31 May 2018

Books Completed Since May 1

book icon  Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8, Robert Kurson
After the devastating Apollo 1 fire and investigation, NASA planned a new sequence for the planned trip to the Moon, and originally Apollo 8 was supposed to test the command and lunar module in low earth orbit. But the lunar module would not be ready by the anticipated launch date. Instead an audacious plan dreamed up by head engineer George Low was put into plan: the command and service module would orbit the Moon, reconnoiter landing sites, and return, all during the Christmas holidays.

The year 1968 was full of turmoil for the United States. Both Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Protests against the Vietnam War and against racism raged on college campuses and in large cities. Soldiers were dying every day in Southeast Asia. President Lyndon Johnson faced increasing criticism each day. And at NASA personnel were still reeling from the capsule fire that had taken the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.

Kurson follows the Apollo 8 mission from inception to splashdown, with asides talking about the history of the "space race," the troubles besetting the country in 1968, and the lives and careers of the three astronauts headed to the moon, especially the sober and driven Frank Borman, who was determined to go to the Moon to strike a blow at Communism. It also follows the emotional reaction of Susan Borman, who put on a brave face to the world but who was consumed with fear that NASA was proceeding too quickly.

This is the third book I have read about the Apollo 8 mission (others were by Jeffrey Kluger and Robert Zimmerman) and I can't decide if I like this or Kluger's book more. They are both super overviews of the "heady days of the space program," missions I remember watching avidly on television. I would definitely recommend both this book and Jeffrey Kluger's if you are interested in a history of the Moon missions.

book icon  Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon, Bronwen Dickey
As a child of the 60s, I watched police officers on television sic "police dogs" (mostly German Shepherds) on protesters. Despite the reruns of Rin-Tin-Tin still showing, we kids were warned against GSDs; they weren't like you saw them on TV, we were told. They were unpredictable and vicious. Then in the 1970s everyone forgot about GSDs and it was Doberman pinschers that were treacherous. Following that were Rottweilers. Today it's the "pit bull" (a designation that covers several breeds with shortened noses; some boxers are even classified as "bullies").

Dickey presents a history of the pit bull, going back to their original use, herding cattle. Unlike sporting dogs or lap dogs, they were considered working-class dogs, and when imported to the United States, continued to be working-class owned. Unfortunately their high energy and protective qualities also made them suitable as fighting dogs. While many pit bulls projected positive images (Stubby, the World War I mascot; Pete the Pup from the Our Gang shorts; Jack, the bulldog from the Little House books; Helen Keller's dog Phiz; Luke, a silent film performer), as the years went on they became known for violence.

Dickey tries to remain neutral on the pit bull issue—she debunks the "nanny dog" myth that has proliferated online and does take account of pit bull attacks—but it's pretty clear she's more on the side of the pit than against it. Personally I am not convinced that a pit bull, or a German Shepherd for that matter, or a Doberman, Rottweiler, or Akita, is inherently bad. A dog is only as bad as its owner. As the text exhibits, any dog can bite; it is only pit bulls that make the news. Dickey cites Labradors, Golden retrievers, and even Weimaraners who have killed people. I remember a German Shepherd from my childhood that was gentle and friendly, until its owner had it "trained" as a guard dog. I'm not sure what kind of training the poor dog had, but it was soon lunging and snarling at any strange human's approach, even when not on guard duty, bit someone, and was euthanized.

I found the historical narrative most interesting. I had no idea there was a war against spitz-type dogs in the U.S. in the late 1800s, when they were branded as "rabies carriers" and destroyed, or that a breed called the "Cuban bloodhound" was later vilified (Dickey notes that she believes this Cuban dog was the basis for the "gigantic hound" that terrorized a client of Sherlock Holmes). Of course mentioned is the violence toward dachshunds during the first World War. (Albert Payson Terhune also noted in some of his books that at one point collies were accused of being snappish and dangerous to children.) Absorbing reading for the most part.

book icon  Superfluous Women, Carola Dunn
In the latest Daisy Dalrymple mystery (there is a newer book coming out soon), Daisy is in the country recovering from bronchitis after a particularly bad London smog. Staying at the local inn and being cossetted by the friendly maid Sally, she finally feels fit to join up with an old school friend, Willie Chandler, who just bought a house nearby with two friends of hers, practical Izzie and teacher Vera. The three young women are, like thousands of others after the Great War, now considered  "superfluous"; they will have to make it on their own since there are no corresponding young men to court them, but the three determined women are not about to let stereotypes rule their lives. When Daisy finally visits their house accompanied by husband Alec (a Scotland Yard detective inspector) she finds the company delightful until her friends ask if Alec might "break into" the home's cellar: the lady who owned the house didn't leave them a key and they believed there might be a wine cellar. Unfortunately, all Alec finds is a woman's dead body, and Daisy's friends are the prime suspects by the local copper, who seems lazy and unimaginative. Alec's determined not to be dragged into the case and he wants Daisy to recover, not sleuth.

But sleuth she does and dragged into it he is, enlisting the always invaluable Ernie Piper as well as the talents of the recently retired Tom Tring, not to mention his wife. The first task will be identifying the woman—could it be the owner of the house, Judith Gray? But she has reportedly gone to Europe and no one knows how to contact the friends she went to visit. And why didn't Daisy's friends notice the stench from the body, which had been there some time, if they were innocent?

I loved all the characters in this book (even the nasty ones who came to a quite satisfactory end) but the obvious suspect was so skipped over that it was aggravating. The problem could have been solved had this person been asked first. But, as the saying goes "Either that or the story ends here." Not the most satisfying Daisy mystery, but enjoyable characters, including something of a romantic sort starting up for a Daisy regular!

book icon  The Genius of Birds, Jennifer Ackerman
Sure birds are pretty (or most are), and flying is neat, and they eat insects which would otherwise overrun us. But they're not very smart, are they?

Well, really, yes they are. Not just the instinctive cleverness that takes them thousands of miles through migrations (and with all their studies scientists are still not certain how the birds do it!), but problem-solving skills that still amaze: crows that use tools to get treats and who can problem solve better than apes plus they can recognize people who have wronged them even in disguise, sparrows who have figured out how to skim the cream from milk bottles and bullfinches who have learned to steal sugar packets and extract the sweetness inside, birds who are given treats and return little thank-you gifts, Alex the gray parrot who know colors and shapes and who could pick them out when asked. In my own experience, we had a budgie named Merlin who realized "Hi!" was a greeting word. He would fly up to you and say "Hi!" and if you ignored him he said it louder and louder until he was acknowledged.

There are also fascinating chapters about how birds learn birdsong (and how some learn to imitate other things; some wild birds are now imitating cell phone ringtones) and about birds who create art, such as the bowerbird, to get a mate, and even one about the bird spreading around the world: the sparrow, who can now even be found in Africa.

One sour note: the chapters about bird migration do talk about experiments done on migrating birds. I know they do these things to learn but stories about cutting nerves made me a bit squeamish. Be advised.

book icon  Dark Detectives, edited by Stephen Jones
Since I love mystery and enjoy some fantasy, I thought this book looked like a perfect combination. However, a month later I find that I can't really remember most of the stories, except for the serial stories based on The Jewel of the Seven Stars, a book written originally by Bram Stoker of Dracula fame. Most of the stories are very pulpy, often violent, and veer more toward horror, so they were not really my "cup of tea."

However, I was appreciative of several things:
  • The introduction, "The Serial Sleuths," was very interesting and I enjoyed learning the background of the stories.
  • "The Jewel of Seven Stars" stories were one of the most interesting, especially as they spanned the years from the origin of the stone (it caused the plagues of Egypt) through Victorian times (involving the Diogenes Club and Mycroft Holmes) and up to modern times.
  • I had a chance to read another of Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma mysteries.
  • I've finally read a Solar Pons story! Interesting, and would like to try a few more.
book icon  Children of Time: The Companions of Doctor Who, edited by R. Alan Siler
Imagine standing in a line to get autographs from about thirty people involved with this book! Yep, I did so at WHOlanta with a long line of other people. I was barely home from the convention before I started to read it.

Children of Time is a tribute to all of the companions of the Doctor, from granddaughter Susan to the amazing Bill Potts, encompassing even companions from the audio adventures and the Virgin Publishing "lost adventures." So along with television standards like Ian and Barbara, Jo Grant, Sarah Jane Smith, Ace, Rose Tyler, Donna Noble and the rest, we also have a shape-shifting penguin named Frobisher, the immortal Bernice Summerfield who (having left the Seventh Doctor's company) went on to her own novels, eighth Doctor companions Charley Pollard and Lucie Miller who joined canon via "The Night of the Doctor," and more—down to the mysterious "grandchildren" of the Doctor, John and Gillian, in a 1960s newspaper comic. Various drawings and cartoons enliven the texts. Plus there's an interview with Katy Manning and one with Matthew Elliot and yet another with Daphne Ashbrook.

Just a few of my favorite essays: Barbara's love letter to Ian by Clay Dockery, the outlandish tales of an Indian orphanage run by Ben and Polly Jackson by Logan Fairchild, a paean to Jo Grant by James Callaghan, Leela's final diary entry by Alan Siler...no, I can't do this. I love them all. Fans of Doctor Who should, too!

book icon  The Secret Life of Cows, Rosamund Young
This is a slim, pleasant volume about Young's experience at her farm, Kite's Nest, in England, with her livestock, mostly cows that are pasture-raised and then slaughtered humanely. People tend to think that cows and other herd animals are stupid creatures that sit around eating all day, and, indeed, in man-made feedlots, that's really all they do. Left to graze naturally the animals' true personalities come to the fore, just as Margaret Marshall Saunders wrote about so lovingly in the farm chapters of her classic dog book, Beautiful Joe. Some cows are gregarious, some loners; some still remember their calves after years, others don't want the responsibility. They hold grudges, change their mind, have their favorite friends and grazing spots.

Young also tells tales about clever sheep and pigs, and even some stories about hens. It's very pleasant reading for any animal lover.

I think my only quibble about this book is that the publishing price is $23 for a bunch of sweet animal anecdotes you could probably find just by surfing the internet.

book icon  America's Forgotten History by the editors of "Readers Digest"
I love reading these compilation books by the "Readers Digest" company; they're the book equivalent of snack food, true, but I love the snacks. The newer ones aren't as dense as the older ones used to be. This one has the merit of being (a) about history and (b) of being in bite-sized pieces just long enough to get a little interesting reading in without feeling like you are being left behind. In sections about family, food and drink, pastimes and games, fads, intellectual pursuits, country and city life, moving west, business, transportation, and technology, these are short pieces about little known bits of American history.

