Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Mermaid

The title: The Mermaid
The author: Betina Krahn
Publication: Bantam, 1997
Got it from: Sony Reader Store

Before I begin this dolphin, I just have to say dolphins.  As I was reading this dolphin, I thought - wow, dolphin.  There are not enough dolphins in dolphins.  The world just does not dolphin enough dolphins.  Because dolphins.

Seriously, though.  They are adorableAnyone who does not love dolphins should be beaten with dorsal fins and pushed out to sea on a leaky boat.

Betina Krahn is quickly becoming one of my favourite romance writers.  Last year I read and enjoyed a whole bunch of critically-acclaimed romances by critcally-acclaimed authors, but it was Sweet Talking Man I loved and remembered the most.   And I just can't understand why she's not more popular.  She has a knack for writing great historical heroines with fantastic careers and feminist plots.

The Mermaid centres around Celeste Ashton, a young Victorian woman who lives on England's south shore and who has written a book about dolphin behaviour that is waaaayyy ahead of its time.  In it, she purports that dolphins are not only intelligent, they also speak their own language and have complex social interactions that rival those of humans.  Her book becomes a bestseller, not because of its scientific content, but because people are fascinated by dolphin sex and because Celeste is young and beautiful and how dare she write about such shocking subjects?  Celeste becomes the (unwitting) notorious toast of England and earns the nickname The Lady Mermaid.

Of course all the male scientists pooh-pooh her research.  When Celeste tries to defend herself at a lecture, they basically jeer at her and humiliate her.  Enter stick-in-the mud ichthyolgist professor Titus Thorne, who is called upon to discredit her work.  Yes, our hero studies fish guts for a living.  And it's frigging awesome.  Anyway, Titus has to go down to Celeste's home on the coast in order to watch her in action.  A number of problems arise:

1. Titus is deathly afraid of water.
2. Celeste's grandmother is slightly loonie and she and her friends are part of a society who think they can bring back the lost city of Atlantis with mystical chanting and rituals.  They also want to mate Titus and Celeste.
3. There's a nefarious villain who wants to steal Celeste's dolphins.
4.  Celeste keeps stripping down to get in the water with the dolphins, which is totally improper but HOT.

And of course, there's lots of dolphins in this.  And they are ridiculously adorable.

What I love about this book is that there is a lot of triumphing of reason over superstition, and it's led by the heroine.  Titus, as a scientist, has to learn to let go of his skepticism about dolphin behaviour in the face of the evidence in front of him.  And just as the hero in Sweet Talking Man has a feminist epiphany when he comes to respect the heroine's business savvy, Titus also does a complete about-face in his thinking about women by the end of the book.  In one scene, he walks through the streets of London and observes the women around him, admitting that it is unlikely all of them "have defective brains."  It's a nice feminist moment in a book about trusting the evidence of the natural world.  And it's just a sweet story.

Betina Krahn - I must read more of your books.

Thursday, May 23, 2013


The title: Inferno
The author: Dan Brown
Publication: Doubleday, 2013
Got it from: The library

Say what you want about Dan Brown - go ahead, everyone else is - but he knows how to write a page-turning story.  He's the only "bestselling" author that I automatically request at the library, but it helps that he only writes a new one every three or four years.  What makes his books stand apart from the usual intrigue novel is tons of history.  Again, criticize his research if you must, but keep in mind that sometimes facts have to play second fiddle to a good yarn.

In this fourth novel in the series, hero and Harvard symbology professor Robert Langdon wakes up with amnesia in a hospital in Florence, only to find himself being pursued by mysterious baddies.  Faster than you can say plot device, he's on the run with beautiful young doctor Sienna Brooks.  The twist in this one is that he's already solved many of the mysteries that we encounter as the book progresses, only now he has to re-solve them.  Most of the riddles revolve around Dante Aligheri's epic poem Inferno.  The villain in this piece is obsessed with Dante's work and (slight spoiler) uses its imagery in a plan to control global population.

