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

31 July 2017

Books Completed Since July 1

book icon  Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, Philip Ball
I'm not certain what I expected of this book. I was hoping for something like Victoria Finlay's Color, in which she travels the world looking for the sources of the colors used in art (ochre in Australia, etc.) This was a little different: Ball traces the use of colors used by artists and how artists of the past pretty much had to know more than a little chemistry to mix their own colors, since they didn't come ready-made by Winsor and Newton. Indeed, the artists' apprentices first task as apprentices was to learn how to grind and mix color.

Ball goes back to the Egyptians' love of colored glass, but most of the book is involved in talking about the classic artists (Da Vinci, Raphael, Vermeer, Rubens, etc.) and the mediums and colors they used: the pigments mixed differently if you were using fresco and if you were using tempera and if you were using oils, and sometimes the color you needed simply didn't exist yet. Blues were not only hard to come by, but expensive due to the fact that they came from precious stones, and were saved for the paintings of saints that were considered the most important thing to portray for many years.

He also covers the concept of color, and how some societies do not have names for certain colors (the Vietnamese and Korean languages, for instance, do not differentiate between green and blue; the medieval color sinople could refer to red or green), the minerals and plants and even insects that produce different colors, how palettes changed from the medieval era to the present, and how manufactured colors revolutionized the artists' palette.

It ended up being fascinating reading even if it wasn't what I expected.

book icon  Whispers Under Ground, Ben Aaronovitch
In the third Peter Grant adventure, the action opens with Peter's thirteen-year-old neighbor leading him and his partner Lesley May to a ghost spraying graffiti near her school—but he's soon brought back down to earth by the death of a young American art student in one of the Tube tunnels. It looks like a simple stabbing, but it turns out he was killed with a piece of pottery that reeks of magical vestigia. It also turns out the student was the son of an important American politician, and the FBI sends out an agent to assist the Met in finding the killer.

And then things get really strange.

The cover copy makes a big deal out of the fact that the FBI agent is a born-again Christian, but that doesn't seem to cause all that much problems—she just keeps ditching the escort the Met has on her. The big problem is keeping her out of the way once magic starts rearing its ugly head. Some familiar faces appear, including Stephanopoulos and Sahra Guleed, and we make the acquaintance of Zach Palmer, whose dad was a fairy ("and by that I don't mean he dressed well and enjoyed musical theatre" ), and Jaget Kumar, who's Peter's guide into the underworld of the tube, which contains a big surprise.

I'm devouring these books like peanuts (or chocolate). They're inventive and fun, and I love the characters. They've even inveigled me into reading the graphic novels (check out below).

book icon  A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World, Andrew Kiste
This is a nifty little book that covers the genesis of the different lands and rides at Walt Disney World (chiefly in the Magic Kingdom), from Main Street's antecedents in Walt's favorite town of his childhood, Marceline, plus Great Britain's Crystal Palace, to the history of pirates and African explorers which prompted Adventureland, to the Western legends that led to Frontierland, the history behind the Carousel of Progress, etc. There are some long-winded explanations of exhibits (the examination of "Casey at the Bat" comes to mind), but mostly the narratives are fun and interesting. If you didn't know anything about Walt Disney's life in Marceline, or about the Old West, the "darkest Africa"-type explorers of the late 19th/early 20th century, and the futurism of the 1950s that gave birth to Tomorrowland, this book will be illuminating.

book icon  Radio Girl, Carol Brendler
This is the story of Cecelia "Cece" (rhymes with "peace") Maloney, a fourteen-year-old New Jerseyite whose dream is to become a radio star. When her father signs her working papers, but refuses to take her with him to the studios at "the Mutual" (he's a sound effects engineer at the Mutual Broadcasting System where Cece's favorite radio series, The Shadow, is produced) to get a radio job as he promised, Cece sneaks off one Saturday and dares to try to get a job at the CBS radio network instead—and to her delight is allowed to help out in the mailroom. From there she goes on to helping with other things, including typing scripts, and meets one of her idols, young actor Orson Welles, as well as an actress she admires. But other things aren't going so well for Cece: her best friend seems to be dumping her for another girlfriend (one she initially said she hated), she's keeping her employment a secret from her overworked mother, and her dad's young sister, who lives with them, appears to be keeping a terrible secret.

This is a bouncy, almost believable adventure that brilliantly brings 1930s teenage life alive: fashions, after-school jobs, favorite radio programs and singers, etc. Cece's breezy narrative, laced with the teen slang of the day, follows her as she confides in her best friend, and makes her way inch by inch toward her dream, never realizing her new job may gain her fame, but it's going to change her life in ways that she hasn't imagined. She's a typical teenager, self-absorbed enough and so fixed on her dream as not to guess what's going on at home.

Brendler paints the 1930s well; I detected only one mistake: missalettes were a 1970s thing, and I did think it was a bit "overkill" to have Cece and her best friend share a similar family problem. But she nicely ties a historical event into the end of the story. Not great literature, but quite enjoyable in the end.

book icon  An Echo of Murder, Anne Perry
Victorian-era Thames River officer William Monk is called to the scene of a particularly brutal murder in an area of London where Hungarian immigrants live: the victim was stabbed, his fingers mutilated, and seventeen candles, some of them a rare purple color, were scattered around the murder site, their tips dipped in blood. Most of the people in the neighborhood do not speak English and a learned man who lives nearby agrees to help Monk by translating for him. Ugly rumors start arising from the surrounding community, that the Hungarians are aliens who practice bloody rituals. Even Monk is baffled, unable to understand what caused such hatred.

In the meantime, the Monks' adopted son "Scuff"—who asks to be known as "Will" after his adopted father—is working as an apprentice to Crow, a slum doctor who sometimes treats the Hungarians. Out of nowhere, an English doctor who calls himself Fitz comes to Crow's assistance with an amputation case—and it turns out he served in the Crimea and was friends with Hester Monk, who thought he died on the battlefield. Fitz is still badly shell-shocked and sometimes has no memory of events; could he be the murderer?

Monk takes a little bit of a back burner in this latest in the series even as he doggedly pursues clues as more murders with the same grim pattern happens; the novel more revolves around Hester Latterly Monk, her reacquaintance with Herbert Fitzherbert and facing up to the privations and horrors she endured in the Crimea, and her making peace with her brother Charles, and also with Scuff, who is less a mudlark and more a young man every day, one who is getting good experience in the medical profession. He decides that he will use the name "Will" as an adult and plays a part in discovering who committed the murders. It's a nice change of pace to see the story revolve around Hester and Will, even though in the end it's Monk who makes the final connection that brings the murderer to justice.

book icon  Head of Drama, Sydney Newman and Graeme Burk
Born Shimshon Nudelman in the poor section of Toronto, media historians might know Sydney Newman as a former promising artist, or once a vital cog at the National Film Board of Canada or at ABC Television in Britain. But almost any fan of Doctor Who's long history can tell you that Newman was the bloke who came up with the idea of an old man traveling in a time machine who can visit points in Earth history, and appointed a young woman named Verity Lambert to produce the show (a rarity in that day, as well as having a young man of Arab ancestry to direct the first story). He was determined not to have "bug-eyed monsters" on his new show, which he insisted should be about history, and was nonplussed when the second story in the series, about the pepperpot Daleks, made the series a hit.

The first half of the volume is a memoir by Newman of his life through 1987; it's frank and some of the language would be considered culturally insensitive today (although Newman uses it to refer to himself). He rises from struggling young artist to flirting with socialism to employment with the National Film Board of Canada to working in Britain where The Avengers turned from a police procedural to the hip series we remember today, and finally to the BBC as head of drama. Newman's colorful life and stubborn character is well-told in an unflinching narrative (although, as in all memoirs, he forgets some of the details, which are remedied with footnotes). At home he was married to the love of his life, Betty, until her death from polychondritis and they—well, mostly she, as was the tradition back then—raised three daughters.

Burk takes over after Newman's memoir leaves off, chronicling the final thirty years of his life as his career waned. In the 1980s he even lost touch with the series he was most associated with, Doctor Who, stating it should quit doing all those trite science fiction plots and go back to historical and scientific stories. (However, in a nod to current events, he also thought it would be appropriate if the Doctor regenerated into a woman!) As a treat—although it is a rather sad postscript—there is an afterword by Newman's daughter Deirdre, offering another short perspective on her father and also on her mother's death and how it affected him.

In a modern age where "get up and go" ambition has been replaced with the need for multiple college degrees, Newman's story of climbing the executive ladder on grit and blarney may be an eye-opener. If you have no knowledge of Canadian and British broadcasting, you may find the narrative dry or without purpose. On the other hand, if you're a fan of The Avengers or Doctor Who (especially if you saw the film An Adventure in Space and Time and wondered about that bombastic man ordering Jessica Raine's Verity Lambert about), you probably will enjoy Newman's story.

book icon  The Sherlock Holmes Book, edited by David Stuart Davies
This is one of Dorling-Kindersley's "big ideas simply explained" volumes about the Great Detective himself. There are synopses of all of the canon stories with diagrams and graphics, a timeline of Arthur Conan Doyle's life and literary work, insets chronicling historical background to many of the stories, data about the era in which Holmes and Watson worked. profiles of major characters, and chapters about other Victorian crime fiction and Sherlock on stage, screen, and audio. The text is dotted with illustrations and photographs, magazine and book covers, lithographs, maps, old advertisements, movie clips, and more to thoroughly immerse you in Sherlockania. The game is afoot!

book icon  The Royal Nanny, Karen Harper
In 1897, a young woman named Charlotte Bill arrives at the royal home of the Duke of York (later to be King George V) and his growing family, in order to take the position of assistant nursemaid. Almost immediately she discovers that the head nursemaid has suffered emotional distress and is taking it out on the two young sons of the prince: toddler David (some day to be Edward VIII before his abdication) and little Bertie (the future King George VI), and, in the process has made both children afraid of their parents. When Bill reports the abuse, she is suddenly thrust into the heady and strict role of the royal nanny.

