31 July 2018

Books Completed Since July 1

book icon  The Wars of the Roosevelts, William J. Mann
You will come away from this book with one overwhelming thought: it was tough to be a Roosevelt. No one showed pity on Elliot Roosevelt when he developed a debilitating illness that drove him to drink; instead brother Theodore told him to buck up, and when he didn't, confined him to an asylum. Indefatigable "Teddy" fagged out his own children by taking them on cross-country hikes from an early age and reminding them that they had to "go through" and were not allowed to take an easier route. These outings terrified little Eleanor Roosevelt when she came to visit. In adulthood the children of T.R. never thought they were good enough; eldest son Ted spent years and health trying to live up to his father, and son Kermit never did. Daughter Alice did not know until when she was older how much her father had loved her mother, and grew up feeling unloved herself, which only hardened her resolve to be "on top." Nor could her belittled cousin Eleanor Roosevelt, with all her good works, ever live up to what her mother-in-law thought her son Franklin deserved.

The big reveal in this book is the story of Elliot Roosevelt Mann, Elliot's illegitimate son by Katie Mann, a housemaid; the case turned over to Theodore, Katie Mann was supposed to receive money, but the man he picked to do so was a thief and kept the money for himself. Despite never having received funds, the tough woman made sure her son had a good upbringing and as an adult he was a self-made man who lived a good life.

I'm a big admirer of Theodore Roosevelt, but this book reveals a lot of his failings; while he has my respect in his public life, some of his private life left much to be desired, as did his cousin Franklin. This book vividly portrays the rivalries of the two branches of the Roosevelt family and how spiteful they were to each other, and how difficult it was for Eleanor to forge a rewarding life for herself.

book icon  Re-read: A-Going to the Westward, Lois Lenski
Having once again watched the "Gone West" episode of Alistair Cooke's America, I felt the urge to re-read this historical by Lenski. She is most well-known for her regional novels like Strawberry Girl, Prairie School, Judy's Journey, etc. and the similar "Roundabout America" books for younger children, but she also did a half-dozen or so historical books, the best known which is Indian Captive.

Everyone seems to know the story of the pioneers who crossed the prairies to reach the Gold Rush, or to settle the "Great American Desert," and of the settlers vs. the cowboys, but there was an earlier westward movement, which Cooke mentions in "Gone West," the journeys of the new Americans who traveled to "the Ohio Country" or the Western Reserve. The Bartletts are just one of these new American families "a-going to the Westward" to join an uncle, and twelve-year-old Betsy must handle the grief of leaving her home and best friend. They are joined by one of their church deacons, cobbler Joel Blodgett, Reuben Bartlett's other brother Robert, and the redoubtable Matilda Stebbins, a spinster who is on her way to Ohio to be reunited with her niece, and,  unfortunately, by the rowdy Perkins family: coarse and often drunken Jed, ever-ill Parthenia, and their two children Ezekiel and Florilla. Jed is glad to be leaving Connecticut with its Blue Laws and strict Calvinist teachings, and he has a burning desire to best the Bartletts and their "annoying piety."

Today this would be considered a very strange children's book, but I've always loved it from my teens because Lenski tries hard to stick to the child-rearing and stoic customs of the times. The children do not expect to be hugged and coddled unless they are very ill, and the adults do not comfort or support them as they would today. No one is told it's okay to cry, or to shirk on chores in an emergency; Betsy is always knitting or sewing—no playing dolls for her. At one point Betsy is left behind and, while her parents do worry, they fully expect responsible Betsy will fall in with another family going west and will join them in Pittsburgh. Lenski is also unstinting about the hardships of the western trail: there are no merry days picking flowers and enjoying nature, but there are many days when the breakdown of their wagons, or a stopover at a dirty inn with drunken men, or long days of rain sorely test the resolution of the family. Conniving Jed Perkins is also determined to sabotage the Bartletts' progress and is a continual thorn in their sides.

Another aspect of the story is the Connecticut Yankee meeting strange and new cultures on their journey. As they travel through Pennsylvania they meet the Ermintritt family, a hard-working clan of "Pennsylvania Dutch" heading west as well, and while the adults initially distrust the German-speakers and think they are continually swearing at them, Betsy makes a new friend in twelve-year-old Lotte. Once arrived at their homestead, they must get used to the Kentucky-bred Scruggs family who distrust book-learning and think the Yankees are snooty. There is also as much story about the adults as there is about the four children; "Aunt" Matilda and merry Joel and bookish Uncle Rob and Reuben and Roxana Bartlett, plus characters like Herr Ermintritt, the German innkeepers, their flatboat pilot, and the elderly German man Betsy meets all have their stories and their experiences on swollen rivers, in crowded wayside inns, riding in wagons that overturn or jounce teeth against teeth as they bounce through the ruts. This book is worth reading even if just once to see how the first westward pioneers endured and prevailed on the trail.

book icon  Sire and Damn, Susan Conant
I'm guessing this is Conant's last Holly Winter mystery; this is one of the two I accidentally found last year while looking for another book. The cast of characters is kind of confusing, so here's the handy guide: Holly is married to Steve Delaney the vet, of course; her dad Buck and stepmother Gabrielle appear briefly at the end (Holly's cousin Leah and one of her malemutes, Kimi, are offstage). The majority of the plot concerns Holly's friend and former tenant Rita's upcoming wedding, marrying Quinn Youngman, who saved Kimi's life in the last book. Quinn's parents, MaryJo and Monty, are coming to the wedding, as are Rita's mother Erica and father Al (who arrive late in the book); staying with Holly is Rita's cousin Zara and her psychiatric service dog Izzy, also on hand is Zara's vituperous mother Vicky (Erica's sister, hence Rita's aunt) who is married to Dave (who isn't in on the action) and also Uncle Oscar (Vicky and Erica's uncle) is staying with Rita. Also there is Rita and Zara's cousin John. Got that all now?

Anyway, the first odd thing that happens is that someone tries to swipe Izzy while Zara is walking her. Then, while most of the family is at a nearby restaurant, someone breaks into Rita's house and takes her little Scottie Willie, but he's found the very next day. Unfortunately, a bloody fireplace poker is also lying in the room where Rita and Quinn were keeping their wedding gifts. The person who was hit with the poker is soon found in the Charles River, a smalltime crook named Frankie Sorenson.

And then someone does indeed steal Izzy. But what does it all mean? Why would someone steal a shelter dog? And who caught the burglar in the act and...acted? Sure, Uncle Oscar was home, but Monty took a long time in the men's room and both Vicky and Zara went back to Rita's house during dinner and John didn't come at all.

All I can say is that I know why Rita became a psychiatrist and Zara needs a psychiatric dog with this bunch of nutcase relatives. The family wangling is more convoluted than the mystery plot, and there are enough shenanigans to make Freud run away screaming. It's nice to have Holly and her wonderful dogs back for one more performance, but the mystery lacks in this one.

book icon  The Gilded Age: 1876-1912, Overture to the American Century, Alan Axelrod
This is a gorgeous coffee-table-type illustrated book about what Mark Twain first called "the Gilded Age," that era between the Centennial celebration and 1912, when the United States became a world power and the antics and the actions of the wealthy "one percent" of the era captured the fancy of the press—also a time of industrialization and great poverty especially in the cities, revealed by the photography of Jacob Riis and others.

The volume is divided into two sections, people and things, and form and reform. In the first you'll learn about the cast of characters of the era: the robber barons, the yellow journalists, the society people who built multiroomed "summer cottages" in Newport, Rhode Island, the scientists and the inventors, the department stores and the electrical dynamos, the Statue of Liberty and the dangerous factories.  In the second, the movement for black rights and women's rights, worker reforms, the rise of the Progressive party, the closing of the American Frontier, imperialism and the Spanish-American War.

Liberally illustrated with old photos, chromos, prints, advertisements, and artwork; a grand overview of this time of great change. In addition, Axelrod compares the Gilded Age with our own modern era of "the one percent."

book icon  Murder at Rough Point, Alyssa Maxwell
Having just finished a book about the Gilded Age, this was a natural follow-on. This is the fourth in Maxwell's "Gilded Newport" series starring Emma Cross, newspaper reporter and one of the Vanderbilt "poor relations." Emma has been asked to cover a house party of artists and writers at Rough Point, the estate owned by a distant Vanderbilt cousin. To her surprise and dismay, two of the guests are her footloose Bohemian parents, who, after leaving Emma and her brother for years, all of a sudden want to make up with her. And then one of the guests is found dead at the bottom of a cliff. Emma must watch her own back, worry about her parents, and wonder if her new friend, the novelist Edith Wharton, had any part in the death.

This is a very atmospheric entry in this series, which is set at the home that was later the estate of heiress Doris Duke. I have to hand it to Maxwell for describing the storm that traps the occupants of Rough Point so well. She made it sound very ominous and claustrophobic. However, as the story goes along it develops a little Agatha Christie overtone. Emma and Edith make a good sleuthing pair. In the meantime, Emma's relationship with Jesse takes another step forward. A solid entry in this series, with the modernisms at a minimum.

book icon  Edward & Alexandra, Richard Hough
I've been interested in Edward VII since I saw the British series Edward the Seventh. Certainly "Bertie" was not an ideal person, but he was handicapped from childhood by his mother Queen Victoria's insistence he be just like his father Prince Albert. He was not a scholar like his father or his sister Vicky; in fact, in his youth he was a lot like his mother, who loved to dance and socialize until her husband exerted his influence over her. His faults were many, but I always wonder what would have happened if he was trained to his strengths instead of his weaknesses and if Queen Victoria had allowed him to take responsibility for some court business, since he was a natural at socializing.

This is the story of his relationship with his wife Alexandra, who, despite her austere upbringing as the daughter of the impoverished King of Denmark, could also be spoiled and thoughtless as well as generous and patient. Hough vividly paints "Bertie's" sad childhood and dissolute adulthood as he longed to do something useful other than stand in for his mourning mother at ceremonial functions and was not permitted. He wasn't even allowed to be alone when he spent time in an army barracks and went to university. He could only choose his wife from a limited stable of suitable royals. If anyone praised him, Queen Victoria scoffed at the fact he could be bright at anything. Alexandra, for her part, was long-suffering with the matter of her husband's mistresses and the scandals he was mixed up in (most of them not being his fault). On his deathbed, she invited his current mistress to visit him.

