A Cozy Nook to Read In  Book Vignette

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

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

15 October 2016

Browse Among the Books

Book Sale, Take 2 (and final)

book icon  A Newbery Hallowe'en (has a Madeleine L'Engle story in it I've never read)

book icon  The Land of the English People (this is a juvenile published after World War II)

book icon  My Pride and Joy by George Adamson (brand new, too!)

book icon  Christmas on the American Frontier, 1800-1900 (apparently the library is getting rid of all their copies)

book icon  The Map That Changed the World by Simon Winchester

book icon  Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint (another bad cover, but I used to love the Danny Dunn books)

Plus two older books for James that I thought he'd get a kick out of: one about the "modern sport" of model rocketry and another about rocket science that looks like its from the 1950s.

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14 October 2016

Notes from This Year's Fall Book Sale

$20 and a bunch of goodies.

book icon  A Treasury of American Heritage (articles from the magazine)

book icon  In Search of Centennial: A Journal With James A. Michener (about the making of the television miniseries)

book icon  America's Historylands: Landmarks of Liberty (collection of "National Geographic" articles)

book icon  Christmas Ornament Legends (a little book about the significance of figural Christmas ornaments—the pickle, grapes, rabbits, etc.)

book icon  The Stories of English, a nice big fat linguistics book by David Crystal)

book icon  The Story of Santa Klaus (a facsimile of a 1909 book)

book icon  Houseboat Girl (a Lois Lenski book I don't have! Dreadful cover, but the inside is intact)

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Mystery at Missile Town and ...at Mystery Mountain

And because I always come home with one goofy sort of book,

book icon  Night and Day (a collection of articles from a British magazine printed in 1937, rather "New Yorker" like—the column fonts even look familiar—and supposedly it went out of business after being sued by Shirley Temple ??? !!!)

Also bought two books for James I hope he doesn't have and two books to tuck in with Juanita's retirement gift. I also bought one I already had, but I can try to find it a good home, and if not, it only cost me a dollar and I will put it in the box to take to McKay's later this year.

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30 September 2016

Books Completed Since September 1

book icon  Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris
I can't believe how long it took for me to get through this book, even though I practically galloped through The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt; once again this is because once the book begins to discuss politics and its machinations, I find it tough going. And of course politics is the meat of this volume because it is about Roosevelt's presidency and there can be no ignoring the subject. I enjoy more the discussions of the man himself, his passions and his hates, his family dynamics and his adventurous side.

Nevertheless, I learned much during the political portions of the text: for instance, I did not know that the United States almost went to war with Venezuela in the early 1900s. Nor was I knowledgeable about Roosevelt's role in arranging peace between Russia and Japan after the Russo-Japanese War, especially with tensions growing in Europe that would lead to the first World War. We tend to see Roosevelt as a loved proponent of the Progressive movement without remembering how many political enemies he had, nor what unpopular decisions and actions he carried out, especially inviting Frederick Douglass to the White House (his mother's Southern ancestors, the Dixie newspapers cried, would have been appalled—and that was the kindest of the criticisms!) and mediating and finally shutting down a massive strike among the coal miners.

This is a dense, but quite absorbing book—pardon my political narrative prejudices!—which should please both Roosevelt fans and foes alike.

book icon  Star Trek Legacies, Book 1: Captain to Captain, Greg Cox
In this first of three books (written by different authors), the story goes back to Star Trek roots. While serving on the original crew of the Enterprise, Una (her real name is very long), otherwise known as "Number One" in the original pilot episode, is serving under Captain Robert April, the first captain of the legendary starship. Investigating new, unsavory developments on a technologically primitive planet, Una and her landing party run into a ruthless race from another universe determined to enslave ours.

This story is told in flashback as now Captain Una visits the Enterprise, ostensibly on a friendly reunion, but in reality on a mission to retrieve a hidden object in Captain Kirk's cabin, an artifact which has been hidden and passed down from April to Christopher Pike to Kirk.

Number One has been rather a forgotten crewmember in the Trek annals, and she gets good exposure in this novel by Cox—though occasionally she  does seem a bit more superheroic than may be possible. We saw her so briefly sketched in "The Cage" that it's nice to find a fully fleshed person in there, with strong commitments to her work and loyal friendships to her crewmates, including the man she considered her best friend. It's also great to see an appearance by Robert April and his wife Sarah, the ship's medical officer, first introduced in the animated Star Trek episode "The Counter-Clock Incident," working partners as well as lovers. The aliens, who are basically sentient snails, come off as a bit Doctor Who, chiefly all paranoid militants except for one scientist figure, but they ooze [sorry...] evil and are genuinely menacing in most of the text.

Yes, the appearance of a new supporting character is as obvious as you think it is, so it isn't much of a surprise when the end of the first volume is reached, but I enjoyed Una's adventure enough to see how it comes out in the concluding books.

book icon  The Annotated Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, Simon Barker-Benfield
Um, wait, didn't you say you hated Treasure Island? Um, yes, I did. I was dragged, summarily bored, through this book in seventh grade and haven't read it since. I simply don't "get" what people see in pirates. They are dirty thieves on ships. I know lots of people have romantic notions about them—how they are "free souls" who wander the seas—but, really, only a tiny subset of pirates (if any) lived like this. Otherwise they were on par with the Mafia.

And, specifically to Squire Trelawney, I always wanted to belt the guy, even at twelve years old. He let Long John Silver hoodwink him so easily!

However, here was this annotated edition really cheap in the bargain bin. Maybe I'd enjoy it more if I knew the background and history beyond the story and could figure out all those nautical terms? Well—no. Certainly the annotations made fascinating reading, and now I even know who Admiral Benbow was. I still don't like Squire Trelawney any better, but he was a good fighter during the siege on the island. However, even I have to appreciate what timeless and memorable characters these are. I remembered them all, even Mr. Arrow, too fond of the drink, and the fearful Israel Hands, and the creepy blind beggar Pew, and Stevenson sure could write a rousing adventure yarn. If you're a fan of Treasure Island, I certainly recommend this book!

book icon  Return to the Secret Garden, Holly Webb
Emmeline Hatton has known nothing but an orphanage all her life. The matrons are kind, but they can’t make up for having a place to really belong, and Emmie seems to be always in trouble. Her secret place, an old fire escape, is her only refuge, and it is there she befriends a small stray cat she names Lucy, something finally her own. But this is England, on the eve of the second World War, and when the children are evacuated from the Craven Home for Orphaned Children, Emmie is not permitted to take Lucy with her. Unhappy and resentful, she slowly begins to take an interest in things at her new “home,” Misselthwaite Manor, especially after she meets an inquisitive robin and finds a girl’s old diaries in her room.

