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

31 March 2017

Books Completed Since March 1

I looked with dismay at my "to be read" piles (there are eight officially, most up past my waist) and realized I was once again getting behind in my series mysteries. So this edition should be "mystery March" (with nonfiction creeping in, as I do have an ARC of Apollo 8—at least that is another "M" as in "moon"). (What I finally did was read mysteries with female leads, in honor of International Women's Month.)

book icon  When the Devil Drives, Caro Peacock
I bought the first three Liberty Lane mysteries (A  Foreign Affair, A Dangerous Affair, A Family Affair) when they came out, and then they quite simply seemed to disappear, and gave up looking for them after about a year of searching Amazon.com, thinking the author went on to other things. Last month I was offered a new book in the series on NetGalley. Surprised at it turning up after all this time (since 2011), I did some research and found out there were four other books in the series that had never turned up at Barnes & Noble. To be fair, I'm not sure they were even published in the US.

To catch you up, Liberty Lane is a single young lady living in London at the beginning of the Victorian era (Victoria had just taken the throne in the first book). She has taught music to support herself, but more often earns her money as a private inquiry agent, rooms with a middle-aged woman for propriety's sake, is close friends with Amos Legge, a farmer knowledgeable of good horses, who takes care of Liberty's final gift from her father, a beautiful racing mare named Esperanza ("Rancie"), and is at present taking care of a teen street waif named Tabby. In this outing, Liberty's looking at her dwindling funds when two business opportunities come up: a young man asks her to find his missing fiance and a man who is a compatriot of Benjamin Disraeli (whom Liberty met in her earliest adventure) asks her to softpedal the actions of a beautiful countess who's pursing a royal lover. Soon Liberty and Tabby (and eventually Amos) will be involved in the machinations of whomever is behind a legendary "devil's chariot" that plucks young women off the street never to be seen again.

I'd almost forgotten how much I enjoyed these books. There's a certain amount of modern woman about Liberty, but Peacock spreads her knowledge of early Victorian London like oils in a talented painter's hand, making Liberty's world come to life: the courtship of Queen Victoria by Prince Albert dotting the newspapers, rebellious broadsheets, the working class world vs. the aristocratic one, curiosities of old London. Both streetwise Tabby and rough-hewn Amos are as intriguing as Liberty, and both play large roles in the story. As Liberty's two cases become blurred together, it's obvious neither is what it seems.

These are just delightful historical mysteries with a lively, forthright protagonist. Enjoyable.

book icon  Falcon Wild, Terry Lynn Johnson
As a bird lover and a budgie fancier, I was drawn to the beautiful hawk on the cover of this book, but the description alone sounded intriguing. I found I was not disappointed.

Thirteen-year-old Karma dreams of becoming a falconer like her father. She and her brother Gavin have been homeschooled at her father's bird education center, and while she is eager to enter high school and have real friends like the ones she has read about in books, she's also socially awkward (I know just how she feels). But she feels right at home training birds of prey and has fallen in love with the gyrfalcon she helped nurse back to health. Unfortunately the bird's original handler has tracked her down and has asked that she be returned. A grieving Karma and Gavin accompany their father in returning Stark—but soon after the three give a sullen boy named Cooper a ride, their car goes off the road and is badly damaged, and their father is trapped inside their vehicle. While Gavin stays with his father, Karma hikes off to the road the GPS said was only two miles ahead.

Instead Karma ends up lost in the woods after the road never materializes, her only help Stark, who was freed accidentally from her cage by Gavin, and Cooper, who turns up to rescue Karma from a dangerous situation. In time, the three become a team, and Karma is thrilled when Stark learns to hunt for them. But still she worries...where is the road that showed up on the GPS? What will happen to her father?

This is a super survival story featuring a teenage protagonist who isn't a superstar athlete or even very sure of herself. As she struggles to survive she keeps her head and uses her wits, yet her insecurities are something every young person can understand. The text keeps moving at a brisk pace, making the danger real and immediate, while the beauty and danger of the wilderness around the teens are beautifully described, as is the falconing lifestyle and the birds themselves. You cannot help envying Karma for working with beautiful, independent raptors. In short, I loved this book.

book icon  Apollo 8, Jeffrey Kluger
What Kluger did for the powerful story of Apollo 13, he does again for the groundbreaking flight of Apollo 8, the first manned flight to leave "the surly bonds of Earth" and travel to another celestial body.

It is chiefly the story of Frank Borman, who originally partnered with James Lovell of Apollo 13 in the two-week record-setting Gemini flight in 1965. Borman was a West Point graduate who later flew at Edwards Air Force Base, at that time one of the cutting edge locations for military pilots. He gave up that life for astronaut training and made the news during the Gemini 6/7 dual mission. After the tragic launchpad fire that destroyed Apollo 1 and killed three astronauts, he was on the team that investigated the fire. And when the lunar module wasn't ready for its debut flight, Borman was the man who said yes to a trip to the moon for Christmas at the end of eventful and tragic 1968.

I've been a spaceflight geek since I watched the Apollo missions on our 19 inch black and white Magnavox television, and this book was tailor-made for me. After nearly fifty years of reading books about spaceflight (my first two were John Noble Wilford's We Reach the Moon and Richard Lewis' Appointment on the Moon), all the names were familiar, like a family reunion. If anything had changed, it was because I had read Hidden Figures a month earlier and it was now odd to see a chapter about Hampton Roads and not read about Dorothy Vernon and the rest of the mathematical ladies who kept the program going.

