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

30 November 2014

Books Completed Since November 1

You'll see a lot of mysteries in this month's batch, because I realized I was getting behind with my series reading and losing track of which new books I had.

book icon  Murder in Chelsea, Victoria Thompson
Sarah Brandt, the daughter of one of New York's finest families, but independently working as a midwife after being widowed years earlier, has fallen in love with the small, abandoned girl, Catherine, that she has fostered since the child was dropped off at a nearby mission, so Sarah is devastated when she is told someone is asking after Catherine. When Sarah interviews the woman, it seems as if she is really concerned for the child, who she tells Sarah is the daughter of an actress and one of her older admirers. Very soon, however, the woman who has asked about Catherine is dead. Could the person who murdered her wish harm to Catherine as well? Sarah and her police detective companion Frank Molloy will have to investigate two very powerful New York families to get to the bottom of the affair.

The mystery behind Catherine's history is neatly solved in this complicated mystery, and once again Sarah's mother helps her uncover the truth, to her father's astonishment at how much his wife enjoys playing detective. But for loyal followers of this book series, there's something that occurs in this outing that will make all its fans happy, and it's neatly done, too.

book icon  The Bloody Tower, Carola Dunn
Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher is back to work after the birth of her twins, doing a feature story about the Tower of London for her American readers. In the course of her research, she interviews the Yeoman Warders, visits the barracks, sees the Crown Jewels up close, and even speaks with the Raven Keeper. Since she wants to include the nightly Ceremony of the Keys ritual in her article, she receives permission to stay at a home within the Tower for the night. She misses her children and home greatly, and sneaks out early to return to them—only to nearly fall over the body of a yeoman warder on the stairs. He's been stabbed with one of the traditional weapons the warders carry.

You may find out more that you ever wanted to know about life inside the Tower of London, including secret passages in the battlements, and where different people employed at the Tower live. Two lively young women who live with their parents in the Tower add some interest, but I enjoyed most Daisy's difficulties with the twins' new Nanny, who has completely banned her and husband Alec from the nursery except at certain times. The heck with murderers; Mrs. Gilpin is the tough nut to crack in this one.

book icon  Life Guards in the Hamptons, Celia Jerome
After returning home from her hometown of Paumanok Harbor, hoping to get some work done on her latest graphic novel, Willow Tate is still restless. She's left behind a guy she likes, one who helped her save an otherworldly sea god, no questions asked, and now she's getting reports of a strange bird in her old neighborhood—not to mention brazen burglaries. When she arrives back in Paumanok, she finds the whole town angry with her (again), and a hurricane headed directly for the town—but in its heart is an evil older than time. Once again, it's up to Willow to stop the mayhem.

Ahem. I'm getting a bit pissed off at everyone from Paumanok who keeps trying to pigeonhole Willow and drag her home. I love the delightfully quirky inhabitants of the time, but lay off the woman, okay? I was also charmed by the creature Willow's Visualizer talent calls up, a half-parrot, half-fish who refers to her as "Twee." (Willow=Tree). Willow's new veterinarian lover is a keeper, and I love her Pomeranian with an attitude, her dad and his offbeat visions, and a "new" character, a haunted house that gives Willow clues in music. Just don't start the series with this book; you'll be lost. Start from the beginning with this unique urban fantasy.

book icon  Hush Now, Don't You Cry, Rhys Bowen
Molly Murphy is no more! She's now Molly Sullivan, married to Captain Daniel Sullivan of the New York police. After the Sullivans' original honeymoon was ruined, Alderman Brian Hannan invites them to spend it in a small cottage on the estate of his "summer cottage" in Newport, Rhode Island. When the Sullivans arrive, in a roaring rainstorm, there is no one to meet them and their first evening is interrupted by the Alderman's brother, who had no idea the Sullivans were invited to the mansion grounds while a family gathering was going on.

And then the Alderman is found dead at the bottom of the cliff at the edge of the lawn.

Of course Daniel asks Molly to stay out of the investigation, but this is Molly after all—and her investigation uncovers a startling family secret which someone will make sure is never made public.

