Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Christmas Feral, by Mary Matthews

Kindle Editions

This is a charming retelling of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, set in the Roaring Twenties, with Judge Scrooge about to issue a disastrously wrong ruling in a case involving feral cats, just in time for Christmas. Tatania, the beautiful, and deaf, white cat who readers may remember from Splendid Summer, takes a firm pawgrip on the matter, along with her companion, Zeus. The humans Tatania consents to hang out with, Jack and Grace, also make an appearance.

This Scrooge is so tight-fisted he won't even heat house; "when you pay the bill, you don't feel the cold." Tatania and her friends have an attention-getting lesson for him!

This is a warm and charming little story, a novella rather than a novel, but well worth your time in this Christmas season.


Monday, December 19, 2011

Crossing the Bridge, by Michael Baron

The Story Plant, ISBN 9780981956817, January 2010

Hugh Penders is back in Amber, CT for his first extended visit since his brother Chase's death because his father has had a heart attack. It isn't just that his parents need his moral support; his father Richard needs him to take over running the store--and hopes he will take it over permanently. Both parents are offended when he flatly refuses, and agrees only to run it until it can be sold.

Since he's been drifting for the ten years since Chase died, and has recently quit his latest job, there's no obstacle to his doing so except that he finds working in the card and gift shop incredibly dull. Eventually, though, he gets bored enough that he starts making changes in the store, changes he feels his father should have made years ago. He's also distracted by running into Iris, his brother's last and most serious girlfriend, a woman to whom Hugh was also attracted. As he and Iris renew their friendship, they both have a lot of emotional baggage to work through with regard to Chase, and it soon looms as an obstacle to any future they might have together.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Terra Incognita:A Novel of the Roman Empire, by Ruth Downie (author), Simon Vance (narrator)

Tantor Media, ISBN 9781400156672, April 2008

This second entry in Downie's Roman mystery series brings a change of scene. Worn out and mentally exhausted from his unwilling investigation of the deaths of several local prostitutes, Gaius Petreius Ruso fondly imagines that accepting a short mission to the north of Britain with the 20th Legion will be a nice rest for him and an opportunity for Tilla to visit what remains of her family. They'll be just south of what will soon be Hadrian's Wall, with tribes not yet fully reconciled to Roman rule on both sides of the border. What could possibly go wrong?

The accident on the road, when they are nearly there, the oxen pulling a wagon bolting and the brakes failing, resulting in deaths and major injuries, is just the beginning. And it is not, of course, an accident. The brakes were cut.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Hugo -- Martin Scorcese (director), John Logan (screenplay), Brian Selznick (book)

George Melies                             Ben Kingsley
Hugo Cabret                               Asa Butterfield
Isabelle                                       Chloe Grace Moretz
Mama Jeanne                              Helen McRory
Station Inspector                         Sacha Baron Cohen

Hugo Cabret is a twelve-year-old orphan who lives in the walls of the train station in Paris in the 1930s. His father was a watchmaker; his uncle maintained the clocks in the train station. They both taught Hugo their craft; his uncle has now disappeared. Hugo keeps his uncle's disappearance unnoticed by maintaining the clocks himself, and steals food from various vendors in the station to eat. He also has a few treasures rescued from his father's shop after his death, most importantly a life-sized clockwork man, and the notebook the elder Cabret kept of his efforts to repair the clockwork figure.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Personal Devil, by Roberta Gellis (author), Nadia May (reader)

Blackstone Audiobooks, ISBN 9780786181889, January 2005

This is the second Magdalene la Batarde mystery, Gellis's 12th-century London whoremistress who protects her women and caters to a clientele who can pay enough to keep them in comfort. With her clientele, and with the Bishop of Winchester as her landlord (she rents the Old Priory Guesthouse as her whorehouse), she has a much wider range of contacts and potential allies than the average whoremistress.

She also has more education and culture than the average whoremistress, but we only gradually learn bits and pieces of her background to help explain this. In this second entry in the series, one of Magdalene's former whores, the blind Sabina, is now established as the mistress of the saddle maker, Maynard. Maynard's face is disfigured by an ugly birthmark, but Sabina, being blind, sees only his kind and gentle nature and his strong and graceful body.