Enjoyed reading more details about the Gemini missions, about Chris Kraft, and about Borman's flight crew Bill Anders and Jim Lovell. If you've seen HBO's super miniseries From the Earth to the Moon and the episode "1968," this book provides the perfect companion to that story.

book icon  As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, Alan Bradley
In this seventh book in the Flavia de Luce series, Flavia enters terra incognita—for her at least. After the events of the previous novel when the body of  her deceased mother was found and brought home, the precocious 12-year-old chemical genius is bundled off to Canada by an unpleasant couple to attend Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Toronto, her mother's old school, to be initiated into the same mysterious society as both her mother and Aunt Felicity. She's no sooner put into a room at her new school when a classmate enters accidentally, just as the headmistress is doing a bed check. The girl hides up the chimney, but loses her grip and falls out—followed by the skeletal remains of a woman. While the body is whisked away, Flavia won't let it go; who is the dead woman and who killed her? And do her classmates—especially the girl who witnessed the body fall—know who it is?

This entry is sort of Flavia crossed with a boarding school story (although with this cast of characters the school is akin to St. Trinian's). There's a chemistry teacher who was acquitted of murder, a doctor with a mysterious death in the past, and students who have disappeared. While it's a fresh setting for Flavia, the total result is less than satisfying: there are too many characters wandering through the plot, and in the end it seems she's in Canada for no purpose except to solve yet another murder in a different venue. And, frankly, it's just not as much fun with Flavia being out of her natural element, so the ending came as rather a relief.

It's not a bad adventure, but if you loved Flavia in Bishop's Lacey, this may not be your cup of tea. 

book icon  Grace Cries Uncle, Julie Hyzy
Grace Wheaton's elderly employer Bennett Marshfield, owner of Marshfield Manor and heir to the family fortune, has suspected for years that Grace's mother was the daughter of his father by a liaison with her grandmother, a servant at Marshfield. Grace, curator of the museum/events venue that Marshfield has become, has come to like Bennett as a close friend and fears any change in their blood relationship will ruin that comforting friendship. However, she has finally consented to a DNA test. Which is when Grace's disreputable sister Liza—the one who seduced Grace's fiance away from her while their mother was dying—returns to the Wheaton home in Emberstowne, just after two rather sinister people have come looking for her.

Wow. Liza is just as much of an undisciplined, manipulative brat as Grace has always described her, and even Grace's grudging policemen friends, her roommates Bruce and Scott, her "bodyguard" Ronny Tooney, Bennett, and even Grace's assistant Frances at the manor are on to her at once. Why did Liza leave Grace's former intended, Eric? Who was the pushy woman asking if Grace could put her up while an antiquities convention was in town? Who's the redheaded woman who seems to be waiting for Grace at her roommates' wine shop? Why is Bennett, the consummate antiquities lover, not attending the convention? And why did the FBI agent who came to Grace's door turn up murdered in her neighbor's backyard?

This entry in the series has something going every minute, and Liza is as hissable as we've been led to believe. As in the previous book there is a suspenseful sequence in the final chapters of the book. Fans of Grace Wheaton will not be disappointed.

book icon  Murder on the Serpentine, Anne Perry
Thomas Pitt, head of Special Branch, is startled when summoned by Queen Victoria. He has met the monarch previously, but never been specifically called by her. He finds her worried about a man her son (the future king) is associating with on a matter of horses. One of her most trusted aides, Sir John Halberd, was investigating this man, but just recently he was found drowned in the Serpentine, the pond within Hyde Park, supposedly after falling out of a rowboat in the middle of the night. Most assume he died accidentally during an assignation. But he was supposed to speak with the Queen the next day about his suspicions.

With his most knowledgeable ally, Victor Narraway, away, Pitt must rely on his own instincts, with some help from radical M.P. Somerset Carslisle and his associate Stoker, and finally once again his wife Charlotte and her sister Emily are able to assist by tapping into women's gossip during afternoon calls, finding themselves among ladies who have secret fears and not-so-secret liaisons, including two women who were once associated with the Prince of Wales. This is a nice turn back to the type of investigations Pitt did when the series first started, among the wealthy, rather than the rather dull Special Branch investigations he was promoted into. Yet the newer novels do not quite have the magic than the original books did; the cases are not as urgent, the womens' contributions less, and while it was wonderful that Gracie Phipps and Sergeant Tellman found each other, the stories lost something without Gracie and Charlotte to team up.

The story is also more of a "how will they trip him up" than a whodunit, which becomes evident early on, so if you are expecting a mystery the latter, you may be disappointed. It is, however, interesting to see how Pitt finally manages the trap.

The biggest surprise is a development at the end of the book that marks a milestone in the lives of the Pitt family, and according to a note in the book, a new beginning to the story.

book icon  Marmee & Louisa, Eve LaPlante
I no sooner read something like Eden's Outcasts, which presents the mercurial Bronson Alcott in a slightly more favorable light than usual, than along comes a book like this one which reminds me what a total berk he was. True, Bronson had ideas ahead of his time about education, but he was also narcissistic, self-absorbed, and basically left the donkey work to his wife Abba May and his daughters, since he didn't want to take jobs that didn't allow him to use his "Gifts." Talk about special snowflakes! LaPlante's book takes a new look at Abigail May Alcott, early suffragist, abolitionist, and role model for Louisa, from her early days growing up with her beloved brother, who helped provide her with an education more fitted to a boy in those days. In fact, much of the early chapters of the book are devoted to Abba and her brother.

In these pages, Abba comes out of the shadow of her avatar, Little Women's Marmee, into her own. She was a proud, intelligent woman who was forced to work until her health almost broke, often needing to go begging to her family so that her children could eat, supporting a husband who was too good to work except at what he thought was "uplifting," like gardening. At one time they almost separated due to Bronson's friendship with a man who thought sexual relations between men and women "spoiled" men, forcing them to give up their ideals. Bronson even thought fair-haired people like himself were the chosen ones, and although he once admitted a child with "black blood" in one of his schools, he didn't believe in the abolitionist movement. (Not to mention that after Little Women met with success, Bronson used to mooch money from his daughter's publisher.)