I enjoyed reading this "dual biography" that gives more attention to Alexandra than most books that concentrate solely on Edward VII.

book icon  The Summer Before the War, Helen Simonson
I don't usually buy "chick lit" but I found the cover and the summary of this book intriguing and decided to try it. It typifies mostly why I don't like "chick lit."

Beatrice Nash has been offered a job teaching Latin in the small English town of Rye, mainly on the recommendation of one of the town's female "movers and shakers," Agatha Kent, who has a rivalry with the mayor's wife. She also befriends stolid and dependable Hugh Grange, Agatha's nephew, and his cousin Daniel Bookham, a poet and dreamer. Until school begins she tutors three teenage boys, including "Snout," the grandson of a Gypsy family who tries not to let on he really likes Latin and schooling. But it is the summer of 1914, and in July comes the terrible news that war has begun in Europe.

There's a lot to like about this book: it shows small-town life and rivalries one hundred years ago, and how the small towns mobilized for the war by throwing patriotic parades and having women knit and taking in Belgian refugees who yet are still considered with distrust. It portrays the disparity between the treatment of men and of women and will infuriate you, and how the Roma people were marginalized and distrusted by the village population. It is especially heartbreaking what happens to one of the Gypsy population. There is also a subplot about a young woman and her professor father who have been rescued from Belgium, and a townsman who is pressing them and other refugees for propaganda stories. On the other hand, the plot is quite predictable. Beatrice is intelligent and independent, but trapped by male mores. Hugh is in love with the doctor's daughter, who ends up using her wiles, as did many young girls back then, to push men into going into the army by handing them a white feather for cowardice. David's friendship with another young man can be interpreted as something else. Even sweet-tempered Agatha has her social snobberies—and her secrets. And so on.

I did like the portrait of small-town England in the first few months of the first World War, but otherwise, except for a few final chapters which take place in the trenches and are horrifyingly real, the plot is rather mundane.

book icon  Fly Girls, Keith O'Brien
Once the Wright Brothers and their other American, French, and British compatriots proved that aviation was the new frontier, other men longed to fly—and so did women. As with other pursuits at the turn of the twentieth century, like driving an automobile or voting or doing anything else men thought was solely their purview, the women were told this was impossible: they weren't athletic enough to fly one of the unstable devices, or didn't have enough brain power to remember all the skills needed, and that flying a plane would make them less feminine. Still, a group of women persisted, including the most famous name in the panoply, Amelia Earhardt, and other female flyers with even more experience than Earhardt, includeding Florence Klingensmith, Ruth Elder, Ruth Nichols, and Louise Thaden, who worked for aircraft design pioneer Walter Beech. It's also the story of Cliff Henderson, the founder of the Reno Air Races, and his decision to allow woman to compete in air races.

Competitive flying in those days, for both men and women, was not for the faint-hearted. Along with the triumphs of the "aviatrixes" there were terrible crashes, aborted excursions, and always the damnation of the majority of men (not to mention other women) who said flying was too strenuous and simply too much for poor little women. Battling the same equipment failures, bad weather, poor maps and navigation aids, and money problems as the men, plus their prejudices, the women nevertheless set aviation records, participated in long-distance races, and even challenged the men in speed races. With hairsbreath escapes and stubborn courage, they won their place in aviation records, but nevertheless most of them, except for Earhardt due to her mysterious disappearance, have vanished from memory. This book brings them vibrantly to life, and chronicles their failures and triumphs in brisk, vivid prose. A perfect choice for aviation buffs and those interested in women's advances during the 20th century.

book icon  The Hammett Hex, Victoria Abbott
Jordan Bingham, bookfinder for Harrison Falls' most reclusive citizen, Vera Van Alst, has a chance to go to San Francisco with her policeman boyfriend, Tyler Dekker. To placate Vera, who doesn't want her to take a vacation, she promises that while she is in Dashiell Hammett's hometown she'll track down a signed first edition of his famed book Red Harvest. She has less success placating the uncles who raised her—while they've been sweet to her, they have had dealings on the wrong side of the law and don't really trust her new beau.

Then once they get to San Francisco, Tyler surprises her by asking if she would go with him to visit his grandmother. His parents were estranged from her and he just recently renewed her acquaintance. Jordan's afraid this is just a prelude to a proposal and she's not sure she wants to be tied down yet. But when on their first night there she's almost run down by a car, and then on the second day she's pushed off a cable car, both of them realize there's something else going on.

The change of venue from Harrison Falls to San Francisco gives this series a neat lift and Grandma Jean is positively one of the best characters ever, as is her slightly ominous companion Zoya. Add to that a threatening turn at the hotel, hidden bugging devices, and a ditzy Yuppie mother named Sierra, and this becomes a very entertaining mystery. Even Jordan's loose cannon Uncle Kevin is used to good effect rather than just offbeat as he's been presented in at least one of the other books.

Sadly, I haven't seen a newer book than this for two years, which makes me believe the series has ended. I'm sad, because I've quite enjoyed these stories.

book icon  Dark Tide Rising, Anne Perry
In this newest William Monk mystery, head of the river police Monk is asked by frantic land developer Harry Exeter to help him deliver a ransom for his kidnapped wife Kate. Exeter has managed to scrape together the money but is unfamiliar with the locale for the trade-off, a fetid neighborhood called Jacob's Island. Since Exeter is allowed to bring someone with him, Monk arranges for his most trusted colleagues to go with them, including his assistant Hooper, who he's come to like, but who is hiding a secret he fears will be revealed by Monk's investigation. But Kate is murdered savagely once the money is delivered and disappears, even after certain changes were made to the plan to deliver the ransom, and Monk realizes one of his men must have betrayed them. Who was it? And who was the person who murdered Kate? The lowlife who went around his neighborhood flashing money? The bank manager? The cousins who would have inherited the money used for the ransom?

This entry in the Monk series concentrates on Monk and his men; Hester appears merely as support and we have a brief scene with Will (formerly Scuff) and Crow. Hooper takes center stage as Monk agonizes not only over the crime—still smarting from Hester's own kidnapping (Corridors of the Night)—but over the perceived betrayal. When a young woman who's a bookkeeper at the bank finds irregularities in the money that Exeter used for the ransom (now missing), the plot thickens further.

This one has an interesting twist that Perry has not used previously. The plot was complex enough to keep the pages turning, but it is only an average Monk novel instead of one of the more compelling ones.

book icon  Marooned, Joseph Kelly
This is a new history of the Jamestown colony making the case that it was the early Jamestown settlers, especially those who went to live with or those who learned to get along with the native occupants of the region, who were the original independent Americans who would later set in motion a bid for freedom, not the Pilgrims, who are usually cited as our forefathers with the publication of the Mayflower Compact, and the later Puritans, who wished Boston to be that "city upon a hill."

Jamestown usually gets "short shrift" in American history class. You learn about John Smith, and you might find him cast as a bit of a rebel, or a bit of an authoritarian due to his proclamation "those who do not work will not eat," painting the other settlers as lazy. You will perhaps learn of Powhatan the Native chief (Powhatan was actually the name of the tribe; Wahunsonacock was the man's actual name) and the now-mythologized Pocahontas (if you've seen the Disney film, this book will tell you what a fairy tale they created of the real story, including portraying Smith as a virile and sexy hero when the real man had been close to being a pirate and was middle aged), and that how the colony was finally fortified and became successful. Then the action moves to Williamsburg. This book is an in-depth history of the Jamestown settlement and the actual events, which are complicated and often bloody. It takes a bit of a strong stomach to read about the privations and the tortures (both by the English and by the Natives) and the amazingly painful injuries some survived that were endured during this period. It also profiles the fate of the passengers of the "Sea Venture," one of the resupply ships for the colony, which ran aground in Bermuda after a storm. Interestingly, one of the passengers on this ship was a Stephen Hopkins who later went back to England, and then sailed on the "Mayflower" and was one of the founders of Plymouth, Massachusetts.

I hadn't read much beyond the Jamestown presented in school history classes and was quite absorbed by the narrative. Again, be warned: the grotesque punishments and tortures are pretty graphic.

book icon  Origins: Human Evolution Revealed, Douglas Palmer
This is a nice coffee-table book about the scientific origins of humankind, from the extinct "proconsul" to homo sapiens, with color reproductions of all stages of evolution, photographs of fossils and artifacts, and diagrams. There are also some great drawings of prehistoric animals. Anthropology was always one of my favorite sciences and there was never enough of it in school.

book icon  Death by Dumpling, Vivien Chien
I grabbed this when I saw it because I'm really tired of whitebread cozy books and had enjoyed Naomi Hirahara's Ellie Rush stories. After a bad romantic breakup and a nightmare job exit, Lana Lee is working at her family's noodle shop while she puts her life back together. Her Taiwanese mother is firmly of the opinion that this is where Lana should be working and that she also needs to get back into the dating game. As the story opens, Lana is asked by Ho-Lee's best cook Peter Huang to deliver lunch to Mr. Feng, who runs the plaza Asia Village where the restaurant is located. A short while later, Lana and her family are told Feng is dead after eating shrimp-filled dumplings from their restaurant; they are in shock because his allergies were well known and they always cooked his food using separate equipment. It looks like the police, including a rather attractive young detective named Adam Trudeau, want to blame the death on Peter. Lana's convinced Peter couldn't hurt a fly, and she and her roommate Megan (a bartender) decide to play Nancy Drew. But there are so many suspects: Feng's wife was heard fighting with him a few days before the death, Lana's friend Kimmy Tran was furious because she understood Feng was going to raise the rent on her parents' video store, Peter had indeed had an argument with Feng some time before, and several of the other occupants of Asia Village are acting out of character.

This wasn't a bad introduction to Lana and her world. She's a typical young American woman, fussing about her hair and her clothes, into pizza and doughnuts, but she also has a good heart and is dedicated to her family and her friends. She and Megan pretty much creep around playing Trixie Belden and Honey Wheeler in a good cause; some of it is slightly farfetched, though. Still, the cozy mystery cliches pop up: matchmaking mom, the obligatory cute pet (a pug) with a cute name related to the protagonist or setting ("Kikkoman"), the sleuth sneaking into places she doesn't belong, the overprotective police detective attracted to the sleuth, etc. I am hoping sequels will focus more on Lana's unique Taiwanese culture because I'm really tired of standard romances in mystery books.

book icon  The Brass Ring, Bill Mauldin
I picked this up especially from a book sale because for years I have found quips from this book appearing in Bennett Cerf humor compilations, and also because Mauldin was probably the most famous cartoonist from the World War II era, and my dad, a WWII veteran, spoke well of him. The enlisted men loved him and the officers hated him (he once got chewed out by Patton) because his soldiers looked like they really were: tired, unshaven, unkempt, slightly profane, and always cynical.