A very enjoyable installment in the Molly Murphy series, with a lot of twists and turns in the plot. I think a couple of anachronistic modern terms break in occasionally, but it's not enough to derail the storyline. I just hope Daniel gets over this Darren Stephens thing of not wanting Molly to solve crimes anymore. :-)

book icon  Black Ship, Carola Dunn
The Fletchers are moving! Once overcrowded in a small house, Det. Inspector Alec Fletcher, his wife, the former Daisy Dalrymple, Fletcher's daugher from his first marriage, and the couple's infant twins, plus the babies' nanny and several servants, are now in roomier digs in a home Alec inherited from his uncle. It needs a bit of fixing up, but the family is overjoyed—until the maid, following the family dog, discovers a dead body (well, at least Daisy wasn't the culprit this time). The family fears the victim may have ties to bootlegging, and that a neighboring family who run a fine wine shop may be involved. Will the Fletchers start their new life on Constable Crescent by getting in bad with the neighbors?

The story about the murder investigation is punctuated with a parallel story about a young man riding on a "black ship" (a rumrunner; Prohibition is in full force in the United States and bootleggers are making money buying liquor from Great Britain) being chased by Prohibition enforcers. In addtion, Lambert, the Government agent whom the Fletchers met in the United States, appears at their home looking for rumrunners. As always, Daisy, her Inspector, and his assistants Tring and Piper manage to track down the miscreant. Your interest will vary depending on your interest in Prohibition-era crime.

book icon  Grace Takes Off, Julie Hyzy
Grace Wheaton, after having been threatened and emotionally used by a thief in the previous book, has accompanied her boss, millionaire philanthropist Bennett Marshfield, to Europe, where she meets his oldest friend, an Italian art collector. But later Bennett reveals to Grace that a valuable Picasso in his friend's collection is a fake, when he knows his friend had the original sculpture in his possession years earlier, after which someone on their charter flight home tries to poison him. But even reaching home doesn't end the danger for both Bennett and Grace.

This is an enjoyable outing in the Manor House mysteries, with many suspects and red herrings, although about twenty pages from the end it becomes blindingly obvious who the culprit is. One of the things I appreciated the most was that Grace's ordeal from the previous book has not been forgotten; she reacts to several dangerous situations in the same manner as a soldier would suffering post-traumatic stress and is suspicious and quick to react. I'm glad Hyzy decided not to "reset" the character and ignore what she endured in the previous novel.

book icon  Inside the TARDIS, James Chapman
This book, originally published in 2006 and recently updated for the 50th anniversary, puts yet another spin on a Doctor Who history. Most usually follow season by season, perhaps just an episode guide, others with more elaborate guides, down to one that tracked inconsistencies in the stories, and then there are Mad Norwegian Press' mega-guides. However, this one, after chronicling how the show was conceived, examines the series by eras and how the shows changed over time, influenced by the mores, the customs, the influences, and even the politics of when they were filmed (for instance, spies were popular in the 1960s, so Jon Pertwee's Doctor was action-oriented; however, because the series was now in color, which was more expensive to film, the character remained Earthbound for most of his run because Earth-set episodes were cheaper). Of equal interest is his analysis of the changing role of the companion.

Even after reading the "mega-guides," The Discontinuity Guide, the paperback episode guides, and other series guides, I still found a lot to like about this volume, which also includes commentary on Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures.

book icon  Fear in the Sunlight, Nicola Upson
To be honest, when I saw the synopsis of this novel, I was on the fence about buying it. I loved the first book in the Josephine Tey series because it so closely reproduced a 1930s novel. The second and third books were good, but had their problems, especially aspects of the second. However, I took a chance on this one and was pleasantly surprised yet ultimately disappointed. The story is told in flashback, with Josephine's longtime friend Archie Penrose discovering that a double murder and suicide that had taken place in 1936 were not all that they had seemed. The main portion of the story takes place in Portmerion, Wales, where Josephine is meeting with Alfred Hitchcock and his wife with the object of making her book A Shilling for Candles into a film, as well as celebrating her birthday. But first one, then two brutal murders take place.