Reading this book has made me wonder why we've abandoned history stories on American television in favor of endless police, fire, and doctor (but mostly law-enforcement) series, frankly stupid sitcoms for the most part, and tedious "reality shows" which are really overgrown game shows. I would love to see some television based on unusual historical figures, especially since many of them don't fit the old "square-jawed heroic white guy" mold. How about some Western series based on characters like Stagecoach Mary or Nat Love? Surely if the Brits can do neat series about their particular history (like Downton Abbey about the end of the country house era and The Tudors), certainly we could do that unique American art form, the Western, about little-known people who lived unique lives? Wouldn't a series about the Harvey Girls be cool? Or a woman tavern-keeper during the Revolutionary War?

Alas, no imagination in Hollywood any longer.

book icon  Dear America: My Heart Is on the Ground, Ann Rinaldi
I've tried to read all of these books because I love historical tales about girls, but I didn't want to buy this one full price because of what I had read about it. When it turned up at the book sale for fifty cents I thought that was low enough.

The purpose of the "Dear America" books is to show girls that their ancestors in the past had the same feelings and ambitions as they do today. Some of the books work pretty well, like my favorite Christmas After All, or are passable because the historical view is so good even if the girl character is too much a modern girl wrapped in a long skirt and a bonnet. (And then there are Barry Denenberg DA books, which are simply depressing.) Unfortunately, Rinaldi's story about a girl who wishes to excel—an overriding theme in all the DA books—not only runs counter to what a real Native American girl would have experienced, but attempts to turn the Federal-run Indian schools into a positive experience when virtually all real-life memoirs have stated it was not. In the story, Nannie Little Rose goes to live at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania to be tutored in the life and ways of white people, having everything she knows stripped from her, including her long braids and familiar clothing. She makes friends of girls from other tribes and enemies of others, and worries about her rebellious older brother, who longs to go back to the Dakotas. While Rinaldi tries very hard to show the progression of a young girl learning a strange language and customs, in writing a positive narrative for modern American girls, she has covered up the school abuses as well as misrepresenting Native life (apparently she also resurrects an old legend about the school that is not true). I had to see if the narrative was indeed as bad as was stated, and sadly, found it was true.

This is a thorough review of the book's problems.

(Canada also had "residential homes" for Natives well into the 1960s, and I understand their "Dear Canada" volume has been written by a First Nations woman who experienced one of these homes first hand and is therefore more accurate.)

book icon  Final Resting Place: A Lincoln and Speed Mystery, Jonathan F. Putnam
Politics rears its ugly head in this 1838-set installment of the Lincoln and Speed mysteries.

If you think politics is dirty now, it was all the more so in frontier America. Springfield is embroiled in a hot election race, the Whigs (they would not change their name to Republicans for some years yet) versus the Democrats, and there is more name-calling, dirty tricks, and prying into private lives than anyone could ever want, plus drunken men well lubricated by candidates. One of the Whig candidates is Abraham Lincoln, running for re-election to the state legislature, against a short, plump rising star named Stephen Douglas. But the most contested seat in Springfield that year is for county land agent, between the incumbent Early and his opponent Truett. Well, until, during a fireworks display at the home of a wealthy landowner, Early is shot and Truett is caught there with a weapon. Lincoln is asked to defend the latter, although they are from different political parties, but the "tall drink of water" is just about to leave on his assigned circuit court tour. So Joshua Speed and his determined sister Martha help investigate, but the more they find out, the more they are confused. What was the evidence of "irregularities" at the land office? And was it they that caused Early's death, and not his rivalry with Truett?

If there wasn't enough trouble for Lincoln, his rather indolent father and equally indolent stepbrother have arrived in Springfield, ostensibly looking for a business venture, but instead passing around childhood stories about "lazy Abe" and an inference that he has something to do with the death of the girl he was courting, Ann Rutledge. Lincoln is deathly afraid this will cause a break between himself and the young woman he is courting, Miss Margaret Owens, sister of the town pharmacist.

The mystery was reasonably convoluted, although one wonders how Speed runs his general store if he's busy questioning people, riding off into the countryside to investigate rumors, and squiring a pretty young lady around, when she's not hanging around the tent show of an itinerant preacher. The best part of the story is the vivid portrayal of frontier politicking and the capriciousness of practicing law (having to defend a man and fulfill his other legal demands and run for office, not to mention the varying qualities of the judge!) in the era. I was a little disappointed in that Putnam seems to have eased his efforts to make the characters speak as authentically as possible, as in the first novel in this series. Perhaps he had complaints. I was a bit taken aback when Lincoln talked about his "pants" when I believe the term "trousers" was the common usage of the time. I wish he would put some of the period language back in his future stories.

book icon  The World of All Souls, Deborah Harkness, Claire Baldwin, Lisa Halttunen, and Jill Hough, with illustrations by Colleen Madden
This is a gorgeous companion book to Deborah Harkness' "All Souls" trilogy, A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, and The Book of Life. As such, it is tremendous. If you have no interest in the books, you probably won't be a fan of this volume either. For trilogy fans, you have a treat awaiting!

After an interview with the author and synopses of all three books, Harkness describes the different "creatures" of her universe (humans, witches, vampires, and daemons) and a listing of the characters follow. Then the real treat comes: we learn the history behind the organizations and locations of the story, an explanation of magic and witchcraft lore as portrayed in the book, a history of Matthew Clermont, and sections on alchemy, decorative arts, and lifestyles in the series. The book ends with a list of books important to the series and translations of foreign words used.

Some companion books for series are so much rehashing of plots and fluff like recipes (okay, there are recipes in this book, but only eight pages out of 483); this one is a real treat because of the research Harkness put into the books and which is passed on in this volume. All this and there are deleted chapters from the books that were cut in the interest of moving the plot along, and also beautiful pen-and-ink wash illustrations throughout the text of characters, places, and items, along with photographs and maps, plus some color inserts. Truly a must for All Souls fans, especially if you are a history or fantasy buff.

book icon  The Prisoner in the Castle: A Maggie Hope Mystery, Susan Elia MacNeal
Maggie Hope "meets" Agatha Christie in a reworking of Christie's classic And Then There Were None in this newest Hope mystery.

Because Margaret Hope, born in the United States but now working in Great Britain during World War II (first as secretary for Winston Churchill and later as a spy for Britain's SOE operations), refused to accept her next assignment, she has been transported to the Isle of Scarra on Scotland's wild northern coast, to a "training facility" for British agents who have been trained but who are too unstable—like the newest arrival on Scarra, a young woman who killed a team member on a training mission—to be released to the wild. Maggie knows the definitive plans for the invasion of Europe, and they are terrified if she goes on another mission she will talk, so she has been detained there with a motley group of other "problem children" including a promising spy who spoke English when he talked in his sleep, a gentle older man whose passion is fly fishing, a doctor of Indian descent, a mute shell-shocked operative, a seductive showgirl, and a gay man who's chosen to carry a stuffed fox with him. They are housed in a moldering old castle once belonging to a hunting-mad wealthy man with Scottish servants who seem to resent them, and no way of communicating with their families or friends. But once the newest arrival shows up, the captives suddenly start to be picked off, one by one, along with the captors who are keeping them on the island. Plus it's possible one of them is a German spy. All this is reported to their superiors, but the weather has turned brutal and no boats can make it to the island.

Complications have also arisen in that "the Blackout Beast," the murderer Maggie apprehended in the previous novel, has suddenly pled "not guilty" at his hearing. It means DCI James Durgin will need her to give evidence at a trial. Together, he and Maggie's closest friend David Greene follow a twisted path to track her whereabouts.

Maggie has a lot on her plate in this tense, claustrophobic narrative. The house itself is sinister and practically a character of its own, especially the cold game larder and rooms upon rooms lined with animal trophy heads and taxidermied bodies, and it turns out its walls are holding more secrets than those held in the restless bodies of SOE internees. The stormy, unsettled weather adds an additional fillip of gloom and menace. I found myself racing to read each chapter, and wondered if Maggie would truly make it out of this one.

book icon  The Magic Apple Tree: A Country Year, Susan Hill
Dani made me do it. "A Work in Progress" is one of my favorite blogs, but it always makes me hare off after new books. Well, it happened again: she was talking about wanting to read some nature books this summer, and three of them stood out; as quickly as you could say "points" and "Amazon Marketplace," I had used copies of them (and ordered the other two Small Country Living books as well).

I hate to garden, hate being out in the sun, and worms make me ill to look at. As I point out to people, "the Italian gene for gardening passed me right by." However, I love reading books (and magazines; half the fun of Country Living UK are the stories about people making a living on their smallholding) about people who live on small farms, especially when they speak eloquently of the beauty of the countryside, the nature of the beasts, and even the tough realities of rural living—apparently my early love for Gladys Taber buried itself into my brain. I chose to read this one first because of the intriguing title.

Hill lives in a small Oxfordshire community, in a house called "Moon Cottage"—just the name sounds appealing!—and tells the story of one year living in view of the titular apple tree, a gnarled veteran of years of growth. It's a simple memoir of village life, cottage life, the foods they eat grown from their own garden, the wildlife just outside their pastures, the animals in their life, raising food, enduring the weather—or enjoying it, the neighbors, the village events, cozy nights by the fire and hard work in the fields and kitchen. The text is sprinkled liberally with recipes, and each seasonal section and then each chapter is illustrated by wonderfully old-fashioned woodcuts by John Lawrence.

While Hill's book won't set me outside to recreate her happy pleasures (for one thing, she's in a much better climate!), I can imagine I'm there page by page. I look forward to reading the other books I ended up with: Wild Hares and Hummingbirds, The Morville Hours, The Wind in the Ash Tree, A Small Country Living Goes On, and Hill's Howard's End is On the Landing.

book icon  The Penderwicks at Last, Jeanne Birdsall
In this last [::sob::] of the Penderwicks books, the original four Penderwick sisters are all grown: Rosalind is preparing to marry her childhood sweetheart Tommy, Jane is waiting tables while she finishes her first novel, Skye is in California studying astrophysics, and Batty, now nineteen, is studying music in Boston. Lydia, the youngest, is eleven, loves to dance, and keeps getting killed off in her older brother Ben's amateur movies. Then Rosalind drops a bombshell: instead of getting married at home she wants to be married at Arundel, the estate they vacationed at fifteen years earlier, where they met their "honorary" Penderwick brother, Jeffrey Tifton. Jeffrey, in Germany studying music, now owns the house and thinks it would be a beautiful venue for the wedding. Luckily, his formidable and Penderwick-hating mother will be out of the way.

Except guess who shows up the first day Batty and Lydia arrive at Arundel to start cleaning the house before other members of the family arrive? Together with Alice, the daughter of Cagney Pelletier, who had been a caretaker at Arundel when the family originally visited and now lives on the grounds with his family, Lydia tries to run interference with Mrs. Tifton, help Alice one-upsman her older brother who got to visit cousins in Canada, avoid being in Ben's movie, and of course help her family prepare for the wedding. When Batty's ex-boyfriend shows up with his Great Dane, Hitch (someone Lydia loves more than his owner), the summer turns into a delightful adventure (or it would be if Mrs. Tifton would quit showing up).

