A Cozy Nook to Read In  Book Vignette

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

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

22 November 2014

Books from McKay's in Knoxville

  • The picture book version of Lassie Come-Home, with story retold by Rosemary Wells and illustrated by Susan Jeffers.
  • The American Language, Fourth Edition, H.L. Mencken
  • Supplement Two: The American Language, H.L. Mencken
  • The Light of the Home: An Intimate View of the Lives of Women in Victorian America, Harvey Green
  • America's Women, 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, Gail Collins
  • Trench Talk: Words of the First World War, Peter Doyle & Julian Walker
  • Boston Jane: An Adventure, Jennifer Holm
  • Party Shoes, Noel Streatfeild
  • The Best School Year Ever, Barbara Robinson (sequel to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever)
  • Sarah's New World: The Mayflower Adventure, Colleen L. Reece
  • Kate and the Spies: The American Revolution, JoAnn A. Grote
  • Betsy's River Adventure: The Journey Westward, Veda Boyd Jones
  • Elise the Actress: Climax of the Civil War, Norma Jean Lutz
The last four are from a series called "Sisters at Heart" which has several dozen books, all covering a historic period of time in American history.

I also ended up buying a couple of books I already had, but since they didn't cost much, I won't quibble; I might be able to rehome. And I bought a Christmas gift. Plus two Christmas CDs, "Christmas Caroling Through the Ages" (Greg Smith Singers and Friends) and "In Dulci Jubilo: Christmas With James Galway and the Regensburger Domspatzen."

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11 October 2014

Always Room for Three More

James had his club meeting today, so one of the things I did was go back to the book sale. We had a deluge while I was inside (at one point the rain was falling diagonally) but it was bright and sunny when I emerged. I ended up buying James three books, one an oversized illustrated book about the Battle of Britain, one about the Polish pilots who flew for the RAF during the Battle of Britain, and the last a collection of magazine articles written by P.J. O'Rourke. Mine were Shenkman's One-Night Stands With American History, a book about gays and lesbians in Hollywood from the silent era through the 1960s called Behind the Screen, and finally Marie Killilea's Karen, which, believe it or not, I had never read. Stories about children who overcame physical handicaps were very popular when I was growing up, and this book is a classic.

Karen, born in 1940, was three months premature and didn't go home until she was nine months old. Her parents soon notice that she doesn't move like other babies. She is diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and at that time there was no support at all for children (or adults for that matter) with cerebral palsy. The first doctor her parents took Karen to basically told the Killileas to put her in an institution and forget her. The next said she was probably mentally deficient. They went through over a dozen doctors before they found one to help Karen. The grueling schedule the family went through to do Karen's physical therapy made me tired just to read. Plus their elder daughter had sinus problems, a bout with rheumatic fever, and then a tuberculosis scare.

I was amused to see how so many modern reviews of this book on Amazon had shocked people exclaiming how often the characters smoked and how bad that was! Even in the Sixties everyone smoked! Doctors recommended cigarettes in advertising. I remember family parties and weddings blue with smoke. I was more appalled by the way so many doctors treated Karen as if she was some sort of vegetable. They couldn't seem to get past the fact she was "crippled" as if her motor problems affected her brain. And this was the state of medicine only 25 years before I was born! (I recall a neighborhood friend whose sister had severe Down syndrome—back then they were called "Mongoloid"—and her family was considered unusual because the girl lived at home and was not in an asylum.) The work Marie Killilea and her family did eventually resulted in the creation of the United Cerebral Palsy organization.

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10 October 2014

Hunting [Down Books] and Hoofbeats

Heigh-ho, it was off to the Friends of the Library Booksale I go. The rodeo is at Jim Miller Park this weekend, and some of the performers had already arrived and were parked; some horses and longhorn steers were corralled under the amphitheatre roof. I noticed a handsome, mostly white piebald and a very striking grey (a gunmetal color, not a dapple grey), peeking out at the cars parking nearby.

Glory be, they finally got tables to put the children's books on! If only people didn't show up with big carts. One person had a wagon so big they had two big mail sorting bins on it.

Anyway, the tally:
Young Americans Colonial Williamsburg: Will's Story: 1771, Joan Lowery Nixon
James Herriott's Treasury for Children (this is a collection of the gloriously-illustrated picture books that were put out based on the Herriott stories)
Life in an Old New England Country Village, Catherine Fennelly (photos taken at Old Sturbridge Village)
Death by Dickens (mystery story collection)
The World is My Home: A Memoir, James A. Michener
I Am Spock, Leonard Nimoy
Prime Times: Writers on Their Favorite TV Shows (essays on television shows)
A nice hardback copy of Thurber's The Years With Ross
Rotten Reviews & Rejections (a collection of excerpts from rejection letters and reviews of noted writers)

plus some Christmas books:
The Annotated Night Before Christmas, Martin Gardner (the original, parodies, take-offs, and imitations)
The Solstice Evergreen: The History, Folklore, and Origins of the Christmas Tree, Sheryl Ann Karas
The Christmas Book of Legends and Stories, Elva Sophronia Smith and Alice Isabel Hazeltine
The Old Magic of Christmas: Yuletide Traditions for the Darkest Days of the Year, Linda Raedisch (which was on my Amazon wish list--I'm quite chuffed!)

and a couple for James:
The Bomber Boys, Travis Ayres
Tin Cans and Other Ships, Joseph Donohue

As I walked back to the car, a tall, lithe woman in a tank top and leotards, barefoot, led the piebald and the grey out of their corral after bridling them, leaped effortlessly on the piebald, then jumped up, and stood up with one foot on one horse and one on the other! I watched her delightedly as she exercised the horses around the ring, just directing them with the reins.

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30 September 2014

Books Completed Since September 1

book icon  Who's Who in Children's Books, Margery Fisher
I bought this in the mistaken belief it was a book I had seen in the 1960s, but this intriguing volume is from the 1970s and chiefly oriented toward British children's book protagonists, although numerous popular American characters are including, including the Moffats, the Melendys, Harriet M. Welsch, Meg Murry, the Bobbsey Twins, etc. After reading this book, I can tell you two things: Ms. Fisher despises series books (even British series books) almost as much as she despises Disney adaptations.

As with all of these "who's who" type books, you wonder why certain characters are included and some are not. Of course the Pevensies of the Narnia books are here, as well as the children from the Swallows and Amazons books, and I was very happy to notice the inclusion of Christina Parsons. But where's February Callendar? And so many of the modern books are out of print, but not available as e-books because they aren't old enough. That's the trouble with reading "who's who": it makes you want to read more and you can't.

Fisher's book is full of classic illustrations from the books she discusses, from Ardizzone to Baynes to Beatrix Potter and Ernest Shepard and Howard Pyle. If you love children's books, this will be a fine addition to your collection.

book icon  War Dogs, Rebecca Frankel
Frankel offers an absorbing, if a bit scattershot, story of MWD, otherwise "military working dogs," and their relationship with their handlers, their heightened senses that pick up clues that would be otherwise missed, and their devotion to their duty. She tries to define what a war dog is: a tool? a weapon? a partner? What they are are certainly not pets, but the dogs' bonds with their handlers, and vice versa, are not impersonal and the death of either partner is usually devastating to the other. To get inside the dogs' training, Frankel goes on training missions with the K-9 troops: trailing, scent discrimination, practice war scenarios. She also briefly addresses the history of the war dog, from the Egyptian era through Vietnam. The majority of the narrative, however, follows the partnership of American handlers and their dogs who are stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

While I enjoyed the individual stories of the dogs and their handlers, and Frankel's observations during the training mission, it wasn't a page turner, either. I found I could put it down and not be eager to pick it back up. However, reading about the dogs' distress when they were separated from their human partners, I was angered all over again of the fate of the military dogs that were just left behind as "equipment" in Vietnam; they were most probably euthanized after faithfully serving our soldiers. Thankfully, the military has changed their thinking about this practice, but the memory still stings.

book icon  Broadchurch, Erin Kelly
A guy named Harry Brown spoiled me forever for novelizations. And I don't even know if Harry Brown was his real name (or even if Harry was actually a "he").

Over the years I've read novelizations of many television show episodes/movies. They ranged from the totally workmanlike Target Doctor Who novelizations--if you'd missed the episode, you had a true recap of it, even if it was just the basic "just the facts, ma'am"--to Robert Weverka's work on The Waltons (where he managed to blend two episodes seamlessly) and The Magic of Lassie (actually improved by filling in missing scenes, like explaining how Lassie escapes from a home in Colorado Springs, falls off a cliff, and ends up in Zion National Park). Most are just what their name says they are: a plain vanilla novel version of the script, but Harry Brown, the author who novelized the already exceptional Edward Asner/Maureen Stapleton film The Gathering, went one better: he turned the story into a real novel by adding details to the story that perfectly fit the characters as presented on screen, gave supporting characters a complete fleshing out, describing both locations and inner thoughts with care. Harry Brown is a high hurdle to meet.

