Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik

This is the seventh of the Temeraire series, set in the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Novik has made some changes in the events of that time, and also determined that those mythical creatures, dragons, are a strategic component of many countries’ military might. Western nations have Aerial Corps, using dragons instead of planes for battles both on land and at sea. A captain in the Aerial Corps forms a bond with a dragon when it is hatched from the egg, but each dragon also has a crew that rides it by locking onto a web of harnesses, dropping bombs and firing weapons. While the concept sounds a bit whimsical, Novik’s detailed knowledge of that historical era, coupled with her ability to spin an exciting narrative, makes the series a success.

The dragons are fully capable of thought, speech and action when they are hatched, although they are able to mature with experience, like humans. They are characters in their own right and Temeraire, who the series is named after, is both noble and yet touching in his desire to help his own captain, Will Lawrence be successful and be looked up to both in the Corps and in society at large.

What has stymied Temeraire’s goal is the corruption and treachery that is part of human endeavor, so that Will and Temeraire both have found themselves outside the Corps and even banished from England. In this novel they have been asked to join the Corps again to help fight against Napoleon’s latest venture in Brazil. Many African dragons closely bound with village communities in their native country suffered the depredation of the slave trade, losing men, women, and children taken by the Europeans to the New World. (In an earlier book, Empire of Ivory, we met one of those dragons.) Napoleon has enlisted the African dragons to attack and lay waste to Brazilian colonies, giving them the inducement of finding and recovering their lost villagers.

In South America we see a culture permeated with dragons, like China, but with a different slant. Novik is not content to leave dragons (or people, for that matter) in one state of development, but keeps devising historical scenarios that allow for new characteristics to emerge. Because so many native peoples were stricken and died by disease brought to them by Europeans, the dragons set great store on those that remain, and care for those in their community like brooding hens, eager to have them raise descendents to continue their close companionship.

All of this makes for some complicated plots and subplots, yet the careful reader is rewarded with a panorama of political intrigue and simple soldiering that rings true. We can feel how long it takes to sail at these latitudes, in those ships, and how long it takes to struggle through mountainous passes. The series is rumored to be drawing to a close, and I will not be the only reader sorry to have it end.

Click here for catalog listing.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Lariat List

Looking for something to read? Maybe something on the 2011 Lariat Reading List, a list of recommended adult fiction from the Texas Library Association, will rope your interest.

Have you read any of these books already? What'd you think?

Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer
On the eve of World War II, when Life photojournalist Claire Shipley files a story about the development of penicillin, she stumbles upon corporate espionage and murder. An enlightening look at life before antibiotics.
Holy Rollers by ReShonda Tate Billingsley
Frustrated in their searches for Mr. Right, three women turn to the pulpit looking for love. Self reflection follows as the women realize that loving and living is serious business. Readers ride through the highs and lows of rejection, respect and relationships.
House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni
Teenager Sebastian Prendergast is thrown from the sheltered world of his eccentric, Buckminster-Fuller-worshiping Nana into the life of a family struggling with monumental issues. An off-beat, humorous read.
Book of Fires by Jane Borodale
London, 1752. Seventeen year-old Agnes Trussel becomes an assistant to a master fireworks maker. What will happen when her pregnancy becomes known? Captivating and colorful historical fiction.
Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke
Detective Dave Robicheaux is on the hunt for a serial killer in his own backyard of southern Louisiana. His daughter's boyfriend might be one of the suspects. Strong, colorful characters drive this hard-boiled thriller.
The Name Partner by Carlos Cisneros
Ambitious South Texas attorney Guillermo "Billy" Bravo struggles with ethics when a complex pharmaceutical case becomes personal. Fast-paced suspense with lots of twists and turns.
Claude and Camille: A Novel of Monet by Stephanie Cowell
Step into the world of French Impressionist painter Claude Monet and his wife/muse Camille. Amidst the colorful stories of their circle of struggling artists, their unruly love story unfolds. A deeply felt, vividly told tale of art history.
Room by Emma Donoghue
Five-year-old Jack and his mother live as resourceful prisoners in the small room that is their universe. Will they escape? A harrowing emotional drama you will never forget.
City of Veils by Zoe Ferraris Saudi desert guide Nayir and forensic technician Katya link disparate events leading to kidnapping and murder. A thought provoking mystery revealing women's lives beneath the veil. A fascinating read.
Juliet by Anne Fortier
American Julie Jacobs is shocked to learn she is a descendant of Guiletta Tolomei immortalized by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. As she traces her ancestry she begins to fear that old curse, "A plague on both your houses!" is still at work — and she is the next target. An unusual premise in a beautiful setting.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
Small town Mississippi Constable Silas Jones investigates the disappearance of a local girl. His former childhood friend Larry Ott is the main suspect. Racial tensions and family secrets abound in this tight psychological thriller.
Live To Tell by Lisa Gardner
Detective D. D. Warren's investigation of a family annihilation leads her to a juvenile psychiatric ward where personal demons come back to haunt her. An intense and fast-paced thriller.
Dog Boy by Eva Hornung
Abandoned and alone, four-year-old Romochka, finds both home and family with feral dogs in post-apocalyptic Moscow. Gritty, not for the faint of heart.
They're Watching by Gregg Andrew Hurwitz
Patrick Davis is failing in his career and marriage; who would want to stalk him? But incoming mysterious DVDs and phone calls show someone is doing just that. Plot twists keep the reader guessing until the very end.
So Cold the River by Michael Koryta
Washed-up filmmaker Eric Shaw arrives in West Baden, Indiana to research the life of a reclusive billionaire. After sampling the town’s famous "Pluto Water” his nightmares begin. A gothic chiller.
Breaking Out of Bedlam by Leslie Larson
After her children put her in assisted living, feisty octogenarian Cora Sledge records her life story in a journal and plots her escape. Hilarious and heartwarming.
Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley
During a reprieve from his dementia, Ptolemy Grey puts his life in order and darn near adopts a homeless girl. Great realistic dialog drives this novel about an unexpected relationship and the power of memory.
Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
A young Hungarian man moves to Paris to study architecture and falls in love with a ballet teacher nine years older. Both Jewish, their lives as well as their families are torn apart by World War II. A top-notch historical epic.
Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard
The man who went to prison for killing her father 23 years ago is back on the streets. Should Jody Linder believe new rumors of his innocence? Surprise and suspense electrify a small town in Kansas.
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Major Pettigrew, a widower in a small English village, faces racism and resistance to change when he falls in love with a Pakistani shopkeeper. A sweet, leisurely paced comedy of manners.
Still Missing by Chevy Stevens
Realtor Annie Sullivan is kidnapped and held captive in a secluded mountain cabin. Will she survive? A suspenseful debut novel with unpredictable elements.
The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart
Living in the Tower of London with The Royal Menagerie and a cast of eccentric characters, Beefeater Balthazar Jones finds his life at a crossroads as he deals with the death of his son, his crumbling marriage and his 180-year-old runaway tortoise. Funny, touching and quirky.
Heretic's Wife by Brenda Rickman Vantrease
Kate Gough smuggles Lutheran bibles into Henry VIII's England. To be caught by Thomas More would mean death at the stake. Tense and compelling historical fiction.
Think of a Number by John Verdon
A retired detective is drawn into a complex puzzle laid out by a killer who asks his victims to "think of a number." This cunning perpetrator knows when your number is up. A brainy thriller.
Lone Star Legend by Gwendolyn Zepeda
When Austin journalist Sandy Saavedra is reluctantly transformed into a successful gossip blogger, the resultant celebrity spillover into her real life leads to surprising outcomes. Laugh your way through a novel well seasoned with blog posts, emails and the advice column "Just ask the Chupacabra."

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

End of an era? Encyclopedia Britannica stops printing

CNN reports on the very last print version of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The nearly legendary tome that has represented the best of collected knowledge for generations is going fully digital. 

So is this really the end of an era, or is it just a new format? Brittanica says that their print era ended years ago and the print sales were less than 1% of revenues.  Will you still read reference books online,  or has the internet truly made these types of texts outdated?  Let us know in the comments.