This is lively, absorbing, and plausible sequel to the Burnett classic, which, unlike the sequel to A Little Princess which made excuses for all the bad characters as their just being unhappy, manages to capture a good deal of the appeal of its source. While the more modern vocabulary is not quite as rich as Burnett’s prose, the narrative does well describing the physical settings, and author does not shy away from realities, and the uncertainty of the evacuated children, the effect of the war on those at Misselthwaite, the atmosphere of a country at war (such as when a character talks to Emmie about the fate of animals in evacuated London), and best of all, creates plausible "futures” for the protagonists of the original novel, and creates parallels between this sequel and the original. There are also some wonderful, emotional scenes: a character’s belated reaction to bad news, Emmie’s realization upon meeting this person later that in her quest to find someplace to belong that she has made no allowances for the pain of others, a child hiding emotional pain behind a sarcastic front. If I have any complaint, it is that I would have loved more descriptions of the actual people: we know Emmie is thin and thinks herself “ugly,” that a certain character resembles their parent, that one character is short, that another wears a knitted cap and a little girl has a teddy bear. I would have liked to know more how these characters looked: the coloring, height, build of Arthur, Joey, and Ruby, for instance, and the matrons Miss Dearlove and Miss Rose. I scarcely know whether Emmie herself is brunette or blond. Burnett did such a good job of describing all her characters in a few succinct passages that I can see them clearly in my mind; I find I can’t do that with many of the characters in the sequel.

As an adult reading this book—the children reading it probably won’t care—I wish Ms. Webb had dipped into a few books of old British slang or even a couple of Enid Blyton novels to completely capture the speech and vocabulary of the era. There are some good strong references (“fish paste” sandwiches, candles as nightlights, blackout curtains, bread and butter for snacks), but at various times a modernism pops up that I find jarring: one character calls another “weird,” which is not a word a British child would have used in 1939, and another piece of dialog refers to someone having a “panic attack”; surely there were British slang words for that condition that would have been understandable to a modern child. (In The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox uses “hysterics,” which would have been fine.) Also, people are always listening to “the radio” when the word at that time would have been “the wireless,” another word that could have been explained in short order.

Although the protagonist of this story is a girl and the book is a sequel to what many define as a “girl’s book” (I disagree) despite the fact that there are two strong male characters in it, Return to the Secret Garden should be enjoyable to all children, especially as a read-aloud book. with its combination of both girl and boy characters and no frilly “princess” nonsense. It could lead to discussions about the feelings of children who have parents in the armed forces, and also is a historical introduction to World War II and the children evacuated from London. Other children’s fiction to read on this subject include Carrie’s War, The War That Saved My Life, and Back Home.

book icon  In Such Good Company, Carol Burnett
Imagine that you are flying to Los Angeles to New York, and for weather reasons, your flight is delayed several hours. To your surprise, at the airport you find yourself sitting next to Carol Burnett. You introduce yourself politely and tell her how much you loved her classic variety show. To your utter delight, Carol not only acknowledges your compliment with a smile, but she wants to continue the conversation! And you forget about the flight delay as Carol regales you with stories about behind the scenes at The Carol Burnett Show.

This is the feeling you get from reading this book, as if you and Carol are sitting together having a cup of tea and she’s reminiscing. It’s written in a friendly, conversational style that anyone from 8 to 80 can enjoy. Along the way you find out a little of Carol’s background and her time on The Garry Moore Show, about the early careers of her regular cast, and them fun stories about the gestation of some of the most memorable skits, from the recurring—“Mr. Tudball and Mrs. ‘Hwiggins’”—to the memorable—“Went With the Wind” and other hilarious movie parodies. There’s also a chapter about the unique costume requirements of the series—yes, including the curtain dress! She devotes a whole chapter to the development and life of the “Mama” skits, including a sobering tale about reading one of them straight instead of playing it for laughs. Plus there are riotous stories chronicling Tim Conway’s eternal mission to break up Harvey Korman—they used to wager on the set just how long it would take Conway to make Korman laugh—and the story behind the skit that has become an internet favorite, the “elephant story.”

If you were one of the thousands who waited for Saturday night just to spend an hour with Carol, Vicki, Lyle, Harvey, Dick, Tim, and the other members of the company, this is the book for you. It can be read at any time, but is a perfect bedtime book, to conclude your day with a smile!

In addition, the book includes an index of all episodes and the guest stars.

book icon  A Mile of Make-Believe: A History of the Eaton's Santa Claus Parade, Steve Penfold
Today on Thanksgiving everyone tunes into the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC with scant glance toward whatever is running on the other channels, but I remember Thanksgiving Day in the 1960s, when CBS broadcast something called “The Thanksgiving Day Parade Jubilee,” featuring four parades, including Macy’s, Gimbels parade from Philadelphia, J.L. Hudson’s from Detroit, and a fourth parade from Toronto, Canada, the Eaton’s [department store] Santa Claus Parade. As I grew a little older, I realized Eaton’s parade wasn’t really broadcast on Thanksgiving—Canada’s Thanksgiving is in October; CBS announcers always did tell you that it was “pre-recorded”—and it was an “odd duck” compared to the others, with floats devoted to fairy tales, including the always wonderful “Mother Goose” float which opened the parade, a woman dressed in old-fashioned garb riding the back of a huge, beautiful white goose. Even the fairy tales were a little different—perhaps British or French, I thought when I saw stories that I did not recognize.

This is a scholarly book about the history of the Eaton’s parade, from its simple beginnings when Santa Claus came to town riding on the back of a truck in the early years of the 20th century, through its golden years in which Eaton’s held other Santa Claus parades in Montreal and Winnipeg (among others), and finally of its fading years to the year a failing Eaton’s finally gave up sponsorship of the parade (1982; the parade still continues under the aegis of the City of Toronto). It’s the story of how a shopping promotion quickly became “a tradition” which generations of children and parents observed, how nationalistic tendencies changed the parade in various cities (the Montreal parade always had more French associations than its Toronto cousin and there were often protests that French heritage was not acknowledged enough; in addition, shifting attitudes to people of color and First Nations people changed how these elements were portrayed in the parade), how the management of Eaton’s once insisted that commercial endeavors (like Disney or television characters) stay out of the parade—although that was eventually rescinded, and how the parades affected city traffic, people’s memories of Christmas, and what was seen as the increasing “commercializing” of the holiday.

Once television enters the picture, there is also discussion of how television coverage changed the route of the parade, and how attendance fell when people thought they could have a better view of the parade—especially children who had to peer over the shoulders of rude adults who blocked them—at home on their color television than braving traffic, crowds, and often freezing and inclement weather. (There is actually brief discussion of the CBS broadcast and puzzlement from Canadian viewers on “what a Santa Claus parade had to do with Thanksgiving.”)

If you were an American CBS watcher, like me, who fondly remembers the Santa Claus parade from its Thanksgiving Day heyday, you may enjoy this peek behind the scenes history.