You may think this book is mere Bronson-bashing, but personally I've wanted to bash him for years, long before Ms. LaPlante's excellent book. Very glad to read something positive about Abigail instead—and yes, she was not Miss Perfect, either—and learn about both factors that contributed to making Louisa May Alcott the woman she became.

book icon  The Adventuress, Tasha Alexander
Lady Emily Hargreaves' friend Jeremy Sheffield, the Duke of Bainbridge, the man everyone expected her to marry at one time, is engaged to be married to wealthy American heiress Amity Wells, and all of the bride's and groom's family and close friends have been invited to the wedding on the French Riviera, including Emily's close friends Margaret Michaels and Cécile du Lac, and two friends of Jeremy's, Chauncey Neville and Victor Fairchild. As the book opens, Emily is presented with the horrifying news that her old friend is dead! Instead it is Mr. Neville who has been found dead in Jeremy's bedroom. But who would kill such an unassuming man and why was he in Jeremy's room? In the meantime, Lady Emily is initially delighted at the sweet couple that Amity and Jeremy make; but soon someone seems to be going out of their way to play tricks that make it seem that she is jealous of the match instead.

As in two previous books, Emily and husband Colin's investigation into Neville's death is interspersed with narration from another, in this case the story of how Amity met Jeremy through his brother Jack while her family was in India. The big problem with this is that the alternating narratives give away the ending to the mystery much too early. It's pretty obvious who in the large party is the culprit by the time the book is halfway through. There's also an "action sequence" that makes Emily out to be quite a superwoman. A pity, because there are good clues as well, and a nice sense of place as the party tours the French countryside and flashbacks take us to India.

book icon  My Small Country Living, Jeanine McMullen
As I was about to leave the semi-annual library book sale, I wandered by the "Nature" section for one final look and came upon this volume. For some reason, lazy me, who is afraid of worms and has a bad back, loves to read stories about people who quit the big city and move out to backbreaking labor on a farm, and this was yet another one: an expatriot Australian who freelances for the BBC in London who falls in love with and buys a smallholding in Wales. I went to lunch after buying the books, and took this one into Panera with me to read. I was smitten from the first page in which she and her current boyfriend ("the Artist") go to interview a war veteran in Wales, and she describes how she found and bought her whippet.

This is not a sunny book about the beautiful countryside; disasters happen and her growing menagerie suffers losses. However, it's often hilarious, as when she talks about her finicky livestock, including a couple of crazy goats, a big draught horse, supercilious geese, and her beloved whippet Merlin. The prose ranges from poetical, as she describes the lush Welsh countryside, which sounds like a beautiful dream, to base, as she recounts the mess the farm was in when she bought it. We are introduced to some slightly daft and other more sensible neighbors, from an offbeat veterinarian to several helpful neighbors who take her under their wing, especially after the Artist decamps after another ladylove.

book icon  Malice at the Palace, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgina Rannoch is thirty-fifth in line for the British throne, more good than that does her: she has no money of her own and her own brother and sister-in-law can't afford to take her in. As the book opens, Georgie is taking refuge at her friend Belinda's flat when Belinda returns home unexpectedly. Her only alternative is going back to live with her brother—until she is summoned by her cousin Queen Mary. Would she like to live at Kensington Palace until the wedding of Prince George, showing his intended Princess Marina the city and taking her shopping? Georgie accepts at once, and is pretty much enjoying the task, until a young woman known in "fast" social circles for drug use and partying is found dead at one of the palace doors. Is someone trying to discredit the royal family

Bowen builds a story around the real-life antics of Prince George, who was known to party and like both sexes, and Princess Marina, who was brought forward to tame the frisky royal, and works other members of the royal family, like Queen Victoria's youngest daughter Beatrice and her sister Louise, into the story quite well. The setting is Kensington Palace, where Queen Victoria grew up, a location supposedly haunted by a ghost.

book icon  The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe, Elaine Showalter
This book had such a good review in our local newspaper that I decided to pick it up although I wasn't particularly interested in Ms. Howe's life. I knew she had been married to Samuel Gridley Howe, who ran the Perkins Institute for the Blind, and she wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The book was quite revealing.

Julia was the pampered daughter of a banker who was treated as a princess until her mother died and her father began to eschew a wealthy lifestyle. Still, she was well-educated and in some cases learned subjects that were considered unsuitable for women, like chemistry. She fell in love at first sight with Howe, who was a handsome dashing man who rode fine horses who in his youth had fought for Greek independence, and became administrator of Perkins by the whim of another doctor. However, while her marriage to him brought her a loving family, he expected her to be a dutiful, obedient wife when she longed to see the world and write novels and poetry. Howe, whom she called "Chev" (for Chevalier), also was overly absorbed by his prize pupil Laura Bridgman (who in return was quite jealous of Julia monopolizing "the Doctor") and his good friend Charles Sumner (their relationship had homoerotic overtones).

19th Century observers saw them as a "golden couple," but the reality was much sadder: Julia's relationship with her husband was troubled and restrictive. When she publishes a book of poetry that is startlingly emotional rather than the flowery poetry usually written by women at that time, "Chev" assumes the relationship troubles are about him and it strains their relationship; his spending of her considerable fortune on wild schemes doesn't help. He turns one of her daughters against her, and, after his death, when Julia finally gets to spread her wings as a suffragist (something even her daughters found abhorrent), she was criticized by her own family. It's, sadly, a very typical portrait of how a bright, curious 19th century woman would be treated (although Julia herself was far from perfect).

book icon  The Wolfe Widow, Victoria Abbott
Jordan Bingham has a good reason to give thanks this year: she has a solid job helping recluse book collector Vera Van Alst collect her rare volumes.

