A Cozy Nook to Read In  Book Vignette

A     B O O K L O V E R S '     P L A C E

Books, books, books!
Is there anything better than losing yourself in a good book,
whether fluffy novel or scholarly tome?
This blog is for long and short reviews of books read,
essays about book series, memories of books,
quotations, and anything else with a literary bent.

31 May 2016

Books Completed Since May 1

book icon  The Easter Book, Francis X. Weiser

book icon  How to Choose and Use Fonts & Typefaces, edited by Tony Seddon
This is a nice, simple book about the history of typefaces, the vocabulary associated with them (including the difference between a font and a typeface; they are not interchangeable), and which is appropriate to use in what situation. Liberally illustrated with examples and color photographs. I'm a font fanatic and really enjoyed this.

book icon  Harvest of Time, Alastair Reynolds
This is a super Third-Doctor-and-Jo adventure that features the Master and a very creepy alien race called the Sild. Once confined in a spaceship that is theoretically escape-proof, the Sild have used the Praxilons, another race led by their indomitable Red Queen, to free themselves. Then they make landfall on Earth and violently and pitilessly take over the body of a lighthouse keeper. That is only the first step in their takeover of Earth.

In the meantime, strange things are going on at an oil-drilling platform, and the Doctor, Yates, and Jo are sent to investigate, but now the rig's director, Edwina McCrimmon, says there's nothing wrong. But something is wrong: one of the men visiting an employee injured on the rig is a dead ringer for the Master, who at present is locked up in an impenetrable prison surrounded by water. And more mysteriously still, everyone at UNIT is starting to forget who the Master is. They have to write themselves notes and leave his photograph all over the installation to recall him at all. Even the Doctor is starting to forget him.

What a cracking great story! With the classic cliffhangers of the classic series mixed with modern imagery and ideas from the new series, this is a fast-moving thriller with appearances by all your favorites. The aliens are truly ruthless; this is certainly not a children's story by any means and in this resembles the present series rather than the classic series in which the Third Doctor appeared. The situation with the Master was also a more complicated situation than was ever postulated on the classic series. I found it a good mixture of old and new, and it was so happy to see all the familiar UNIT "family" again.

book icon  MASH FAQ, Dale Sherman
I really enjoyed this summary of M*A*S*H in all its incarnations, from the original book and the two "official" sequels written by Richard Hooker (and the additional sequels written by William Butterworth) to the final television sequels (AfterMASH and Trapper John, MD, plus the unseen W.A.L.T.E.R.). As with any good story, author Sherman starts at the beginning, with a short, concise history of the Korean War, which only lasted a quarter of M*A*S*H's eleven year run. In turn, the movie and the subsequent television series are also examined.

Some things that I really enjoyed: the summary of the later novels, as I pretty much bowed out after M*A*S*H Goes to Maine; the differences between the book and the movie (and the difference between Robert Altman's script and Ring Lardner's); movies and two television series associated with the film, including one with Humphrey Bogart; a list of recurring characters from the television series (like Spearchucker and Ginger Bayliss) who disappeared; and a discussion about fans' favorite periods of the show (the Blake years vs. the Potter years, or Burns vs. Winchester, etc.)—even a "featurette" chapter about the movies shown in the mess tent.

As a big fan of M*A*S*H, from Blake/Trapper/Burns to Potter/Hunnicutt/Winchester, I found this a great book filled with 4077th trivia of all kinds. Glad I spotted it!

book icon  Murder on Murray Hill, Victoria Thompson
Frank Malloy hopes his compatriots on the police force won't discover he's come into a great deal of money as he takes on a new case: a man with a missing daughter who did not come home the previous night. He's discovered the plain young woman was responding to a lonely hearts ad in one of the New York newspapers. However, his hopes are dashed when the truth about the money is exposed and Frank is kicked off the force. However, he still feels a responsibility to find Grace Thompson, as does his fiance, midwife Sarah Brandt. As further clues appear, they become very uneasy about Grace. Can Frank and Sarah still help with the case without the police putting them under arrest?

Thompson's Victorian "gaslight" mysteries always involve murder, and death in this "cozy" series is not always pretty. But the situation in which this plot develops into is a deeply disturbing story which may bother sensitive people (suffice it to say that the man who put in the lonely hearts ad is not a nice person) and the details are not pretty. If you have read the other books but are easily disturbed, you may want to skip this one. Frank and Sarah's relationship does proceed a little more in discussing making a life together, but it's the crime and its solution that takes center stage here. I did enjoy the story and the unique resolution, but some of the chapters were difficult to get through.

book icon  The Yankee Road, James D. McNiven
James McNiven wanted to write a Road Book, like his heroes Kerouac and Least Heat-Moon before him. And boy, did he write one—the first of a projected three, a thick tome about a fascinating westward movement.

McNiven's road trip takes us along US20, from the beginning of the route and the beginning of the race known as "Yankees," those tough New Englanders who settled the stony soil of the upper northeast of the United States. (The name supposedly came from the Dutch, who jibingly called the English "John Cheeses.") As he traces the route of the highway—in this volume covering the route through the Pennsylvania border of Lake Erie—he also touches on the history along the way that was influenced by the Yankee way of life, whether it was religion (the first communes and model communities, the "Great Awakening," plus movements in Syracuse and Utica), education (the Chautauqua movement and the birth of the American public school), or "good old Yankee ingenuity" in its myriad forms: the first textile mills (Pawtucket and Lowell), interchangeable parts (Springfield), and the first computer revolution (Route 128, the "technology highway"), not to mention time study (Watertown, MA, and Frederick Taylor) vs. individuality (Henry Thoreau at Walden Pond). It's 360 pages, plus another 120 pages of very readable footnotes with additional info) full of history goodness.

The big question is: when's the rest coming out?

book icon  Ghost Hero, S.J. Rozan
This appears to be the last in Rozan's series of Lydia Chin and Bill Smith detective stories that began with China Trade, introducing us to Lydia, a Chinese-American private investigator and her partner Bill, and alternated through a series of books where Chin and Smith appeared as leads. In this final (?) installment, Lydia's new client is asking her to look into supposedly new paintings rumored to exist from a famous Chinese painter and social agitator, Chau Chun, nicknamed "Ghost Hero Chau," who has been dead for some years. When Lydia tells Bill about the case, and her reasons for feeling something is awry, Bill takes her to meet Jack Lee, another "ABC" (American Born Chinese) private detective, who has also been asked to look into the mysterious new Ghost Hero paintings. Lydia, Bill and Jack pool their resources, resulting in an absorbing "caper" in which Smith poses as Russian Mafia wanting to possess the paintings (if they exist) and Chin and Lee team up, to Mrs. Chin's great delight, since she's afraid Lydia is in love with Bill.

I never much got into the Bill Smith books, but I loved Lydia Chin's world and am sad to see it disappear, especially the reactions from her traditional mother who wishes her daughter would settle down, marry, and have babies with someone else of Chinese descent. Jack, Lydia, and Bill together make a madcap team, and along the way we learn about traditional Chinese painting and the breakout artists of Chinese descent abandoning the traditional ways. The sequences with Bill pretending to be a Russian collector interested in rare Chinese art was worth the price of the book. I guessed one little secret a few chapters before the end, but no matter: being with Ms. Chin and Mr. Smith was the best part of the deal.

book icon  The Catholic Catalogue, Melissa Musick and Anna Keating
This is an essential and useful book for any Catholic family who wishes to know more about the Catholic faith (no, we don't worship saints; we venerate them—they provide intercession for us with God) and form traditions around the events of the church calendar to make the faith more meaningful. The book opens with explanations of the symbols and practices of Catholicism (novenas, scapulas, holy water, etc.) and a calendar of the church year follows, with saints' days and the Seasons of Advent, Lent, etc. The concluding chapters are about the seasons of a Catholic person's life, from childhood through the final days of your life.

The book is written in a nice, easy to read style with the occasional tongue in cheek remark (for instance, the first section is entitled "Smells and Bells") that still remains properly reverential. There are some simple ideas for family celebrations, appropriate hymns and prayers for each occasion, and even a few recipes. This is a nice book for a young Catholic couple just starting a family and wanting to establish traditions, or even an old Catholic looking for new insights on his faith.

book icon  Sweet Home Alaska, Carole Estby Dagg
I absolutely, positively adore this book.