This is a fictional story about the life of Bill, who became known to the royal parents as well as their children as "Lala," and her life as nanny and later governess to the family of six: David, Bertie, Mary, Harry, George, and the youngest, Johnnie, who was kept out of the public eye because of his epilepsy and a developmental delay that might be called autism today. Lala lavishes all her love on the children and, in a fictional bit of yarn-spinning, even turns down marriage to stay with them. She will be known to many as Johnnie's saviour, as the Yorks are constantly advised to have the boy shut away somewhere, but her strong belief in him, and in the Duchess of York's feeling that she should not give up on the child, kept him at home and at least near the family and not institutionalized.

The romance Harper creates for Lala is a bit "wet," if you know what I mean, even more so knowing that it is a totally made up character (Harper says she combined two actual servants at York Cottage to create the fictional love interest). But it is the dedication Lala shows to her young charges, especially sunny Johnnie, and the behind-the-scenes action of the royal household that is of the most interest. Read the romantic frippery with a light eye and concentrate on the real meat of the story, Lala's love for the children, and you'll be fine.

(There is an outstanding miniseries about Johnnie that can be found on DVD, The Lost Prince.)

book icon  Rivers of London: Body Work, Ben Aaronovitch & Andrew Cartmel
I haven't read any "graphic novels," as comics are known these days, since back when Comico was doing Jonny Quest and Innovation did Quantum Leap. I have to admit I haven't been very pleased with some of the comic art which I've seen in the past few years: roughly outlined faces and figures, blurred figures and backgrounds. But I love the Peter Grant books and decided to take a chance on this first collection. I was not disappointed. The artwork is excellent and characters portrayed as they are described in the book.

The story: a car found in the Thames with its driver drowned presents magical influences when Peter investigates. This leads them to a car repair shop where odd things begin to happen—like cars having a mind of their own. This is nothing new to Thomas Nightingale, who introduces Peter to the most haunted car in Britain. Would it surprise you to know the two cases are connected? I knew it wouldn't.

Enjoyable art and stories, a collection of the individual comic covers at the end, and several brief "Tales from the Folly" featuring various regular characters wrap up this volume, which has a very funny ending featuring Molly and Toby the ghost-hunting dog. 

book icon  Re-read: The One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Dodie Smith
If your total experience with this story is the animated Disney classic or the two live-action movies and the abysmal weekly cartoon that Disney Pictures did, you owe it to yourself to read Dodie Smith's original, with its wicked sense of humor and some very touching scenes. Mrs. and Mr. Dearly (not Roger and Anita as in the movies, and he's an accountant, not a songwriter) live with their Dalmatians Pongo and Missus (in the book Perdita is a different, separate character) near Regents Park with their two nannies, Nanny Cook and Nanny Butler. Mrs. Dearly's old schoolmate Cruella de Vil is eager to buy Missus' puppies, and, as you know the story goes, has them kidnapped. By way of the dogs' Twilight Barking, a rescue mission is mounted!

The book includes a lot more adventures for Pongo and Missus in rescuing the puppies, including a very sweet stay with an elderly spaniel and his even more ancient master, a sojourn in a very special barn, and meeting with a Staffordshire terrier who helps them get aboard the moving van, and is a very funny read for adults and children alike, as Smith's narrative is very witty and has jokes adults will appreciate more than children. There are also additional characters like Cruella's husband and her white Persian cat, and other things are slightly different: in the book the runt of the litter is not Lucky, but little Cadpig, who stars in Smith's sequel Dalmatian novel, The Starlight Barking.

Recommended for all ages.

book icon  A Nantucket Christmas, Leslie Linsley, photographs by Jeffrey Allen

book icon  The Longest Road, Philip Caputo
This book unlocks every ounce of wanderlust I have. On two different years, 1978 and 1975, Mom, Dad and I popped in the car and drove cross country to California (and on another year drove down to Disney World). Yes, we traveled the interstates, not the blue highways, but we stayed at local motels and ate at a lot of local places rather than chains (although we were really fond of Nickerson Farms on the I-80 rest stops; they had a killer chicken soup). It was a great adventure, from the lush hills of eastern Pennsylvania to the corn- and wheat-covered fields of Nebraska and Kansas to the arid lands of Nevada to the golden grass of California. When I heard Caputo talk about this book on "Travels with Rick Steves," I had to pick it up.

Caputo and his wife Leslie and their two English setters, Sage and Sky, borrow a vintage Airstream trailer and tow it behind their pickup truck ("Ethel" and "Fred") and drive from the southernmost mile marker in the US in Key West diagonally across the US and up the Alaska Highway to Deadhorse, the northernmost mile marker, observing not only the scenery and tasting the local treats, but in search of the answer to Caputo's question "How does the United States, peopled by every race on earth, remain united?" (There really isn't one answer; but the responses are interesting.) They meet travelers, pocket philosophers, locals with differing political views, Native Americans trying to regain their heritage, people "sticking it out" (or are they?) in dying towns, and more.

While I was a little bored by some momentary political asides, I mostly enjoyed the trip, especially the problems of traveling with a vintage trailer and seeing life off the interstate, and of course the lush descriptions of scenery. And I smiled when he visited Chicken, Alaska, the setting of one of my favorite pioneering-days-in-Alaska books, Tisha, about a schoolteacher in the early 20th century. (Caputo doesn't mention the story.)

book icon  Equus, edited by Rhonda Parrish and J.G. Formato
Somewhere in me there is a little girl who always dreamed of horses, read Black Beauty and the Windy Foot books, even though I knew I wouldn't want to go through the work it took to keep a horse healthy and happy even if we had the room for one. Better to ride imaginary horses who could take you anywhere and didn't need grooming and mucking out.

This is a fine set of imaginary steeds to ride, and unsparing of the grim as well as the glorious: a rider and trainer of war unicorns can't explain to a new assistant why her virginity is worth keeping, but knows it is in her even when a tragedy occurs; a mute Florida girl races her limerunner (another name for a water horse) against the best (including death), a woman starts to knit to belong to her husband's clique and creates a new world for herself instead, magic colors a Regency-era horse race, a fallen angel and his steed take refuge in a church with explosive results, when rain ends in a valley that needs it desperately a young woman seeks to ride the horses that come out of the sky to find out why, in a modern urban setting two hard-drinking men in Halifax make a discovery involving kelpies and secretive shipments to a lake, a mysterious carousel shows up in an Australian town just as men move to round up wild brumbies, a woman who has a daughter who is "different" begs a unicorn to change her, a being of light enters a celestial chariot race when he begins to fade, and more.

The gods of Ragnarok show up a little too often for my taste in the volume, but the stories mentioned above quite struck my fancy as I read through this anthology, and I especially enjoyed the story of the war unicorns and the celestial race, the Regency and the Halifax-set stories gave me a chuckle, and I loved the familiar yet fanciful settings in Florida and Australia. One thing: I'm grateful for adventure stories that now feature women on an equal setting with men, but I wish there had been a couple of more male protagonists.

book icon  Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome
First published in 1930 and the first in a long series of books featuring the characters, this novel introduces the Walker children, whose mother is renting a home in England's Lake District during the summer holidays (the father is a naval officer and at sea). John, Susan, Titty, and Roger are wild to camp out on their own on a small island across the lake from the rental home, and since they can all swim (Roger is just a beginner) and sail, their father and mother give them permission. When they arrive on the island in their little sailboat Swallow, they find that someone has camped there previously and they re-use the fireplace the campers have made. They haven't been there long when they meet the previous campers: two tomboyish girls, Nancy and Peggy Blackett, who crew a small sailboat named Amazon.

This is one of those wonderful kids' adventures where the children are virtually unsupervised (their mother keeps tabs on them by hearing from the farmer's wife who provides them with milk and other goodies each morning) and just live fancy and free on their own. Once they meet the crew of the Amazon, they engage in a pretend "war" with them to determine which group will have the flagship, and commiserate with the girls about their usually fun uncle, whose writing project has left him ignoring the two—until his houseboat is robbed and they are accused.