Until a stranger named Muriel Delgado barges into the house. Suddenly Jordan is dismissed and the locks are changed. Her Uncle Kevin and Vera's housekeeper Signora Panetone are allowed to stay to keep the house running, but soon Jordan gets word that Vera is being bullied by the Delgado woman and she is selling Vera's prized books from under her nose. Vera won't allow her into the house or even talk to her. She's not the easiest woman to work with, but suddenly Jordan is afraid for her. Her natural instinct would be to go to her best friends or her boyfriend the policeman for help, but since they're all away, she's just going to have to save Vera on her own, using the sneaky tactics learned from her slightly-less-than-honest uncles.

Enjoyed Jordan's investigation, although some of her antics were a bit over the top; she's learned to bluff from the best and gotten away with it. Uncle Kevin, who was a delight in the last book, seems to have regressed to total childhood in this one, and it's a bit unbelievable when he makes a friend who has talents that will aid Jordan (and that the friend is such a good sport). We do see a surprising revelation from Vera's past and find out she wasn't always the imperious martinet she is at present. Indeed, the reality of her relationship with Muriel is quite sad.

book icon  Rosemary & Thyme: And No Birds Sing, Brian Eastman (Rebecca Tope)
This is a novelization of the first episode of the three-series British mystery program about two middle-aged women, one a recently fired university professor and the other the now ex-wife of a police officer (a former policewoman herself), who have formed a gardening/landscaping business and restore old gardens. The story introduces how Rosemary Boxer and Laura Thyme meet after Laura's friend Sam dies while working for Rosemary's old student Daniel, who is now suffering from a painful skin condition.

In the best of novelizations, the author adds more situations that fit seamlessly into the original story, and this one is no exception. We see Nick Thyme give Laura the bad news and leave home, with Laura remaining stunned. Rosemary has a meeting with co-workers about their overbearing boss (who later fires them all) and then visits her mother, also an avid gardener, and we get to know her, and we see more of Laura's son Matthew and also meet her daughter Helena at Sam's funeral, and there's an additional subplot involving Daniel's gardening centers.

The author is stated as Rosemary & Thyme creator Brian Eastman, but the book was ghostwritten by author Rebecca Tope, who tossed an amusing in-joke into the early Rosemary scenes: one of her co-workers is named Tom and her mother is named Barbara, evidently Tope's tip of the hat to actress Felicity Kendal and her role in the classic Britcom The Good Life.

I'm a fan of the Rosemary & Thyme series and really wish they had done more, so it was a great delight to find a novelization that at least some more scenes in the lives of Ms. Boxer and Mrs. Thyme. Must hunt up the other two.

book icon  Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante, Susan Elia MacNeal
Maggie Hope, former mathematician and very recently spy for the British government, accompanies her co-workers John Sterling and David Greene, traveling with Prime Minister Winston Churchill to Washington, DC, after the horrifying bombing of the United States Naval base at Pearl Harbor. They are looking forward to non-rationed food and water as much as sobered by the sight of Washington preparing for war. Soon after they arrive one of Eleanor Roosevelt's secretaries doesn't show up for work and Maggie accompanies the First Lady to the woman's apartment, only to find she has committed suicide—after having written a note that makes a shocking accusation about Mrs. Roosevelt.

In the meantime, the First Lady and an unconventional "colored" attorney are trying to save the life of Wendell Cotton, a black man accused of murder after defending himself from a white farmer, Maggie's German spy mother and her two fellow German prisoners of war are locked up in a British castle, and John Sterling gets an interesting job offer from the west coast of the US.

This story has as many arms as an octopus. MacNeal does a great job describing 1941 Washington and the White House and the injustices of Jim Crow, and by the end of the story you are hoping against hope that Wendell Cotton gets off. But it makes a mixed bag as a narrative as we go from jazz clubs to clandestine meetings of bigots to a stately home in Britain holding German prisoners to Maggie's father to a Hollywood movie studio. I am puzzled why MacNeal stole wholesale from Roald Dahl the story of the Gremlins; anyone who's read anything about Dahl, Disney, animation, etc. knows Dahl's Gremlin characters were almost brought to life by Disney. Why didn't she create a unique cartoon character for John to draw and present in Hollywood rather than handing over to him a real event that happened to someone else? And even though she gives us a sizable list of reference books she consulted, she still states that Missy LeHand (Roosevelt's secretary) was no longer in the role because she had a heart attack? All these reference books and she didn't know Missy had a stroke?

Not to mention that if David said "Jumping Jupiter" or "Heroic Hera" or "whatever Minerva" one more time I was going to slap him. Seriously? Maggie gave him Little Women for Christmas? Could one think of a more cliché gift for a gay man?

book icon  Death Comes to London, Catherine Lloyd
Lucy Harrington, the elder spinster daughter of the rector of Kurland St. Mary, is escorting her younger sister Anna to London for the social season, which means she will be leaving her job as secretary to Major Robert Kurland, whose life she saved in Lloyd's debut novel. Unfortunately an error Lucy has made has brought Kurland to the attention of King George IV, who wishes to make him a baronet. Kurland doesn't want the title, but one doesn't turn down the king, so he too journeys to London. Thus Kurland and Lucy are both at a party where a harpy dowager duchess collapses, and it is discovered she has been poisoned with arsenic, and first Kurland's ex-fiance and then Lucy's sister is implicated in her death. It seems neither Lucy nor Kurland can keep from being drawn into the investigation. But why was her older nephew also poisoned, and where is the younger brother?