It's the story of the Johnson family who are not-quite-but-close-to starving on their home farm in the fourth year of the Great Depression. They are living hand-to-mouth on the vegetables they can grow and the meager income from Mother's piano lessons, but those have now dried up in their poverty-stricken farming community. Luckily oldest daughter Terpsichore (Mrs. Johnson is named "Clio," and all the girls are named after the Muses) is an inventive cook, a perfect whiz with making creative dishes, especially from pumpkin.  The family makes the difficult decision to homestead in Alaska with a group of other farm families, with Mrs. Johnson giving them eighteen months to "prove up." Terpsichore rises to the challenge, taking all the hardships, including life in a tent and itchy mosquitoes, on the chin, helping the community to form a lending library with her new friends Gloria and Mendel. To do something that will keep her mother from voting to leave Alaska, Terpsichore takes a cue from one of her favorite books, trying to raise a milk-fed pumpkin just like Almanzo Wilder in Farmer Boy to win a prize at the autumn fair.

Based on a true story of farmers who were sent to homestead in Palmer, Alaska, during the 1930s, this is a delight to read, often funny, sometimes sad, and you will be rooting for Terpsichore and her plan to make her mother like Alaska.

book icon  Sherlock: The Facts and Fiction Behind the World's Most Famous Detective, Martin Fido
This is a nice beginner book overview of Holmes and Watson with color illustrations, opening with a bio of Holmes (and of Watson, of course); then a bio of Conan Doyle, a summary of each of the short story collections and novels, a chapter about detectives and criminals in the Victorian era followed by a history of detective fiction and a history of Holmes in other than his Canon. There are some photographs I haven't seen in other compilations about the Great Detective, but if you have one of those recent color compilations, this one may be redundant. (This is a British book, so you may enjoy the different POV.)

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30 April 2016

Books Completed Since April 1

book icon  Closer to the Heart, Mercedes Lackey
This is the second book in Lackey's "Herald Spy" series, featuring Mags, the Chosen mine-slave now grown up and on the eve of his marriage to Amily, once the crippled daughter of the King's Own Herald and now King's Own herself. Mags continues to develop his spy network in this book and assist the street kids who help him in his intelligence surveillance.

Several interesting new characters are introduced in this story, including Lady Dia's husband Lord Jorthun and what sounds like an autistic craftsman, Tuck, who can make marvelous tools and inventions. Thankfully, the Romeo-and-Juliet plot from the preceding book is almost forgotten, but the story moves slowly in the middle as Lackey illustrates the setup of the spy network. However, a new danger is introduced almost immediately: Valdemaran weapons are being used to help overthrow a king in the neighboring country of Menmillith, which is determined to fight back, even if it means war.

So the threat builds and a lead is then followed—but the actual "villain" of the piece is identified very late in the story, there's another interminable Kirball game, Mags is kidnapped yet again (not to mention Amily), and it's as if Lackey realized she was coming to the end of an established page count and suddenly wraps it up in the last twenty pages with a speech! At least Mags and Amily do get married, because after the mess they certainly deserve some happiness. To sum up: it's rather uneven, but it does progress the storyline. And a thread right at the beginning was never wrapped up, so I'm wondering if it's going to show up in a future book. Same time next year, I expect...

book icon  Poems and Sketches of E.B. White, E.B. White
Having lulled myself with Charlotte's Web and two volumes of meticulous and lovely essays followed by a surfeit of letters, what do I come upon but this book, which has not only the very beautiful—I love White's poetry; he favors sonnets, but uses all forms—but the very strange, like one piece called "The Door," and the inevitable essay about strange servants in which James Thurber also indulged, even a piece about pigeons addressed to what White considers a very unobservant essayist in another magazine.

I particularly love the poems written to his wife Katharine Angell, especially this one called "Wedding Day in the Rockies":
"The charm of riding eastward through Wyoming
Is not so much the grandeur and the view
As that it is an exercise in homing
And that my fellow passenger is you.
In fourteen years of this our strange excursion
The scenic points of love have not grown stale
For that my mind in yours has found diversion
And in your heart my heart could never fail.

It's fourteen years today since we began it—
This sonnet crowds a year in every line—
Love were an idle drudge if time outran it
And time were stopped indeed were you not mine.
The rails go on together toward the sky
Even (the saying goes) as you and I."
Isn't that lovely? There's another great one called "Winter Trees," too, that isn't love poetry but which is just as beautiful. Read this if just for the poetry.

book icon  The Grapes of Math, Alex Bellos
I confess I didn't enjoy this one as much as Bellos' predecessor, I'm Looking at Euclid. Most of the mathematics made sense, and I enjoyed learning about how certain numbers are more "right" than others and the Benford progression, the stories behind trigonometry and calculus, and tau as a more compelling number than pi.

On the other hand, imaginary numbers just completely lost me (I couldn't figure out what they were good for) and the cell "Game of Life" had me completely baffled until he finally revealed that it could help predicting growth of cities and traffic flow (and the pattern made by the cells was pretty cool). And the fractals were kinda neat. I just guess I am not made for higher math. :-)

book icon  Journey to Munich, Jacqueline Winspear
Maisie Dobbs, now widowed and fresh from a year helping the victims of the Spanish Civil War, is back in England, living with her friends the Partridges but knowing she will need to be taking some direction in her life now that she has returned. One day she is waylaid by her old compatriot from the secret service, Robert McFarlane. He has a mission he wishes her to take: play the part of an imprisoned Englishman's daughter so her father (who is of some use to the government) can be freed in her custody. With misgivings Maisie takes the role.

Of course this being a Maisie Dobbs book you know it can't all be that simple. Maisie is also asked to locate Elaine Otterburn, the woman she secretly holds responsible for her husband's death—and once Elaine is located, Maisie's mission becomes doubly hard. As the Germans continue to delay the release of the imprisoned man, it becomes more and more dangerous for Maisie to keep up her cover as his daughter.

I liked this much more than the proceeding book; and enjoyed the Hitchcockian sense of suspense that follows Maisie's trail. But I like best the final pages of the book, which establishes a new direction for her. I look forward to the next one!

book icon  Dial H for Hitchcock, Susan Kandel
This is the fifth and final (so far that I know) book in the Cece Caruso mystery series. I didn't realize this book was out for a long time after it was published and it has since sat languishing in my to-be-read pile. Cece is an author of mystery writer/filmmaker biographies who also has a taste for vintage clothing. She has an earthy daughter named Annie who has given her one grandchild, plus another from Annie's marriage to Vincent, and when we last met her in Christietown, she was planning her wedding to police officer Peter Gambino.

Except when this book begins she has walked out of her wedding, telling Gambino she isn't good enough for him, and has just come back from what should have been her honeymoon cruise. She returns home to find she has new neighbors, some type of odd people who are Hollywood types. Her troubles being when she goes to a revival showing of Hitchcock's Vertigo and after the show finds a cell phone which is not hers in her bag. In attempting to return it, she sees a woman pushed from a hiking trail by a man, who then threatens her. But, bizarrely, she discovers that she has apparently threatened this young woman.

I've read some bizarre mysteries in my time, but this one takes the cake. The previous Cece mysteries were always a little dippy, as is Cece herself, but this was just oddly off the wall, with Cece trying to figure out how she threatened someone she didn't even know. And when she goes on the run because she knows someone is trying to frame her, she just keeps getting in more and more absurd situations, and it turns out to be the dumbest thing at the end. Frankly, if this hadn't been the last book in the series, I would have quit reading here anyway.

book icon  The Twilight Zone FAQ, Dave Thompson
First, do not buy this as a complete Twilight Zone reference book. That honor is reserved for Marc Scott Zicree's classic Twilight Zone Companion. Second, a warning: Dave Thompson hates modern television. Be prepared for many insults at reality television.

