Perry, Anne. The Hyde Park Headsman. NY: Ballantine, 1994.
This is one of the better mysteries in the series set in 1880s London which feature Inspector Thomas Pitt and his wife, Charlotte (and a growing number of his in-laws, too). Pitt has just been promoted to be Superintendent of the Bow Street station, and he’s beginning to discover the difficulties inherent in the increased responsibility. Then a decapitated body turns up in a small boat off the Serpentine and the public, which hasn’t forgotten the Ripper killings the previous year, begins to get nervous. And then a second beheading occurs, and then a third, and Pitt can’t find anything the three murders have in common. While Pitt struggles with the case, moreover, Charlotte is busy with the new house they’ve just bought on the strength of his increased salary, and Emily is deeply involved with her new husband’s second campaign for a seat in Parliament. The Inner Circle is strongly in the background this time, which is unfortunate — especially since the description of its activities reminds one of Prof. Moriarty’s organization. (3/29/08)
Perry, Anne. Highgate Rise. NY: Ballantine, 1991.
This is one of the better entries in the series of Victorian murder mysteries featuring Inspector Thomas Pitt of the Metropolitan Police and his meddling wife, Charlotte. This time it’s a death by arson in the affluent London suburb of Highgate. The victim is the wife of a local physician who escaped by being out on a call — but was it really him they were after? There’s a singular lack of clues and the local police are annoyed at Pitt’s being called in anyway, so it’s a particularly tough case. Charlotte and her sister, Emily, involve themselves by attending funerals and memorials and asking leading questions — their usual m.o., in fact. Perry always includes a social issue to fulminate against and this time it’s the profits made by aristocratic families from ownership of slum tenements. The Inner Circle appears, too, but only peripherally, which was a good decision on the author’s part. (3/26/08)
Perry, Anne. The Whitechapel Conspiracy. NY: Ballantine, 2001.
After twenty volumes in this series, Perry seems finally to have gone off the rails. A few books ago, she introduced the Inner Circle, a cabal of men in high positions of power throughout government and the professions who enforce loyalty to each other over law and justice. But now they seem to have become an international anti-royalist political conspiracy determined to destroy the British crown and establish a republic. They plan to do this by publicizing the true identity of Jack the Ripper, a story that will blow the lid off the British social order and lead to rioting in the streets. Opposing them, and also apparently willing to do anything to reach their pro-royalist goals, is — wait for it — the freemasons! Pitt, meanwhile, has been yanked from his position as superintendent of Bow Street Station and sent off into the wilds of Spitalfields to work for the recently-created Special Branch in ferreting out anarchists and other troublemakers, all in retaliation for his testimony in a murder trial in which one supposed friend killed another. (The details of which, when the author reveals them, are not very convincing.) Sergeant Tellman risks his career to set things right, and Gracie, the Pitts’ maid (and whom Tellman is reluctantly courting), also has a large part to play. Charlotte is doing her bit in the drawing rooms, though not very effectively, and sister Emily hardly appears at all this time. It all descends into a sort of James Bond fantasy world — but worse than that is the portrait of Aunt Vespasia as a rifle-toting revolutionary on the barricades of Rome back in 1848. No way am I gonna buy that. Come on, Perry — get a grip! (3/23/08)
Perry, Anne. Half Moon Street. NY: Ballantine, 2000.
“All right, boys and girls, the social issue for today’s Superintendent Pitt mystery novel is censorship!” Yeah, Perry has to include a problem of conscience for the characters to address in every book she writes, whether it’s economic inequality, loan-sharking, the vote for women, or — in this case — whether censorship and freedom of speech is a good thing because it protects people from the ugliness in the world, or whether it’s a bad thing because it results in intellectual and social stagnation. She can’t quite seem to make up her mind, either. Oh, there’s a story in here, too, about a prominent society photographer found grotesquely dead, posed like Ophelia in a dress and chains in a small boat on the Thames. Also prominent in the story, for a change, is Caroline, mother of Charlotte and Emily (both of whom are in Paris for a few weeks and who therefore do not appear in this book at all), who has remarried to a Jewish actor seventeen years her junior, and whose life style has loosened up a good deal as a result. That brings in the theater, and you know how liberal and undependable those theater people can be. I admit it, this 20th entry in a generally enjoyable series irritated me considerably. Thomas and/or Charlotte generally have served as mouthpieces for the author’s own opinions, which is okay, but here they fulminate against things that have been proved factually inaccurate — such as the notion that “pornography” (defined as anything those in power don’t like) destroys society. Photos that Pitt considers sickening and obscene would be rated no worse than PG-13 in today’s world — and present-day society certainly is demonstrably superior, socially and politically, to that of 1890. I guess I don’t understand how any professional novelist could have anything good to say about elitist governmental censorship. (3/20/08)
Perry, Anne. Belgrave Square. NY: Ballantine, 1992.
It’s 1889 and Inspector Thomas Pitt of the London police, who has become something of a specialist in politically sensitive cases, has been called in on the case of a murdered loan shark — not his usual sort of case. The man was also a blackmailer, however, with several society gentlemen among his victims — and also two ranking members of the police force, which makes matters even more touchy. Pitt gradually works through the possibilities, making this one of the better efforts in the series, even though a secret political conspiracy turns out to be responsible. The characterizations are well done, too. Emily’s new husband, Jack Radley, is attempting to get himself selected as a candidate for Parliament and because she’s pregnant, Charlotte (Emily’s sister and Pitt’s wife) has to step in for her as political hostess. This allows several parallel sociological and romantic plots, but they’re less intrusive than usual. (Secret societies and usury are less controversial than women’s rights, I guess.) The author also manages not to telegraph the entirely believable ending this time — a weakness of which she is sometimes guilty. (3/19/08)
Perry, Anne. Bethlehem Road. NY: St, Martin, 1990.