Lloyd deftly crosses a Regency-type tale of the Season with a murder mystery in this next Kurland St. Mary offering, with what turns out to be a truly creepy storyline which includes a feud about jewels, a stillroom of herbs, and Kurland's old Army companion's scientific studies. Along the way, Lucy and the Major try to fight their growing attachment to each other, which is delightfully portrayed, two proud people not wanting to appear weak in front of each other (not to mention Kurland's unfortunate habit of saying the wrong thing).

I literally did not want to put this book down; unfortunately I had to sleep!

book icon  The 13th Gift, Joanne Huist Smith

book icon  Keeping Bad Company, Caro Peacock
Mr. Benjamin Disraeli often asks Miss Liberty Lane, private inquiry agent, to help him expose miscreants in the government. She is about to expose a spy at a dinner party when a young man comes up to "rescue her." It turns out to be her brother Tom, back in England from his position working for the East India Company. A co-worker of his, a Mr. Griffiths, a man who "went native" in India and was criticized for it, is now being accused of stealing jewels that did not belong to him; he will be brought up on charges in London. Tom believes he is innocent, but Griffiths is stirring the waters by planning the publication of a pamphlet that shows how the British have abused the Indian people. Things look bad—and then get worse: Griffiths is murdered.

Liberty is also distracted by the fact that her young assistant Tabby has disappeared, and asked a friend to supply her with a sharp knife. She wonders if it is due to a case the two of them worked where a man was trying to poison his wife.

Despite the fact that Liberty seems to live very freely for a single woman of the time, I love these mysteries. Early Victorian London is very evocatively portrayed and I love Liberty's friendship with street urchin Tabby and groom Amos Legge, who takes care of Liberty's only inheritance from her late father, a beautiful racing mare. Much is going on in the novel besides the mystery of Griffiths' murder: there's a little bit of history about British/Indian relations, a subplot in which Tom intends to take his sister back to India and find her a husband, and even a slightly amusing bit where Liberty's friend Beattie plans an Indian dinner and makes all sorts of foreign dishes with no idea of how they are supposed to taste.

In the interim when I thought they weren't being written, I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed Liberty's world. Glad to be catching up!

book icon  A Woman Unknown, Frances Brody
Kate Shackleton's partner John Sykes has brought her a new case: a man named Fitzpatrick seeking to know where his wife disappears to. She says she is visiting her sick mother, but he feels there is something wrong. In the meantime, Deirdre Fitzpatrick is earning money as a "woman unknown" in divorce cases: she pretends to be a man's mistress in order that his wife can sue him for adultery. But Deirdre is in for a shock when her next "client," Everett Runcie, the younger son of a minor peer, is dead in their shared bed the next morning.

As in all the Kate Shackleton mysteries, two different cases slowly become one as the clues are revealed. This one has a large cast of characters, including a famous singer, Runcie's American heiress wife and his cool blonde mistress, a noted sculptor, a talented photographer, a washed-up boxer, an efficient assistant with a troubled past, Deirdre's American-gangster brother. Brody manages to thread each one of these into a page-turner of a mystery where the clues build up to reveal more perplexities until the final conclusion. As always, Brody makes postwar (the Great War) England come alive: the small villages, the cities still a combination of motorcars and horse-drawn vehicles, past prejudices. I became interested enough in Kate's rare Jowett automobile to look it up and see what it might look like.

I appreciate the fact that Brody does not attempt to make her characters too "ahead of their time" and perfectly politically correct. Sykes is openly distrustful of the Fitzpatricks' Catholicism and even Kate herself is at a loss to deal with some Catholic customs. (They react less typically to a person revealed to be homosexual.) It also portrays the convoluted methods once necessary for a couple to obtain a divorce. And the mystery of Kate's husband's disappearance in the war is addressed near the conclusion. If there's anything irritating in this book, it's Kate's ex-beau the police officer. He's still clueless.

book icon  Listen, Slowly, Thanhhà Lại
When I was a kid, "Vietnam" was a bad word. It was a place where fathers, brothers, and cousins died. The experience was far worse for the native Vietnamese, driven from their homeland by war. Mai Le's grandmother and her children were some of those who fled to the United States, and Mai—Mia to her schoolfriends—has grown up only peripherally understanding the hardships they endured, having been protected by her physician father and attorney mother. She's looking forward to a summer vacation on the beach with her best friend until her parents guilt/force her into accompanying her grandmother back to Vietnam, where a detective has possibly discovered the last person to talk to her grandfather, a political prisoner. Mai is by turns resentful, depressed, and bored in a place she has no emotional ties to—or so she thinks.

This is a wonderful book, as we discover Mai's heritage by her side, eating some of her Vietnamese favorites and discovering new treats, enduring the steamy countryside, learning new customs and how to get along with her odd cousin Út, who buzz-cut her hair and has a pet frog. At first she is the typical self-absorbed pre-teen, in a hurry to get home to her friend and the boy she has a crush on, but as the mystery surrounding her grandfather deepens, she realizes her own concerns are trivial next to the drama in her past. Lại, a Vietnamese native, brings her homeland to vivid life; Vietnam is practically another character in the story as she describes the humid climate, the countryside where Mai is living and the frantic rush of life in the city with scooters and motorcycles zipping around crossing paths with old motorcars and even animal-drawn carts. At times humorous, and at other times sad, with a lump-in-the-throat conclusion, this is a book that shouldn't be missed.

book icon  Borrowing Death, Cathy Pegau
Charlotte Brody has settled into her job of writing stories and editorials for the Cordova, Alaska, newspaper and is spending her first winter in America's "Last Frontier." One evening as she is working late, she and the town deputy notice that the local hardware store is on fire. If this isn't disaster enough, the owner of the hardware store is later found inside the burned building—and he was dead before the fire started. It's soon after that Charlotte finds that an important black box is missing from the store—and that, yet again, more of her neighbors are not what they seem.

