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Selections for June 2007

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Barrow's Boys by Fergus Fleming (2001)

The Original Extreme Adventurers: A Stirring Story of Daring, Fortitude and Outright Lunacy by Fergus Fleming tells the stories of a diverse group of 19th century British explorers all sent out on their various journeys by a fascinating man named John Barrow, second secretary to the British Admiralty, who for over 30 years chose the best and brightest men from the British Navy to go out to the farthest reaches of the known world to bring back knowledge and riches for the glory of the British Empire. Brave (we might call them foolhardy) men such as John Franklin, James Clark Ross and William Edward Parry, among many others, discovered the magnetic north pole, charted hitherto unknown areas of the Arctic and Africa, endured nearly unimaginable hardships, and, if fortunate, returned to England to tell about their adventures, only to go forth again and again until their luck finally ran out. (Very few died at home, in bed.) Chatty, entertaining, and historically accurate, Fleming's book makes great reading for any armchair traveler or history buff.

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Monkeewrench by P.J. Tracy (2003)

One of the best mysteries I've read in many a year is P.J. Tracy's Monkeewrench. ("P.J. Tracy" is actually a mother/daughter writing team.) The plot revolves around a software company called Monkeewrench, whose newest computer game involves twenty murders - each more grisly than the last, with on-line players competing at each level to discover who the murderer is. But when a series of killings occurs in Minneapolis and an elderly couple is found murdered in Wisconsin, all mimicking events in the computer game, it becomes apparent that the killer must have some connection to the game itself. The denouement will come as a surprise to most readers (at least it did to me), and the authors have a real talent for creating three dimensional characters. The two most interesting, Minneapolis homicide detective Leo Magozzi and the paranoid and reclusive founder of Monkeewrench, Grace MacBride, are well worth getting to know, and the authors' skill is such that even the most minor ones become real to the reader.

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Un Lun Dun by China Mieville (2007)

As I read Un Lun Dun, China Miéville's satisfying first fantasy novel for teens, I could imagine that his literary influences might include Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, and even J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Miéville conjures up a wonderful alternative world - both like and unlike London - where words are alive, houses are constructed from all sorts of material that's mildly obsolete in London (hence, "moil" houses), books talk, giraffes are far from gentle animals, wraiths abound, propheseers more or less correctly predict the future, and a dark cloud dreams of polluting the world into extinction. But wait - the prophecies proclaim that Shwazzy will arrive in the nick of time and save UnLondon from certain smoggy doom. Turns out that Shwazzy is really 12-year-old Zanna, who magically arrives from London with her best friend, Deeba (who adopts a cardboard milk carton in UnLondon and names it Curdle), and heroically undertakes to fulfill what's been foretold. But nothing happens quite as it's supposed to, and there are many scary encounters and death-defying adventures (as well as puns and other wordplays) before good prevails, at least for the time being.

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By the Time You Read This by Giles Blunt (2007)

In By the Time You Read This, Giles Blunt brings back his detective, Algonquin Bay, Canada, policeman John Cardinal, in what turns out to be his most personal case yet. Although you don't have to be familiar with the three previous novels in this series to enjoy Blunt's newest book, readers who have read them will know that Cardinal's wife has long suffered from manic depression. Early in this book she's found dead, a presumed suicide, just one of several that have recently occurred in Algonquin Bay. Against all the available evidence, Cardinal believes that his wife was murdered, and begins an investigation that will try the patience of his superior officers. Meanwhile, his partner, French Canadian Lise Delorme, is asked by the Toronto police department to help them track down a sexual predator who's posting disturbing (and illegal) pictures on the Internet. If you're looking for a police procedural series with a well drawn cast of characters whose plots revolve around frequently gruesome crimes, Cardinal's your man.

