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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 March 2015

Books Completed Since March 1

book icon  Diversity in Disney Films: Critical Essays on Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Sexuality and Disability, edited by Johnson Cheu
This is a series of essays about...well, as the title says. Especially on the early films, the complaints of racism and sexism are spot on, since they were made in a time when portrayals of this type were common. But many of these essays are about Disney's later animated films (apparently "Disney films" are only animated), and it's surprising that issues are still ongoing; one would think all that nonsense was finished.

There are things I still find puzzling. For instance, there is an essay about Si and Am the cats in Lady and the Tramp, who are said to be a negative stereotype of Asians. This is something I would have never thought of. I have never associated the fact that the cats were nasty with them being Asian; they were nasty because they were cats who hated dogs. I figured the cats were drawn as Siamese because Siamese cats were very fashionable in the era in which the story was set. There is also an essay about Dopey, LeFou (Gaston's sidekick in Beauty and the Beast), and Gus the mouse from Cinderella being negative stereotypes for intellectual disabilities. I hadn't even given a thought to these characters ever being associated with people, especially people affected intellectually like someone with Down syndrome. They are cartoon characters; they have no association with people (and LeFou isn't a bad person because he's stupid; he's bad because he's a toady for Gaston). This was combined with an essay about The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which horrified me because there was a story of a child with scoliosis being treated badly by other children after seeing this movie; all I could think of was "what are their parents teaching them?" This latter article also puzzled me. The author objects to the fact that Quasimodo sees himself as "an animal" and "damaged," when, of course, that's the whole point, that Frollo has made him think of himself that way, no wonder he thinks of himself that way Very strange.

Other essays are spot on: the fact that Tito in Oliver and Company is such a Mexican cliche, the sexualized view of women in the two "South American" features made during the Forties, the fact that most of Disney's powerful women are also wicked and mean, while the "princesses" mostly let things happen to them and succeed only because they are good (and look pretty in a gorgeous gown). I also particularly appreciated the essay about Return to Oz, because I feel it's been sitting too long in the shadow of the "great and powerful" MGM movie and its fans who expected a sequel to be happily Technicolor and musical.

book icon  The Fangirl's Guide to the Galaxy, Sam Maggs
I picked this up because I've been a fangirl since age 10 when I was writing stories about Max and 99 of Get Smart...and then came Star Trek and all sorts of other wonderful goodness. With the internet not around it was tough being a Doctor Who fan in 1974, when most of the responses to your questions about it were literally "Doctor...who?" I was filled in about science fiction conventions by TV Guide and a great book called Star Trek Lives! and once I jumped in I didn't want to ever come back.

This book is at the level of the younger fangirl, but author Maggs never talks down to her. She occasionally gets a little bit too girly for my taste (YMMV), especially at the end of the book when fashion websites get listed, but then clothes and shoes have always bored the life out of me), and the fanfic references seem to be canted heavily toward relationship fic, but the other stuff is there, and it's so great to see someone urging girls to go out and live their dreams instead of being a Disney princess (ewwwwwww) who's just eye-candy for guys. The book is divided into sections about conventions, fanfic, costuming, and other subjects and the emphasis is about being yourself and not who others want you to be. (God knows when you get to be working age you'll be stuck conforming to all sorts of things you hate, so go out and have some fun!)

One point off for sticking the girl on the cover in stereotypical pink!

book icon  The Smuggler's Secrets: A Caroline Mystery, Kathleen Ernst
Caroline is back at her cousin's farm in the country, homesick for Sacketts Harbor, to help out as her aunt and uncle get on their feet after having to flee their prosperous farm in Canada during the War of 1812. Traitors to the American cause are selling supplies to the British and Caroline soon fears that her uncle Aaron is one of them. But as they get acquainted with the neighbors, it seems that several of them could be the culprits, too.

My main complaint with this book is that Caroline and Lydia are supposed to be keeping house and doing farm chores while Aunt Martha is nursing a sick neighbor. "Keeping house" in those days was an intensive job which involved day-to-day drudgery. Where the dickens did they get the time to keep an eye on the potash still and walk miles and miles from neighbor to neighbor to "borrow" things while asking questions? The little clues help you solve the mystery pretty well, nevertheless.

I need to complain about this newest sequence of mysteries, though. For one thing, I hate the dreadful "Beforever" theme that they're now smacking on all the books. "Beforever" what? It's stupid. Plus the cover drawings of each of the girls is pretty vacuous; Kit is perhaps the worst. All the girls look alike except for hair and eye color, and Caroline is shown wandering around the woods in what looks like a good dress and her hair all in curls. Really? Really? These books are supposed to show how girls of the past could be brave and resourceful, not how they can crawl around in the woods and still look pristine. Sheesh.

book icon  Danger in Paris: A Samantha Mystery, Sarah Masters Buckey
This story barely makes "best" in this new American Girl mystery selection. Samantha and Nellie are taking a trip to Paris with the Admiral and his new bride, Samantha's grandmother, "Grandmary." It's a bit of a working vacation for the Admiral, since before he can partake of sightseeing with the rest of the family he must deliver an important letter to the British ambassador. After a trip to the newly-built Eiffel Tower, they tour the Paris catacombs; if they aren't spooky enough for the two girls, the Admiral is injured after a fall in the tunnels. Was it just an accident, they wonder, or did someone push him?