Again, I'm on the fence about this series. I like having a determined suffragette in a post-World War I Alaska, and I enjoy certain relationships, especially the one between Charlotte and Brigit, the madam of the local brothel. I like the growing romantic relationship between Charlotte and deputy James, but I felt the romance started too early as much as I like the fact that it's not adversarial as is so cliché. But, damn, she has no finesse; she's a terrible interviewer and asks too many blunt questions. How the heck did she ever manage in New York? Not to mention she thinks it's okay to break into someone's home in pursuit of a story! And the modernisms that burst into the text are maddening. Someone said "It's not my thing" and I flinched.

The worst parts of these books are when Charlotte preaches. Yes, we know she's for votes for women, birth control, girls continuing her education, and women having careers, and doesn't believe in Prohibition, but she seems to make speeches (or think thoughts) about them ad infinitum. Sometimes it's like one big lecture. Show, don't preach. The mystery is middling, and I thought the perpetrator perpetuated a stereotype.

book icon  Death Takes Priority, Jean Flowers
In this first "postmistress" mystery, we meet Cassie Miller, who's moved back to her old home town of North Ashcot, in western Massachusetts near the New York State line, having worked for the Post Office in Boston for many years. Now she is taking over the job of postmaster from retiring Ben Gentry. At the same time that she discovers that the town's phone books (remember them?) have been stolen, she's invited to lunch by the handsome new owner of the town's antique store, only to have him arrested as they're eating. Apparently his name was written on a note found on the body of a dead man.

I picked this up because it takes place in New England and wasn't sure if I initially liked Cassie, but when she admitted she couldn't balance an equation in chemistry class, I knew we were kindred spirits. 😉 It's a quick read, and I suspected some things way before Cassie did (why Wanda was bothering her, for instance, because there's a big fat clue several pages before the reveal), but Flowers hasn't populated her little Massachusetts town with quaint Yankees or been drawn into the cozy mystery clichè of the gorgeous protagonist or, even more tiresome, the plain-Jane protagonist with the drop-drop gorgeous best friend who works nearby as the owner of her own business with a cutesy-poo name, so I just enjoyed the characters and went with the flow and the neat trivia about working for the post office. Nothing extraordinary about the writing or the story, but a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

Oh, and apparently it is now the custom to put a cat (or occasionally a small cute dog) on the cover of modern-day cozy mysteries. There's a cat on this one, but there's no cat in the story.

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10 March 2017

"You'll Come a Book-saling, Matilda, With Me..."

Yeah, it's that time of year again. Showed up at 8:45 to join the line, behind a white-haired woman and a family group: grandma, son and daughter (one of them the in-law), and a cute three-year-old boy. Chatted with them until the doors opened.

(When I was in the children's book area, I was delighted to see one little boy so absolutely excited about the books. He looked about six or seven, but he could rattle off all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books he had read and the ones they needed!)

Now, I'd put my foot down with myself last night. No books I don't need. No oversize books.

Which I guess might have been all right had the Book Gods not thrown this big beautiful coffee table book about Colonial Williamsburg in front of me. After that, I was gone.

I was specifically looking for some things today, like copies of books in my series that I can't afford in hardback and that usually come out in trade paperback. I really wanted to find a copy of the new Molly Murphy mystery at the sale, since neither Amazon or Barnes & Noble has it discounted in paperback (probably quarreling with the publisher). I can get it from either Hamilton Books or Amazon Marketplace much cheaper (in hardback), but what a coup if I could find it for $1.50.

No such luck. Nor with the newest Tasha Alexander, although all the previous books were there, if I keep reading them after the newest in paperback, which is not taking my fancy at all, even if she put in a reference to Amelia Peabody. Or Mercedes Lackey's A Study in Sable. I did find the newest Victoria Thompson book, Murder in Morningside Heights, however, brand new, and can cross that off my "buy when it comes in paperback" list.

The rest of the loot:

book icon  Colonial Williamsburg, Philip Kopper with photography by Langdon Clay (this book is so big I can barely heft it; and it's not just a picture book, either, but has substantial text)

book icon  At Home: The American Family 1750-1870, Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett (another huge one with color illustrations)

book icon  After the Revolution: The Smithsonian History of Everyday Life in the Eighteenth Century, Barbara Clark Smith (follows four families including an African-American one)

book icon  The First Year of Reminisce (yeah, before "Reader's Digest" got ahold of it and turned it into all white space and ads)

book icon  The Years of the Forest, Helen Hoover (modern homesteaders in Minnesota)

book icon  Janie's Freedom, Callie Smith Grant (a "sisters at heart" book about an African-American girl after the end of slavery)

book icon  The Summer Before the War, Helen Simonson (that's WWI; it's fiction)

book icon  Writings from the New Yorker, 1925-1976, E.B. White (been hoping to find this at the book sale, because it's overpriced for just excerpts of White's essays)

book icon  Spring Harvest, Gladys Taber (this is one of her fiction books; not sure I'll like it because it's chick lit, which is not usually my thing, but wanted to try one—I always wish for more Stillmeadow, but I have all she wrote)

And a few things for the Christmas collection:

book icon  Once Upon a Christmas, a collection of short stories by Pearl S. Buck

book icon  Deck the Halls: Treasures of Christmas Past, Robert M. Merck (a collection of vintage 19th-early 20th century ornaments like Dresdens and kugels and cotton batting figures, and figural lights)

book icon  Keeping Christmas: The Celebration of an American Holiday, edited by Philip Reed Rulon (collection of Christmas stories)

book icon  The Book of Festival Holidays, Marguerite Ickis (which covers the whole year, from the 1960s)

I also seem to have bought a Happy Hollisters book that I already had, but I didn't have my list with me, and this one does, miracle of miracles, have a cover.