Unfortunately Broadchurch doesn't meet the Harry Brown test. I was totally absorbed by the miniseries and, having missed at least one part, was happy to have to have the novel to fill in the gap. Since the Broadchurch plot was so complex, I had hoped the text would add some additional insights, bring me back to the seaside town and its people, let me smell the salt air and feel the suspicions and insecurities of the characters involved. I'd say that a couple of times it came close (revealing Beth's internal turmoil, for example, or Hardy's love for his child), but for most of the book the characters didn't come alive as they did on the screen. The novel, in fact, seems to make both protagonists, Hardy and Miller, a little less likeable than they were in the episodes.

The absolute deal-breaker for me in this book was the use of present tense. I understood why the author used it--immediacy, as if you were also in the town of Broadchurch, a voyeur to all the happenings around town. I don't like the use of present tense, and I can't recall any book I've ever bought, let alone liked, that used this technique. To me it distanced the story, made me only the observer, which is never good in a story that is supposed to inspire strong emotions. But this is my own personal quirk; YMMV.

book icon  City of Jasmine, Deanna Raybourn
If someone asked me for a one-word review only: Fluff. It's not only chick-lit, it's a beach book. When I originally read the synopsis, I thought it would be a more serious book; it's not...it's a romance novel dressed up as a historical, with the headstrong gorgeous female lead and the impossibly handsome male lead. (The Raybourn Julia Grey mysteries feature a similarly impossibly handsome male lead, but since it's a mystery story there are other elements that keep the character from overwhelming the story.)

Well, let's say you're in the mood for fluff. Okay. Take a bit of Raiders of the Lost Ark and a bit of High Road to China and a bit of The Thin Man. Stir in one madcap aunt ala Mame, one character reminiscent of another in Disney's film of The Moon-Spinners, several noble Bedouin characters, an archeological dig, a treasure, a Peter Pan subthread, and mix--here's this book. Our protagonists, Evie and Gabriel, argue endlessly. The gay man and the Bedouin chief dispense profound advice. In short, it's a book like a 1930s B-movie adventure flick, without the insensitive racial annoyances. Set mind to neutral and just coast.

Pluses (and there are a few): Aunt Dove and her parrot Arthur (although I'm curious to know how the poor bird stays on his perch when Evie does trick maneuvers in her trusty biplane "The Jolly Roger") and the descriptions of the food--when our heroes are not being kidnapped, trudging cross the desert, being shot at or arguing, they're eating what sounds like the most delicious food. It may make you hungry. Alas, it breaks no new ground, only rewalks the old. Still, for a lazy day on the beach, that may be enough.

book icon  Night of a Thousand Stars, Deanna Raybourn
So no sooner do I give a lukewarm review to a Raybourn romance than another one is offered to me. This book takes place concurrently to City of Jasmine, and Gabriel Stark makes a short appearance in the story, but it begins in England where young Penelope "Poppy" Hammond is about to escape from her wedding. She was supposed to marry the wealthy and nice, but rather boring, scion of a noble family, but Poppy's never done what she's been expected to do, to the exasperation of her mother, and now she doesn't want to be trapped in a routine relationship. Surprisingly, a young minister named Sebastian Caltrip helps her escape, then vanishes. Worried about his fate (and somewhat attracted to him), Poppy follows him, having lucked out on a secretary's job going in the right direction. Next thing she knows, she's in Damascus and in deep trouble.

I enjoyed this outing better than the last since our heroine isn't everlastingly arguing, plus we discover something about Poppy's family that I found very enjoyable. The machinations around Poppy owe a lot to those wonderful old kids' adventure stories where clever teenagers ended up participating in adult adventures and outsmarting their more-experienced elders, but since I enjoy reading those (found like berries in late summer on munseys.com and Gutenberg), this was no hardship for me. I particularly loved finding out about Poppy's relations and meeting her father. I wouldn't mind seeing another story featuring Poppy and Sebastian.

book icon  Autumn Across America, Edwin Way Teale
This is one of four books in which naturalist Teale and his wife Nellie travel across the United States during one of the seasons and observe wildlife and ecosystems. While most fall volumes concentrate on leaf coloration and homely pursuits that include pumpkins, winter vegetables, and animals preparing for hibernation, the Teales' track starts in New England and then takes a meandering way westward through Michigan, the upper Plains states, dip down to the Great Salt Lake, go north to Oregon and end up in Northern California, both at the shore and inland, all done in the days before the interstate. They discover unique bird species, find the places where the butterflies stop over on their migrations, tour the redwood forests, view the autumn sky from a homemade sky-watching station, investigate the roamer of the plains (the tumbleweed), see migrating salmon, discover pikas and fern farmers, and even tell the story of a man's arduous multi-month search for his beloved dog lost in the wilderness. These books are a must for anyone who enjoys reading about wildlife and natural habitats, and there are great views of road travel before the superhighways. Like a virtual nature hike. Enjoy!

book icon  Silent Knife, Shelly Freydont
see review here

book icon  The Secret Journal of Ichabod Crane, Alex Irvine
Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's a tie-in book with the television series Sleepy Hollow, but Irvine takes the idea and runs with it. Crane's journal basically charts the same course as the first season of the series, told from Ichabod's point of view, so it's a pell-mell collection of scraps from Sheriff Corbin's research, recounts of his initial adventures with Abbie, plus bits of things like codes, Ichabod's past, his love for Katrina, etc. Where it shines are the bits where Ichabod states his views, whether it's about the founding fathers (John Adams wrote dirty limericks, Jefferson liked puns, and we won't even repeat his opinions about Benjamin Franklin) or about his reaction to today's living, so there are many snide and humorous reactions to cell phones, television, modern clothing, etc. I doubt if there's any interest here for non-series fans unless they're trying to get into the show, but for series fans it's a hoot.

book icon  Doctor Who: Silhouette, Justin Richards
The Doctor negates Clara's wish to see King Arthur and instead takes them to 19th century London where a unique power spike impossible in Victorian times has just occurred. Despite the Doctor not wanting to bother the Paternoster Gang, they meet Jenny Flint almost immediately; she is searching for a man who was about to seek Madame Vastra's help and then died by mysterious means. Strax is also on a search, for whomever killed his sparring partner, a pugilist named Bellamy. Very soon, the five of them realize the mystery revolves around the Carnival of Curiosities performing at the Frost Fair, and particularly with a shadow play performer named Silhouette.

I'll assume Richards was given copies of the early 12th Doctor scripts and perhaps an outline of where the character was going; he hasn't quite captured the eccentricities of Capaldi's Doctor, but it's getting there. The villain of the piece is pretty typical of what's been on the series before (going back to the classic series as well), but the suspense is well done and Clara's newfound spunk is in full bloom. The story has a "Weng-Chiang/Fang Rock" atmosphere about it that will please fans of the old series, and I found I enjoyed this more than I expected, and more than I have of books based on the previous incarnations in the new series. Strax in particular has some very funny lines. I'd like to see this as an episode of the series!

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31 August 2014

Books Completed Since August 1

book icon  Here's Looking at Euclid, Alex Bellos
Yep, it's a book about math. Yep, me reading a book about math. Bizarre. Not only did I read it, I enjoyed most of it, although my old bete noire algebra struck again—even with Bellos' amusing and simple explanations, I still didn't understand the algebra, and the statistics chapter was just as bad. Yet I was enthralled by the chapter about plane and solid geometry and Pythagorean proofs. I was so delighted by one of the latter that I had to poke James in the midst of his own reading and show him the drawing. There are chapters, predictably, on pi, the Golden Ratio, magic squares and other math puzzles, gambling odds, and bell curves. Other chapters discuss different societies' ways of numeration, math tricks including Vedic mathematics, number sequences, data collection, and infinite numbers, and we learn about people who play with these numbers, some just for fun, others for a living.

I hate math, but I loved this book. I can hardly wait for to read the sequel. Now there's an improbability, even if not mathematical!

book icon  Murder at the Breakers, Alyssa Maxwell
A mystery set in Newport, Rhode Island, was irresistible to me. Our heroine Emma Cross is a second cousin to the Vanderbilts, alas, with none of the money. She makes ends meet by writing dull society columns for the local newspaper; her editor thinks this type of reporting is the only kind fit for a woman to do, even though Emma would like more of a challenge. But while reporting about a party at the Vanderbilt "summer cottage" the Breakers, Emma is a witness to the murder of Cornelius Vanderbilt's financial secretary, and, even worse, her black sheep brother is blamed for the death. Emma knows feckless Brady can't be the murderer, but who is? Could it even be one of her cousins?

I'll probably end up buying the next book in the series just because of the setting, but I really didn't believe in Emma as a 19th century heroine. Certainly there were forward-thinking women in those days, but she sounds more like a 20th century woman playing Victorian heroine. I was also disappointed with a main subplot; why make our heroine a self-sufficient working girl and then immediately introduce a love interest? But it takes place in Newport and I...simply...can't...resist...

book icon  The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla, Lauren Willig
Miss Gwen's (see Passion of the Purple Plumaria) bestselling new book, a Gothic thriller called The Convent of Orsino, has Society all a-twitter about vampire stories. Sally Fitzhugh, younger sister of "Turnip," is intrigued when she hears the rumor that the Duke of Belliston is a vampire and takes a dare to check out his garden, where she comes face-to-face with a less-than-vampiric duke who nevertheless has returned to England under a cloud of suspicion, as it has been long since believed he murdered his own parents. At a party, Sally is with him when he discovers a woman's body with marks on her neck as if she's been attacked by a vampire.

