how John and Vicky both rescue and are rescued. I liked visualizing snowy Bavaria. I liked getting to know Schmidt a little better. I liked the reappearance of Tony. I especially liked the progress in John and Vicky's relationship. It was a highly engaging book.

Bad language: some mild cursing
Sex: indicated, but no sex scenes

Silhouette in Scarlet by Elizabeth Peters

   This is book #3 in the Vicky Bliss mystery series. The mysterious and elegant John Smythe summons Vicky with one perfect rose and one plane (coach. ahem.) to Stockholm. Unfortunately, John's simple scam quickly gets complicated and puts both of them in serious danger. A handsome (and tall) Viking, a silhouette cutter, a private island, a long lost relative (sort of), buried treasure, a junkie and a creepy bad guy--it's all there.

  You know, I don't feel particularly sympathetic to Vicky's complaints about being 5'11" , blonde, beautiful and favored with the ideal figure measurements. She's always complaining about being tall and blonde! Oh poor, poor Vicky.

      I know John is a crook, but he's so.... Well, Elizabeth Peters has not created a perfect hero in John, and Vicky is always running into his shortcomings, but still we like him so much. Sigh. A fun book. I've read this whole series before, but it's been awhile and I still like it just as much.

Bad language: some mild cursing
Sex: implied, but not described

Street of the Five Moons by Elizabeth Peters

      This is book #2 of the Vicky Bliss series. Vicky has left Tony and the U.S. behind as she has obtained a job in beautiful Munich in a reputable art museum there. Her new boss, Anton Schmidt, sends her on a quest to discover the meaning of a hieroglyphic note found—along with a too-good reproduction of a classic piece of jewelry—in the pocket of a dead man. Vicky’s first stop is romantic Rome where she indulges in a spot of breaking-and-entering and meets a man (and a dog) who will not quickly leave her life. She also gets herself into some serious trouble.

    This is one of my favorite Vicky Bliss stories. I like the bad guys, I like the setting (Rome and its environs), and I like JOHN, the uppity Englishman who charms his way right into Vicky's life. 

Bad language: some mild swearing
Sex: implied, no sex scenes