Plus I bought a book I hope to give as a gift, to turn someone into a raging fan like I am. ☺

Incidentally, the next sale is not only not on Columbus Day week as always, but will not be at Jim Miller Park. Instead it will be at the remodeled Civic Center. We haven't been there for years. Still miss the computer sales, although the last couple of years of them it was mostly junk.

[Went back 3/11: got Sue Townsend's last Adrian Mole book, a book for James about World War II aviators called Dauntless Helldivers, a book I was pretty sure I already had but was afraid I didn't (I did, it goes into the box for McKay's), the first book in the "Tuckers" series because the copy I had was scribbled all over by the previous owner, and a book I found just as I was leaving, A Small Country Living, about a transplanted Australian living in London who buys a smallholding in Wales. I started it at lunch because I had nothing else to read, and have been enthralled all day.]

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28 February 2017

Books Completed Since February 1

book icon  Candlemas, Amber K and Azrael Arynn K

book icon  Becoming Queen Victoria, Kate Williams
I find complaints about this book because it's not a biography of Queen Victoria.

Because, really, it's not. There are plenty of good books to read about Victoria. This is a good book, too, but it's a bit different.

Victoria became queen because of a series of events beginning with her uncle, George IV, who became Prince Regent (as in the Regency Period of Austen and Heyer) due to the madness of his father, George III. While George IV was not quite the twit as portrayed on Blackadder the Third, he was a spendthrift and gourmand who could barely button his breeches and who hated his wife Queen Caroline. Their only child, Charlotte, was the original heir to the British throne.

This then, begins with the story of Princess Charlotte, stuck eternally between her quarreling parents, the hope of the British people who loved their monarchy but hated the king (her father was poisonously jealous of her), and how her death put in motion the events that brought Victoria to the throne and eventually turns Victoria into the woman history remembers and who gave her name to an era. It's the story of her uncles' race to produce an heir before any of the other brothers so that their child could be next in line for the throne, including Edward, the Duke of Kent, who abandoned the mistress he actually loved to make a correct marriage to a minor German princess with the "odd" name of Victorie. It was their child, known as "Drina" in her girlhood, who would be awakened eighteen years later to be told she was queen.

While I've read two biographies of Victoria, I didn't realize that her and Prince Albert's beloved "Uncle Leopold" was the same Leopold who had been married to doomed Princess Charlotte. I didn't know much about Charlotte, period, other than it was her demise that put Victoria on the throne. I found this a fascinating book, with the machinations behind the monarchy and the peculiarities of the personalities involved: the Prince Regent who stayed drunk on his wedding day because he couldn't even stand the face of his bride, long-suffering Queen Caroline who had the people on her side, even the imperiousness of George III, who expected his sons to remain standing in his presence and who kept his daughters from marrying until they were half-crazy from being stuck in the palace all their lives.

Very enjoyable if you want to know how little Drina "came about" and became the queen everyone knows. But, no, it's not a biography of Queen Victoria alone, but more the history of an era, from George III's failing sanity to Prince Albert sending away Victoria's faithful friend and governess Lehzen.

book icon  Yours Truly, Heather Vogel Frederick
Truly Lovejoy and her family, now living in the tiny community of Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire, are drawn into a new mystery as spring arrives and the town's annual Maple Festival begins. Two neighbors who have sugarbushes are accusing each other of sabotaging their maple production. Would Truly's friends actually sabotage one another to get an advantage in the maple business? But good things are happening, too: for Truly's birthday, her BFF and cousin Mackenzie is arriving from Texas, and she's making plans of all the fun things they'll do together. But she doesn't know that one of them will be finding a treasure in their own house.

This sequel to Absolutely Truly doesn't have quite the edge as the initial book, as Truly's father is now comfortable running the bookstore and adjusting to his artificial arm. In addition, Truly's now a teenager, so sex has to rear its ugly head and she realizes she likes her classmate Calhoun, but she thinks her cousin is after him. That business was kind of blah. On the other hand, the artifact that Truly and Mackenzie find which reveals a formerly hidden historic event in little Pumpkin Falls is the catalyst for a Nancy Drew-like adventure that borrows a little from Elsie in the 19th century classic What Katy Did. [Spoiler: Chapter 1 will give you all the clues if you care to spot them.]

Verdict: Truly and her friends and family are still some of my favorite people. This series will be okay if they softpedal the teen romance tedium.

book icon  The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City, Margaret Creighton
The citizens of Buffalo, New York, are banking that their World's Fair, the Pan-American Exposition, will outdo the 1893 event in Chicago, the famous "White City." They have even more electric lights, including a rainbow-colored tower that gave their event its own nickname, "The Rainbow City." Electricity was the motif of the exposition, generated at Niagara Falls, and invitations went out to Latin American countries to make it a true Pan-American affair.

But behind the scenes lurk cruelties and prejudice: The Animal King holds the smallest woman in the world, "the Cuban Doll" (in reality a Mexican girl) in virtual thrall and his lions and other wild animals are mistreated, as were many circus animals of the day. On the Midway elks are made to dive into tubs. Filippino people are exhibited at the fair like zoo animals, and African-American actors swallowed their pride and performed scenes of happy times on the Old Plantation. Still, this Fair has attracted all sorts (but not enough of all sorts, as the city fathers found out when balancing the books): Mabel Barnes, who visited the Fair 33 times, and whose diaries are extracted here; the President of the United States William McKinley, who would make a fateful visit; and a farmer's son now known as Fred Nieman, but formerly Leon Czolgosz.