The text is liberally illustrated with vintage black-and-white photographs of the parade.

book icon  Brute Strength, Susan Conant
After All Shots was released in 2007, I didn't see one of Conant's "Dog Lover's Mysteries" again. I thought she had finally given them up to co-author a set of cooking mysteries with her daughter. Which is why I was flabbergasted when I was looking up one of Laurien Berenson's mystery books (also involving dogs) and found not one, but two newer books that I had never seen in any bookstore or found on Amazon (but then I had quit looking after a couple of  years). The moment I had more Amazon points, I sent for both. (I noticed she had a new publisher, which might solve the mystery of why I hadn't seen them.)

Dog trainer and writer Holly Winter is busy making enemies (she works for Malemute rescue and often has to turn down applicants, who don't like her very much for doing so) and refereeing a quarrel between her best friend and her newest boyfriend as the story opens, so she happily makes a new friend on one of her walks, a woman named Vanessa who owns an attractive female Malemute and who loves Jane Austen. Holly no sooner meets Vanessa's family, including golden boy son Hatch, colorless daughter Vanessa, and hypochondriac father Tom, than Vanessa's future daughter-in-law Fiona dies in a car crash. Unfortunately, that's not the end of the strange events happening within Holly's circle of friends and family.

As soon as I started reading, I was home again: Holly, husband Steve, Rowdy and Kimi and all the other dogs of the pack, best friend Rita, neighbor Kevin and his mother, Holly's eccentric father Buck and her ever-patient stepmother Gabrielle. To be frank, I suspected a certain character from the first, but didn't care because I wanted to know why the person was acting this way. It's a lively mixture of Holly's usual dog-centric commentary, mystery, suspense (involving obscene phone calls being made to Malemute rescue), and the delightful Cambridge neighborhood in which it all takes place. Conant even finally addressed one of my sore points in the last few books: Holly's cat Tracker, who has to stay confined to her office, explaining that the cat's temperament makes her unadoptable and reclusive.

And the best part is that I still have another one to read!

book icon  Like the Willow Tree: The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce, Lois Lowry
Lowry, most well known for her award-winning book The Giver, takes a turn at a "Dear America" entry with the story of the Pierce children, Lydia, just turned eleven, and rebellious Daniel, fourteen, who live a quiet middle-class life in Portland, Maine in the closing months of World War I—until the Spanish influenza sweeps through the city, taking their parents and baby sister. Sent to live with an uncle and aunt already overcrowded with six children, they are finally given over to the Shakers, the simple-living industrious Christians who live at Sabbathday Lake. Lydia comes to love her guardian, Sister Jennie, and her "sisters" (the girls she lives with), but Daniel soon runs away.

This is a very sweet book about a girl early coping with loss and being taken in by the pacifist, celibate Shakers (who, despite their simple lifestyle, Lydia discovers are not without humor and allow the children to play as well as work), but nothing really happens during the story except Lydia's worry over her brother and talk about her chores and new friends. It's not a boring book, but to me it seems more like an adult's book, and that mostly only quiet, retrospective children would have the patience to read it all the way through. For my part, I found it more compelling than the San Francisco earthquake story, with its artificial mystery element and sinister villains.

Most of the Shaker adults in the story were real people and I enjoyed the way Lowry brought them to life.

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31 August 2016

Books Completed Since August 1

book icon  Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne from a story by J.K. Rowling
One must approach this book with two things in mind: it's only from a story by J.K. Rowling and it's the script of a play, not a novel. It is the latter that hurts this book the most, because, since we cannot see the the emotions that the actors are imparting to these characters and their lines, we really miss a lot of what drives them (Ron, in particular, comes off as a bit of a nitwit). Rowling's sharply pointed narrative is missed as well as some of her wordplay. Plus what drove Albus to feel the way he does doesn't seem to be well explained—one day he's on the train, there are a few pages of bridging dialog, and then full-blown teenage angst and resentment emerges from what seems to be left field. Maybe it's more acted out on the stage.

I did ultimately enjoy the story: Albus' friendship with Scorpius Malfoy and their partnership with Delphini Diggory, Harry's still-lingering ghosts after the death of Cedric Diggory, the exploration of "roads not taken" via alternate timelines, and further takes on the character of Severus Snape. And, yeah, I cried at the end, so the story accomplishes what it set out to do.

book icon  Time Unincorporated: The Doctor Who Fanzine Archives/Volume 3: Writings on the New Series, from Mad Norwegian Press
The title, the editors explain, is a bit of misnomer. Fewer Doctor Who fanzines exist today—not because the series is less popular, but because the internet has pretty much replaced fanzines. At least  half of the essays are original to the volume.

While this volume has the usual variety of excellent, or at least interesting, essays that Mad Norwegian is known for, I was a little less absorbed by this volume because it was about a recent and known quantity, the new series, and there's been so much written about it that it's almost overkill. Still, notable essays stand out: one that illustrates that the final episode of the old series, the television movie, and "Rose" show an almost seamless progression, so that the old series and the new are not as far apart as thought; a piece about the Christmas specials; a funny and mad "dialog" about illegally downloading episodes; an essay about the morality of the Doctor; a humorous tale of "Barrowmania," essays on both Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures...did I say "less absorbed"? Oh, heck, I guess there's never too many Doctor Who essays!

Carry on, Mad Norwegian!

Incidentally, on the spine of my copy it says "Writings on the Classic Series." Ooops.

book icon  The Elements, Theodore Gray
I've wanted this book ever since I laid eyes upon it, and when I saw the paperback at $10 I bought it so quickly you couldn't see my credit card move. It's the very definition of a coffee table book, oversize, thick paper, color printing, with two pages each (some more popular elements have four pages) on each element, with photographs of items that contain that element (atomic weights, structure, electron paths, spectrum prints, and other more complicated chemical facts are included as well). In the later pages, with the more theoretical elements, each page holds multiple elements and explains where the name of that element comes from. You might wonder what real knowledge a person might gain from this glorified picture book—and you might be correct, but it's great just for its gorgeousness. The illustrations included nuggets and crystals, old specimen bottles with solutions inside them, metallic bars and parts, it's just great to look at.

Unfortunately the author is also insane; he thinks icky CFLs with their glare bright light and headache-inducing tendencies are better than incandescent bulbs. Forgive him, God, he knows not what he says.

book icon  The Lost Art of Dress, Linda Przybyszewski
Considering that my favorite mode of dress in winter is a sweatshirt and sweatpants and that I don't even wear a dress to work, one might think this book would be the last thing I would buy, but I was fascinated by the topic.