Modern parents would be aghast at leaving kids 7 through 14 on an island alone, but both the Walkers and the Blacketts have been taught to be self-reliant and responsible, so they can have fun without all those bothersome adults around, just like when I was a kid. The kids swim, sail, row, hike, and then eat lots of fresh food and homemade treats. Yeah, the sailing terminology sometimes is a little deep, but Ransome explains it well enough that you can figure out what the kids are doing. Just enough mystery and adventure without putting the kids in danger. For a nostalgic look back at kids' vacations in 1929, this one can't be beat.

book icon  Friends in High Places, A Liberty Lane Mystery, Caro Peacock
Feeling tired and restless after the conclusion of her previous case (The Path of the Wicked), Liberty Lane is ready for some tea and companionship at the home of her friend Marguerite Blessington. Instead, she is embroiled in the British aristocracy's interest in Prince Louis Napoleon and a valet who is hiding out at Blessington's home, a  Frenchman who has escaped from France with papers that may keep the Prince from jail. No sooner does Liberty arrive than strange things begin to happen: a fire near the scullery, and then the report of a burglary that never happened. But more sinister things are about to happen, including a murder and an encounter with spies, and news about the man that Liberty loves that will shake her to her very core.

I have to admit the political machinations in this story made my head spin. Good thing the usual familiar characters were there to keep it balanced: Liberty, her friend Amos Legge the commensurate groom, the street urchin Tabby, and even police officer Bevan and Liberty's beautiful mare Rancie. The mystery is suitably convoluted and will keep you guessing until a telling clue is thrown in before the final few chapters. There's also the new experience of seeing usually practical Liberty experiencing jealousy. (And I must admit the fact that she left a suspect alone with temptation in her path was pretty stupid, but then it was an emergency.)

Not one of my favorite Liberty Lane mysteries, but well worth checking out.

book icon  Rivers of London: Night Witch, Ben Aaronovitch & Andrew Cartmel
This is the second graphic novel based on Aaronovitch's book series about Peter Grant, neophyte police officer and "apprentice wizard," working under Inspector Thomas Nightingale, England's last practicing wizard. A wealthy couple from the former Soviet Union who are living in London are terrorized by a "leshy" (a woods spirit) who has taken away their daughter; they try to kidnap Varvara Tamonina, one of a former World War II regiment called "the Night Witches," to help get her back. But Tamonina, just recently taken into custody by Nightingale and Grant, refuses to go with them. Instead, an old friend works behind the scenes to alter the situation.

Accompanying the suspense of the missing child story are some humorous moments with Beverley Brook and nice insight on Nightingale's character, as well as more about Tamonina's past. As in the previous volume, the final few pages highlight the individual issue covers and one-page humorous stories called "Tales from the Folly."

This is one graphic series that lives up to the "novel" nomenclature. As I said for the first one, this is splendid artwork, not the slash-and-gash faces that other graphic novels have developed in recent times, and the stories are just as good as the books. I can't wait until the next one comes out on the 25th.

OH! Don't do like I did and read this before reading the book Broken Homes. Something happens in the book that drives the plot of the graphic novel. As River Song shrills: SPOILERS!

book icon  Four Feet to Fame, Bob Weatherwax and Richard Lester
I've been waiting for this book since I heard about it: it's Bob Weatherwax's story about his father, Rudd, and the canine star he created, Lassie. Because Bob worked with his father and grew up with Lassie, I was hoping there would be a lot more details about some of the movies and about the television series. Instead there's a lot about Bob himself, starting with a nearly fatal motorcycle accident he had some years back as well as his own experiences as a trainer (not that this was all necessarily bad).

For someone who lived the experience, there are some odd factual mistakes, though. Bob says "Spook" (the Lassie you see with the wide blaze in early Timmy episodes) was in Lassie's Great Adventure (taken from a five-part Lassie episode) when it was "Baby," Spook's successor, and he said the series titles originally showed Lassie standing on a rock "surveying his domain" and the iconic scene of Lassie jumping over the fence came later, but it was the rock scene which came later after the farm episodes. (Also, I'm not sure whose mistake this is, Bob's or co-author Richard Lester, but he refers to Corey Stuart as a park ranger, which is wrong. Corey is a forest ranger; park rangers are completely different--they even work for a different government agency.)

Another troubling bit of narrative has Bob explaining the Lassie lineage. For years the creators of the series and the Weatherwax family stated that each new Lassie was the son of the previous dog. Several years ago it came to light that the second Lassie, "Lassie Junior," who appeared on the television episodes with Jeff and later Timmy, was not a son of "Pal," the original Lassie of the movies. (However, all the Lassie collies following were descended from "Junior.") In this book Bob states that "Pal" was bred and had a son who was a Lassie-in-training; however, that collie had eye problems and couldn't perform, but his son Laddie was groomed to be Pal's successor. Unfortunately Laddie died of distemper, and a new Lassie had to be sought out. Finally one of Rudd Weatherwax's helpers, Frank Inn, found Lassie Junior, but Bob described the dog as "vicious" several times. He never explains how Rudd managed to break the dog of attacking people.

But there are enough other behind-the-scenes glimpses to be reasonably satisfying: Bob talking about being friends with Tommy Rettig, who played Jeff and who was so strictly supervised by his mother he didn't have a chance to be a boy; the truth about John Wayne "winning" Lassie at poker while filming Hondo (and how tough it was to work with John Wayne, who really didn't like to work with dogs); the dog Bob considers the smartest Weatherwax dog ever trained (it wasn't Lassie); how hard it was to work with collies (they have minds of their own); how Rudd's efforts to protect the Lassie image pretty much ruined him emotionally; about Rudd's tough childhood and the no-nonsense approach he took with his own children (if you love Lassie, you may not like the truth about Rudd); etc. And some trivia: for instance, in the 19th season episode of the Lassie television series, "The Visitor," that isn't "Hey Hey" (grandson of Baby) playing Lassie; it's Bob's dog Silver who played "Dog" in Big Jake.

So, worthwhile for a Lassie lover—just wish there'd been more.

book icon  Broken Homes, Ben Aaronovitch
So much is going on in this fourth novel in the Peter Grant "Rivers of London" series that I'm hard pressed to sum it up. A man involved in a car accident has blood all over the rear of his car as if a body has been riding there; Peter, his partner Lesley, and his mentor Thomas Nightingale are still chasing down the disciples of the Faceless Man; a young woman has been found with her face destroyed;, another man is found having been burned up from the inside; a rogue magician turns up; a man has suddenly jumped under a Tube train; a wizard's grimoire has appeared; and apparently something odd is going on at a public housing flat. Oh, and the Folly's enigmatic housekeeper Molly is working her way through cookbooks now. Got all that?

As in the way of these books, it all makes sense in the end—or as much sense as it can make in a London where magic exists, but Peter and Lesley are kept on the run trying to figure it all out. Eventually they move undercover to the public housing unit where Peter discovers there's something a lot bigger than murders and grimoires going around.

If you are reading the graphic novels, do not do as I did and read Night Witch before this book, as there is a whopper of a spoiler in it for this book.

book icon  Rivers of London: Black Mould, Ben Aaronovitch & Andrew Cartmel
I know I'm hooked: I bought this as soon as it was released on July 25.

DC Sahra Guleed is investigating the rental home of a friend whose daughter has refused to live in it any longer, citing creepy and fearful feelings, when she is attacked by an animated "creature" made from black mould. She fights it off and reports it to the Folly, where she helps Peter Grant defeat the creature off with an unusual weapon, since his use of magic just strengthens it. Peter's search for more of this "creepy" mould leads him to a swank new apartment building, two young people living slightly illegally in an aunt's apartment, an old-age home, and even to his musician dad for some advice. After all, what's the connection between homicidal black mould, a jazz musician, and a rental company?

Loved Peter and Guleed working together, the humorous subplot with Nightingale and Tom Debden (the body-shop guy from Body Work), a great action scene involving Molly and an intruder, and seeing Peter's dad "in the flesh," so to speak. My only quibble: I wasn't sure the woman character introduced near the end of the story was all that good a character; she seemed a bit over the top. Another funny ending with Molly and Toby finishes off an entertaining story that's still not quite as good as Body Work, but which gets points for a novel "villain." (And there's a couple of great chuckles in the one-page "Tales from the Folly.")

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30 June 2017

Books Completed Since June 1

book icon  Folks, this ain't normal, Joel Salatin
Salatin and his family run an organic and free range farm in Northern Virginia, trying to combine the best way of old farming methods (use of straw bedding and manure for fertilizer, grass-feeding their cows and allowing their pigs and chickens to forage, no antibiotics, etc.) and modern ones (using the internet, farmer's markets, etc.) to get healthy food to people. Salatin's argument is, like most organic farmers, that the processed stuff we are stuffing ourselves with is bad for our health and that factory farming could be accomplished more naturally if we combined old methods with new. He's selling his philosophy, naturally, but a lot of what he says makes sense.

Still, it takes money to "eat right." Salatin argues that you can ditch that loathsome lawn and grow your own, but for those of us who hate being out in the sun aren't going to go for it (I let someone else take care of my lawn; I don't even water it—if God wants it to grow He can make it rain Himself). If I was one of these bigshot executives with a six-figure salary I would buy all my vegetables from local farmers, only eat organically grown grains, and eat only free-range, grass-fed animals which are killed humanely. But not making six figures (the two of us together don't make six figures), factory-farmed supermarket food is our lot.