This is a fast, funny romp with a lot happening. I thought the subplot with Lydia and Alice reading to the sheep was kind of dumb, but the rest was enjoyable, especially the storyline that began on page 159. Lydia is a great protagonist and I find myself so envious of her summer: countryside, fireflies, nature walks, animals! I read a couple of reviews that said Mrs. Tifton had lost "her teeth," but I think that is expected. In the first book she is a total villain from the POV of four children, the eldest only twelve. Now that the original girls are so much older (although Batty is still terrified of her from her four-year-old memories) and Lydia has been raised with stories of her and observes her from a different angle, she can be seen clearly for what she is: a discontented social-climber who actually lives a very unhappy life being unable to orchestrate everyone's lives and having been betrayed by the poor choices she made in male companions, ironically except for the one man she pushed away, Jeffrey's father. Her outlandish efforts to avoid him at the Penderwick wedding showed she never had "teeth," she was always pathetic; she just seemed like a monster to four little girls.

I know this is "the last of the Penderwicks," but maybe, just maybe in the future, Ms. Birdsall, we might hear more about that little subplot that began on page 159? Please?

book icon  Rudolph Day reading, May 2018: Christmas in Canada, A Pioneer Christmas, and Christmas With Anne and Other Stories

book icon  Re-read: Wyoming Summer, Mary O'Hara
This was one of my favorite books which I first read in my junior high school library. Several years later I found a book club copy on a charity sale table at a local shopping center. It remains one of my favorite reads.

O'Hara, most well known for her Ken McLaughlin trilogy of My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead, and Green Grass of Wyoming lived on her own Wyoming ranch with her second husband Helge Sturge-Vasa in the 1930s, where they first raised sheep and then raised horses for the Army Remount Service (since the Army still had cavalry horses then) and held a summer camp for boys. She was a copious diary-keeper and created this book from several summers worth of diary entries, condensing them into one long narrative about her and her husband's hope to also start a boys' school during the winter.

O'Hara talks about the Wyoming country with love: the harsh life among the beautiful mountain ranges, the horses and their varying personalities (including the several horses, one a lovely sorrel filly, who served as the inspiration for "Flicka"), the boys' camp, her siblings and nephew Jerome, her relationship with her husband (here called "Michael"), her "Mary Dairy" of cows, her musical studies, even thoughts about faith and family. Her beautiful language and narrative has always captured me from first word to last, things like this: When the moon rises, we see it first over the cliff there—just the thin gold edge. Then as you watch, it pushes up and in less than a minute it is sitting there, a big round golden Japanese lantern with the black branches of the jack pines laced across it. There is also the reality of ranch life in the 1930s: injured animals (some which won't survive before the advent of penicillin), unexpected deaths, freezing weather in a house lit only by fires, sudden hailstorms, essential equipment that won't work. The tale at once exhilarates and makes one thoughtful. Always a treat to re-read, forever a blessing that I found it.

book icon  The Art of Beatrix Potter, Emily Zach
If all you know about Beatrix Potter are Peter Rabbit and the other cute little books with animals in clothing that you might have read as a child, you don't know her at all.

Potter was born into a well-to-do family "in trade," something her mother tried to cover up all their lives. While she and her husband hoped son Bertram would go out into the world and make something of himself, Beatrix was considered by her mother to be the person who would take over the odious duties of running the household from her. Even when she was older and engaged to be married she was always running home to help her mother with one thing or the other.

However, she and her brother were both indulged with a childhood filled with nature. They were allowed to keep wild pets and both took art lessons. Beatrix became an accomplished natural artist of a level that she could have illustrated numerous botanical books—that is, if most people ignored the fact that she was a woman. (She did in fact illustrate a scientific book on mushrooms and other fungi.)

This is a beautiful big coffee table book of all aspects of Beatrix Potter's artistic career, from the preternaturally mature drawings of animals she did when only nine or ten years old to her concept sketches for "the little books" as her small children's books were know to her detailed botanical prints to lovely watercolors of the countryside and of country home interiors (there's a breathtaking print of a library that Potter did when she was only sixteen years old here that I would love to have as a painting on the wall). Fans of Beatrix Potter should love this gorgeous book.

book icon  Babylon 5 Season by Season: No Surrender, No Retreat, Jane Killick
Killick's "Season by Season" recaps of Babylon 5 were much appreciated when the series was first aired. While the web site "The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5" was the place to go for B5 stuff back then, it was wonderful to have seasonal recaps as well. We managed to collect the first three in their British editions at a convention, then found the season five volume in an American edition. But since their publication in 1998, we have been missing the fourth season recap, until I scanned the "media" table at the library book sale this spring—and there it was! (They had no other Babylon 5 books, not even the novels. Weird!)

Like the other volumes, this contains a synopsis of each episode and then a section telling how the episode was conceived (or in some cases, originally conceived and then changed), any filming notes, or notes about performers and characters, giving you insight about what the story was supposed to accomplish, how the actors saw their characters, etc. Eight pages of color stills are also included.

These are really a must for B5 fans! Now that the series is showing on Amazon Prime, people may be interested in what they have to say once again.

book icon  Murder on Location, Cathy Pegau
I haven't seen a new one of the Charlotte Brody books come out this year, so I'm not sure if Pegau is taking a break or if she has stopped writing this series. The story: a film crew has come to Cordova to make a movie set against the Alaskan wilderness. The film is already in trouble because a native rights group has seen the script and doesn't wish to be portrayed as the usual "ignorant savages." While the writer of the script would like to make the portrayals more authentic, the production company really doesn't care, and the director just wants to make an exciting movie. When they go on location, Charlotte and her ward Becca go with them, Charlotte to get a story for the town newspaper and Becca to be an extra, and do get a spectacular performance: but from the director, who dies from falling down a crevasse.

Look, I know there were people back then who spoke up for the Native Alaskans and tried to make things right for them, and certainly the author doesn't want to make any of her lead characters out to be racist. But even into the 1960s schoolbooks called Native Alaskan people "Eskimos," so it's really distracting and not correct historically to have everyone, even the ignorant Hollywood people, refer to the Native characters in this story by their tribal name. I think it trivializes the long struggle the individual tribes had to be called by their actual name and not a blanket term like "Eskimo," which was considered repugnant, but which was so common as to be standard. This could have been a habit Charlotte could have deplored in the book with much frustration at the strangers' inability to "get it."

Also, the crime is considered "more dangerous" because it happened a long distance train ride from Cordova and "the law," but they sure do seem to get information and personnel back and forth pretty quickly via that train!

I thought the murderer was kind of obvious, although there's another aspect to the death that doesn't come up till the end. Enjoyed Charlotte coping with both a new relationship plus care of a teen child. While the book talks a lot about stereotyping of natives in films of that era, Charlotte preaches a lot less, which is a definite plus.

book icon  The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, Michael Booth
You know the stories: Danish people are the happiest people in the world even though they have the highest taxes, Scandinavian people have the best healthcare, etc. Indeed, all the countries have admirable qualities. But living in Scandinavia isn't the happy-go-lucky life the media paints it to be, either.

Michael Booth, an Englishman by birth, has lived in Denmark for years, and by his accounts, they don't seem to be all that joyful. And each Scandinavian country ceaselessly criticizes the other for the way they live or carry out business. There are areas of Denmark that have high unemployment, low wages, poor health care, and bad schools. Danes traditionally don't save money because they expect the government to support them if hard times come and individualism is not encouraged. Rural areas of Sweden and Finland are not supported by their more urban neighbors. Alcoholism is rising in Finland and Finns have a high rate of depression; according to other Scandinavians, Finns are downright surly. Norway's terrorist attack still haunts them, and a rising number of Norwegians are right-wing Islamophobes. Rape and other violent crime has risen in Sweden. Casual racism still exists in several Scandinavian countries that continue to portray Africans as primitive tribal peoples.

This book is meant to be one man's look at Scandinavia and what leads people to think life there is "perfect." Booth treats the subject with a light touch, but, again, this is only from his point of view. In the end, it seems Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland are just like most every other country: they have fine things—universal healthcare, appealing cultures, individual quirks that make them interesting—and not-so-fine things (rising unemployment, increasing mental illness, right wing twits, etc.)., belying the relentlessly sunny articles you see in magazines that do not mention the negative aspects. Like anywhere else, you can't have hygge without SAD.

book icon  Thrice Burned: A Portia Adams Adventure, Angela Misri
In this second installment of Misri's Portia Adams stories, Portia is still recovering from the surprising news about her heritage. In her initial adventure, she discovered she was the granddaughter of Dr. John Watson and his first wife, and then also is presented with more astonishing news: she is also the granddaughter of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler (who has disguised herself as Portia's guardian, "Mrs. Jones"). As in the previous book, three cases are presented: in the first, Portia teams up with disgraced journalist Annie Coleman to find an arsonist; in the second a brazen thief threatens to steal a famous classical statue only loaned to the British Museum—or is that really his game?; and in the third Portia tries to find out what has happened to prostitutes who were "saved" by a hellfire preacher.

Portia is learning her craft, both in the law by studying at Somerville College and by continuing to solve crimes. She has also developed a bit of a crush on her downstairs neighbor, constable Brian Dawes, and is fighting both her attraction to him and the fact that she does not want to be involved with anyone while she studies and performs her work. But it's still a bit of a blow when the handsome policeman appears to have a new relationship. However, Portia's emotions don't get in the way of doing what she does best, solving crimes! While she occasionally follows the wrong clue, her strong skills turn her around again.

Portia continues to delight. The mysteries are fairly complicated, but you can follow the clues and work along with her. She's not superhero nor saint, just someone with keen observational skills.

At the end of the book an event occurs that will change her life still further. I am staying "tuned" to the next adventures!

30 April 2018

Books Completed Since April 1

book icon  The Yankee Road: Tracing the Journey of the New England Tribe That Created Modern America, Volume 2: Domination, James D. McNiven
Okay, let me get this out first: I loved the first book in this series, and I loved the text of the second, but I'm annoyed as all get-out about two things.

First, apparently there was a second edition of the first book in which McNiven removed the final two chapters and incorporated it into this second book. I understand his reasons for doing so—thematically it better fit the divisions of the texts: Expansion, Domination, and Apotheosis. But then when I read the second book, I've already read the first two chapters, so I felt a little bit cheated.

Worse, McNiven didn't put the same copious notes he had in the first book in the second book—and these were great notes, they were practically another book!—but instead, to keep the price of the book down, he put the notes online. Hey, I'm online, so I can go read the notes at www.theyankeeroad.com anytime. But what about people who aren't on the internet or who don't want to be? They are royally cheated, and frankly I want to read the notes on a book in the book, not one by one via text links on a web page. So I feel cheated twice.