This is a lighter entry, and, alas, the next to the last entry, in Willig's Pink Carnation series. As Mischief of the Mistletoe was a Christmas entry, this is a Hallowe'en one, and has some funny bits between Sally and her "vampire beau" Lucien (not to mention the presence of Sally's pet, a stoat), but it's a lightweight effort before we get to the conclusion involving the Carnation herself, Miss Jane Wooliston, who has gone off on her own, and the black sheep of the Reid family, Jack. Meanwhile, on the Colin/Eloise front, some big surprises are in store. Enjoyable, but not the cream of the crop.

book icon  The Twelve Clues of Christmas, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgiana Rannoch, 35th in line to the British throne and pretty much impoverished, faces a bleak Christmas at the family castle with her affable brother "Binky," her martinet sister-in-law "Fig," and Fig's equally martinet mother, who just wish Georgie to be married off and out of their hair. So Georgie hires herself out to a wellborn woman who's throwing a Christmas house party, only to find out the guests are tourists looking for a "traditional English Christmas," and when she arrives there are police everywhere because the family's neighbor has been shot.

This was an enjoyable edition of the "royal spyness" series, even though the methodology of the criminal is obvious to anyone who's listened to years of Christmas music (except, apparently, everyone involved in the mystery—so much for "old English customs"!), and all the Americans are boorish. The combination of country house mystery and Christmas is irresistible, and Georgie is one of my favorite cozy characters. Georgie's self-absorbed mother reappears, working on a play with Noel Coward, and her down-to-earth Cockney grandfather also becomes involved in the mystery.

book icon  Monk: Mr. Monk Gets Even, Lee Goldberg
In this last of the Monk television adaptations by Goldberg, Adrian Monk's life seems to be going fine. While his former assistant Natalie Teeger is still in New Jersey, trying to decide if life as a police officer is for her, her daughter Julie is helping Monk with his cases, and Monk's agoraphobic brother Ambrose is marrying his ladylove Yuki. Monk even has a girlfriend now, but that's the problem. When some of his theories don't pan out, he feels like his happiness may be losing him his edge in solving crimes. And to add tension to the already tense detective, his mortal enemy "Dale the Whale" is being transferred from prison to hospital for surgery. When Dale escapes, it's Monk's good friend Captain Stottlemeyer who gets the blame.

Goldberg neatly ties up all his own plot threads before leaving the books to be taken over by Hy Conrad, including the return (no spoiler—you knew it had to happen) of Natalie. I'd figured out some aspects of Dale's part of the crime about halfway through the book, but it was great to see Natalie now as a partner, and for Ambrose's happiness to be complete. No goofy jokes in this one, just a satisfying conclusion.

book icon  The Visitors, Sally Beauman
Perhaps it's because I read so many mystery books or fantasy or nonfiction where events usually have a conclusion. In a mystery one finds out who committed the crime, in a fantasy the quest is resolved (whether for a ring or a magic land), and nonfiction usually comes to some conclusion, or at least summary, about a factual event.

The Visitors achieved one goal flawlessly: I did keep turning the pages to see "what happened." If there is a superlative to this book, it is that I could feel like I was there in Egypt in the 1920s, faint with the hot wind on my face and shivering in a cold drenching of a sudden storm and choking on the dust and arid air of a newly-opened tomb, seeing the arid valleys and the sweating workmen and the perpetual tourists looking for thrills, the souks and the marketplaces, and the opulent hotels where "the better half" lived. The author's conceptions of the historical figures like Howard Carter and Lord Carnavon made them, to use an overworked term, "real living breathing people," with weaknesses, egos, and sorrows rather than flat names in the pages of a history text. I also enjoyed her fictional characters, from young Lucy who is coming to terms with the death of her only emotional tie, her mother, and longing for attention from her distant father, to her friend Frances, the precocious daughter of an American archaelogist who is knowing beyond her years, but still childlike in her emotional responses. I did want to know what happened once Lucy's trip was over and she returned to a mercurial tutor who not only suffered from monthly hormonal mood swings, but had other secrets in her life, and a father who has seemingly turned his back on her.

But in the end I was left asking: is that all there is? Lucy has adventures in Egypt, she learns some secrets about the historical figures portrayed in the story, she grows up, has the usual adult relationships, endures some tragedy like all of us do, and then has her Egyptian memories all brought back to her by a documentary filmmaker doing a miniseries on the discovery of King Tutankhamun. It just seemed a letdown after the beautiful descriptive passages of foreign life in the 1920s. Still, I'm glad to have read a book that made post WWI-Egypt so vivid.

book icon  Boston and the Dawn of American Independence, Brian Deming
Yeah, a book about colonial Boston and its role in the Revolutionary War. How could I resist? The narrative opens in 1760, with an account of the Great Fire, and ends with the reading of the Declaration of Independence. In between there are Stamp Acts, acts of rebellion, and "the shot heard 'round the world."

My favorite part of this book are the descriptions of everyday Boston—the sights and sounds and smells of the streets, tar, ocean breeze, livestock, the hammers and squeaks of pulleys and shouting from the waterfront—and the people who lived there, from the poor apprentices at the wharfs to the solid working people to the opulent rich like John Hancock. Populated by the characters of the Revolution you know (Samuel Adams, John Adams, Paul Revere, Israel Putnam, Joseph Warren) and ones you probably don't (Samuel Prescott, William Dawes, Josiah Quincy, Robert Newman, Mercy Otis), it's a vivid narrative of the passions of the opening salvo of the Revolutionary War. A super epilogue follows up on the fates of all the people, and some of the places, mentioned, including the Tories forced out of the city after the British evacuation.

book icon  The Dark Enquiry, Deanna Raybourn
Lady Julia Grey and her husband, investigator Nicholas Brisbane, are once again home in London, with Julia trying to persuade him to make her a more active partner in his cases. She is stunned to find him working for her impeccable eldest brother Bellmont, the stolid "white sheep" of the erratic March clan. When she discovers a connection to the celebrated spiritualist Madame Seraphine, Julia's foray in investigating on her own only leaves her trapped in Madame's home—only to find her husband hiding there as well.

The story starts out a bit predictably with Julia's experiments and the expected bantering with Brisbane, whose reluctance for her to participate in investigations still persists despite promises made to her in the previous novel. This is growing a bit tiresome, but at the end of the novel it appears it may have been resolved. My favorite part was the sequence with the gypsy camp, and the mystery was excellent. Several old favorites appear, including Julia's headstrong father, her sister Portia still doting over her former lover's child, and her younger brother Plum, whose growing attraction to a young woman brings out another aspect of the mystery. Sometimes Julia, and Brisbane, the  stalwart moody Victorian hero, are both over the top, but they're fun to read. Remember this is a cozy mystery with romantic interruptions and it should work fine for you.

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31 July 2014

Books Completed Since July 1

book icon  A Year in the Maine Woods, Bernd Heinrich
Accompanied by a young raven named Jack, naturalist Bernnd Heinrich heads for an isolated cabin in the Maine mountains, intending to stay there for a year studying not only the raven he's brought with him, but wild ravens and the other songbirds of the forest, as well as the wildlife and botanical life surrounding him. Every day is a new challenge as he roughs it with no electricity and no running water. Occasionally he takes a break by running into town and has visits from his son, but chiefly he studies the world around him.

This is a moderately interesting book about Heinrich's year in the woods; of the most interest are his notes about the habits of birds and animals, and the trees and plants around him. Many of his sketches are included in the book. Since the book begins with the transport of the raven, you might think the majority of the story would revolve around his study of it, but Jack achieves his freedom early in the book and is not seen again, although Heinrich does look for him now and again. The realities of living through all seasons in pioneer conditions are brought home in every chapter: endless insect annoyances through most of the year, including clouds of small flies in the cabin, the deep cold and the work it takes for Heinrich to keep warm, breaking ice, keeping food away from raiders. Heinrich, who has lived off the land before, seemingly endures it effortlessly.

I should have enjoyed this book better, but I confess I didn't enjoy it as much as, say, We Took to the Woods or The Hardscrabble Chronicles.

book icon  Broadway Tails, Bill Berloni
Bill Berloni wasn't a professional animal handler; in fact he knew nothing about training dogs. But when the musical Annie came to the stage it was Berloni who was tasked with finding a dog to play Annie's mutt Sandy, as well as to train him. And so he did. This is Berloni's tale of finding the original dog, plus a substitute if the star was unwell, and learning how to train animals for the stage. He not only trained Sandy's successors, but trained a long list of other stage dogs, cats, and other animals, using his wits, love and kindness.

This is an enjoyable tale of a man and the love for his animals, and the mark that he left on rescue organizations (the dogs and cats he trained were chiefly rescue animals, and showed that even a "mutt from the pound" could succeed in show business).