Home Economics came of age just before World War I, after years of restrictive fashion for women was giving way to clothing that helped her move naturally and participate in sports. It was a little-respected science at the time, but its proponents did not let it stop them. When Great War-era women asked for advice on fashion, domestic science produced the Dress Doctors: women who looked at the whole picture of a woman's build, mathematical ratios, color coordination, and fabric types and made recommendations so accurate that at one time American women were considered the best-dressed women in the world. The Dress Doctors followed one from childhood to girlhood to womanhood, recommending the ideal of proportion of eight "heads," and within that framework produced options every woman could use. These ideas were spread not only in domestic science courses in school, but by the 4H and settlement houses, and during the lean years of the Depression and the rationed years of World War II, the Dress Doctors came up with economical alternatives.

The author's narrative was so lively and the subject so interesting that I didn't even mind that it was about hated sewing. By the time they got to the baggy, childish dresses of the 1960s, I was in complete agreement and wish we'd learned about this in school in the 1970s, especially the budgeting concepts that young women learned alongside cooking and sewing lessons! Sewing fans, women's studies majors, history buffs, and someone just interested in a neat story will all enjoy this one.

book icon  City of Darkness and Light, Rhys Bowen
Molly Murphy Sullivan is delighted by her sturdy baby boy Liam, but worried about her police captain husband Daniel: he's working later nights on something dangerous to do with the Society of the Black Hand. All her fears come true when someone tosses a bomb through the window of Daniel and Molly's little house in Greenwich Village, killing Annie, the little Irish girl that Molly rescued from an abusive situation, who dies protecting baby Liam. Daniel wants Molly and Liam out of the city and fears she will be traced even to his mother's home in Westchester, but a solution has presented itself: she will go stay with her two wealthy friends Sid and Gus, who are studying art in Paris. But when Molly gets to Paris, Sid and Gus have vanished from the pension where they were staying, and when Molly tries to find them, she finds instead the body of a famous American artist.

Turn-of-the-century Paris—which turns out to be as much of a character as the people Molly interacts with—is vividly portrayed in Molly's search for her friends...and for a murderer; she immediately finds herself rubbing shoulders with famous artists (what Quantum Leap always referred to as "a kiss with history"), including Mary Cassatt, as well as getting herself involved in the mystery of the deceased artist, whom she finds out was not universally beloved. The mystery moves at a good clip, with a slowly-building suspense that does not let up once she finds out the fate of her friends, plus a few hair-raising escapes for good measure. (You may wonder how Molly investigates a murder since she has a baby with her, but in the fortuitous Murphy world she finds a pleasant young woman, daughter of the local baker, who is happy to take over care of Liam while Molly goes sleuthing, and the situation even makes sense.) A great entry in Bowen's Molly Murphy series, and at least we don't have to endure Daniel telling her to stay out of his cases!

book icon  The Hired Girl, Laura Amy Schlitz
Fourteen-year-old Joan Scraggs lives the life of a drudge on her father's farm cleaning up after her dad and four brothers, all of whom seem to hate her. She longs for education and to become a teacher, but her father seems set to work her to death the way he did her mother. She might even settle for some love. The last straw comes when her father burns her only three "friends," her beloved books. Finding out from a newspaper that she can get paid work in the city for the same labor she performs for free daily on the farm, Joan runs away to the city of Baltimore using money her mother hid in her doll and is rescued by Solomon Rosenbach, a young Jewish man. She tells his family her name is Janet Lovelace and that she is an eighteen-year-old looking for a job. The family hires her and so begins "Janet's" real education—in city life, in the life of a faith different from her own, in believing in herself.

I really enjoyed this book, which Schlitz based on the diary of her grandmother. Janet/Joan is a real teenager; her moods go up and down depending on what is going on in her life, but despite her almost animalistic upbringing—you will tear up when Joan finally confronts her father and finds out why he acts the way he does—she is good at heart and makes a difference to the people in the Rosenbach household. Her crush on Solomon's handsome brother goes on a bit long, but is typical of a girl her age, and there are some funny, and not-so-funny, hijinks in the process. I really appreciated that although Janet/Joan was a devout Catholic that she did not allow the prejudices of certain church members to change her opinions of the Rosenbach family, really loved her relationship with Mimi Rosenbach, and was glad that she came to love Malka, the elderly housekeeper who initially bedevils her.

In addition, Joan's description of her housework duties, both on the farm and in the city, will make your doubly glad you don't live in 1911!

book icon  Art in the Blood, Bonnie MacBird
I was really looking forward to this book after hearing MacBird read excerpts from it at 221B Con [a Sherlock Holmes convention]. Now that I've read it, I can say I enjoyed it, but not as much as I thought I would, especially after I found out the custom illustrations we had seen at the convention were not in the hardback or the paperback, only in the special edition. (You can see them online here, but it's just not the same.)

Dr. John Watson finds his friend Sherlock Holmes in deep depression after unsuccessfully trying to capture Jack the Ripper; surprisingly the great detective is aroused from ennui by an encoded letter from a Frenchwoman who says her son has been kidnapped. Upon arriving in Paris, an interview elicits that the woman is a dancer at a French club and her son is the illegitimate son of a British lord. Before you can says "blue carbuncle," Holmes and Watson are attacked by thugs at the club, make the acquaintance of the great French detective Jean Vidocq, and discover that the disappearance of a Greek antiquity—just coincidentally something the elder Holmes brother Mycroft is invoved with—may turn out to be related to the boy's father.

MacBird's prose flows easily enough, not in direct imitation of Conan Doyle, but usually suggestive enough for the story to sound authentic. The story is certainly more action-packed than most Holmes mysteries (although Holmes is perfect able to comport himself physically), famous names are dropped periodically (look, there's Toulouse Latrec!), and there are little inconsistencies that quirk at TruFen (for instance, Mary Morstan has a sick mother in this outing, but canon has established her as an orphan). Vidocq is based on a true person, a French criminal-turned-detective, but his character in this book is just flat annoying. (Holmes is partially based on Vidocq, which makes him an inside joke.) I would recommend the book, but a Holmes purist may not see beyond these flaws.

book icon  Dawn of the Belle Epoque, Mary McAuliffe
After reading both City of Darkness and Light and Art in the Blood, both which have significant settings in Paris and "kisses with history" with artists and other 19th/early 20th century celebrities, I naturally gravitated to this one next.

Dawn is a bit like an impressionist painting, with a chronological story opening at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in a Paris still smarting from the loss, and progressing year by year, following the artists, the authors, the musicians, the political repercussions, the styles, and the culture that would all mark this period of history. The painters and sculptors, including the usually overlooked talent Berthe Morisot and the later-famous Mary Cassatt, supply the lions' share of the narrative, as the new painting style, "impressionism" (once an insult) is criticized and then finally accepted and admired, and writers like Dumas the Younger, Zola, and Hugo leave their marks on French literary society.

