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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.

31 January 2018

Books Completed Since January 1

The last of the Christmas books in "Holiday Harbour":

book icon  Christmas: A Biography

book icon  December 25th: The Joys of Christmas Past

book icon  A Book of Christmas

book icon  Truman Capote's Southern Years, Marianne M. Moates
I bought this book because I had read both of the G. Neri "Tru and Nelle" books, and wanted to see just how much had been extracted from this memoir, which is based on the recollections of Jennings Faulk, Truman's cousin. It is indeed revealing, if sadly so. While it's fun reading about all the imaginative things Truman got up to with "Big Boy" (Jennings' nickname), Nelle Harper Lee, other cousins, and even an African-American boy named Edison, the book is also unflinching about Truman's neglectful mother and manipulative biological father, and even some of what would be considered cruelties today, like Nelle teasing a horse with a stick so badly that it finally grabbed her by the head. You'll learn what really happened with "Odd Henderson," who Sook Faulk invited to Thanksgiving dinner, and what really caused the break between Truman and his beloved cousin Sook, the friendship portrayed so beautifully in "A Christmas Memory." Gritty, sad, illuminating portrait of Capote's early life and the 1930s and 1940s South.

book icon  Pathways and Other Tales of Valdemar, edited by Mercedes Lackey
This was a satisfactory collection of Valdemar stories; even a sequel to Lackey's Scooby-Doo takeoff was decent, even giving the "Shaggy" character Arville a bit of depth. This volume had quite a variety of protagonists who were different in some way: shaych, a mute woman, a blind girl, a princess unwilling to accept her fate, a boy with visions, and other new characters, as well as sequels to the continuing sagas of Lady Cera, senior novice Syrriah, Kade and Nwah, Lena (a really strange story about her wanting to be a trapeze artist more than anything), the Haven City Watch, and other old friends.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters on a River Trip, Jerry West
As the book (the second in the Happy Hollisters' book series written in the 1950s and based on the author's family) opens, a fishing expedition which briefly acquaints the Hollisters—a lively brood of five kids, two parents, and pets—with a little boy who flees a gruff older man spawns an idea to promote Mr. Hollister's new store The Trading Post, a fishing contest in which the customer who catches the largest fish will win a prize. Later, the children find out that the little boy, Bobby Reed, has run away from the cruel farmer who is caring for him. When the children's Uncle Russ shows up, they find a clue that Bobby has headed for the river, and the children clamor to take their uncle's cabin cruiser, "Sweetie Pie," down the river to search for him. Of course the kids and their parents have many adventures—including a frightening storm—on their mission to find the ten-year-old boy.

The titular "river trip" doesn't really show up until the book is half over, but the contest, another mystery about tagged "clown" fish (not like Nemo), and the actual events that make Bobby run away all build up in the first portion. This is a more lukewarm entry in the series, I thought, not up to the more exciting adventures to come.

book icon  Rhode Island Radio, John Rooke
From the "department store wars" to the death of Rhode Island icon Walter "Salty" Brine, this Arcadia picture book covers the history of radio stations in the Ocean State. The first radio stations were owned by the big department stores: WEAN by the Shepard Company (later bought by the Providence Journal) and WJAR by the Outlet Company. Fully a third of the photos come from the collection of legendary broadcaster Ed Pearson, and other various stations' photos have been provided. Missing, sadly, are photographs from WJAR radio's early history, especially of its talk show days, save for one photograph of Jack Comley, one of the pioneers of talk radio, "the mouth that roared." (Comley, an attorney by education who wandered into sportscasting, died prematurely of cancer in 1974 and a memorial exists for him in downtown Providence.)

Lots of happy memories here, but wish there had been more of WJAR and WLKW.

book icon  The Book of Festival Holidays, Marguerite Ickis
This is a slim seasonal volume written in the early 1960s for children. Not surprisingly, while Christmas holds the lions' share of the volume, a large chapter is devoted to Jewish holidays, and some older holidays, not much celebrated in the 60s anymore, like May Day and winter carnivals and fortune-telling at Hallowe'en parties. A charming little volume to read if picked up at a discount.

book icon  Shadow of a Doubt, Skylar James
This seemed a natural for me: the story of a girl who helps raise a colt who defeats great odds to become a racehorse who not only wins a great race but becomes a symbol of "the common man." Yet I was dissatisfied more and more as the narrative continued. This may be, people will point out, because it's a children's book being read by an adult, but I've read all manner of children's books since becoming an adult, and I'm rarely disappointed by one as I was by this book.