Bill Mauldin began life as a "mountain kid" in New Mexico with a Tom Sawyer-ish way of life and a thirst for art, chiefly cartooning; he wangled his way into art schools with money from parents who thought a boy should go to work and not draw for a living. By sheer persistence and budding talent he got his early work published. In the late 1930s he joined the National Guard, and when war broke out, astonished everyone by requesting to go into the infantry. He and his buddies dodged bombs and published company newsletters (with his accompanying cartoons) on transport ships, at the Battle of the Bulge, and in Sicily. His cartoons finally made "Stars and Stripes" and his fame was assured.

This is a great book. Mauldin has an easygoing, casual style, very blunt about his shortcomings and his experiences, yet at the same time expressive about the world around him, especially when the narrative switches to a war setting. If you are interested in reading an "I was there" memoir from a typical "grunt," you will probably enjoy this immensely. I know I did.

book icon  Hark the Herald Angels Slay, Vicki Delaney

book icon  The Twelve Slays of Christmas, Jacqueline Frost

book icon  'Twas the Knife Before Christmas, Jacqueline Frost

book icon  Death Comes to the Fair, Catherine Lloyd
Miss Lucy Harrington and Major Sir Robert Kurland can't wait for their wedding to take place, but first they must endure the meddling of Lucy's aunt, who wishes they be married in London. In the meantime, Lucy talks her intended into judging the produce contest at the local fair. Instead of being diplomatic and picking an assortment of winners from the farmers of the countryside, Robert takes Lucy's "judge the best vegetables" advice to heart, which means all the awards go to Ezekiel Thurrock, the church verger, and the farmers from around the area are muttering angrily about favoritism, especially as the Thurrocks are disliked by many in the neighborhood.

But was someone angry enough to kill him with a stone gargoyle?

Also dealing with Ezekiel's prying and pushy brother, who claims some Kurland land is his own, and the two Chingford sisters (one of whom is Robert's ex-fiancee), the major and the rector's daughter have their hands full solving this perplexing mystery, which ends up involving a charm found on the victim, the Romany, Cromwell vs. King Charles, two "wise women," a clumsy maid, the Witchfinder General of old, and a supposed treasure. What begins as a puzzle turns sinister.

I can't put my finger on it, but I didn't like this as well as the first three. Maybe it's because the relationship has been finalized and it was more fun when they were fighting with each other.

book icon  The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, Samuel Clemens, introduced and edited by Michael Hearn
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been one of my favorite books for years. Each time I read it I am astounded at Huck's transformation from village bad boy with the typical prejudices of his time to a staunch young man who will defy all the teaching from all the adults he has trusted, defy not only the laws of his own state, but laws he believes are set by God, to keep his companion Jim from being taken back into slavery. This despite not only the fear of being "lowered" by his friendship with Jim, his fear of being imprisoned, and his terror of burning in Hell. Finn has always been controversial from when it was published; even though it was published post Civil War, some libraries thought it taught "bad morals" to children and many of the population still did not believe in the freedoms it sought to champion.

If nothing else, this is an eye-opener of a novel about antebellum Missouri society, about the charlatans who wandered the countryside, about supposedly "good Christians" who are misguided and others who are plain evil, about country superstitions and everyday life. Sometimes it's sad, as when Jim talks about his little daughter, or when the end of Huck's stay with the Grangerfords is marked by tragedy. And sometimes it's just plain funny, like when Huck trolls for information by pretending to be a girl, or Tom Sawyer forms a "band of robbers." But the most emotional moments still follow Huck's growing friendship and dependence on a man who is "only a slave," and his realization that Jim, too, is a human being, just like him.

This annotated edition not only provides background for the language/slang, history, locations, backgrounds, and other unfamiliar references that may be in the text, but talks about the changes Clemens made in the manuscript, which, in the appendix, includes two larger portions that were excised from the novel, a shorter sequence when Jim talks about his past as slave for a young man who went to medical school, and a longer sequence where Huck sneaks aboard a flatboat and watches the crew at leisure, which includes a tall tale about a "haunted bar'l" (the latter is now chapter three of Life on the Mississippi). Liberally peppered with all the original illustrations by E.W. Kemble (including the "obscene" one that had to be pulled before the book was released) and other maps, and prefaced by a 150-page introduction to how the novel was conceived, abandoned, taken up once again, finally completed, printed, and became a subject of controversy, this is the best way to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

book icon  Mine For Keeps, Jean Little
This is another one of those children's classics that I missed because I was reading books with animal protagonists. Sarah Jane Copeland is finally coming home. She has cerebral palsy, and has been away at a special school for many years, only coming home on holidays. But now that her family has moved to a new city with a therapy center nearby, "Sally" is home for good, and is attending a standard elementary school. At first she is fearful of having new friends, then, having made a friend, is chagrined when she makes a terrible mistake first day of school and two potential new friends ignore her. To cheer her up, her brother suggests she get a dog. And with the help of a shy West Highland West terrier, Sally not only succeeds in gaining independence, but in helping another child in need of a good dose of hope.

For 1962 this is a remarkable book. Sally is given assistance (easy to wear clothes, a short haircut, rugs that won't slip under her crutches, etc.) to make things easier, but her parents and her siblings expect her to do for herself. Her teacher gives her extra time to complete tasks, but expects the best from her. And she's left on her own to make friends, with the teacher not making any speeches about accepting her.

The best part of this book is that Sally is a real kid; she's neither a saint nor a troubled soul, she has bad days and good, sometimes related to her CP and sometimes just because she's a kid and has kid problems. While CP is part of her life and causes her problems, it does not define her. She's allowed to make mistakes and to work out what to do to make up for them, sometimes with gentle guidance and sometimes on her own. Her parents are refreshingly supportive without being smothery, and the whole book is suffused with optimism without being a trite stereotype. Still very readable after 56 years!

book icon  How New England Happened: The Modern Traveler's Guide to New England's Historical Past, Christina Tree
I read about the author of this book and the book itself in a recent issue of "Yankee" and was lucky enough to find an inexpensive copy on E-Bay.

This is a different type of tour book. Most other travel books work by telling you about the attractions by region or by city. Lee tells the story of the New England region chronologically from the supposedly primitive setting of "Mystery Hill" in Salem, New Hampshire, to the Victorian hotels and mansions of the late Victorian era. Chapters cover pre-colonial, colonial, Revolutionary, early republic, Civil War era, and finally stopping at the late 1800s. Tree claims that this is when all the New England "tropes" were completed, but I would have liked to have seen them go into the 1920s and 1930s with the arrival of immigrants replacing the old Yankee types. These immigrants also changed the face of New England and made it what it is today. Otherwise the history portion was excellent even if the book (published in the 1970s) is no longer current on where to contact the various sites chronicled in the book. Great for U.S. history buff, especially those who love New England.

30 June 2018

Books Completed Since June 1

book icon  The Making of Home, Judith Flanders
I loved Flanders' The Victorian Home and The Victorian City, so it was a cinch I would pick up this volume. I was not disappointed.

In this volume, Flanders chronicles what changed to make the old-fashioned medieval hall, where everyone slept together (the king and the queen perhaps on a dias separated perhaps by a curtain) turn into the home with specialized rooms as we use it today, and a fallacy that we have about old homes which have been remodeled over the centuries, thinking that they looked the same 500 years in the past. (One example is that of the hallway with doors opening off onto rooms; this home feature really only goes back a couple of centuries. Previously rooms led one into the other, so that on your way to your bedroom you might walk through public living areas, your sister's bedroom, your parents' bedroom, etc. The "shotgun house" is an example of this.) One of the most fascinating parts of this book is how she talks about paintings by Dutch and English masters which portray "homes that never were," idealized portraits of well-to-do people showing them with furniture and furnishings that they actually did not have (not to mention views out the window that did not exist). There's also the concept of "invisible furniture"—for instance, in most cases in the past people spit all the time (a popular habit which was only quelled by posters everywhere when they figured out that tuberculosis was carried in spit), and most rooms had spittoons in them. But you do not see them in paintings because they were not considered something you'd want other people to see; you just wanted them to see the pretty windows or curtains you had. Curtains were another thing: they show up in paintings long before they were actually common on the windows of homes. Before that they had lattice screens to let in air and uncurtained windows to let in the light.

As reviews have pointed out; this is very Eurocentric but also includes the US and Canada. You would need to look elsewhere to find the history of Asian, African, or South American homes. Otherwise a fascinating survey of how we did live versus how we now live.

book icon  A Colonial Williamsburg Love Affair, Debra Bailey
This short but delightful book is Bailey's love letter to Colonial Williamsburg. A self-professed history geek and science fan, Bailey has been going to "CW," as she calls it throughout the book, since she was a small child, vividly recalling in the first chapter the day in 1965 she, aged ten, and her older sister were left alone to explore the colonial area while her parents were at the pottery shop. (Yes, back in the 60s it was perfectly safe to do this if your kids followed the rules and knew to run for help if accosted by strangers—do I envy her!)

In subsequent chapters she talks about different trips, some with her family (one year they stayed at one of the Williamsburg houses) and later with her husband. As she got older, she enjoyed doing things she would have eschewed as a child: going to the art galleries, or taking time out to relax at a spa. She takes us from the Governor's Palace to the House of Burgesses to the different restaurants and into the various homes and shops, and, in one chapter, talks about how the methods of restoring the buildings and cataloging the artifacts have changed from the 1930s to modern times (in the 1930s they were strictly interested in restoring the businesses and threw the artifacts away!).

I'm not sure if anyone else but those interested in historical recreations, colonial history, or specifically Colonial Williamsburg itself would really be a fan of this book, but if any one of these categories are intriguing to you, you will probably enjoy this memoir. Keep in mind it's not a guidebook, or a be-all end-all reference to Williamsburg, but one woman's personal affection for a magical place in her childhood that continued to provide her with special memories for the rest of her life.