Still, the book makes interesting reading and will make you think.

book icon  Live and Let Growl, Laurien Berenson
Believing she'll be helping her sister-in-law Bertie get her dogs ready for a dog show, Melanie Travis leaves her two sons and six poodles in the capable hands of her husband to ride with Bertie and her formidable Aunt Peg to a dog show in Kentucky, where Peg will also check up on an unexpected acquisition: a racehorse she inherited from the best friend of her late husband. However, it turns out that husband Sam and Aunt Peg and Bertie want Melanie to have a good rest from her teaching and training duties, so Melanie has some leisure time to spend with her poodle Faith on the trip and befriend Aunt Peg's old friend Ellie Wanamaker, a retired show judge. Ellie's not only having family difficulties, but Melanie notices a lot of the folks on the dog show circuit are hostile toward her. But was one of them hostile enough to kill her?—she took a fatal fall on familiar land; was it just an accident.

This entry in the long-running series is a bit of a breather from the usual story where Melanie meets someone unpleasant on the dog show circuit who is later murdered, as much of the story itself has to do with double-dealing on the racehorse circuit instead. A different venue (Kentucky instead of Connecticut) freshens the plot a little, but with that comes a warning: the whole process of buying and selling (or not selling) racehorses is completely explained in long detail so that the end gambit makes sense. If you have no interest in horses, that may turn you off. A plus: there's a delightful quartet of Jack Russell Terriers who have cameos in this one, and Melanie gets to spend time with Faith.

book icon  ROY G. BIV, Jude Stewart
This is a small novelty-like book about color and color interpretation which probably would have been more interesting had it not been set up like a web page with hyperlinks. While that works okay on a web page, it's annoying to be confronted on every page with underlined words in a rainbow of color referencing referrals in the margin of the page to other colors with similar meanings. The information contained in each chapter about a color is interesting, but the "links" are distracting and, after a while, annoying when you see the same ones over and over. My advice is to just read the text as text and avoid the hypertext.

book icon  Meg Follows A Dream: The Fight for Freedom, 1844, Norma Jean Lutz
It's 1844 in Ohio, and Meg Buehler is the daughter of one of many families of German heritage that live in the area. Meg loves art, but her practical parents, a hard-working mother who can't understand why Meg is always daydreaming, and her father, a furniture-maker of the old school, don't think learning how "to paint flowers" is a good use of her time. Her father also disapproves of her younger brother, Fred, whose head is filled with dreams of machinery, and who teases Meg about her art and often tattles on her. Meg also becomes interested in a young man she sees at the opening of the local art institute.

The underlying thread of this story is "freedom," as a conflict over slavery is slowly simmering in the Ohio area and young Fred strongly agrees with the abolitionists whose writings appear in local papers while the elder Buehlers just want to keep out of it. However, it's a very thin thread held together mostly by Meg's crush, her love of art, her lack of strength as compared to her mother and sister, her friendship with Susannah, her brother's ceaseless teasing, and her eventual collapse due to overwork. It's a lesser effort in the "Sisters in Time" series, with a lackluster, wandering plot.

book icon  The Button Box, Lynn Knight
The subtitle to this book is "The story of women in the 20th century, told through the clothes they wore." Knight's grandmother Annie was a seamstress and like everyone other woman of that era, seamstress or not, she kept a "button box" in an old candy tin (some women used cookie tins) and used these leftover and unique buttons on her personal and professional sewing projects. Knight begins her book with the iconic jet button of the Victorian times of her grandmother's birth, a mourning necessity in an era when too many children died before their first birthday and diseases like typhoid, dysentery, typhus, and tuberculosis ("consumption") carried off people willy-nilly. Through Grandma Annie's buttons, Knight follows the changing status of women from pampered Victorian/Edwardian doll to suffragette to flapper to someone making ends meet to someone making do during the First and Second World Wars to miniskirt-clad dolly-bird during the Swinging Sixties. Dress design, working women, the Baby Boom, childcare, the new feminism are all touched on in this fascinating social history. I don't like shopping or even particularly looking at clothes, but this told the story of women so well through their dress it was irresistible.

book icon  Home by Nightfall, Charles Finch
Charles Lennox's detective business is finally starting to flourish and his family life with wife Lady Jane and young daughter Sophia grows sweeter every day. He's almost too busy, especially when it affects his usual lunches with his beloved brother Edmund, who is lately extremely depressed after the death of his wife. But Edmund has something else to occupy one day: strange thefts in the village where his country house is located, and he asks Charles to come down for a few days to look into it. But Lennox and his agency are investigating, like every other private inquiry agent in the city of London,  the disappearance of a famous German pianist. How will he do both at once?

Let's say Charles manages as always. The country-set portion of the story is very entertaining—the mystery involves an insurance agent who had an unusual chalk figure left upon his property and then who was lured away from his home about a false claim; a mystery which finally ends with the death of the local mayor—especially when the townspeople keep assuming Charles has come back to Markethouse to stay. The country mystery has a little in common with something that happened in a book I read later this month, and a twist of Charles' mind with the evidence his partners have gathered brings also the solution to the disappearance of Muller. I thought the country mystery as well as the solution much superior to the city story, and enjoyed the atmosphere of the little market town. Finch is making fewer of those anachronistic errors I used to hate in the earlier books, so I am well satisfied with this entry.

book icon  Murder at the Puppy Fest, Laurien Berenson
Melanie Travis is back home in Connecticut after her Kentucky adventure, helping out at an annual event called "Puppy Fest," run by a local dog rescue organization funded by local millionaire Leo Brody, who opens his capacious home for the event, which is covered by the press, and attended by most of his children from three different marriages. When Brody doesn't show up for the opening of Puppy Fest (which is played somewhat like the Puppy Bowl game on Superbowl Sunday), Melanie is sent to track him down. You guessed it: she finds him dead—with his latest mistress bending over the body. So not only is there now a body, but several people think Melanie had something to do with his death, including Jane, the Brody daughter who runs Puppy Posse.

It's a good thing Melanie is still on vacation because she spends the rest of the book driving through Connecticut talking to the rest of Leo Brody's fractured family, and boy are they a bunch of pips—if they don't hate each other on the surface they sure do underneath. This is another one of Berenson's books in which everyone is so unpleasant you almost don't care who gets arrested as long as they all shut up. Of more interest in the story is the terrier that Melanie and Davey rescue as the book opens and if he will find a home with the family, and of what Aunt Peg is going to do once a sobering event happens.

book icon  The Queen's Accomplice, Susan Elia MacNeal
After her Washington, DC, mission in the previous novel, codebreaker and spy Margaret "Maggie" Hope is back in London, working as a "code checker" for messages coming in from Allied spies in occupied France. She's worried about one of the spies, a young woman, but her superior brushes it off as a "typical female mistake." But then a bigger worry emerges: first one and then another young woman worker at SOE is found murdered in the manner of the Jack the Ripper killings from 60 years earlier, including a Welsh girl Maggie was friends with. In the meantime, Maggie has taken in her friend Chuck and her baby after their flat is destroyed by a gas explosion, and her pleas to her old friend Winston Churchill has worked a miracle: gotten her sister released from a concentration camp and headed to England—except Elise does not wish to go.

MacNeal has based her story about a serial killer during the Blitz on a real-life killer during that time crossed with the sordid history of H.H. Holmes, an American serial killer who operated during the 1890s and who some theorize might also have been Jack the Ripper. (See Erik Larson's Devil in the White City.) Intercut is Elise Hess' odyssey and Maggie's friends Hugh and Sarah training for a mission in France. There is also the reality of many men's resentment of a woman's new, powerful role in wartime London, which not only is fueling the killer, but other men less lethal.

This one is a welcome change from the tepid Washington adventure of last time, as tension builds and the killer sets his sights on Maggie. The equality for women lectures are a bit tedious as they seem like lectures most of the time, but they do indeed provoke real resentment from the reader at the callousness of some of the male characters (which have repercussions in the following book). This book and The Paris Spy are pretty much a two-part story, so don't read that one without also grabbing this one as well.

book icon  The Uncertainty of Everyday Life: 1915-1945, Harvey Green
This was the final volume in the "Everyday Life in America" series by Harper-Collins, and wasn't written until 1992, so it has a different viewpoint of the two wartime eras separated by boom and bust economics rather than the one that would have prevailed had this book been written in, say, 1960. Between 1915 and 1945 the United States went from a still mostly agrarian, isolationist nation to a manufacturing world power. American products and production reached its height and they became known as reliable and recommended. Yet another wave of immigrants unnerved "the old order" and, sadly, interactions between white Americans and black Americans not only remained the same, but in some ways deteriorated as the post-Civil War society the Ku Klux Klan rose again. Americans had more free time, which they first devoted to the "movies," first silent and then with sound, and then radio. (Television briefly knocks but is not touched on.) As advertising methods moved from text to imagery due to improved printing methods, advertisements persuaded Americans to buy more, especially items that would have been considered "frivolous" int he 19th century, and we truly became a consumer culture. Foods changed through the generations, with formerly "hearty traditional dishes" giving way to international foods, and the teenager appeared, with his/her own culture.

The text is a bit dry when they get into facts and figures and at its best when talking about social changes. If you are student of or interested in American history, a worthwhile series of books to dig up.

book icon  Deck the Halls: Treasures of Christmas Past, Robert M. Merck

book icon  Mycroft Holmes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar & Anna Waterhouse
In 1870, the man whom Sherlock Holmes would describe as having his finger on the pulse of the nation is a mere secretary in the British government. He's engaged to be married to a beautiful and educated young woman whose parents have a plantation in Haiti, has just purchased a spirited mount named Abie, and has an unconventional friend, also from Haiti, who works in a tobacco shop. Then his fiance Georgiana abruptly decides to return to Haiti just as his friend receives a report of strange goings on there, including the deaths of children.