McAuliffe skips from subject to subject, sometimes with awkward segues, which may annoy some readers, but don't think of this as a straight history: view it as a scrapbook of the era one has unearthed from the depths of an antique shop, to page through to see the brilliant flares of character in bright cutouts pasted on each page: Sarah Bernhardt and Cesar Ritz, Victor Hugo and Georges Clemenceau, Ravel and Debussy, Gauguin and Manet, Cezanne and Monet, the art studios in Montmartre, Gustave Eiffel following his engineering career little knowing he will one day build a Parisian icon, the American expatriot Whistler, the cruel bigotry of the Dreyfus affair and the saga of Emile Zola, the reign of fashion designer Charles Worth (whose gowns were de rigueur for wealthy Victorian ladies),  the rebirth of the narrow medieval streets of Paris into wide boulevards, absinthe, squalid truths, bare garrets, and splendid beauties—just a few of the names and situations that inhabit this book. I found it captivating and can't wait until the sequel is released in paperback.

book icon  Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee
The shock waves went deep on this one. To Kill a Mockingbird is such an iconic novel, and Atticus Finch such the ideal of the honest lawyer, defending his client against impossible odds, and the unique, loving father, that when it was revealed in the pages of this novel that, horror of horrors, Atticus Finch was a racist, it overwhelmed almost everything else about the book. None of it should have surprised anyone: Atticus was a product of his time. He defended Tom Robinson not from some ideal about race equality, but because he knew Tom was innocent, and to him convicting an innocent man, whether Negro or white, was anathema to him, a blot upon the legal system he so respected. (And still Atticus is fighting in his own way in his own era; he invites the Ku Klux Klan speaker to the courthouse so that the man reveals his own prejudices while still feeling he was allowed free speech, without totally agreeing with him.)

The real problem with this book is its sheer pedestrian narrative. Scout's voice in To Kill a Mockingbird is so fresh, so vivid, so unique, and tells such a compelling story that the third-person narration of Go Set a Watchman is flat and sometimes flatfooted in comparison. The older Jean Louise and her dull fiancee aren't a patch on Scout, Jem, and Dill, and the swift dismissal of Jem's future is all the more uncomfortable having read Mockingbird first. Had Watchman actually been published first, I doubt if many people would have waited impatiently to read Harper Lee's second novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Uncle Jack, who's such a pleasant figure in Mockingbird, becomes a pompous windbag who speaks in quotations and aphorisms and babbles about the classics to make his point, and poor Atticus just sits around and suffers with arthritis when he's not quietly opposing the NAACP. (Plus there's a few inconsistencies: here Francis is Aunt Alexandra's grandson, not her son; Jean Louise's fiance was apparently a close friend of theirs from childhood, although he doesn't appear in Mockingbird at all.) There are still some affecting situations, especially when Jean Louise goes back to visit Calpurnia and finds things have changed in their relationship, and we get to see some of Scout's hijinks as she grew from small girl to adolescent, but most of this book is merely a jog-trot through familiar territory without any of the pleasures. A library read if there ever was one.

book icon  Dead Presidents, Brady Carlson
Carlson fell in love with presidential stories as a schoolboy, but it was only after he visited Abraham Lincoln's grave in Springfield, Illinois, that he became fascinated with the afterlives of the presidents, whether it be their graves (Lincoln, for instance, is encased in concrete to keep people from stealing his body after several attempts were made to do just that), their tributes (museums, city names, school names, state names, the Interstate highway system), or the odd or even gruesome events (think poor James Garfield, killed by doctors sticking dirty fingers in his bullet wound) surrounding their deaths. In this book Carlson travels from Mount Vernon to Monticello, New York to California, and even out to the Kansas prairies to discover that sometimes the death story is just as compelling as the life story (certainly William Henry Harrison is known more for his one-month presidency and death from pneumonia more than for his prowess as a general.).

Rather than their being arranged chronologically, Carlson groups his presidents by categories—George Washington and Abraham Lincoln soloing, naturally—presidents with gruesome deaths, controversial presidents, forgotten presidents (think Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce, whose names usually turn up only in trivia contests), presidents with libraries or monuments, obscure presidential tributes, etc. To some the narrative might appear a bit scattershot, but I appreciated the author ditching the usual chronological order as in informational booklets about the presidents to give us a unique comparative story instead, and I enjoyed it very much.

book icon  Black Dove, White Raven, Elizabeth Wein
Americans Rhoda and Delia met during the Great War and immediately became soulmates. Both marry: Rhoda an Italian and Delia an Ethiopian, and both have children, a girl and a boy, respectively. Together they performed airplane acrobatics as Black Dove (Delia) and White Raven (Rhoda) and raised their children alone—until the day Delia died from a bird strike. But she and Rhoda had a dream: to go live in Ethiopia, where Delia and her son Teo would live a life without the segregation rampant in the United States in the 1920s; Rhoda was still determined to make that dream come true, and eventually it did. But the little family of three—Rhoda, daughter Emilia, and Teo—are about to lose their happy life when the Italians advance on Ethiopia.

Taking place mainly in the 1930s, and told alternately by Em, Teo, and through their fictional Black Dove/White Raven stories in which the fears emerging in their lives take fictional form, this appealing adventure story follows Em and Teo from their earliest memories to the "now" of the threat of Italian invasion, where Rhoda fights for their home and Teo learns a horrifying secret about his father that affects his future. Both children learn to fly from Rhoda, but while Teo is a natural pilot, Em struggles with each flight, until a crisis forces her to face her fears.

Wein paints a lovely portrait of pre-invasion Ethiopia, where modern medicine and respect for native culture co-exist, and of the bond shared by Delia and Rhoda that lasts beyond death and the friendship of Emilia and Teo. Rhoda's unconventional Quaker family is also a compelling factor in the opening chapters of the book. The landscapes are lovingly drawn and, as always in a Wein novel, the magic and majesty of flying has a prominent role. While the situation may not be quite as compelling as Code Name Verity, the characters and setting are unforgettable.

book icon  Pony Girl, Janet Randall
This is a children's book from the early 1960s that I picked out a freebie bin somewhere having never heard of the book or the author, who apparently wrote other books with horses in them. Peggy Warmack and her little brother Jimmy, along with their father "Slim" Warmack, a rodeo star just getting over a serious injury, live on a small ranch in Nevada. Their dad arrives home one day, having unsuccessfully tried going on the rodeo circuit once more, without his rodeo horse and with a shocking surprise, a blowsy bright woman named Maida that he introduces to the kids as their new stepmother. But further shocks are in store: Slim is giving up the rodeo business and he and Maida have bought a pony ride concession in California.

The family makes the move to California with Peg and Jimmy still resentful of Maida, and arrive in California to find the former owner of their new house left it a trashy mess and left the ponies for the pony ride starving. But as they all pitch in to care for the ponies and get the concession on its feet, the kids find out Maida is more an ally than an enemy. Now if only they could make some money and get on their feet, and also find out who is trying to put the carnival their concession is attached to out of business.