All is well until Maynard's appallingly nasty, vicious wife, Berthild, is found dead, murdered, in the yard of Maynard's shop.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Get Back to Work Faster: The Ultimate Job Seeker's Guide, by Jill Konrath

Sales Gravy Press, ISBN 9780981800486,  October 2009

Jill Konrath wants to share the secret of finding well-paid work as quickly as possible even in a terrible economy. She's happy to share that secret for free; you can buy a paperback copy of her book on Amazon, or you can download a pdf copy for free from her website, at

The core of her secret is quite simple: Be a hard-driven, brilliant salesperson.

Really, there are a lot of specific and useful recommendations here. There is also information about valuable resources, most free, some not, that can be valuable additions to your job-hunting strategy.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Mystery of Grace, by Charles de Lint (author), Paul Michael Garcia (reader), Tai Sammons (reader)

Blackstone Audio, ISBN 9781433294679, September 2009

Altagracia Quintero, Grace to her friends, is a lover of classic cars--specifically, classic Ford cars. She works at Sanchez Motors customizing hot rods. She's a fan of rockabilly music, and has enough tattoos to make those unacquainted with her believe at first glance that she's a tough, scary, gang member.

John's an artist, doing commission work for his friends' company while pursuing his serious art independently. He's a melancholy and somewhat solitary young man, still coping with his grief and guilt over the death of his younger brother, when they were still children. When he and Grace meet at the local music hall on Halloween, he's immediately attracted to her, and she to him. Before the night is over, John and Grace are well on the way to being in love.

Unfortunately, Grace has been dead for two weeks.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Thousands of Broadways: Dreams and Nightmares of the American Small Town (The Rice University Campbell Lectures) by Robert Pinsky

University of Chicago Press, ISBN 9780226669441, May 2009

This is a collection of lectures Robert Pinsky delivered at Rice University in 2009, discussing the ways in which American small towns, symbolized by their main streets named Main Street or Broadway, have been represented in literature and the movies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Mark Twain, Willa Cather, William Faulkner,  and movie directors Preston Sturges and Alfred Hitchcock are discussed.

Pinsky gives us a clear and thoughtful exposition of the ways in which the authors' perspectives on and attitude to the small towns where most of them grew up differs, as well as the perhaps surprising complexities of those small towns and life within them. It's often a surprisingly dark view that's found in their stories, showcasing the ability of American small towns to be stiflingly repressive of anything even mildly outside the mainstream, insular, conformist, banal, upholding the status quo simply because it is the status quo. Yet alongside those tendencies resides a sense of fair play, and protectiveness towards "their own." Willa Cather's Thea Kronberg can't fulfill her musical ambitions in her hometown of Moonstone, but it's in Moonstone that, child and young woman, she gets the education and training that enables her to take her first steps along that path.

It's an interesting and multi-layered look at the American small town in American literature, both the good and the bad.


I received this book free as part of the University of Chicago's "one free ebook a month" program.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe (author), Katherine Kellgren (reader)

Voice, ISBN 9781401395155, April 2010

In the early summer of 1991, Connie Goodwin has just moved into a critical phase of her Ph.D studies at Harvard, approved for candidacy and needing to choose her dissertation topic, when her mother asks her to move into her grandmother's old house in Salem, and get it fixed up and ready for sale. This is even more challenging than might be anticipated, because the house has been empty and neglected since her grandmother Sophie died in the 1970s, and it hadn't been fully modernized even then. Connie's feeling a bit used, especially when she finds the house almost completely hidden behind its overgrown garden--but unexpectedly, she finds herself surprisingly comfortable in the old house.

And among the old books and papers her grandmother left behind, she finds a lead for a possible topic for her dissertation: a previously unrecorded Salem witch, Deliverance Dane, and a hint that she owned a Physick Book, a book of spells and potions.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Splendid Summer, by Mary Matthews

Amazon Digital Editions, May 2011

Splendid Summer is a great romp, funny and fast-moving. Grace Wentworth is on her way home to Coronado, California after completing Finishing School in Europe in the 1920s. "Home" is with her Uncle Charles and Aunt Alice, because her parents died when she was a young child. On the way, she meets Jack Brewster, Pinkerton detective in charge of security for much of Coronado, and his cat, a deaf white Persian named Tatania.

She's also getting a series of rather strange and disturbing telegrams from Uncle Charles. When she goes to the train telegraph office to send a return telegram, she and Jack find the telegraph operator has been murdered.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Patriote Peril, by Thomas Thorpe

Black Rose Writing, ISBN 9781612960661, November 2011

This is a mystery/political thriller set in 1830s Canada. It's also part of Thorpe's Darmon Mystery series.