This is the tenth in the Victorian murder mystery series about Inspector Thomas Pitt of the London police and his inquisitive wife, Charlotte. The plot involves the murder of a Member of Parliament on Westminster Bridge, the body then being strung up to a lamp post with a scarf. Pitt can’t decide if the motive was personal or political — but then a second, identical murder occurs, the victim (also an M.P.) having very little in common with the first, except that both men opposed female suffrage. But then, so did most politicians in 1888. But that’s not the end of the murders either. So far, so good. But when the killer is finally identified in the next-to-last chapter, my reaction was “Wait — what?” It is considered extremely bad form for a mystery writer to introduce a brand new character at the last minute, and then to identify that person as the villain. Pitt doesn’t quite get it, either, and spends a few pages at the end tracking down the story behind the story — which turns out to be another moral lesson on women’s rights. This whole thing could have been handled far more skillfully. Also, I don’t know what possesses Perry to give a majority of her characters bizarre names — at least those in the upper reaches of society. For every James or Helen, there is a plethora of Zenobias, Amethysts, Garnets, Parthenopes, Vyvyans, Africas, Vespasias, and other names unknown before or since. A quick browse through the 1880 edition of Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage would show this penchant for uncommon Christian names to be a rather ludicrous invention. This is not one of Perry’s better books. (3/17/08)
Perry, Anne. Cardington Crescent. NY: St. Martin, 1987.
I’ve been skipping around a bit in reading this series, so some of the events in this eighth novel in the series I was already aware of, as part of the back-story in later episodes. Again, most of the action takes place within the extended family of Charlotte Pitt, wife of Inspector Thomas Pitt, one of Victorian London’s finest. Where Charlotte married down, her sister, Emily, married up, to Lord George Ashworth. The Ashworths are paying an extended visit to his maternal relations, the Marches, and Emily is in agony over the attentions her infatuated husband is paying to the wife of one of his cousins, while ignoring her. But then George is found poisoned one morning, and it quickly becomes apparent that one of the eight family members (including Emily) must be the guilty party — but which one? And then a second, connected murder takes place in the house, and family loyalties require that Emily take the blame. Or perhaps it was the only other outsider, Jack Radley, who is there for inspection as a possible suitor for the youngest daughter of the family. The story involves the gradual paring down of the list of suspects, largely through the efforts of Charlotte, who has come to keep her distraught sister company. This part of the narrative is quite good, but the author makes a strategic error in introducing a completely separate murder mystery at the very beginning, and then ignoring it entirely until the very end of the book, when she manages to weave it into the larger mystery. A pretty good story, though, especially (as always) in its portrayal of the suffocating strictures of Victorian Society, especially as regards women. (3/15/08)
Perry, Anne. Rutland Place. NY: St. Martin, 1983.
This is the fifth in the series, set in the last quarter of the 19th century, about Inspector Thomas Pitt of the London police and his very bright and frequently rather daring wife, Charlotte. It’s amazing (or appalling) how much crime, especially murder, occurs either within Charlotte’s extended family or on the street where they live, but that’s how and why Pitt’s wife and sister-in-law generally get involved. Charlotte’s mother, Caroline, has had a small broach stolen, but what worries her is the fact that it contains a picture of a man who is not Charlotte’s father. Paul Alaric (who appeared in The Cater Street Hangman) is the sort of handsome, debonair foreign gentleman for whom the cloistered ladies of Society conceive infatuations, and age doesn’t make much difference. But then there’s a murder up the block and Pitt becomes involved. The various families, of course, close ranks against the police (who, socially, rank just above rat-catchers), and it’s up to Charlotte and Emily to make inquiries in the drawing rooms of the neighborhood. Perry sometimes shorts the mystery plot in favor of sociological observations, but in this case the mystery is pretty well developed and resolved. (3/13/08)
Dalmas, John. The White Regiment. NY: Baen Books, 1990.
As military sf, this author’s work is unusual in giving at least as much space to philosophy as to tactics. Be aware first that this is an immediate sequel to The Regiment, and you should read that first to have any idea what’s going on. A generation has passed since the Kettle War that journalist Varlik Lormagen reported on, and since the Movement began its more public efforts to bring the Confederation out from under its stultifying brainwashing against technological and social innovation, and the decision is made to create a mercenary regiment from social misfits — “intentive warriors” — along the lines of the T’swa regiments, to be trained by T’swa veterans. Two-thirds of the book tells that story, detailing the training and psychic and psychological transformation of the recruits. While all this is going on, an exploratory squadron from a theocratic empire some distance away is making its way toward Confederation space, looking for colonizable worlds, and happens upon sparsely-settled Terfreya, where a corps of Confederation cadets has been undergoing training, quite separate from the teenaged proto-mercenaries, and the last third of the narrative is given over to the story of armed resistance to the incursion — aided considerably by recently discovered teleport technology. Dalmas has a lot to say about what constitutes true “sanity” and also understands tactics and strategy as well as the military mind, and the result is a book that is both exciting and intellectually interesting. (3/12/08)
Perry, Anne. Pentecost Alley. NY: Fawcett Columbine, 1996.
In the earlier books in this highly successful series about Detective Inspector Thomas Pitt in Victorian London, the author often got carried away with her fascination with the period and slighted the solutions to the mysteries she set up, in favor of sociological commentary. This is the sixteenth outing for Pitt and his wife and sister-in-law, and Perry seems to have finally reached a balance between period and mystery plot. It’s 1890, Pitt has recently been promoted to Superintendent of the Bow Street station, and London society keeps ticking right along. In the poverty of Whitechapel, however, the torture-murder of a young prostitute gets Pitt’s attention because a gentleman’s club pin has been discovered beneath the body which implicates Finley Fitzjames, moneyed ne’er-do-well and son of a ruthless capitalist with lots of enemies. The investigation proceeds slowly, with Pitt sifting evidence, and finally comes to a conclusion with the conviction of the girl’s pimp, who is then hanged. It all seems to be neatly wrapped up — until the murder of a second prostitute, identical to the first. Did Pitt hang the wrong man? As always, Pitt’s wife, Charlotte, and Charlotte’s sister, Emily, poke their noses in, asking questions where Pitt cannot — and, in fact, going too far by manufacturing misleading evidence. There’s a certain amount of stylized melodrama, as in Jago Jones’s dedicated ministering to the poor and Tallulah Fitzjames’s ministering to him, but it’s not too overdone. (3/09/08)
Vaughn, Carrie. Kitty Takes a Holiday. NY: Warner, 2007.