Is this book worth buying? Actually, I liked it if you don't count on it too highly for facts. I think it was badly edited on a computer and bits of text just dropped out, and of course no one proofreads books anymore. In one place the end of a sentence is clearly cut off. In another, the writer seems to be referencing something a character said, but that reference is gone. And there are facts that are wrong; in a section where Thompson is talking about UFO abductions, he mentions Betty and Barney Hills, not Hill.

On the other hand, I sort of liked the goofy way it is arranged: starting the narration with Rod Serling itself and his career in TV, then gives a season by season overview, and within that arranges the episodes under themes (World War II, cold war tensions, aliens, just desserts, etc.). He also talks about some of the noted writers who were regulars on the series (George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, even Earl Hamner). I liked the theme sections because he talks about some of the history and stories that lay behind the episodes. But many of his "discussions" of episodes themselves are just a rehash of the plot, with nothing new learned from reading the synopsis. Now I did like that he addressed the revival series in the 1980s (with classics like "Paladin of the Lost Hour") and the one season 2002 show. So there are pluses and minuses to the volume. I'd say if you are a TZ fan, buy it, but find a used copy on Amazon or Bookfinder.

book icon  The Beginner's Photography Guide, DK Publishers
This is a nice basic photography guide, which will work best for cameras with adjustable features (aperture, shutter speed, etc) and DSLRs.

book icon  Great War Britain: The First World War at Home, Lucinda Gosling
"The Tatler" and "The Sketch," and also "The Bystander" and "The Queen," were the "People" and "Us" of their day in Great Britain, but instead of concentrating on media celebrities, they focused on royalty and society. The wealthy read them to keep up with all the gossip in their society; the middle class to imagine themselves living that opulent and privileged lifestyle. Then Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated.

This delightful history book tells the story of "the Great War" as seen in the four greatest society magazines of that age: how even Princess Mary volunteered for nursing and society matrons raised money, eschewed frivolity, and knitted and packed parcels for "the boys over there." Women became "land girls" and worked on farms, made do with inferior foods and no meat, and eventually became conductors, munitions workers, and other positions formerly reserved for men. It was debated if racing and football should be continued in the face of horrible war losses. The fictional "Eve" in "The Tatler" and "Phrynette" in "The Sketch" commented on the war, most times humorously or facetiously, but sometimes in contemplative form as the body count increased.

Liberally strewn throughout this book are photographs of the society denizens that found their cultured world turned upside down, original art, the whimsical cartoon "Eve," and vintage advertisements urging people to stretch budgets, menus, and charity to "make do." It's a vivid portrait of a segment of British society from 1914 through 1919.

(I was amazed to find this wonderful book in a Hamilton Books catalog for $8. It's still selling for $40 on Amazon!)

book icon  Dear America: A City Tossed and Broken--The Diary of Minnie Bonner, Judy Blundell
One moment Minnie Bonner is helping her extravagant French father and practical mother run their tavern in 1906 Philadelphia. Next thing she knows, her mother has hired her out as a maid to a stuck-up, social-climbing newly rich couple and their vacuous teen daughter because her father has lost the tavern, and all their money, gambling. Her mother promises she will work hard for the next two years and then send for Minnie, who will be moving out to San Francisco with the nouveau riche Sump [yes, Sump as in the pump] family.

Lonely, unhappy, and angry, Minnie's first morning in San Francisco is more terrifying than she can imagine: because the family has arrived just in time for the great San Francisco earthquake and fire.

When Scholastic brought the "Dear America" series back in 2013 for a few books, they decided the books also needed a mystery element, I guess since "girls like mysteries!" So instead of getting to know Minnie and her family, and get a little insight into her character, we are plunged pell-mell into Minnie being shipped off with the Sumps and then the moment she arrives the earthquake takes place, just after she finds out there is something shady about Mr. Sump. The best part about the book is Minnie's description of the earthquake, its fire aftermath, and how some of the citizens of San Francisco rally to save their neighborhood. It's well described and at times very suspenseful. The rest of the story is filled with a bunch of cliches: the two-dimensional Sumps (who live up to their name), a crooked lawyer (is there any other kind in stories like this?), and another evil character who might as well tweak his mustache and cackle like Snidely Whiplash. When another character is introduced, you know immediately he's the person Minnie will later marry. It would have been nice if we actually saw Minnie with her dad at the beginning instead of having flashbacks, and then Minnie getting used to San Francisco before the fire, but we're just popped into the plot. I suspect the author could have written that story, too, judging by the fire scenes, but she was ordered by her Scholastic editors to "cut to the chase." A pity, as this could have been a much better book.

book icon  Treachery at Lancaster Gate, Anne Perry
Finally! A Thomas Pitt mystery that doesn't involve diplomatic misadventures.

There are two breeds of mystery series. One sets up a popular partnership and all books are kept within that story setup, ad infinitum, and the characters never grow or change. The other, as in this series, allows the characters to progress naturally in their careers and lives: employed people do well. They get promoted and sometimes in their promotion, a popular partnership is broken apart. Perry must be lauded for not allowing Pitt's career to stay static and not writing endless by-the-numbers stories where he and his partner investigates society crimes and wife Charlotte and her sister Emily help him.

On the other hand, I have found Pitt's Special Branch investigations, with their political overtones, to be increasingly tedious, so I really enjoyed this latest book, in which Pitt is called in after five police officers are injured (two die almost instantly) in a bombing that, of course, is immediately tied to anarchists. Instead, Pitt's investigation reveals that a prominent politician's son, a young man addicted to opium, may have some connection with the case, and that police corruption is an ugly possibility in spurring the crime. He is assisted in his investigation by his old partner Samuel Tellman, so we get to see both Tellman and his wife Gracie [nee Phipps and formerly the Pitts' much-loved maid) once more, as well as Emily Radley making certain inquires for Pitt at parties she attends.

Unfortunately, once again Charlotte gets short shrift and basically remains home as moral support and a sounding board for her husband. Emily's husband Jack does get some action, and Aunt Vespasia, now married to Victor Narraway (the previous head of Special Branch), appear at the end once the story comes to a head. There are so many characters in the story now that it is hard to give them all equal time. Plus her newer books still lack that special spark that made the originals so compelling. But this is the closest Perry has come to a "classic" Thomas and Charlotte book in several years, and I really enjoyed that.

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31 March 2016

Books Completed Since March 1

The bad thing about being sick for a while is...being sick. The good thing is you get to read a lot. The bad thing is that there are many books to review and little time. So excuse the brevity for some of these.

book icon  Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain, Charlotte Higgins
Great Britain has been invaded so many times that layer upon layer of different cultures have been spread upon the British countryside. Here author Higgins takes us on a tour of one of the oldest ones: the Romans who came to "Britannia" in the early years of the Common Era. Traveling in a rattly old camper van, Higgins and her partner travel from Kent and Essex, where the earliest Romans landed, to "Londinium" and then west into Wales, to Bath and its healthful waters first utilized by Romans, north to Hadrian's Wall (and the Antonine Wall, a Roman construction I'd never heard of), and up into Scotland, and finally to the east, investigating what is left of what were sizable settlements and forts.

I love archaeology, so having a book that combined ruins, Romans, and Britain was like tossing me in a museum and telling me to enjoy. Indeed I did! The writing was brisk and talked about the everyday life of the Roman inhabitants as well as political goings-on behind the scenes, as well as the landscapes settled by the invaders. The book is enhanced with line drawings of maps illustrating the sites she visits, and if you are interested in Roman exploration and settlement or Great Britain's past, this archaeological history should be your cup of British tea.

book icon  Absolutely Truly, Heather Vogel Frederick
Truly Lovejoy's world has finally fallen into place. Her dad is leaving his Army career and the family has already moved to Austin, Texas, where he's accepted a job as a wrestling coach and now twelve-year-old Truly can pal around with her favorite cousin Mackenzie. Then disaster strikes: her father is caught in a bomb blast. He comes home alive, but minus one arm, his usually happy demeanor now sad and grim. He turns down the coach job, but is talked into moving the family to tiny, rural Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire, to take over his parents' failing bookshop, which he will run with his nonconformist sister. Truly is unhappy over the move and losing her best friend/cousin, but most of all feeling she has "lost" her loving dad. Then, in cleaning up the store, Truly finds what may be a rare copy of Charlotte's Web. Is this a chance to help save Lovejoy's Books? But what's with the mysterious note inside?