Elizabeth Darmon, her husband William, and sister and brother-in-law Emily and Charles Bagwell, have traveled to Canada to visit Elizabeth and Emily's other sister, Victoria, and her husband Richard Hudson, at the hunting lodge Richard built two years ago. During their visit, Richard takes his wife and guests off on a carriage ride to see some of the local sites, but Elizabeth has a headache and remains at the Lodge. The carriage comes back empty.

Elizabeth gets a horse from the stable and goes off to look for her relatives, while telling a stable hand to go to the nearest town and alert the authorities. When she cannot find them, she returns to the Lodge, only to find that it has burned down in the few hours she's been gone, and if any servants survived, they are not in evidence. Elizabeth is off on a wild and harrowing hunt to find her apparently kidnapped family.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Holiday Greetings From the Star-Tribune: Shut Up and Be Grateful You Have a Low-Paid, Crummy Job With No Benefits

Editorial: Take this job and ... be glad you have it |

'via Blog this'

From the Star-Tribune editorial:

When times were better, retail giants forcing employees to work on treasured family holidays could easily be painted as corporate greed run amok. But today it’s hardly fair to paint merchants as retail Scrooges.
What a cheery, humane holiday sentiment. Times are hard, so as long as you have a paycheck at all, you shouldn't complain about being used and abused.

The Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene, A Report by the Working Group Commissioned by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences

Photo credit: Flickr, Iban , Receding Hellstugu glacier

Pontifical Academy of Sciences, April 2011

This is a short report, just seventeen pages, from a body whose existence many did not suspect: the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The Working Group reviewed the scientific evidence on one particular piece of the global warming problem, the effect on mountain glaciers. Mountain glaciers are important because seasonal melt-off is an important source of water for communities downslope from those glaciers. The short-term effect of increased melting and the retreat of the glaciers from their former extent is more water downstream. The longer-term effect, unfortunately, is the loss of the water sources these communities rely on. The potential for suffering and disruption is high.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Jinx, by D. F. Lamont

Jetpack Media, August 2011

This is an entertaining novelette about a young teenager who discovers he has very uncomfortable "powers" that make him a jinx to be around. It's bad enough when he wrecks his brother's bike, worse when a car accident endangers his family. The absolute last straw for Stephen is when he accidentally causes a fire that burns down the garage, and his parents aren't absolutely certain it was an accident.

Stephen runs away.

Misshapen stone monsters pursue the bus he's running away in.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Zookeeper's Wife, by Diane Ackerman (author), Suzanne Toren (narrator)

BBC Audiobooks America, ISBN 9781602834774, June 2008

This is the story of Antonina Zabinski and her husband Jan, the director of the Warsaw Zoo, and their courageous sheltering and rescue of more than three hundred Jews as well as members of the Polish resistance during the World War II German resistance. Antonina's diaries are the main source, supplemented by other contemporary sources and Diane Ackerman's own research in Poland.

The Zabinskis were zookeepers by choice and vocation, caring deeply for the animals that were their responsibility as well as the healthy survival of at-risk species. Their pre-war home was alive with animals, both domestic and "wild," as Antonina nurtured orphans and nursed ailing or injured animals, as well as relatives, friends, and their own young son. The outbreak of war sees the slow destruction of everything they have loved, as the zoo is bombed, animals killed, and many of the dangerous animals shot by the Polish military to prevent their escaping and becoming a threat. Then the Germans move in, and things get even worse. The zoo is closed, and the animals of value taken for the Berlin Zoo. Antonina spends weeks not knowing where Jan, a reserve officer who naturally rejoined his army unit with the start of the war, is, or whether he is even alive. When he successfully makes his way back to her, they are not out of the woods. The occupation has barely begun.

Jan is a member of the resistance, and Antonina actively assists him in hiding Jews, and smuggling them out, as well as providing cover and assistance to other members of the resistance. They have the zoo land, and start a pig farm to cover the growing of food to be distributed in the Warsaw ghetto, where Jews are forced to try to survive on little more than a hundred calories a day. They hide people within their home and withing the remaining zoo buildings, and maintain an active social life with lots of visitors and guests, to ensure that they don't have a predictable pattern of activity and to make the presence of "extra" people less obvious. Conditions continue to get harsher and harsher, and the possibility of discovery ever more terrifying, while Jan and Antonina work to keep life, laughter, decency, and humanity alive in the midst of horror.

Highly recommended.

I borrowed this book from a friend.