Upson carefully builds her setting and characters, so carefully that the book is half over before the actual crimes take place. It's well crafted and described, and, especially with the settings, very evocative, but one must be patient to get to the meat of the story, which builds like...well, like a Hitchcock film. Lots of talking, and revealing of secrets happen. Hitch himself, debating whether to make the jump to Hollywood, has brief flashes of appearances (mostly planning macabre practical jokes), so we don't really learn much about him. And, frankly, I'm tired of the Josephine/Marta storyline; sometimes a romance adds something to a story, this one just stalls it. I'd recommend for the atmosphere and the description, but your patience may be tried sorely aiming for the plot.

book icon  The Mislaid Magician, or Ten Years After, Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
I picked up the original book in this trilogy, Sorcery and Cecelia, back when it was first published in 1988. I didn't read Regency romances, but I was intrigued with this one due to the twist: our protagonists, Kate and Cecy, are cousins living in an alternate England where magic is practiced and wizarding rivalries are common. Kate, in London for "the Season," is mistaken for the Marquis of Schofield in disguise, is almost poisoned, setting off a sequence of events ending with Kate's marriage to the aforementioned Marquis and her favorite cousin Cecy to his compatriot. Now it's ten years later, the cousins have families of their own, and the quartet is hot on the trail of a missing German professor who's been investigating the new railroads.

Back when Sorcery and Cecelia was released, a Regency/magic crossover was quite unique; now with the steampunk era, it is less so. I loved the story because I loved the Kate and Cecy characters as well as their husbands, but if you haven't read the original, the relationships will make no sense (especially the asides about Georgina, Kate's sister). You should start from the beginning if you choose to read this story.

Incidentally, I find it interesting than when Sorcery and Cecelia was first released, it was a mainstream fantasy book. Now the trilogy is being marketed to young adults.

(By the way, I just found out this is the third book in the trilogy, not the second. So I'll have to go back and read The Grand Tour as a flashback.)

book icon  How to Be a Heroine, Samantha Ellis
Eat, sleep, breathe...books. This is for everyone who has felt kinship with the literary characters they grew up with, and how they have shaped, whether or not we realize it, who we are and how we think. Ellis grew up reading the classics, from Little Women to Sylvia Plath, from What Katy Did and Anne Shirley to Cathy Earnshaw and the ladies of Valley of the Dolls, books that were sometimes far removed from her upbringing as an Iraqi Jew in London. She not only tells us of the books she loved growing up, but also how she looked at them re-reading them as an adult, and how her favorite characters in the books changed from childhood to adulthood.

Ellis has a nice breezy style that makes this an easy and enjoyable read, and it's always fun to see what devoted readers log as their favorite books. If one thing bothered me, it was Ellis' opinions of her old favorites. While I view my old childhood favorites differently than I did as a child, I don't see them as lacking as Ellis did (for example, Katy Carr). They're the products of their time and it's not their fault they don't conform to modern ideas. But that's a minor quibble in an otherwise entertaining book; readers, come forth!

book icon  Sisters in Time: Sarah's New World, Colleen L. Reece
Sarah Whyte and her brother Jack live in Leiden, Holland, with their Separatist parents, where the children have never known any other life. But the elder Whytes dislike living with the frivolous Dutch and feel their children are forgetting their English past. So they choose to take the chance of traveling to the new Colonies in the Americas.

This one is the first "Sisters in Time" that I have read, and it's a bit by the numbers. Although Sarah is supposed to be the main character, it seems she is usually reacting to someone or she's described as being sick aboard ship or looking peaked from not eating well. Jack really has all the action. In a way this is more realistic: girls' actions were so highly curtailed in the 17th century that other historical fiction that shows them breaking out of norms is highly unlikely. Sadly, it's also boring.

Incidentally, these books are Christian oriented, but the two authors I have read have tried hard to show both sides of the fence. For instance, in this one Mr. Whyte admits the Separatists [we would call them Pilgrims] were a bit unfair to the "Strangers" who have accompanied them on the "Mayflower."

book icon  Sisters in Time: Kate and the Spies, JoAnn A. Grote
Eleven-year-old Kate Milton lives in Boston, daughter of a Loyalist physician, but best friends with her cousin Colin, who is a Patriot like his printer father. The conflict between the Loyalists and the Patriots also causes conflict within her own family. Through a series of events after the Boston Tea Party, Kate ends up helping Colin and his older brother Harrison forward the cause of the Patriots. Once the port of Boston is closed and soldiers are quartered in homes, Kate's participation becomes dangerous.

This book moves more briskly than Sarah's New World, and Kate gets to make more of a contribution, whether she is involved in passing messages or just helping her father or Colin (her father's apprentice) with medical work. She even has ambitions beyond the home: she would like to go into medicine, although she knows she can only become a midwife. The books do try to show a girl exercising her independence, while staying within the strictures of the time, rather than other historicals which show girls crossing lines that would have been forbidden to them.