At the end of the book Bailey provides suggested things to see in CW as well as a bibliography of books about the restored area. Williamsburg geeks like me will love!

book icon  The Corpse at the Crystal Palace, Carola Dunn
In this latest (or perhaps last, considering what happens at the end) in the Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher mysteries, Daisy has guests for a few weeks: her newly-found cousins are visiting. While half the family stays with her mother, she keeps the two boys, Ben and Charlie, and arranges for a visit to the Crystal Palace with them along with Alec's daughter Belinda, twins Oliver and Miranda, their nursemaid, and the redoubtable Nanny Gilpin, who Daisy is still crossing swords with about being allowed more time with the twins. When Nanny doesn't return from a visit to the ladies' room, Daisy goes to find her, and instead discovers a dead nanny inside one of the stalls. Meanwhile, Belinda, Ben and Charlie are following Nanny Gilpin; they lose her temporarily and then find her floating unconscious in a fountain. When Nanny Gilpin awakes, she has no memory of having taken out across the property.

This time Alec must accept a little help from Daisy as she is a witness and the children are involved. Everyone is afraid Nanny Gilpin knows something or has something to do with the murder, but she swears she can't remember. Then examination of the corpse turns up another big surprise.

By now I'd say this is standard Daisy fare. The kids comport themselves very well and are not annoying, and once again a retired Tom Tring offers assistance. My only quibble with this is historical: both Ben and Charlie are from Trinidad, and while people of color were not treated the same in England as they were in the United States, the British of that time still showed considerable prejudice toward anyone who wasn't light-skinned—all the mystery novels written in that era show that. It just seems unrealistic that everyone accepts Ben and Charlie and no one is ever rude to them.

book icon  The Librarians and the Lost Lamp, Greg Cox
This is the first of Cox's two books (not sure if there will be any more since TNT has cancelled the series) based on the fantasy series The Librarians. The Library is a wonderful place where magical artifacts are stored so that mere humans will not misuse them. Flynn Carsen, a nebbish perpetual student, was once the only chosen Librarian, but when he went missing three more potential Librarians were called: Jacob Stone, a working-class man who is also an art historian; Cassandra Killian, a woman who can see numbers and formulas due to a tumor in her brain; and Ezekiel Jones, a brash Australian thief. They are cared for by ex-military Eve Baird as their Guardian, and assisted by the patrician Jenkins, who hides a secret of his own.

Half the book is a flashback to one of Flynn's assignments: keep the Genie's Lamp from "the 40," the descendants of the gang of Forty Thieves in "Aladdin." Along with Dr. Masri, a modern scientist who is a descendant of Scherezade, Flynn must use clues in an original manuscript of the Thousand and One Nights, to find the Lamp, chased by the Forty. In modern-day Las Vegas, the three new Librarians and Eve keep their eye on a man with incredible luck at a hotel called Ali Baba's, not knowing that soon the two stories will collide.

As I said about the second book, Cox really has a talent for reproducing the tone of the series. All the characters sound like themselves, including Jenkins, who gets in some good lines. We also see the origins of the series from the three movies with Noah Wyle as Flynn Carsen; again, he has Flynn's unorthodox methods and his charming yet adversarial relationship with Library seniors Charlene and Judson spot on. It's a whirlwind adventure through the lands of the Arabian Nights and the glitter of Las Vegas that any Librarians fan will appreciate.

Oh, and I really appreciated The Night Stalker original film/novel reference, too!

book icon  Elementary: Blood and Ink, Adam Christopher
Sherlock Holmes is inclined to be dismissive when he and partner Joan Watson are called to consult about a CFO's murder—until Holmes finds out the man was stabbed in the eye with a very expensive pen, clearly sending a message. When they discover that a similar crime happened some years ago and that the man responsible for it is in New York City, it seems an open-and-shut, and very boring, case for Holmes...but there's something about it that's still not right.

Not quite as interesting as its predecessor, The Ghost Line, Christopher, like Greg Cox of The Librarians novels, has a great feel for the characters of the Elementary series. Sherlock sounds like Sherlock (insufferably so sometimes), Joan is consistent with television Joan, Gregson and Bell conform to their media counterparts. The story itself, about the murder of a financial officer and what it has to do with a motivational speaker and his assistants, is just a little more pedestrian than the previous story. The mystery is reasonably complex, but becomes easier to figure out as you get closer to the end of the story.

book icon  The Art of Tasha Tudor, Harry Davis
Like many people, I fell in love with Tasha Tudor's beautiful work via The Secret Garden. Her lovely sketches of birds, flowers, and the children even led me to trade my paperback version in for the hardcover, which contained color plates. Her exquisite work gave me joy. Then I discovered her Christmas art. Even better, I found out her Christmas art was based on her actual lifestyle: she dressed in old-fashioned clothes, lived in an old-fashioned house, and celebrated holiday feasts in the simple ways of earlier years.

This volume is a collection of her art (plus a few stunning pieces by her mother, who was also an artist), but also talks about her life, some of which was rather sad. She always thought she was unattractive, and ended up marrying the first man who asked her because she was afraid no one would ever want her. Her husband ended up living off her work and they eventually divorced. She also regularly destroyed artwork which she didn't like, even if others told her it was good! In fact, until an exhibition of her artwork was done in Williamsburg, Virginia, she didn't even consider herself a successful artist, although she had illustrated many books by then and was in demand!

The book contains 150 pieces of her artwork, both the watercolors she was known for and her lesser-known and exhibited oil paintings, plus sketch studies and partially finished works. It is a delight just to page through and look at the illustrations. A must for any Tasha Tudor fans!

book icon  The World of Louisa May Alcott, William Anderson with photos by David Wade
William Anderson is perhaps now best known for his books about Laura Ingalls Wilder, but this is an early 1990s volume of the same vein as The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, presented mainly via illustration and photographs, starting with the meeting of Amos Bronson Alcott and Abigail "Abba" May.

This is a nice overview of Alcott's life if one is not interested in reading an in-depth biography, and the photos of the different places she lived (Fruitlands, Orchard House, Hillside, Beacon Hill in Boston, etc.) are the best part of it, since Orchard House, at least, does not allow visitors to take photographs, so it was a nice memory of the visit I took in 2005. Photos of the "real Marmee," "Mr. March," and "Meg" and "Amy" (sadly there were no photos of the real "Beth," who died at age twenty-three), and of course the "real Jo" bring the family to life. There are even photos of the two nephews for which Louisa wrote Little Men and an adult photograph of Lulu, May Alcott Nieriker's daughter who was brought up for ten years by Louisa. There are also profiles of the important people in the Alcotts' lives, such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne.

Readable by both child and adult fans of Louisa and her works!

book icon  The Edwardian Lady: The Story of Edith Holden, Ina Taylor
Who remembers Upstairs, Downstairs? It was the Downton Abbey of the 1970s, broadcast on Masterpiece Theatre, and suddenly everyone was following the adventures of the Bellamy family and their servants. Collaterally, people suddenly became interested in the Edwardian era, and books related to the era began to be written or rediscovered. In 1977, Edith Holden's 1906 hand-drawn hand-lettered nature diary was published. The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady became a cottage industry almost unto itself: there were Country Diary mugs, journals, writing tablets, painting sets, tea sets, coasters, tea towels, etc. A decade later, a lesser nature diary of Edith's, Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady, was discovered and published.

Edith Holden herself was not a famous person or internationally noted artist, simply a middle-class young woman of the late Victorian/Edwardian era who kept, as many young ladies did in those days (it was considered an accomplishment) a nature journal. Her father ran a successful business, the family supported the cause of the poor, and most of her sisters were artistic; she collaborated with one of her sisters on several projects. Although she had artwork exhibited in art shows and children's books published, they are now forgotten and she is only known for the Country Diary. This is a quiet, thoughtful book about Edith's life and Edwardian times which might be of interest to people who are interested in the Edwardian era, women in the arts, and/or nature-oriented art. Because all we know of Edith is from her two diaries and some letters, she doesn't really come alive in this book, but the illustrations are lovely and the life of a young woman in Edwardian times is well-shown.

book icon  Rivers of London: Cry Fox, Ben Aaronovitch, Andrew Cartmel, Lee Sullivan, Luis Guerrero
The fifth in Aaronovitch's Peter Grant graphic novel series has Peter's magic-talented niece Abigail taking center stage. While Peter, Nightingale, and Varvara go to a pub frequented by the demimonde to threaten them, Abigail, who's awaiting her weekly lesson, is left cooling her heels. On the way home she encounters a fox who asks her to help a girl return to her mother. Unfortunately it's a trap by Reynard Fossman to get the money he thinks he's owed by the Russian couple arrested in the previous Night Witch. He's not only keeping the mate and kit of the fox in captivity, but is working with two thugs and a weird mother/son pair in order to get his satisfaction.

Let's say I'm really familiar with the short story referenced in this tale—it forms the basis of my favorite Get Smart episode—so I knew what Abigail was in for the minute she spoke with the squirrelly son. I was very happy to see some action for Sahra Guleed, one of my favorite supporting characters, but the end of this story was too abrupt! After all the buildup, the suspenseful part  wasn't long enough. I would have liked to have seen the electronic device not work and have a little more suspense building up to the denouement; it seemed like the exciting part of the story just got started and, whap, there's deus ex machina Nightingale there for a quick ending. Maybe a smaller subplot involved in the story that had to be solved before they could get to the main plot, the mother/son having a larger estate, etc. which would have called for another issue with a longer suspenseful ending.

Still—love the foxes, love Abigail and Guleed, love the use of that short story, and the inserts about fox lore were great as well. And as always, the short "Tales from the Folly."

book icon  Wind in the Ash Tree, Jeanine McMullen
I realized after reading McMullen's A Small Country Living last year and loving it that I just had to get the two sequels, so I made good use of some spare Amazon.com points to get used copies of them.

Wind takes up where Living left off, with native Australian McMullen struggling to make ends meet on the small Welsh farm she bought with her former boyfriend. "The Artist" is now out of her life, but her eccentric mother "Mrs. P" helps keep house and keeps up her spirit, until her beloved whippet Merlin dies. Then she finds herself struggling to keep up her homestead and not slip into a bereaved depression, all the while trying to assemble a radio show for the BBC about living in the country.

As always, McMullen's daffy animals have delightful cameos: Doli the draft horse who feigns lameness; the oversexed flock of goats headed by the wild Dolores who fall for a stinky billy named Ghandi; Absolute Bliss, the gorgeous rooster who knows it; a sheep called Hetty and her daughter Sadie, who feud and bond to feud again; a very angry pig named Blossom; and the "farm-bred" chihuahua named Winston that she buys for her mother, who ends up being the leader of the pack.

There's also a fairy named Bw Bach haunting the chimney, various adventures with her friends, and a visit by a septic tank lorry that goes disastrously wrong.