The travelogue parts of this are almost the most interesting. Samantha still speaks too familiarly with the servants (and they right back). And why in the heck didn't Grandmary take Nellie to a doctor first thing when she started coughing; this is a constant fear through the whole book for Nellie and only in the final chapter is addressed. Sheesh.

book icon  The Jazzman's Trumpet: A Kit Mystery, Elizabeth Cody Kimmel
Well, I'm disappointed. Usually the Kit mystery is always the best of the three new mysteries that American Girl issues every year. This one was remarkably simplistic—while the Caroline and Samantha mysteries puzzled me for awhile, it was almost immediately obvious about the identity of one character and who the "bad guy" of the piece was (and that person was a pretty disappointing villain, too). Story: a famous swing band is coming to Cincinnati and Kit is lucky enough to win tickets to the concert. (Kit and her dad are big jazz/swing fans.) She has the chance to interview "Swingin' Slim Simpson"—and Mr. Gibson even says, if it's good enough, he may publish Kit's story in the main paper rather than the children's section. (The one real fantasy aspect of this continuing storyline.) But someone is trying to sabotage the Simpson band performance!

The plot "hook" here, promoted in the description, the theft of Slim' special trumpet, happens so quickly and is resolved so quickly that it's barely interesting. Instead the story goes for schmaltz.

And where in the dickens was Ruthie? Kit's best friend and she's not even mentioned. Kit deserves better.

book icon  The Sound of Music FAQ: All That's Left to Know About Maria, the Von Trapps, and Our Favorite Things, Barry Monush
What, you say, could possibly be left to say about the film? Well, actually, this book touches on many of them, and most of them are good: chapters about the stars before they appeared in the film and then after their appearance (including Christopher Plummer's turnaround from snide comments to admirer), an interesting chapter that takes Maria's original The Story of the Trapp Family Singers and summarizes each chapter to note what made it into the stage play and into the film, the history of the film on home video and of its showings on television. One chapter talks about the two German films about the Trapp family that were made in the 1950s. A helpful chapter chronicles the changes between the stage play and the film (which should have been required reading before NBC presented their live version of The Sound of Music stage play so that so many people wouldn't have whined about how "the story was out of order")

Sadly, there's an interminable sixty-four pages of listing each and every theater that The Sound of Music appeared in during its roadshow appearances in the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, plus a couple of other countries, down to how long the movie theater itself stayed open! Surely this could have been summarized in less than ten pages by hitting the highlights (for instance, a list of the cities where it ran the longest—in some cities it played for 118 weeks at the same theatre! [yes, that's over two years, and this was before the invention of multiplexes]—and a few unusual facts about the theatergoers, such as a British woman who saw Sound of Music 960 times during its roadshow years). Thirty four pages are devoted to the original stars of the stage play—and then every single one of their replacements and each of the cast members of the revivals! A moderately interesting chapter is about the soundtrack albums, but it goes into el cheapo knockoffs as well. Another long chapter which is moderately interesting but really should have used some trimming is about Sound of Music references in everything from movies to television shows, including multiple instances on The Simpsons and Family Guy; if it was an elaborate parody or an extended scene, this would have been worth it, but some of these cites are one line and seem like mere padding—there's 69 pages of this!

If you're a Sound of Music completest, by all means buy, but I'd look for the cheapest deal or wait until you can find a sale copy.

book icon  Spellcast, Barbara Ashford
Maggie Graham's been laid off from her job and is afraid to tell her overprotective mother. And her apartment is falling apart. With that in mind she decides a short vacation to Vermont is in order before she heads out job-hunting again, and finds herself in a picture-perfect country town in front of a barn that looks eerily familiar. The next thing she knows, she's in company with a varied complement of people, including an elderly widower and his granddaughter, a "biker chick," and a man whose wife walked out on him, joining a summer stock theatre company presenting three musicals, including her least favorite story in the world, Carousel. Immediately she's puzzled by the close camaraderie of the theatre management, especially the enigmatic writer and director Rowan Mackenzie.

Yes, you've guessed it, at its heart it's a romance story, one with paranormal underpinnings and a theatrical setting. However, I quite enjoyed the entire combination, especially the use of the theatre to have Maggie, as well as the other characters, look into themselves via the characters they play in the musicals in which they're appearing. The supporting cast of characters is also quite appealing, from the gentle elderly woman who runs the hotel to the seeming martinet of a casting director and his Chinese-American wife who acts as dance coach, and the setting makes you want to flee to Vermont to find the magic hiding among the trees.