This third book in the “Kitty Norville” series is a pretty good vampire/werewolf novel, and it’s not at all Gothicky. Kitty, a lycanthrope turned radio talk show host, has survived her sojourn in Washington as an expert witness before Senate hearings, and has taken off to a cabin in the Colorado woods to decompress and work on a book. She’s not getting much done — except for slipping into her werewolf role more than she ought to — when Cormac, a werewolf-hunter and semi-friend, brings in a badly mauled Ben, Cormac’s cousin and lawyer to both of them. Ben was attacked by a werewolf and Kitty, an ex-pack member, suddenly finds herself the alpha in a new two-person pack. There’s a lot of well-written detail about Ben’s adaptation to being a shape-changer — he’s a dynamite lawyer but in this regard he’s just a “cub” — and also a lot of background detail about both men. The surface plot involves both the local hostility toward Kitty by a group of dangerously inexpert spell-casters and the attempt to defend Cormac in court after he defends Kitty by killing a Navajo skinwalker. It’s a much smaller cast of well-drawn characters than in the first two books, and the writing is more subtle and nuanced. Vaughn is definitely getting better at this. (3/06/08)
Vaughn, Carrie. Kitty Goes to Washington. NY: Warner, 2006.
Vaughn seems to be gaining confidence with this new series about Kitty Norville, late-night talk-show host and practicing werewolf. She has, rather against her will, fallen into a degree of celebrity since outing herself and now a U.S. Senate committee wants her to testify on the subject of the vampires and werewolves among us. So off she goes, to D.C. The committee chairman, unfortunately, is the worst sort of Bible-thumping religious bigot (and I’m aware that Christian fundamentalist censorship groups are practically frothing over this series) who fancies himself a new McCarthy. Then there’s the not-quite-secret government research project, the director of which is not as disinterested as he ought to be. Washington, being a cosmopolitan “world city,” werewolf packs and vampire families are much less important, which is an interesting take on the subject. A couple other sorts of semi-supernatural beings have minor roles this time out, and while a lot more could have been done with them, the author is pretty much on top of her characters and her plot. An enjoyable series. (3/04/08)
Vaughn, Carrie. Kitty and the Midnight Hour. NY: Warner, 2005.
I’m not ordinarily a fan of vampire novels — I can’t abide “Gothic” fiction generally — but I’ve gotten caught up in Kim Harrison’s series about Rachel Morgan, earth-witch and detective. This new series is in the same vein, except that Kitty Norville is an English major and werewolf who hosts a talk show on late night Denver radio. In her world, which apparently is the same as our own (which is explicitly not the case with Harrison’s world), vampires and lycanthropes are victims of a kind of disease, partly biological and partly (maybe) supernatural. Both variants of homo sapiens have been around for a very long time but they’ve generally had the good sense to keep their heads down, not offend the Powers That Be, and keep their own people under social control. Also, both vampires and werewolves (and there are no other varieties of supernatural critter in this first volume) are created by others of their kind; they’re always “made,” never born. That creates a lot of anxiety and confusion among “converts,” and that’s where Kitty’s radio show finds its theme. Politics, power games, and group dynamics are also a major part of non-human existence, and Kitty gets caught up in both while trying to deal with each group’s suspicion of the other. The author does a good job describing Kitty’s maturation from groveling low wolf in the local pack to self-reliant loner as she gets involved in the hunt for a serial killer who is also a rogue lycanthrope — though she still depends on her friends, including a werewolf-hunter and a lawyer with interesting connections. She also learns to deal with the police, with suspicious and fearful members of the public, and with the Bible-thumping burn-a-witch fundamentalists. (Incidentally, several Christian organizations, the same ones who condemned Harry Potter for “teaching witchcraft,” also have inveighed against this new series as “anti-Christian.” Screw ‘em.) The book’s a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to the next one. (3/02/08)
Peace, David. Tokyo Year Zero. NY: Knopf, 2007.
The “Year Zero” in Japan is 1946, the first year of defeat, of the Allied occupation, of the “Emperor MacArthur.” It’s a year of disease and near-starvation, of ragged clothing and war crimes trials, of false identities and political purges, of gang warfare and the constant sound of hammering and sawing. Most of all, it’s a year of lies and secrets. Many of the upper ranks of the civilian police have been dismissed for their political affiliations and solving “ordinary” murders in a country with several million unidentified dead has become nearly impossible. But that’s Detective Inspector Minami’s job, as far as he can manage it. The story — the visible one — involves a series of similar sex-murders and the complex investigation into the identities of the often skeletal remains and the search for evidence to convict the suspected killer, all of which is made more difficult by the secrets in the lives of nearly all the principle characters, on both sides of the law. And it’s those secrets that make up the real story. Minami, as we gradually discover, has a secret involving the Japanese military police in the brutal occupation of China. His boss has his own secret regarding a cover-up, and his subordinate detectives have yet more secrets. Minami also has the head of the local gang on his back, and he’s probably responsible for the murder of a journalist, and perhaps for the murder of another detective. It’s a dark plot in a dark world, filled with people living dark lives, and in most respects Peace succeeds quite well. My only real complaint is with his attempt at a self-consciously “literary” style, in which he frequently repeats the same sentence fragments over and over (and over and over), and in which the same phrases (apparently the product of Minami’s damaged psyche) crop up again and again, and always in italics. An unadorned, straightforward writing style would have been more successful and less obtrusive in communicating the despair and the horror of the time and place. The story and the raw emotional milieu in which it is set would have been sufficient to convey the feelings Peace obviously wants the reader to share — and the book would have been probably fifty pages shorter. But if you *bleep* over that part of the story, it’s a pretty good book. (3/01/08)
Towne, Robert. Chinatown & The Last Detail. NY: Grove Press, 1997.
Among American screenwriters, Towne is one of the greats, and if you’re interested in the craft of writing for the movies (as I am), you have to read his stuff. He worked on Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather, got nominated for an Academy Award for The Last Detail, and finally won for Chinatown — one of the truly great screenplays of the century. Reading a screenplay is different from watching the film, though if you know the film — and who hasn’t seen Chinatown? — it can be difficult to keep the images out of your head while you’re reading. But the point is to follow the way the narrative structure moves the story. The Last Detail doesn’t really have a big plot, being just the story of a lost weekend, of two career sailors escorting a third guy, much younger, from Norfolk to the brig at Portsmouth. Meadows is a nice kid, almost an innocent, a kleptomaniac who received a very stiff sentence for a very minor attempted crime. Billy Buddusky (a name remarkably similar to “Billy Budd”) and Mulhill (known as “Mule”) try to take him through a few life experiences on the way, including getting drunk, getting laid, and almost getting a tattoo. And the story ends quietly when they deliver him to jail and go their separate ways. A very nicely rendered slice-of-life story. Chinatown, of course, is the story of Jake Giddis, well-dressed private eye in Los Angeles in the 1930s, who takes on what he thinks is a routine matrimonial case but gets caught up in water politics and other people’s strange lives. The writing here isn’t quite Sam Spade; in fact, there’s a very modern ‘70s tone to it. Towne was writing about the eye-opening ‘60s and ‘70s, for all that the story is set a generation earlier. But the pace is perfect, the characters are magnetic (even though Towne doesn’t tell you everything that he might about them), and the very abrupt climax is shocking. Great writing, both of them. (2/24/08)
Bisson, Terry. Fire on the Mountain.NY: Arbor House, 1988.