In a gentler, yet tougher, way than would be used today, the author addresses things like getting used to a stepparent, animal cruelty, facing death, prejudice toward people living different lifestyles (Peg makes a friend in school who is forbidden to associate with her because she is "one of those carnival people"), and other childhood problems. The story is relatively free of gender stereotypes: although Maida and Peg clean and cook, they also run the pony concession and take care of the animals, and no one suggests Peg shouldn't ride and go out exploring just like the boy she befriends. There's a pony named Golliwog in the story that might give some people pause, but the name is not used to further a racial stereotype, and I was impressed that there was a Native American character who neither talked "ugh you see 'um" stereotypical "Indian language" nor had some mystic Native American "woo-woo" factor associated with him. A child today could still read this and not have any problems.

book icon  My Year With Eleanor, Noelle Hancock
I'm an Eleanor Roosevelt fan, and was intrigued by the theme of this book. Hancock, just laid off from her six-figure job with a gossip website, fearful of her increasingly intimate relationship with her boyfriend not to mention many other things, still sparring with a father who wants her to be a lawyer, and with her 30th birthday on the horizon, takes to heart a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: "Do one thing every day that scares you." Having saved money, she decides to embark on a one-year project of doing something that frightens her every day. Along the way, she hopes to give up sleeping pills and give more consideration to her future with boyfriend Matt.

While this book does have its compelling parts—afraid of death (one of my own fears), Noelle volunteers at a funeral parlor; she volunteers working with cancer patients; and she climbs Mount Kilimanjaro—I had a lot of problems with her other "fear" choices. So many of her fears were that far out (skydiving, performing kareoke, flying in a fighter jet, performing standup comedy, being in a shark cage) that I thought it was kind of dumb. She's so very insecure that she can't figure out what to do with the incredibly patient and loving Matt. When she hasn't time to do something frightening during the day, she runs naked down the main hallway of her boyfriend's apartment house at night to fulfill her promise. At least she's grateful for him, as well as for her three crazy friends who go with her skydiving and being dunked in the shark tank (I can't believe the shark tank people let her go down there without more instruction on how to use her scuba gear!), because most people would have lost patience with her a long time ago. Her therapist seems to be God to her.

The last third of the book is the most palatable. She seems to have matured and does indeed work out a lot of her fears working at the mortuary and climbing Kilimanjaro. Otherwise she strikes me as a ditz who lucked out on a 6-figure salary early in her life and then had to figure out what to do with the rest of it.

(BTW, does Hancock really think women pee out of their vaginas? Yeah, this is mentioned on page 260.)

book icon  Shakespeare's Pub, Pete Brown
At Christmas we still see them: the images of happy travelers on English stagecoaches, schoolboys and rosy-cheeked chubby businessmen heading home for the holidays. The stagecoach era was very short, and almost all of the "coaching inns" associated with it are gone, except for this one: the George Inn in Southwark, reduced in size substantially from what it was during its prime and rebuilt twice in the 1600s, but still surviving. Chaucer's fictional pilgrims probably stopped here, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre was nearby and he probably drank there, and Charles Dickens was a customer (one of the licensees used to insist The George is where Mr. Pickwick met Sam Weller, even though the book calls the rendezvous The White Hart).

With an amusing, breezy narration, Brown tells the history of The George, from 1475 to the present, and in the process chronicling the history of the Southwark area of London, especially during The George's heyday as a coaching inn. You'll meet the watermen of the Thames, the pollution, the tawdry recreations of earlier days (bearbaiting, cockfights, gin houses, and of course the ever-popular brothels), the recollections of later licensees, and the efforts to save the Inn from the curse of urban renewal. While the connection to Shakespeare is rather tenuous, a Dickens fan will enjoy dipping in here as well, especially if their interest is Pickwickian.

The only problem I had with this book were the large number of references to modern British pop stars I didn't know. The history bits are quite enjoyable.

book icon  Murder at Marble House, Alyssa Maxwell
The second of the Emma Cross "Gilded Newport" mysteries opens where the first left off, with Emma having discovered that the "reporter" who helped her in the previous book is really Derrick Andrews, scion of a wealthy Providence, RI, family. Emma has no time for his romantic overtures although she is drawn to him, and is just recovering from their encounter when her Aunt Alva calls her and demands she visit. Emma, a "poor relation" of the Vanderbilts, arrives at Marble House to find her aunt wants her to help talk her cousin Consuelo into an arranged marriage. Later in the day there will be a get-together where a "mystic" will tell fortunes and Aunt Alva wants Consuelo sparkling for the event. But that never happens because the fortune teller is found murdered out in the gazebo. Now not only does Emma feel obliged to help Consuelo, but she also wants to free the young maid accused of the crime.

I will admit I found this a page-turner as Emma encounters each new suspect. However, my criticism of this series stands: the vocabulary often throws you out of the story very quickly. Really, would a woman in 1895 talk about another woman as being "victimized"? Other things have a "boy's own adventure" aroma about them, like Emma dressing as a man to investigate a situation and being thrown into some danger; as much as she espouses being independent, a man has to rescue her from the situation. She also seems to travel around Newport very freely in an era where women were carefully chaperoned, and frankly I don't see Consuelo Vanderbilt doing what she ended up doing.

Still, I enjoy the Newport setting, and Emma's determination to make something of herself in the newspaper field appeals to me. This one also does a real hatchet job on Alva Vanderbilt, who basically shopped her daughter out to the British peerage so she could brag she had a "real duchess" in the family and who had a strong will and temper (Maxwell makes Alva sound meaner than a wolverine). I'd love it if Maxwell would keep up with the vocabulary of the time, but here I am on the second book, so I suppose I'm managing still.

book icon  Carry On, Rainbow Rowell
In Fangirl, Rowell introduced us to Simon Snow, the hero of a series of eight books, and fanfiction fodder for Fangirl's protagonist Cath and her sister Wren. Elements of the Snow "universe" were excerpted in the book as Cath's stories. Rowell got so intrigued by the fanfic characters that she created that she decided to write a real Simon Snow novel.

Like Harry Potter, Simon goes to a magical school called Watford, has had a bad home life (he lives in an orphanage), has a close friend in Penelope (the Hermione of the piece), a girlfriend in Agatha, and an antagonist in his roommate Basilton "Baz" Pitch, whom he's discovered is a vampire. Spells are cast with Magic Words, the head of the school, the Mage, is Simon's protector, and Simon even has a vicious enemy, the Insidious Humdrum. Unlike Harry Potter, Simon spends a lot of time feeling sorry for himself, and his roommate is not only a vampire, he's gay, and in love with Simon. The latter was a great deal of the focus of Cath's fanfiction, but frankly, in the book all the moping of Baz over Simon and Simon over Baz gets old pretty fast. In fact, Baz is a lot more interesting character than Simon, and so is Penelope, for that matter, since Simon's always whinging about one thing or the other. What carried the story for me was the fascination of the Magic Words (you could use a cliche, or a song lyric, if only the emotion behind it was strong) and the conundrum of the Humdrum [wordplay intended] looking exactly like Simon as an eleven-year-old boy.