The good news is that this is a high energy mystery with something going on every minute, and a little-known facet of history of life after the slave trade ended revealed in the plot. With a lively opening in London, most of the action takes place in Haiti, where our party of Mycroft Holmes and his friend Cyrus Douglas meet opposition along every path trying to track down Georgiana as well as digging up troubling clues to the uncanny events happening.

The biggest problem for me is that I don't believe this is Mycroft Holmes. I can't really reconcile the overweight gourmand who has so much pull in the British Government as the intense, action-packed hero portrayed in this book: he rides at dead speed, bets on rowing races, swims, leaps, and does so much physical action he's more like Tarzan than Mycroft. So I enjoyed the adventure, the research into life in Britain and Haiti at the time was sound and the narrative was lively and literate, but it would have been better if our hero was named Montmorency Harrison or Michael Havilland—and the few small scenes with a supercilious university-age Sherlock did nothing to dispel that feeling.

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31 May 2017

Books Completed Since May 1

book icon  America 1933, Michael Golay
Lorena Hickok was one of the best freelance journalists of the 1930s when she befriended Eleanor Roosevelt after doing a story on the President and his family. She and Eleanor became fast friends and conjecture has it that they became lovers, physically as well as emotionally. Having been betrayed by both her father and her husband, Eleanor had many close female friends and she wrote them warm letters that sounded like love letters between heterosexual couples. Whether or not that is true—you can read some of ER's letters in this book and make up your own mind—this isn't the real meat of this book. The focus is the 18-month trip Hickok took to every corner of the United States at the request of Harry Hopkins, to see firsthand the effects of the Depression on the ordinary American.

This book may make you weep as Hickok reports from coal country, the Appalachians, California, the Dust Bowl, and many other locations and sees the desperate straits people are in: single women barely eating, families overwhelmed by poverty, children who can't go to school for lack of warm coats and shoes, mine workers surviving on a pittance with foul streams of mine rubble running through their neighborhoods, people living in cardboard boxes, anti-union thugs beating up men who just want a living wage, black people constantly in fear of lynching and thuggery if they try to better themselves. As ER admonishes her to take care of herself, Hickok is indignant and enraged by relief efforts constantly hung up on red tape until they're too late to combat starvation and cold. The excerpts from her letters show you the real Depression, not the optimistic "heads up, we'll weather the blast" propaganda handed out by the government.

About Hickok and the First Lady, you can make up your own mind, but better read for Hickok's observations and revelations.

book icon  Re-read: Midnight Riot, Ben Aaronovitch
Peter Grant has finally made it into London's metropolitan police force with ambitions of going far. He and fellow neophyte Leslie May are called in to help when a headless body is found in front of St. Paul's, and Peter's just minding his own business while Leslie goes to get them something hot to drink when a ghost calling himself Nicholas Moneypenny tells him he witnessed the murder. Still digesting this information—since Peter's never been much of a believer in ghosts—he finds himself assigned to a mundane pencil-pushing police project while Leslie goes to the Murder Squad. But that's all changed when he's recruited by Inspector Thomas Nightingale, London's last practicing wizard, who takes odd cases too strange for the Met and who heard about Peter's ghostly encounter. Peter, it seems, has a talent for sensing vestigia (magical leftovers) and soon he finds himself ensconced at Nightingale's home with an odd housekeeper, learning magic.

While this all sounds delightfully daffy, it's actually the opening act to a super urban fantasy series. Peter, the biracial child of an African mother who has supported them as a housecleaner and an estranged jazz musician father, is a good-natured, earnest guy who is immediately likeable. We follow his progress learning magic as more bizarre murders take place around London, with people's faces being bizarrely affected by whatever madness has infected the city. He also makes the acquaintance of the gods and goddesses of London's river system, including Mother Thames, who keeps watch over the city while Father Thames guards its source in the country, and ends up with a dog who can trail ghosts. Endlessly inventive and with a twist that would make Arthur Bryant of Christopher Fowler's Bryant and May mysteries sit up and take notice. If you're looking for a novel urban fantasy series, this may be your cup of tea.

book icon  Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, Kory Stamper
What's so hard about editing a dictionary? You just write down what the word means, right?

As Kory Stamper can tell you, it's nothing that simple. The smallest words can be the most difficult to define, word meanings change, and social definitions that were once simple now must encompass more sensitive and extensive racial and ethnic boundaries.

Stamper, who grew up a bookworm and felt taking a job at Merriam-Webster was a "throw me in the briar patch, B'rer Fox" moment, describes her often extensive co-workers, the problems with English grammar and spelling, the histories of English dictionaries and Webster's specifically (for a long time, anyone could publish a "Webster's" dictionary), about the specifics of defining a word in as precise terms as possible (how would you define the word "surfboard"? it's more difficult than it looks!), on words that people think shouldn't be in the dictionary (like "dirty words" and "ain't"), and of tracking down etymologies. It's a delightful collection of essays that make you think as well as laugh. A must have for anyone who loves words.

book icon  Ex Libris, edited by Paula Guran
Library aficionados should love this collection of library fantasy and science fiction stories as much as I did. It's an interesting assortment of tales from the warm and whimsical opener "In the House of the Seven Librarians," about an abandoned infant raised in a classic old library that has been abandoned by a town and Ray Bradbury's nostalgic "Exchange," to post-apocalyptic stories like "The Books" (about the children of traveling show people trying to find new things to read) and "What Books Survive" and its teenage protagonist trying to outwit invaders just long enough to get to the library, to fantasy like "Death and the Librarian," where the librarian in question duels with the Grim Reaper, to otherworldly libraries. As the pages turn, a young man discovers his girlfriend can hide in fiction (literally), wizardry students must survive a deadly library to complete an assignment, an elusive library hides amazing works, and a few library tales step over that shivery abyss into horror (but just enough to make your skin tingle). The writing styles range from delightfully warm to grimly somber, from straightforward narrative to unexpected twist.

There were a couple of stories, as usual with any collection of this kind, that just didn't wow me, like "The King of the Big Night Hours," and while "Magic for Beginners" (featuring an elusive television series called The Library) was intriguing, I didn't quite get it in the end. Any false steps, however, have been completely overwhelmed by the stories I have mentioned and the collection as a whole, which I found inventive and entertaining.

book icon  A Curious Beginning, Deanna Raybourn
Veronica Speedwell is a definitely unconventional Victorian woman. Now that her last aunt has died, Veronica, a talented and adventurous lepidopterist, plans to sell her cottage and continue the foreign adventures she enjoyed before coming back to nurse her aunt (and the decidedly unconventional romances she enjoyed along with them) collecting butterflies and moths to sell to natural scientists. But as she finishes packing up her aunt's cottage, someone tries to kidnap her. Bewildered, she accepts the escort of a German baron who accompanies her to London and leaves her in the care of a bad-tempered taxidermist named Stoker. When the baron is murdered, Stoker and Veronica become the prime suspects; they flee, taking refuge in a colorful traveling circus, posing as a knife thrower and his wife, all the while maintaining an adversarial relationship with each other while trying to determine who killed Baron von Stauffenbach. And did he really know Veronica's mother, as he told her? And why does this fact matter to so many people?

Unconventional Victorian heroine? Should have been a sure bet, but I simply found Veronica unlikeable—not because she was strong and self-sufficient, but despite it. She really isn't all that likeable, and has a smug way about her that's not very attractive. And, of course, Stoker is fabulously well built and, after he shaves, devastatingly handsome, and they strike sparks off each other while secretly lusting over each other. Oh, that again. You may have seen one of the versions of a plot point in this book in a Sherlock Holmes film called Murder by Decree. She simply didn't capture my interest like Raybourn's original Victorian lead, Lady Julia Grey, or even the leads in her early 20th century novels.

I won't be continuing this series.

book icon  The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard
Great big dictionary-like listing of mostly British children's books and authors, but touching on all famous book characters from Anne Shirley to Huckleberry Finn and short essays about children's literature in countries other than Britain. Liberally scattered with book illustrations and covers and children's magazine covers. Anyone who loves children's literature, especially of a British stripe, should check out this volume to enjoy old favorites and discover new ones.

book icon  Moon Over Soho, Ben Aaronovitch
In the second Peter Grant mystery/fantasy, Peter and his mentor Inspector Nightingale, the last registered wizard in England, are called to view the corpse of a part time jazz musician. Using his previously unknown esoteric talent, Peter can hear a jazz tune coming from the deceased, which tells him that the death was somehow caused by magic. Peter's familiar with jazz after growing up as the son of Richard "Lord" Grant, a well-known jazz musician who's recently begun to play again (on a different instrument) and get off the drugs that ruined his life. When similar deaths in London's Soho district occur, Peter is further perplexed, but gains an unexpected bonus: a sexy jazz fan named Simone who is crazy about him. Tossed into the mix: a shadowy magician who is running his own version of The Island of Dr. Moreau.