This is a rather quiet, rather short, alternate history novel in which the p.o.d. (the “point of departure” from our own history) is the success of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry on July 4th, 1859. (In our timeline, Harriet Tubman was ill, the raid was delayed, and everything went wrong.) The raid did what Brown wanted — it fomented a full-blown slave rebellion in Virginia, which spread to the rest of the South and brought in Garibaldi and others from Europe. The eventual result is “Nova Africa,” a black nation in the South, with the remaining North turning into a socialist state. Bisson drops hints about a second revolution in the mid-20th century, and other unpleasantnesses, but there were apparently no world wars, anyway. The story is told partly by a young Virginia town slave writing in 1909 about his experiences with Brown, with his narrative being read by Jasmin, his descendant, in 1959. Jasmin’s husband died heroically in the first Mars expedition, so technology has moved rather more quickly than in our world. And the global center of things is in Europe and Africa — decidedly not in North America. Other points of view come from other collections of correspondence — i.e., events reported as they were happening, not in retrospect. The style is easygoing but perceptive, and while this isn’t a great alternate history yarn, it’s a good afternoon’s read. (2/23/08)
Follett, Ken. The Pillars of the Earth. NY: William Morrow, 1989.
I read this saga when it first came out and have now reread it in preparation for the sequel — if you can call a book set in the same town two centuries later a “sequel.” Despite the picture of the cathedral on the cover, the building’s construction is really only the glue that ties together all the variety of interpersonal relationships in the story, which runs from 1135 to 1174, taking in the late reign of Henry I, the Anarchy during the civil war between the Empress Maud and King Stephen, and the accession of Henry II, through the assassination of Thomas Becket. First, there’s Tom the Builder, a master architect and engineer, who loses his wife and then meets and falls for the outlawed Ellen the same day, and who eventually becomes the builder of the new Kingsbridge Cathedral. There’s Ellen’s son, Jack, who was born after the hanging of his father, and who takes after his stepfather. There’s Tom’s son, Alfred, a real jerk, and Jack and Alfred come to hate each other. Meanwhile, there’s Brother Philip, a middling-young Welsh monk, who becomes prior of Kingsbridge Priory. He’s one of the Good Guys, though he can be awfully stiff-necked when it comes to what he regards as moral questions, and he has a definite blind spot when it comes to the rights of the Church. And there are Richard and Aliena, children of the Earl of Shiring, who are dispossessed when the earldom is grabbed (and their father arrested) by the Hamleigh family, as small-minded and hateful a clan as you’re likely to find — epitomized in William Hamleigh, a truly evil and vicious person, whom Aliena has personal cause to hate. But Aliena finds her way in the world, and finds happiness, eventually. And there’s Bishop Waleran, who comes to hate Prior Philip and everyone on his side, and who makes use of William, who doesn’t like him much either. And that’s just the top level of characters, for behind each of them is a group of fully-realized supporting players. One of the best things about the book is Follett’s style: There almost isn’t any. The narrative is plain and descriptive and immersive, allowing the reader to reach his own conclusions regarding the characters and their actions. That’s not even mentioning Follett’s gentle instruction regarding architecture, the business of a monastery, and the political ins and outs of the period in England. I expect I’ll read this again in another decade. (2/22/08)
Gaiman, Neil. Anansi Boys. NY: William Morrow, 2005.
This is billed as a sequel to American Gods, but the only character in it from the earlier book is Mr. Nancy, the old black guy with the fedora and the yellow gloves, and he’s dead, of a heart attack in the middle of a number at a karaoke bar. But Mr. Nancy — Anansi — you will remember, is a god, though a minor one. He’s a storyteller, a songmaker, and, above all, a trickster. So maybe he’s not really dead. Or not permanently. But the story is really about his son, Fat Charlie (who isn’t fat at all, but when Anansi names something it stays named), and his son, Spider (charming and largely amoral), each of whom has inherited some of his father’s talents. And it’s about Rosie and her terrifying mother, and about Detective Constable Daisy, and about Grahame Coats, a dastardly criminal, and about the four old ladies who knew Mr. Nancy when they were young. Gaiman tells it all in rollicking good humor, though it gets somewhat darker as the narrative progresses. Not the heavy truths of American Gods, just some smaller ones, but still important. A very pleasant afternoon’s reading. (2/20/08)
Gould, Steven. Jumper: Griffin’s Story. NY: Tor, 2007.
I enjoyed Gould’s first novel, Jumper, and have reread it a couple of times; the sequel, Reflex, is much less successful, because of various implausibilities. In one sense, all three novels are a one-trick pony: What could happen to a character who has the innate ability to teleport (“jump”) to anyplace he’s visited before, and can visualize later in sufficient detail? In another sense, it’s an adolescent daydream; think of all the stuff you could do and never get caught! Wow! Well, no, not this time. Griffin O’Conner of Oxfordshire is only a small child the first time he unexpectedly teleports, and it nearly costs his family their lives. It seems there’s a bunch of heavily armed people who would like to kill him because of his talent. They all move to San Diego, where the nine-year-old Griffin gets in a tight spot and forgets his parents’ indoctrination. He teleports where people can see him do it and a few days later his parents are brutally murdered before his eyes. Most of the rest of the book is about Griffin hiding out, learning to harness his ability for his own survival, discovering that the Bad Guys can sense when he jumps, making friends and losing them, falling in love and losing her (twice), and finally seeking and obtaining revenge. It’s all very cinematic — which figures, because Gould wrote this one as a novelization of the 2008 film. Of course, it’s convenient that Griffin is very mature for his age, is trained in karate, has a head for languages, and is extremely well read. Not a bad fast read, actually, if you don’t expect a lot of depth. (2/19/08)
Gaiman, Neil. American Gods. NY: William Morrow, 2001.