Slightly off topic: My absolutely favorite part of the article is where Britannica president Jorge Cauz says,"We're going to have a cake in the shape of a print set to celebrate, Is that morbid?"  I think I'd have to vote 'yes' on that one.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Women at War with America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era by D’Ann Campbell

Dr Campbell, a historian and currently a faculty member at Culver-Stockton College in Missouri, has a special interest in the history of women in the military services. Her book offers some food for reflection concerning how women’s lives in the United States were affected by World War II. For its background, she relied heavily on surveys taken by government and organizations at the time, and cites studies which quantify the percentages of women and their status before, throughout and after the war years.

Because of the nature of her data, the book at times seemed dry, full of statistics, which were not always easily translated (for me) into living and breathing scenarios. However, a good part of these “facts” did give me a detailed picture of what life must have been like in those days. Some of the general themes could be anticipated, i.e., how reluctant our armed forces was to admit women to their ranks. There were ups and downs for women in the military, with some branches more welcoming than others (the Navy was the best, evidently) and it was interesting to note that women’s salaries overall were improved by entering the service; while men on the whole were paid less in the military compared to their salaries before the war. Campbell is at pains to dissemble the idea that women weren’t working before the war – actually a good part were, at least until they got married. Unlike other countries, the United States government was firmly against the idea of women seeing combat. Even nurses in the military, who were more accepted by the public in general, did not tend to the wounded in the field.

While “Rosie the Riveter” is a popular image, Campbell informs us that there were some negative aspects of women’s venture onto the assembly line. With virtual segregation still in effect, African-American women, for the most part, were not hired in factories. Job segregation still existed, with many companies determining which fields a woman could work in. Unions were likely to be leery of women joining their ranks, since the implication was that women’s first priority was their family, and they would not be long-term employees.

Campbell takes pains to illustrate her thesis – that the government at war had its objectives that it wanted women to help with, yet at the same time not wanting to endanger their primary status as the keeper of hearth and home. There was a serious backlash to women’s military enrollment which England experienced as well: around 1943 a substantial number of enlisted soldiers began calling all female military sexually promiscuous. This discouraged many women from enlisting, and discouraged their families from giving them support or permission to enlist.

The book gives you a lot to absorb and with so many ideological tussles going on, it’s no wonder that it’s hard to decide how women’s status improved during war time, if at all. One thing at least is certain, is that it decidedly changed.

Click here for the catalog listing.

Downton Abbey

By now, you may have heard of the PBS (yes, you heard me right) show that's been attracting an impressive following: "Downton Abbey," a British import that chronicles the lives of an aristocratic family and their servants in the years leading up to World War I and during it. Here's a quick trailer for Season 1:

Season 2 just finished airing on PBS last month. In case you missed the show, the library has both seasons on DVD. You can find them on the DVD shelves that house our TV shows under DVD TV DOWNTON. We've also got the book on the show, The World of Downton Abbey.

I recently started watching "Downton" out of curiosity. Now I'm hooked. You come to care greatly for all the characters and the few villainous characters there are, you love to hate. Even then, you can grudgingly see where their bad attitudes come from. Upstairs, benevolent patriarch Lord Grantham (played by Hugh Bonneville) oversees his brood, which includes his mother, wife and three daughters. Downstairs, the dignified Mr. Carson does the same with his small army of staff.

In Season 1, the ill-fated Titanic has taken with it the heir to Downton Abbey. The rules of inheritance shift Downton's fate into the hands of a unknown third cousin, Matthew Crawley, a lawyer working in Manchester. The fact that he is unlanded and employed (gasp!) is cause for great consternation.

The show examines, among other things, issues of class and gender at the time. Be prepared; the first episode starts out slow and it takes a while to warm up to the show but by the end of Episode 1, you'll be flipping over to Episode 2 and pushing "Play." It may be a period piece, but it's written in a way that feels thoroughly modern and relevant. No stodgy, boring portrayals here; just well-written, absorbing fun. There is drama, romance, and humor — all PG-rated, of course (this is PBS) — but engrossing nevertheless.