I probably should have waited for the paperback, but it wasn't half bad, either.

book icon  The Perfect Horse, Elizabeth Letts
Following Letts' absorbing story of the jumping horse Snowman in The Eighty-Dollar Champion, she hits the bullseye again with this suspenseful story of the rescue of the priceless Lipizzaner horses of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. As a child I'd seen Walt Disney's Miracle of the White Stallions and thought I knew most of the story, but of course it was even more complicated than that. Not only were the Lipizzaners in Vienna endangered, but so were the breeding mares and foals that lived in the Piber Valley, and also champion Arabian horses in Poland. All of these horses were brought together by Gustav Rau, a horse fancier and Nazi officer who was collecting these animals for the Reich, in order to breed the perfect horse for war: powerful, tireless, and eating minimal food. He was fascinated by the Lipizzaners and planned to change their beautiful lines for something more suitable for working.

Letts brings together all the players in the story: Alois Podhajsky, the director of the Spanish Riding School; Gustav Rau; Stanislaw Pohoski, the director of the Arabian stud farm in Poland; Rudolf Lessing, the veterinarian for the Arabians; Hank Reed, the American cavalry officer who is the last of a dying breed; plus Tom Stewart, Ferdinand Sperl, and the others that took part in the amazing rescue, including a cameo from General George Patton, to tell the story of totalitarian obsession, love of horses, dangerous missions, delicate negotiations, war-scarred villages, exploding bombs, avaricious Soviets, determined Americans, and the beautiful animals they are trying to save. A great war story, but even better if you're a lover of horses or, still, like me, a fan of Miracle of the White Stallions from way back in 1963.

book icon  A Front Page Affair, Radha Vatsal
Capability Weeks, better known as "Kitty," has had an eclectic, around-the-world education, but having a job is a new experience for her. In 1915, she is hired to be the assistant to Miss Busby, the Ladies' Page editor at the New York Sentinel. Kitty gets her first big assignment when she attends the garden party of the wealthy Elizabeth Basshor in place of her under-the-weather boss. She's in the midst of gathering color for her article when she notes an older man and his much younger wife (once a showgirl); later, after a fireworks display, the older man is found shot dead in the stable. Kitty desperately wants to follow up on this real case, but it's not something a young woman does in 1915. Can she juggle an investigation, her social job, and even a rival—and figure out why the FBI is trailing her father?

This is a pleasant enough cozy mystery with, to my surprise, a plot element that came directly from a nonfiction book about the first World War that I read a couple of years ago. Despite her practical demeanor and intelligence, Kitty is initially a bit careless at her first job, and it is interesting to follow her growth as her investigation proceeds. Vatsal also vividly illustrates the strikes against women working in journalism in Kitty's day: they were considered not intelligent enough to remember anything but feminine facts (clothing details and society gossip) and not strong enough to compete against men in what was then a strenuous profession. Several red herrings throw us off the trail, and a friend turns into an enemy and back into a friend again.

This is Vatsal's first novel, an excellent debut, and a pretty good portrait of American society in the years before our involvement in World War I.

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31 July 2016

Books Completed Since July 1

book icon  Space Helmet for a Cow, Paul Kirkley
I think this one is strictly for Doctor Who fans, but what a fan book: a wonderful, amusing hodgepodge of behind-the-scenes events and facts from each era of the classic series, starting from its inception in the mind of Sydney Newman, back when the leads included Lola, Cliff, and Biddie, and its development under Verity Lambert. It's a heady mix of changes in stories, conflicting personalities, props, music, script malfunctions, strange casting, special effects on a budget, all costumes great and small, Venusian akido, teeth and hair, Billyisms, and Colin Baker's coat. Yeah, if you cleaned up a lot of the Kirkley bosh, you'd have a shorter book, but it's done in such fun that you can almost ignore it. Lots of behind-the-scenes bits about the main actors involved as well, including one jaw-dropper about Patrick Troughton.

Yeah, I enjoyed it to bits—and there's a sequel coming out soon!

book icon  The Counterfeit Heiress, Tasha Alexander
Lady Emily and her husband Colin Hargreaves are attending a costume ball at the home of the Duchess of Devonshire, along with her dear friends Cecile and Jeremy, when first Emily is puzzled when a strange man comes up to her and asks her a question, only to receive a rude response when she answers him. She is even more perplexed when she accompanies Cecile to greet her old friend Estella Lamar (who is wearing a similar costume to Emily's), a world traveller, and Cecile accuses the woman of being an imposter. The woman flees and is soon found dead. Emily and Colin grow more bewildered when they find Estella supports several homes with full servants, but has never lived in any of them. Where is real Estella? Is she still travelling? Or are the photographs of her traveling just as fake as her impostor?

Inserted in chapters between the story of Emily and Colin's investigation is the story of Estella, a shy child whose happiest moments were spent telling stories to her dolls, who survives a strange incident after her parents die and she is left an enormous fortune. It persuades her to make travel plans...but why?

This is a rather creepy entry in the Lady Emily mystery series, especially in the Estella chapters, but it is also very atmospheric, especially the sequences which take place in Paris. Alexander has based the story loosely on a historical person who was recently featured in a biography, and makes good use of her base character with touches of Charles Dickens.

book icon  Lusitania, Greg King and Penny Wilson
This was the second of two books that came out in 2015 about the Lusitania tragedy, the other being Erik Larson's Dead Wake. While Larson turned his story into a cat-and-mouse suspense tail with alternating chapters aboard the U-20 and the British liner, King and Wilson concentrate almost solely on the travellers and crew of the Lusitania, from pre-boarding to their eventual fates. The book is full of marvelous details about the decor of the ship, her meals and amusements, the clothing and the affairs and the mores of her passengers (mostly the first-class occupants), and the issues of the day, and then the harrowing experiences of those who survived, whether thrown from the ship or in a lifeboat, floating among dead bodies and watching shipmates drown.

The prose is vivid enough, but one wishes there were more pictures in a better format than murky black and white on rough paper.

book icon  From Little Houses to Little Women, Nancy McCabe
McCabe was a voracious reader from when she was a child, raised in a narrow, restrictive religious home, the appealing lives of book heroines an open door to her imagination. She "gave up childish things" for a while, then was drawn back to her childhood heroines. The book chronicles both her examination of her love of the books and a trip she took with her 9-year-old daughter Sophie to see the real-life sites she had read about as a child: the different homes of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Mankato of the Maud Hart Lovelace "Betsy-Tacy" books, the Prince Edward Island location of the Anne books, and, briefly, Concord and Little Women, a trip that mirrored one taken when she was about Sophie's age with her dying aunt.