This book contains some of Gaiman’s very best writing, and also encompasses an amazing number and variety of themes — the place of the gods in humanity’s scheme of things (and vice versa), the nature of belief and unbelief (and why they matter, or don’t), and of life and death (which are not mutually exclusive categories), why America is fundamentally different from the Old World (and why it’s the same, too), and what the point of it all is. Or perhaps there’s no point at all — and that’s the point. From the beginning, when Shadow leaves prison to attend the funeral of his unfaithful wife and is recruited on the way by Mr. Wednesday (who is really Wodan, the All-Father), the reader slides into a world in which the old deities and supernatural beings of Egypt and Scandinavia and the Balkans and Africa and the Caribbean are caught in a struggle with the new gods of technology and television and drugs and the Interstate and the media. Which side will win? Which side deserves to? Shadow starts out as a driver/errand boy, merely an observer, but he ends as an important participant in the would-be war. But the war turns out to be something else, too. Part of the book is an extended road trip, a tour of America’s true holy places — most of them roadside attractions — and convoluted, gray cities and perfect small towns. Along the way, Gaiman pauses to recount short fictions about the past and the gods’ place in the world. Throughout, his style and use of the language are hypnotic, and his characters — even the spear-carriers — are multidimensional. This is especially true of old Hinzelmann, and Low Key Lyesmith, and Mssrs. Ibis & Jaquel, and Czernobog with his hammer, and young Samantha Black crow, and the technical boy, and most esecially of Laura, who loves Shadow beyond death. A gorgeous book. (2/15/08)
Blakesley, Rosalind P. The Arts and Crafts Movement. London: Phaidon Press, 2006.
Ever since I was first exposed to it in class my first year of college (in the mid-’60s), I’ve been a fan of the Arts and Crafts Movement, William Morris, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Pre-Raphaelites (especially Burne-Jones and Rossetti), and also of Frank Lloyd Wright, who got his start in Arts and Crafts, and Art Nouveau, which largely grew out of it. A topic like this, of course, needs great visuals and the publisher certainly supplies them in this thick, oversized volume. Beginning with William Morris’s upbringing and later career, the author traces both the artistic and the commercial threads of the Movement, following them then to the Continent — and even to places you might not think to look, like Hungary and Poland and Finland. Arts and Crafts in the United States didn’t balk at commercialism, as its practioners sometimes did in Britain, and some of the most attractive homes designed and built between the turn of the 20th century and Great War still stand in Chicago and Buffalo and Pasadena. While the architectural emphasis was always on living space, there were also more than a few Arts and Crafts churches and public buildings. (I remember a freshman field trip to the amazing First Church of Christ Scientist in Berkeley.) Besides architecture, though, there was also some beautiful pottery produced in the U.S., such as the Southern-themed vases turned out by women’s vocational classes at Sophie Newcomb in New Orleans. (Wish I could afford to own some of those.) The author’s text is smooth and informative, but I admit I like to just sit and turn the pages and drink in the illustrations. A thoroughly gorgeous book. Wear a bib so you don’t leave drool marks. (2/12/08)
Sigurdardóttir, Yrsa. Last Rituals. NY: Morrow, 2007.
After reading the first two Icelandic mystery novels by Arnaldur Indriaðson, and enjoying the setting as well as the story, I happened upon this first novel by an Icelandic woman, a civil engineer. The main character, Thora Gudmundsdottir, is a lawyer (civil, not criminal) who, because she speaks German, becomes involved in the investigation of the gruesome murder of a German graduate student at the University of Iceland. Harald Guntlieb, who had his own psychological problems as well as a great deal of money, had a deep interest in sorcery, the witchcraft burnings, and the surviving related manuscripts. When his body is discovered missing its eyes, the police immediately decide a drug-dealing friend of his is responsible. Harald’s mother thinks otherwise and hires Thora, who finds herself assisted by the Guntliebs’ head of security, whom she doesn’t much like — at first. The plot is heavy on Icelandic church history, and academic research, and rather extreme body ornamentation, and the author doesn’t really drop subtle hints along the way; you find out things as Thora does. In fact, the only reason you might have to suspect the real culprit is that he acts in a generally suspicious way — but for no particular reason. He’s also a POV character for part of the story, which isn’t exactly playing fair with the reader. The author’s style is a bit clunky, but one may hope she’ll learn. Also, the translation is a bit stiff and overwritten, but that’s a common fault. Not a great first novel, but not bad. She has a second one coming and I’ll be watching for it. (2/09/08)
Gaiman, Neil. Fragile Things. NY: William Morrow, 2006.
Neil Gaiman is one of the most inventive, most original writers working today — and that’s not an opinion but a true statement. As Harlan Ellison once said, you can identify a story as one of his in the first sentence. The thirty-one short stories and poems in this collection run the gamut from light-hearted humor that will make you smile, to dark, rusty-edged pieces that will make you look over your shoulder. They include a Hugo-winner and a couple of Locus-Award-winners, but there’s not a bad one in the lot. One of my favorites is “A Study in Emerald,” a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. These things usually aren’t very successful (in my opinion), but this one, which brings in H. P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, is first-rate. “Goliath” is the closest Neil comes in this collection to a classic science fiction story, and it’s excellent. “Sunbird,” which the author wrote for his daughter as an 18th-birthday present, starts out (you will think) kind of scattershot but then all the skeins weave together into a lovely bit of folklore. “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves” is a nice bit of inside-out Gothic romanticism. “Other People” is sort of a moral lesson, and benefits from being read aloud; so does the very short “In the End,” which is sort of Genesis in reverse. “Keepsakes and Treasures,” featuring Mr. Smith and Mr. Alice, is about (among other things) the limitations of money. “How Do You Think It Feels?” is somewhat depressing by the nature of its story, but it will stick with you. “How To Talk to Girls at Parties,” on the other hand, is both poetic and spooky as hell. There are a couple of ghost story/urban legend pieces, including “Closing Time” and “Feeders and Eaters,” which didn’t do anything for me — but that’s just my tastes. I didn’t care much for “The Problem of Susan,” either, because I never much cared for Narnia. Of the poems, the best are “Locks,” about why storytelling is important, and “My Story,” which is very funny, and “The Day the Saucers Came,” which is very, very funny, and also rather sweet. The weakest pieces — relatively speaking — are “Bitter Grounds,” which I guess I just didn’t get the point of, and “The Facts in the Case of the Disappearance of Miss Finch,” which is sort of a Twilight Zone yarn gone awry. “Harlequin Valentine” doesn’t quite seem to go anywhere, either. (2/07/08)
Sun Tzu. The Art of War. NY: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003.