By turns sad, hilarious, and magnificently descriptive of the Welsh countryside, another winner from McMullen.

book icon  The Autobiography of James T. Kirk, edited by David A. Goodman
I read a review of this book that said it was about the reboot-Kirk and was inclined to pass it up until I found it at bargain prices.

No, not high art, but an interesting version about the formative years of Captain Kirk and how he came to be. We see his youth in Iowa, where his father runs a small farm and takes care of Kirk and his brother while his mother serves in Starfleet; his time on Tarsus IV and life under Kodos "the Executioner" ("Conscience of the King"), his time in Starfleet Academy where he meets Ben Finney ("Courtmartial"), Finnegan ("Shore Leave"), and John Gill ("Patterns of Force"), along with others named in the series, his affair with Carol Marcus that cumulates with the birth of their son David and Carol's realization that Kirk will not leave his career for a family. The second half of the book gives a Kirk's-eye view of his command of the Enterprise, but becomes somewhat choppy as the story skips some of the Trek episodes, although there is an amusing treatment of the substandard film The Final Frontier that aggravated some but made me laugh. We also learn little things like why Janice Rand left the Enterprise (which makes sense when you think about it) and see Kirk's periodic visits to Earth to visit his family and his internal struggles over decisions he made and also his decision to stay out of David's life.

In places kind of pedestrian, but I enjoyed the way the "editor" worked in the Trek glimpses of Kirk's past and gave them a little life. Most Star Trek fans should at least like.

book icon  A Scandal in Battersea, Mercedes Lackey
Lackey returns to the world of Elemental Masters with a second novel featuring both young telepath Nan Killian and young empath Sarah Lyon-White along with Dr. John Watson and his wife Mary, and of course Sherlock Holmes.

It's Christmastime with all the fun and food that involves, and Nan, Sarah, and their young ward Suki are looking forward to it. But Christmas Eve is also the time when the barrier between the seen and the unseen world is the thinnest, and this year it will also be in the dark of the moon. Nan has agreed to communicate with a young woman in an insane asylum who is seeing terrifying visions of a blasted, lifeless alternate London, and she is horrified when she realized it's a possible future. Is some rogue magician about to conjure up this frightening future?

Yes, he is; his plan is presented in alternate chapters where you want to grab this dude and bellow "What are you doing?"

The "monsters" Nan, Sarah, and their friends are fighting this time are quite creepy. I have heard this book described as "Sherlock Holmes meets Cthulu," and indeed the scenes in the alternate future will make you crawl. However, Sherlock is named more than present; he is there at the confrontation at the conclusion of the book. Don't read this if you're looking for Sherlock; instead read it if you are interested in an unsettling fantasy novel and two courageous young women battling a coming evil.

book icon  The Private World of Tasha Tudor, Tasha Tudor and Richard Brown
Richard Brown first met artist and illustrator Tasha Tudor when he was assigned to do a photographic feature about her garden. They got to be friends, and the result is this pretty book of photographs behind the scenes of Tudor's life. An individualist, Tudor lived in an old-fashioned home with little modern comforts, always dressing in long skirts and other fashions from out of the 1800s (she said she always felt she lived once before, in 1830), painting not in a studio but at one end of a farmhouse table in her kitchen. The house was hand built by her oldest son.

Dividing the book into four parts to correlate with the seasons, Brown films Tudor at work at her painting and in just taking care of her beautiful flower garden—her flowers were truly stunning, like a fairy-tale English garden come to life—and her animals, vintage clothing she owns, and going through household tasks with her pets, including an African Gray parrot. There are also several dozen pictures of Tasha's art, including preliminary sketches. The text is by Tudor herself, told in her blunt, forthright manner.

If you are a Tasha Tudor fan, you should love this look into her life and home.

book icon  The Strange Case of Dr. Doyle, Daniel Friedman, MD and Eugene Friedman, MD
Well...damn!

I'm not much of a fan of the Jack the Ripper conundrum, although I have attended panels at conventions where the subject was discussed because both the panelists had some knowledge of the investigations. I'm wondering now if either of those panelists had read this book.

The authors, both medical doctors, present the volume as fictional chapters of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle escorting a group of people (including two women) on a tour of the five verified Jack the Ripper sites and soliciting their opinions of the evidence and the clues to see if they can come up with an analysis of the character of the killer (apparently Conan Doyle took a tour like this in 1905, five years before this story takes place). Alternating are biographical chapters about Conan Doyle from his miserable childhood to his marriage and the publication of A Study in Scarlet that emphasize his physical strength, his bizarre sense of humor and penchant for practical jokes, his ambivalence about his profession, his homesickness for a home life that was decidedly abnormal, and how ashamed he was of his father, who was an alcoholic and possibly mentally ill as well. About halfway through the book I realized what the authors were getting at.

Wow...seriously.

This is definitely a Jack the Ripper analysis that reaches a novel conclusion. The authors did a lot of research, and their conclusion is definitely not proven, but if you've ever been curious about the identity of the Ripper, this one presents a definitely different view of the murders!

book icon  The Legend of Holly Claus, Brittney Ryan

book icon  Christine Kringle, Lynn Brittney

book icon  On Trails. Robert Moor
On the surface this is Moor's story of his love of hiking, and it opens with his experience hiking the length of the Appalachian Trail. But as he hiked, Moor became curious: how do trails develop? Is there a logic to how they are placed (actually, there is)? Why do people use trails? Are human trails and animal trails formed for the same reason? And what about animal trails—how do animals mark trails? Is there a difference in a trail formed by an ant and one formed by an elephant? Following Moor's opening hiking memoir, he takes us on a search for trails: ones formed by extinct animals, barely traceable in the landscape, ones made by insects, African trails formed by elephants and migrating zebra, the earliest trails formed by the Native Americans—Moor visits with both Cherokee and Navajo to see how their trails were used, hikers who migrate from trail to trail for the different experiences they get out of the walk, and even a chapter about extending the Appalachian Trail through Europe and down through Morocco under the tutelage of a unique female guide, among people who thought hiking was a waste of time.

I was frankly glued to this book during the entire narrative, whether it was talking about Moor's different hikes or about the scientific research into why insects, animals, and man creates trails. Moor even likens the Internet to the newest effort of humans to establish a trail, this time not a physical path but a connection through technology. I especially enjoyed his fossil-hunting tale, as I enjoy learning about Earth's physical past, and his stories about herding sheep for the Navajo and hiking with walkers of Cherokee extraction, so that I could learn more about different Native American cultures. The "Tuckamore" landscape of Newfoundland sounded fascinating; I would love to see it someday.

An engaging read mixing nature, history, and prehistory.

book icon  Rocket Men, Robert Kurson
This is reviewed in the May 2018 entry. I wanted a hard copy and of course could not resist reading it again.

book icon  London Rain, Nicola Upson
I loved the first "Josephine Tey" mystery by Upson because she had the vocabulary of 1930s crime fiction down pat; while I had a problem with the second one I have mostly enjoyed this series featuring a fictionalized Tey (real name Elizabeth MacIntosh), her Scotland Yard inspector best friend Archie Penrose, and a romantic triangle she has inadvertantly fallen into. In this entry, Tey is visiting BBC Broadcasting House to oversee a radio performance of one of her historical stories and meets Vivienne Beresford, married to one of the BBC's most well-known announcers. When Arthur Beresford is murdered after his segment on the Coronation of King George VI, Tey is drawn into the twisted tale of the death and the reasons for it, especially when she discovers Vivienne killed her husband.

I was happy that for once Josephine's love affair fit into the story seamlessly; in some of the books it seemed tacked on. Archie's long-lost love Bridget also appears as it seems everyone in the story has secrets of his/her own.

The real stars of this story for me were Upson's fabulous descriptions of the BBC's famed Broadcasting House and the atmosphere around London and the pageantry of the celebration surrounding the Coronation. She perfectly describes the up-to-date recording facility and the difference in the building of spaces for the executives and for the workers, and the excitement of the people on the street as they prepare for the Coronation after the bombshell abdication of King Edward VIII. You can practically see the homemade decorations and the banners and the flags flying, smell the rain that spoils part of the procession, sense the excitement of the crowds, Upson brings it so vividly to life. I was absorbed in the mystery, but the atmosphere was the best part of this sixth book in the series.

book icon  The Hills Have Spies, Mercedes Lackey
In this first book of the "Family Spies" series, we join former mine slave Mags and his wife Amily fifteen years after the end of Closer to the Chest. They now have three children, Peregrine (known as Perry), Abi, and Tory. Because of Mags' employment as a royal spy and Amily's rank as King's Own, the children have all been taught self-defense, and thirteen-year-old Perry is particularly talented at learning spycraft. When Mags is asked to check on Herald Arville's reports of odd occurrences in a village near the Pelagir Hills (people have disappeared and when Arville asks after them they have been forgotten), he takes Perry with him. They find out that something truly sinister is going on a day's journey from the village, but when Mags demurs to do anything about it before he checks with instructions from Haven, Perry and his new friend, the kyree [feline-like wolf] Larral, take it into their heads to infiltrate the sinister place.

Yes, that is indeed "Herald Arville" who first appeared in Lackey's Valdemar short story about four Heralds that closely resemble the gang from Scooby-Doo. Now elderly, he is used to good effect here. Of course headstrong Perry gets in over his head, but his training serves him well in the frightening situation he's tossed into. He comports himself quite well, but knowing his son is now the captive of a madman causes tension and heartache for Mags. With the help of a King-Stag dyheli [intelligent deer-like creature] whose herd-member Perry saved (his Gift is Animal Mindspeech), it will take all of Mags and his Companion Dallen's cleverness to rescue him.

I did like this. No one got kidnapped, Mags no longer sports his country-boy dialect speech, Perry is a particularly level-headed kid despite going dashing off without his father's permission, and the villain makes your skin crawl. There are some neat scenes with Perry communicating with birds and other animals, as well as some dogs he trains. (I wish he'd come train Tucker!) They receive help from an unusual source which is not so unusual coming from the spell-ridden Pelagirs.

The biggest puzzle about this book is why the description on the dust jacket (and, apparently, the description on the back of the paperback) doesn't match the plot of the book. Perry is called "Justyn" and the plot elements described don't jibe with what happens, except that he meets the kyree. It's almost like the publisher used an early synopsis of the book. Perhaps the plot described happens in the next book?