The remainder of the book? Great trip along US20 all the way, from Erie, Pennsylvania, and the War of 1812 to the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania and how it became an industry to settlement of the Western Reserve to John Brown's raid, all the way down to the Kelloggs of Battle Creek and the founding of Gary, Indiana, once a bustling industrial city and now a bleak part of the Rust Belt, and all the participants descendants of the thrifty Yankees that settled the northeast corner of the United States, from Daniel Dobbins at the Battle of Lake Erie to the Rockefellers.

But I want the dang notes back!!!!

book icon  Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough
I've heard about this book for years, quoted in other books, but could never find a reasonably-priced copy until I found one on the library's "perpetual book sale" shelves. It's the entertaining read about two young women who scrimp and save their money in order to sail to Europe in the heady years after the first World War. Practical Cornelia and slightly feather-headed Emily take the cheapest cabins on a Canadian liner, only for the ship to run aground in the St. Lawrence River before they ever reach the ocean. Until they can get another ship, they stay with a friend of Cornelia's mother, only to have Cornelia contract measles from the children there. Eventually she's spirited off the ship and their adventures...or further adventures...continue in England and then in France.

This is a great view of traveling in the 1920s, with bulky purses for your money worn under your skirts for security, the threat of bedbugs everywhere (I was quite astonished at Cornelia's reaction, more upset because it ruined how she looked than that the bed actually was infested; apparently this was a common travel hazard of the time—::shudder::), language barriers at a time when English was not a universal language, the old-fashioned customs of the two countries that no longer exist, money problems, and of course humor from Emily, whose wits are sometimes less than she needs (both young ladies think they are worldly, but in reality they are terribly naïve: there's an especially funny couple of pages where Cornelia's parents attempt to explain to the girls why the two men they met at a party were more interested in each other than them, without once mentioning the forbidden word "homosexual").

If you're interested in a "Roaring 20s" version of The Grand Tour or classic American humor, give this one a try. You'll be glad of the internet and travel guides by the time you're done and get a good laugh at the same time.

book icon  Grace to the Finish, Julie Hyzy
In what looks like it might be the last of the Manor House mysteries, Grace Wheaton's life has begun to change after she is declared Bennett Marshfield's heir, and she has a chance to be the silent partner when her roommates, wine-shop owners Bruce and Scott, move into a new location, a classic old building. But when Grace and the guys go to inspect the new home of Amethyst Cellars, they find the dead body of a loan officer from the bank at the foot of the stairs. It looks like a vagrant living in the building might be the culprit, but once they start investigating the victim, peculiarities begin to appear.

And if that wasn't bad enough, Grace's bad-girl sister Liza has been released from prison early, and is now back in Emberstowne looking for her "fair share" of the Marshfield fortune.

While I enjoyed the process of the murder investigation, as well as Grace's rocky beginning at romance with the local coroner, it's the suspenseful subplot with greedy Liza and acerbic Aunt Belinda that gave me the most satisfaction. I've probably read the final eleven pages of Chapter 32 about a dozen times, each time with no less glee.

I dunno, there still may be mysteries for Grace to solve, and lousy Liza will still be close by, and the matter with Grace's new guyfriend isn't complete yet...so perhaps not the last?

book icon  The Book, Keith Houston
From the same author of Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, it's a book about...well, guess what. We start with a surface to write upon: first papyrus, which gave its name to paper; then parchment, then the story of rag paper (which is from China, but who actually created it and who legend says created it are two different things), and then the explosion of need for paper which brought wood pulp (and then yellowing, fragile paper) into the mix. Next a history of writing (I was astonished to learn that most scribes who copied books were not literate; they were not copying words, but shapes) that became at first carved pages and then moveable type and finally increasingly more mechanized typesetting; next illustration from hand-drawn to woodcut to etching to halftones; and finally the form of the book: tablets to scrolls to folds to paged volumes.

Houston has a delightful, light but always informative style in which you learn much and enjoy doing it. The Book is peppered with illustrations about books, and every page leaves you wanting more. A must for every bibliophile.

book icon  Grave on Grand Avenue, Naomi Hirahara
LAPD bicycle officer Ellie Rush is back in her second adventure, working her way up in the ranks rather than trying to rely on her aunt, Cheryl Toma, the assistant chief of police. This time she and a co-worker are working crowd control on a concert in which a noted Chinese cellist will be playing. Minutes after Ellie exchanges pleasantries with an Hispanic gardener, the man has fallen down a set of stairs, accused of trying to steal the Chinese cellist's priceless instrument, but stopped by the cellist's father. When the gardener dies, a manhunt is on for the father; in the meantime, a bank robber dressed as an elderly woman is terrorizing banks. Ellie's personal life is getting chaotic as well: her ancient car has been stolen, her ex-boyfriend (who she's remained friends with) is acting distant, and her best friend is more and more absorbed in her new reporting job—and if she hasn't had enough jolts, her father's long-lost father (thought to be dead) turns up on her doorstep.

I'm enjoying this series not only for the mystery and for learning about LA's bicycle corps, but because of Ellie's ethnic mix of family and friends. Usually the protagonists of these cozy mysteries are so whitebread and cliche that they're not only boring, but all mix together: which one's the heroine of the knitting mystery, which is the lead in the craft mystery; which is the historical character who solves the mystery, etc. The family and friend dynamics are just as interesting to me as the mystery, which was reasonably complicated and satisfactorily solved. However, I'm damned sick of Aunt Cheryl dumping a bunch of responsibility on Ellie that isn't hers. She may be a great assistant chief of police, but she's a rotten aunt.

book icon  Pagan Christmas, Christian Ratsch and Claudia Muller-Ebeling

book icon  America and the Great War, Margaret E. Wagner
This is a super almost coffee-table sized book chronicling the history of the United States' reaction to and then our entrance into what became the first World War. Starting with a prologue that covers the sinking of the Titanic (I didn't realize that although Titanic was under British registry she was financed by J.P. Morgan) to the early months of 1914, and continuing with the outbreak of the war in Europe and the U.S.'s efforts to stay out of what was seen as a squabble among degenerate royalty and far below lofty American ideals, with Woodrow Wilson and his cabinet keeping a distance despite European efforts to get the country to take sides and offer assistance. Unfortunately submarine warfare, news of atrocities by the Central Powers in Belgium and Armenia, suspected sabotage, and other indignities eventually caused the government to change its mind.

I really appreciated this book for showing me how the unrest in Mexico contributed to our participation in the war. It is still difficult for me to resolve how a country so adamant about not being involved in the conflict could suddenly turn about to become so rabidly for participation, with even children's books having war-related plotlines and improbable "Hun" spy stories. Usually when one hears what was going on in the North American continent before April 2017, you have a few paragraphs about Pancho Villa and General Pershing, but there were actually a succession of clashes between Mexican insurgents along the U.S. border and deaths of American citizens before the infamous Zimmerman Telegram tipped the scales. Also, there were many more ships, both civilian and military, sunk by U-boats than the Lusitania and the couple others that are mentioned in most histories. (Amazingly, while the U.S. was neutral, German submarines visited our shores, most notably in Newport, RI, where the captain gave tours of the ship while a message was being relayed to him!) Also focused on are woman's suffrage efforts during pre-war and war years, efforts of African-Americans to gain fair treatment, and finally the innocent "grippe" that eventually killed more men than the war, the so-called "Spanish influenza."

Produced with items from the archives of the Library of Congress, the volume is stuffed with color and black-and-white posters, documents, photographs, political cartoons, propaganda items, book and manual covers, maps, and other illustrations to heighten the experience. There's even a photograph of that "infamous Zimmerman telegram"!

In some ways this book is a hard read, not because of the war casualties, but how a mob mentality and the Sedition Acts made former German-surnamed neighbors into enemies and how American freedoms were curtailed due to fears of spies, sabotage, and plain old xenophobia. In some ways creepier than the combat stories because these vigilantes were supposed to be working for good.

book icon  Perish from the Earth, Jonathan F. Putman
The second in Putman's "Lincoln and Speed" mysteries reunites Joshua Speed, Springfield general storekeeper, and Abraham Lincoln, at this time a circuit lawyer in Illinois. As the story opens, Speed has just made the departure on the "War Eagle," a steamship in which his father has invested, and which is losing money. While aboard, Speed watches as a drunken young planter gamble away money he was taking back to his father and older brother, accusing the man with whom he played of cheating. The captain has the young man taken back to his cabin to sober up, but when the boat makes port in the town of Alton, Speed is aghast when he and Lincoln come upon the young planter's body floating in the river. The supercilious town constable, a transplanted Frenchman who considers himself a genius at crime solving, immediately arrests an artist who was also aboard the ship and who was said to have quarreled with the young planter.

Speed and Lincoln's efforts (along with Speed's freethinking younger sister Martha) to clear the painter plunge them into secrets they couldn't have imagined, kept by the ship's captain, his majordomo, and other townspeople, as well as the frightening specter of mob violence that erupts in the town when a noted abolitionist refuses to stop printing his inflammatory newspaper.

I enjoyed the previous book and this as well, even if it presents unflinching looks at the early hatred of abolitionists, frontier "justice," and the horrors of slavery (minus the actual racist language that would have been used). Once again, as in the first book, one of my favorite parts of the story is the way it's told, with the author using as much early 19th century language and grammar as possible without making the story not understandable to modern audiences. It gives it a particular authenticity, although it appears toned down from the previous book.

My only problem with the book was an anachronism: in one scene, a character starts to "unstrap his Jurgensen watch" from around his wrist, which implies it's a wristwatch, but wristwatches for men were not even conceived of until the Boer War and not commonly worn until the first World War, plus Jurgensen didn't start making wristwatches until 1919. That really distracted me from the early 19th century setting.

book icon  Re-read: Up the Down Staircase, Bel Kaufman
The film of this book popped up on TCM recently, and after rewatching it I couldn't resist re-reading the book. I found my original copy in a used bookstore many years ago, knew the title only by reference, but, upon opening it and being seduced by its unique narrative, quickly snatched it up. My current copy has an introduction by the author telling how the story was written, how difficult it was to sell due to the unique format, how the book took her from obscurity to fame, and how, even in 1991 when the introduction was written, the story was still relevant.

Heck, even now in 2018 it's still relevant.