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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 in Time" 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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31 October 2014

Books Completed Since October 1

book icon  The Rocketeer: Jet-Pack Adventures, Jeff Conner and Tom Waltz
Okay, this book is just fun: ten stories based on Dave Stevens' classic comic book "The Rocketeer," later made into a little more family-friendly film by Disney that was still one heck of an adventure.

All the pulpy tropes are here: square-jawed hero Cliff Secord who has a secret identity as a crime- and Nazi-fighting "rocketeer" using a jet pack developed by Howard Hughes, his lush and curvy girlfriend Betty (based on Bettie Page) who's usually to be found half-clad, his grumpy mentor and whiz mechanic Peevy, evil Nazis and mad scientists, and even some exotic locales, not to mention flying monkeys, sharkmen, Egyptian curses, doppelgangers, a snoopy tell-all reporter, supercilious flatfoots, goons, gun molls, and more. Plus there are some delightful cameos by real life people, and those were the three stories I enjoyed the most: "The Red, White & Grey" featuring Western author Zane Grey, "Codename: Ecstasy" with Hedy Lamarr, and "Rockets to Hell" guest-starring Johnny Weissmuller and featuring a creepy setting and enemy. I'm wondering if a sequel anthology is planned because at least three of the stories, including "Rockets to Hell," are definitely set up where another story is possible.

Unlike those classic pulps, Betty, even in her half-clad state, has brains, and doesn't turn into a fainting, clingy, actual pulp damsel in distress. One of the stories talks about discrimination against women specifically (perhaps a bit too didactically), and there are other female characters who are strong and no one's "dame." Do note if you have a child who's a fan of Disney's Rocketeer that this is a much more adult universe and not suitable: nothing is described, but Cliff and Betty are not chaste, and there are many instances of graphic violence, especially in "Atoll of Terror," which owes more than a tip of the hat to H.G. Wells. As Peevy might say, "This ain't no kiddie story, y'know."

book icon  The Sisters Grimm: The Inside Story, Michael Buckley
In this next-to-the-last book of the series, Sabrina and Daphne have taken it upon themselves to rescue their long-lost baby brother, who was born while their mother was in an enchanted sleep, and kidnapped by the being inhabiting their Grandmother's Magic Mirror in a plot to bring himself to life. For Sabrina and Daphne are Grimms, part of a family of fairy-tale detectives, now living in the town of Ferryport, a refuge for fairy tale characters. In this tale they take a whirlwind tour through various fairy tales, not only hunting Mirror and their brother, but the treacherous Pinocchio, who sold them out, accompanied by Puck, the mischievous teenage fairy. Sabrina, whose grit and simple stubbornness has sustained the girls through previous adventures, is beginning to doubt herself—will she be able to stay the course?

Most of this volume, frankly, feels like filler. The girls visit Oz and Wonderland, there are some interesting scenes between Puck and Sabrina, there's a unique magical device that aids them, and most importantly, they meet the Editor, the acerbic man who keeps the fairy tale characters in line within their stories. These latter encounters are interesting, especially the creepy revisers who blank any story which has diverged from the original, but the chase after both Mirror and the little boy, and after Pinocchio, seems to go on and on. It's necessary as a set-up for the final volume, but maybe that volume could have been lengthened a bit rather than give us monotonous chase scenes.

book icon  The Sisters Grimm: The Council of Mirrors, Michael Buckley
Well, damn, I had to see how it came out, didn't I? The final book in the series pulls no punches. Mirror, having taken over the body of Sabrina and Daphne's beloved grandmother, is determined to see the end of the Grimms and break down the barrier that separates Ferryport from the real world. At his side is Atticus Charming, the unknown brother of William, who has been redacted from the Snow White legend to protect her. The two will destroy the town—and possibly the world—to see their desires fulfilled. The Wicked Queen, Morgana, and Baba Yaga come together to form a coven. The Grimms train what is a pitifully small resistance. And then the stunning news comes: it must be Sabrina and Daphne who lead the fight against them.