31 May 2018

Books Completed Since May 1

book icon  Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8, Robert Kurson
After the devastating Apollo 1 fire and investigation, NASA planned a new sequence for the planned trip to the Moon, and originally Apollo 8 was supposed to test the command and lunar module in low earth orbit. But the lunar module would not be ready by the anticipated launch date. Instead an audacious plan dreamed up by head engineer George Low was put into plan: the command and service module would orbit the Moon, reconnoiter landing sites, and return, all during the Christmas holidays.

The year 1968 was full of turmoil for the United States. Both Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Protests against the Vietnam War and against racism raged on college campuses and in large cities. Soldiers were dying every day in Southeast Asia. President Lyndon Johnson faced increasing criticism each day. And at NASA personnel were still reeling from the capsule fire that had taken the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.

Kurson follows the Apollo 8 mission from inception to splashdown, with asides talking about the history of the "space race," the troubles besetting the country in 1968, and the lives and careers of the three astronauts headed to the moon, especially the sober and driven Frank Borman, who was determined to go to the Moon to strike a blow at Communism. It also follows the emotional reaction of Susan Borman, who put on a brave face to the world but who was consumed with fear that NASA was proceeding too quickly.

This is the third book I have read about the Apollo 8 mission (others were by Jeffrey Kluger and Robert Zimmerman) and I can't decide if I like this or Kluger's book more. They are both super overviews of the "heady days of the space program," missions I remember watching avidly on television. I would definitely recommend both this book and Jeffrey Kluger's if you are interested in a history of the Moon missions.

book icon  Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon, Bronwen Dickey
As a child of the 60s, I watched police officers on television sic "police dogs" (mostly German Shepherds) on protesters. Despite the reruns of Rin-Tin-Tin still showing, we kids were warned against GSDs; they weren't like you saw them on TV, we were told. They were unpredictable and vicious. Then in the 1970s everyone forgot about GSDs and it was Doberman pinschers that were treacherous. Following that were Rottweilers. Today it's the "pit bull" (a designation that covers several breeds with shortened noses; some boxers are even classified as "bullies").

Dickey presents a history of the pit bull, going back to their original use, herding cattle. Unlike sporting dogs or lap dogs, they were considered working-class dogs, and when imported to the United States, continued to be working-class owned. Unfortunately their high energy and protective qualities also made them suitable as fighting dogs. While many pit bulls projected positive images (Stubby, the World War I mascot; Pete the Pup from the Our Gang shorts; Jack, the bulldog from the Little House books; Helen Keller's dog Phiz; Luke, a silent film performer), as the years went on they became known for violence.

Dickey tries to remain neutral on the pit bull issue—she debunks the "nanny dog" myth that has proliferated online and does take account of pit bull attacks—but it's pretty clear she's more on the side of the pit than against it. Personally I am not convinced that a pit bull, or a German Shepherd for that matter, or a Doberman, Rottweiler, or Akita, is inherently bad. A dog is only as bad as its owner. As the text exhibits, any dog can bite; it is only pit bulls that make the news. Dickey cites Labradors, Golden retrievers, and even Weimaraners who have killed people. I remember a German Shepherd from my childhood that was gentle and friendly, until its owner had it "trained" as a guard dog. I'm not sure what kind of training the poor dog had, but it was soon lunging and snarling at any strange human's approach, even when not on guard duty, bit someone, and was euthanized.

I found the historical narrative most interesting. I had no idea there was a war against spitz-type dogs in the U.S. in the late 1800s, when they were branded as "rabies carriers" and destroyed, or that a breed called the "Cuban bloodhound" was later vilified (Dickey notes that she believes this Cuban dog was the basis for the "gigantic hound" that terrorized a client of Sherlock Holmes). Of course mentioned is the violence toward dachshunds during the first World War. (Albert Payson Terhune also noted in some of his books that at one point collies were accused of being snappish and dangerous to children.) Absorbing reading for the most part.

book icon  Superfluous Women, Carola Dunn
In the latest Daisy Dalrymple mystery (there is a newer book coming out soon), Daisy is in the country recovering from bronchitis after a particularly bad London smog. Staying at the local inn and being cossetted by the friendly maid Sally, she finally feels fit to join up with an old school friend, Willie Chandler, who just bought a house nearby with two friends of hers, practical Izzie and teacher Vera. The three young women are, like thousands of others after the Great War, now considered  "superfluous"; they will have to make it on their own since there are no corresponding young men to court them, but the three determined women are not about to let stereotypes rule their lives. When Daisy finally visits their house accompanied by husband Alec (a Scotland Yard detective inspector) she finds the company delightful until her friends ask if Alec might "break into" the home's cellar: the lady who owned the house didn't leave them a key and they believed there might be a wine cellar. Unfortunately, all Alec finds is a woman's dead body, and Daisy's friends are the prime suspects by the local copper, who seems lazy and unimaginative. Alec's determined not to be dragged into the case and he wants Daisy to recover, not sleuth.

But sleuth she does and dragged into it he is, enlisting the always invaluable Ernie Piper as well as the talents of the recently retired Tom Tring, not to mention his wife. The first task will be identifying the woman—could it be the owner of the house, Judith Gray? But she has reportedly gone to Europe and no one knows how to contact the friends she went to visit. And why didn't Daisy's friends notice the stench from the body, which had been there some time, if they were innocent?

I loved all the characters in this book (even the nasty ones who came to a quite satisfactory end) but the obvious suspect was so skipped over that it was aggravating. The problem could have been solved had this person been asked first. But, as the saying goes "Either that or the story ends here." Not the most satisfying Daisy mystery, but enjoyable characters, including something of a romantic sort starting up for a Daisy regular!

book icon  The Genius of Birds, Jennifer Ackerman
Sure birds are pretty (or most are), and flying is neat, and they eat insects which would otherwise overrun us. But they're not very smart, are they?

Well, really, yes they are. Not just the instinctive cleverness that takes them thousands of miles through migrations (and with all their studies scientists are still not certain how the birds do it!), but problem-solving skills that still amaze: crows that use tools to get treats and who can problem solve better than apes plus they can recognize people who have wronged them even in disguise, sparrows who have figured out how to skim the cream from milk bottles and bullfinches who have learned to steal sugar packets and extract the sweetness inside, birds who are given treats and return little thank-you gifts, Alex the gray parrot who know colors and shapes and who could pick them out when asked. In my own experience, we had a budgie named Merlin who realized "Hi!" was a greeting word. He would fly up to you and say "Hi!" and if you ignored him he said it louder and louder until he was acknowledged.

There are also fascinating chapters about how birds learn birdsong (and how some learn to imitate other things; some wild birds are now imitating cell phone ringtones) and about birds who create art, such as the bowerbird, to get a mate, and even one about the bird spreading around the world: the sparrow, who can now even be found in Africa.

One sour note: the chapters about bird migration do talk about experiments done on migrating birds. I know they do these things to learn but stories about cutting nerves made me a bit squeamish. Be advised.

book icon  Dark Detectives, edited by Stephen Jones
Since I love mystery and enjoy some fantasy, I thought this book looked like a perfect combination. However, a month later I find that I can't really remember most of the stories, except for the serial stories based on The Jewel of the Seven Stars, a book written originally by Bram Stoker of Dracula fame. Most of the stories are very pulpy, often violent, and veer more toward horror, so they were not really my "cup of tea."

However, I was appreciative of several things:
  • The introduction, "The Serial Sleuths," was very interesting and I enjoyed learning the background of the stories.
  • "The Jewel of Seven Stars" stories were one of the most interesting, especially as they spanned the years from the origin of the stone (it caused the plagues of Egypt) through Victorian times (involving the Diogenes Club and Mycroft Holmes) and up to modern times.
  • I had a chance to read another of Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma mysteries.
  • I've finally read a Solar Pons story! Interesting, and would like to try a few more.
book icon  Children of Time: The Companions of Doctor Who, edited by R. Alan Siler
Imagine standing in a line to get autographs from about thirty people involved with this book! Yep, I did so at WHOlanta with a long line of other people. I was barely home from the convention before I started to read it.

Children of Time is a tribute to all of the companions of the Doctor, from granddaughter Susan to the amazing Bill Potts, encompassing even companions from the audio adventures and the Virgin Publishing "lost adventures." So along with television standards like Ian and Barbara, Jo Grant, Sarah Jane Smith, Ace, Rose Tyler, Donna Noble and the rest, we also have a shape-shifting penguin named Frobisher, the immortal Bernice Summerfield who (having left the Seventh Doctor's company) went on to her own novels, eighth Doctor companions Charley Pollard and Lucie Miller who joined canon via "The Night of the Doctor," and more—down to the mysterious "grandchildren" of the Doctor, John and Gillian, in a 1960s newspaper comic. Various drawings and cartoons enliven the texts. Plus there's an interview with Katy Manning and one with Matthew Elliot and yet another with Daphne Ashbrook.

Just a few of my favorite essays: Barbara's love letter to Ian by Clay Dockery, the outlandish tales of an Indian orphanage run by Ben and Polly Jackson by Logan Fairchild, a paean to Jo Grant by James Callaghan, Leela's final diary entry by Alan Siler...no, I can't do this. I love them all. Fans of Doctor Who should, too!

book icon  The Secret Life of Cows, Rosamund Young
This is a slim, pleasant volume about Young's experience at her farm, Kite's Nest, in England, with her livestock, mostly cows that are pasture-raised and then slaughtered humanely. People tend to think that cows and other herd animals are stupid creatures that sit around eating all day, and, indeed, in man-made feedlots, that's really all they do. Left to graze naturally the animals' true personalities come to the fore, just as Margaret Marshall Saunders wrote about so lovingly in the farm chapters of her classic dog book, Beautiful Joe. Some cows are gregarious, some loners; some still remember their calves after years, others don't want the responsibility. They hold grudges, change their mind, have their favorite friends and grazing spots.

Young also tells tales about clever sheep and pigs, and even some stories about hens. It's very pleasant reading for any animal lover.

I think my only quibble about this book is that the publishing price is $23 for a bunch of sweet animal anecdotes you could probably find just by surfing the internet.

book icon  America's Forgotten History by the editors of "Readers Digest"
I love reading these compilation books by the "Readers Digest" company; they're the book equivalent of snack food, true, but I love the snacks. The newer ones aren't as dense as the older ones used to be. This one has the merit of being (a) about history and (b) of being in bite-sized pieces just long enough to get a little interesting reading in without feeling like you are being left behind. In sections about family, food and drink, pastimes and games, fads, intellectual pursuits, country and city life, moving west, business, transportation, and technology, these are short pieces about little known bits of American history.