I loved this book, top to toe: Truly herself, already almost six feet tall and awkward; her stoic father and hopeful mother, her four siblings (even the lisping one isn't over the top, as so many cute kids are), her offbeat aunt Truly, and the friends, both schoolmates and adults, Truly makes in Pumpkin Falls. Much of the "mystery" is more self-discovery, but I loved the combination of ex-military family with a problem, books, winter in New Hampshire, town traditions, even Truly's fascination with birds and how the family updates the bookstore.

The cover notes that this is "A Pumpkin Falls Mystery." I hope that means there will be further opportunities to visit the Lovejoys.

book icon  The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh, Kathryn Aalto
Imagine a chill, rainy March day. Then open up this book, which is a color-photograph-and-Ernest-Shepard-drawing combination with delicious descriptions of A.A. Milne's (and Christopher Robin's) life and the landscapes they explored. The sun comes out, not outside, but in your heart.

If you love nature, especially the English countryside, you will absolutely love this book, even if you have never read a word of Winnie-the-Pooh in your life. Any reference you need to the countryside being mentioned in the Pooh books are already mentioned in the text, and you can compare Ernest Shepard's whimsical watercolors to the real countryside, which he studied before illustrating the books, just as Garth Williams did before providing the illustrations for the "Little House" books. The pages are thick and glossy, showing off the beautiful photographs and prints to good effect. In the text, you learn of Milne's idyllic, vanished childhood, something children today can only dream about, and the ecology of each of the sites that served as inspiration for the Hundred Acre Wood.

It's not quite as good as a tramp through Christopher Robin's real enchanted world, but it will do for someone an ocean and a climate away. Relaxing your blood pressure has never been so wonderful.

book icon  The Ghost Wind Stallion: A Kaya Mystery, Emma Carlson Berne
This is the best book of the new crop of three American Girl mysteries—but not as a mystery.

Kaya's blind sister Speaking Rain chafes at her disability. She is tired of having to be led around and treated as if she is going to break. Plus she's begun having dreams in which a beautiful silver horse comes to her. Kaya is troubled by her sister's restlessness, and by the visit of her newly widowed aunt, who seems to have taken an instant dislike to her. Then, while she and Speaking Rain are investigating the horse herd, they see what appears to be a fabled Ghost Wind stallion, descendants of Russian horses that washed ashore from a wreck in the Pacific. It is the horse Speaking Rain has been dreaming about, and she believes that he has come to her to be hers and set her free.

There is little mystery in the book (except for the disappearance of Tall Branch's horse), but the strength of this one is Speaking Rain's determination, Kaya's willingness to help her, and the bond between the two girls. Tall Branch's emotions after her husband's death and attitude toward Kaya is also handled sensitively. A great story about how people with disabilities often feel shunted off to the side and wish just to "fit in."

book icon  The Glowing Heart: A Josefina Mystery, Valerie Tripp
It's Three Kings Day at the Montoya family rancho, and they've welcomed guests, included Don Javier, an old beau of Tia Dolores, who is now Josefina's stepmother. He has brought Tia Dolores a beautiful ruby ring which is an inheritance from her aunt. Also visiting is Senor Fernando, a man who is considering buying a horse from Josefina's father. During the festivities, the ruby ring disappears. Could Don Javier be the culprit? Senor Fernando? Or is it the strange man Josefina has seen hanging around near their hacienda? And why does Tia Dolores seem so dispirited? Can it be she regrets coming to the rancho and marrying Mr. Montoya?

I can't believe Valerie Tripp wrote this. It's so very obvious who the culprit is (think the Lost in Space episode "The Golden Man") and what happened to the ruby. And, maybe it's because I'm an adult, I also figured out why Tia Dolores was so unhappy from page 20. Just because the readers are kids doesn't mean you need to give them a storyline with cliched aspects. Disappointing.

book icon  The Finders-Keepers Rule: A Maryellen Mystery, Jacqueline Dembar Greene
Of the three new American girl mysteries, this is the best mystery: Maryellen and her buddy Davy are walking on the beach when they find a barnacle-encrusted ring buried in the sand. Maryellen thinks it might be treasure from a ship that sank on the Florida coast, her mind full of pirates after seeing Walt Disney's new movie, Treasure Island. But the kids are really surprised when people start trying to get their hands on the ring.

This is actually a better Maryellen story than the original two books. Greene paints the idyllic 50s childhood in bright colors: trips to the beach with no helicopter parents, enjoying time with your best friend, and a reasonably complicated mystery for the kids to solve with a little frisson of danger that isn't too scary for the intended audience. The colorful Daytona Beach scene of the 1950s is also well portrayed, and the story touches on the serious subject of the ownership of artifacts. Not only is a Disney movie mentioned, but it could even be an old-fashioned Disney kids' mystery film like The Strange Monster of Strawberry Cove. Glad to find a Maryellen story I finally enjoyed.

book icon  My Very Good, Very Bad Dog, ed. by Amy Neumark
You know the drill: it's a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. There are funny stories and sad ones; stories of companionship, love, rescue, and memories. It's neither better nor worse than any of the other compilations. If you love heartwarming dog stories, this is for you.

book icon  The Perils of Sherlock Holmes, Loren D. Estleman
This is a collection of short stories by Estleman, most crossovers with historical characters like Sir Richard Burton, Doc Holliday, and author Sax Rohmer, plus there is another story where Holmes is consulted by an earl who turns out to be "Tiny Tim"othy Cratchit. Plus there's an essay about the essential presence of Watson. The stories are interesting, but nothing spectacular.

book icon  The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by William Anderson
At last Anderson (and Harper & Row) have wrung their last out of LIW.

Seriously. He admits it in the introduction

I don't mean to be so flip. There is some meat to this newest collection of Wilder letters, including some of the letters she and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane shared about the editing of the "Little House" books. Sadly, Rose burned most of the letters, especially all those from the 1940s, so we will never know the full editorial partnership she shared with her mother. There is a really good, impassioned letter of Laura's insisting that The Long Winter be confined to the Ingalls and Wilders with a few supporting characters rather than a full pallet of townspeople as Rose wanted in order to give full import of the isolation families faced during that hard winter of 1880-1881, which showed she did have the flair for storytelling that some literary scholars have denied her. But most of the letters are banal little responses to schoolchildren, with a few lovely gems.

The trouble is, I've read so many books about Wilder, including the recently published Pioneer Girl, that I've already seen many of these "surprise bits" (like the fact that a young couple and their baby lived with the family during the long winter), so the revelations aren't. It's also sad to read Wilder's last letters with her longing for her late husband clear even in the few paragraphs, and it's also obvious that the sisters did not remain very close after Ma and Pa and Mary died.

I've been a Laura "junkie" since I first saw the television series and wanted to know "the real story," so I'm glad I picked this up, but if you have less of an attachment to her, I would invest in one of the biographies instead.

book icon  Letters of E.B. White, edited by Dorothy Lobrano Guth
This is a thick collection of White's letters from schoolboy missives written to his brothers and parents all the way through a final letter to his stepson in the mid-70s. The most fascinating are those written from a cross country trip he took with a friend when he was in his late teens. They bought an old car and drove cross-country, stopping to get work as they needed money; White learned that he really didn't want to have anything to do with advertising very early. Later his letters chronicle his employment with the "New Yorker," his courtship and marriage to Katharine Angell, and the family's move out to the Maine farm.

This book is worth it solely for this memo.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters at Circus Island, Jerry West
One of the most fun children's series of the 1950s was this multiple-book collection about the Hollister family: Dad owns a store called The Trading Post and, of course, Mom stays at home supervising her active brood: the two elder, more responsible children Pete and Pam, then mischievous Ricky and sparkling Holly, and finally little Sue, who's only four, plus Zip the collie and White Nose and her kittens (which stay kittens for the duration of the books) and the pet donkey, Domingo. Their young parents were always happy to get involved in the kids' activities, and this time Dad Hollister precipitates the adventure when he takes the family down to Florida for winter vacation to a place called Circus Island, where a wintering show called the Sunshine Circus appears to be plagued with bad luck. Before they leave, Zip is injured after a dog show, having chased after a kidnapped poodle. The children find that whomever stole the poodle appears to be heading south toward Circus Island as well!