The book trailer:


Monday, November 21, 2011

When You Went Away, by Michael Baron

The Story Plant, ISBN 9780181956800, October 2009

Gerry Rubato is struggling with the sudden, wholly unexpected death of his wife, raising their now four-month-old son by himself, and the aching absence of his much-loved daughter Tanya, seventeen years old, who ran away just a month before her baby brother Reese was born, and three months before her mother's death.

We meet Gerry and Reese as Gerry is returning to work, leaving his son for the entire work day for the first time since his wife Maureen's death. It's tough for him to do, but he knows it's necessary, and he hires the best baby-sitter available, and goes to work. Real life resumes for him.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Heretic's Daughter, by Kathleen Kent (author), Mare Winningham (reader)

Hachette Audio, ISBN 9781609410084, February 2011

Sarah Carrier is the daughter of Thomas and Martha Carrier, hardworking, morally upright residents of Andover in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Unfortunately, it's the early 1690s, and the Salem witch hysteria is beginning.

One of five children, and at ten the older of the two girls, Sarah has to work hard to help maintain the family home, and life gets both harder and scarier when her mother is one of the first women accused of witchcraft. The accusations come first from a jealous relative who wants part of the Carrier property, and then are supported by some local young women, including the Carriers' former indentured servant. Over the next year, Sarah gets a painful education in human nature, the courage and devotion of her parents, and the values she herself will make the core of her life.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

For the Birds, by Aaron Paul Lazar

Paladin Timeless Books, ISBN 9781606191668, November 2011

This is a delightful, quirky mystery that moves quickly and keeps you guessing. Marcella Hollister is an antiques dealer whose husband, Quinn, enjoys breeding and showing birds. They're taking a few days off from the antiques business to attend a bird show, where Quinn hopes his parrot, Ruby, will win Best New Color. Marcella's mother Thelma, living with them since the death of Marcella's stepfather Raoul, is along for the trip, and in fact is paying for it from the money she's inherited from Raoul's carefully tended 401(k) plan. Thelma seems unusually jumpy, and is convinced that a certain white van is following them. Once they're at the hotel for the event, things don't calm down. Thelma and Quinn have a silly tug-of-war over Ruby's cage that ends in Ruby and Thelma falling into the pool along with a live electrical wire. They're quickly rescued, and Thelma is rushed to the hospital.

It takes a few days before they figure out that there is now psychic connection between Ruby's mind and Thelma's, and they are likely to unexpectedly spout each other's favorite words and phrases.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Unto These Hills, by Emily Sue Harvey

The Story Plant, ISBN 9781611880250, November 2011

This is a Southern family saga, not ordinarily my preferred reading, but Emily Sue Harvey weaves a compelling story with a central character who grabs you and won't let go.

Sunny Acklin is a teenager growing up in the "mill hill" village of Tucapau, South Carolina in the late forties as the book opens. Despite the stresses and embarrassments of her parents', to say the least, imperfect marriage, she grows up feeling safe and cherished in extended family of the tight-knit village. Then everything gradually starts to unravel, and Sunny is struggling to hold things together.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Say You'll Be Mine, by Julia Amante

Grand Central Publishing, ISBN 9780446581639, October 2011

Isabel Gallegos is tired -- tired of being the responsible one, tired of running the winery that was her parents' dream, tired of being the one who puts her dreams aside to take care of other people. She's ready to sell the winery that her parents left to her and her ex-husband, Nick, and buy a house by the sea. It's too late to pursue her old dream of being a marine scientist, but she's going to at least enjoy the ocean recreationally. A larger wine company has expressed serious interest, and she's in the midst of negotiations with them, looking forward to being free of responsibility to anyone but herself. Nick will also be free of the winery, they won't have to work together, and he'll be able to move away and marry his new girlfriend.

And then her lawyer tells her that he's received notice that her cousin Brenda, in her native Argentina, has been killed in a skiing accident, along with her husband, and her will names Isabel as the guardian of her three children. She has to travel to Argentina immediately to make arrangements to take custody and bring them home to California.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: An Historical Introduction, by John Fea

Westminster John Knox Press, ISBN 9780664235048, February 2011

Whether or not America was founded as a "Christian nation" is a touchy political topic right now, and figures in other touchy political topics as well. John Fea gives us a very thorough and thoughtful discussion of the matter, and arrives at the conclusion most historians not involved in the political world would give: It's Complicated.