The problem with Inferno (Brown's book, not Dante's) is that it's not as fun as The Da Vinci Code, as interesting as Angels and Demons, or as thrillingly menacing as The Lost Symbol.  Sure there's lots of twists and turns, but I kind of already figured them out ahead of time, so there wasn't the sense of urgency.  Nor did the "bad guys" seem so bad.  I actually couldn't help but agree with some of their views on the problems of overpopulation.  There's also a lot of what felt like a history lecture from Dan Brown.  Normally I love reading about history, especially when it involves interesting asides and connections between famous people and places, but in many cases it just felt like info dumping.  It slowed down the pace of the story and dragged it out for too long.  My overall impression was that it was a fun but ridiculous story.

Bottom line: If you love Dan Brown, you'll get more of what you love.  If you loathe Dan Brown, you'll get more of what you loathe.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Sweet Tooth: The Bittersweet History of Candy

 The title: Sweet Tooth: The Bittersweet History of Candy
The author: Kate Hopkins
Publication: St. Martin's Press, 2012
Got it from: The library

With a name like Sweet Tooth: The Bittersweet History of Candy, and an enticing-looking chocolate on the cover, I couldn't not check this book out of the library.   Kate Hopkins is a food blogger (see her website Accidental Hedonist) and she attempts to trace the history of candy while visiting the places where sweets got their origins.  Her travels take her to Italy, where delicious torrone was invented (among other treats), Great Britain, the home of "grandma" candy as well as Cadbury's, and to her native US where she visits an early confectionery store in Boston and experiences the childlike heaven of Hershey, Pennsylvania - an entire town devoted to all things candy.

The author's premise is to find the simple childhood joys of candy, but the "bittersweet" truth is that when researching its history, she runs up against troubling issues.  Sugar's history has been intertwined for centuries with slavery that still exists today in parts of Africa.  Still, the author's tone never gets too dark, and interspersed with the history we get little fun facts, such as descriptions of various candies accompanied by their "candy exchange rate," always valued against a York Peppermint Pattie.  For instance, she describes candy corn: "A waxy fondant shaped like corn kernels, candy corn was created in the late 1800s as a means to disappoint future generations of children as they went door to door treat or treating," and calls its taste, "little more than candle wax with autumn colors added."  (Candy exchange rate?  1,476 pieces of candy corn = 1 York Peppermint Pattie.)

As someone who was obsessed with sweets as a child and still gets a bit gushy over the likes of Lindt chocolate and Jelly Bellies, I enjoyed this book very much.  It certainly gave me a new appreciation for how candies are made and their long history in Western culture.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World

The title:  Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World
The author: Matthew Goodman
Publication: Ballantine Books, 2013
Got it from: The library

I was MIA in April because I was buried deep in five books I was book-talking for a library program (and all of you librarians know how nerve-wracking book talks are).  One of the books was Matthew Goodman's Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World.  

Now, I did read Jules Verne's book a few years ago, and I think Nellie Bly is pretty boss, so how did I not know that she once raced around the world?  If you don't know Nellie Bly, look her up - she was a scrappy female reporter in Gilded Age New York who did some pretty awesome things. (She also has her own mystery series, which will show up here in future reviews).  In 1889, she set out to beat the record set by the fictional Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days and circumnavigate the globe in 75 days.  Meanwhile, another reporter, Elizabeth Bisland (a literary critic who was none too pleased to be told she had to travel in a moment's notice) also set out to race against her, albeit in the opposite direction.

It was the perfect age to travel in.  Both of the ladies had rich newspaper companies paying their first-class fares the whole way around, and Britain was at the height of its empire.  They barely had to step foot off British soil, even though they stopped at ports around the world to change transportation.  Nellie Bly headed east, suffered horrible seasickness on the Atlantic, met Jules Verne in France, bought a monkey in Ceylon, and fended off would-be suitors who thought she was rich.  Elizabeth Bisland went west, encountered a hair-raising train trip through the Rockies, charmed everyone on board her Pacific steamer and fell in love with Japan.  Both women got a bit cranky (as you do when you're traveling at breakneck speed for over seventy days) but only one ultimately emerged triumphant, breaking the world record and becoming a national heroine. 

This book isn't a quick read.  There's a lot of dense text and tons and tons of historical detail that interrupts the narrative of the race itself.  If you don't mind that sort of thing and are curious about what the world looked like in the late 19th century (at least through the eyes of two kinda racist but good-hearted women), you'll love Eighty Days.