Instead of being told in a standard first- or third-person narration, Kaufman's classic story of a neophyte teacher in a tough New York high school is told in the printed chaos of Sylvia Barrett's first semester at Calvin Coolidge High: handouts, flyers, compositions, memos, the student entries from the Suggestion Box she places in her homeroom, frantic interoffice communications, students' notebooks, plus Sylvia's regular letters to her friend Ellen, in which she laments her inadequacies in transferring her love of English to children who are hobbled by absent parents, racial prejudice, unrealistic dreams, gang violence, drugs, and simple hopelessness. At once humorous, infuriating, sobering, illuminating and just plain entertaining. You'll remember Sylvia, motherly Bea, flighty Henrietta, officious J.J. McHabe ("Admiral Ass"), prima donna Paul, mousy Sadie Finch, the helpless school nurse, the librarian who hates books being taken from the library and the guidance counselor who fancies herself Freud, and the mysterious janitor who's always "not here," plus students like Joe Ferone, Jose Rodriguez, Alice Blake, Linda Rosen, Rusty O'Brien, Edward Williams, and Harry A. Kagan, "the students' choice," long after you close the covers.

book icon  Murder in Greenwich Village, Liz Freeland
Louise Faulk has fled her dull life as her uncle's bookkeeper for his butcher shop in Altoona, Pennsylvania (and a secret that is slowly revealed as the book progresses) and is working for a small publisher in New York City thanks to her Auntie-Mame-like aunt whose nonconformist views hide the fact she writes bestsellers about sweet country girls. Louise and her roommate Callie attend one of Aunt Irene's famous parties, then come home to find Callie's pest of a visiting cousin, the mousy Ethel, has been murdered wearing Callie's glamorous clothes in Callie's bed. The creepy son of the landlady tells the police he saw a blond man on the stairs earlier, one that matches the description of Callie's married lover Sawyer. But it also matches the description of the promising writer Louise met at Aunt Irene's party, and of Otto, who fancied himself in love with Louise and has just arrived in NYC to have one of his songs published by a Tin Pan alley firm. Worse, the police arrest Otto with little evidence. Louise is determined to prove it isn't him, Callie's out to prove it isn't Sawyer, and detective Muldoon is determined to get them out of his hair.

The mystery is pretty good in this one, but it's yet another book about a plucky young woman who doesn't hold with convention and is determined to find the real culprit even if it puts her life at risk, which it certainly does at the end. I guessed Louise's secret pretty early in the book as well.

My biggest problem with this book is that it takes place in 1913 and despite numerous references to Tin Pan Alley, jazz, shoes peeking out from under long skirts, suffragettes, and the saxophonists living in Louise's building, plus a final brief reference to "war breaking out in the Balkans," I never got the feeling that it was 1913. Without those few details it could have been the 1920s or the 1930s. I didn't want scads of minute descriptions of everything, but the story didn't feel tied to the time period, and the characters talked not much differently than we do today, using very little period slang. However, I would probably read another book about Louise.

book icon  The Sherlock Chronicles, Steve Tribe
This nifty book was released just after third season of Sherlock aired. It's a combination of "making of," behind the scenes photographs, the occasional Holmes illustration, deleted scene excerpts, comparisons of Sherlock scripts against original Holmes stories, and myriad other goodies associated with the brainchild of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat that was conceived on a train trip. You find how they choose filming locations, how they devised Sherlock's escape at the end of season two, the e-mails shared when the show and later scripts were being devised, the story of the original 60-minute pilot and how it became a 90-minute film, and more Sherlock and John goodness (including why in this series it's first names and not last). There are some neat photos, too, including Benedict Cumberbatch with his (and Sherlock's) parents, and photos of Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller (the updated Sherlock Holmes in the U.S. in the series Elementary) alternating roles of the scientist and his creation in a stage production of Frankenstein.

Even the end papers are cool—it's the infamous "Sherlock wallpaper" that's been made so famous on the series so that it pops up on e-reader covers, bookcovers, cell phone protectors, textile patterns, etc. A must for Sherlock fans.

book icon  C.S. Lewis & Narnia for Dummies, Richard Wagner
If you've always wondered what the Narnia books were really all about, this is a good primer to the most famous works of C.S. Lewis, made into both radio plays and television and theatrical films. The book opens with a brief history of Lewis, including the college years that drew him away from Christianity and the events in his life that drew him back, and then jumps into the seven Narnia children's novels, noting the novelists who influenced Lewis, the parallels with Christianity (but, as Wagner explains, not told as allegory; instead the Narnia books are a "supposal"), a who's who of characters, a list of themes, and summaries of all the books with Lewis' themes of sacrifice and faith pointed out.

The second half of the book is devoted to Lewis' other works, from the well-known Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy, , the Space trilogy, and The Screwtape Letters, to the more obscure like Lewis' first work, an allegory called The Pilgrim's Regress, Till We Have Faces, The Problem of Pain, The Four Loves, and The Abolition of Man. A list of authors favored by Lewis, print and internet resources, and two suggested biographies round out the book

31 March 2018

Books Completed Since March 1

book icon  Murder in Morningside Heights, Victoria Thompson
Frank Malloy and his new wife Sarah Brandt Malloy are home from their honeymoon, gamely coping with the new investigative agency Frank's young ex-policeman friend Gino and Sarah's nanny Maeve set up while they were away. Frank's already bored with investigating infidelity cases and Sarah's bored with being a housewife with no midwifery or mysteries to brighten her day when the parents of Abigail Northrup hire Frank to find out what happened to their daughter. It appears they were told that Abigail died in a freak accident at the Normal School where she taught, but they think it's something more. It certainly is: because Abigail was definitely not the sweet girl her parents thought she was, a fact her maligned brother corroborates, and there are other irregularities going on at the Normal School.

I felt quite bad for Abigail's brother in the way he is treated by his parents, and the mystery is pretty good if slightly transparent; however, although there are very many clues that will try to take you off the trail, you may want to trust your instincts on who the person it could not possibly be and realize that it could be. Other revelations make up for this shortcoming, however. The "Boston marriage" aspect to the story was different, but I wish Thompson had not felt the need to have one character explain it to the next character and then that character to the next character so many times. It's necessary to explaining one of the passions involved in the story, but it seems as if every five pages someone has to explain to the next neophyte what a "Boston marriage" is. It got tiresome. Glad to see that Sarah will be able to put her midwifery skills back to work soon, though!

book icon  Play It Again 1940 and Play It Again 1948, from "Good Old Days"
These are two of a series of slim, nostalgic books published by the folks who put out "Good Old Days" magazine, with photos taken from illustrations and advertisements from "The Saturday Evening Post." What text there is is very simplified, so all but the very youngest children can read them, typos pop up unexpectedly, and the the narration is rather stilted, as if written by 21-year-olds who don't know what to make of this "olden days" stuff. However, the illos and the ads, in color or in glorious black-and-white, are worth buying the books for if you find them at a discount, especially if you like classic "Post" illustrators like Normal Rockwell.

book icon  Twenty-one Days: A Daniel Pitt Mystery, Anne Perry
Daniel Pitt, son of Sir Thomas Pitt and his wife Lady Charlotte Pitt, is now twenty-five and a neophyte lawyer. As the novel opens, he is defending one of Pitt's old colleagues, Roman Blackwell, from a murder charge. But halfway through the trial, he is called to immediately take the place of a fellow attorney who was badly injured in a traffic accident while working on a high-profile case at the Old Bailey, London's premiere court. With hours to spare and the help of a fingerprint expert, Daniel is able to clear Blackwell and rush to his newest client, with Roman and his wife Mercy in his debt. His mind at peace from his previous obligation, Daniel is now free to help Russell Graves, a man accused of murdering his wife and then disfiguring her face and neck with fire after death. Graves swears he is innocent, and although neither Daniel or his senior partner like the man, they are determined to defend him. When Graves is sentenced to death, Daniel and his partner, Kitteridge, have twenty-one days to find evidence to mount an appeal. But as Daniel investigates the crime, he finds to his horror that if he saves Graves, the man, author of muckraking expose books, will be able to publish a volume that paints his father's late mentor Victor Narraway and his wife Vespasia--and indeed his father as head of Special Branch--as criminals and traitors. Even worse, Daniel begins to wonder if Graves' research was correct.

Twenty-one Days gets off to a slow start, but builds in tension as Daniel's investigation deepens and he learns more about the Graves family: deceased wife Ebony, daughter Sarah, and handicapped brother Arthur, and the servants of the household who appear to know more than they tell. Daniel then teams up with Miriam fford Croft, the daughter of the head of his legal firm, who, instead of being held back by feminine constraints, has been allowed to break convention by her understanding father and study to be a scientist, although she has not been allowed to formally receive a degree because she is a woman. Together Daniel and Miriam hunt further clues, with a possible romance set up for the two, but with no intrusive saccharine romantic interludes to ruin the suspense. Thomas and Charlotte Pitt both appear, but only in brief cameo appearances, so Daniel carries the mystery on his own and any surprising revelations come from his own investigations, and those he has asked a grateful Roman Blackwell to help with.

This was a good introduction to Perry's new series about Daniel Pitt, although he seems a little bland compared to the untidy Pitt and the unconventional Charlotte, not to mention his quick-witted sister Jemima. Miriam, however, is the one to watch for in this series. She reminds me of Julia Ogden in the Canadian television show Murdoch Mysteries.

book icon  The Showstopper: a Rebecca Mystery, Mary Casanova
Rebecca Rubin's cousin Michael puts this first of three American Girl mysteries for 2018 into motion when he forgets his lunch. He's working at a famous Broadway theatre and of course stagestruck Rebecca and his sister Ana get to take his forgotten meal to him and go backstage in the bargain. The girls find out the theatre is looking for children their age for a job, but when they actually get permission to work there, they find out it's not for acting, but to support a miniature farm that's on the roof of the theatre. Disappointed at first, Rebecca is determined to stick with it because she gets to associate with talented new actress Olivia Berry—only to discover someone appears determined to harm "Ollie," as she asks the girls to call her: the young woman is almost injured on stage, and other frightening things keep happening.

This story could easily be rewritten into a more adult thriller once the culprit is revealed, yet there is nothing too frightening or sinister here for the audience this volume is intended for. A bunch of historical facts are painlessly included in the narrative, including the fact that the plays given in the theatre weren't the sole things entertaining the crowds back the. The miniature farm depicted on the roof of the theatre, the rooftop lake and restaurant, and the stage show "up above" were all real aspects of some vaudeville theatres of that era, and the Oscar Hammerstein that Rebecca and Ana meet is the real-life grandfather of Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the lyrics to the songs in The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, etc. with his partner Richard Rogers.  An excellent outing for Rebecca.

book icon  Menace at Mammoth Cave: a Kit Mystery, Mary Casanova
I can't decide whether this or the Rebecca mystery are the best of the 2018 American Girl mystery stories. They are both suspenseful and have good, almost creepy mysteries as part of the story. This Kit mystery makes up for the thoroughly disappointing The Jazzman's Trumpet, which was so predictable.

In this story, Kit is in Kentucky with her Aunt Millie to visit her brother Charlie at a CCC camp and tour Mammoth Cave. Charlie's group is part of the workforce expanding the Mammoth Cave area into a larger national park. Unfortunately in the process people are being turned off their land and someone seems bent on sabotaging the CCC camp workers' work, including an event that makes Kit fear for Charlie's life. It's possible that Kit's new friend Benny, an African-American boy whose family will be forced to move, is one of the culprits. Who can she trust, and is Charlie in danger?