In the first part of the book, Fea looks at the substantial body of evidence, going back to the early 19th century, that the idea of America as a Christian nation is not a new idea of the political far right. It didn't start in the 80s with Ronald Reagan any more than it started in the Noughties with George W. Bush. It is an idea that has been prominently presented by politicians of the right and, maybe surprising to many not old enough to remember the 60s, of the left, as well, persistently throughout our history. Fea presents examples from politicians, ministers, and activists of all stripes in demonstrating this.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

1493: Uncovering the World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann (author), Roberson Dean (reader)

Random House Audio, ISBN 9780307913760, August 2011

This is the follow-up to Mann's excellent 1491, and it's every bit as excellent. In this book, Mann creates a rich and detailed picture of the world after Columbus, form the first few years of Spanish-Indian interaction through the complex effects of globalization in the contemporary world.

He starts, for reasons that soon become clear, with his own garden, and his introduction to heritage tomatoes. Tomato varieties, differing widely in size, appearance, and color, now come from all over the world--but they began as barely edible fruits of the nightshade family in Meso-America. Why are there now wonderful tomatoes from Bulgaria? That's what this book is about in a microcosm: how Columbus's discovery of the Americas led to the dispersal of people, plants, and animals from both hemispheres all over the world.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Cracking the New Job Market: The 7 Rules for Getting Hired in Any Economy, by R. William Holland

AMACOM, ISBN 9780814417348, August 2011

This is a very hands-on approach to writing a better resume, making the right kind of networking connections, tapping into the splintered job market, acing the interview, and generally conducting an effective job search that will get you hired in any economy. It's based on Holland's workshops and his background in providing career and job search guidance.

This is a very practical guide, and repeatedly makes the point that it's not about you; it's about the value you can create for your potential employer. Every resume that goes out to an employer needs to be crafted to make clear to the hiring manager how you bring added value and can create the value the employer is looking for.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Stephen Pinker

Penguin/Viking, ISBN 9780670022953, October 2011

This is a fascinating book, and many people will be surprised by what Pinker has to say. We routinely tell ourselves that we live in a violent world, that for all the comforts of civilization wars are more common, more terrible, and more fatal to non-combatants. Anyone who follows the news can cite examples of terrible atrocities that are the basis of our certainty that the human race is demonstrating a destructiveness and depravity towards other human beings unknown in the simpler, gentler past when knights and armsmen fought other knights and armsmen, leaving the civilians largely undisturbed.

Stephen Pinker explains, with examples, details, and cites to original sources and current research, that we have it all wrong, and the past was a far more violent place than we typically imagine, or than we experience day to day in all but the most violent places on Earth now. And those "most violent places" aren't our modern cities in developed countries.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Puss in Boots

Director: Chris Miller
Writing Credits:
      Charles Perrault (character)
      Brian Lynch, David H. Steinberg, Tom Wheeler, Jon Zack (screenplay)

Voice actors:
      Puss in Boots -- Antonio Banderas
      Kitty Softpaws -- Selma Hayek
      Humpty Dumpty -- Zach Galifianakis
     Jack -- Billy Bob Thornton
Jill -- Amy Sedaris
Imelda -- Constance Marie

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Halloween at SARL-NH

On Saturday, I took Addy to the Salem Animal Rescue League Halloween party. Snow had not been part of the original plan, but with a major nor'easter forecast for Saturday, SARL thoughtfully provided a tent. There were treats for the puppers and for the humans, too. We were all greeted by SARL's mascot, Rocky. Many of the dogs and some of the people came in costume, and of course, there was a costume contest for the dogs.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey, by Allison Weir (author), Stina Nielsen (narrator)

Recorded Books, ISBN 9781428120303, February 2007

Spoilers ahead, because this is an historical novel about a major figure, and I assume most people know how it ends already.

This is the story of Lady Jane Grey, the great-niece of Henry VIII, and cousin to King Edward VI, and his sisters Mary and Elizabeth. Raised a devout Protestant when England and Europe as a whole were caught up in the religious and political struggle of the Reformation, she became a pawn for those, including her own parents, who wanted to advance both their own power and England's commitment to Protestantism. Years of scheming to marry her to her cousin Edward come to nothing, and when Edward, at fifteen, is dying, he is induced to sign a new will, making Lady Jane his heir in place of his sister, the Catholic Mary.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

To My Faithful Readers

I have not forgotten you or abandoned you. I'm just reading the long, but excellent, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Stephen Pinker. This is an absolute must-read, but it's not a quick read. It requires serious attention and thought, and I want to do it justice. My review will come--but in the meantime, you could pick up a copy and start reading. Get ahead of the curve!