These are great, simple, fun books with easy vocabularies. The kids are loved and cared for, but never stifled by overprotective parents. They have adventures, use their minds to solve puzzles, and enjoy themselves enormously while helping others. No rude jokes in sight and the action is always lively. There are some mild 1950s female stereotypes, but the Hollister girls are just as active as the boys, so even if they are pigeonholed a little, you have no doubt Pam can grow up to be a businesswoman just as easily as a mother, and Holly could become a veterinarian as well as a nurse.

book icon  Wait for Signs, Craig Johnson
This is a collection of Walt Longmire short stories, some with a Christmas theme, that Johnson has written over the years for his fans, ranging from the ultimately funny "Old Indian Trick" to the adventure "Messenger," in which Walt, Vic, and Henry try to rescue an owl from its precarious nest in a Porta-Potty. Walt is also mistaken for the Messiah, takes a cue from his cameo appearance in A Christmas Carol, and shares a bittersweet Thanksgiving Day at the Red Pony, and there's even an adventure with a renegade sheep.

Obviously these stories would be most liked by fans of the Longmire mysteries, but they are equally good as stand-alone character studies.

book icon  360 Degrees Longitude: One Family's Journey Around the World, John Higham
From when their two children were small, John and September Higham promised that once the kids were old enough, the family would take a year off and bicycle around the world. When Katrina turned eleven and Jordan turned eight, the Highams kept that promise.

Well, sort of. They did travel around the world, but the tandem bicycle idea had to be abandoned in Switzerland in the first few weeks of the trip after Katrina broke her leg while using a climbing wall. Higham ended up carrying her around Europe for many weeks until her leg healed, and then eventually the tandem bike idea was abandoned. In the meantime, the Highams learned to get along with many modern conveniences and having wild adventures, including driving over a flooded dry salt lake and hiking the entire Inca trail. They encounter bureaucrats, lifesavers, the frantic traffic of Cambodia, altitude sickness, and other adventures. The kids, of course, finally rebel at museums, yet find something to take to heart in each place, whether it be kinship with the children of Hiroshima or the victims of Auschwitz.

I enjoyed this book, but I wish Higham would have concentrated more on what they saw and not his funny little foibles along the way. Sometimes it's almost too lighthearted, a circumnavigation in the style of Cheaper by the Dozen. I would have liked more beautiful or awesome moments. Still, it's a quick-moving, fun narrative.

book icon  Re-read: The Horsemasters, Don Stanford
A comfort read if there every was one. College-age Dinah Wilcox wants to go to the same expensive college as her best friend Bee-Bye Simms, but knows her parents' budget won't extend that far. She has talked the Dean of the college into letting her work her way through college as an Assistant Riding Mistress (I guess it's one of those toney schools that has horseback riding) if she gets a Preliminary Instructor's Certificate from the British Horse Society, using a gift of a thousand dollars from her grandmother to attend the "Horsemasters" class. This is the story of how Dinah goes from being a mediocre rider to an excellent one over the course of a summer, studying with fourteen other boys and girls from all nations in a course that includes dressage, jumping, cross-country, elementary veterinary medicine, and the innumerable other pieces of knowledge that separate a horse rider from a horse owner.

The majority of horse-crazy adolescent girls grow up in a pink cloud of fantasy about horses, imagining an hour of horse cleaning and grooming and then endless hours of riding over rainbow-stretched misty fields. This book shows you not only how difficult it is to properly care for a horse, but does it in such a fine state of storytelling that you learn many things without even trying (what's "lampas," a mouth infection, for instance; how to treat colic; how hard it is to keep a horse in top condition) while having fun with the fourteen characters, including Enzo, the flirty Italian boy; Jill, the Scots girl who'll give up anything but her bacon; Adrienne, a rich Swiss girl who's never done such hard work in her life, Roger, a farm boy; and our dogged heroine Dinah, who doesn't think she'll ever catch up with the rest of the students, not to mention the adults: Mercy Hale, the hard-as-nails "Head Girl" and Major Brooke and Lieutenant Pinski, the riding instructors. (There is a wonderful scene in the riding school with Lieutenant Pinski!)

You will gallop through this book as fast as Dinah on her horse Cornish Pastie...I promise!

book icon  Doctor Who: The Doctor's Life and Times, James Goss & Steve Tribe
This is a nifty coffee-table type scrapbook/fact book about the complete series as it existed up to the 50th anniversary episode, from Hartnell to Smith, divided by Doctor. For each reincarnation, there's a "scrapbook" devoted to that Doctor, with publicity photos and behind the scenes snaps along with a narrative written for each Doctor: Susan's diary and the Doctor's diary for the first Doctor; an interview with Jackie Tyler for the Ninth; a dialog between the Doctor and the Master for the Third, etc. Following each scrapbook section are that are short commentaries by the people involved  with that Doctor, from William Russell, Waris Hussein, and Carole Ann Ford to Karen Gillan, Jenna Coleman, and Arthur Darvill; from original producer Verity Lambert all the way to Steven Moffat. Who fans will enjoy.

book icon  Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting, Kitty Burns Florey
We were away for the weekend and the hotel we stayed at has a bookcase with books you could borrow to read and then return to any hotel in that chain. They had, believe it or not, two copies of this book. It's a nice, easy to read history of handwriting, the first portion taking us back to rune inscriptions, wax tablets and cuneiform, hieroglyphics and papyrus, and then Roman lettering and its different forms (uncial, Carolinian, etc.), but the main focus of the book is on the different styles of handwriting that spanned the history of the United States, from the ornate Spencerian script to the swirling cursive of the Palmer method to the simplified cursive of the 1950s and thus to the present. Very lively and enjoyable, although I could have done without the chapter on graphologists and their feuds.

book icon  A Summer to Die, Lois Lowry
This is one of Lowry's early classics, the story of Meg Chalmers, a girl who thinks herself an ugly duckling compared against her prettier sister Molly. Meg, a budding photographer, is just coming into her own at school with some courses she will love when her parents move the family to the country so her professor father can finish his book. At school Molly immediately charms everyone and Meg feels left out in the cold until she befriends her elderly bachelor neighbor who is also into photography and his two tenants, a "hippie" couple who don't appear to be married. But as her friendships develop, her tenuous relationship with her sister actually starts to fail further as Molly's strange "winter nosebleeds" become worse and she is often tired or in pain from headaches. It is only when Molly wakes Meg up one night, drenched in blood, that Meg realizes that there is something far more wrong with her sister than she expected.

This is a sad story about a serious subject, but well told, the first in a spate of serious books that came out in the late 70s about seriously ill young people and how they and their families coped with that illness. It was also Lowry's first book and based on a true experience. I wasn't sure I wanted to read this, but Lowry grabbed me from the first paragraph with eyeglassed, bookworm Meg and her feelings of inadequacy, and I ended up really enjoying it.

book icon  The Dust Bowl, Albert Marrin
This is an outstanding older-child's picture book about the Dust Bowl that starts with a history of the Great Plains and why the climate was not conducive for farming, yet it was settled and farmed anyway. Good rains in the early part of the 20th century lulled the settlers into thinking the rich soil would always provide bumper crops and prices would always be high. However, because they used the farming methods more suited to wetter climes, with fine harrowing of the soil, the constant high winds and the drought of the 1930s blew the topsoil away, creating "black blizzards" and giving both adults and children "dust pneumonia."

Many of the classic "Dust Bowl" photographs of Dorothea Lange are here, including the iconic "Migrant Mother" (another side of the story of that photograph is told), and an excellent narrative conveys the entire span of the story, including the prospect for future dust bowls in China and India. Because of photographs of children in distress, this is not recommended for younger kids.

book icon  Lanterns and Lances, James Thurber
If you're just starting on reading James Thurber, I suggest you start with his early and classic writing: buy a copy of The Thurber Carnival, which includes a selection of the cartoons, all of My Life and Hard Times, and then a great selection of his classics, including "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and "The Catbird Seat." If you're an old-time radio fan, look for The Beast in Me and Other Animals, which contains Thurber's humorous study of radio "daytime dramas," "Soapland."