Children's books with animals who talk among themselves are classic: Charlotte's Web, for instance, Black Beauty, Beautiful Joe, and a host of others, all done with so much charm that I've been taken in by it and could believe they actually did speak to each other. Shadow the colt also has a barnyard contingent who cheer him on, but the whole setup seems phony; the farm animals have cutesy names, Oats the pony is Eeyore in all but name, the cow and the pony "cooperate" to help with the chores like plowing (huh? as if the humans are harnessing them together?). Our human protagonists include Fyfe, the plucky little girl who raises Shadow (who's later injured, twice, so that she becomes partially disabled), her disabled ex-jockey father who can't make the family farm pay, and a neighboring horse farm owner who is so relentlessly evil that he becomes cliché before the book is half over. The narrative is done in a dogged folksy accent that was, I expect, supposed to be evocative of a warm legend told around a Kentucky country campfire. After a while, it just became tiresome, and the relentless push, push, push of the moral of the story—don't ever give up, ever!—gets hammered into the reader on every page.

I would have really preferred this book if it had been told "straight," like a Marguerite Henry book, with Fyfe and Roscoe working with Shadow of a Doubt, undergoing punishing training and beset by bad luck, with much less of the foaming-mouthed stereotyped Colonel Epsom. Shadow talking with the barn animals and with his foster mother would have been fine in small doses and done with much less anthropomorphism; instead they remind me of the ludicrous "Barn Gang" in the new Lassie cartoon.

Sorry, Shadow, but I'm sending you back to the paddock.

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31 December 2017

Favorite Books of 2017

Another baker's dozen!

book icon  Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life, Marta McDowell (lush full-color book about Potter's farms and love of nature, something that will warm you up on a cold rainy day)

book icon  Becoming Queen Victoria, Kate Williams (not a bio of Victoria, but how her cousin Charlotte's life and death led to "little Drina" being queen)

book icon  Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly (story of the African-American mathematicians who kept the United States flying and led us into space as they battled racism and sexism)

book icon  The Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase, Greg Cox (Cox captures the multiple characters of the television series perfectly; you might as well be watching a Librarians film)

book icon  My Small Country Living, Jeanine McMullen (British woman and her boyfriend buy a small farm; all the joy and all the heartache of living off the land)

book icon  Listen, Slowly, Thanhhà Lại (a thoroughly American girl of Vietnamese descent is reluctantly dragged back to her homeland so her grandmother can discover what happened to her husband; rich, rewarding portrait of modern Vietnam and the scars left by war)

book icon  The World Remade: America in World War I, G.J. Meyer (the United States reluctantly went to war, and liberties took a beating—if you think today's government is restrictive, think again)

book icon  The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Marta McDowell (Laura's life as seen against the different natural environments she lived in: the deep forest, the prairie, the rolling hills of Iowa and how it affected how the Ingalls family lived, ate, and worked)

book icon  From Holmes to Sherlock, Mattias Boström (massive volume chronicling not just Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, but of the family and fans who gave Holmes eternal life, from the first Holmes story to the creation of Sherlock)

book icon  Back Over There, Richard Rubin (author Rubin, who wrote a book about the surviving "doughboys" of the Great War, visits the sites he was told so much about; incredible that even though World War II cut a swath over the same territory, the scars of the previous war can still be plainly seen)

book icon  Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse, Eric Jay Dolen (just what it says, engagingly told, including about one of the first boondoggles visited on the new American government)

book icon  Caroline: Little House, Revisited, Sarah Miller (Little House on the Prairie told from Caroline Ingalls' viewpoint, of the sheer hardship of being a pioneer woman)

book icon  Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caroline Fraser (this was a bumper year for Wilder fans; this one tells the story of the Ingalls family against the history that was happening behind it)

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 I also want to give a shout-out this year to two series: Ben Aaronovitch's absolutely wonderful "Rivers of London"/Peter Grant books, which are both novel and graphic novels: six books so far, one Audible short story, one novella, and three graphic novels with a fourth just released. Every single one should be listed here. This is an inventive urban fantasy about a young biracial police officer who finds himself learning magic and fighting some of Great Britain's more esoteric enemies. Seriously, run, don't walk, to your nearest bookseller and pick up the first one, Midnight Riot (a.k.a. Rivers of London)!

Also Robert Ryan's 4-book (so far) series of "Dr. Watson Thrillers" in which John H. Watson rejoins the Army in World War I to serve as a surgeon. The realities of war are so brilliantly and frighteningly portrayed.