This is just a great mystery with a lot of history behind it. During the building of many of the Eastern National Parks, people were made to move from the farms and land that their ancestors had settled two centuries before. It was discouraging and infuriating for them and many fought back. In fact, if you read this book and are interested in finding a similar story, there is an episode of The Waltons called "The Conflict" that you might want to check out. In the story the Walton men visit Grandpa's sister-in-law and her son and grandchildren to defend their property; they are being moved to make way for the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and some of the issues addressed in this book are addressed in that story. I also enjoyed the dynamics of the mountain families and how they pitched in together.

book icon  Legend of the Shark Goddess: a Nanea Mystery, Erin Falligant
Of the three American Girl "Beforever" mysteries, this is probably the least "mysterious" and is more about Nanea jumping to conclusions. Her brother David now in the service, Nanea is more determined than ever to do something for the war effort, even if it's just keeping an eye out for lawbreakers. That's why she's so suspicious of Mano, a teenager who's hanging around her grandparents' store. Nanea is sure he's stolen from them. But her little dog Mele likes Mano. Who can she believe? And then when her grandfather's watch disappears, she fears an American soldier is also not to be trusted.

The story well-illustrates the uncertainties people, especially children, faced during World War II. They knew their own neighbors and friends might be part of the black market, and they met strangers that they weren't sure if they could trust. While everything comes out okay for Nanea in the end, for some families it did not. While this was not the best of the mysteries, it was enjoyable and the lesson to trust your heart and to be careful but not cynical well taken.

book icon  One Man's America, Alistair Cooke
Before Alistair Cooke passed, during his elder journalist years between his series America and during Masterpiece Theatre, he had several books published that examined mostly serious subjects (Six Men, The Americans, World War II-era America, etc.) that talked about significant events in the American scene. All of these books were taken from his weekly report on the BBC, "Letter from America."

This is an older collection which I found different from these later books and more enjoyable. While some of the essays in this book address historical subjects or personalities—there's one about Father Serra and the missions, for example; another about Damon Runyon, a third about Joe Louis, yet another about Washington DC—others are just interesting observations about American life: one of the most amusing is Cooke's recounting of meeting his first Native American and having all the clichés broken. Another is about an old senator who started believing the press releases about himself and who changed personalities for the worse because of it. Four essays cover the seasons, another one simply talks about moving house. It's more E.B. White with the occasional political overtone. I was enchanted. I'm going to look for his older books and see if there are more like this. I was also amused to see phrases lifted in whole to be included in his America series, like the descriptions of fall and Newfane, Vermont, and calling DC "a city of Greek wedding cakes." Loved seeing the genesis of that series.

book icon  Death of an Avid Reader, Frances Brody
Kate Shackleton has a new case: Lady Coulton has asked her to find the daughter born out of wedlock that she had to give away while her husband was abroad. No sooner has Kate begun her hunt for Sophia than she is asked to participate in an odd ceremony at the historic Leeds library: it's reputed to be haunted and there are witnesses who must accompany the priest who will walk the library attempting to exorcise the specter. But when Father Bolingbroke descends into the basement, the exorcism party is dismayed to find the body of Dr. Potter, a mathematician who uses the library daily and who is fearful for its unguarded rare book collection, lying dead. Nearby is a sick Italian organ grinder who is immediately charged with the crime. An indignant Kate, not believing the ill man could carry out such a crime, vows to find out the truth while she is still looking for young Sophia.

As in other books in this series, Kate slowly finds her two cases merging in the most surprising ways, and must enlist the help of John Sykes to unravel the threads, which gradually become a threat to Kate herself. This is a nice complicated entry in the Shackleton series, with much misdirection and some memorable supporting characters, including the little monkey belonging to the organ grinder. Thoroughly enjoyable!

book icon  Crowned and Dangerous, Rhys Bowen
As you remember, at the end of Malice at the Palace, Irish spy and impoverished former estate heir Darcy was zooming away with our heroine, Lady Georgiana Rannoch, 35th in line for the throne, equally blue-blooded and impoverished. It turns he is driving her to Gretna Green in Scotland, for them to be married. Unfortunately a blizzard stops them in their tracks, and then both remember Georgie will have to renounce her claim on the throne formally for her to be able to marry a Catholic. Both these issues are not insurmountable, but the next event is: Darcy's father has been accused of murdering the wealthy and reclusive American that bought the family estate. Darcy drops everything to go to Ireland and forbids Georgie to follow; indeed, he breaks up with her altogether, leaving her stunned and shaken.

But this is Georgie, after all; she's as tough as the Highland landscape and isn't going to let a simple spurning hold her back. She immediately follows her beloved to Ireland, pretending to be a friend of Darcy's, to discover his father truly believes he murdered the American in a drunken haze. Can Darcy and Georgie clear Lord Kilhenny? Can Zou Zou, the flamboyant European countess Georgie befriended through Darcy, help them? And what is the deal with this reclusive American anyway? He doesn't seem to have a past—but he does have some very shady compatriots.

Secret passages, airplanes, racehorses, an Auntie Mame countess and a grumpy member of the nobility, two of the stubbornest protagonists ever, and Bowen's lively narration make this one a winner in the Georgiana Rannoch series, but we're still faced with that ever-present cliffhanger: will they ever be able to be married? Stay tuned!

book icon  A Death in the Dales, Frances Brody
Lucian Simonson, the charming and intelligent physician Kate Shackleton befriended in Murder on a Summer's Day, has invited her to stay at his aunt's old place in the small town of Settle. Kate takes along her fourteen-year-old niece Harriet, who is recovering from a severe case of diphtheria, with her to get some country air. Once there, Harriet befriends Beth, a girl somewhat older than herself who is working in the fabric mill in Settle and chafing at the fact that her brother, working for a farmer with a bad reputation out of town, has not yet come to visit her, and Kate finds out that Lucian's aunt had wanted to meet her before she died—years earlier this aunt had seen a murder take place and was convinced the wrong man went to prison. She was hoping Kate could take up this "cold case." With Harriet's urging, Kate not only takes on this old mystery, but also searches for Beth's missing brother.

I really enjoyed the teaming of Kate and her niece in this story. While Harriet (and Beth) are able to assist Kate in the case, they do not play Nancy Drew or Trixie Belden, but act as normal teenage girls might. As always in these mysteries, there are red herrings aplenty and diversions, and a great sense of the 1920 time period. The one thing I disliked was a revelation about a certain character, but then it was because I had rather liked this person until something was revealed. But that's a failing of my own, not of the character.

book icon  Walking to Camelot, John A. Cherrington
Why I like books about long-distance walkers when I've never done anything longer than limp around Disney World is beyond me, but I guess there is something appealing about leaving everything behind except what's in your backpack and hiking across beautiful countryside.  And this is what John Cherrington, 50ish solicitor, and his friend Karl, two decades older than him, both from Canada, did: walked a public right-of-way called the Macmillan Way, which stretches from the soggy fenland of eastern England to end on the English Channel near the town of Weymouth. On the way they pass through the lovely Cotswolds with their honey-colored stone buildings, pass through the village of Cherington where John's ancestors came from, and visit Cadbury Camelot, supposedly the place where King Arthur and his knights lived. On the way they will dodge irritated bulls, negotiated (mostly unsuccessfully) with B&B owners who think it's too early to turn on the heat, endure rainstorms, visit as many pubs as Karl wants, and enjoy the lovely English countryside.

I enjoyed this well enough, but was hoping for something a bit more introspective, with more descriptions of the countryside than Cherrington included, and perhaps some of his inner feelings about the trip. Usually in these volumes the author imparts some spiritual epiphanies, but this was pretty much straightforward narrative. It's mostly engaging, I loved what was described of the countryside, and was sorry when the book ended. But did tire of Karl having to hunt up pubs. I'm sure he wasn't as shallow as he sounded.

book icon  Serafina and the Black Cloak, Robert Beatty
Serafina lives in the basement of Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, with her father, who is the mechanical engineer on the estate, having been there from the time the house was built. But no one upstairs (or really downstairs) knows Serafina lives there. She is a strange little girl with golden eyes and only four toes on each foot, and she is so quick she can catch rats, but she is also sweet, intelligent and curious, and wishes only for a friend her age. But one day she senses an evil presence in the basement, a man in an evil-impregnated black cloak. When she tries to warn her father of it, he rejects the story as fantasy—until several children disappear from around Biltmore Estate, including a Russian girl and a piano prodigy. When Serafina accidentally meets the Vanderbilts' young orphaned nephew, a series of events sets in motion that may shed some light on her past, but may also threaten her new friend when the man in the sinister cloak sets the boy as his next victim.

Deep dark fantasy which may be too intense for younger children, the book applies old mountain legends of shapeshifters to an unsettling plot involving a creeping evil and the newest marvel of the age, Biltmore House with its electric generators and lights. It's pretty good if you can swallow that Serafina lived for twelve years in the Biltmore basements without anyone noticing her, that "Braeden" was a good name for a boy in 1899 (not to mention that the kid has a Doberman Pinscher, a breed that originated only nine years earlier and wasn't even recognized as a breed until 1900, a year after the book takes place), and that by the end of the book the Vanderbilts would be so grateful that they wouldn't ask a lot of questions about her.

book icon  The Year of No Clutter, Eve O. Schaub
Schaub, who spent a year detoxifying her family from added sweetners (in The Year of No Sugar), tackles a new problem: a huge room upstairs in her home that the family calls "the Hell Room" that has become a repository for both useful items—old photographs and memories of her daughters—and junk like discarded hobbies, a dead mouse, old school projects, and other detritus, all compounded by dead insects, dirt, cobwebs, and a filthy rug. She desperately wants to clear the room, not just because it's a hidden eyesore, but because she yearns to use it for useful things, like a hobby room where she can share time with her girls. But Schaub finds throwing out anything, even a crushed piece of construction paper from one of her long-ago school projects, painful and unsettling. With the help of her daughters, and the reluctant help of her husband (who has his own junk in this room as well), and some eye-opening revelations (is she a hoarder? or is she a collector?).

As someone who's once again trying to clear the clutter from her life, I felt some kinship to Schaub, but at the same time was a bit goggled by the things she kept. I can see old craft supplies and photos, but I really didn't understand a bunch of things, especially the dead mouse. Ick! Yet she isn't a hoarder, as a visit to a real hoarder's home shows. She also has the difficulty getting her husband to cooperate; while he wants the Hell Room cleared out, he doesn't want to do any work sorting his own things that are causing the mess. This is a problem in any home where more than one person owns clutter. Eve also begins to realize that she is afraid that by losing her memorabilia she is losing her past and her own self.