This collection is from Thurber's later period. It's not that he "lost it," but his essays and humor are increasingly dark as his blindness and aging cynicism caught up with him. There's still much to like here: "How to Get Through the Day," for example, a commentary about a Thurber favorite Henry James (which unfortunately digresses into a criticism of television Westerns), and a diatribe on the creeping "You Know" in speech. Several of the essays, "The Tyranny of Trivia" and "The Watchers of the Night," involve insomnia and the word games played to work through it. Cocktail parties and inane conversations at such also occupy several of the pieces. If it all seems a bit dry and cynical, go find the stories from his prime instead.

book icon  Walking the Bible, Bruce Feiler
This was my Lenten reading, the story of Feiler's journey through the Holy Land as it says in the subtitle states "A Journal by Land Through the Five Books of Moses." A journey by automobile and by camel, by foot and by other means of transportation, with his scholar and guide Avner Goren, a Jewish scholar and teacher.

I loved this book because it made me feel as if I were truly there exploring the route with Feiler and Goren: the crowded cities, the bedouin tents, the endless sand, the towering cliffs of Petra, the shores of the Red Sea. Feiler talks to Christians on pilgrimage, Jewish scholars and everyday Muslims, city dwellers and what is left of nomadic peoples—all of them with one thing in common: they have felt the call of the spiritual in the desert. The narrative is well-paced and even when descriptive doesn't get bogged down in itself; I particularly enjoyed Feiler's poetic descriptions.

book icon  Horses, Horses, Horses, Horses, published by Paul Hamlyn Ltd.
When I was about ten or so, I found a thin, large format book on a remainder pile (I recall it being in Woolworth's). The cover was gone and we got it for a few dollars. This was my beloved Dogs, Dogs, Dogs, Dogs, an illustrated anthology of fiction and essays by Paul Hamlyn Ltd. I loved that book to death and only later found out what the cover looked like.

What should I find in a used bookstore a few weeks back but the companion book Horses, Horses, Horses, Horses, which is a collection of essays ("The Horse in History," "The Horse in Art," "The Horse in Sport," etc.),  interrupted by a few cartoons and fiction, plus black and white and color illustrations, including, I was delighted to discover, two photographs of "Nautical," a temperamental but famous jumping horse once profiled in one of my favorite Walt Disney short subjects, "The Horse With the Flying Tail." Once again, no cover, but who cared? (This is the cover.)

There is a Cats, Cats, Cats, Cats, too, but if I go as long between finding it as I did this one, I fear I won't be here to do so. :-) (Oh, gosh, there's a Birds, Birds, Birds, Birds, too...)

book icon  Murder on the Last Frontier, Cathy Pegau
Charlotte Brody has left the stifling society of 1919 Yonkers behind her to join her brother Michael in Cordova, Alaska, America's "last frontier," where he is practicing medicine. A suffragette and journalist, Charlotte hopes to get a new start as well as write some provacative prose for "The Modern Woman's Review." As soon as she arrives in town, though, she discovers that not only has her brother been harboring a secret, but that human nature is not very different in this small town: soon a brutal murder occurs.

I am on the fence about this book, but realize I will probably buy the next one. I still like the characters, and a "modern girl" in still-frontier Alaska is very appealing. The rough-and-tumble of an Alaskan town post-WWI is well described. Trouble is, Charlotte is almost too headstrong. She wears her heart (and her suspicions) on her sleeve and deliberately endangers herself and others in the process. For someone who has been working for a while as a reporter, she is regrettably blunt and has no "reporter savvy." Plus big portions of the mystery are practically broadcast. When a certain event happens, for instance, you immediately realize Charlotte's other reason for coming to Cordova. The culprit is pretty obvious as the plot jogs along, and the romantic storyline developed way too quickly for my taste.

My biggest irritation with this book is the modernisms that creep into the narrative. "Pants"? "Lifestyle"? And in the preview of the sequel, a referral to an "op-ed" piece? Really? Plus some of the dialog is clunky; when Michael and Charlotte have a heart-to-heart near the end, lines include "I think we've learned valuable lessons here" and "We can help each other find peace now." Oh, good grief. I don't expect this to be written with quaint postwar prose, but the modern vocabulary really tosses one out of the story.

But...Alaska. Female journalist. One who opposes the Volstead Act to boot. I'll buy the next, but I hope Pegau tightens up her writing. Please?

book icon  Freedom Just Around the Corner, Walter A. McDougall
This history of the colonial and then pre-James Polk United States is billed as a history of "the brave, brilliant, and flawed people who made America great...native-born and immigrant: German, Latin, African, and British; farmers, engineers, planters and merchants; Protestants, Freemasons, Catholics, and Jews...and the American scofflaws, speculators, rogues, and demagogues." And that's when it's at its best, talking about those little people who made up the US: teamsters, the rare woman planters like Caty Greene, pioneers, those who bucked the system and moved west, the Native Americans, etc. But, of course, to do a proper history, one has to get through the political machinations as well, and there you will find this volume harking back to a normal social studies book. So I pretty much read through it in fits and starts, dozing over the politics until they got back to the individual experiences of the individuals. There are some great pieces on Catherine "Caty" Green, the unconventional widow of General Nathaniel Greene, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, the southern planters vs. the northern farmers, etc. Plus McDougall profiles each of the states that entered the union following the revolution through 1848.

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10 March 2016

Starting Fresh

I've been on a bit of an E.B. White kick since I read the Essays last year, so I picked up Letters of E.B. White for a song (well, really for $4) on Amazon Marketplace, and am having fun reading through it. I found this delightful rebuke to New Yorker editor William Shawn over an edit done to one of White's pieces, and had such a good howl over it that I had to share.

February 1945
[Interoffice Memo]


In the comment on Life’s storage wall, I wrote: “...a pretty good case can be made out for setting fire to it and starting fresh.” Some studious person, alone with his God in the deep of night, came upon the word “fresh” and saw how easily it could be changed to the word “afresh,” a simple matter of affixing an “a.” So the phrase became “starting afresh” and acquired refinement, and a sort of grammatical excellence.

I still think people say “start fresh.” I shall continue to write “start fresh,” to say “start fresh,” and, in circumstances which require a restart, I shall actually start fresh. I don’t ever intend to start afresh. Anybody who prefers to start afresh is at liberty to do so, but I don’t recommend it.

An afresh starter is likely to be a person who wants to get agoing. He doesn’t just want to get going, he wants to get agoing. An afresh started is also likely to be a person who feels acold when he steps out of the tub.

Some of my best friends lie abed and run amuck, but they do not start afresh. Never do. However, if there is to be a growing tendency in the New Yorker office to improve words by affixing an “a,” I shall try to adjust myself to this amusing situation. Characters in my stories will henceforth go afishing, and they will read Afield & Astream. They will not be typical people, they will all be atypical. Some of them, perhaps all of them, will be asexual, even amoral.

E.B. White

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03 March 2016

Speaking With Forked Tongue

I'm aware that may be insulting, but it burns me to see that a large publisher is being insulting, and I am being insulting to them.

I've made no secret that I love many children's books as much as I love adult books and that I still buy the American Girl books. I've no interest in the dolls, other to see how they look compared to the character in the book; I've never been a dolls person. To me they're boring; to other little girls they are their best friend, and I hope those girls never lose the affection they had for that best friend.

I love the books because of the history angle. When Pleasant Company (and there really was a Pleasant, a Pleasant Rowland who originally conceived of the books and the dolls as a way to show girls that history wasn't some dry-as-dirt school thing and that they had a lot more in common with historical girls than they thought) founded the "original three" line, Felicity (Revolutionary War), Samantha (Victorian), and Molly (WWII), the idea took off. A pioneer Swedish girl appeared, Kirsten, and an African-American girl escaped from slavery, Addy. Since have come Marie-Grace and Cecile from seventeenth century New Orleans, Kaya of the Nez Perce tribe, Josefina of the New Mexican trading era, Kit the Depression-era girl, Rebecca the Jewish immigrant, Julie the hippie-era girl, Caroline from the War of 1812, and now the newest, Maryellen Larkin of 1950s Florida and Melody Ellison in 1960s Detroit.