I didn't think this story was as strong as the first, but we learn much more about Peter's early life as well as making the acquaintance of his parents. We also learn of the progress of the truce between the rivers (where Peter almost makes a fatal mistake that would have affected his friend Beverley Brook) and Peter's co-worker Leslie's recovery from the nearly deadly magical machinations worked upon her in the previous book. Peter is someone you'd love to know, a good friend, a wizard slowly growing in power, and a police officer learning his profession, and the story moves briskly—sometimes at a racing pace!—as more bodies appear in Soho and police work and wizardry tangle in a delightful combination.

If you like your urban fantasy with a good dollop of humor and a likeable lead, this is the series for you!

book icon  The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Marta McDowell
The moment I saw the author of this book, I wanted to read it. I sat down one grey and gloomy day to read McDowell's Gardening Life of Beatrix Potter and was completely immersed in summer, flowers, and the heady scent of the English countryside and the sheep-dotted slopes of the Lake District.

While there have been many books in the last couple of decades written about Laura Ingalls Wilder, this is the only one that addresses not simply events in Laura's life, but the landscapes her family lived in, the wildlife she saw, the plants that grew in the diverse areas in which she lived. Each chapter corresponds with a milestone in the life of a plant, from seed as Laura is born and spends her early years in the Big Woods of Wisconsin (and Almanzo grows up in the cold north of New York), to late harvest as she and husband Almanzo grow old at Rocky Ridge Farm in Missouri. It is also more generally a history of westward expansion and the flora and fauna found by the settlers when they arrived.

This is a beautiful book, liberally illustrated with color and black-and-white photos of the Ingalls family, illustrations from both Helen Sewell and Garth Williams from the Little House books, botanical prints, maps, and clippings from newspapers, brochures, magazines, etc. that tell the story of the European settling of the Midwest. McDowell's words bring to mind winter chill, summer warmth, birdsong, the sheer awe of the tall prairie grass (don't compare prairie grass to what grows on your front lawn; these are mammoth blades of grass which were higher than a man's head and gave to the bison all the nourishment needed), the scent and sight of fields of wildflowers, the blue sky arching above. For anyone who loves nature, or who wishes to know as closely as possible what Laura experienced in the Wisconsin woods, on the Kansas prairie, in the Iowa groves, and in the hills of Mansfield, Missouri, this is a keeper for certain.

Perfect for a quiet day with cocoa and soft music playing in the background.

book icon  In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson
Now this is what I expect from Bill Bryson, not the continuous whine, whine, whine of The Lost Continent (although in his epilog about the Sydney Olympics he managed to whine, whine, whine about the Atlanta Olympics). It's the story of Bill's explorations in Australia, done mostly by car on his own, but also riding on Indian Pacific Railway, and riding to Alice Springs with a friend, going from one corner to the other and then the other way. He visits the well-known coastal cities of Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne, and Perth, the less well known cities of Cairns and Darwin, and natural wonders like the Great Barrier Reef, Shark Bay where living fossils exist, a forest of beautiful karri and jarrah trees (known as Australian's Redwoods), and, of course the famous desert town of Alice Springs.

This is a fun, whimsical travelogue in which Bryson touches on the character of the Australians, its always unforgiving countryside (it "harbors many things that can kill you in extremely nasty ways," as the jacket promo promises) full of lush flora, its odd wildlife (and the intrusive wildlife introduced by outsiders), and just the sheer area of the small continent which is also an island and a country. Although his train ride seems like a dream, it sounds like most of his reposes were taken at poor motels masquerading under pretty names, although he was met with hospitality at most places. (Again, he ticks off on tourists, although he's not the best traveler on earth.) Throughout the book Bryson touches on the plight (no other term for it) of the Aborigine, whom he observes has never fit in and always seems an outsider (one hopes things have improved in the past 18 years).

It's a fun introduction to Australia and Bryson kept the carping to a minimum, so I'm happy.

book icon  Murder Most Malicious: A Lady and Lady's Maid Mystery, Alyssa Maxwell
It's Christmas at Foxwood Manor, the first after the Great War, and the Renshaw family is hosting guests to help them celebrate the holidays, including Lord Allerton, soon to be engaged to the eldest of the Renshaw daughters, Julia. But on Christmas night, Phoebe, the progressive and curious middle daughter, comes downstairs to find Henry, Lord Allerton, and her sister Julia arguing, each apparently knowing a terrible secret about the other. Next morning, Lord Allerton doesn't show up for breakfast, but no one except his mother seems very alarmed—until Boxing Day gifts sent to the servants' families contain unpleasant gifts relating to the young lord. Phoebe is determined to find out what's happened, as is one of the lady's maids in the household, Eva Huntford.

This belongs to the breed of modern country house mystery stories in which much or all of the family is kind to the servants, and a degree of progressiveism in class relations is portrayed, sort of Downton Abbey Lite with a mystery attached. Sometimes the PC is maddening, as when Phoebe describes the forbidden-by-Grandma American novel her grandfather is secretly reading as "the one about the boy...and his African friend." As if a Brit in that day and age wouldn't have used what is now a more offensive term as a commonplace thing; it seems so evidently stuck in there to show the family (or at least Phoebe) is progressive. The only Renshaw son is snarky in a manner that I think no British boy would allowed to be back then, and there are continued references to him going to "Eaton," as if he's shopping in a Canadian department store rather than going to one of the most famous boys' public schools in England, Eton.

Frankly this isn't much different from a half-dozen other recreations of the past done in the last ten or twenty years, with an ingenuous young heroine (sometimes hero) ahead of her time and her egalitarian ways with those who are supposed to be her social inferiors. Phoebe and Eva are both nice young woman, but there's nothing really special about them, the mystery breaks no new ground, and everything has the polish of veneer and plastic rather than old wood and porcelain.

book icon  Rhode Island 101, Tim Lehnert
A "popcorn" book, one you can dip into at any page and find some fun tidbits about the Ocean State. Starts with a timeline of Rhode Island history, then bits of facts in sections labeled "Slang," "Cities and Towns," "Weather," "Arts and Entertainment," etc. interrupted by fun "Take 5" lists like "Top Five Rhode Island Reads," "Five Best Providence Buildings," "Top Five Movies Made in Rhode Island." Plus there are other inserts like "You Know You're From Rhode Island When...," profiles of Rhode Island personalities from Buddy Cianci to H.P. Lovecraft, pieces about ethnic groups, cities, regions, films, quotations, and more.

The political information at the end is a bit tiresome, but, all in all, a fun book for Rhode Islanders or anyone who wants to understand one.

book icon  From Holmes to Sherlock, Mattias Boström
Upon finishing this, all I can say is "wow."

That being said, I did have a bit of a difficult time reading it, not because it was an ARC, but because it was so badly formatted as an Kindle e-book that the truncated paragraphs and wrap-around short texts ruined the rhythm of the author's words, and because it covers such a varied cast of characters. If you think this is your run-of-the-mill "how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes" yarn,  you'll be in for a surprise: while the beginning of the book does follow that formula, the rest of the story follows how Holmes became a literary phenomenon even after Doyle's death, and the people who kept him alive: a boy named Kit who devours all the stories and grows up to be Christopher Morley, Doyle's sons Adrian and Denis, who hope to make a living off Holmes while keeping their father's memory alive (neither of them come off particularly well in this book—Adrian is money grubbing and Denis an alcoholic and spendthrift, with a Russian wife who's just as bad), the Baker Street Irregulars and their anti-female attitude, actors like the infamous William Gillette, Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Arthur Wontner, even the 1980s Russian Holmes, women like Edith Meiser, writer for the classic American Holmes radio series, just one of Holmes' female fans who fought to break into the "old boys club" that originally was Holmes fandom, and even Eve Titus, who wrote the "Basil of Baker Street" pastiches for children, and finally ending with Robert Downey Jr, Jeremy Brett, all the way down to Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat plotting out a modern-day Sherlock on a train.

There are lots of interesting tidbits tossed your way in this book, but you must be a Holmes fan to completely appreciate it. Boström has done an enormous amount of research and it shows, but the writing (or perhaps the translation) is at times almost too cut-and-dried. Rewards abound if you stick with it.

book icon  Keeping Christmas, edited by Philip Reed Rulon

book icon  Winterbound, Margery Williams Bianco
I had never heard of this children's book, first published in 1936, and now wonder why! It's the story of the Ellis family, who are renting a small country cottage during the Depression. Their father has finally gotten a position in his field (he's an archaeologist), and mother Penny and the four children, Kay, the artistic one, aged 19; Garry (Margaret), who loves gardening and doing things, 16; Martin, the only boy, 12 and typically adventurous; and little Caroline, devotee of paper dolls and cats, try to make the best of the house, in which the only modern convenience is the telephone they just installed. Then Penny is called to help a family member, and Kay and Garry left to run the house. It's a freezing winter and they only get by with the help from the friendly farm family down the road, the Rowes.

There's nothing spectacular about this book, but it would probably make a modern child's jaw drop to imagine living that way. There is no bathroom, no central heat, not even a radio, let alone television and the internet; the children read, play outside, do chores, and go sledding to occupy themselves, and the hungry stove must be constantly appeased if they are to keep warm. But the Ellis children are up to the challenge, and Garry is a splendid character—talk about girl power! While Kay is the eldest, it's Garry that keeps the family together, and she is always moving, taking walks, working in the garden, raising seedlings, getting a part-time job to fill the family's dwindling coffers. I kept turning pages to see what was going to happen next, and, if the solution to the family's problems smack a tiny bit of coincidence, they still provide strong role models during a tough time.

Kate Seredy has provided minimal illustrations in the Dover edition which I have, and Garry, portrayed on the cover chopping wood, is a character right out of Seredy: you could see her and Kate Nagy of The Good Master becoming good friends. To me she is the only one of the characters who really comes to life, but since the book is from her POV, it seems very natural. If you're interested in a little-known 1930s children's book with a strong female character, you could certainly try this one. Worth your while just to read how tough it was making ends meet and keeping warm back then!

book icon  Back Over There, Richard Rubin
When Richard Rubin wrote The Last of the Doughboys, he interviewed all his subjects in the United States and did all his research in American locations. Yet when he came to speak about the book, readers were always interested to know if he'd been "over there" and visited the sites he wrote about. In 2009, he finally made it, with subsequent trips. This book is about those trips, what he observed, and what he felt.

I really enjoyed this book, whether Rubin was talking about the cold hard facts of battles, meeting French collectors and others interested in the history and the people involved in the Grande Guerre (the French also refer to it simply as 14-18), engaging English tourists visiting WWI sites (according to Rubin, to the French the first War is all about Verdun, to the British it is all about the Somme), surveying the landscapes forever changed by artillery fire (French farmers still plow up un-exploded ordnance from the conflict), visiting crumbling concrete structures, and coping with French country lanes. He visits both the place where the first three American casualties were killed and, in the prologue, the marker for the last man killed in the war, and brings the battlefields to life while making us see the terrible emotional and physical damage wrought by the conflict. He finds the French very willing to show him battle sites and memorabilia (this is solely, he tells us several times, because he is American; the French apparently still don't like talking to the British) and this leads to fascinating sequences where he and a friend delve into old German fortifications.

There are small maps to guide you during each portion of his trips, and also a center section with photos of the places and people mentioned. If you have any interest in the American participation in "the war to end all wars," I highly recommend this book.

book icon  The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore
This looked so intriguing that I picked it up, and am not sure I'm happy I did. This was pretty depressing at several levels. The history turns out to be that Wonder Woman was created by an brilliant egotistical psychology professor (who invented the first "lie detector" based on a person's blood pressure) who believed in women's rights, and fell in love with two different ambitious, feminist college graduates (both feminists, suffragettes, and birth control advocates), married one, and had two children by the other, two kids who always believed their father had died. In the meantime, his wife got to continue her career and his mistress lived with the family and raised the kids! (egotistical professor told his wife if she didn't allow this he would divorce her). While wife and mistress apparently were good friends and even lived together after hubby died, I don't understand why two educated, intelligent women put up with this rubbish and let this twit direct their lives. (Actually three, as another woman named Marjorie Huntley lived in the Marston home as well.)

William Marston and his ladies: wife Elizabeth Holloway and mistress Olive Byrne (whose aunt was Margaret Sanger) and Huntley raised the eventual four kids on an estate named Cherry Orchard, where Marston went from university professor to occasional consultant due to his unconventional beliefs (and at that point no one knew about their living arrangements) to pretty much being supported by his wife and the flattering articles Olive did about him for "Family Circle." His kids say he was a good father except for occasional bad temper that never strayed into physical abuse. He created Wonder Woman to be on an equal standing with men, but in her stories she was usually confined to chains she was required to break to triumph (Marston always said these were symbolic chains, yet he apparently got a great kick out of describing them).

So while Wonder Woman has always been a feminist symbol, the three women closest to their creator were pretty much held in thrall by this guy. Fascinating psychologically, but really creepy and annoying to read about. Did enjoy the historical perspective of the suffragettes, of young female college students trying to make it in a man's world, and of the birth control movement, but the people involved were not people I would have wanted to know.

book icon  Dead Man's Land, Robert Ryan
John Hamish Watson has gone to war, joining the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1914. Assigned to a field hospital, he at once is thrown into the repair of brutally battered soldiers' bodies, while keeping out of the way of the officious head nurse and defending two VADs from her scorn. Watson has arrived with a very special medical tool: blood for transfusions. But after one of his transfused patients dies in apparent agony, can the Army continue to trust his treatment?

This is a fantastic mystery that completely immerses you in the speech, sounds, smells, feelings, and sights of the First World War: badly mutilated bodies, blood, chlorine gas, unwashed bodies, rats, mud. The narrative is absorbing as it switches from one character to another: a common "Tommy" who went to war with his friends from a woolens mill, an officer who has just inherited a title, a VAD with a sketchy background and her sweet companion, the head nursing sister, and a disgraced Winston Churchill, not to mention a German sniper who is planning to infiltrate the lines to get himself a prize, and a boy named Bert who happens upon a tweedy elderly man who lives in Sussex and raises bees. Each chapter raises the stakes until you are sent racing with Watson to stop further deaths.

This is a very plausible future for Watson after losing two wives and, at the opening of the book, estranged from his good friend Sherlock Holmes after choosing to join the war effort. While he hasn't Holmes' brilliance in connecting obscure clues, his dogged pursuit logically puts the clues together to reveal a crime years in the making, and he's a very real, flawed yet noble man. (Holmes is also intriguingly portrayed.) I immediately ordered the sequel and can't wait to see what's next in Watson's rejuvenated Army career, as well as to immerse myself in a magnificent portrayal of the horrors of the Great War.

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30 April 2017

Books Completed Since April 1

book icon  The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Robert Macfarlane
This is a lyrically written journey by Macfarlane, who traverses the old Icknield Way, a series of pathways cutting diagonally across England, in the footsteps of Edward Thomas, who wrote a book about the pathway before his death in the Great War. To Macfarlane, walking is not simply something one does for exercise or for exploration of a final destination, but for an exploration of self throughout the journey itself, citing other writers like Robert Frost who also believed walking was good for the soul as well as for the body. In the course of the narrative, he also takes several trips by water, out to the islands of Lewis and of Harris, and also travels to Ramallah in Palestine, Spain, and to the Himalayas, as well as discusses author Thomas.

His narration reminds me somewhat of Laurie Lee in his memorable book Cider With Rosie, mixing an observation of geology and flora and fauna along with unusual customs, the older roads being overlaid with modern civilization, friends who walk the ancient pathways with him, and the memories awakened by his journeys. The rich vocabulary brings the scent of the sea, the hush of the wind, the crackling of dry grass, the rattle of loose stones, the flapping of sails, the crunch of gravel, the colors, smells, winds and heat and cold all alive, tickling your senses—a sensual delight on every page. He turns walking from an exercise chore to a lifetime experience.

If you like nature, poetical narrative, travel to strange places, and food for thought, this book may be your cup of tea.

book icon  The Edge of Dreams, Rhys Bowen
Daniel Sullivan is stymied by a series of unrelated murder, especially when the killer keeps sending Daniel notes after each crime, and the newest note states "I'm saving the best for last." His superiors at the New York police department just after the turn of the last century are on his back to solve the crimes, as he copes from living in a tiny apartment with his wife, former independent private investigator Molly Murphy, and their toddler son Liam since their home was blown up by criminals. As the book opens, Daniel has a surprise for Molly: the house has been completely repaired. All that remains is for Molly to furnish it with bedding, kitchen supplies, etc.

Then Molly and Liam are involved in a train accident on the El, with Molly concussed and suffering from cracked ribs. Having persuaded Daniel to tell her something of his contentious case, Molly wonders if someone is trying to take revenge on him for a previous arrest, and if the train accident was directed at her.

And that's just in the first three chapters of Bowen's newest (in paperback) Molly Murphy mystery, in which Molly finally (and very peripherally) is asked by Daniel for some input on a case he is working on (and of course being Molly, she then hits the ground running). Molly does indeed bring some fresh insights into the case. In addition, she is helping her friends Sid and Gus solve a puzzle about an orphaned girl having terrible nightmares, Gus having studied with Dr. Sigmund Freud while living in Europe.

There are several plot threads going in this book: the series of murders, the mystery of little Mabel, plus more domestic plots, as after Molly is injured Daniel's mother comes to help out at the house, bringing little Bridie, Molly's ward, with her: instead of training Bridie to be a servant, Mrs. Sullivan admits she would rather have the child get more education. So things are progressing a little: Daniel has become a little less reluctant to have Molly help him and things will hopefully change for Bridie.

The plot is fairly quick moving, although some of the verbiage might have been trimmed a bit, and Bowen gives a good look at the lower-middle class Progressive-era world of Daniel and Molly. If you are not fans of Sid and Gus (I am, but know some are not), warning: they are involved in the investigations from beginning to end.

book icon  A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel Held Evans
Evans, raised an evangelical Christian, moved away from religion as she grew older. Curious after she hears from friends and reads about women who are quitting their jobs to become stay-at-home mothers in order to be closer to the Biblical womanhood they believe is required of them as Christians, Evans decided to carry on a year-long experiment in which she would read the Bible and try to adhere to the rules which she read: she would cover her head and let her hair grow, defer to her husband (and during one month call him "master"), live in separate quarters when she had her menstrual period, learn to cook better, make her own clothing, and provide charity to the poor.

With sincerity, but with an occasional tongue in cheek attitude that may strike some people as irreverent, Evans particularly concentrates on reading about the women of the Bible: Queen Esther, Ruth, both Rachel and Leah, Vashti, Deborah, Mary Magdalene, and of course Mary the mother of Jesus, and others who had to follow these customs. By examining various translations of the Bible, Evans notes that some Biblical passages are not what people believe them to be: "the virtuous woman" passage, she believes, is not a list of rules which women must tightly adhere to, but a celebration of that woman.