I enjoyed most of this, although I found the book hard to get back into once I stopped reading. I'm still interested in reading the sugar book.

book icon  Space Helmet for a Cow 2: The Mad, True Story of Doctor Who, Paul Kirkley
This is the second half of Kirkley's tongue-in-cheek commentary on the history of Doctor Who, from "the wilderness years" and the Virgin books and later the Big Finish audios to the television film to the triumphant return starting with "Rose" and the tumult surrounding it, since Christopher Eccleston quit almost as soon as the first season began. (Kirkley spends a lot of the book popping up with "this is why Eccleston says he quit this time.") It's hard to believe now, but Kirkley also chronicles the disbelief and skepticism of the viewers on finding out David Tennant had been cast in the role. Who knew then he would become the most popular of the modern Doctors?

As in the first volume, we go behind the scenes, discover trivial tidbits (although none of the revelations are as spectacular as the Patrick Troughton surprise!), read good reviews and bad, and are subject to Kirkley's jokes (again, this is so full of fun information you can forgive the bad puns). The narrative continues through the choice of Pearl Mackie in the role of Bill, and The Sarah Jane Adventures (and Elisabeth Sladen's death) and Torchwood are also examined.

Just as much fun and packed with goodies as the original volume. A must for Who fans.

book icon  The Whole Art of Detection, Lyndsay Faye
This is a dandy collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories that have a real flavor of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Faye has captured the vocabulary he used and the personalities of Holmes and Watson admirably; the mysteries themselves are also reasonably complex, although I did guess the crime being done in "The Adventure of the Mad Baritone" immediately. The first story, "The Case of Colonel Warbuton's Madness," I had already read in Sherlock Holmes in America, but the remainder were new to me, and I was happily surprised by them, as in a collection of Sherlock Holmes pastiches there are usually good stories and some quite dreadful ones. Faye's tales are remarkably consistent. She also attempts to fill in some of the Holmes "missing adventures": for instance, in the second tale, we find out how Holmes met Sherman, the owner of Toby, the remarkable scent hound, and in "The Adventure of the Willow Basket," we learn about the infamous red leech. Faye also has written two stories narrated by Holmes—I was amused by "The Gaskell Blackmailing Dilemma," which is narrated by Holmes sounding like a fussy old woman about Watson's safety during his time alone at Baskerville Hall—and there is also "An Empty House," a wistful reminisce by Watson during Holmes' "death." Women figure in many of the stories, some as the victims, in others willing accomplices. One of the most enjoyable Holmes/Watson pastiches I have ever read.

book icon  How to Use Fonts & Typefaces, edited by Tony Seddon
It was two bucks on a clearance table, what the hell. Covers the history of type, the difference between a typeface and a font (Courier is a typeface, Courier Bold and Courier Italic are fonts), how to use them in print and on the web to best match your message (no Comic Sans, of course, on funeral home brochures and university documents, for instance), legibility versus readability, odd fonts, mixing fonts, etc. A nice basic reference.

28 February 2018

Books Completed Since February 1

book icon  Re-read: Addie Pray, Joe David Brown
I originally picked up this book when it was known as Paper Moon after the film it begat. Paper Moon is indeed a favorite of mine, and I always admired Peter Bogdonovitch's choice to make it in evocative black and white. If you've seen the film, it takes a good deal of its script from the text, but Addie is older in the book, and the book continues on after "Moze" and Addie ditch the fancy car. If you have no experience with either, Addie Pray is the story of an eleven year old girl con-artist who travels around with the man who may or may not be her father (her "mama being fast and all"). Her partner in crime is Moses "Long Boy" Pray, a charming wanderer who makes a living selling "memorial Bibles" and "memorial photographs," conning greedy people with anonymous wallets stuffed with cash, and selling cotton he doesn't have. He and Addie live a charmed life, save for a few obstacles in the way, like cootchie dancer Trixie Delight, but a deal with a bootlegger might just kill them.

This is one of my very favorite books in the entire world, and I apparently have a thing for spunky girls named Addie, what with Addie Mills along with Addie Pray. While I like the movie immensely, the book is full of additionally adventures, Addie's matter-of-fact and sometimes hilarious narration (her description of Trixie includes this gem: "...I don't guess most people looked past her bosom. Oh, my, that bosom. If Grant had met up with breastworks like that, he never would have taken Vicksburg,"), and characters like Colonel Culpepper and Amelia Sass. It's fun and in places touching, and gives a vivid portrait of the South (the movie takes place in Kansas) during the Great Depression. If you've only seen the film, try the book; it's terrific.

book icon  How to Do Just About Anything, Reader's Digest books
This is one of those numerous RD books you find on the remainder shelves in Barnes & Noble; I can't seem to resist them. This contains an assortment of recipes (main dishes, vegetables, desserts, jellymaking, etc.), skills (how to tie a tie, make a window box, train your dog, etc.), fun things to do (ride a surfboard, paint a picture, etc.), prudent things to do (save money, wash windows, remove makeup properly, etc.), and other odd little things. It's a fun read, and a good book to leave in the bathroom to just dip in.

book icon  A Lab of One's Own, Patricia Fara
In the 1880s, reluctantly authorized by male authority, women began going to universities. Too many still disapproved, both men and women who felt a woman's only career should be as wife and mother. Doctors of the time even said that women's brains were not made for studying of difficult subjects like mathematics and science, and that women who tried to pursue these fields would go mad, and, worse, studying would ruin her body for childbearing and make them less feminine. Women persisted at their studies, even though at some universities they could not graduate with their male classmates or get an actual diploma; a certificate would be mailed to them.

When World War I broke out and men marched to the killing fields of the Somme and Ypres; back in Great Britain someone must take their places, and these highly educated and highly intelligent women did, hoping this would turn the tide for both professional women and for woman's suffrage. But, as Fara narrates, women were still marginalized, patronized, and sensationalized as "unwomanly" even as they demonstrated their skills; often credit for work they did went to a supervisor (a man). And even though they might be praised for "pitching in" while the war was in progress, once the war was over, they were expected to quit (or were immediately fired) to make room for male workers, told to go home and raise babies.

Informative and infuriating, spotlighting, among others, Virginia Woolf's sister Ray Strachey, chemists Martha Whiteley (who was one of the inventors of tear gas) and Dorothea Hoffert, mathematician Elizabeth Williams, botanist Helen Vaughan, radiologist Edith Stoney, and physiologist Mabel Fitzgerald (who didn't get an official degree until 1972!), this is a great overview of what should have been a breakthrough moment for professional women, but was aborted by prejudice and hidebound tradition.

book icon  Leeches and Liberty, Richard H. Kennedy
I picked up this book at the history/gift shop on the Main Street in Yorktown, VA, particularly because it was set in Pawtuxet Village in Rhode Island during the Revolutionary War (right "down the road apiece" from where I grew up). Thirteen year old Lukus Carr demurs at being a partner in his father's grist mill. Apprenticed to a minister, although he does not feel the call to preach, he learns a great deal about plants and their use as medicines, and when his teacher calls him out for not being interested in the ministry, suggests he find another occupation. Deciding to travel to the colonies, Luke eventually apprentices to a physician and learns his craft. Soon he is married and then participating in the fight for freedom against Great Britain, jotting all the significant events of his life down in his journal.

Kennedy, who participates in Revolutionary War re-enactments, does a great job in bringing Carr's medical practice to life. His methods of doctoring would seem very strange to us now—blowing smoke in people's ears to cure earache, bleeding with leeches or a scalpel, believing in "humors" that guide the body, etc.—but these were the accepted treatment of the time. We see his day-to-day practice as well as his battling of epidemics (smallpox and influenza particularly) and participation in the war and a friendship with General Nathaniel Greene, and Kennedy takes care not to make him a man ahead of his time with modern morals—he neither appreciates Quakers and their pacifism (frequently attacking their scruples that do not keep them from profiting from the war), and like any man of his time, he still believes people of color are not as intelligent as white people and pretty much destined to remain slaves.

While an occasional modern term pops up occasionally, the feel of a doctor living in the 18th century is well transmitted by this novel, are as his doubts about his talent and his purpose in life, and his feelings for his family. If you are interested in Revolutionary-era life or 18th century medicine, you may find this enjoyable.

book icon  Victoria: The Heart and Mind of a Young Queen, Helen Rappaport
Eeek! This was released at $30! But now it's on remainder, at $7, was much more interested in getting a copy.

This is the companion book to the first series of Victoria as shown on the BBC and repeated on PBS. I was amused by Daisy Goodwin's revelation that the genesis for this series was an argument with her teen daughter; she realized that Victoria was a teenager when she ascended to the throne, and how would that POV shape her?

Don't expect a detailed biography of Victoria; this is just an overview of her early life with extracts from her diaries (which are fascinating all of themselves) and other Victorian writings, plus beautiful color photos from the production and behind-the-scenes inserts about the actors and also the historical events behind the story (the Bedchamber crisis, the scandal with Lady Flora Hastings, the Chartists, etc.). A chapter at the back shows filming locations.

Perfect for series fans, with history tossed in for welcome verisimilitude.

book icon  The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
Another one of those children's classics that I never read as a child, since I preferred books about real animals (Call of the Wild, the Silver Chief books, Big Red and sequels, etc.) even if the animals talked among themselves as in Black Beauty and Beautiful Joe. Of course I'd seen Disney's Ichabod and Mr. Toad, but Toad always got on my nerves.

Well, Toad still gets on my nerves. I find him very annoying, and think Rat, Mole, and Badger are very patient in trying to reform him. The only Toad adventure I find tolerable is the first with the caravan. My favorite chapters are about Rat and Mole's friendship and adventures, such as when Rat follows the imprudent Mole into the Wild Wood, the lovely "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" story, and my favorite of all, "Dulce Domum," about Rat and Mole's Christmas. The little mouse carolers get me every time.

Best of all are Grahame's lovely descriptions of the countryside, and the darling little English cottage fixings in the animals' burrows. When I read these things I want to grab all my money and go find one, which is ridiculous because they're not owned by poor people anymore and I wouldn't have a tenth of the money I need. But they're sure pretty to read about, and Willows has lyrical, dreamy descriptions of animals, seasons, and nature that make you feel as if you are there.

book icon  Red, White, and Who: The story of Doctor Who in America, Steven Warren Hill, Jennifer Adams Kelley, Nicholas Seidler, and Robert Warnock, with Janine Fennick and John Lavalie
In 1963, Doctor Who premiered on the BBC, and, unless you were visiting the British isles or one of the commonwealth countries, you'd probably never heard of it. When it was finally sold into syndication in the US, it was dismissed in a two-page TV Guide article and then slowly began to appear on American stations, which is where I found it in the mid-70s. It was tough being a Doctor Who fan back then; no other magazine ever talked about it, and friends you shared it with often didn't like it. Then the Tom Baker episodes came in a second wave...and American Doctor Who fandom never looked back.