When Mattel took over Pleasant Company's stock, they stated they would hold to the standards of the original three. The original books were published in a set of six that conformed to a pattern: an introductory story, a school story, a Christmas story, a spring (usually birthday) story, a summer story, and a winter story. (As the girls diversified, this did change. Kaya, the Nez Perce girl, did not observe these particular milestones, and Rebecca did not celebrate Christmas. The paired characters, Marie-Grace and Cecile, also had their books set up a bit differently, and that broke the original standard.) Each of the books were illustrated, and if something was mentioned in a story, like Felicity's pattens or Samantha's reticule, there might be a little illustration of it on that page to show you what it looked like. In the back of the book would be a six page illustrated section called "Inside [Girl's Name] World," which would talk about a particular theme from the book (child labor, surviving the Depression, scrap drives, Native American customs, etc.). They were lovely, and explained what might be some confusing concepts to modern kids, like why Aunt Cornelia was considered strange for riding a bicycle or why Julie couldn't play basketball or why a hope chest would be something valuable to a pioneer woman.

And so it went along for a while...until just recently. The doll business was still booming—or so it seems when they show those glitzy promos for the American Girl Place stores—but the books seem to suddenly have become an unappreciated cousin. The expensive dolls and their equally expensive accessories seem to be the reason-du-jour now, the novels just a sideline. This is very apparent after the recent "Beforever" rebranding.

Beside the fact that "BeForever" isn't even a word, it's just some sort of trademark they can put on the books, and it means absolutely...what? The books say "The adventurous characters you'll meet in the BeForever will spark your curiosity about the past..." blah, blah, blah, ending with "Read their stories, explore their worlds, join their adventures. Your friendship with them will BeForever." Really? Ick. Canned speech that was previously provided by a colorful, exciting cover, a good description on the back, sparkling illustrations inside, and that wonderful six-page historical recap at the end. I guess they had to provide the parroted introduction because there are no more sparkling illos. The wonderful illustrated historical tags are gone, too. The six books have been compacted into two text-only paperbacks, each with its own measly two-page text about the historical aspects. The older-line girls' stories are being reprinted in these bastardized editions while the new girls premiere in them. What a shameful comedown from the wonderfully done originals. I am especially incensed that the Melody Ellison series had to be abridged this way. I was kind of bored with Maryellen Larkin, but Melody has a rich family heritage and so much going on in her Civil Rights era setting that this one cried out for the six books with the six-page historical coda, so much going on that children today do not know about, and all we get is two pages of "yeah, black people were really put down back then and, oh, yeah, you could make it as a Motown singer if you were good enough." Talk about a comedown.

What's worse, Mattel hasn't even bothered to stick to the historical accuracy they stated they would adhere to. American Girl used to have a "History Mystery" line, where unique girl characters from different eras of American history would solve mysteries: a young woman in old New Orleans, a girl during the Alaskan gold rush, a scrap-drive hunting girl and her siblings coming upon mysterious lights, etc. One of the books, the World War I era The Night Flyers won an Edgar award for best children's mystery. Mattel, unfortunately, dropped these in favor of the established American Girl characters solving mysteries. Some of these have not been bad, but the quality is not that of the original "History Mysteries," and the new "BeForever" line of them seems to be worst of all. I got the latest batch this morning: one about Maryellen, one about Josefina, one about Kaya. I didn't think I'd ever see another Kaya story; Mattel doesn't seem to put much stock in their minority characters. The mysteries are usually about the white kids, Samantha, Kit, Molly, Caroline.

One of the copious notes that was provided about Kaya's stories was that you would never see her smile or open her mouth showing her teeth in the illustrations for her books. In Nez Perce society this was apparently considered extremely rude. So look at Kaya's face on the front of her new book, The Ghost Wind Stallion. Not sure if she's smiling, but she certainly is showing a lot of teeth. So they couldn't even be bothered to stick with that piece of historical integrity. Way to go, Mattel. Keep cheapening the books while getting all that nice plastic [credit cards] for those nice plastic dolls. Nice way to teach kids that books Just Aren't Important.

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29 February 2016

Books Completed Since February 1

book icon  Bryant and May and the Bleeding Heart, Christopher Fowler
I first got involved in the quirky world of Fowler's aging police detective partners in 2010, reading the first book, Full Dark House, while on vacation.

And here I am, still hooked, in this eleventh outing, which may be the best yet.

The Peculiar Crimes Unit has a new Public Liaison Officer, an up-and-climbing executive type with the improbable name of Orion Banks, who's determined to whip Bryant and May and their misfits into shape. When a teenage boy who invites a girl he likes to a cemetery for a bit of star-gazing sees what he thinks is a corpse walking—a corpse who says "Ursa Minor" to him, no less—and reports it to the police, it sets in motion a series of events that includes a suicide victim-cum-zombie, his grieving wife and sullen son, an archer, an occultist professor, Jack Renfield's teen daughter, and a group of resurrectionists (graverobbers who use corpses for medical purposes)—in other words, just up the PCU's alley. If that wasn't all, Banks also asks them to look into the mystery of the missing ravens from the Tower of London.

Threaded within the plot is Arthur Bryant's sudden obsession with death and a childhood fear he must conquer before he can make sense of the convoluted mystery they've been handed. Plus there is the usual daft workday environment like holes in the floor and electrically-charged towel racks, Crippen's kittens, Bryant's pal Maggie Armitage the witch, and Fowler's exhaustive knowledge of and fascination with old London. Do you know what the difference is between a graveyard and a cemetery? How the ravens at the Tower are kept there? Much fascinating info is imparted as the clues fly fast and furious.

BTW, was amused to see how Fowler has created doubt again to Bryant's age, so people won't be puzzling why these guys haven't been forcibly retired yet. If you've read Full Dark House, you'll know what I mean.

book icon  The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, Bill Bryson
I was about to buy Bryson's newest, The Road to Little Dribbling, having enjoyed his earlier Notes from a Small Island, but the reviews about bitter humor gave me pause. Did I actually want to spend the money to buy this in hardback? Why not instead read one of the three Bryson books I still had in my "to be read" pile? So I picked up this one. The premise: Bryson, after years of living in England, comes home to the midwest (Iowa) in 1988 and drives around most of the country in a little Chevette (one of which I had once), commenting about the odd and the unusual.

Well, there's some of that, some nice descriptions of a couple of national parks, and some nostalgia about family vacation trips when he was a kid. The rest is an endless kvetch, kvetch, kvetch about everything: the bad food, the ugly homes, the tourists—Bill, Bill, Bill, you go to national parks and tourist areas and then complain about how crowded they are; should they be empty, just for your pleasure?—looking for some Shangri-La of a small town. The funny part is that he travels through the Midwest and the South—badmouthing everyone in the latter as if it were still 1955; he is astonished, apparently, that in 1988, black people and white people actually eat together in the South!—and can't find the ideal small town, then when he gets into New England and finds some picture-perfect ones, heavens, they're too perfect.

Okay, I know he's supposed to be commenting wryly on the American scene, and his observations on tourist traps are spot on, but really, after pages and pages of this stuff, can you blame the reader if he or she is the one who wants to kvetch, kvetch, kvetch right back? Along the way he trashes country music, Mexican music, farmers, hillbillies...and heaven forbid that you are female and overweight! It seems every few pages or so he goes into a diatribe about obese women, which is rich considering he describes himself as overweight several times. I guess he gets a pass. Plus, as far as I can tell, the only things he liked that he saw were a few scenic spots, Cooperstown, and the Henry Ford Museum/Greenfield Village. He writes off Williamsburg because, you know, some of the buildings are reconstructed; doesn't like that all the treasures of the Smithsonian are now in separate buildings instead of piled higgledy-piggledy in the Castle to discover in a corner; and is sour because most places don't look like the pictures.