During her project she met all sorts of interesting people, including a traditional Jewish woman who e-mailed her from Israel, women in Bolivia who are trying to improve their poverty-stricken lives, companions at a retreat she intended, and flummoxed her husband, who wanted her to go back to being his partner, not someone who had to defer to him (he finally ordered her not to defer to him).

I found this book interesting enough to keep reading, especially about the misconceptions some Christians have about what is really said in the Bible and a view that is more restrictive than its actual words. Again, her lighthearted manner may not please those who are deeply religious.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Merry-Go-Round Mystery, Jerry West
I thought it was so funny that I picked this up at random to read (the next book I had in my possession in the series) and it took place around Easter. An appropriate time, too, since the whole family is kept hopping (yes, that was a bad pun).

The children's elementary school, Lincoln School, has an annual fair that contributes to a charity; this year the money will go to a day care facility. The Hollisters volunteer to find a merry-go-round to rent for the fair while Ricky Hollister decides to build an entry for the soap box derby. They have good luck in finding the former, although someone has told the owner of the equipment that they are going to use it to make money. Later someone tries to buy the carrousel from them and they seem to be being followed. Indeed, the action is nonstop as the kids ride in a plane (and then find it when they disappears), help with the school fair, keep awful Joey Brill from interfering with the fair and getting the kids in trouble, track down Domingo the burro when he's "horsenapped," and watch Ricky's progress in building the soap box racer with his grandpa.

All I could think of reading this was how many of these situations would not happen today: there's a suspicious noise outside and instead of Mr. Hollister going outside to check, it's 12-year-old Pete with the dog. Later Pete and Pam (age ten) go to check for the plane on their own. The Hollisters accidentally chase the wrong car off a road (the occupants are unhurt) and no one threatens to sue them. Four-year-olds are allowed to sew. A mom trusts the Hollisters (strangers to her) to take care of her twins. Holly is allowed to drive the donkey cart at home and at the fair with no adult supervision (she's six).

Since I'm missing so many books in the series, I'd never realized the Hollisters were new in Shoreham (they used to live in Crestwood, just as their series book compatriots the Tuckers had just moved to Yorkville from Castleton), or that they had a married uncle who was a cartoonist. This was the first time I'd read about their grandparents as well. Also interesting to see that they had daycare back then (they call it a day nursery, and the kids are no older than six; presumably older children were latchkey kids). The boys get the brunt of the exciting stuff this time, but it's Pam that overhears a vital clue, so it's balanced somewhat. An always charming story of mystery with kids just plain having fun!

book icon  The World Remade: America in World War I, G..J. Meyer
Well, this year I was looking for a good, readable book about the United States' entry into World War I, and The World Remade has certainly filled the bill. It's a thick but very approachable history which begins with the Paris peace talks in 1919 and then segues to the first of the "Background" inserts which follow each chapter, this which summarizes how "the Great War" began. In subsequent chapters, we learn how the United States went from "strict neutrality" to staunch crusaders, with Woodrow Wilson the chief Crusader with intense fervor who wishes to make the world safe for democracy.

This book tries to present a fairly balanced view of Woodrow Wilson (unlike Thomas Fleming's vituperative histories) until he enacts the Alien and Sedition Acts. For those of you who think some of Donald Trump's latest foibles are restrictive, he's a piker compared with Wilson. The chapters about the Acts are truly frightening; all you had to do was say you didn't believe in the war or make an unkind remark about one of our allies and you would be thrown into prison. To Wilson the U.S.'s entry into the war wasn't assistance, it was a religious crusade that America had to win to show how pure the country was. Unfortunately the government was learning only what the Triple Entente wanted them to because the Germans' transatlantic cables had been cut by the British, and the propaganda machine was in full swing: Belgian babies bayoneted, rapes, starvation. In turn, Germany was made responsible for the war when Kaiser Wilhelm complained he couldn't control his generals and Austria-Hungary was the one who set off the trigger.

The "Background" inserts are some of my favorite parts of the book: the heritage of Wilson, the election that brought him to the presidency, the voyage of the Lusitania, the role of journalists in inflaming anti-German feeling, the story of Wilson's foe Robert LaFollette, the birth of Prohibition, Wilson's distaste for African-Americans and suffragettes, the "Spanish" flu, and other fascinating facets of American society back then. As well as being about the U.S. joined and fought the war, it is also the story of how the war changed the U.S. from a sprawling, still primarily rural, country with a few colonial possession to a world power.

I'm still looking for a good nonfiction book about homefront WWI, but for now this has been a good alternative, even if the truth about the Alien and Sedition Acts make these chapters chilling.

book icon  A Study in Sable, Mercedes Lackey
Lackey's fairy tale retellings in her Elemental Masters world reach the ultimate fantasy: Sherlock Holmes. Nan Killian and Sarah Lyon-White, the two young protegees of the Harton School (previously seen in The Wizard of London and Home from the Sea), are living on their own as agents of the Wizard of London, otherwise known as Lord Alderscroft, and have been asked to work with the man at 221 Baker Street. No, not the gentleman in flat B, but the married couple in flat C, none other than John Watson and his wife Mary, who are Elemental Masters of water and air. With the Watsons' help, they put to rest an evil spirit that threatened them as children, and then the real mystery arrives: Sarah, who is a true medium, is asked to dismiss the ghosts haunting an illustrious opera singer—a woman whose missing sister poses a new case for Sherlock Holmes! Thus is Holmes the nonbeliever drawn into the Elemental world of his closest friend.

The beginning of the story seems a bit disjointed. It seems odd that the haunted house that tried to trap the girls as children is all of a sudden a priority at the beginning of the novel. Then the story immediately switches to the story of the missing sister. Sarah finds herself spending night after night trying to dismiss singer Magdalena's spirits, while being treated royally by the singer herself; soon Nan is uncharacteristically jealous of her best friend.

On a whole I enjoyed this, although Sherlock, the believer in logic over all things, appears to give in to the magic all around him without much of a fight, and there are bits where Sarah, going back and forth to help Magdalena, gets very tedious. Little Suki, the street girl Nan and Sarah rescued, is as cute as ever, and of course the wonderful birds, Grey the parrot and Neville the raven, are integral to the plot. Incidentally, the violinist on the front—is he Holmes, or isn't he? You'll have to read to find out.

book icon  Christmas Truce, Malcolm Brown & Shirley Seaton

book icon  Re-Read: Happier at Home, Gretchen Rubin
In her book The Happiness Project, Rubin studied happiness of self, and what you can do individually to be happy (something that is different for everyone), and discovering that happiness doesn't always make you happy and that if you are happy, it affects those around you (and sometimes even changes their own behaviors). In this companion book, she realizes that her home life could be better as well. Dividing the school year—the "second new year" for parents—by their component months, she assigned themes to each month, and then set out to make improvements in those areas. In September she tackles possessions: should you downsize? is pure simplicity the answer, or just the answer for someone else? do your possessions define you, or do they just make you happy? and can you make the possessions you have work better for you?

In turn, she addresses being happier in your marriage, in parenthood, in interior design (and no, she's not talking about expensive redecoration), with your use of time, in the treatment of your body (sometimes what works for one person, like acupuncture, doesn't work for someone else), in your family, in your neighborhood, and, finally, learning to embrace the moment rather than always looking to the future.

I like Rubin's books because she doesn't tell you must follow a prescribed sense of rules, but rather you must decide what works for you. Perhaps you don't want to create a secret place in one of your cupboards, or paint a willow tree in your home office. As Rubin has her motto "Be Gretchen," you follow her examples to make your own rules for a happy home. No counting points, or making unbreakable rules, or a need to take expensive classes (she has a kit, but there's no need to buy it unless you want to).

book icon  The Path of the Wicked, Caro Peacock
Incensed after Benjamin Disraeli tries to solicit her for spying purposes, Liberty Lane takes a case she was initially going to reject: going to a village near Cheltenham to help Stephen Godwit, a magistrate who is scheduled to rule against a man accused of murdering a governess. Jack Picton is a known political agitator and refuses to give himself an alibi, but Godwit still refuses to believe he would go as far as killing someone. Liberty's young assistant Tabby accompanies her, and, to her surprise, she is escorted by Amos Legge, the friend who cares for her racehorse Rancie, as he has equine business in Cheltenham in the slow period after the annual races.

Liberty finds Picton uncooperative and Cheltenham stirred up by the disappearance of a rich man's son who has run out on a bet. In short order she finds that the governess who was killed had a bad reputation, a broken engagement has created bad blood between wealthy neighbors, and that Picton has something else he's keeping hidden.

Horses and the crushing penal system in England take center stage as Liberty tries to puzzle out this one. It's indeed like a jigsaw as each interview gains her more information but initially she is at a loss to piece them together. I wish we had a little more insight with what was going on with Amos, who made a startling announcement to Liberty as the story opened, but it's rather brushed off with a joke at the end. Otherwise I enjoyed the story and Liberty trying to figure just how she is going to get her information in a close-knit community like the little village of Northleach, and the village is a welcome setting after Liberty's city-bound adventures.

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