Reading this book has made me wonder why we've abandoned history stories on American television in favor of endless police, fire, and doctor (but mostly law-enforcement) series, frankly stupid sitcoms for the most part, and tedious "reality shows" which are really overgrown game shows. I would love to see some television based on unusual historical figures, especially since many of them don't fit the old "square-jawed heroic white guy" mold. How about some Western series based on characters like Stagecoach Mary or Nat Love? Surely if the Brits can do neat series about their particular history (like Downton Abbey about the end of the country house era and The Tudors), certainly we could do that unique American art form, the Western, about little-known people who lived unique lives? Wouldn't a series about the Harvey Girls be cool? Or a woman tavern-keeper during the Revolutionary War?

Alas, no imagination in Hollywood any longer.

book icon  Dear America: My Heart Is on the Ground, Ann Rinaldi
I've tried to read all of these books because I love historical tales about girls, but I didn't want to buy this one full price because of what I had read about it. When it turned up at the book sale for fifty cents I thought that was low enough.

The purpose of the "Dear America" books is to show girls that their ancestors in the past had the same feelings and ambitions as they do today. Some of the books work pretty well, like my favorite Christmas After All, or are passable because the historical view is so good even if the girl character is too much a modern girl wrapped in a long skirt and a bonnet. (And then there are Barry Denenberg DA books, which are simply depressing.) Unfortunately, Rinaldi's story about a girl who wishes to excel—an overriding theme in all the DA books—not only runs counter to what a real Native American girl would have experienced, but attempts to turn the Federal-run Indian schools into a positive experience when virtually all real-life memoirs have stated it was not. In the story, Nannie Little Rose goes to live at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania to be tutored in the life and ways of white people, having everything she knows stripped from her, including her long braids and familiar clothing. She makes friends of girls from other tribes and enemies of others, and worries about her rebellious older brother, who longs to go back to the Dakotas. While Rinaldi tries very hard to show the progression of a young girl learning a strange language and customs, in writing a positive narrative for modern American girls, she has covered up the school abuses as well as misrepresenting Native life (apparently she also resurrects an old legend about the school that is not true). I had to see if the narrative was indeed as bad as was stated, and sadly, found it was true.

This is a thorough review of the book's problems.

(Canada also had "residential homes" for Natives well into the 1960s, and I understand their "Dear Canada" volume has been written by a First Nations woman who experienced one of these homes first hand and is therefore more accurate.)

book icon  Final Resting Place: A Lincoln and Speed Mystery, Jonathan F. Putnam
Politics rears its ugly head in this 1838-set installment of the Lincoln and Speed mysteries.

If you think politics is dirty now, it was all the more so in frontier America. Springfield is embroiled in a hot election race, the Whigs (they would not change their name to Republicans for some years yet) versus the Democrats, and there is more name-calling, dirty tricks, and prying into private lives than anyone could ever want, plus drunken men well lubricated by candidates. One of the Whig candidates is Abraham Lincoln, running for re-election to the state legislature, against a short, plump rising star named Stephen Douglas. But the most contested seat in Springfield that year is for county land agent, between the incumbent Early and his opponent Truett. Well, until, during a fireworks display at the home of a wealthy landowner, Early is shot and Truett is caught there with a weapon. Lincoln is asked to defend the latter, although they are from different political parties, but the "tall drink of water" is just about to leave on his assigned circuit court tour. So Joshua Speed and his determined sister Martha help investigate, but the more they find out, the more they are confused. What was the evidence of "irregularities" at the land office? And was it they that caused Early's death, and not his rivalry with Truett?

If there wasn't enough trouble for Lincoln, his rather indolent father and equally indolent stepbrother have arrived in Springfield, ostensibly looking for a business venture, but instead passing around childhood stories about "lazy Abe" and an inference that he has something to do with the death of the girl he was courting, Ann Rutledge. Lincoln is deathly afraid this will cause a break between himself and the young woman he is courting, Miss Margaret Owens, sister of the town pharmacist.

The mystery was reasonably convoluted, although one wonders how Speed runs his general store if he's busy questioning people, riding off into the countryside to investigate rumors, and squiring a pretty young lady around, when she's not hanging around the tent show of an itinerant preacher. The best part of the story is the vivid portrayal of frontier politicking and the capriciousness of practicing law (having to defend a man and fulfill his other legal demands and run for office, not to mention the varying qualities of the judge!) in the era. I was a little disappointed in that Putnam seems to have eased his efforts to make the characters speak as authentically as possible, as in the first novel in this series. Perhaps he had complaints. I was a bit taken aback when Lincoln talked about his "pants" when I believe the term "trousers" was the common usage of the time. I wish he would put some of the period language back in his future stories.

book icon  The World of All Souls, Deborah Harkness, Claire Baldwin, Lisa Halttunen, and Jill Hough, with illustrations by Colleen Madden
This is a gorgeous companion book to Deborah Harkness' "All Souls" trilogy, A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, and The Book of Life. As such, it is tremendous. If you have no interest in the books, you probably won't be a fan of this volume either. For trilogy fans, you have a treat awaiting!

After an interview with the author and synopses of all three books, Harkness describes the different "creatures" of her universe (humans, witches, vampires, and daemons) and a listing of the characters follow. Then the real treat comes: we learn the history behind the organizations and locations of the story, an explanation of magic and witchcraft lore as portrayed in the book, a history of Matthew Clermont, and sections on alchemy, decorative arts, and lifestyles in the series. The book ends with a list of books important to the series and translations of foreign words used.

Some companion books for series are so much rehashing of plots and fluff like recipes (okay, there are recipes in this book, but only eight pages out of 483); this one is a real treat because of the research Harkness put into the books and which is passed on in this volume. All this and there are deleted chapters from the books that were cut in the interest of moving the plot along, and also beautiful pen-and-ink wash illustrations throughout the text of characters, places, and items, along with photographs and maps, plus some color inserts. Truly a must for All Souls fans, especially if you are a history or fantasy buff.

book icon  The Prisoner in the Castle: A Maggie Hope Mystery, Susan Elia MacNeal
Maggie Hope "meets" Agatha Christie in a reworking of Christie's classic And Then There Were None in this newest Hope mystery.

Because Margaret Hope, born in the United States but now working in Great Britain during World War II (first as secretary for Winston Churchill and later as a spy for Britain's SOE operations), refused to accept her next assignment, she has been transported to the Isle of Scarra on Scotland's wild northern coast, to a "training facility" for British agents who have been trained but who are too unstable—like the newest arrival on Scarra, a young woman who killed a team member on a training mission—to be released to the wild. Maggie knows the definitive plans for the invasion of Europe, and they are terrified if she goes on another mission she will talk, so she has been detained there with a motley group of other "problem children" including a promising spy who spoke English when he talked in his sleep, a gentle older man whose passion is fly fishing, a doctor of Indian descent, a mute shell-shocked operative, a seductive showgirl, and a gay man who's chosen to carry a stuffed fox with him. They are housed in a moldering old castle once belonging to a hunting-mad wealthy man with Scottish servants who seem to resent them, and no way of communicating with their families or friends. But once the newest arrival shows up, the captives suddenly start to be picked off, one by one, along with the captors who are keeping them on the island. Plus it's possible one of them is a German spy. All this is reported to their superiors, but the weather has turned brutal and no boats can make it to the island.

Complications have also arisen in that "the Blackout Beast," the murderer Maggie apprehended in the previous novel, has suddenly pled "not guilty" at his hearing. It means DCI James Durgin will need her to give evidence at a trial. Together, he and Maggie's closest friend David Greene follow a twisted path to track her whereabouts.

Maggie has a lot on her plate in this tense, claustrophobic narrative. The house itself is sinister and practically a character of its own, especially the cold game larder and rooms upon rooms lined with animal trophy heads and taxidermied bodies, and it turns out its walls are holding more secrets than those held in the restless bodies of SOE internees. The stormy, unsettled weather adds an additional fillip of gloom and menace. I found myself racing to read each chapter, and wondered if Maggie would truly make it out of this one.

book icon  The Magic Apple Tree: A Country Year, Susan Hill
Dani made me do it. "A Work in Progress" is one of my favorite blogs, but it always makes me hare off after new books. Well, it happened again: she was talking about wanting to read some nature books this summer, and three of them stood out; as quickly as you could say "points" and "Amazon Marketplace," I had used copies of them (and ordered the other two Small Country Living books as well).

I hate to garden, hate being out in the sun, and worms make me ill to look at. As I point out to people, "the Italian gene for gardening passed me right by." However, I love reading books (and magazines; half the fun of Country Living UK are the stories about people making a living on their smallholding) about people who live on small farms, especially when they speak eloquently of the beauty of the countryside, the nature of the beasts, and even the tough realities of rural living—apparently my early love for Gladys Taber buried itself into my brain. I chose to read this one first because of the intriguing title.

Hill lives in a small Oxfordshire community, in a house called "Moon Cottage"—just the name sounds appealing!—and tells the story of one year living in view of the titular apple tree, a gnarled veteran of years of growth. It's a simple memoir of village life, cottage life, the foods they eat grown from their own garden, the wildlife just outside their pastures, the animals in their life, raising food, enduring the weather—or enjoying it, the neighbors, the village events, cozy nights by the fire and hard work in the fields and kitchen. The text is sprinkled liberally with recipes, and each seasonal section and then each chapter is illustrated by wonderfully old-fashioned woodcuts by John Lawrence.

While Hill's book won't set me outside to recreate her happy pleasures (for one thing, she's in a much better climate!), I can imagine I'm there page by page. I look forward to reading the other books I ended up with: Wild Hares and Hummingbirds, The Morville Hours, The Wind in the Ash Tree, A Small Country Living Goes On, and Hill's Howard's End is On the Landing.

book icon  The Penderwicks at Last, Jeanne Birdsall
In this last [::sob::] of the Penderwicks books, the original four Penderwick sisters are all grown: Rosalind is preparing to marry her childhood sweetheart Tommy, Jane is waiting tables while she finishes her first novel, Skye is in California studying astrophysics, and Batty, now nineteen, is studying music in Boston. Lydia, the youngest, is eleven, loves to dance, and keeps getting killed off in her older brother Ben's amateur movies. Then Rosalind drops a bombshell: instead of getting married at home she wants to be married at Arundel, the estate they vacationed at fifteen years earlier, where they met their "honorary" Penderwick brother, Jeffrey Tifton. Jeffrey, in Germany studying music, now owns the house and thinks it would be a beautiful venue for the wedding. Luckily, his formidable and Penderwick-hating mother will be out of the way.