Unless you like endless jokes about fat women, motor homes, and stereotypical waitresses, borrow this from the library, okay?

book icon  The Sayers Swindle, Victoria Abbott
This second of the Jordan Bingham "book collector" mysteries opens a few weeks after The Christie Curse ends. Karen Smith, the bookseller badly injured in the previous mystery, is still recovering as Jordan tries to track down the first edition mysteries that disappeared from the library of her employer, Vera Van Alst, sold off by a previous Van Alst employee. Karen remembers enough of the sale of Vera's precious Dorothy L. Sayers' first editions (she did not know the books were stolen) to lead herself and Jordan to the home of Randolph Adams—where both women suspect that the courtly elderly man is being drugged, and possibly duped, by his relatives/caretakers. In trying to find out the truth (and get Vera's books back by swapping a different valuable first edition for the Sayers volumes), they find an unlikely ally in one of Jordan's not-quite-legal uncles, hyperactive Kevin Kelly.

A bouncy, not-quite-serious storyline propels this newest Jordan adventure along, with Jordan being involved in some strange situations involving "Officer Smiley," the policeman that always turns up when she's in trouble, and Karen's cute pug, Walter. Don't expect any literature close to a classic Sayers or Christie; this is just a nice cozy involving a likeable heroine, some interesting relatives, and hidden passages.

book icon  Death by Petticoat, Mary Miley Theobald
For history geeks: 63 myths about American history that get too much airing, even at living history museums. Theobold tells us that not all that many colonial women died from burns from their long skirts catching fire, not all that many men owned wigs, women didn't eat arsenic to lighten their complexions, and no, there was not a closet tax in colonial times, among others. This is just a matter-of-fact listing of inaccuracies; there's a bibliography at the back, but the book itself is light reading, with about half of it color photographs from Colonial Williamsburg. I would recommend finding this used or on remainder; however, if you're a history lover, you will probably enjoy.

book icon  Antidote to Murder, Felicity Young
In this second of the Dr. Dody McClelland books, Dody is still working as a coroner—or rather as a glorified note-taker in the coroner's office, where the famous pathologist Dr. Bernard Spilsbury is "behind" her, but still caters to her male colleague Henry Everard, who hates Dody and wants her gone. In her second career as volunteer doctor for the poor women of London, Dody treats a woman who has given herself lead poisoning to try to abort an unwanted child by giving her a lead antidote and bromide to help her sleep. The next thing she knows, the woman is dead of a botched abortion and Dody is accused of performing it, as she advocates birth control, something even her suffragette younger sister thinks of as just as bad as abortion. In the meantime, the lead tablets taken by the pregnant woman are also being used to poison unwanted children. Who is giving them out?

This is a reasonably complex mystery in which Dody's relationship with retired soldier/Scotland Yard detective Matthew Pike turns sour after he flees surgery on his bad knee and his investigation of a brothel intertwines with Dody's accusation. The poverty of London and the prejudice of the times toward women professionals, the poor, and women's suffrage is clearly illustrated, and there is a real sense that Dody will be convicted as an abortionist. I was very surprised at Florence McClelland's attitude toward birth control; I would have thought suffragettes would have had a different interpretation of it.

book icon  Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier, Bob Thompson
Stop. If you are looking for a biography of Davy Crockett, this isn't one, which several Amazon reviewers apparently didn't get. This book is about the real David Crockett (he hated being called "Davy"), the legends about him, and how his legends began (and no, it didn't start with Walt Disney; there were already Crockett legends before he left for the Alamo, some of them created by David himself).

Thompson didn't start out as a 1950s Davy Crockett fan; his young daughter fell in love with Crockett after hearing the Disney "Ballad of Davy Crockett" on a Burl Ives CD. She and her sister both got interested in Crockett and Andrew Jackson. This led Thompson, after his daughters were grown, down the "Davy Crockett trail" from Tennessee to Washington, DC to a tour of New England and finally to the Alamo, where people still argue about where Crockett was when he died (or if he even died in battle at all or was later captured and executed). He discovers Crockett scholars, Crockett fans, more Crockett memorabilia than you can shake "Old Betsy" at, and conflicting reports about everything from when Crockett officially left home to where he crossed into Texas on the way to San Antonio. The narration is crisp, brisk, and occasionally funny (but never demeaning) and if I had any quibble with this book it's when Thompson states a fact, then adds "That's how it happened....maybe" or some variant one too many times, his way of trying to tell you there are as many theories as there are legends.

I was born the year the "Disney Davy Crockett" merchandising train died, so I've never been Crockett-crazy, but I really enjoyed this book!

book icon  Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott, Jeannine Atkins
So many books have been devoted to Louisa May Alcott, both biographic in nature and even fiction written around the character, that little time has been spent on yet another Alcott who was famous in her own right: May, who became the inspiration for Amy in Little Women. While May Alcott was never renown for her illustrations (her drawings for Louisa's first edition of Little Women were universally panned), she did gain some acclaim for her painting and was, unlike Amy, to live in Europe and paint for a living, and served as inspiration for sculptor Daniel Chester French, who was one of her art students.

Atkins' May is portrayed as a hard-working artist and part of the Alcott family, tirelessly nursing Louisa through her bout with typhoid after she nursed injured soldiers in Civil War-era Washington, DC, who resents when Louisa chooses to make the fictional Amy give up her art for marriage. She carries on a brief flirtation with Julian Emerson, son of family friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, and finally falls in love with a man some years her junior while in Europe.

I bought this because I am always interested in the Alcotts and loved having a different view of the family's life, but at the same time "domestic drama" isn't what I usually read. I also found the choppy structure of the sentences wearying. I wanted to beg the author for some compound sentences and subordinate clauses. Still, a nicely told story about a historical figure not usually in the public eye.

book icon  Re-read: The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin
Since I had to buy another copy since my first has vanished into thin air. (The original was the only book I ever bought at the Borders store on Ponce de Leon Road, which closed not a month later, too.) ::grump::

I was curious when this book first came out, enough to go to Amazon.com to read reviews. Some of them were downright vituperative: "shallow, silly, stupid," all came up at various times. A frequent theme reoccurred: "What does Gretchen Rubin have to be unhappy about? She says...brags, some people insist...about her wonderful husband, kids, family, job, home.

I think they missed "the piont," as they used to joke on Ask the Manager. Rubin admits her blessings of home, family, and work right off, but wonders: "If my life is so good, why am I so unhappy so often?" This is Rubin's discovery of herself, and how making herself happy actually helps her family and friends attain happiness as well. She doesn't perfect anything, backslides and recovers, admits selfishness and frustration, but persists. It's her journey into what works for her, but any "happiness project" you do for yourself must center around your own needs and situations. I found her writing bright and interesting, and, while there is some repetition, it is usually to emphasize key points, not to fill space.

I felt inspired by Rubin's journey and hope to profit from it. I may never have a super job in New York City or adorable children, but happiness can be attained on many levels. Your mileage may vary.

book icon  The Cold Dish, Craig Johnson
A friend of mine is enamored with the Longmire mystery series now running on Netflix, and I tried it out not long ago and enjoyed it. Of course then it started me wondering what the books were like, and the next thing you know I had a book of short stories [to be reviewed in March], but finally turned up this, the first book in the series.

Walt Longmire is the longtime sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming, with a territory that extends to the Buckhorn Mountains and includes Native American reservation land. Since the death of his wife, Martha, he's a bit like a broken clock spring, leaving much of his work to his deputy sheriff and subordinates. His closest friend is Henry Standing Bear, who runs the Red Pony, a local "watering hole." As the book opens, a young man who, with three friends, sexually assaulted a learning-disabled Cheyenne girl several years earlier, is found murdered. Walt would prefer his last years as sheriff be as quiet as possible, but the mystery just refuses to let go. It soon becomes obvious that someone is gunning for the remaining three young men.

This isn't just a mystery, but a portrait of an aging man whose grief has taken overtaken him, and a look into a society millions of miles and philosophies away from the big cities and suburban sprawl of the east and west coasts. Absaroka County is as much a character as its occupants, and Longmire more than some square-jawed cowboy lawman with a gun. The friendship between Walt and Henry Standing Bear is outstanding—"worth the price of admission," as the saying goes. I'll definitely be reading more Longmire mysteries.

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