The theme of this book is faith in yourself, and Sabrina is not the only one who needs to learn that lesson. Souls are lost and won, friends depart through betrayal and death, and the battles are not bloodless, nor are they always victorious. Each defeat ratchets up the tension. However, those of you following the storyline will be happy to know that all issues are resolved. ::wink::

book icon  Young Americans Colonial Williamsburg: Will's Story, 1771, Joan Lowery Nixon
This is one in a series of six books set in colonial-era Williamsburg. By trade, Will Pelham's father is a music teacher as well as the organist of the Bruton Parish Church, but he has accepted a job as the gaoler (warden) of the Williamsburg prison to make ends meet; the family lives in the same building as the jail and Will must help his father with the prisoners, a chore that sometimes frightens him. One of the other prisoners tells Will that Blackbeard the Pirate's ghost speaks to him; Will disbelieves him, but the man is persuasive and persistent. "Blackbeard" also "tells" the man one of the prisoners is planning an escape: Emmanuel, a slave who fled from an abusive master. Will knows the law: slaves must be returned to their masters. But he sympathizes with Emmanuel, too. Can he obey the law, and his father, and still help the abused man?

Think of this as an "American Girl" book about a boy, and based on an actual child. While the author has no way of knowing just what Will did or thought at this time, she nicely extrapolates with historical evidence of colonial children's chores and pastimes. At times the exposition is laid on a bit thick for its youthful readers, but it's necessary for them to understand what is going on. There are notes at the end about the real-life protagonists, about Williamsburg, about childhood in colonial days, and, in this book, about "crime and punishment." Quite worthwhile if you're a history buff. I didn't know this series existed and would love to read the other stories now!

book icon  Karen, Marie Killilea
Stories about children who overcame physical handicaps were very popular when I was growing up, and this book is a classic: the story of a Catholic family faced with an almost insurmountable problem who rose to the challenge.

Karen was born 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 (the 1940s)  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 more than a dozen doctors before they found one to help Karen. Plus their elder daughter had sinus problems, a bout with rheumatic fever, and then a tuberculosis scare; and money was short and for a time the father worked two jobs.

This is an old-fashioned book with the appropriate mores of the 1940s-1950s. 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 Louise 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. Still, this is an inspiring story, even today.

book icon  Lassie: Under the Big Top, Marian Bray
I've heard of this series of books for a few years now, but had never seen a copy until I walked into a used bookstore and found the first three books of this five-book series written in the 1990s for a Christian publisher. In this incarnation, Lassie belongs to the Harmon family and specifically to 12-year-old Jimmy, whose father is a minister, and in the first book of the series, Jimmy's faith is tested when Lassie is locked in a van and taken several hundred miles from home. His parents take him looking for her, but every lead seems to go nowhere. God, reasons Jimmy, knows how important to Lassie is to him, so why did God allow this to happen?

If you're a Lassie fan, the basic plot may sound a bit familiar: it's because Bray based the books on plots from the television series. This one is based on "Lassie's Odyssey" and we follow both Lassie's travels and the Harmons' efforts to find her. She eventually, as you might have suspected from the title, ends up in a circus. There are also touches of "The Dognappers." The elder Harmons are named Paul and Ruth, the next book features an "Uncle" Cully, and the third a "Mr. Krebs" and a mysterious "Mr. Nicholson." As for the story, I found some of the prose a bit stilted; Bray was trying to give it a Lassie Come-Home touch (she even repeats the story of how Sam Carraclough taught Lassie not to pick up meat off the ground) and her descriptions of Lassie's thoughts and the countryside are often beautiful but sometimes awkward. The Christian bits of the prose are not intrusive; it's basically still a matter of faith with Jimmy to believe that Lassie will still come home.

(Incidentally, Bray, taking another cue from Eric Knight, describes Lassie as a tricolor, but the television Lassie is a sable. A tricolor is mostly black.)

book icon  A Little House Christmas Treasury
Click here.

book icon  Lassie: Treasure at Eagle Mountain, Marian Bray
Jimmy is looking forward to a camping trip he'll be taking after school closes with his Dad and Uncle Cully, but when one of his Dad's parishoners is badly injured, Uncle Cully takes Jimmy and Lassie camping on his own. They are faring well, even after having their canoe set adrift by another visitor to the Lake Superior islands they are camping at. But when they see a beautiful eagle and find a lone cabin, once the home of a naturalist, Jimmy, his uncle, and Lassie are plunged into danger.