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Books Completed Since December 1

I only read Christmas books during the Christmas season, so all my reviews are in "Holiday Harbour." However, I had to make an exception for Peter Grant!

book icon  Rivers of London: Detective Stories, Ben Aaronovitch
Linked together by Peter's oral examination for becoming a a detective, Grant relates four different cases to his examiner, who is initially a magic skeptic. Three of the stories involve Lesley May, one before and two after her encounter with "Mr. Punch." Each of the stories is interesting, spanning the gamut from the magical—a goat found burned to death who was ignited by magical means—to the mundane (attempts to find a flasher), but as a whole the story wasn't as suspenseful as the longer-form previous graphic novel compilations.

My complaint: Sahra Guleed, Thomas Nightingale, and Molly are all shown on the cover with Peter Grant. Sahra doesn't even appear in any of the stories, Molly has three panels in one story, and Nightingale is only in one of the little one-page "Tales from the Folly" tales. I was very disappointed that these characters did not have a larger role in any of the stories.

book icon  The Triple-Dog Dare and A Christmas Carol Christmas Book

book icon  Christmas Philosophy for Everyone

book icon  Christmas Decorations from Williamsburg

book icon  Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Book of Christmas Virtues

book icon  A Lot Like Christmas (partial re-read)

book icon  The Immortal Nicholas

book icon  Re-read: Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot

book icon  A Kentucky Christmas

book icon  Chicken Soup for the Soul: A Book of Christmas Miracles 

book icon  The Children's Book of Christmas Stories

book icon  Once Upon a Christmas

book icon  Christmas in My Heart, Book 12

book icon  Re-read: Christmas After All

book icon  Tru and Nelle: A Christmas Tale

book icon  Ideals Christmas and Spirit of Steamboat

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30 November 2017

Books Completed Since November 1

I confess, I ran out of time with Christmas prep. So these reviews are not what I would like.

book icon  H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald
I'd recently seen the Nature special based on this book, and since it was there, tempting me on my to-be-read pile, I obliged it.

Macdonald's father taught her everything to do with birdwatching, particularly patience, and especially to love the beautiful raptors that soared overhead. But suddenly, devastatingly, he died, and Macdonald was thrown into a tailspin. To honor her father and work through her grief, Macdonald adopts the most fractious of the hawk family, the goshawk, a female she names Mabel, inspired in her choice of birds by the hawking manual written in the 1930s by T.H. White, author of The Sword in the Stone.

Part nature diary, part story of the conflicted and imaginative White, and chiefly an emotional catharsis, this is brilliantly written, but be prepared: Macdonald is driven to rock-bottom by her father's death, and her depression and despair is tangible and sometimes terrifying. It is difficult to get through many of the passages. However, if you can make it through the emotional roller coaster of the narration, you will be well rewarded.

book icon  Bryant & May: Wild Chamber, Christopher Fowler
Whew. In the past few novels we've been fearful of Arthur Bryant's health problems spelling the end of the teamwork of detectives Bryant and May and indeed the Peculiar Crimes Unit itself. But with Arthur on the mend, they're thrown into a new mystery: the seemingly inexplicable death of a woman walking her dog in the park. But before we join the mystery, there's a seemingly unrelated flashback to open the novel. Or is it?

So what did happen to Helen Forester? Did her estranged husband kill her? Or was it the gardener in the private park in which she was dog walking? Or even someone else, as they can't identify what instrument she was strangled with? And did we mention that the Met is trying to shut them down again? And that there's a sinister political plot mixed up in all this?

It's the usual mix of Bryant's wild theories and May's deductive reasoning, and the contributions of the Unit, and, in this outing, a history of London's green spaces and parks, and a plot development that will make you go "Yay!" I love this crew of misfits and this newest book did not disappoint.

book icon  Tru and Nelle, G. Neri
They met when Truman Persons was seven and Nelle Lee was six; he was so neat and clean she thought he was a girl and she was so grubby he thought she was a boy. Nevertheless Tru and Nelle (the future Truman Capote and Harper Lee) became fast friends, and, together with Truman's cousin Jennings, a.k.a. Big Boy, they played games and invented adventures in the tiny town of Monroeville, Alabama.

Based on Jennings Faulk's memories, Neri recreates life in a small Southern town during the Depression, where we meet Nelle's beloved father "A.C." and Truman's best friend, his cousin Sook. And when Nelle, a bookworm just as much as Truman is, resolves to raise her new acquaintance's spirits after a rebuff from his father, she turns him into Sherlock Holmes, herself into Dr. Watson, and challenges him to solve a town mystery.

