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Books in brief


The Plant Hunters: True Stories of Their Daring Adventures to the Far Corners of the Earth by Anita Silvey; Farrar Straus Giroux, 69 pages $19.99 (Ages 6 and up).

"Botonomania" is a passion for plants, and this fascinating book introduces a colorful portrait gallery of botonomaniacs who braved all manner of hazards in their fervor to find the world's most exotic and valuable plants. Silvey, a frequent contributor to National Public Radio and author of numerous nonfiction books for children, writes with verve about these intrepid botanists and the exotic landscapes they explored. Among them are Baron Alexander von Humboldt, who explored Venezuela and Brazil in 1800, where he was stalked by jaguars, tormented by insects, almost drowned when his boat nearly swamped in the crocodile-infested Orinoco River and nearly poisoned himself with curare, the nerve poison generated from local plants. There was Scotsman David Douglas (for whom the Douglas fir is named) who knocked himself unconscious falling into a gully while exploring the Pacific Northwest in search of the elusive sugar pine. Ernest Wilson, traveling in China in search of rare lilies for Boston's Arnold Arboretum, nearly lost a leg to gangrene. Richard Spruce, traveling in the Amazon for Kew Gardens from 1849 to 1864, battled termites, scorpions, cockroaches, ants that carried off his plant specimens and vampire bats that bit him. Part of the exploration was a form of espionage. Joseph Dalton Hooker, later director of Kew Gardens, sneaked 70,000 rubber tree seeds out of Brazil, enabling the planting of rubber trees in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Tea plants smuggled out of China were used to start tea plantations in India. An interesting chapter deals with the considerable hazards in transporting delicate plants on long ocean voyages, with the danger of rats, insects, humidity and salt spray. The book is beautifully illustrated with colored lithographs, historical drawings, oil portraits, maps, watercolors of landscapes and old photographs.

-- Jean Westmoore



Every Last Secret by Linda Rodriguez; Minotaur, 304 pages ($24.99).

Linda Rodriguez delivers a lively, look at a woman rebuilding her life in "Every Last Secret."

Marquitta "Skeet" Bannion was the highest ranking female detective in the Kansas City Police Department. But accusations of corruption about her cop-father, the stress of the job and a crumbling marriage forced Skeet to re-evaluate her life. She's found renewed energy as police chief of Chouteau University, located in the small town of Brewster, that's only 12 miles from Kansas City, Mo., but light-years away in pace, attitude and crime. So far, the job switch has been good for Skeet who enjoys the laid-back atmosphere and the beginnings of a friendship with the local police chief. Even the resentment from a colleague who thought he would get the promotion and the academic politics haven't damped Skeet's enthusiasm.

Then the student editor of the college newspaper is murdered in his office, and the calm turns to chaos. Andrew McAfee had a temper, was nasty to his staff and had recently gotten into a physical fight with one of his editors. While the plot basics of "Every Last Secret" aren't groundbreaking, Rodriguez's energetic storytelling and attention to character prove she is an author who should have a bright future.

-- McClatchy Newspapers



Engines of Change by Paul Ingrassia; Simon & Schuster, 416 pages ($30)

It would be impossible to count the number of automotive makes and models that have come and gone since the car was first invented -- or the number of books that have been written about them. The inescapable ubiquity of the automobile has made them, for better or worse, a sort of cultural fodder that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Ingrassia inventively exploits in "Engines of Change."

"Engines of Change" isn't a traditional car book so much as a history of the last century viewed through a vehicular lens. It doesn't begin with the very first car ever invented, which is a subject of dispute. Rather, it kicks off with the car that first made automotive transportation simple, affordable and practical -- the Ford Model T, which cost $850, got almost 20 miles to the gallon and traveled 40 mph when it was introduced in 1908.

Ingrassia then moves on to General Motors' idea to build "a car for every purse and purpose," setting up the ongoing rivalry among Detroit manufacturers and a crucial psychological push and pull among consumers between the car as a pragmatic tool and status symbol.

While American companies get the most attention, Volkswagen and its Beetle, BMW and its yuppie 3 series sedans, Honda with its Civic and Toyota's Prius also get individual chapters that mirror the culture, underscore the high-stakes scenarios that brought so many iconic vehicles into being and highlight exactly how precarious the business of making cars can be.

Two sets of glossy photo galleries are pictorial shorthand for the author's talking points, including an image of tail-finned Dodge cruisers at the 1957 Detroit Auto Show and the cover of Car and Driver magazine showing five basketball players standing next to "a revolutionary new vehicle, the minivan, which was small enough to fit in a garage but big enough to hold five Detroit Pistons."

Writing in an amused tone, Ingrassia comes across as a curious onlooker who's delighted by the details he's dug up and the connections he makes between individual vehicles and the world that swirls around them. -- Los Angeles Times