YMMV, but as soon as I finished the last page, I clicked through Amazon to order the sequel.

book icon  The Secret Language of Color, Joann and Arielle Eckstutt
This is a colorful confection of a coffee table book with brilliant color photographs and diagrams talking about...surprise!...color, from the scientific explanations to the way colors make us feel and what they are symbolic of (red is for danger...and Coca-Cola, green is for ecology...and spoiled food, etc.). Interim chapters between those devoted to individual colors focus on colors in nature, from the vastness of the universe to the smaller worlds of earth, animals, plants, and humans. Colors in art and the hues of the universe rub shoulders with bird feathers, cochineal dyes, orange-spotted guppies, the varying colors of soil, the chemistry of fireworks, autumn leaves, poisonous greens, melanin, gemstones, and eye color.

Yes, it's expensive, but color junkies like me will enjoy. Or find a used copy.

book icon  Re-read: Blue Ridge Billy, Lois Lenski
I first read this back in junior high school and, truth be told, it wasn't one of my favorite Lenski books, which is why I never bought it when it was out in paperback. I find it has aged well and I enjoyed the story more than I had back then. It's the story of 10-year-old Billy Honeycutt, who lives on the Blue Ridge in the very northwest corner of North Carolina. His father farms, logs, and hunts for a living and expects his family to work as hard as he does; he has nothing but scorn for his wife's brother, who is a famous fiddler. When Billy shows a hankering for music, he comes down hard on the little boy, who was counting on the sale of homemade baskets to buy himself a banjo. In the meantime Billy enjoys the company of Granny Trivett and her granddaughter Sairy Sue, who collect herbs for a living.

Children reading this today might find it hard to believe that people still lived as the Honeycutts and the Trivetts did at the time the book was written in 1946, but some still kept their way of life long after that. Billy works hard to please his stern father. I'm glad I found another copy so not to lose my knowledge of the mountain way of life.

book icon  Hell and Good Company, Richard Rhodes
As the 100th anniversary of World War I approached, some historians noted how little was written about that war as opposed to the second, just has they had for the War of 1812, which disappeared under its predecessor. The Spanish Civil War also disappears into the carnage of the second World War. It was brought back to my own mind after watching Casablanca, in which it was peripherally mentioned that Rick Blaine had fought in the Spanish Civil War, and reading the newest Maisie Dobbs mystery, which is also connected with the Spanish conflict.

This isn't a book about the dry facts and political ideologies of the war, but about those who came from other countries to throw their lot against the Fascists along with the Spanish Republicans: Ernest Hemingway, who came for adventure and got it in spades; journalist Martha Gellhorn who became his mistress; Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro, both working on murals that would represent the carnage going on within their country; the volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln and George Washington Brigades who arrived untrained only knowing they wanted to defend Spain; the doctors and nurses who operated under horrific conditions to save the wounded, and the ambulance drivers who went through hell to transport their patients. Those you've heard of: George Orwell. John Dos Passos. Those you haven't: Patience Darton, the British nurse; Robert Merriman of the Lincoln Battalion; Norman Bethune, the Canadian doctor who delivered blood to the field hospitals. This is the type of book I enjoy, sometimes deeply personal, about the people who gave their time—and for some of them their lives—in what became a prelude to World War II. Highly readable and engrossing throughout.

book icon  The Very Best From Hallmark: Greeting Cards Through the Years, Ellen Stern
This is a delightful coffee-table book that chronicles the history of the Hallmark greeting card from 1924—a card for a bachelor—to the late 1980s, with chapters devoted to cards for men and for women, cards with flowers and cards with animals, baby cards, get well cards, ending, of course, with Christmas cards. It's a treat to look at the evolving style of the cards, from line drawings with elaborate fonts to the red-white-and-blue cards of the World War II era to the bright pinks and reds of the 1960s to the golden cards of the 1980s. There are even sections about "the poor working girl" (with adorable line drawings from the 1940s), beatniks, and snappy comeback to the Depression. The cards are rather small to fit more of them in the book, so a sheet magnifying glass might be useful if you want to see the tiniest detail, but otherwise it's a grand journey over tastes in two decades.

book icon  Bottom Line Year Book 2000, by the editors of Bottom Line Personal
Many, many years ago James used to get the newsletter "Bottom Line Personal" as a freebie; can't remember how or why. This was an intriguing little newsletter with tidbits taken from all sorts of magazines and other newsletters about saving money or just living better. We enjoyed it until the "free" wore off and the paid overstrained our budget. This was the latest of the compilation books that included The Big Black Book that we had down in the library.

I was less enchanted by this collection because a good deal of the pages were about investments and tax deductions. Yes, granted, they're important to people who have enough money to invest or need tax shelters, but for us normal folks it's a radical impossibility. I don't argue because they are there, but because it takes up so much of the book. More savings strategies for lower income people would have been welcome.

book icon  Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer, Jane Brocket
This is a darling little book of recipes taken out of classic children's books. No, I don't cook and bake only at Christmas, but this was so happily nostalgic that I've wanted a copy for ages, but it's out of print and I was finding horrible prices like $40-$50 online. I found this copy for $11.

Now, Brocket is British, so most of the treats covered in this book are from English children's novels, but the odd American/Canadian recipe shows up once in a while: Anne's "liniment" cake from Anne of Green Gables, Ma's pancake men and sugar on snow from the Little House books, Debby's jumbles from the Katy books, etc. But you'll find most of them come from either Enid Blyton (the British equivalent of the Stratmeyer Syndicate, except she was all one person who wrote copiously!) stories like "Famous Five" or from the Swallows and Amazons (plus a couple from the Narnia books). Interestingly, most of the treats featured have some sort of fruit in them, and things like boiled and scrambled eggs, tomato sandwiches, rice puddings, toasted goat cheese on bread, and oatmeal are included in sections on breakfast and on tea, and Brocket insists that half the charm of these treats is that they are made with farm-fresh ingredients, so the foods aren't half so fattening as they sound—since, of course, these are for children having proper adventures instead of wasting time on organized sports with hovering adults. If you love those delicious food scenes in classic children's books, you'll love this book.

book icon  How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free, Ernie J. Zelinski
It has taken me over six months to finish this wretched book! Why? Because up to page 80 (or maybe longer), all the author tells you is that's it's okay to retire because leaving your job is not the end of your life! I can't imagine being one of those people who think their job is their life. I know there are people who love their jobs, but I find it jaw-dropping that people don't want to retire because they don't feel as if they're worth anything if they leave their job! I can see worrying if you will have enough money, or if your health will last, but feeling inadequate because you're no longer employed? My God, I am waiting to retire so I can do something interesting, even if it's just crafts constrained by Michael's coupons or reading or maybe (in the winter, when the weather's decent) actually even doing something with the back yard.

The rest of the book is a little better as the author gives you a list of things you can do, from taking long walks to volunteering to working part-time to going back to school, and urges you to look after your health and not sit hour after hour watching television or sleeping in your favorite armchair. But the first half...dear God, people! If you don't want to retire because being without a job destroys your identity, you need to start a second job right now: getting a life! 

book icon  Re-read: Red Sky at Morning, Richard Bradford
One of my favorites which I just bought a new copy of because it was in hardback and a dollar! I first bought the paperback edition with the movie cover back when the film came out in 1971. (It was from Richard Thomas' appearance in the movie that he was chosen to play John-Boy in The Homecoming and therefore The Waltons.) It's the coming-of-age story of 17-year-old Josh Arnold, who is moved to his family's summer home in New Mexico along with his fragile Southern mother when his father joins the Navy in 1944. While Ann Arnold succumbs to depression in what she considers an alien culture that was her husband's refuge, Josh makes strong friends—and unfortunately some strong enemies—as he attends school and befriends one of his father's oldest friends. It's also the story of his relationship with the home's caretakers, the Montoyas, and how he learns more respect for Spanish culture. It's a sometimes poignant, but often hilarious book, and be warned: these are not 1940s Norman-Rockwell-portrait teens! They swear and think about sex, but at the same time are sensitive and warm, kids you might like to know. This is the type of book I'd push at people and say "You have to read this!" (The movie, if you can find it, is fine, but the book is superb.)

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14 March 2015

Book Sale Redux

Went back to the book sale after hitting Kroger; I think there were more cars than people! Got only a few more things:

book icon  Greyfriars Bobby, Eleanor Atkinson (a classic that I've never read; have just seen the Disney film and the knockoff, Challenge to Lassie)

book icon  Joy Adamson: Behind the Mask, Caroline Cass

book icon  The Very Best From Hallmark: Greeting Cards Through the Years (a nice big Abrams book, with cards from the 1930s through the 1980s)

And the Christmas stuff:

book icon  Round the Christmas Tree, edited by Sara and Stephen Corrin (short stories)

book icon  The Oxford Book of Christmas Poems

book icon  A Vermont Christmas (chiefly lovely photos, but also some stories and memoirs)

Plus the World Book "Christmas Around the World" book I needed to replace because the back was broken, Christmas in the Netherlands, and also Christmas in the American Southwest.

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13 March 2015

Book Worm Adventures

Crazy, I tell you. In the 70s yesterday, and Too Damn Warm at night to sleep—I haven't had a decent night's sleep since we changed the clocks, mainly due to the heat—and today the temps started at 51°F and by the time I left for the Cobb County Library book sale it was 45, with a misty rain and a stiff chilly wind. I didn't want to be encumbered by a heavy jacket, so I wore only my windbreaker and a visor on my head to keep the rain off my glasses (thankfully I discovered a light hat in my pocket). The line was very short, with crazy people in it (one woman had her baby wrapped up and was in flip-flops and short sleeves!). The place wasn't at all crowded to boot.

I did the usual course: stop at the Christmas books first, then look through the history books and the biographies. I went down to the "T" fiction in search of Gladys Taber, but only found the newest Bess Crawford mystery (brand new!) which I would have purchased during the summer. (I tried looking for the other mysteries which I will buy in paperback later in the year, but no luck on those.) Then I strolled down to the children's books; coming back I checked out the travel, reference, nature, and craft books. Finally I staggered over to the payment table.