I was first introduced to Master Sun in a military history seminar in grad school, and I’ve reread it several times since. I know it’s fawned over in take-no-prisoners MBA programs and such, but I’m interested in its original purpose, which is instructing a Chinese military leader in how to carry out warfare in the most successful (i.e., winning) and efficient (i.e., not losing too many of your own men) manner possible. Some of the points he makes seem obvious to anyone with even a smattering of military knowledge — like tactical retreat when faced with overwhelming odds — but they’re only obvious because he invented them. Most versions in English are based on the Lionel Giles translation from the turn of the 20th century, including this one. This edition is my favorite, however, because of the excellent introduction and explanatory and contextual notes by Dallas Galvin. (2/05/08)
Turtledove, Harry. Counting Up, Counting Down. NY: Del Rey, 2002.
When he tries, Harry’s work can be pretty damn good — especially in the alternative history genre, which he pretty much owns at present. But when he gets lazy — which he seems to do too often lately — his prose can be embarrassingly unreadable. The best example in this collection of seventeen short stories of the pretty damn good are the two interconnected bookend stories, about a young computer designer of our own time (more or less) who hasn’t been the same since his wife walked out on him with full justification. He wants her back, so he decides to return to the past of his own youth and do something about it by mentoring himself in maintaining a good relationship. “Forty, Counting Down” is that story, from the later viewpoint, “Twenty-One, Counting Up” retells it from the POV of his younger self. (And the two stories originally were sold to two different magazines, an interesting marketing ploy.) There’s a good deal of thoughtful, insightful writing here and any guy will twinge in sympathy with Justin’s plight. Of the other pieces, “Must and Shall” is a pretty good, frequently reprinted examination of a different sort of “if the North had won the War” world. (Yes, that’s what I said.) “Deconstruction Gang” is a witty put-on of contemporary lit-crit (which civilians aren’t going to appreciate most of). “After the Last Elf Is Dead” is an interesting anti-Tolkien investigation of the sometimes narrow boundary between good and evil. “The Green Buffalo” isn’t bad, but it doesn’t fulfill the possibilities of the set-up.
The rest of the volume, unfortunately, comes nowhere near even this level of skill. “The Maltese Elephant” is a flat pastiche of Dashiell Hammett, while “Miss Manners Guide to Greek Missology” is simply bad. “Ready for the Fatherland” and “The Phantom Tolbukhin” are forgettable alternate World War II stories. “Goddess for a Day” is (he says) based on a true incident, but the story itself is kind of pointless. “Vermin” has a point to make about social interference, but it’s plagued with gaping plot holes. “Ils ne passeront pas” also has possibilities but doesn’t follow up on them. “In This Season” is confused and doesn’t make a lot of sense. “Honeymouth” is a one-joke unicorn story. “The Decoy Duck,” set in the Videssos universe, is merely dumb; so is “The Seventh Chapter.” C’mon, Harry, pay attention! You can do better than this! (2/03/08)
Bernhard, Marianne. Monasteries. Munich: I. P. Verlag, 1998.
This oversized volume is, in many ways, a nice picture book, but it could have been much more informative on the actual histories and roles of the 100 monastic institutions it attempts to cover in only about 180 pages. Part of the problem is the rather sloppy, jerky translation from (I assume) the German, and part is the inherently disorganized approach of the author (whose qualifications are not noted). Each treatment includes at least one present-day photograph (usually a quarter-page in size), a ground plan, and text covering perhaps one-third of the page. In this case, the purely geographical organization allows little comparison between architectural styles or their evolution. The text is often given over to contemporary quotations, which frequently lack context, and because the photo is likely to be of the picture-postcard variety — i.e., taken at a distance and emphasizing mountains or a forest in the background — it’s difficult to make out just which part of the monastery complex the text is referring to. In some cases, all that left is the monastery’s cathedral, with no surviving monkish buildings at all, which makes the pictorial approach nearly useless. The book also lacks an index. There’s some nice stuff here, but this volume is ultimately unsatisfying. (2/01/08)
Oggins, Robin S. Cathedrals. NY: MetroBooks, 1996.
Having recently re-read Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, I’ve been reacquainting myself with the details of medieval cathedral-building. Being an historian, but not an architect, I’ve been interested especially in heavily pictorial volumes, and this is a pretty good one, by a British academic specialist in medieval architecture. Following two informative chapters on the ecclesiastical evolution of the cathedral and the construction process, the main body of the book is geographical in organization: the British Isles, French and Spanish-speaking Europe, the Germanic countries, a whole chapter on Italy, and a closing chapter on non-European cathedrals. The volume is oversized so most of the high-quality photos show plenty of detail, both exterior and interior. Etchings and engineering drawings are scattered throughout, as are quotations from monastic contemporaries. I especially like being able to turn pages and compare one west front to another, one sanctuary to another, and note the evolution of styles. And even though this is mostly a “picture book,” there’s a great deal of useful text. (1/31/08)
Jeffers, H. Paul. History’s Greatest Conapiracies. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2004.
Because I have an academic background in history, and because I worked in a library in Dallas during all the years following the Kennedy assassination when authors came to us to research their books about it, I have a longstanding interest in “conspiracy history.” I’m not necessarily a “believer” in any sense, but I’m fascinated by the ins and outs of conspiracy theory and people’s attitudes toward it. I picked up this survey volume (a hundred conspiracies in 314 pages, beginning with Adam and Eve) out of curiosity, but was considerably disappointed at what the author has done with his material. First, he includes a great many events and incidents which are “conspiracies” only by the narrowest legal definition (and a modern U.S. definition at that). This includes famous murders (Leopold and Loeb, the Manson family, the Menendez brothers) and broad political movements (including, believe it or not, the entire history of communism). Second, though claiming to give equal coverage to all those involved, like the good journalist he purports to be, he makes it clear that, for instance, anyone who has ever spied on the U.S. on behalf of another country (beginning with Major Andre) is evil, while the entire OSS and CIA are heroic. The overthrow and murder by the CIA of Prime Minister Mossadegh of Iran — which led directly to the Shah’s repressive policies and the formation of the Islamic state — was completely justified. The Watergate conspiracy was overblown. Oliver North was justified in breaking the law and lying to Congress in the Iran-Contra affair because he was anti-communist. Cuba was better off under Batista. And on and on, including the clear presumption that Christians are superior to adherents of any other religion. The author also indulges in ludicrous statements, such as assuring the reader that Saddam really did have weapons of mass destruction. Finally, he omits a number of real conspiracies that obviously should have been included, such as the great water scam in L.A. during the 1930s, secret U.S. government experimentation on members of the military, Hoover’s attempts to smear Martin Luther King, CIA efforts to assassinate Castro (mentioned offhandedly and with approval in a single sentence), and the entire unconstitutional COINTELPRO operation. This book is so slanted, you’ll have trouble getting it to stand upright on the shelf. (1/30/08)
Icher, François. Building the Great Cathedrals. NY: Abrams, 1998.