This is based on the Lassie two-parter "The Treasure," with certain parallels: camping, a character named Cully, an eagle (but not a golden eagle), a naturalist's cabin, and a mysterious message about treasure. In this outing the marauding poacher is more deadly than the television version, and part of the adventure serves to lead Uncle Cully, who's not a Christian any longer, to find his faith. There are some really lovely descriptions of the forest here and the beauty of nature. Jimmy's musing about his uncle's lack of faith may annoy some, but it's a nice solid adventure story, and even Jimmy's little sister, Sarah, after being a non-entity in the first book, does a good turn for him in this one.

book icon  Lassie to the Rescue, Marian Bray
It's almost Christmas, not to mention Jimmy's long-awaited thirteenth birthday, when he and his friend Blake, son of the town vet, come up with a scheme to get all the animals in the overcrowded no-kill shelter adopted by Christmas. Jimmy's idea has been inspired by an elderly toymaker, Gabriel Nicholson, who's helping out with a toy drive. Plus he's coping with playing Joseph in the Christmas pageant and trying to understand his grumpy neighbor Mr. Krebs, who seems to hate animals as much as his granddaughter Megan loves them—and wondering why his parents seem to have forgotten his birthday.

Yes, you've guessed it, based on "Lassie's Gift of Love," although Mr. Nicholson now travels in a classic truck rather than a wagon, and has a horse named Bess instead of a donkey name Holly. (Bess is another borrowing from Lassie Come-Home, the name of Rowlie Palmer's horse.) Mr. Krebs in the book doesn't seem half as grouchy as Matt Krebs in the television version, and the animal adoption scheme could have come straight out of a plot from The New Lassie. It's a pleasant enough Christmas tale, however.

book icon  Miss Potter, Richard Maltby Jr.
This is Maltby's novelization of his script for the sweet film based on the life and art of Beatrix Potter. It's a charming little romantic tale, and Maltby strengthens the text with more details into Potters life, and there is great delight in his description of her delicate drawings and the love of her characters. However, this is by no means a simplified biography of Beatrix Potter; many things were romanticized for the movie. If you loved the film, you will enjoy the book, but if you want a more accurate bio of Potter, read Linda Lear.

book icon  Re-read: The Years With Ross, James Thurber
When first the television series My World and Welcome to It and slightly later the film The War Between Men and Women were released, James Thurber's books enjoyed a resurgence, and The Thurber Carnival, Thurber's Dogs, My World and Welcome to It, My Life and Hard Times, The Thurber Album, and this book were all republished. I devoured them all, and even though I had barely heard of "The New Yorker," quite enjoyed Thurber's memoir of the eccentric original editor of the magazine, a country boy who wanted to present the most sophisticated of city magazines, an earthy man who was nevertheless shy about sexual references and had difficulties talking to most women, a man who did not finish school but who provided expert editing of the articles that made "The New Yorker" a survivor. Ross' personal quirks were well known to anyone who worked on the magazine, and Thurber affectionately chronicles his foibles and his "Rossisms."

For a full story of Harold Ross and his magazine one should go to other sources, but for a memoir of Ross by someone who was there during his tenure, crossed horns with him, but still respected him, Thurber's account is amusing, if not often laugh-aloud funny.

book icon  Coolidge, Amity Shlaes
One doesn't learn much about Calvin Coolidge in history class. He succeeded Harding after he died, he was president during "the Roaring 20s," he believed "the business of American is business," he was a Republican who supported some progressive causes. He was from Vermont, served as Massachusetts governor, and lost one of his teenage sons while in office. But his most famous quality was his reticince; he never used five words if one would do, and his nickname was "Silent Cal."

Shlaes fills in all the missing pieces about John Calvin Coolidge in this stout volume that goes from his ancestors to his death, his schooldays at an academy, his early days practicing law, etc. It's incredibly detailed; as with William Patterson's book about Robert Heinlein, it's like Shlaes was a fly on the wall. He even makes a note at one point that the Coolidge's collie was sick. Still, most of the narrative is enjoyable, although I felt like much of the time Shlaes was trying overly hard to make me like Coolidge, and that although he didn't talk much, he was a much warmer person than he appeared. Shlaes also emphasizes how hard Coolidge tried to cut down on Government spending—and how in many cases he did.