This is a fun book, especially if you've read anything about Lee's and Capote's friendship as well as To Kill a Mockingbird, but I wonder if modern kids are even interested in the kids' imaginative capers. Since there's a Christmas sequel out, I guess so!

book icon  Paper, Mark Kurlansky
While the title is "paper," most of the narrative is devoted to the development of the book, but it took a while in coming. Writing came first, on clay and wax tablets and other hard surfaces, next plants like tapa and papyrus were glued together to make sheets to write on, and finally parchment was developed from animal skins (it still reigns supreme in printing circles; your printed college degree may be called "your parchment," and fine stationery still speaks of parchment paper). As radio was supposed to ruin children for reading, and television for people using their imagination, writing down things was considered detrimental to memory, as previously stories, sagas, and facts were passed down orally from generation to generation.

The first creation of paper, as Kurlansky admits, is unknown. It appears to have originated in China, then passed on to the Muslims (who used it to write a great deal about food). He then chronicles its spread around the globe, different paper-making methods, but mostly how paper was incorporated into books (but also used for calligraphy and artwork).

Really, how could I have not bought this book? It's about two of my favorite things in the world. Completely enjoyed the trip around the world following...yeah, I'll say it...the paper trail.

book icon  The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell
I picked up a trio of Gladwell books at a book sale, and chose this one to read first. Gladwell explains why some events snowball into bigger events while some die a'borning. For instance, the Wolverine company was going under until a group of Greenwich Village denizens started wearing Hush Puppies and created a fad market once more for the shoes. An epidemic in Baltimore occurred after public clinics in the city closed. He explains that these "tipping points" involve three things: the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context, and then continues to illustrate examples to back up his theory.

I have to admit, I thought this was interesting, but didn't carry away anything from it. Perhaps I'll like the other books better.

book icon  The Inheritance, Charles Finch
Right after the new year, Charles Lenox hears from an old schoolmate, Gerald Leigh, who as a boy hated their school, Harrow, but nevertheless Lenox had formed a friendship with the odd classmate. As students, the two boys had tried to solve the mystery of the bequest that sent Leigh to school. Now Leigh is in London, asking Lenox if he can look into a mysterious inheritance he has been notified of. But Leigh never shows up at the Lenox home to meet him, and he is not at his hotel. And, to his surprise, Lenox learns that his former miserable classmate is now a renown scientist.

When they do find Leigh, they find out he was hiding out from being pursued, and soon after, the solicitor that informed Leigh of the inheritance is killed. Lenox and his team, of course, will figure out what happens, but it may come at a dreadful price.

Complicated entry in the Lenox mystery series, but I was particularly amused by Gerald Leigh, who strongly resembled a certain other Gerald who was famous as a scientist and naturalist (Lenox even calls him "Gerry" at one point). A relationship that has been building in the series is also brought to a new level.

book icon  Cancelled by Murder, Jean Flowers
In this second "postmistress" mystery, Cassie Miller, the postmaster of North Ashcot, in the Berkshire mountains, battens down the hatches like the rest of the town as the last remnants of a hurricane strikes the area. Following the storm, sad news emerges: Daisy Harmon, a local shopkeeper, was killed by a falling tree.

Except, as the police find when they finally extract Daisy's body from the tree limbs, there was foul play involved. Knowing she cleared up an earlier mystery, Daisy's husband Cliff asks Cassie if she will look into the death.

There's nothing special about these stories, but they're a nice amiable series with an intelligent protagonist and none of the goofy eccentrics that sometimes show up in these small-town mystery stories. (Yes, I'm talking about the 1940s bookshop ghost series written by Cleo Coyle.) The chief of police is a woman, which is another nice touch, and in this entry she does accept Cassie's help. And I really did not suspect the person "whodunit."

However, again there's a cat on the cover of the novel. There's no cat in the story. What goes? Does every cozy mystery have to have a cute little animal mascot?

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Ice Carnival Mystery, Jerry West
In this entry of the 1950s children's series, the Hollister kids have embarked on new adventures, traveling with their grandparents to see the famous ice carnival in Quebec, Canada. The kids have promised their parents that they will help their grandparents locate a gift their father ordered for the kids from Canada, a cariole, a French Canadian sleigh. They have adventures even before they get there, with their donkey Domingo disappearing before they leave (yes, if you know these books, it's who you suspect that caused that event) and Grandpa's car getting stuck in the snow on the way there.