The discussion of the books and the chronicle of the trip are both pretty cool. I had never heard of the "Jennifer" books she talked about, and I was rather indignant that some of the highly-touted "Little House" historical sites take so much material from the television series rather than out of Wilder's autobiographical novels. Her narrative about how goody-goody Mary Ingalls seemed to be was right on target. She and Sophie have a comfortable mother-daughter relationship that is warm and mirrors the relationships in her favorite books while remaining unsentimentally modern.

On the other hand, I wonder why all these reviews of children's literature involve the narrator working out childhood traumas. It's very sad.

book icon  Sup With the Devil, Barbara Hamilton
In what I believe is the third and final Abigail Adams mystery, Abigail travels to Harvard College at the bequest of her nephew Horace, who tells her a troubling story about an errand to provide an Arabic translation for a mysterious "Mrs. Lake" and being drugged for his pains. Abigail can't make sense of it, but does make the acquaintance of some of Horace's classmates, including the gentlemanly Ryland, the bullying Pugh, a "praying Indian" named Weyountah, and cheerful Virginian George Fairfield, who is accompanied by his slave. It is while Abigail is still in Cambridge that the latter is murdered, and his slave Diomede is accused of the crime. The others band together to clear Diomede of the charge—else he will be returned to Virginia and burned alive. And what did it have to do with Horace's mysterious journey?

As in the other two books, Abigail still seems to have too much freedom for a eighteenth century housewife who has a ton of chores; she seems to be able to routinely be able to step away from home overnight and leave things to her servants and in-laws. Otherwise this is a perplexing mystery that mixes the real-life political issues of pre-revolutionary Boston (they spend most of the book waiting to see if the King will close the port after the events of the tea party) in with a mystery involving alchemy texts and college students. The vocabulary thankfully doesn't slip to reveal modernisms, as happens in so many period pieces, and the atmosphere is correct for the time. The disappearance of one of the children is also terrifyingly well done.

book icon  Radio Girls, Sarah-Jane Stratford
Maisie Musgrave was raised chiefly in Canada by an American mother who barely wanted to admit she had a daughter, and a grandmother who hated the fact she had an out-of-wedlock granddaughter. Now back in the land of her father's birth, a down-on-her-luck Maisie is thrilled to find a position as an assistant typist to the secretary of the director general of the BBC. She's not prepared for the pace, nor the piqued attentions of Hilda Matheson, a rara avis at the BBC, a woman executive, in charge of BBC radio's "Talks" department. Under Hilda, the Talks—on subjects from gardening to books to politics—have become very popular, annoying her conservative superiors, and as Maisie gains confidence under Hilda's tutelage, she begins to blossom. But soon she discovers there's something sinister going on behind the scenes...

I really enjoyed this look at the BBC's early days and at the career of real-life Hilda Matheson, who had several challenges in life, not just in business as a female executive, but as a lesbian in a bigoted society. Maisie is our "eye" into the clashes between the imperious and prudish director general John Reith versus the ambitious and creative Matheson; in addition there is a creepy subplot involving those who wish to use the BBC for their own purposes. (The parallel with current politics is not lost on the perceptive.) Yes, the subplot seems a bit "boys' own adventure" at times, but the personalities surrounding it are appealing and you wish to follow them all to the inevitable end.

book icon  Speaking American, Richard W. Bailey
While most of the linguistics books that I have trace the development and appearance of words and idioms in the English language, this one follows the historical developments that contributed to the evolution of the American language from its English vocabulary, starting with the influence of Native American words on the earliest settlers (who resisted using the Native words and at first chose to give English words to them instead). Native American vocabulary additions are also examined in the chapter taking place in Boston, followed by African-American contributions, German additions (again resisted by "pure" English speakers), French borrowings, and then vocabulary from the Yiddish speakers in New York, Chicagoans, and Angelinos.

It's a bit of a dry book, but a different look at how the language formed that does not concentrate on vocabulary. Sadly, the author died before its publication.

book icon  The Death of Lucy Kyte, Nicola Upson
This is an atmospheric and often creepy entry in Upson's mysteries featuring mystery writer Josephine Tey (real name Elizabeth Mackintosh). As the story begins, Tey finds out she has inherited a cottage from her godmother, a stage actress who was also her mother's childhood friend, and is surprised that the woman even remembered her. The cottage is in bad repair, and a room in it gives Josephine the shivers, but she still plans to fix it up as a country retreat, even as she finds out the cottage is embedded in village lore as connected to a murder in a nearby barn. Soon she's wondering if her godmother's death was due solely to old age and discovering sordid details that were covered up by a well-meaning friend of the woman. And who's the Lucy Kyte mentioned in her godmother's will? No one in the village seems to know who that is.

Even with occasional lapses in her previous narratives (like the incestuous relationship in the second book that is treated as if it were an ordinary thing), Upson does her usual terrific job of capturing the pacing and language of a 1930s thriller/mystery, and this one includes a supernatural element as well. The cottage's history has something to do with the famous "Red Barn murder," a 19th century event that actually happened in the town of Polstead, which is the setting of this book, and Upson well mixes her fictional elements with the known elements of Maria Marten's murder. Plus Josephine's continuing romance doesn't feel tacked on in this outing, but an integral part of the story. I hung on this one tensely until the final page. A real winner if you like old-fashioned murder mysteries.

book icon  Queen of Hearts, Rhys Bowen
Georgiana Rannoch, 35th in line for the English throne and perpetually underfunded, travels in a new direction in this newest entry in the "Royal Spyness" series. Her flamboyant actress mother, who was the late Duke of Rannoch's second wife, brings Georgie and her hopelessly gauche maid Queenie along with her aboard ship as she heads for Reno, Nevada, to get a divorce from her present husband to marry Max, her handsome German industrialist lover. Aboard ship, Georgie befriends an odd assortment of passengers, including a bombastic American film director (sort of a combination Goldwyn and Hearst) and his actress lover, and a princess carrying a priceless ruby. Aboard ship, the ruby is stolen, and Georgie thinks she sees someone fall overboard, but no passenger is missing.

This is just the start of Georgie's adventures, which continue through a short stop in Reno and end in California, where the director wants to put her mother into a movie and where they stay at his castle estate (think Hearst Castle). Coincidentally, Georgie's beau, the impoverished but dashing Darcy O'Mara, is aboard ship (and later following Georgie) in search of a jewel thief.

A fun romp for Georgie fans, as these books are always a bit romantic and tongue in cheek. Georgie does some real sleuthing, and her mother is quite audacious and funny. Bowen skewers classic Hollywood types and the mystery is pretty good, although if you pay attention, a clue to an identity is offered early on.

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