The biggest irony of reading this book was that I was doing so during the investigations into the Department of Veterans Affairs, because  in the 1920s Coolidge was furious about excesses and graft at the Veterans Bureau, as it was called then: tales of employees receiving equivalents of today's six-figure salaries for a month's work, or stealing supplies from the veterans to sell for profit. Things, sadly, never change.

book icon  Hermione Granger Saves the World, Bell
This is a fair collection of nonfiction essays about Hermione and her role in the Harry Potter books as well as her feminism. I think the essays are a little too focused on feminism; while Hermione is symbolic of independent young women, I just wanted to read about the character, not focus solely on her role as a feminist.

I do wish this volume had been proofread a bit more. In one of the early essays, the author refers to The Tales of Beetle and the Bard, which was jarring and made me doubt its veracity.

book icon  The Pierced Heart, Lynn Shepherd
Having sampled Shepherd's The Solitary House and found it a fairly interesting mystery despite not having read the Dickens' novel that was its inspiration (Bleak House) because her use of Dickensian language was so strong, I thought I would give this newest effort a try. I'm sorry to say I found it a less-than-stellar homage to Dracula. Victorian investigator Charles Maddox visits Baron Von Reisenberg in Austria to see if a donation promised to Oxford University by the Baron is legitimate. Instead he finds Von Reisenberg's name strikes terror in those whose homes surround his castle and the homestead itself is a place of horror. He escapes only by being confined to a hospital with a fever. But once back in London, he discovers the Baron has arrived there as well.

Shepherd's description, especially in the first third of the book where Maddox is in Austria, is haunting and atmospheric. You feel the penetrating cold, witness extraordinary and terrifying sights, shudder at the atmosphere of evil which permeates the surroundings. The problem is that the story itself doesn't live up to the descriptive language, and frankly Maddox isn't a very appealing protagonist. I was also bothered by the fact that this is the second novel of Shepherd's that I've read that features terrifyingly brutal things happening to women; some of the narrative is extremely hard to endure. Since I haven't sampled her first novel or the one that preceded The Pierced Heart, I'm not sure if this is a regular feature of her mysteries, but for myself twice is enough. I won't be ordering another one of her books again.

book icon  The Care and Management of Lies, Jacqueline Winspear
Winspear takes a departure from her Maisie Dobbs' mysteries to write this stand-alone novel about the effects of the Great War on a trio of friends. Kezia Marchant has been friends with Thea Brissenden and her brother Tom since she was in school with Thea. The girls have divergent personalities: Kezia is quiet and unassuming while Thea is restless and eager to "do something" with her life. When Kezia settles for marriage with Tom instead and becomes a farm wife, Thea is scornful and continues to support the suffragette movement. When Tom goes off to war, Kezia must bear the burden of running the farm.

This is a low-key story of how World War I changed even the smallest things about life in England, and how quiet people found strengths they didn't know they had. While Thea's eventual war service paints her as bold and self-sacrificing, she has taken up the cause only because of fear, while Kezia's home front efforts not only keep the the Brissenden farm going, but her letters to Tom, detailing the delicious meals she is learning to cook, provide emotional sustenance not only to Tom, but to his battalion mates.

The story rambles somewhat, like a summer day in the country, and those looking for Winspear's precise mysteries may be disappointed. However, as a whole I found it very enjoyable.

book icon  The Virago Book of Ghost Stories, edited by Richard Daley
I picked this up at the "Little Free Library" set up by the Sci-Fi Literature Track manager at DragonCon, figuring it would be perfect reading for Hallowe'en, and certainly it was. As in all short-story collections, there are some more interesting than others (and certainly that varies between people as well). Some classics are included here, like Edith Nesbit's (no, she didn't write only children's stories) "The Violet Car." Other favorites: a husband is haunted by the wife he ignored in "The Token," a ghostly child walks the halls of a sad home in "The Shadowy Third," the sweet "The Waiting Room," the story of a nurse who accepts a frightening assignment ("The Night Nurse"), the story of a man and a bath-chair ("Juggernaut"), and the creepy story of a river journey gone wrong ("Three Miles Up"). Probably my very favorite was about a man who rents a friend's apartment and is beset by "The Haunted Saucepan." And, happily, although there is some bloodshed, none of the stories are horribly gory; just good old-fashioned spooks and scares here.

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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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