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Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed by John Vaillant (2005)

Deep in the woods of the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia stood an immense golden spruce, a 165 foot tall tree that for more than three centuries was an object of veneration for the Haida Indians and an awesome sight for anyone who was fortunate enough to see it. In a counter-intuitive move to protest the clear-cutting of old growth forests, Grant Hadwin, Canadian logger-turned-eco-terrorist, chopped it down, and then vanished from sight. (He's presumed dead, but no one knows for sure.) In telling Hadwin's story, John Vaillant expertly weaves together many strands and subjects, including the economics of the timber industry; the culture of the Haida, one of the First Peoples of Canada; and the development of the environmentalist movement. Not only is his book, Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed informative, but it reads like a thriller.

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Gloriana's Torch by Patrick Finney (2004)

Gloriana's Torch is the third of Patricia Finney's three novels set in late 16th century England, but you don't need to read the first two, Unicorn's Blood and Firedrake's Eye, to thoroughly enjoy this one. Finney vividly animates a complicated historical period, in which religious issues roil England (and, indeed, all parts of the known world), slavery extends its tentacles ever further into the European continent, and Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, is beset by threats to her rule both from within and outside England. The most immediate danger is that Philip II of Spain is intent on invading England and restoring a Catholic monarch to the throne. Two of the Queen's loyal subjects, David Becket and Simon Ames (both of whom figure prominently in the earlier novels) are caught up in the events of the day. Becket, still recovering physically and emotionally from his horrendous experiences as a prisoner in the Tower of London, discovers that large quantities of gunpowder destined for use against the invaders have disappeared. Has a traitor diverted them to the Spanish cause? Meanwhile, Ames is captured by the Inquisition in Lisbon while on a secret mission for the Queen, and is forced to serve as a galley slave on a boat in the Spanish Armada. Becket, Ames' wife, Rebecca, and her African slave, Merula (one of the best characters in the book) set out on the difficult task of rescuing him. Historical fiction doesn't come any better than this series; I recommend it highly for all fans of the genre.

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The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones (2006)

All fans of fantasy age 10 and up will enjoy reading Diana Wynne Jones's The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. With tongue firmly in cheek, Wynne Jones offers a clever and humorous encyclopedia of alphabetical entries relevant to the wide world of fantasy fiction. These range from Adept ("one who has taken what amounts to the Post-graduate Course in Magic") to Zombies ("These are just the UNDEAD, except nastier, more pitiable, and generally easier to kill."), with entries along the way such as Mountain Pass, Blocked ("The Rule is that any time you need to get from one side of the MOUNTAINS to the other, the pass across is blocked.") and Serious Soldier ("a rather boring Tour COMPANION"¦even better at his job than the FEMALE MERCENARY and speaks even less") and many many more. (Words in all capital letters in entries indicate that there's a separate entry in the book for them.) Each entry also includes symbols for easy identification of the various components readers of fantasy novels will find useful, such as Royalty, Religion, Battle and/or Fighting, and Transportation. I found myself chuckling throughout.

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In This Rain by S.J. Rozan (2006)

In her last two books, S. J. Rozan has abandoned her mystery series characters Bill Smith and Lydia Chin to write stand-alone suspense novels. Her newest stand-alone, In This Rain, takes place in and around the construction industry in New York City. (In addition to being an award-winning mystery writer, Rozan is an architect, so she knows whereof she writes.) It's a fast moving, hard-hitting, nicely complex thriller, filled with a whole host of interesting and realistic characters. Three years before the book opens, Joe Cole, former inspector for the city's Buildings Department, went to prison for a crime he didn't commit. Now, out on parole, he can only watch from the sidelines as deaths from accidents at construction sites begin to pile up. But are they accidents? Is someone sabotaging these multi-million dollar projects? Who? And why? Cole's former partner, Ann Montgomery, is determined to find the truth, and asks for Cole's help. They soon discover that the path to that truth just may involve some of the highest profile politicians in the city, and if they choose to proceed, they do so only at their peril.