I’ve just finished re-reading Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, in preparation for the sequel, and that got me interested again in the process of erecting the great Gothic cathedrals. I was looking mostly for good illustrations and architectural plans and drawings, and while this oversized volume has some of that, it’s really not what I expected, based on the title. Icher is apparently a leading French authority on medieval crafts guilds, and much of the book is given over to describing how the stonemasons were organized, how one became a master, and so on. There’s considerably less about the actual planning and construction of the buildings, and almost nothing on the evolution of the Gothic style from the Romanesque. A nice book, but far from being the best. (1/27/08)
Chabon, Michael. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. NY: HarperCollins, 2007.
This is a fascinating book — and on a number of very different levels. The setting is an alternate yiddishkeit, in which word got out in the late 1930s of the Nazi liquidation of the Jews and the U.S. reluctantly established a “temporary” home for refugees in the Alaska panhandle. The population of the Sitka Federal District swelled again when the nascent state of Israel collapsed in 1948, and now there are several million Yiddish-speaking Jews swarming in the area — “the frozen Chosen.” But reversion of the district to the State of Alaska is coming in a couple of months and the Sitka Jews will become wanderers again. But that’s just the background! The main plot concerns homicide detective Meyer Landsman, resident of a seedy hotel since his divorce, and his attempt to figure out who murdered another resident of the hotel, Mandel Schpilman — who turns out to be the son of the Verbover Rebbe, a major Hassidic leader and a deeply corrupt man. The investigation leads to a much wider plot involving American evangelicals trying to arrange for the End Days (just like the neocons in our own universe), and it’s a finely drawn mystery. But there’s another storyline involving Landsman’s partner, the half-Tlingit Berko Shemets, whose father, a real piece of work, ran the FBI’s Cointelpro in Sitka. Then there’s the now-suspicious death of Landsman’s bush-pilot sister two years before, after transporting Schpilman to a secret base run by the conspiracy. And the tension between the detective and his ex-wife, who is now his boss at Sitka Central. Throughout the book, Chabon displays a lyrical version of classic Chandleresque noir dialogue, and the characterizations are at least five-dimensional. The humor is dark and distinctly Yiddish in flavor. A marvelous piece of work. (1/24/08)
Willis, Connie. The Winds of Marble Arch and Other Stories. Burton, MI: Subterranean Press, 2007.
Connie Willis is a certified treasure, whether she’s writing a time travel novel that puts you squarely in medieval England, or whether it’s a story that starts out like it came from Redbook, and then slaps you in the face. This monster volume isn’t cheap, but it brings together twenty-three short stories and novellas plus an introduction, and that works out to $1.67 per story — or less than six cents a page. A very good deal for writing of this quality. Some of these, like the award-winning “Fire Watch” (which set the tone for so much of her later work) and “Even the Queen” (about a civilization-changing liberation half the world’s population can get behind) and “The Last of the Winnebagos” (about yearning and extinction), you’ve probably read before. Others, like the soul-satisfying title story about what came before and what comes after, may not be so familiar. “Blued Moon” is a very funny love story, “Just Like the Ones We Used to Know” is an equally funny possible-end-of-the-world story, and “Daisy, in the Sun” is a quietly desperate piece that finally settles into resignation and acceptance. “A Letter from the Clearys” is a much less settled after-the-holocaust story, while “Nonstop to Portales” is a lovely little tribute to one of sf’s nicest people. “Newsletter,” on the other hand, leads you down the alien invasion garden path and then zings you right at the very end, and “Ado” has some pointed things to say about identity politics and social censorship. “Inn” is a slightly strange story about Joseph and Mary and what Christianity has become, and “Samaritan” is about the fine line between humans and nonhumans . . . and what Christianity has become. “Jack,” one of the best in the book, is a poignant and somewhat spooky piece about the Civil Defense during the London Blitz. (Willis obviously has a thing for the Blitz.) “Service for the Burial for the Dead” is a ghost story right out of Poe (with an idea swiped from Twain), while “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” is a generally successful academic pastiche about Emily Dickinson’s penmanship. “Chance” is a slightly depressing investigation of the consequences of bad personal choices, while “At the Rialto” is a dryly funny piece about personal quantum physics. Finally, “Epiphany” is a definite keeper. Connie isn’t afraid to write stories with a religious theme, though always from a very particular point of view, and this tale of the Three Kings (pay attention to the names) traveling through the Midwest in search of a carnival is one of her best. Finally, for me, the weakest stories in the volume (relatively speaking) are “All My Darling Daughters” and “The Curse of Kings” and “Cash Crop,” all of which are all setting and not much plot. All in all, though, this is a terrific book. (1/20/08)
Hart, John. The King of Lies. NY: St. Martin, 2006.