Except guess who shows up the first day Batty and Lydia arrive at Arundel to start cleaning the house before other members of the family arrive? Together with Alice, the daughter of Cagney Pelletier, who had been a caretaker at Arundel when the family originally visited and now lives on the grounds with his family, Lydia tries to run interference with Mrs. Tifton, help Alice one-upsman her older brother who got to visit cousins in Canada, avoid being in Ben's movie, and of course help her family prepare for the wedding. When Batty's ex-boyfriend shows up with his Great Dane, Hitch (someone Lydia loves more than his owner), the summer turns into a delightful adventure (or it would be if Mrs. Tifton would quit showing up).

This is a fast, funny romp with a lot happening. I thought the subplot with Lydia and Alice reading to the sheep was kind of dumb, but the rest was enjoyable, especially the storyline that began on page 159. Lydia is a great protagonist and I find myself so envious of her summer: countryside, fireflies, nature walks, animals! I read a couple of reviews that said Mrs. Tifton had lost "her teeth," but I think that is expected. In the first book she is a total villain from the POV of four children, the eldest only twelve. Now that the original girls are so much older (although Batty is still terrified of her from her four-year-old memories) and Lydia has been raised with stories of her and observes her from a different angle, she can be seen clearly for what she is: a discontented social-climber who actually lives a very unhappy life being unable to orchestrate everyone's lives and having been betrayed by the poor choices she made in male companions, ironically except for the one man she pushed away, Jeffrey's father. Her outlandish efforts to avoid him at the Penderwick wedding showed she never had "teeth," she was always pathetic; she just seemed like a monster to four little girls.

I know this is "the last of the Penderwicks," but maybe, just maybe in the future, Ms. Birdsall, we might hear more about that little subplot that began on page 159? Please?

book icon  Rudolph Day reading, May 2018: Christmas in Canada, A Pioneer Christmas, and Christmas With Anne and Other Stories

book icon  Re-read: Wyoming Summer, Mary O'Hara
This was one of my favorite books which I first read in my junior high school library. Several years later I found a book club copy on a charity sale table at a local shopping center. It remains one of my favorite reads.

O'Hara, most well known for her Ken McLaughlin trilogy of My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead, and Green Grass of Wyoming lived on her own Wyoming ranch with her second husband Helge Sturge-Vasa in the 1930s, where they first raised sheep and then raised horses for the Army Remount Service (since the Army still had cavalry horses then) and held a summer camp for boys. She was a copious diary-keeper and created this book from several summers worth of diary entries, condensing them into one long narrative about her and her husband's hope to also start a boys' school during the winter.

O'Hara talks about the Wyoming country with love: the harsh life among the beautiful mountain ranges, the horses and their varying personalities (including the several horses, one a lovely sorrel filly, who served as the inspiration for "Flicka"), the boys' camp, her siblings and nephew Jerome, her relationship with her husband (here called "Michael"), her "Mary Dairy" of cows, her musical studies, even thoughts about faith and family. Her beautiful language and narrative has always captured me from first word to last, things like this: When the moon rises, we see it first over the cliff there—just the thin gold edge. Then as you watch, it pushes up and in less than a minute it is sitting there, a big round golden Japanese lantern with the black branches of the jack pines laced across it. There is also the reality of ranch life in the 1930s: injured animals (some which won't survive before the advent of penicillin), unexpected deaths, freezing weather in a house lit only by fires, sudden hailstorms, essential equipment that won't work. The tale at once exhilarates and makes one thoughtful. Always a treat to re-read, forever a blessing that I found it.

book icon  The Art of Beatrix Potter, Emily Zach
If all you know about Beatrix Potter are Peter Rabbit and the other cute little books with animals in clothing that you might have read as a child, you don't know her at all.

Potter was born into a well-to-do family "in trade," something her mother tried to cover up all their lives. While she and her husband hoped son Bertram would go out into the world and make something of himself, Beatrix was considered by her mother to be the person who would take over the odious duties of running the household from her. Even when she was older and engaged to be married she was always running home to help her mother with one thing or the other.

However, she and her brother were both indulged with a childhood filled with nature. They were allowed to keep wild pets and both took art lessons. Beatrix became an accomplished natural artist of a level that she could have illustrated numerous botanical books—that is, if most people ignored the fact that she was a woman. (She did in fact illustrate a scientific book on mushrooms and other fungi.)

This is a beautiful big coffee table book of all aspects of Beatrix Potter's artistic career, from the preternaturally mature drawings of animals she did when only nine or ten years old to her concept sketches for "the little books" as her small children's books were know to her detailed botanical prints to lovely watercolors of the countryside and of country home interiors (there's a breathtaking print of a library that Potter did when she was only sixteen years old here that I would love to have as a painting on the wall). Fans of Beatrix Potter should love this gorgeous book.

book icon  Babylon 5 Season by Season: No Surrender, No Retreat, Jane Killick
Killick's "Season by Season" recaps of Babylon 5 were much appreciated when the series was first aired. While the web site "The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5" was the place to go for B5 stuff back then, it was wonderful to have seasonal recaps as well. We managed to collect the first three in their British editions at a convention, then found the season five volume in an American edition. But since their publication in 1998, we have been missing the fourth season recap, until I scanned the "media" table at the library book sale this spring—and there it was! (They had no other Babylon 5 books, not even the novels. Weird!)

Like the other volumes, this contains a synopsis of each episode and then a section telling how the episode was conceived (or in some cases, originally conceived and then changed), any filming notes, or notes about performers and characters, giving you insight about what the story was supposed to accomplish, how the actors saw their characters, etc. Eight pages of color stills are also included.

These are really a must for B5 fans! Now that the series is showing on Amazon Prime, people may be interested in what they have to say once again.

book icon  Murder on Location, Cathy Pegau
I haven't seen a new one of the Charlotte Brody books come out this year, so I'm not sure if Pegau is taking a break or if she has stopped writing this series. The story: a film crew has come to Cordova to make a movie set against the Alaskan wilderness. The film is already in trouble because a native rights group has seen the script and doesn't wish to be portrayed as the usual "ignorant savages." While the writer of the script would like to make the portrayals more authentic, the production company really doesn't care, and the director just wants to make an exciting movie. When they go on location, Charlotte and her ward Becca go with them, Charlotte to get a story for the town newspaper and Becca to be an extra, and do get a spectacular performance: but from the director, who dies from falling down a crevasse.

Look, I know there were people back then who spoke up for the Native Alaskans and tried to make things right for them, and certainly the author doesn't want to make any of her lead characters out to be racist. But even into the 1960s schoolbooks called Native Alaskan people "Eskimos," so it's really distracting and not correct historically to have everyone, even the ignorant Hollywood people, refer to the Native characters in this story by their tribal name. I think it trivializes the long struggle the individual tribes had to be called by their actual name and not a blanket term like "Eskimo," which was considered repugnant, but which was so common as to be standard. This could have been a habit Charlotte could have deplored in the book with much frustration at the strangers' inability to "get it."

Also, the crime is considered "more dangerous" because it happened a long distance train ride from Cordova and "the law," but they sure do seem to get information and personnel back and forth pretty quickly via that train!

I thought the murderer was kind of obvious, although there's another aspect to the death that doesn't come up till the end. Enjoyed Charlotte coping with both a new relationship plus care of a teen child. While the book talks a lot about stereotyping of natives in films of that era, Charlotte preaches a lot less, which is a definite plus.

book icon  The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, Michael Booth
You know the stories: Danish people are the happiest people in the world even though they have the highest taxes, Scandinavian people have the best healthcare, etc. Indeed, all the countries have admirable qualities. But living in Scandinavia isn't the happy-go-lucky life the media paints it to be, either.

Michael Booth, an Englishman by birth, has lived in Denmark for years, and by his accounts, they don't seem to be all that joyful. And each Scandinavian country ceaselessly criticizes the other for the way they live or carry out business. There are areas of Denmark that have high unemployment, low wages, poor health care, and bad schools. Danes traditionally don't save money because they expect the government to support them if hard times come and individualism is not encouraged. Rural areas of Sweden and Finland are not supported by their more urban neighbors. Alcoholism is rising in Finland and Finns have a high rate of depression; according to other Scandinavians, Finns are downright surly. Norway's terrorist attack still haunts them, and a rising number of Norwegians are right-wing Islamophobes. Rape and other violent crime has risen in Sweden. Casual racism still exists in several Scandinavian countries that continue to portray Africans as primitive tribal peoples.

This book is meant to be one man's look at Scandinavia and what leads people to think life there is "perfect." Booth treats the subject with a light touch, but, again, this is only from his point of view. In the end, it seems Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland are just like most every other country: they have fine things—universal healthcare, appealing cultures, individual quirks that make them interesting—and not-so-fine things (rising unemployment, increasing mental illness, right wing twits, etc.)., belying the relentlessly sunny articles you see in magazines that do not mention the negative aspects. Like anywhere else, you can't have hygge without SAD.

book icon  Thrice Burned: A Portia Adams Adventure, Angela Misri
In this second installment of Misri's Portia Adams stories, Portia is still recovering from the surprising news about her heritage. In her initial adventure, she discovered she was the granddaughter of Dr. John Watson and his first wife, and then also is presented with more astonishing news: she is also the granddaughter of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler (who has disguised herself as Portia's guardian, "Mrs. Jones"). As in the previous book, three cases are presented: in the first, Portia teams up with disgraced journalist Annie Coleman to find an arsonist; in the second a brazen thief threatens to steal a famous classical statue only loaned to the British Museum—or is that really his game?; and in the third Portia tries to find out what has happened to prostitutes who were "saved" by a hellfire preacher.

Portia is learning her craft, both in the law by studying at Somerville College and by continuing to solve crimes. She has also developed a bit of a crush on her downstairs neighbor, constable Brian Dawes, and is fighting both her attraction to him and the fact that she does not want to be involved with anyone while she studies and performs her work. But it's still a bit of a blow when the handsome policeman appears to have a new relationship. However, Portia's emotions don't get in the way of doing what she does best, solving crimes! While she occasionally follows the wrong clue, her strong skills turn her around again.

Portia continues to delight. The mysteries are fairly complicated, but you can follow the clues and work along with her. She's not superhero nor saint, just someone with keen observational skills.

At the end of the book an event occurs that will change her life still further. I am staying "tuned" to the next adventures!