Once in Quebec, there's snow, French-Canadian history, more snow, cultural lessons, runaway sleighs, a trip to an island, even more snow, and an exciting boat race (among other things!) to come as Pete, Pam, Ricky, Holly, and Sue enjoy a breathtaking winter holiday.

book icon  Re-read: National Velvet, Enid Bagnold
Mother bought me my first copy of Velvet, a paperback "Tempo" book, long before I saw the MGM movie (but after I'd watched the two-season American television series of the same name which had very little to do with the book). It was rather a challenge: Bagnold wrote the book in the 1930s, using the slang and vocabulary of the 1920s, and she didn't write it as a children's book. But instead of being turned off, I was intrigued: what was kedgeree? What did "coo lummy" mean? and I galloped through the classic story of the butcher's daughter and her winning a horse for a shilling in a raffle and then racing the horse in England's greatest horse race (actually a steeplechase), the Grand National, not caring that I knew nothing about British money, gymkhanas, and why the heck spawn would go on a tin tray.

In fact, I was rather disappointed when I saw the movie, although I understand why they couldn't do the whole book: four sisters instead of three would have just been crowded, and the horses Velvet inherited would have cluttered up the plot (although you can see if you've experienced both novel and movie that the Pie in the film is colored more like Sir Pericles and one of the sentences movie Velvet uses to describe the Pie is originally used to describe Sir Pericles). The Pie in the book isn't a pirate, he's a piebald, Velvet is a blonde, and Mi has pretty much always lived with the family. More importantly, in the book Velvet always intends to ride the horse in the race; there is no last minute substitution. It's real "girl power," especially with Mrs. Brown's presence.

Like Velvet in the National, take the challenge. Look beyond the vocabulary and the old customs and take the ride of your life.

book icon  Re-read: Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie
Remember the star-studded movie that came out based upon this book? No, not the recent one with Kenneth Branaugh and his astonishing moustaches, but the earlier one with Albert Finney and Lauren Bacall. It was about that time I made the acquaintance of Christie and her precisely beautiful English murder mysteries. This one has the added advantage of taking place aboard the romantic sounding "Orient Express," which traveled from the Middle East through eastern Europe and into France, and during a snowstorm, with a train full of exotic passengers, all of whom are not what they seem.

One of the best Hercule Poirot novels ever. If you're tired of cozy mysteries involving people running quaint little stores assisted by an animal mascot, a dip into Christie may be your cup of tea.

book icon  Undeniable, Bill Nye
I've always liked Nye as "Bill Nye the Science Guy." But I was really disenchanted with this book. Nye apparently wrote it in an effort to convince people who think creationism is king to accept evolutionary theory. But he does it in such a patronizing manner that even I was irritated, and I believe in evolution. Plenty of scientific fact here presented in a breezy style, but to me the underlying theme apparently was "you drip, you're an idiot if you believe that Biblical crap." I appreciate that for too many years Nye has probably had to use simple language to get across to Christians who really, really do believe the earth is less than 6,000 years ago, but did he have to do it to all of us? Not keeping this one.

book icon  The Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady, Edith Holden
This is actually a "prequel" to Holden's acclaimed Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady that became so famous when Upstairs, Downstairs (the Downton Abbey of the 1970s) became popular. As the Diary was for 1906, the Notes are for 1905. Again, this is a charming combination of poetry, Edith's diary entries, and her extraordinary watercolors of plants and animals, the only difference being that, due to Edith's handwriting only being sketched in in this volume, much of the poetry and entries are in type rather than in Edith's distinctive script. However, her lovely artwork is all here. Perhaps a bit less polished than the first book, but a trip back to the past.

book icon  Dallas 1963, Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis
This is an ugly book.

Not because of its writing, but because of the ugly truths it exposes.

Dallas was a place filled with racial hatred in 1960, and the politicians and important town fathers did their best to fight the tide of liberalism sweeping through the city at the time of the John F. Kennedy election. Chapter after chapter will make your teeth grit hearing about the things that were done to keep the Democrats from being elected and also to keep African-Americans from gaining full civil rights. It's frightening, sickening, and infuriating. You can't help but keep reading, but wish you didn't have to. Rewarding, but sobering.

book icon  Grace Sees Red, Julie Hyzy
With her duplicitous sister in jail and her relationship to Bennett Marshfield confirmed, Grace Wheaton looks forward to doing something interesting with her share of the Marshfield fortune. When Amethyst Cellars, the wine store run by her good friends Bruce and Scott, is threatened because the building it's in is condemned, Grace thinks this might be her cause—until she gets a frantic phone call from Frances, her co-worker. Apparently Frances—who has spent much time helping Grace solve mysteries—is now the suspect in a death at an elite nursing home, where—surprise!—she goes to visit the last person anyone would expect each week.

A change-of-pace setting for the usually Marshfield-bound stories and a great cast of supporting characters, and a surprising twist for usually uptight Frances.

The only problem with this book: That last line! Oh, no, not again!

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