This author’s debut is very impressive; if he can keep this up in his future novels, he’s likely to become a fixture on the best-seller lists. A lot of comparisons have been made to Scott Turow — and he’s certainly closer to that than to Grisham (fortunately). The setting is Salisbury, North Carolina, an old town settled largely by Pennsylvania Germans (including some of my family) and starkly divided economically and socially between Old Money and New Money. “Work” Pickens’s father was one of the latter, a self-made millionaire attorney and a thorough son of a bitch. Work himself, while a competent lawyer, is much more easygoing, which sometimes makes him no match for his father and his own socially ambitious wife. The old man was also a misogynist, and Work’s mother (killed by being pushed down the stairs) and his fragile sister, Jean, both suffered. So when the elder Pickens disappears, it’s no great loss — until his body turns up eighteen months later. Work suspects his sister did it, believes it was probably justified, and is willing to go to prison, if necessary, to protect her. But the DA and the police rather like Work himself for the murder. And complicating things is Work’s long-time relationship with Vanessa, a woman whom he tried (unsuccessfully) to protect from rape when she was fifteen. That failure has haunted him ever since and the guilt he feels has a lot to do with his choice of a wife. This is a complex but tightly plotted book that almost screams “blockbuster movie.” The style, while a bit overwritten at times, suits the subject, and the characters are four-dimensional. I will definitely be watching for his next book. (1/16/08)
Scalzi, John. The Last Colony. NY: Tor, 2007.
According to the author’s note at the back, this is meant to be the last book in the “Colonial Union” universe. He wants to turn his hand to other topics for awhile, which is probably a good thing — because, while this is an enjoyable read, it’s nothing like as multilayered or brimming with telling detail as the two novels that preceded it. John Perry, protagonist of the first book, and his wife, Jane Sagan, ditto of the second one, have left the Colonial Defense Forces for the pleasantly boring job of managing a community on one of the colony worlds. Then a couple of high-ranking figures from their mutual pasts talk them into taking on the much more responsible position of administrators to a whole new planetary colony. But when they get there, together with their adopted teenage daughter, it turns out not to be where they thought they were going. They’ve been set up by the CU as stalking horses in the struggle with the Conclave, a confederation of more than four hundred worlds that are trying to bring about interstellar peace by controlling further colonization by anyone. But, as John and Jane find out, the Bad Guys aren’t necessarily, and the Good Guys definitely aren’t. Behind the political plot are a number of thoroughly cynical points the author wants to make about where one’s loyalties ought to lie, and what honor means in considering one’s enemy, and why you shouldn’t trust the Government to do anything but lie to you for its own ends. Things get sorted out satisfactorily, though, and the sometimes oddball characterizations and Scalzi’s wry dialogue keep things moving right along. I’ll definitely be watching to see what he has up his sleeve for his next novel. (1/13/08)
Cherryh, C. J. Deliverer. NY: DAW Books, 2007.
After nine volumes, the “Foreigner” saga comes to an exciting end — at least until the next three volumes are published. This is also the first one in which Bren Cameron, the paidhi-aiji, is not the only POV character. Cajeiri, the eight-year-old heir-apparent, is a precocious atevi kid with a lot more life-experience behind him than most adults: Two years on a starship with Bren and his great-grandmother (the formidable Ilisidi), direct contact with a third alien species, the unfortunate experience of having shot an attacker, and much more first-hand knowledge of human kids than any of his relatives considers wise. But now, having returned to the world and back in the care of his very busy parents (who have just survived an attempted coup), the kid is bored — not to mention annoyed at the lack of technological amenities he’d gotten used to on the ship. But all that changes suddenly when he’s kidnapped right out of the family’s quarters by a cabal of displeased Easterners for mostly local political reasons. Bren and Ilisidi are dispatched to recover the heir before things go too far, and the result is a thundering chase story with rival bad guys, gunfire, poison, and a very inventive prisoner with far greater powers of observation and ingenuity than his somewhat bumbling kidnappers could expect. The politics are complex, but any reader of the series expects that, and the local situation is laid out quite satisfactorily. Maybe this one will satisfy those readers who think this epic is too “talky.” (1/08/08)
Cherryh, C. J. Pretender. NY: DAW Books, 2005.
Getting down near the end of this epic, now — at least, the end of the nine volumes so far published. Recently returned from two years in deep space, Bren Cameron, the paidhi-aiji (and now Lord of the Heavens, whether he likes it or not), has found the atevi world in an uproar, a usurper having attempted to oust Tabini, the aiji of most of the world. His boss has gone into hiding to raise a counter-revolution. At the end of the previous book, Bren and the aiji’s dowager grandmother (an intimidating old lady with razor-sharp political skills and a devoted following), as well as the aiji’s very young heir, have survived an attempt to eliminate them by dissident members of the Assassins Guild and have finally met up with Tabini. This eighth volume is taken up with the journey, partly by commandeered bus, partly by rail, to the capital at Shejidan, where the aiji intends to take back his position. They gather forces as well as momentum — the ultimate road trip, in a way — and by the time they hit the palace gates (or, rather, underground train station), the usurper has fled the city. There’s quite a bit of action this time out, but also considerable in-depth discussion of the concept of man’chi, which isn’t “loyalty,” exactly, but a hardwired atevi sense of belonging to the herd, being subject to its instinctive hierarchy. As long as he’s been immersed in atevi society, Bren still doesn’t quite understand his hosts’ psychology, not instinctively. An absorbing and illuminating episode in the ongoing saga. (A small complaint, however: Michael Whelen has provided the cover paintings for the first seven books, and he’s generally done a good job. But this time, for some reason, the painting is by Donato Giancola, and it’s really pretty poor.) (1/04/08)
Baking Illustrated: The Practical Kitchen Companion for the Home Baker. Brookline, MA: America’s Test Kitchen, 2004.
I was a charter subscriber of Cook’s Illustrated, and I have a complete run of the magazine (with lots of sticky-note bookmarks throughout the run), so I frankly haven’t paid much attention to the subsequent book titles they’ve published, on the assumption they were just collections of previously-published material. After I browsed through this well-organized volume, however, I found I was in error and that that definitely was not the case. The method followed is mostly the same as in the magazine, of course: Set out the criteria for a “good” version of a given dish, note the common failures home cooks experience, and then experiment almost endlessly with the parameters, the ingredients, and the methods and techniques until you reach your goal. And then suggest variations to the basic recipe. Since I’m far from being a “natural” cook, I’ve learned a great deal from that laboratory approach over the past few years. My wife recently acquired a very good stand mixer, which led me back into experimental baking — something I hadn’t done for several decades. And this book has rapidly become my Bible when it comes to turning out bread, whether a basic white sandwich loaf or challah or crusty Italian-style, and also scones and cookies (the crispy chocolate chip recipe is excellent). The discussions, as ever, are illuminating, and there are numerous informative sidebars, as well as a large, nicely illustrated section called “Common Baking Problems and How to Avoid Them.” I’m filling this book up with sticky-notes, too. Highly recommended. (1/02/08)