The only thing that bothered me about this book was a two-paragraph story about how Benji and his (actually her, because the second Benji was female) trainer Frank Inn visited the set of Annie. Berloni comments that the dog seemed robotic and only alive when she was doing routines. I thought that was kind of odd because Frank Inn had a great reputation in Hollywood and he was known to favor the dogs who played Benji (the original "Higgins" and then his daughter). Maybe "Benjean" just adored her trainer and kept her eyes on him at all times. Some dogs are like that.

book icon  Essays of E.B. White, E.B. White
While I love Charlotte's Web, I had never read any other White, but remained constantly reminded of him reading anything by James Thurber, whose pieces about the "New Yorker" always included an admiring note of how effortlessly his co-worker, known to his friends as "Andy' because he had gone to Cornell University, where every undergraduate surnamed "White" shared  his nickname with Cornell's first president. When this book presented itself on a shelf of essays, it was after paging through only a few of the contained works that I decided to buy it.

I ended up reading this one slowly, in order to savor each essay and not let the volume end too quickly. Whether writing about livestock on his farm, camping in the woods, life in the big city, or the political situation (the essays cover the 40s through the 60s), like a well-bred horse, White never "put a foot wrong." Thurber was right; his prose is effortless and always so right. I was rueful only once, and it was while White was summing up the fears of the era he was writing about, because things had not changed much in the intervening years, and you had only to substitute a name or a date or an explosive national event to make the essay feel current, a sad commentary on a future supposed to be improved.

When I finished it was with a sigh...and then immediately went out and bought a second book of White's essays, which I expect to enjoy as much as the first.

book icon  Queen Victoria's Book of Spells, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
I quite enjoyed this anthology of "gaslamp fantasy" comprised of eighteen Victorian-era stories involving magic, fantasy, horror, and a smidgen of steampunk (but this is not a steampunk collection per se). The titular short story has a researcher discovering that Queen Victoria was tutored in magic and used a spell in an unspeakable manner. I was particularly fond of the two stories about governesses, the first, entitled simply "The Governess," about a young woman who goes to work in a household where the staff, and the lady of the house, are terrorized by the autocratic master, and another, "The Memory Book," where a governess' sinister use of magic gets her an "in" at a wealthly household.

Another striking tale is about the household of artist Edward Burne-Jones and a work called "the Briar Rose." New technology rears its head in several other tales: while the actual story wasn't my cup of tea, I found the author's use of description in "Charged," the story of a young man with a fascination for electricity, imaginative and dark; I enjoyed more another story about electricity vs. gas, "Smithfield," which featured Arthur Conan Doyle, and a creepy tale of the terrible fate of the workers who got "phossy jaw" as chronicled in "Phosporous." Other stories feature "Old Nick," fairies, yet another incarnation of Queen Victoria, and even "old Scrooge" and the characters from Great Expectations. All in all a great collection of fantasy.

book icon  1941, William K. Klingaman
I found this one by accident, in a book cart at Barnes & Noble stuffed with fluffy novels and genre fiction. It is written on the lines of Craig Shirley's December 1941, but with much better accuracy, and more attention to the buildup of hostilities, especially in Japan. As in December 1941, Klingaman mixes a bit of pop culture in with his history, but it's not nearly as intrusive and out-of-place. He travels to the Pacific to trace the military expansion of the Japanese and the worried stirrings in the Philippines and in Australia while China still reels from the atrocities in Nanking, and to the Atlantic and Europe to trace submarine warfare, the relentless advance of the German troops and the growing menace to those of Jewish heritage. We meet Hitler's cortege, Winston Churchill's war group, the embattled French, the courageous resistance already operating against the enemy. 1941 fashion and football, bathing beauties and baseball, and Hollywood stars also find their place as the months fall away and fateful December approaches. Now I want to read Klingaman's 1919!

book icon  The Book of Life, Deborah Harkness
The saga of Diana Bishop, once reluctant witch, and Matthew Clermont, a vampire whose "life" spans centuries, begun in A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night comes to a conclusion as Diana, Matthew, their family and their friends face a new enemy just as they are growing closer to securing the enchanted book that Diana once summoned from the Bodelian library at Oxford University. An old friend is lost, other old friends return, and the family makes new allies, but it is obvious that Diana is being stalked even as she comes into her full powers. Revenge is the motive and it is Matthew that will have to pay for it if Diana is not turned over to the stalker. The chase takes them back to the Bishop family homestead, England, and France, and to a secret meeting place in Venice.

I buried my nose in this book when it arrived and didn't come up for air until it was finished, but yet have to admit that I did not find it the strongest entry in the trilogy. The violence and the description of it that happens in the last half of the book is very strong and that may have contributed to this feeling; yet the violence that occurs is not gratuitous to the plot. Several other surprises are revealed, and, as always, Harkness goes into the minute detail of the previous books (furnishings, food, architecture), which I enjoyed, but which I know some readers did not. Still, a satisfactory conclusion to the story.

book icon  Fall of a Philanderer, Carola Dunn
Daisy Dalrymple, her stepdaughter, and her best friend are at the seashore, with Daisy awaiting the arrival of her police detective husband so the entire family can have a well-deserved vacation. Alas, this is a Daisy Dalrymple-Fletcher murder mystery and it's that proverbial calm before the storm. On the beach Daisy and the girls meet a mentally-challenged man named Sid who takes a shine to them, as well as bad-tempered George Enderby, who, Daisy discovers, has had an affair with a local woman whose husband was away in the Navy. Enderby's not well-liked in the little seaside town, so when he turns up dead on the beach, there is no shortage of suspects.

Daisy seems to spend a lot of time debating in this book whether she should or should not do something due to her pregnancy, and after a while it gets a bit wearying; otherwise the mystery is good, with a lot of red herrings thrown in the mix, including a man who arrived in town right before the murder and a certain vehicle that was seen the day of the murder. Daisy, of course, picks up on clues no one else does, and you wonder how the local constabulary manages their day-to-day efforts if they're as offhand as they appear in the book. The presence of Belinda's friend Deva prompts some predictable commentary on bigotry as well. Not my favorite Daisy, but worth the read.

book icon  Footprints in the Dust, edited by Colin Burgess
This volume of "A People's History of Spaceflight" covers, predictably based on the title, of the Apollo space missions. Editor Burgess says that they took a page out of Tom Hanks' breathtaking HBO project, From the Earth to the Moon, and organized the volume in individual essays rather than a direct narrative. This gives you differing views of the program, but also makes the book lack a certain cohesiveness. There are chapters for each mission after Apollo 11, presumably because the first moon landing has been covered in so much literature, and the previous missions did not go to the moon, but the lack of Apollo 8 coverage was puzzling. However, it may be because a book has also been devoted to that flight? As in the previous volumes, Soviet spaceflight chapters are included; I found these intensely interesting because I had not read all that much about Soviet missions. In addition, the Skylab and Apollo/Soyuz missions are covered, and the book concludes with a "what happened to" the astronauts who walked on the moon. This is a great series of books and all are heartily recommended to fans of the space program.

book icon  Death in the Floating City, Tasha Alexander
Lady Emily and her husband, agent for the crown Colin Hargreaves, are in Venice at the desperate request of Emily's old schoolmate, a woman she admits to never having liked much, to find the woman's missing Italian husband, after finding his father dead in the family villa. Emma Callum's disposition hasn't improved much, but Emily agrees to help her nevertheless; however, solving the mystery will take more than tracking down the man.

Alexander's writing makes Venice sound so yummy that you want to go visit (despite the modern truths of pollution and sinking foundations). However, a good deal of the story is involved with a forbidden "Romeo and Juliet" type love story that happened many centuries earlier, and there the novel bogs down. The machinations against the two lovers grow to a depressing degree (especially the young woman involved in an arranged marriage to an abusive friend of her family), until you're ready just for Emily to solve the mystery so you can get away from this miserable twosome, and the older tale itself it told in a stilted style, evidently to distinguish it from the main narrative and give it a historical feel, but it also makes it more difficult to slog through. Plus Emma's such a pill that you also wonder why Emily puts up with her. I hope Emily and Colin give up their travels and go home!

book icon  Catholicism, Robert Barron
I had this for Lenten reading, but got to it a bit late. This is a well-written, basic narrative of the beliefs of Catholicism, apparently taken from the research Father Barron did for the television series Catholicism, illustrated with black and white and a few color plates of Biblical locations, churches, and classic artwork. He begins with the birth and life of Jesus, follows the paths of the Apostles, then discusses the Liturgy of the Mass, profiles several saints, and ends with the destinations of the afterlife. Anyone who is interested in the faith, or wishes correction of misconceptions of Catholicism, would be well served by reading this volume.

book icon  Chicks Unravel Time, edited by Deborah Stanish and LM Myles
The folks at Mad Norwegian have done it again in this sequel to Chicks Dig Time Lords. In this entry, thirty-five women each tackle a season of Doctor Who, writing about diverse topics such as objection to the character of Peri, David Tennant's charisma, defense of Colin Baker's Doctor, appreciations of Patrick Troughton and Tom Baker, contrasts of the Doctor and the Master, and a chat about the unappreciated Liz Shaw. Diana Gabeldon talks about how companion Jamie MacCrimmon inspired her own Jamie in the "Outlander" series. Joan Turner examines how Barbara Wright tried to "right" history and save civilizations. Aliette de Bodard discusses racism in Season 14, especially in "Talons of Weng-Chiang." Laura McCullough reacts with pleasure to the science that crept into Season 18. Kelly Hale defends the television movie for giving us Paul McGann, who carried on in his own audio season.