This book attracted me from the time I heard about it, until I saw the price. Goodness, what on earth could it say that it would cost $50? Then my husband found it on discount and gave it to me for Valentine's Day and I found out: Wow. There are 500 pages of closed-spaced text, plus another 130 pages of appendices, not to mention a bibliography and an index. You could squash mice with this book. Plus it includes dozens of photographs, pamphlets, promotional materials, memos, letters, convention advertisements, fanzine covers, toy photos, etc., anything and everything relating to Doctor Who and Doctor Who fandom in the United States, down to items like listing known fanclubs, Doctor Who related newsletters and fanzines, and even a salute to the infamous Howard da Silva introductions to the Tom Baker episodes (explaining the premise of the show to us "dumb Americans"). From the era of DWAS and NADWAS (and the reign of Barbara Elder) to camera copies to PBS fundraising nights featuring the Doctor to "the wilderness years" and the Fox movie to the revival of the series, this book covers it all.

Yes, it's expensive. But if you're a Doctor Who fan from way back, like me, put some money away every week, or look for discounts, and save up for this volume. You won't be disappointed.

book icon  The Secret Lives of Color, Kassia St. Clair
I've been a color junkie since my mother bought me my first 48-crayon Crayola box (and pleaded for a 64) and a big British paintbox, so this book was like a box of sweets for me. After scientifically defining color and explaining the principles of additive and subtractive color, St. Clair then works through the palette starting with white, through the spectrum from yellow through green, then brown and finally black, talking about notable colors like the deadly lead white, chalk, Indian yellow (did it really come from cows' urine?), amber (fossilized tree sap), scarlet (originally a cloth), cochineal (a still-common red dye made from...insects!), the infamous Tyrian purple, mauve (the first man-made color), the rare and expensive blues (ultramarine, Egyptian blue, woad, indigo), hypnotic absinthe color, the reddish russet which was originally grey-brown, mummy brown (yes, it came from where you think it did), kohl (the first eye shadow), charcoal, and more.

If you love color, and the history of colors, and a good bedtime read (short chapters, one to three pages), this book is for you. I even love the cover, which looks 3D even though it isn't.

book icon  The Lincoln Deception, Donald O. Stewart
As Ohio Congressman John Bingham—the man who prosecuted Abraham Lincoln's assassin's compatriots—lays dying, he lays out a strange story to his doctor, James "Jamie" Fraser, who considers Bingham his mentor: before her execution, Mary Surratt told him a dark secret about who was really behind the assassination. Fraser, growing curious, agrees to help Bingham's sisters look through his papers. As he starts this project, he makes the acquaintance of Speedwell "Speed" Cook, a black man who used to play professional baseball until the leagues forced out "the Negroes," and as he reads through Bingham's papers, he decides to take up what today we'd call a "cold case" with the help of Cook. Soon both Fraser and Cook are talking to important men...and being threatened.

I'm with Cook and some of the reviewers of this book: I know Fraser is a small-town doctor who hasn't gotten around much, but he is so incredibly naïve through most of this book you want to shake him. Picture this: you're investigating someone who you think was behind a Presidential death. The dude says, "Hey, I have an errand to run at [this dangerous place]. Why not come with me?" and Fraser just goes. (He pays for it, too, but acquits himself quite nicely. But after that he keeps believing people!) Speed Cook, of course, who's been brought up not to trust anyone, especially if they're white, should have brought a leash.

Not a bad mystery, unfolds slowly, Fraser and Cook both nice guys, but Fraser is clueless about what Cook goes through as a person of color (as really he would, as white people were brought up in a world apart). A little dull, but I am going to read the rest of the books.

book icon  Becoming Madeleine, Charlotte Jones Volkis and Léna Roy
I saw this almost first thing the week it was released; I had a coupon and valiantly declared "I would look around" before making a decision. I did look, but it was pretty much forgone the way the coupon would be used.

This biography by Madeleine L'Engle's granddaughters is for the tie-in with Disney's A Wrinkle in Time movie, so is written for middle-grade students and ends at the publication of the book, so the narrative is simple but does capture L'Engle's unconventional childhood, her fears, and her triumphs. Absolutely priceless are the extracts from her journals and her drawings, as well as the various photographs of her from girlhood to author, wife, and mother.

I hope Volkis and Roy will consider doing an adult biography of their grandmother or have someone impartial do one. Yes, I've read the infamous "New Yorker" article, and yes, I know Madeleine's life, even after she married, was not strewn with roses, and that her relationship with her children was not as sweet as Victoria Austin's, and that her son's alcoholism was apparently a result of not being able to live up to his literary self (Rob Austin) and that also that Hugh Franklin allegedly had girlfriends on the side. I don't think it makes her any less of a person to know the other, real disappointments in her life, or failures of self, and certainly no less of a writer.

I would love to at least see Madeleine's journals and letters (about her travels or thoughts, not about personal stuff) and more pictures!

book icon  Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser
This is technically a re-read, but my first reading of it was as an e-book, and somehow they don't seem as real as a paper book.

Wow. That was my first reaction to this meticulously researched historical book. As McDowell's The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder shows us the natural world behind the "Little House Books" saga, Fraser's volume paints the history of Laura's family and Almanzo's family, then the couple themselves and finally daughter Rose Wilder Lane, against the historical events of the United States. You'll meet one of Charles Ingalls' ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, and his descendants including a poet of published verse, find out the history of the Big Woods and the Indian wars that enabled the Ingalls and Quiner families to settle there, learn the truth about the Kansas house on the prairie and why the Ingalls really left (and who Laura may have confused with Soldat du Chêne), about the homesteading laws that enabled them to claim land in DeSmet, and about the history of "the Land of the Big Red Apple" and the world of the Depression-era Missouri where Laura and Almanzo ended their days, not to mention the historical figures and radical politics that became part of Rose Wilder Lane's life. The Little House books exist in an enchanted bubble of a children's book series where "now is now" and never "a long time ago"; the Ingalls family did not. They lived, as we all do, against the events of history which shape our lives. A presidential assassination, an election, a natural disaster, a Congressional decision can all change the future.

The sheer amount of information in this book about the Indian wars, the pioneer experience, the socialist movement, and other historical events may daunt some readers, but it is extremely rewarding to see how the times shaped the story of this particular family. The book includes maps, illustrations, and photographs to help bring the era alive.

book icon  An Untimely Frost, Penny Richards
Lilly Long has been cared for by theatre group empresario Pierce Wainwright since her mother's murder 11 years earlier, and has become an accomplished actress herself. However, after her new husband abandons her, taking all her money and making a mockery of what she thought was a happy new life, Lilly is intrigued by an ad looking for female operatives at the Pinkerton Agency. She hopes if she is hired  that she can stop other women from being victimized like she was. After being reluctantly hired "on spec" and trained, she's sent to the town of Vandalia, to see if she can locate a minister who vanished taking all the church's money. Lilly no sooner has begun asking questions than everyone in town gets cagy around her, except for the roguish and handsome boxing promoter she bumped into on the train.

Yes, Lilly does make some fairly elementary bloopers in investigating her first case, but then she's only 22 and a neophyte at the detection business, so I give her a nice solid "A" for effort; she's certainly no shrinking violet and endures a frightening encounter in an old building. The mystery also takes several twists that I enjoyed. However, I guessed right away why a certain person had disappeared from society and also the true identity of a person who appeared to be following Lilly. Plus I was a little disappointed when Richards popped up a new love interest for her in Vandalia almost immediately, and a couple of modern terms tossed me out of the story (I don't think people had personal agendas in 188). However, this doesn't keep me from wanting to follow her to her next adventure, and of course her faithless ex-husband will pop up again, and she will continue searching for a murderer now that she remembers more details about the killing.

book icon  America's Historylands: Landmarks of Liberty, National Geographic Society
I found this for a dollar at a book sale; it's from 1962 and is a compilation of historical articles from "National Geographic" magazine. It's written in that old expansive historical style that glorifies American historical characters in a way we don't today, seeing them more as ordinary people who did extraordinary things. It's still fun to read, but I found myself a bit troubled: all the photos of people touring historic sites show white people only and the texts (written by professional historians!) still refer to Native Americans as "redskins." Since National Geographic reporters have gone all over the world and reported on all sorts of communities and civilizations, it was rather jarring to see such a "white" America. Heck, even when I was a kid in 1962 I remember more racial and ethnic variety in the people I saw in everyday life. So while enjoyable and I learned some historic facts I didn't know, you can also read this to see how far we've come in including people of color in our publications.

book icon  To Die But Once, Jacqueline Winspear
May 1940: Publican Phil Coombes is worried. His youngest boy Joe, apprenticed to a painter who's doing war work, is unhappy at his job, as he tells his parents each time he calls, and he's also suffering from terrible headaches which he suspects is due to the paint fumes. When Joe stops telephoning, Coombes asks Maisie Dobbs to locate him. For her part, Maisie's private inquiry business is still thriving, but her personal life is full of worry: her partner Billy Beale's eldest son and her best friend Priscilla's oldest boy are both in the service, and it looks like the former may be trapped in France by a German advance. Billy's younger son wants to fix engines for the RAF and Priscilla's middle son Tim, only sixteen, is wild to do something for the war effort. Plus Maisie is becoming quite attached to Anna, the young orphaned evacuee she took into her country home.

Just when you think you have the plot straight in this book, another thread is unraveled, and it's a wonderfully complicated mystery as only Winspear can write, combining Joe's whereabouts, Tim's frustration, the slow realization that there is something very wrong at the painter's company, a suspicion that something may be amiss with government funds, and always the looming threat of invasion by the Nazis. When word goes out that troops are trapped on the shores of France, the action ramps even higher.

Along with a complex mystery, there is the underlying theme of older children wanting their freedom, and the fears parents have for their children as they grow older and must make decisions for themselves, so there is not only a satisfying puzzle to work out, but a look into feelings surrounding children "leaving the nest," further amplified by war. One of the best Maisie Dobbs stories ever.

(Winspear sums up previous events of her characters well, but if you want to get a fuller portrait of them, you need to read the series in order from the beginning. They are excellent mysteries and you won't regret starting from scratch. To Die But Once is #14 in the Maisie Dobbs series.)

book icon  Britcoms FAQ, Dave Thompson
This is a brief overview of British comedy television series (touching briefly on a few radio series) by addressing the main categories—sitcoms, sketch comedy, political satire, outrageous comedy, memorable characters or unusual situations, etc. We begin with Tony Hancock, whose sketches still existing can be seen on YouTube and which are still hilarious, and the infamous Goons, Monty Python, the Goodies, and Fawlty Towers are all here, as well as The Good Life, To the Manor Born, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, The Young Ones, Man About the House, Dad's Army, the inevitable Are You Being Served and Last of the Summer Wine, and individual comedians like Peter Sellers, and Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Thompson even admits he couldn't fit more shows in (like Keeping Up Appearances and Morecambe and Wise), but I would have preferred he do so and omit the 80 pages of episode guide stuck in back of the book. Incredibly he didn't even mention Benny Hill or Dave Allen. So I enjoyed what I read, but I wanted more, more, more.