One of the books I passed over I thought we had, and I was surprised to discover when I arrived home that we didn't have it at all. I wanted to go out again, so I went via Jim Miller Park again to fetch the stray (and three others of his brothers...LOL). Today's tally:

book icon  Food in History, Reay Tannahill

book icon  The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories, edited by Patricia Craig (yes, Father Brown and Inspector Thorndyke are here, but the Dorothy Sayers story is a Montague Egg tale rather than Lord Peter Wimsey!)

book icon  The Big House: A Century in the Life of An American Summer Home, George Howe Colt

book icon  Bluegrass Champion (Harlequin Hullabaloo), Dorothy Lyons: labeled as "the story of a famous horse and the girl who trained him." With ink-and-pen illustrations by Wesley Dennis, to boot! This was a volume in the Grosset & Dunlap "Famous Horse Stories" series of books.

book icon  Honestly, Katie John!, Mary Calhoun (I'd never read these as a kid, being hopelessly addicted to animal stories; they're cute)

book icon  Life is Worth Living, Fulton J. Sheen (taken, I gather, from the scripts to Sheen's 1950s television series)

book icon  An Unwilling Accomplice, Charles Todd (the Bess Crawford book)

book icon  On Reflection, Helen Hayes

book icon  Why We Eat What We Eat, Raymond Sokolov

book icon  The Complete Book of Marvels, Richard Halliburton
I'd never heard of this guy until I read an article somewhere...the AARP magazine, maybe? or "Reader's Digest"? He was basically a 1930s Rick Steves crossed with Lowell Thomas and Scheherazade; he traveled the world, visited exotic places, and wrote expansive books that made children and adults dream of travel. The pictures are all in black and white, but the prose is simple but enjoyable.

book icon  Bottom Line Year Book 2000 (from the Bottom Line Personal folks—we used to get their newsletter until it got too expensive)

book icon  Combat!: The Counterattack, Franklin M. Davis Jr. (this is a Whitman's children's book based on the television series, which I bought for James on a whim)

book icon  Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics, Tom Rogers (thought James would enjoy this, too)

book icon  Blue Ridge Billy, Lois Lenski (another of Lenski's regional series for my collection)

book icon  Ghosts for Christmas, edited by Richard Dalby (short stories)

book icon  Preparing My Heart for Advent, Ann Marie Stewart (a spiritual book, if you hadn't gathered)

book icon  Reminisce Christmas, from the publishers of "Reminisce"

I also bought three other books, but they're pegged as Christmas gifts, so I can't mention them.

I also drove out to downtown Powder Springs and checked out a little used bookstore called "Book Worm." It's very cute, but I didn't find anything that suited me except for a couple of bookmarks for gifts. However, the woman behind the counter invited me to take something off the "free" shelf. I discovered a rather battered paperback based on the old Baa Baa Black Sheep television series. James used to like that show, so I grabbed it for him.

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28 February 2015

Books Completed Since February 1

book icon  Making Masterpiece, Rebecca Eaton
After working at NET/PBS for several years in other capacities, Eaton became producer of the series, and here she tells the story of Masterpiece, from its lowly beginnings as a place to show great English costume drama like The Forsyte Saga and the earliest hit on the series, Upstairs, Downstairs, the Downton Abbey of its day.

While in general I enjoyed this book, my chief complaint is that it's too much Rebecca at times. Granted, some parts of Eaton's life must be examined in the course of charting her rise to producing the beloved PBS fixture, but I got tired of hearing about her mother and how much her daughter resembled her mother, and the four pages where she chronicles how she got her photo taken by Annie Leibowitz was totally self-indulgent. The book is called "making Masterpiece," not "making Rebecca," and that's what we want to hear about, and that's the best part of the book: the stories about Alistair Cooke and Russell Baker and Vincent Price, her meeting a charming young Daniel Radcliffe, convincing Judi Dench to do Cranford, about finding the stories (and later finding stories to produce). In an effort to market the book toward today's audience, there is also a disproportionate amount of data about Downton Abbey; I would have liked to have heard more about the other stories.

book icon  Death Comes to the Village, Catherine Lloyd
A veteran of the Napoleonic wars, Major Robert Kurland returns to his ancestral home to recuperate from his wounds and try to wean himself off the pain medication used on him. One night while restlessly making his way to the window, he spies someone outside carrying a heavy load. Is it something he imagined out of a drug-clouded dream? When Miss Lucy Harrington, spinster daughter of the local rector, pays a call on him, he confides in her, and together, on their own time, the two separately investigate mysterious thefts and the disappearance of two young serving girls who are simply thought of as expendable because they have run away from their positions. Lucy, tired of being the good girl who takes care of the home, relishes her new role as "investigator" and begins to think of Kurland as a friend.

This is the first in a series of books about Kurland and Ashland. Although the language Lloyd uses seems a bit modern for the time period, she pretty much spins an early 19th century English village around her main characters. No one does anything grossly out of character. Lucy is an intelligent and resourceful woman and Kurland holds his own despite his debilitating injuries. I've already bought the second book in the series and am looking forward to it.

book icon  Pioneer Girl: the Annotated Autobiography, Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill
Anyone who has read more concerning Laura Ingalls Wilder other than having completed the set of "Little House" books knows that these fictionalized books based closely on her life story was mined from a simple rough draft memoir called Pioneer Girl which she wrote about her childhood at the urging of her daughter (who also mined two books of her own from her parents' memories). For years this handwritten memoir has been in the possession of the South Dakota Historical Society and one could order a photocopy of the typewritten copy. Now the manuscript, with copious historical notes, has been released as a hefty book by the South Dakota Historical Society Press.

This is the kind of book I like, a monster of a volume with all sorts of historical information and packed with black and white photographs, maps, manuscripts, illustrations from the books, and mementos. This is the real story behind the Ingalls family: the fact that a young couple and their baby lived with the Ingalls family during the long winter, that Laura was almost sexually assaulted by a man whose wife she was caring for, that beloved Jack the Dog didn't stay with the family after they came back from Kansas, that fearless Cap Garland, who helped Almanzo fetch the wheat to feed starving DeSmet, met an early end. You'll also learn the truth about the real Nellie Oleson and Mary's years at the school for the blind. For fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder and/or students of Westward Expansion this is a real find.

book icon  Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood 1910-1969, William J. Mann
This was a fascinating book. One usually believes that homosexuality was unaccepted in Hollywood always and only in modern times have gays been able to live openly and not behind lies. So this was an eye-opener talking about those Hollywood celebrities in the pre-code days that were, if not openly gay, recognized as being gay but kept protected. Have you heard of the first famous Western star? No, not Hoot Gibson or Tom Mix, but handsome Jack Kerrigan, whose stardom was eventually ruined not by his homosexuality, but by an offhand remark he made about being too good to serve in the Great War. Ramon Novarro and Rudolph Valentino were two other celebrities in those days who kept their sex lives circumspect.

Mann covers a lot of celebrities in this book, so most of them don't get a great deal of attention, but he brings to light those the film world has forgotten, like Dorothy Arzner, the script girl and Madame Nazimova, with her smoldering Theda Bara looks. Then there are those who became well-known: Gary Cooper, Clifton Webb, Edward Everett Horton, Joan Davis, Ona Munson, Patsy Kelly. Also noted are the directors, like George Cukor, and the designers, like Orry-Kelly. It is never a tawdry, tell-all type book, which I appreciated.

book icon  Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein
Apparently one either loves or hates this book. I loved it.

I came to it, however, only by way of a friend who was deployed on a destroyer for eight months. This was one of the books that kept her on an even keel, so to speak. She flat fell in love with it, even wrote a fan letter to the author and got autographed copies in return. So given the chance I picked up a copy, dived in, and didn't come up until I was through.

Code Name Verity opens in a German-occupied French castle during the second World War, where a Scottish spy is being interrogated. Her captors have finally broken her with starvation and torture and she is telling all she knows about the British war effort, along with the story of how she became friends with a WAF pilot named Maddie. Since she remains alive as long as she writes, her missive becomes a jumbled combination of memories and the information she is giving to the Nazis. Meanwhile Maddie is having adventures of her own and the vagaries of war will bring them together again in the most unexpected way. Wein brilliantly portrays the mind of a smart young woman riddled by pain and duty and of the horrors she endures. The scattered writing style of the first part has put some readers off, but everything "Queenie" writes has specific meaning and contributes to the plot, as the story is ultimately rewarding and heartbreaking.

book icon  Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, Simon Garfield
Starting with a periodic table of typefaces on the endpapers, this is the story of fonts.

Different varieties of fonts have existed as long as printing has, but people generally didn't notice them until typewriters gave way to computers when they were able to choose a font besides the traditional typewriter Courier and the standard serif and san serif typefaces became an option. Each chapter covers a different font that's notable in some way, starting with the much maligned and hated Comic Sans (later there's a funny chapter about the worst fonts in the world, and Comic Sans doesn't even come close). Garfield's enjoyable text hops from legibility to kerning to readability to ascenders/descenders (and their role in telling nearly identical fonts apart) to creating an entirely new font for a specific purpose (the one used for the London Underground, for instance). There's Fraktur and Gill Sans and Baskerville and even a dissertation upon the ampersand. As a person who had to be pulled away from font software in computer stores, this book was like sticking me in a candy store. If I had any complaints, it's that there's too many san serif fonts covered! :-) Lord I hate san serif fonts.

book icon  The Grand Tour, Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
This is the sequel to Sorcery and Cecelia (not The Mislaid Magician; or Ten Years Later as I stated in a previous entry; that book is a sequel to this one), in which cousins Cecy and Kate go on their wedding journey with their respective new husbands, James and Thomas, accompanied by Thomas' mother, Lady Sylvia. They are no sooner across the Channel and landed in France than a mysterious Lady in Blue leaves a message for the Marchioness of Schofield (Dowager, not the new bride) and odd things begin to happen to the wedding party.

Frankly, I didn't find this anywhere near as entertaining as Sorcery and Cecelia or even The Mislaid Magician. The story involves a plot to reinstate the monarchy by collecting magical objects and the family follows leads from France to Italy via the Alps. Compared with the other two books it seems long and drawn out, and the magical fillips from the original story are few and far between. Sad to say I found it hard to finish the book.

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31 January 2015

Books Completed Since January 1

Oh, good grief. If I wait until I have time to post complete reviews I'll never get this entry up. I'm going for notes...

Christmas book reviews here, here, and here.

book icon  A Dangerous Place, Jacqueline Winspear
I've been with Maisie Dobbs since her first case, and I have to admit, it was difficult for me to read this newest mystery. She is one of my favorite mystery protagonists and the turn her life had taken was painful.

In the years since she left England to explore the world, Maisie has experienced her greatest happiness and her most terrible sorrow. Now, on her way back to England to see her aging father, she feels she can't face the sympathetic faces of her friends quite yet. When her ship stops at Gibraltar, she debarks and takes residence at a hotel, where she immediately notices she is being followed. Then a Jewish man is killed in the streets with only the sketchiest of police investigations. As anyone who has met Maisie previously, you know this is something she cannot let rest. And little by little, by working again, Maisie begins to work through the pain of the past year.

Most of Maisie's original cases consisted of events that were repercussion of the Great War. Now her mystery leads her to contact with newest conflict that is developing in Spain, a prelude to an even greater war. While the mystery in this story is moderately complex, I was more interested in Maisie's story and how her involvement in the mystery leads her to a new path. I also enjoyed the way the past years in Maisie's life were revealed gradually, as her emotions open in the course of the case.

I will always miss Maisie's post-WWI cases, but I take hope in her finding a new purpose in her life.

book icon  A Passion for Books: A Book Lover's Treasury, ed. by Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan
It's a collection of essays about reading, books, and collecting books, serious and comic, from such notables as Ray Bradbury, Umberto Eco, and Christopher Morley. A few of the essays are about collecting books for their value, which I find absurd, but it's altogether an enjoyable read.

book icon  The Afterlife of Little Women, Beverly Lyon Clark
I collect Louisa May Alcott biographies and books about Little Women, so when this was mentioned in a blog I had to rustle up my own copy. It reminds me of another book I have, The Life and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge, which chronicles how interpretations of A Christmas Carol have changed over the years based on societal conceptions. It opens with the novel's reception by its 19th century audience, where it was almost as popular with boys as it was with girls—but astonishingly wasn't accepted by some Sunday schools because there wasn't enough religion in it! It discusses the illustrations in the various editions and similar novels like the "Katy" books. A hit play is later made of the book, a silent film with no longer exists, the three movies familiar to all Little Women fans, and finally a Broadway musical. Even more interesting is the chapter about nonfiction and fiction books about the Alcott family. Little Women and Louisa Alcott fans should enjoy; I certainly did!

book icon  Doctor Who: Engines of War, George Mann
I quite enjoyed this one, although some of the War Doctor's lines don't quite fit his particular personality. The Time War nears its end as the TARDIS crashes on the planet Moldox, a wasteland being harvested by the Daleks and their mutant companions, where he meets the Dalek hunter Cinder, a girl grown old in trying to survive. Together they elude the Daleks and try to rescue the rest of Moldox's citizens. As always the Doctor "steps in where angels fear to tread," gets himself captured, endures hair-raising escapes—and has his heart broken. Cinder is a resourceful, appealing companion in his adventures, slightly resembling Ace.

book icon  Sheer Folly, Carola Dunn
Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher and her old friend Lucy are working on a book about follies (the structural kind) and are visiting Appsworth Hall, an estate now owned by a plumbing executive named Pritchard, which boasts a particularly fine folly. He has other guests at his home, including Lucy and Daisy's old schoolmate Julia, and the very rude Lord Rydal. Pritchard is in the process of restoring the famous Appsworth grotto, but while the guests are visiting it, one of them slips and is injured. No sooner is she recovering than an explosion rocks the grotto and part of it is destroyed, leaving a dead body behind. Once again her husband, police inspector Alec Fletcher is called in to investigate, but as always it's Daisy's nose for trouble that solves the crime. Yet it's the conflict between the guests at the country house that almost overwhelm the crime! A rambling cozy with a full cast of British country-house-mystery types.

book icon  How to Be a Victorian, Ruth Goodman
Super book by Goodman, who is a historian as well as a historical re-enactor, and who has appeared in the British history series Victorian Farm, Wartime Farm, Edwardian Farm, etc.. She doesn't just tell you how people lived in the Victorian era, she lives them herself, dressing in authentic corsets, taking sponge baths, cooking, reading, etc. just as they would. She's used Victorian menstrual pads, cooked over coal- and woodstoves, eaten foods that both the poor and the rich would have consumed, participated in girls' "sports," read cookery books and medical treatises of the time, so that many of the customs and products she describes are from first-hand experience. If you are a history freak like me, you'll dive into this book and only come up for air when you're done.

book icon  Lassie: Hayloft Hideout, Marian Bray
This is the fourth and penultimate book in Bray's quintet of religious-based stories about Lassie and her family, the Harmons: Pastor Paul Harmon, his wife Ruth, 13-year-old Jimmy, and 10-year-old Sarah. Lassie is primarily Jimmy's dog, but in this book he is so occupied with a school project to raise money for a foster home, Lassie is spending a lot of time with Sarah, who is feeling particularly bad about herself. It's on one of Lassie's and Sarah's hikes that they discover a family of children living in an abandoned barn. Sarah soon finds herself stealing food and clothing and money from her family's home to help the kids.

The note at the beginning of these books state that they are based upon incidences in the television series, but, unlike the other books, this only has a brief sequence straight from the Timmy episode "Trapped." (Although there is what may be a reference to a sequence from one of the Lassie Whitman novels.) The storyline is almost like a Boxcar Children book, except that one of the children indulges in shoplifting to get supplies. The story is mainly Sarah's and it is well told, her guilt rising after each deception given to her parents and her brother, even though she is doing so to keep the six Freedman children from being split up into foster homes. The inclusion of the religious theme is natural and does not overpower the story. Very odd to read one of these and not have Jimmy be the protagonist, though!

book icon  Lassie: Danger at Echo Cliffs, Marian Bray
This last of Bray's Lassie stories doesn't seem to be based on a television story either, unless it's one of the Neeka stories that hasn't been rerun. Jimmy and his younger sister are on a camping trip with their Uncle Cully and some of his graduate students, riding horses from their grandparents' mustang ranch. When their inexperienced guide leads them to the wrong canyon, the kids, Cully, and one of his students are separated from the rest of the group, blocked from returning by a flash flood. This is a rather ambling adventure with some derring do for Lassie, who saves Jimmy from a snake and helps rescue a horse; later in the story she's temporarily blinded by falling stones. The best aspect of the story is the Southwestern setting and the tidbits about the Native tribes that lived in the area.

book icon  Anti-Foreign Imagery in American Pulps and Comic Books, Nathan Vernon Madison
This is a fascinating study about how foreigners—primarily Asians and chiefly Chinese and Japanese—were portrayed in old comics and the pulp magazines from 1920 to 1960. Later in the book Communists, both Eastern European and Asian, are addressed. Even though I had not read pulps or comics from the era, I had read children's serial books from the time which are full of negative stereotypes of most minorities, including Asians, so while the revelations weren't a surprise, they were still startling and sobering in the ferocity of their hatred. While the occasional Asian man was shown to be a good character, most often they were sinister and cruel, and Asian women waivered between being scheming seductive "Dragon Ladies" and helpless victims. If you've never read about any of this before it will probably be an eye-opener. Not for those sensitive to racial slurs.

book icon  No True Way, edited by Mercedes Lackey
A nice solid collection of stories this time, with stories that include a tale of a widowed Herald who must choose between his way of life and endangering his child, the story of how Cera (the widow of a disgraced noble) finds a purpose for her life once more, the adventures of a boy who nurses a kyree back to health, how vultures solve a mystery, a puckish tale involving the Haven Guard and some books, and a new story involving Herald Vanyel and the healer Vixen. In addition, there's even a startling, chilling horror story much different from what is usually published in these Valdemar collections. It pleased even as it gave one the shivers.

book icon  If Walls Could Talk, Lucy Worsley
The original home, even for the most wealthy, was "the hall," everyone living in one big room. Eventually individual rooms: ones for sleeping, one for living, one for cooking, and finally, brought inside, one for washing and eliminating. This is a dandy social history of the home, complete with intimate details of the unhygenic past; from straw beds to charcoal for tooth brushing, candles to exotic dinners, social diseases and chamber pots. A bright lively narrative. Wish I'd seen the television program it was based on!

book icon  Inside Charlie's Chocolate Factory, Lucy Mangan
It's Roald Dahl goodness in this book devoted to all aspects of the story of Charlie Bucket and his visit to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, starting with the seminal book and covering both films, a play, and even an opera. There's a chapter on the illustrations in various editions and covers in many languages (including a new Penguin release that's downright creepy child-molester looking). I was especially intrigued on the evolution of the tale from a short story about a boy who is enrobed in chocolate through different characters touring the chocolate factory. Even after publication the book had to change, as the original Oompha-Loomphas were considered racist. If you're a fan of the book or either movie, definitely recommended.

book icon  A Rather Charming Invitation, C. L. Belmond
This is the third in the four-book series about Penny Nichols and Jeremy Laidley, who met and fell in love after both inheriting from Penny's eccentric aunt. After establishing themselves as "finders" of lost treasures, they're ready to be married, but where? Jeremy's family wants the ceremony in London, while Penny's French relatives (her father's family) want them to be married in France, in front of a famous tapestry in the family for hundreds of years. Until, of course, it's stolen during the rehearsal.

Part romantic adventure, part mystery, part European travelogue, this one has an even more intriguing fillip than the last—apparently there's a code in the tapestry that leads to a treasure. I love all the characters and the tapestry mystery was intriguing. I'm just sorry there's only one book left in the series.

book icon  Laura's Album, William Anderson
I've been dying for a copy of this book since it was released. Thank you, Hamilton Books, for finally having it at a reasonable price. Anderson has collected photographs and other historical documents about Laura Ingalls Wilder, like Laura's teaching certificate and calling card, a map she made of the city of DeSmet, legal documents filed by Charles Ingalls, etc. If you've ever wondered "what the real Ingalls and Wilders looked like," this is the book for you.

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