Whether you're a new series fan or an old series fan, you will find something here to please you: discussions of feminism, character, companions. If you've only seen the new series, the essays about the classic episodes may lead you to new experiences as you look up those videos as well.

[Did get a chuckle out of the reference to the cut of David Tennant's "gib." I think they meant "jib." Evidently either the author or the proofreader isn't familiar with sailing.]

book icon  Gunpowder Plot, Carola Dunn
Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher, now late in her pregnancy, is visiting Edge Manor, the home of an old schoolmate, to do a story for her magazine. Sir Harold Tyndall, a martinet and bully (even with his children), nevertheless throws a traditional Guy Fawkes Day fete that is famous in the area, and Daisy is certain coverage of the event will please readers. But while the revelers are watching the fete's celebrated fireworks, Sir Harold apparently shoots a visiting Australian woman and then himself. Once again a reluctant guest at a murder site, Daisy tries to help her husband, DI Alec Fletcher, as much as possible while coping with a baby bump, the bratty behavior of the two Tyndall nephews, the family quarrels between the Tyndall children, and the continuing mystery of the Australian couple.

Once again Dunn finds a plausible way for Daisy to be involved in a murder mystery, and this one is reasonably complicated, takes place at a traditional country house during a very British holiday, and lets us know that spoiled children aren't a modern phenomenon. One of the better books of the series, with a large cast of interesting characters along with favorites Tom Tring and Ernie Piper helping Alec track down the killer.

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30 June 2014

Books Completed Since June 1

book icon  The American Seasons: Wandering Through Winter, Edwin Way Teale
This is the fourth and final book in Teale's seasonal odyssey across the United States with his wife Nellie; the four books were written between 1947 and 1966, and this final book won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Teale, a naturalist, originally wrote for Popular Science, but then became a free-lancer, and authored over a dozen books about the subject.

You would think that this book would address the snowy and cold areas of the country, but the Teales begin their trip in San Diego and work their way east, only encountering true winter weather when they get to the edge of the midwest. They see whales, observe the plants of the desert surviving brutal drought, observe birds over the entire trip, their favorite being the cheeky chickadee, have adventures along the Mexican border, then head into snow and ice storms as they drive toward the northeast, where they hunt for diamonds, discover a colony of white squirrels, explore Big Bone Lick and its cache of prehistoric bones, visit a sugarbush and a deer yard, and join a man who collects witch hazel. Along the way, they visit fellow naturalists, avid birdwatchers, and the home of "Snowflake" Bentley, who took the first microscopic photos of snowflakes.

This is a wonderful book for anyone who loves exploring the natural world, whether in person or vicariously through books. I'm hoping to turn up his other three books to visit the seasonal US in an era before superhighways.

book icon  Just My Typo, Drummond Moir
I confess. I also collect books on typographical errors. I love bloopers. I can't even read the "Damn You, Autocorrect!" web page because by the time I've gotten through five of them I'm reduced to helpless laughter.

However, this is why this book doesn't really stand out for me. While there are typos here from older books and other publications I have not read before, about half of them I've already read elsewhere in other books like Richard Lederer's volumes on English, and even online. If you haven't read other books about typographical errors, this will have you on the floor, but for folks who have read them continually over the years, you may figure it's just more of the same.

book icon  The Victorian City, Judith Flanders
Aside from the fact that the title is a bit of a misnomer, as the book does not cover the entire Victorian era, but just the Dickensian portion, ending with Dickens' death in 1870, this is a book you fall into and don't come up for air again until you've reached the index at the other end. Flanders' prose brings you right there, into the dirty streets swept by street crossing boys earning pennies a day, food vendors who supply London workers with their food, street vendors who must busk for a living. With Flanders we visit havens for prostitutes and thieves, pubs and eateries, churches and slums; learn about the Victorian way of commuting, traveling (including on the iconic Dickensian stagecoach), surviving, spending increasing leisure hours, and even dying. Quotations and excerpts from Dickens' novels liberally pepper the text. If you are a Victorian-era junkie like me, or a Dickens fan, this is the book for you!

Oh, don't forget to read the footnotes; there are more things there!

book icon  Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century, Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better, William H. Patterson Jr
Alas, Patterson passed away just weeks before this second part of his biography of Heinlein was published.

Like the first volume, Patterson has filled the book with so many miniscule details of Robert Heinlein's later life (after his marriage to Virginia Gerstenfeld) that you wonder if he was a fly in the corner during the entire period of time. We follow the development of the Future History stories, go to Hollywood for the filming of Destination Moon (whose fate was tied up with another movie about a squirrel), build a home in Colorado and cope with fallout from Heinlein's ex-wife Leslyn, travel along with the Heinleins to Russia, Australia, and even Antarctica, observe the long development of Stranger in a Strange Land, understand Heinlein's support for blood drives after a transfusion saves his life, and finally follow his long slow slide into ill health as he aged. Patterson's approach seemed warmer in this volume and I didn't feel as if I was being held at arm's length as I was in the first half. Heinlein fans will definitely enjoy this concluding volume. God bless, Mr. Patterson.

(As with The Victorian City, above, don't forget to read the footnotes in this book. There is a lot more information included!)

book icon  Cold Days, Jim Butcher
He's dead. No, he's alive, because Queen Mab isn't going to let her Winter Knight get away. So Harry Dresden has accepted a devil's bargain, because he knows he has to protect his Chicago home town from the evil that is emerging.

Butcher starts out with a bang. Harry awakes, alive, only to have Mab try more and more inventive ways to kill him—seventy seven different scenarios, all told. And that's just in chapter one! He acquires a malk (kind of a supernatural cat) that he names Cat Sith to help him, as well as a young woman who seems to be being put through the same paces as Harry. Then Mab's insane daughter Maeve (think Bellatrix Lestrange, only more insane) makes an appearance just about the time Harry makes an enemy of a bloodthirsty Redcap.

After that, it gets crazy.

This newest (in paperback, anyway) Dresden adventure brings back all the old favorites: Karrin Murphy, Waldo Butters, Harry's half-brother Thomas, Harry's temple dog Mouse, his apprentice Molly, Mac the bartender, and even little Toot-Toot, Harry's fairy ally, and his troops (whom Harry keeps happy with pizza). Occasionally Harry gets to take a breather, and you do, too, only to have another situation crop up to leave you breathless. Once you start turning pages, it's hard to stop. Plus there's some great Karrin action, and a heartbreaker of an ending. Yeah, I'm still hooked.

book icon  Foul Play at the Fair, Shelley Freydont
Liv Montgomery, fresh from a nightmarish career as an event arranger in New York City, has moved to the smaller upstate New York town of Celebration Bay to continue her career in a calmer venue. At least she thought it would be calmer, until during last-minute preparation for the town's annual fall festival, a man is found dead in an apple press.

Some cozies are artificially set and cast, while in others the characters and settings come to life. I could believe in the little community of Celebration Bay, which has created a new persona for itself by living up to its name and hosting festivals that draw people from all over the country. Liv and her neighbors, even the annoying former event arranger Janine, who has a grudge against Liv, are suitably "real" enough, although minor characters are quite sketchy. The mystery is suitably complicated, although close to the end I figured out most of the puzzle. Yes, there are cozy mystery conventions: our heroine gets herself into a perilous situation while investigating the crime, and, as seems to be common with mysteries with a female lead these days, there's an exasperating male romantic interest. And I did get tired of the descriptions of Liv's dog Whiskey as a "Westie terrier." C'mon, after three or four times we know he's a terrier; just call him a Westie. Or vary it with "West Highland White terrier." However, I liked the story and the regular characters enough to buy the sequels.

book icon  The Victorians, A.N. Wilson
It's taken me two years to read this book; I started it, then went on to other things after getting one-third of the way through and didn't get back to it until this spring, when I had to quickly re-read the first third to re-acquaint myself with what had gone before. Is this procrastination due to this being a bad book? No, but like The War That Ended Peace, it's a dense book with a great deal packed within each chapter, which chronicles the Victorian era from Princess Victoria's ascendancy through the death of the Queen.

However, instead of being a simple linear history of the Victorian era, each chapter focuses on a different subject that is pertinent to the timeline, so that while the history starts routinely enough with chapters about Britain before Victoria and the background of her family, subsequent chapters address not just historical events (the Crimea, the Irish troubles and the famine, the Boer War) and personages (Lord Palmerston, Gladstone, "Chinese" Gordon, Disraeli), but artists, authors, playwrights, health conditions in the slums, science, medicine, and other topics. Truth to tell, the politics is, as always, chiefly boring, but I enjoyed the chapters about pre-Raphaelite painters, expatriate British living in England, the Raj, the impact of Darwin, people of color in Victorian society, public schooling abuses, country parsons, Gilbert and Sullivan, Oscar Wilde, and dozens of other personalities and social dilemmas. If you've a serious interest in the Victoria era, you will probably enjoy this book, but it's not for those just looking for a summary of the time.

book icon  Murder on Fifth Avenue, Victoria Thompson
Police detective Frank Malloy knows he'll never live up to Sarah Brandt's social inheritance, even though she abandoned her place in society to marry a doctor and now, after his death, works as a midwife in the poorer sections of town. So when Sarah's father, millionaire Felix Decker, asks to see Frank privately, the detective is mystified until the problem is explained: a well-known businessman died in Decker's exclusive club, and he wishes Frank to find out the culprit so the club can take care of the problem by themselves and not create a scandal. But once Frank starts talking to the family, something more ugly than a quarrel between friends emerges.

This is probably the first Brandt/Malloy book in which after things are revealed, that you wish the killer won't be caught because the victim was such a right bastard. This means, of course, that there are multiple suspects, and multiple false leads for both Frank and Sarah to track down, and there's suspense down to the penultimate chapter. Once again, Sarah's bored society mother helps in their investigation (I'm coming to quite like the woman!), and the sordid realities of some parts of Victorian society are revealed. This is a nice solid entry in the series, even if only the tiniest progress is made on the attraction between Frank and Sarah.

book icon  Rocket Ship Galileo, Robert A. Heinlein
Not sure how I missed this Heinlein juvenile for so long; it was his first, written back in the late 1940s, but taking place in some indeterminate future where man has already gone to space and rockets are used as freighters. Three teenage boys, Art, Morrie, and Ross, model rocketry enthusiasts with their own workship, find an unconscious man outside their launch area and are afraid it was caused by their rocket which exploded. The man turns out to be Art's uncle Don, an atomic scientist—who soon is impressed by their talent and wonders if they'd like to accompany him on a flight to the moon! But it turns out there are people who wish to stop Don Cargraves and young proteges...permanently.

While Heinlein uses solid science in his rocketry, the plot is pure Boy's Own Adventure story, what with intelligent high schoolers recruited by an adult to go on an adventure; Samuel Scoville would be proud of this space-age successor to his Boy Scout stories. If you can buy the smart-kids-recruited-by-scientist trope, the rest of it is a great adventure tale. Swelp me, I was boggled by their discovery on the moon!

book icon  Shadow of Night, Deborah Harkness
This is the second book in the "All Souls" trilogy about Diana Bishop, a witch who has been suppressing her powers for reasons only discovered at the end of the first volume, A Discovery of Witches, and her lover, Matthew Clairmont, who is a vampire over six hundred years old, their developing relationship, and the world they inhabit, where humans rub shoulders with witches, vampires, and the unpredictable daemons.

Let's get this straight: I'm not turned on by vampires, and I'm only marginally interested in Elizabethan-era Europe, where this entire book takes place. And, like the previous volume, there are veritable cascades of words, many which might have been cut. Certainly it takes a long time to achieve the purpose of the book: to find a witch or witches capable of teaching Diana, whose wild powers are unique.

And you know what? None of that made any difference. To me, Harkness knows how to tell one hell of a story and I was absorbed from first to last. Do I want to slap Christopher Marlowe after this? Well, yes. "Kit" (a daemon, of course) is a fat pain in the ass. You long for Matthew to toss him in a midden. But I loved the description of Elizabethan society and streets, and Diana's experiments in alchemy with Lady Pembroke, and even had to laugh at the squabbling of the members of the School of Night. This is my second time reading it—in preparation for the third book, out in two weeks—and it was just as enjoyable as the first.

book icon  Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: The Diary of Bess Brennan, The Perkins School for the Blind, Barry Denenberg
This book has to be about rock bottom for a "Dear America" book. Bess Brennan is a typical girl living in Boston in the early years of the Depression. When she is blinded in a coasting accident, despite help from her twin sister Elin (who's writing in her diary for her), her mother and her Uncle Ted (her father has died) decide to send her to the Perkins School for the Blind, the famous school that Helen Keller attended. Bess is homesick and hates her teachers. Then she makes friends and loves it.

Really, that's about all there is to it. Bess is homesick. Bess doesn't like one of her teachers. Bess doesn't think she'll ever learn Braille. Her friend Amanda, who is partially sighted, helps her, and they both help another girl named Eva. I've seldom seen any children's book so flat, and it is a shame, since the Perkins School is so historically important.

book icon  Listening for Madeleine, Leonard S. Marcus
I had no idea this book existed until I was reading a Hamilton Book catalog and found it listed. It's a collection of interviews, long and short, from people who knew L'Engle, from members of her own family to those who worked with her.

The 2004 "New Yorker" article that revealed that some of Madeleine's nonfiction had more than its share of fictional elements upset and angered many fans. Marcus interviews a diverse number of people—friends from her cathedral days, others whom she befriended on her writing tours, neighbors of the Franklins in New York and Connecticut—to try to illustrate the complicated personality that was Madeleine L'Engle. I was actually more intrigued about her from the magazine article, and I enjoyed reading all the different viewpoints of her personality. In talking about her, you also get to know about Edward Nason West, L'Engle's spiritual advisor and the inspiration for the character of Canon Tallis in her books. He certainly was quite an eccentric from the descriptions and sounds fascinating. I also didn't know that author T.A. Barron, who did a series of young Merlin books, was a protege of L'Engle's. In addition, there are several more insights into her books; for instance, the crush Flip has in And Both Were Young was supposed to be with another girl, not with Paul. "Crushes" on other girls were quite common in girls' books at the turn of the 20th century, but by the time Young was written, it would have taken on an entirely new connotation which would not have been accepted.

I have to admit that a couple of the entries are in there on the feeblest of associations, especially the one-page offering from Mary Pope Osborne, which seems like it's there just for someone to say that she contributed to the book. Still, I found much to enjoy about this series of reminisces about one of my favorite writers!

book icon  Survival in the Storm: The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards, Katelan Janke
Did I read the end of this "Dear America" entry correctly? The author is only fifteen? Wow! That is really amazing, and as a storyteller she quite outdoes Mr. Denenberg, whose DA books I've come to dread. Grace Edwards and her family are holding on to their land and their self-respect in the Dust Bowl ravaged town of Dalhart, Texas (a real town which was hard hit). Grace must hold on to her hope, especially as dust storms increase and her best friend moves away after her family can't make ends meet.

A couple of times the characters use vocabulary that sounds out of place for the ages they are and there are some instances of stilted narrative, but otherwise this diary sounds very natural, as if a real teen wrote it—oh, wait, one did! Janke interviewed two women who survived the Dust Bowl and transfers their memories of the hardships, especially the endless wind and dust, very successfully. I also found the love/hate relationship between older sister Grace and little sister Ruth very true to life.

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24 June 2014

All Mine for the Summer

Some people have neighborhood library stories—there are even some fictional ones, like Francie's experience in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. But we lived between city libraries, a distance over a mile to both, so I visited them infrequently. The Auburn Library was near the high school, a mile and half distant, at that time in an old storefront on Rolfe Street, next to a shoe store. They generally had more up-to-date books (this being the late 1960s and early 1970s, those from the 1940s forward), but still not the ones I was looking for: I was wild about animals as a kid and wanted to read Marguerite Henry and Walter Farley and Jim Kjelgaard and Grosset and Dunlap's line of true dog stories. Alas, not there.

The Arlington Library, in the other direction up Cranston Street, past Taco and the old wooden Hamilton Building (which went up in spectacular flames in my teen years; the original building, once a school, was where I had received my polio boosters), was a more venerable place. The present library is concrete and glass and metal; the old building had more charm, in rectangular brick with the heavy wooden doors and dark wooden shelves. The adult section, upstairs, seemed always gloomy and the volumes looked as dry as they seemed to me. Downstairs was the children's library, a truly antiquarian area with heavy dark tables and chairs, filled with none of the bright colors and shiny objects one now associates with children's sections in libraries. Today I would very much like to take a trip back in time and pore over the books on the shelves, since many of them dated back to the turn of the twentieth century. But back then, looking for modern children's books, all those dark volumes just made me grumpy. I once complained bitterly to my mother that the newest book they had there featured a young woman driving a car with a running board (yes, I knew what that was). My only favorite books there were the Thorton W. Burgess books about forest animals—The Adventures of Danny Meadow Mouse, The Adventures of Jimmy the Skunk, The Adventures of Lightfoot the Deer, etc.—and a book translated from the German about a police dog, Flax.

The school library gave me much more satisfaction. It was in Stadium School that I fell in love with some of my earliest literary favorites: Kate Seredy's The Good Master and The Singing Tree, the Miss Pickerel (a spinster teacher) and Danny Dunn (a precocious boy inventor) series, the books about Henry Reed and his friend Midge Glass, Anne H. White's delightfully offbeat animal tales of The Story of Serapina (a cat with a prehensile tail), Junket the Dog Who Liked Everything Just So (an Airedale), and A Dog Called Scholar (a rambunctious Golden Retriever), Johnny Tremain, Clarence the TV Dog, and the book that drove my mother crazy trying to find it since it was out of print (she never did, but I did, years later), Charlotte Baker's The Green Poodles, about a Texas family that open their hearts to an orphaned English cousin and her pet poodle. (I didn't realize until I purchased the book as an adult that this was the book that sparked my interest in obedience competitions; Juliet, the poodle, had a CDX and was working on her UD.)

But it was at Hugh B. Bain Junior High School (now Middle School), that I met the "famous ten." Bain had a policy that, if you were a responsible child who brought back your library books on time, and if you had your parents' consent, you could take ten books out of the library and keep them for the entire summer! This was richness to me. I had a good collection of books, but only paperbacks and cheap cellophane-covered Whitman books, which were all that we could afford. To have real hardback books in the house was a fabulous treat. Both summers, that of 1969 and 1970, I took the same ten books out, and for ten weeks they were mine, to read in my room at night, or at dinner (Mom never did enforce the "no books at dinner" rule most of the time; she was happy that I wanted to read and was never forced to do so), or in the parlor while watching television (since sometimes it would be on something I couldn't care a fig about, like Huntley and Brinkley (unless they were talking about the moon missions) or the local news.

Here are the ten. Have you read or heard of any of them?
  • The Story of Walt Disney by Diane Disney Miller
  • The Family Nobody Wanted by Helen Doss
  • What Katy Did and What Katy Did at School by Susan Coolidge (one volume)
  • Have Spacesuit, Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
  • The Chestry Oak by Kate Seredy
  • Wyoming Summer by Mary O'Hara
  • The Edge of Day by Laurie Lee
  • Especially Dogs, Especially at Stillmeadow by Gladys Taber
  • The Morning of Mankind by Robert Silverberg
The Miller book was the only one out about Disney in those days; as a dedicated watcher of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color on Sunday evenings on NBC, this was a natural for me. Now I have many more biographies of Disney, but this still brings back pleasant memories. The Family Nobody Wanted was Doss' story of her and her husband's adoption of multicultural children in the 1940s, when it Just Wasn't Done for blonde white people to adopt children of Hispanic, Native American, and Polynesian extraction. A sad commentary on the times was that the Dosses tried to adopt a half-German, half-African American war orphan in the late 1940s, and even a member of their own family responded with racial epithets.

The Katy books reminded me of Little Women and Alcott's other stories; headstrong Katy Carr wants to do great things, but is sidelined by an injury. The second book was especially entertaining because who could forget the mischievous "Rose Red," Katy and her sister Clover's classmate, and her pranks? I was amazed at the games the girls played during their club meetings, involving writing poetry "on demand"! And of course there was my very first Heinlein novel, one that of course involved another type of cleverness, including a precocious twelve-year-old girl. I must admit I had a crush on Spacesuit's hero, brainy and resourceful Kip Russell.

Till the day I die I will thank Judy Martini for recommending Wrinkle to me, opening a wonderful world of Madeleine L'Engle books in my future, including her adult novels and her religious nonfiction. What would I have done without the Crosswicks books to sustain me through my mom's cancer surgery? And here forty-five years later I still cry at the end of Wrinkle. Chestry, too, is a heartbreaker: the story of a privileged Hungarian boy growing up under the thumb of invading Nazis, keeping his father's most precious secrets, and in the end too loyal to give up the horse he loves.

Edge was a revelation of a book; I had never before read prose which had the rhythm and imagery of poetry. It was as if I were there at the Lee cottage, surrounded by Laurie's constantly working mother and sisters, participating in country fetes and reveling in the fragrantly blooming countryside. I loved the title, too: such expectation! What could that new day bring? It was only as an adult that I discovered the original title was Cider With Rosie, which seems much less imaginative and lyrical. O'Hara, too, made poetry with her words. She took a collection of her diaries, kept when she and her husband raised horses, ran a dairy, and had a summer camp for boys on a ranch in Wyoming; she later used those experiences to write My Friend Flicka and its sequels, but there is such beauty in her original writings, images burned on my brain to this day.

Especially Dogs was my first introduction to Gladys Taber, but as a young adult I resisted her other Stillmeadow books; I had nothing in common with that woman who kept house and cooked meals in Connecticut. It was only many years later, spotting two reprints in the Mystic Seaport Museum store, that I was to fall in love with all of Taber, a joyful affair.

The last book was my concession to one of my favorite sciences: biology left me cold and chemistry foiled me with too many formulas. But all those aspects of Earth Science (as it was called in eighth grade) I reveled in: astronomy, fossils, continental drift, uplift, brachiopods, the aurora, the tilt of the earth and the seasons, and my favorite of all, anthropology. There were other books I collected as I grew older, including the "Lucy" books, and the mention of Olduvai Gorge and/or the Leakeys or Lascaux on any program could make my ears prick up in interest, but this was my first anthropology book and it has a special meaning to me. Clovis points, middens, mammoth bones turned into tools—I was hooked. (Didn't realize until much later that this was the Robert Silverberg, the science fiction writer.)

Did anyone else have a school library that did this? If so, what were your books, all yours for the summer?

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31 May 2014

Books Completed Since May 1

book icon  Hattie Big Sky, Kirby Larson
A blogger whose book blog I regularly read loves this book, so I snapped it up when I found it at the library book sale. It fits into my World War I reading for this year as well.

At the end of 1917, Hattie Brooks inherits a claim in Montana from her uncle. Grudgingly brought up by an aunt who resents her and a mild-mannered uncle who usually doesn't defend her, Hattie is glad to get away from her home-in-name-only to face the challenge of proving up on 160 acres of Montana farmland. She finds the work almost insurmountable, but is helped by neighbors who she soon becomes good friends with, a couple with several children. But the husband is German and anti-German feelings are running high due to the war; Hattie is endangered just by knowing them.

Larson does a superb job of bringing the hardships of homestead life alive, and the staggering work Hattie has to perform to "prove up" on her claim, including installing a fence, not to mention the twin threats of the weather and sickness. Some reviewers have pointed out parallels between the Montana Loyalty League in this book and the Patriot Act, but there was a great feeling of hatred against Germans during the first World War and the similarities are obvious. If it's a political statement, it's an apt one and not one dredged up just to make a political point.

book icon  Grace Among Thieves, Julie Hyzy
Grace Wheaton's job at Marshfield Manor (an estate with a passing resemblance to Biltmore House) has its ups and downs, and in this installment, things are definitely down: a friend has reported to Grace that there have been thefts from historic sites across the country, a grim fact Grace already knows as items have turned up missing from the Manor as well; she's beginning to believe that a movie crew filming a documentary on the grounds may have something to do with it. In addition, estate owner Bennett Marshfield's stepdaughter Hillary has been insinuating herself with the film crew and making noises about Bennett not being up to managing the estate.

And then, during a tour of the house, a woman is pushed down the stairs and killed, and a man is shot.

This is a nice solid entry in the Grace Wheaton series, which finds Grace not only confronting a new mystery but a new romance as well. My favorite part of these books is the relationship between Bennett and Grace, and this one does not disappoint. Major hisses to the bad guys in this novel for not only threatening someone very close to Grace, but for threatening her cat, too.

book icon  The Ultimate Book of Top 10 Lists, from Listserve.com
One of my weaknesses is books of lists, going way back to the original Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky and Amy Wallace published back in the 1970s. This one, stacked purposefully on the bargain book tables at Barnes & Noble, called immediately to me. As with all of these books, the subjects run the gamut from bizarre lists (museums, phobias, traditions, etc.) to urban legends debunked, and lists of science and history facts. There are lists of movies and music, nature and people, survival tips, and travel tips. In short, this is a great bathroom book, perfect for long or short "trips." Redeeming social value? Not much, but there are interesting facts scattered throughout and you may even learn something.

book icon  My Bookstore, edited by Ronald Rice
It's so nice to read this book and know there are still some great independent bookstores across the country. In my area we are still pretty much in the thrall of chains, and the best chain, Borders, is already gone. Yes, I buy online, but only because I don't have an unlimited budget for books, and sometimes because the bookstores just don't have what I want. It's all fine and dandy for the chains and the independents to offer the standard bestsellers and books authored or recommended by celebrities or in the news, but most of those have never been to my taste.

This book brings back the days when I did have a personal bookstore, Paperback Books in Providence, RI. It wasn't anything to look at, but I spent many happy hours there and bought books that I still have. The eighty-four writers in My Bookstore will tell you about their happy places and why they are special to them. And you, like me, may now have a list of bookstores you want to visit when you get to a particular city!

book icon  Doctor Who: The Vault, Marcus Hearn
Oh, what a book! If you have any interest in the history of Doctor Who from its origins in 1963, this is the perfect 50th anniversary volume for you. It is full of one-of-a-kind photographs, memos, advertising circulars, BBC "Radio Times" issues, books and annuals, and other memorabilia which helps to tell the story of the program. Formatted as a year-by-year chronology (except for the "missing years" between the cancellation of the original series and the new one, which are combined save for the year of the television movie), each chapter features a full-color photo of the Doctor or one of his enemies (and a couple of companions). My thanks to Amazon.com, who had this on a one-day sale that enabled me to afford it.

book icon  The Great Wagon Road, Parke Rouse, Jr.
What came before the interstates, before the state highways, before the first transcontinental road (the Lincoln Highway)? It was the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, built during colonial times and eventually extending from Philadelphia down to Augusta, Georgia (roughly along the paths of I-78, I-81, and I-85 today). Later Daniel Boone's Wilderness Road would be spun off this rough highway.

This reads like an interconnected series of separate narratives much of the time, rather than a straight history. Rouse opens with the busy path created by Native American tribes for trade purposes, which was then used by the German teamsters from Pennsylvania (whose great wagons made the name Conestoga famous) and the Scotch-Irish settlers who crowded into the Appalachian highlands. It saw further traffic during the French and Indian War. Jack Sevier and Daniel Boone, George Washington and the circuit preachers are just some of the colorful personalities who traveled the Great Wagon Road and later the Wilderness Road.

This is a good book for someone who enjoys colonial American history, or the history of highways in the United States.

book icon  Re-Read: Shoo-Fly Girl, Lois Lenski
I adored Lenski's regional stories as a kid, so I had to snap this one up when I found it at the book sale. Her regionals are long out of print and command huge prices on e-Bay because of their use in homeschooling; recently I found that there is a publisher reprinting some of these, and I hope they do them all. Meanwhile, I'll make do with this one, one of my favorites about Suzanna, who lives in Pennsylvania as part of a large, warm Amish family. Suzanna gets her hated nickname from the day that she eats an entire shoo-fly pie all by herself, and in the course of the book she meets an "English" family whose worldliness frightens the shy child. She can only confide in her favorite brother, Jonas, who starts to change as he grows older.

The story follows several seasons in life on an Amish farm and is quite charming explaining the customs of the Amish sect, and even some of the dangers posed by their lifestyle in our modern society, such as cars not being careful of their carriages and causing accidents. This isn't my favorite regional, but it's very enjoyable.

book icon  Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell
For the first time in their lives Cath and her twin sister Wren will not be rooming together. They've left Omaha and their emotionally fragile father to attend college in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Wren wants to fully experience college life by rooming with someone else, which leaves introverted Cath sharing a room with someone she'd rather not have to deal with, a self-possessed young woman named Regan. Cath and Wren have spent most of their adolescence writing fanfiction about the Simon Snow novels (sort of a pseudo-Harry Potter) and Cath feels alone and even a bit betrayed when Wren abandons both her and the fic. Worse, both girls are still coping with the fact that their mother walked out on them nine years earlier: while Cath still relies on fanfiction to buffer her feelings of abandonment, Wren turns into a hard-drinking wild child on campus. But what will Cath do when real life intrudes on her fanfic world, especially when she starts liking her roommate's boyfriend?

To tell you the truth, I was kinda bored with Cath's boy infatuation; most people review this book and say there was too much of her Simon Snow fanfic, but I thought the meet-the-world with a smile Levi character was nice but only okay—he seemed to be too much of a fantasy guy himself! The story makes the valid point that Cath can't use her fanfic dreamworld as a shield against her feelings about adulthood and her mother forever, but it's like her fannishness has to be purged completely for her to be a "normal" person. Still, the end of the book made me cry.

book icon  Color Me Dark: The Diary of Nellie Lee Love, Patricia McKissack
Nellie Lee and her "almost twin" Erma Jean live in a small town in Tennessee divided across racial lines; when her soldier Uncle Pace dies in an "accident" that everyone realizes was racially motivated on his way home from the Great War, Erma Jean is so traumatized by the incident that she loses her speech and their father decides to move the family north to Chicago to open his own funeral home and find a better life that doesn't include the Ku Klux Klan and bigots who attack veterans. Sadly, the Loves find out that prejudices still exist in the North.

I enjoyed this "Dear America" novel despite the sad circumstances that force the Loves to abandon family in Tennessee and the prejudices that meet them in their new life. McKissack weaves the lives of the fictional Loves into the real-life race riots that rocked Chicago in the summer of 1919 after a young African-American boy accidentally strayed onto a whites-only beach area. It also addresses something I'd never read before, about the fact that even in "colored" schools light-skinned people were favored over darker-skinned ones. It's a shame people cannot have always been, as Dr. King said, "judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

book icon  Tales from Watership Down, Richard Adams
I loved Watership Down, but I put off buying this sequel for years because most of the book appeared to be new stories about the King of the Rabbits featured in the original novel, El-ahrairah and his second, Rabscuttle. However, when I found it for a couple of dollars, I did get a copy. If you're not interested in the rabbit fairy tales, be assured they are not the entire body of the book, but they do take up much of it. There's actually a running plot about Hazel, Bigwig, Fiver, and the rest deciding that the colony is too large and planning to form a new warren some miles away. It also seemed (although I could be wrong) that Adams was responding to criticism that all the main characters were male and the does were interchangeable, because a portion of the tale is about a female rabbit who controls her own warren. However, the book has none of the suspense, poetry, and novelty of the original. Purchased at a library sale or at goodwill, it might be worth your while to see "what happened," but I wouldn't advise paying full price for it.

book icon  Eccentric London, Ben Le Vay
I spend my time dreaming the impossible, which includes a visit to Great Britain some day, and love to pick up unique travel books about the British Isles. This isn't a tour book, per se, with tips on hotels and restaurants, but a book of unusual people, places, and things you'll find in that big metropolis on the Thames. You'll learn about eccentric Londoners (alive and dead), odd jobs, strange museums, and novel places to shop; read about unusual place names, facts about the Tube and the churches of London, and even improbable pubs. Finally the author takes you on five walks around the city for maximum exposure to the city's odd turns, and you'll visit four suburbs, including Greenwich, home of mean time. There's even a calendar of British-only events, such as the yearly Pancake Day races and the Garter ceremony.

The book is illustrated with humorous line drawings, plus has a color insert, several maps, and dozens of pop-out sections, and the narration is suitably tongue-in-cheek enough to keep you amused. If I can't afford that overseas trip, I can live vicariously through Le Vay's delightful book.

book icon  Murder on Bamboo Lane, Naomi Hirahara
Ellie Rush is a newly minted Los Angeles bicycle cop, to the consternation of her mother who says she didn't send Ellie to private school for her to ride a bike at work, but a source of pride to her Aunt Cheryl, the Assistant Chief of Police. Ellie likes her job, despite getting stuck with "porta-potty duty" and having problems with a resentful male co-worker. One morning on patrol she is shown a flyer about a missing girl, a young woman she remembers having college classes with. Her friends remember the young woman, too, and one recalls that she was having problems. It's not Ellie's case, but she finds herself being drawn into it with the help of her aunt.

I usually don't like police procedurals, but this has a unique viewpoint, a likeable protagonist, and an enjoyable cast of supporting characters, from Ellie's best friend to her tough aunt. I especially enjoyed that the characters are not all eccentric whitebread types as in some of the cozies I've read; this is a multicultural group of friends who come off as being genuine, rather than minority characters being placed in the story to meet a certain quota, and her relationship with her best friend is warm and real. I'm looking forward to Ellie's next case.

book icon  The Night Journey, Kathryn Lasky
I'm a big fan of Lasky's books, and know that several of them have been based on where she lives (the Calista Jacobs mysteries) or her heritage and family (Christmas After All, Pageant), so that when I found out this book was based upon the experiences of her father's family, I was eager to read it. Rachel's parents have asked her not to bother her great-grandmother about her past—it makes her too sad, they say. But when Nana Sashie starts telling Rachel about her childhood in Russia, the girl can't help sneaking into Nana's room after dark and finding out more about the story: how young Sashie, along with her parents and aunt and baby brother, escaped from Russia in 1900. They will use the Jewish holiday of Purim to escape from their pogram-scarred homeland—but will need the help of a frightening man who works with Sashie's father to accomplish it.

I was a little disappointed. I managed to find the hardback version, which has marvelously expressive illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman, but the narration seemed scattershot. I didn't think it packed the emotional punch of some of her other books, like Prank or even Christmas After All. The family's escape has some breathtaking moments, but I found it as a whole a little anticlimactic.

book icon  Writing Juvenile Fiction, Phyllis Whitney
While there are probably more up-to-date volumes out there about writing children's or young adult fiction, this volume by Whitney, who wrote women's romance novels and teen mysteries, plus teen short stories for magazines like American Girl (the Girl Scout magazine, not the recent magazine associated with the book series), is a nice basic text, as the primary idea is to attract and then keep the attention of the reader and write a story that appeals to them. The material, today, does not seem as sophisticated, but then both children's and young adult books have grown darker in the past fifty years. Story structure has not changed, whether you are writing about a young woman fighting to give a talented but untrained artist a chance (the example used in this book) or about teens facing demons, vampires, and death. (In fact, the example being about regular kids was a bit refreshing!) This would be a good book to offer to an aspiring young writer, as it also addresses the problems of taking time to write, and the procrastination issues most writers face.

book icon  The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar, Martin Windrow
This is the charming memoir of a British man who kept a tawny owl as a pet for fifteen years. After his first owl escaped, he was given Mumble, as he called the bird, who soon became an indispensable part of his life. At first she lives in an aviary on the balcony of his apartment building, carefully hidden from the landlord; later in her life he moved to the country where he built her a beautiful outdoor enclosure. Over the years he observed her behavior and chronicled life with his quirky roommate.

If you love birds, you will probably enjoy this book. I could see my own budgie in Windrow's observations of Mumble, and enjoyed reading about their friendship and Mumble's instinctive habits, like pouncing on "prey." Windrow does make the point that people should not keep wild birds as pets; he was only able to obtain for Mumble because his brother was a falconer (and I have to question the wisdom of having an owl in a city apartment that doesn't allow pets!). In the tradition of books like Ring of Bright Water and Born Free.

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