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Ilium by Dan Simmons (2003)

Dan Simmons, one of the best novelists in the field of speculative fiction, deserves all the accolades that have been heaped upon him. Simmons' novels are engaging and thought-provoking, playing with the events of the past and speculating, in interesting ways, about possible futures. In Ilium, a complicated cliffhanger of a novel set hundreds of years in the future, a group of highly evolved beings - humans, but at the same time more than human - use Mars as their staging area to recreate Homer's Iliad, with themselves cast as the gods and goddesses of the epic poem. (They've even imported their own Homers, a group of humans from the past, who report on the events both on and off the battlefield.) Meanwhile, a team of robots from Jupiter (one a lover of Proust, the other more a fan of Shakespeare: their dialogue is priceless) is sent to Mars to investigate the resultant worrying increase in quantum fluctuations felt throughout space. At the same time, members of a small group of humans living on a now minimally populated Earth begin to question their own way of life. These three groups converge on Mars, and the novel concludes with an ending that's worthy of those Saturday afternoon serials staring Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, where you don't see how the good guys can get out of this alive"¦.

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The Great War for Civilisation by Robert Fisk (2005)

Thorough, intense, absorbing, graphic, magisterial, angry, overwhelmingly detailed, infuriating, depressing, stimulating, exhausting, and riveting are just some of the adjectives readers will find applicable to Robert Fisk's The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. It took me months to read, but it was worth every moment I spent with it. Fisk, a British journalist, is a war correspondent's war correspondent, and this book is the perfect choice for any interested reader willing to invest a lot of time and emotional energy in a political history of the modern Middle East. Early in the book Fisk says, "It is the fate of journalists to be in the right place at the right time, and, more frequently, in the wrong place at the wrong time." From a front row seat at the birth of Khomeini's Iran in the late 1970s to Abu Ghraib in 2003, from an early interview with Osama Bin Laden in 1993, when the leader-to-be of al Qaeda was describing himself as a construction engineer, building highways in Sudan, to reporting from Fallujah in Iraq, Fisk has been there, done that, met everyone who's anyone in the region, and written about it. Fisk doesn't equivocate regarding his views of the current crisis in the Middle East, or the many missteps he judges world leaders to have made from World War I to the present, but whether one agrees or disagrees with his analysis and conclusions, Fisk's clear exposition and deep understanding of the complex culture and history of the area make this an important contribution to an informed debate about the fate of the Middle East, and, as the title implies, of civilization as we know it.

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The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead (2000)

Some books begin with such an imaginative premise that you worry they won't be able to live up to their beginnings. Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist fully delivers on the promise of its premise. Part science fiction, part noir mystery, Whitehead's novel creates its own world and its own genre. Set in an unnamed city filled with skyscrapers (made possible by the invention of the elevator - the history and technology of which therefore play a central role in its culture and this novel), Lila Mae Watson is the first black female elevator inspector. Not only is she set apart by her race and gender, but Lila Mae is among those inspectors known as "Intuitionists," who belong to the minority philosophical school which advocates judging an elevator's safety by instinct, as opposed to the "Empiricists," who depend upon scientifically derived checklists of elevator safety factors. As the novel opens, the Elevator Guild's elections are coming up, and both Intuitionists and Empiricists are searching for the lost writings of James Fulton, the father of Intuitionism, and his plans for the perfect elevator which will render all current vertical transport systems obsolete, and resolve the conflict between the two philosophical systems once and for all. As Lila Mae becomes involved with this search and all its ramifications, the novel explores race and gender issues relevant to 21st century American society. Whitehead's stylish prose will bring to mind the novels of both Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon.

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As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem (1998)

Jonathan Lethem's As She Climbed Across the Table is the story of a most unusual love triangle - one that involves a man, a woman, and a black hole. Particle physicist Alice Coombs has discovered a hole in the universe, which she and her colleagues have named Lack. Philip Engstrand, a social scientist whose academic interest is studying the behavior of other professors, is deeply in love with Alice, who returns his love until she falls for Lack"¦ This is a moving, intelligent, and often deeply humorous tale of the lengths Philip goes to in order to win back Alice from the most formidable of opponents - a being with no bad qualities, indeed, no qualities at all. Fans of Lethem's later novels will find that this early work offers many of the same pleasures as The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn.