30 September 2018

Books Completed Since September 1

book icon  Celebrate the Wonder: A Family Christmas Treasury by Kristin M. Tucker and Rebecca Lowe Warren

book icon  Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli

book icon  The Christmas Survival Book by Alice Slaikeu Lawhead

book icon  Boldly Writing: A Trek Fan and Fanfiction History, 1967-1987, Joan Marie Verba
I thought I had or had read every book out there about fanfiction until I attended a panel at DragonCon about female Star Trek fans and this book was mentioned. I ordered it practically when the panel was over.

Don't expect academic erudition (like Henry Jenkins and Camille Bacon-Smith, who wrote the seminal fanfiction studies Textual Poachers and Enterprising Women, respectively) or examination of individual stories like The Fanfiction Reader, or a great big overview like Fic. This is a cut-and-dried narrative by Verba, who, through her own collection and collections of others tried to list as many of the Star Trek zines before 1987 (when Usenet reared its head and stories began to be posted online instead of on paper) as possible. As much as possible, she points out significant things about the zines, like it was the first issue, or the first photocopied issue versus mimeographed issue, or the first appearance of a certain storyline ("Night of the Twin Moons" being solely Sarek and Amanda tales, for instance), or perhaps at what convention a zine first appeared. She also mentions her own stories being published, or any fannish experiences she had. Letterzines and fan feuds are also discussed.

If you have any interest in the history of Star Trek fanfic or even fanfiction in general, I would grab a copy of this book. Despite the often pedestrian writing, it was full of interesting facts and tidbits about the fic and the fans.

book icon  West, Edith Pattou
When Pattou's East, based on the fairy tale "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," was released in 2005, I was immediately drawn to the cover of the young woman in the company of a polar bear. I was fascinated with the society Pattou portrayed, one in which the compass direction a child is born into is said to determine his or her character. Rose, the heroine of East, was actually born facing North, which means there would be traveling in her life, and to make certain her child did not leave home, her mother swore she was facing East when she gave birth. Still, Rose fulfilled her destiny by helping the white bear—an enchanted prince named Charles—escape the enchantment he was under, falling in love with him in the process. Now they have a child named Winn and Rose is visiting her parents for the first time since his birth. The portents are bad—sickness is creeping in on her parents' community—and then Rose receives devastating news: the ship Charles was on ran aground, and he was killed. But she refuses to believe it, and travels to the town where he was reportedly found dead, while her parents and the baby's nursemaid care for Winn. Worse, she has no idea that the Troll Queen that she defeated to save Charles the first time is still alive.

Once again Rose is on an odyssey, but now the stakes are higher—because Winn is also now threatened. She must keep her wits and use all her courage to find her husband and save her child.

I wasn't enchanted as much by this sequel as I was by the original story. I found the choppy text a little bit annoying and longed for subordinate clauses. And it seemed as if the author was just putting Rose through all these ordeals to prove how faithful, courageous, and strong she is, a mirror of the quest of the first book. Still, Rose is still an admirable character and there's a decision she makes about halfway through the novel that makes me respect her all the more. Plus I found the subplot with Neddy and Sib enjoyable. On the whole, not as good as the original, or maybe I just wasn't in the mood for a fairy tale again.

book icon  The Great Hurricane: 1938, Cherie Burns
I've avoided this book for years because of the bad reviews, but when it turned up as a booksale find for a dollar—well, why not? It's not as bad as I feared; it's pretty much a print version of the American Experience segment about the hurricane, complete with the story of the couple who were getting married the day of the storm. Burns tells the stories of the people she chose to concentrate on well, including the experiences of the Moore family who rode out the storm on the attic boards of their home on Napatree Point and whose experiences are covered in the two definitive books about the hurricane, A Wind to Shake the World and Sudden Sea.

Protests against the book include the "irritating" way she refers to the storm as "GH38" (hurricanes didn't have names back then and it's an easy shorthand to refer to it) and the overuse of the comparison of the storm to the attack of a big cat (which is rather overused), and also the way she refers to it as a "Category _" storm when that term didn't exist back then (again, easy shorthand to portray the storm strength).

This is basically a simple overview of the hurricane that remains in New England's legend; if you feel you want to read more, Everett Allen and R.A. Scotti will give you much, much more.

book icon  Live Long and..., William Shatner, with David Fisher
For years there were a lot of jokes about William Shatner, his ego, his dramatic pauses when he spoke, the infamous Saturday Night Live  "Get a Life" skit. It was great to watch him in Star Trek reruns and T.J. Hooker had a respectable run if fan-favorite Barbary Coast didn't, but mostly the actor himself was set back on a shelf. However, a few years ago I started attending his panels at DragonCon, and I was surprised. He wasn't just some addled actor riding on his fame; in fact, when people asked him about some of his roles he would briefly answer and then go on to a subject that fascinated him: the composition of the universe and stars and planets and comets, communication between man and animals, advances in medical science, new scientific discoveries of all kinds. Here was a guy in his 80s who could kick back and rest on his laurels, and his greatest determination was to keep learning.

That's what this slim book is about: what William Shatner has learned in 85 trips around the sun. There's nothing earth-shaking here or profoundly philosophical, yet at the same time it struck a deep meaning to me. On our [husband and I] vacations, we like to go to museums. Not to beaches to loll around in the sun, or mountains to loll around in hammocks, or spas to loll around getting massages. We go to science museums and military museums and history museums and even quirky places like the American Helicopter Museum and the National Christmas Center. (I want to live at Greenfield Village myself.) I want to learn something every day until the day I die. And this is Shatner's philosophy exactly.

He also talks about keeping trying even when you're down to the lowest you can go (there was a period after Star Trek when he was living in his car with his dog), about keeping up your curiosity, even about his failed relationships and the fact that he alone was responsible for them; about his love for his horses, about things that have been dangerous (like parasailing) that he was afraid to do and tried anyway, because he was more afraid of regretting not having done it. About his beliefs, and about his tenure with Priceline, sometimes simply about life. All in a very conversational style in the words of a man who knows the threads of his life will someday come to an end and he doesn't want to regret it when he gets there.

I enjoyed it. You may, too. Worth trying.

book icon  Death on the Sapphire, R.J. Koreto
I kind of ignored this book when it was first published since it looked like just another Edwardian mystery with a female heroine who was before her time and solved a mystery that sounded like it concerned a ship. However, it was different when I found the hardback for a mere $4. To my surprise, I enjoyed it more than I expected.

Lady Frances Ffolkes is indeed a forward-thinking Edwardian woman. Her family were liberals and no one takes it amiss when she attends suffragette meetings and has thoughts outside kinder, kuche, kircke. She even lives in a women's hotel. Like her brother Charles, she is saddened when Major Danny Colcombe, a friend of the family, dies, but doesn't think more of it until Danny's sister arrives at the Ffolkes home to report that Danny's war manuscript has vanished. He made her promise to take care of it and make certain it was published, and she feels she has let him down. So Frances promises she will help locate it, taking with her her new ladies' maid, June Mallow, who was formerly a housemaid at her parents' home. She reports the crime to Superintendent Maples of the police, who brushes it off. But as Frances and Mallow persist, ugly truths come to the fore. Something happened at the Sapphire River when Danny fought in the Boer War, and what he wrote about it may be the reason the manuscript is missing. Perhaps it's also the reason Danny died?

I actually enjoyed this. Frances and Mallow (she insists on being called by her last name, as a proper lady's maid would be; it is a sign of her rise in status among the servants) have a more realistic relationship than Phoebe and Eva in the Lady's and Lady's Maid mysteries. While Frances has an inquiring mind, she also enjoys the company of the two men who become interested in her during the course of the book. Mallow is also a terrific character, yet she never steps out of the Edwardian character of a lady's maid. I can see her being played by Nell Hudson, who plays Miss Skerritt on Victoria.

book icon  Lies Sleeping, Ben Aaronovitch
I've been a fan of the Peter Grant/Rivers of London series since the first book and practically shrieked aloud when the publisher accepted my request to read it via NetGalley. I sat down and immersed myself until it was finished.

In this seventh novel in the series, all the stops are out at the Metropolitan Police and its esoteric division The Folly (dedicated to magic and the supernatural) to catch the sinister Faceless Man (recently identified as Martin Chorley) and renegade police constable Lesley May, who was formerly Peter Grant's best friend and fellow "probie" on the force. After a member of a magical club is attacked by a "killer nanny" and later dies, The Folly learns about the existence of a giant "drinking bell" as well as the thefts of artifacts from various archaeological sites. Chorley—and by extension Lesley—is planning something big and presumably catastrophic involving both. It's up to the team to determine what will happen, and then stop it before it "goes down."

Almost all of the series regulars reappear, including Peter's teenage neighbor and fellow apprentice Abigail (and the pair of foxes she speaks to), fellow constable Sahra Guleed, the intimidating Miriam Stephanopolos, Alexander Seawoll, and Father Thames and his riparian contingent, and of course Peter's "governor," the enigmatic Thomas Nightingale, head of The Folly. Sadly, Toby the ghost-sensing terrier and Nightingale's odd housekeeper Molly are very sparely used; however, Molly has a wonderful scene near the end. The story moves quickly, from one revelation to the next, yet there is time for psychological insights into the Faceless Man, Lesley, and even the hysterical Mr. Punch from the opening novel when his past is revealed. Plus there are surprises until the very final page (but no cliffhangers, thankfully, other than there is much more story to be told), and with the usual complement of inside jokes: the obligatory Doctor Who references, not to mention Back to the Future, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and, to my delight, one from one of my favorite caper movies, Sneakers.

No spoilers, but here's one titillating chapter title: "Of the Captivity of Peter."

In short, fans of this series should love it. If you are new to the series, you really need to read (at least) the other six books (there is also a novella, a short story, and five, so far, graphic novels that are all part of the canon) to understand how Peter Grant began his career with The Folly and his relation to all the other characters. Trust me, if you like urban fantasy, reading the other six will be enjoyable and no chore at all—you'll willingly find yourself searching for the rest!

book icon  The Morville Hours, Katherine Swift
This is the last of the nature books (Wind in the Ash Tree, A Small Country Living Goes On, Wild Hares and Hummingbirds, and The Magic Apple Tree) I bought for summer reading. I enjoyed the latter two, I loved both the Jeanine McMullen memoirs, but I left this for last, and it truly was the icing on the cake. Let me reiterate again that I didn't inherit the Italian gene for gardening; I don't like to work in the dirt, I hate bugs, worms make me queasy, and I hate being out in the sun. But I love reading memoirs of this sort, especially when the author has a way with words as does Swift.

Basing her memoir on a medieval Book of Hours (a religious work that delegated what prayers and activities should be performed at certain hours in a monastery—Vigils, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and, at the end of the day, Compline), Swift recounts her years restoring the Dower House garden at Morville Hall in Shropshire, England. Part history of the Morville area, part garden redesign, and part memoir of coming to terms with her lopsided upbringing and past relationship with her parents, this is a beautifully written account of her days duplicating the different gardens that would have graced the Dower House in different eras of English history: a traditional knot garden, a cloister garden, a turf maze, a wild garden, and more. Her description of the flowers, the plants, the seasons are all exquisite. A glorious pleasure to read, especially for those who love nature and gardening (or just, like me, enjoy reading about it).

book icon  The Librarians and the Pot of Gold, Greg Cox
This is the third, and possibly the last (since the series has been cancelled) of Cox's original novels based on the TNT fantasy series The Librarians. In 441 AD, the Librarians' deadliest enemies, the Serpent Brotherhood, led by the sinister Lady Sibella, has tried to wrest a pot of gold from a reluctant leprechaun and sacrifice an innocent infant to their malevolent cause. With the help of a Librarian, his Guardian, and the man who would later become Saint Patrick, Sibella was destroyed and the plot thwarted. Now a new leader, Max Lambton, a amoral Englishman who has taken over the Serpent Brotherhood with a curious partner who can create magical objects, wishes to finish the job Sibella began. It's up to Eve Baird, Guardian; Librarians Jacob Stone, Cassandra Cillian, and Ezekiel Jones; plus the caretaker of the Library Annex, Jenkins (Flynn Carsen is missing in action in this outing), to stop him.

With the action revolving around St. Patrick's Day, the plot moves swiftly from Ireland to Paris (where the Librarians face off against the Phantom of the Opera) to Oregon to Chicago and even to an colony of leprechauns near the Annex. The plot, however, isn't quite as tight as the previous two. There is one character who appears whom you almost immediately guess who the person is. I was also quite disappointed that there was seemingly no way to save another character, who seemed promising and might prove an interesting project for Jenkins. However, the entire book is worthy of  a Librarians episode as Cox works his own magic on the familiar characters. Once again Cox does a great job making each character sound just like his or her television counterpart; you can hear John Larroquette speak when you read Jenkins' lines.

BTW, when Jenkins mentioned one of the items in the library was Prufrock's Peach, I nearly spit out my drink. Not only media asides, but literary! Good one, Greg!

Great stuff, especially for series' fans.

book icon  The Prodigal Tongue, Lynne Murphy
I buy more books because of podcasts (either "Travels with Rick Steves" or "A Way With Words," this one due to the latter). Most books about American English vs. British English are like dictionaries: "boot" is what Americans call the trunk of the car, explaining Cockney rhyming slang, etc. This book takes a different tack: what words are British that people think sound American? and vice versa? Is British English somehow more correct than American English (as so many British pundits declare)? Is one "better" than the other? And who has the accent? Is the Midwestern accent Americans use for newscasters so much worse than the "Received Pronunciation" that's de rigueur at the BBC? And what about those different spellings?

This is a topic that's fascinated me as an Anglophile and a reader of older British books and magazines. The chapter about British English changing is particularly noted because I notice from the British magazines I read today that British spelling has changed, even from the 1970s and the 1980s when I saw my first "Radio Times" and read "Woman and Home." Brits no longer refer to the "wireless" or spell it "tyre" or "kerb." But is the evolution the fault of American movies "invading" the Great Britain, or just a natural progression of the language?

I think you would really have to be a word nerd and Anglophile to get the most enjoyment out of this book. As you can expect, I did!

book icon  Adulting (updated edition), Kelly Williams Brown
For some reason I've been looking at this book since it came out, so long, in fact, that the author updated it recently to add another 90 or so tips. Kelly Brown bases her tips on what she's learned going out on her own. While her tips are serious, they're told with a big dollop of humor that keeps the book moving and from sounding too pretentious. Most of these are common-sense tips—but, as they say, sometime common sense isn't. Brown has something to say about almost everything, from stocking a starter kitchen and good eating habits—hubby and I laughed ourselves silly when I got to the cooking chapter  and read him the passage where she's talking about basic weekly shopping items: #9 is "chicken thighs," with the notation "chicken breasts are for chumps! So dry! The meat equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation that no one asked for!"—to making friends and having relationships to just plain being kind.

The only thing that bothered me was that she spends a great deal of time talking about it's okay to have sexual relationships just for a good time (so long as your partner does not consider it a commitment either, and that you break up politely and properly—no e-mail breakups!—when it's over), but doesn't add a reminder or two to use protection. Very important, both for pregnancy prevention and for STD protection.

book icon  Re-read: Understood Betsy, Dorothy Canfield Fisher

book icon  Re-read: Charlotte's Web, E.B. White
The one children's book that keeps coming up (along with Harry Potter) on The Great American Read and at one point had George Lopez crying over it. For all White's years of essays in "The New Yorker" (several collections exist; all are recommended) along with his updating of William Strunk's famous English usage guide The Elements of Style, this is usually considered his magnum opus, the story of a runt farm piglet who befriends a canny barn spider, who cleverly works out a way to keep her pal Wilbur from becoming bacon and pork chops. Charlotte's solution: write messages about her porcine buddy in her web.

While this is a tale told simply enough for children, it has many pokes as the gullible nature of human beings, especially adults, and the nature of fame, plus is a lovely, nostalgic paean to farm life and children growing up. While the animals speak to each other, they are not "talking animals" of the humorous sort. Garth Williams' illustrations, never cartoony and based solidly on nature, accompany White's precise yet descriptive prose like a beautiful harmony complements a melody. Filled with charming characters you will never forget, and definitely an American classic for both adults and children.

book icon  The Annotated Charlotte's Web, E.B. White, Peter F. Neumeyer
Who knew Garth Williams was once controversial?

I bought this at a used bookstore where the cashier had never seen an annotated book; me, I love them and have collected a few. Some annotated books use their annotations to point out unfamiliar terms, or expand on the history behind events in a story, or to point out the morals and mores of the time. While Neumeyer's annotations explain a few terms, he uses them most to point out White's careful choice of words, his edits of the text, and (forgive the pun) how he spun his web of words to create his classic novel. The animals and farm life (including the magic of a county fair) he lived (he and his wife lived on a saltwater Maine farm), but he did close research into spiders—one of the delights in this volume is being able to see White's notes on spiders and other aspects of the book, and drawings of the places that inspired the book locations. There are also photographs of the White farm, a chapter on Garth Williams' illustrations (apparently his The Rabbits' Wedding, which had a black rabbit marrying a white rabbit, was seen in pre-civil rights America as encouraging miscegenation 🙄 ), letters from White to his editor about the book, the different versions of the manuscripts, reviews of the book, White's own comments on the book, even White's essay "Death of a Pig."

Charlotte's Web fans and admirers of White's wonderful prose will enjoy immensely!

book icon  The Bartered Brides, Mercedes Lackey
This is the third in Lackey's "Elemental Masters" sequence featuring a very mortal Sherlock Holmes and John and Mary Watson being elemental magicians (John is Water and Mary is Air) and the fifth novel (after two introductory short stories) featuring Sarah Lyon-White, a young medium, and her companion Nan Killian, psychic and Celtic warrior in a previous life. The story opens with the characters in mourning for their old friend Holmes, who was drowned at the Reichenbach Falls while fighting the evil Professor Moriarty, who also died. Only they know Holmes is still alive, hoping to track down the rest of Moriarty's cohorts.

Unfortunately one of his cohorts is also an Elemental Master who is coercing young women to marry him and then, when they have accepted him willingly, kills them and removes their heads, transporting their spirits into bottles that will provide him a "battery" to perform his final, most ambitious spell. In short, he is that most dangerous of magicians, a necromancer, and one with no remorse as he expands his collection to fulfill his scientific dreams. In the meantime, the bodies of his brides are turning up in the Thames, to the bafflement of the police.

Much better than the last villain in this series who was so irritatingly ignorant of what his actions were doing that his assistant was smarter than he was; this one knows exactly what he's doing and has no care of whom he hurts to do so. John Watson also has some great scenes, especially a terrifying sequence where he summons an evil spirit to help him track down the source of the bodies. Sarah also acquires an unquiet spirit who helps the group achieve their ends.

While I love Nan and Sarah, their young ward Suki, and the Elemental Masters versions of Watson, Mary, and Holmes, I am tired of them (although I love the birds Grey and Neville, the latter who gets some good scenes here) and would like Lackey to go back to creating original characters for this series (as long as it's not the German world from Blood Red and From a High Tower, which I found deadly boring).

book icon  Re-read: Autumn: A Spiritual Biography of the Season, edited by Gary Schmidt and Susan M. Felch
This is a nifty collection of seasonal essays (there are also books on the other season), whether they touch on the beauty of the natural world or whether they ponder deeper about the ending of the year and its connection with dying (the E.B. White essay poignantly demonstrates this) and the descent into winter darkness (although at least one of these essays, noting that the falling of the leaves always leave a bud or a seed behind, state that autumn is actually a rebirth). I have to admit what called me about this book was the big colorful maple tree on its cover!

These are essays and excerpts and even some poetry about the autumn season, ranging from the Book of Ruth in the Bible to The Rural Life by Verl Klinkenborg to that piece by White. One of my very favorites was an essay about autumn leaves by Thoreau, which was the final essay he worked on, passing away from tuberculosis only a few days later; his contemporary Susan Fenimore Cooper also has a contribution here. Alan M. Young, Alix Kates Shulman, and Wyman Richardson all provide observations of nature's autumnal change. There's a wistful commentary about baseball season coming to an end and a piece from Tracy Kidder about the first week of school and Garret  Keizer's fascinating tale of being the winder of the venerable town clock. Verl Klinkenborg provides an essay about October and there is also an excerpt from May Sarton's House by the Sea. And these are just a few of the delights within.

The only thing that surprised me was that there was nothing at all from Gladys Taber, as this appeared to be the perfect volume to highlight some of Taber's essays! Otherwise, pretty perfect; need to hunt up the winter volume!

31 August 2018

Books Completed Since August 1

book icon  Talk About America, Alistair Cooke
Before Alistair Cooke passed, during his elder journalist years between his series America and during Masterpiece Theatre, he had several books published that examined mostly serious subjects (Six Men, The Americans, World War II-era America, etc.) that talked about significant events in the American scene. All of these books were taken from his weekly report on the BBC, "Letter from America." Earlier this year I wrote about finding a collection of earlier essays in One Man's America.

This is yet another volume of selections from "Letters from America," and once again there are some significant historical pieces, most prominently Cooke's witnessing the assassination of Robert Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He also has a trilogy of essays about being black in the US in the 1950s and 1960s, a profile of Lyndon Johnson, an account of John Glenn's flight, a visit to a submarine, the story of General George Marshall, and more. But I found the most interesting essays were the ones about little things: an account of a good old fashioned town meeting in a small town in New Hampshire, where the locals debate next year's budget and whether to repair or tear down a bridge; about a now almost defunct act: the closing down of your city home or apartment for the summer while you went somewhere cooler in those pre-air conditioning days; about another institution now gone: the iceman; about the history of Thanksgiving and cranberry obsession; an amusing few pages on American dress; attending the Kentucky Derby and visiting Alcatraz; etc.

Once again, I discovered some pieces here that were later mined for his classic America series: "The Father," about George Washington; "HLM: RIP," about H.L. Mencken. For a second time enjoyed the variety of subjects and Cooke's occasional sharp line of humor. Well worth hunting up to see a former Brit's eye view of his adopted country.

book icon  Death Without Company, Craig Johnson
In this second of the Walt Longmire books, Walt is summoned to the Durant Home for Assisted Living, where his mentor Lucian Connally is now living. A woman of Basque descent, Mari Baroja, has died and Lucian claims there was foul play. He also tells Longmire something astounding: Mari was his wife, for all of a few days, until her brothers caught up with him, beating him up and taking Mari away with them, to be married off to someone more suitable. Walt at first starts investigating to humor his old boss, but slowly starts coming up with troubling stuff, like Mari's terrible marriage to Charlie Nurburn, who regularly abused her, and to a flourishing methane mining concern on land that was once Mari's, land her daughters will inherit.

I'm usually a cozy mystery fan except for odd things like Sherlock Holmes, and wasn't sure I would like a more gritty mystery series. But I like this one: Walt Longmire is a "regular guy" with real faults, but an appealing personality and a need to see justice done. He has blood family in his daughter Cady, a close friendship with Henry Standing Bear (a finally realistic Native American character), and a law enforcement family with his co-workers: Ruby the dispatcher, "the Ferg" a part time deputy, his second-in-command Victoria Moretti (originally of New York), and newest officer Santiago Saizarbitoria, who comports himself well in this mystery. Walt also meets a promising woman who's in town to investigate abandoned safe deposit boxes, but everything, as always in Longmire land, takes second place to his job.

Walt will face a maze of family secrets, marital tragedy, and reservation secrets before he discovers all the truths Mari Baroja's death will reveal. As always, a delight to read.

book icon  Shake Well Before Using, edited by Bennett Cerf
I've been hooked on these collections of humorous anecdotes since my mother bought me a copy of Laugh Day in the late 1960s. I read that book until pages started to fall out of it. Lots of puns, a Cerf favorite, most of the stories are still funny (there are some longer pieces in this book instead of just short quick jokes), but some would be considered very incorrect today, especially some "battle of the sexes" anecdotes. Also, the names of celebrities instantly known in 1948 are more obscure today. You can use the book as a history lesson as well!

book icon  A Casualty of War, Charles Todd
In the latest Bess Crawford mystery, the Great War is almost finished. Bess, a nurse at the front lines, is having a brief respite of rest when she chats with a Captain Alan Travis. Back at the front, she meets Captain Travis again; a bullet has narrowly missed his head and he claims the shot was deliberate, by a man in his ranks. Recovered and sent back to the front, he returns to Bess' station once more, this time shot in the back, and again he claims this was deliberate.

Bess loses track of the man after the Armistice is declared, but on her leave tracks him down and is dismayed to find him in a mental hospital, being driven mad by cheerless walls. The higher-ups have determined he has brain damage, especially since he has been insisting that not only was he shot at deliberately twice, but that the shots were fired by a man that looked like his cousin, who he met for the first time at the front. Horrified by the way he's being treated, Bess is determined to track down what is going on and travels to the cousin's hometown, finding out that the man's reputation is without reproach, but his mother resents the thought of Alan Travis, the scion of the family black sheep, taking over the estate. Bess still thinks Alan Travis is on the level, and Simon helps her track down what's going on.

There's a fairly complicated plot going, and poor Alan Travis, harried at all sides by convention and bureaucracy, is a sympathetic victim, but could he be pulling the wool over everyone's eyes, including Bess? There is at least one character in the story whom you will suspect immediately. Also, the Armistice has now been signed. Will there be more adventures for Bess? And will something ever come of the relationship between Bess and Simon, or is she wrong that they are only platonic friends? Stay tuned...

book icon  The Planets, Dorling-Kindersley and Smithsonian
In a fit of nostalgia, I had remembered the coloring book/activity book my mom had bought for me so long ago about the planets. I had this book for years, even after I'd colored in all the pictures and done all the activities. So I went hunting at the library for a book on the solar system and found this, a big coffee-table book with correspondingly large color photos and diagrams about each of the planets as was known when the book was published (after Pluto got demoted). Recent flybys by space exploration vehicles have netted some gorgeous photographs of Mars and even Pluto, and artists' extrapolations of the different surfaces of planets and asteroids give it a wow factor. Included are all the scientific facts and figures. I was fascinated by the section on the asteroids, as only a few were mentioned in my coloring book. People may be surprised that they are not all spherical in shape. At least one looks like a dumbbell.

book icon  Journey to the Ice Age: Mammoths and Other Animals of the Wild Hardcover, Rien Poortvliet
I was only planning to get the planet book from the library, but I saw this in passing and was fascinated by it. Poortvliet is a Dutch artist who is most famous for his whimsical art book about garden gnomes, but he has done several volumes of nature and animal art. This is a gorgeous art book in which Poortvliet begins with his own observations of the countryside around him, then goes back to the medieval era, where he describes the lifestyles of the wealthy and the poor. The final last third of the book makes a fantastic leap back to the stone age and drawings of mammoth, dire wolves, wild horses, and other fauna, and also early man.

This is an unspeakably gorgeous volume if you love drawings of nature and wildlife. Each oversize page is filled with gorgeous artwork of wolves, elk (what we call moose), red and roe deer, dogs, game birds, falcons, and other animals, and woods, farms, homey farmsteads, beautiful medieval lords and ladies, humbler working people, farm animals, etc. His narrative that goes with these pieces of art are beautifully calligraphed on the pages (not by himself).

If you love art or nature or want to peek into medieval life and prehistoric life through the eyes of an artist, this is a beautiful, breathtaking book. Every page is a treasure.

book icon  When the Stars Went to War: Hollywood and World War II, Roy Hoopes
A lively, if gossipy, book about the roles of actors and actresses played during World War II, starting in 1937 and a brief mention of the Spanish Civil War, and seguing into 1939 and the Golden Year of Hollywood film. "The war came earlier to Hollywood than it did to most of the country," the author states, due to the sizeable British colony in the movie capitol. When the war broke out many of the Englishmen went home; others remained in Hollywood and made films praising the efforts of the French, British, and Belgians. Once the attack on Pearl Harbor was accomplished, Hollywood became fully mobilized. Walt Disney's studio, indeed, was taken over by the military. Some actors rushed to join the service, others were refused, including John Wayne, who won battles only in his films.

The book follows all aspects of the Hollywood contributions to the war: films that supported the war effort and made heroes of the common men serving in the Army, Navy, and Marines; the USO tours where performers lived rough and under the threat of bombs and battle; the famous Hollywood Canteen started by Bette Davis, which supplied food and fun to servicemen on leave; and the actors who went to war like Clark Gable, James Stewart, Wayne Morris, and more. Hoopes also talks about some individual stars: the rumors (which he pooh-poohs) about Errol Flynn being a Nazi or a spy,;the offhand attitude of George Sanders, who had been an admirer of Hitler; and Lew Ayres, a vegetarian and conscientious objector who lost and then refound his audience despite refusing to serve in the Army (he became a medic and was decorated for his service).

There's also a lot of who's-sleeping-with-who included in the book, and how some actors looked forward to going on War Bond and USO tours so they could canoodle with the young actresses they accompanied, but mostly it's an interesting chronicle of how Hollywood performers raised morale, funds, and sympathies during the Second World War.

book icon  Wild Hares & Hummingbirds: The Natural History of an English Village, Stephen Moss
This is Moss' leisurely examination of a year in the life of the animals, birds, insects, and plants in his small village of Mark in southwestern England. Through his eyes we see the changing seasons, the migration of the birds, the hedge and pasture life of badgers and foxes and rabbits, and the effect of a changing climate and changing land use on different species—birds once common in England, like the cuckoo, are hardly heard there any longer, while newer bird species used to warmer climates are appearing.

This is a nice book to read at bedtime, where Moss' tales of the tranquil countryside soothe. He is not a poetic writer, but the landscapes and animals are lovingly described. Each chapter, which covers a month, is illustrated by an evocative woodcut, which lends charm to the narrative.

The odd thing is that although Moss cites hares and hummingbirds in his title, there is very little written about either. Swifts, swallows, and house martins seem to be a favorite. Moss even goes mushroom hunting. A pleasant read if you want to relax with nature.

book icon  Spring Harvest, Gladys Taber
This is my first taste of Taber's fiction, and, while it's chick-lit, I mostly enjoyed it because of her characters. Julie Prescott is a teen in love for the first time with college football player Mike in the small Wisconsin college town of Westerly in 1914, but she runs afoul of her eccentric geology professor father Alden, who still thinks of her as a little girl, while her capable mother Sybil keeps everything on an even keel. (If you've read Taber's memoir about her father, it's so very clear Alden is based on her dad.) Meanwhile the president of the University, married to Carol, a cold social-climber wife who hates the small town and even her children, finds happiness in talking to the sympathetic Dean; Dr. Jim Parker, the dedicated GP, races from medical emergency to house call while his sad and embittered wife stews at home;  the music professor who's found the best student in a lifetime has his dreams wiped out when she becomes pregnant; and the faithful accompanist is wondering where her next meal will come from (and how she'll take care of an invalid sister) if she is forced to retire. And before them all lies the high point in Westerly's year, Commencement.

You follow Julie in the throes of young love, Alden trying to understand his growing daughter, Mike attempting to escape the grasping aunt and uncle who raised him, Carol planning to escape her mundane life, Miss Nelson's problems with money, Dr. Jim's patience when his wife is injured, the Dean taking up the slack when a crisis hits the President's household, and through all the crises, Sybil knowing wisely what to do. It's a gentler time, where the doctor has finally traded in his horse for a car, kids stopped by the soda fountain to meet, girls sat in their daddy's laps and hornswoggled them with tears, and not a specter of sex in sight, although Mike is a gentleman and stops in one situation that might have gone too far. The worst thing that happens in Westerly is that a girl commits suicide after being blackballed by a sorority, and while it makes Julie pause, it doesn't set her on a crusade to do good as it might in a book today. There are some hard times for several people, but except for the deceased girl, things work out. A nice window into the past.

book icon  Time of Fog and Fire, Rhys Bowen
Daniel Sullivan's law enforcement career is in more danger than before: his superiors dislike him and there is still a suspicion that he got a fellow officer killed. So he takes a job from U.S. secret service operative John Wilkie, while his wife, former detective Molly Murphy, stays home with their toddler son and young ward Bridie, and goes off to Washington, DC. Or so Molly thinks: after she befriends a woman who is a widow in all but name to a perpetually traveling businessman and attends one of the newfangled silent films with her new friend, she sees Daniel in a newsreel that was filmed in San Francisco. Soon after, she gets a rather insulting letter from him that incenses her at first, until she sees the secret message hidden within. Soon Molly and Liam are on their way to San Francisco.

Do I give you a clue to part of the plot of this novel if I tell you it's 1906?

Molly runs the complete gamut of trauma in this adventure: a mysterious note from an uncommunicative husband, a startling revelation when she finally arrives in the bustling city, a friendship with a notorious woman that leads to some unsavory situations, the disappearance of Liam, an injury that nearly incapacitates her, and of course the infamous historical incident that colors the second half of the novel. She leaps breathlessly from unexpected rail trip to first encounters with the Chinese to the discovery of a secret in the basement to a murder scene at Point Lobos. A page-turner, but some of the actions seem a bit improbable, even for Molly. With welcome cameos by Sid and Gus, and some happy news at the end.

book icon  American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, Deborah Solomon
This is a thick volume which follows Rockwell's life and the growth and progression of his artwork. My first impression of the book is that Rockwell led kind of a sad life. Subsequent chapters, all the way through the end, seemed to perpetuate this feeling. Rockwell's mother was apparently a self-absorbed hypochondriac and his athletic older brother Jarvis overwhelmed shy, skinny Norman. His first two marriages left both wives frustrated as apparently Rockwell was incapable of sustaining a romantic or even affectionate relationship with them, and would often go off for months at a time creating art (and occasionally fishing) with male compatriots. His first wife just gave up, the second developed an alcohol dependency and her psychiatric sessions so absorbed Rockwell that he finally got his own and became close friends with his shrink. (His third wife, Molly, apparently demanded little intimacy from Norman and was content to help him with his business dealings.) Along the way Solomon describes Rockwell's best known paintings and illustrations, and the details that came together in them, starting with their inspirations.

She also spends some time trying to "figure him out" and pretty much all but says she thought he was actually homosexual at a time when it wasn't expected. On the other hand, he didn't seem crazy about sex of any kind; what he was was a clean freak. Almost half of his painting sessions comprised cleaning his studio or his brushes. After a while, this detective work really gets nowhere; she could have mentioned it once or twice and be done with it. She does assure us that Rockwell, the consummate artist of active and mischievous boys, never molested his models.

So, as I said, I came out of this still appreciating his art, but feeling rather melancholy about his mental state. Much of his life seemed a bit sad, and, like Tasha Tudor, he didn't really realize how much people appreciated  him as an artist until someone did an exhibition for him. (Apparently he longed to get into modern art, and thank goodness he didn't.)

Some people were annoyed at this book because it did not go into the research and method of Rockwell's art as much as they wished. Apparently this was mostly Rockwell's fault; Solomon talks about interview after interview of him in which specific questions about specific paintings went unanswered, with the painter either going off on a tangent or being very brief.

If you can stand all the psychological introspection, this can be an enjoyable book. But melancholy.

book icon  The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
Since I had re-read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn last month, I thought I would pull the preceding story out. Tom has never been that much of a favorite with me, since I'm so taken with the revelations—and, I admit, the humor—in Finn. I tried reading it as more of a prequel this time and came out enjoying it much better.

If you've been living in a television-induced coma forever, the titular Tom is a mischievous small boy—his age seems to range between nine and twelve—and his free-range childhood in 1830s Missouri. He and his half brother are being raised by an aunt, and he's the plague of her life though she loves him: he plays hooky from school, gets in fights, consorts with the town bad boy (Huck Finn), skips church, and generally acts like a small boy. In the course of the book, he falls in love with the winsome Becky Thatcher, traipses off to a graveyard with a dead cat to get rid of warts and witnesses a murder, appears as a witness in the murder trial, runs away to an island with three other boys, and gets lost in a cave—and those are just part of his adventures.

Besides Tom's adventures, Twain uses the text (as he does in Finn) to skewer early 19th century society, which leads to humorous situations in church—feckless Tom claiming to have memorized enough Bible verses to claim a Bible and an incident with a dog—and a graduation day at school that's an endless series of banal schoolgirl compositions. It's mixed with tense moments and danger in a classic book still worth reading.

Huckleberry Finn is still better, though. 😀

book icon  The Best American Travel Writing 2003, edited by Ian Frazier
Book sales are great for picking up these annual volumes (also for science and nature, essays, mysteries, short stories, sports, and mysteries), although this one was a bit daunting in the first half, as it seems so many of the essays seemed to concern sad voyages through Middle-Eastern countries after 9/11. On the other hand, there is a good variety of travel essays here, from the charms of the Polish stomping grounds of Pope John Paul II to a search for real Cuban coffee in a Cuba filled with welcoming people who are too poor to afford it to essays about fighting poachers to a not-so-breezy ride down Route  66 to a Jewish man who traces what happened to the uncle who stayed in Europe when the Nazis came. You visit the Arctic and Afghanistan, the Salton Sea and slavery in Africa, squid jigging in Washington State and a trip to a nuclear power plant in Japan, credit card companies in Delaware and the west Texas town where Ambrose Bierce vanished, and find you are not yet done with your journeys.

I even enjoyed the sad stories about the Middle East, but I couldn't figure for the life of me what the article about Puff Daddy going to Paris had to do with travel or why it was included in this volume. It's more a portrait of the rap star, and his conspicuous consumption, which I found a little off-putting.

book icon  The Clincher, Lisa Preston
I have been looking for a mystery series that was likeable without getting into thrillers or police procedurals, and didn't feature a whitebread attractive woman operating in a small town with quaint shops. This one may fill the bill. Rainy Dale is a professional farrier (horseshoer) whose early life was a mess, with a narcissist wannabe actress for a mother and a hardline conservative Texan for a father. After a series of youthful traumas which are gradually brought to light in the story, Rainy turned herself around, got her farrier's license, and settled in rural Oregon where she tracked down the horse her father gave her as a child, the one thing she has always loved. On the way she has picked up a discarded dog named Charley and acquired a landlord named Guy, who's also breaking convention by becoming a cook instead of following the path his parents wanted him to follow and who wants to be something more than Rainy's landlord. Things come to a head when, soon after Rainy does a shoeing job for trophy wife Patsy-Lynn Harper, the woman is found dead, and Rainy finds herself the prime suspect. At first Rainy just cares that she's cleared, but she genuinely liked Patsy-Lynn and really wants to find out who killed her.

At first Rainy was a little too abrasive for me, but as the story "peeled away her layers," so to speak, I understood her pain. She's smart-mouthed, unconventional, opinionated, and definitely not "whitebread." The story is full of little bits of knowledge about horses and shoeing, the rural setting and the characters seemed real, and Rainy's conversations with Guy have a humorous turn that I enjoyed. Guy is also a neat character who does not bow to convention. The descriptions of horses, the countryside, and the rural life have the ring of truth in them rather than something the author just looked up, which follows as the author writes nonfiction about training dogs and horses, and lives in a rural environment. If you're looking for a slightly grittier mystery than you might find in a traditional cozy with lots of horse talk, this is the book for you! I am looking forward to the next book.

book icon  Dim Sum of All Fears, Vivien Chien
This is the second of Chien's "Noodle House" restaurant featuring young Lana Lee, whose Taiwanese mother and American father run Ho-Lee's House of Noodles in Cleveland's Asia Village shopping center. When her parents go to Taiwan to help out her grandmother, Lana, not her older sister Anna May, who is studying for the bar, is left in charge of the restaurant, to her dismay: she was planning to interview for a job away from the restaurant. She's just gotten over the disappointment of having to turn down the interview when she and another tenant discover the bodies of Isabelle and Brandon Yeoh, of the souvenir shop next door, dead in their storeroom. Adam Trudeau, Lana's "maybe-boyfriend" and police officer, tells her not to get involved as she did in the previous mystery, but Isabelle was a new and dear friend and Lana wants to get to the bottom of who ended her life—and what was going on with her husband, who always seemed to disappear at the most inconvenient times.

Once again Lana and her intrepid best friend Megan Riley try to get to the bottom of things, and it's more bizarre than they could have imagined: like Brandon turning up with not one ex-wife, but two, plus a sister-in-law he was really in love with. And there's a dude who reminds Lana of Captain Kirk (the Shatner version) who seems to pal with Brandon a lot. Plus Brandon and Isabelle live in a fabulous designer apartment, yet can't make their business bills.

I think once you find out a fact about a certain character, you should realize whodunnit, but watching Lana juggle the restaurant, her parents, her sister, a very disapproving Adam (who actually is concerned about her investigating), free time, and on top of all that, a frigid winter, is entertaining. I really do like Lana, although like in all cozies she takes chances like people really shouldn't. But then isn't that's why we enjoy them, to live vicariously through the characters?

book icon  A Small Country Living Goes On, Jeanine McMullen
It wasn't so long ago that I picked up My Small Country Living on the way out of the book sale, started to read, and fell in love. This summer I ordered The Wind in the Ash Tree, and now with this third book I have finished McMullen's appealing trilogy about living on a Welsh smallholding and producing a radio show about country living. Indeed, the bulk of this final volume is about Jeanine's adventures in going from farmstead to farmstead and county to county—and country—looking for stories, spending some time in Ireland (still dangerous in that era of "the Troubles") finding fairy cairns, Greyhound Pigs, Moiled Cattle, and, as always, unpredictable goats.

McMullen's own goats also work into the plot, as does her big mare Doli, who finally meets the "man" of her dreams, and even her dogs provide adventure. She makes new friends in Ireland and Wales, experiences equipment failure and train waits, and tries out novelty walking sticks. There are wars against rats, a surprise with the chimney, a country Christmas, and encounters with the neighbors, but the most affecting portions of the narrative is when Jeanine's mother, the redoubtable Mrs. P, begins to suffer from illness, including an unexpected loss of memory and then weakness caused by living in such a damp climate. It's indeed an eventful year and a memorable end to McMullen's memoirs. I shall miss her very much.

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.