In breezy (sometimes almost too breezy) style, Creighton tells the story of the high hopes and the low profits for the Pan-American Exposition and the terrible event that happened there. It also reveals a little-known fact from the McKinley assassination: the man who tackled and brought down Czolgosz, Jim Parker, was an African-American waiter working at the Fair—and within days, his part in the capture of the assassin was erased from the history books. Added to the spectacle of the Fair is the story of Annie Taylor, one of a dauntless crew that met their ends trying to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel—will she survive? It's the story of a world which is progressive but nostalgic, civilized but savage, welcoming yet bigoted, on the edge of welcome change, but not quite reaching that pinnacle.

I was lukewarm about this book: I loved the photographs and the stories within, but thought it was told in a rather slipshod fashion. The prose and situations never really compelled me to keep reading it, as Hidden Figures did.

book icon  Tempest, edited by Mercedes Lackey
In this tenth collection of short stories, it's yet another mixed bag, although I found the stories mostly enjoyable. A couple are basically just vignettes rather than a story, which is rather frustrating, or a good start to a novella or book, but a story you wish has more to it, like the story of the blind girl who saves a Companion whose Herald has disappeared. One of my favorites was "Harmless as Serpents," since we tend to see the Companions as wise and brave—this tale of a conceited companion was very funny. Another favorite was "The Ones She Couldn't Save" about a young woman who has been covering up her gifts in order not to be burned as a witch. (This was another story I hope has a sequel in a future collection.)

Several familiar faces reappear in this volume: Herald Wil and his daughter Ivy; Lady Cera; Hadara the gryphon and the change child who sees for her, Kitha; Nwah the kyree and his human partner Kade; and the Haven Guard. Plus Lackey and Dixon give us another story about Darian, the hero of the Owl trilogy. All in all a good read for more tastes of Velgarth and Valdemar.

book icon  Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly
As a tween/teen I was obsessed with the space program, even buying a nearly incomprehensible book called Appointment on the Moon, which followed the progress of America's space program from the work of Robert Goddard and the events at Peenemunde, toughing my way through aeronautical engineering and aerospace scientific terms. I watched all the coverage of the space flights that appeared on television (except for the ones during the schoolday) and noted those rows and rows of white shirted-and-tied white guys manning the consoles at Mission Control.

How amazing to find out that in the early days of NASA (back when it was NACA), there were not only women who helped make aircraft and rockets fly, but there were African-American women, when the average white kid of the late 1950s-1960s saw black faces only on television maids and porters and a handful of entertainers.

This is the story of "the computers," as these ladies were called, women who, armed with nothing more technical than an adding machine, calculated trajectories, stress factors, and the other mathematical calculations necessary to make aircraft fly. They fought against bigotry both for their sex and for their race to complete higher education and to find a job. With manpower shortages during the Second World War, many of them found themselves in Hampton Roads, Virginia, at Langley, where segregation was still in full cry and "colored women" had to hike to find a "colored" rest room and were relegated to one end of the cafeteria. While their calculations confirmed the work of white male engineers was correct, they weren't allowed to come to staff meetings with those engineers. Determination and stubbornness carried them through, and when years later it came time for John Glenn to trust the calculations of an electronic computer vs. one of Langley's "girls," his choice was to trust the woman.

An "A-OK" fascinating portrait of women like Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Johnson, juggling personal lives with long hours and bigoted supervisors, intermingled with the history of American aeronautics, aviation, and the space program, plus the indignities of Jim Crow laws and casual racism. While the film based on this book concentrates on the women's social advances, the book paints a fuller picture of the time and the science. Loved every word.

book icon  With the Might of Angels, Andrea Davis Pinkney
Dawnie Rae Johnson's life is just like any other African-American girl's in the 1950s: she lives in a segregated neighborhood, going to a "separate but equal" school that is anything but (dated, torn textbooks; falling apart building; dirty bathrooms; surrounded by dirt fields for gym class), while white girls her age go to Prettyman Coburn High School, brand new, with sports fields and a science lab. Within those strictures she enjoys her life, especially playing and watching baseball, bouncing on her pogo stick, and spending time with her best friend Yolanda.

Then the Supreme Court desegregates the schools. After a daunting test, Dawnie and her classmates Roger and Yolanda are chosen to attend Prettyman, but only Dawnie's parents give her permission to go, knowing she wishes better schooling and wants to become a doctor. Anyone with knowledge of school desegregation will know what Dawnie endures: taunting from classmates, white students withdrawing from the school due to her attendance, threatening messages, teachers who will not call on her, teachers who support her being harassed. Even worse, members of her own church think of her and her parents as "uppity" for sending her to a white school and her father's white boss, who considered Mr. Johnson his best employee, fires him after he refused to withdraw Dawnie from Prettyman.

This is a forthright portrayal of a young woman undergoing a trial which might make even adults blanch, and meeting the challenge with courage and even humor. While some of the "Dear America" books are narrated by girls writing in formal language, Dawnie's entries are full of life and 50s slang, whether she is angry over discrimination or rejoicing over family events. You will root for her successes and be indignant over each harassment heaped upon her and her unusual brother Gunther (known as "Goober" for his obsession with peanuts). It is a reminder to all children—and adults—of inhumanity and resilience.

book icon  In This Grave Hour, Jacqueline Winspear
Maisie Dobbs is back in London running her discreet inquiry service with the help of her old assistants Billy and Sandra when war is declared in September of 1939. Not soon after Neville Chamberlain's speech, Maisie's old compatriot Francesca Thomas, a former Belgian resistance fighter from the earlier world war, asks her to look into the execution-style death of a Belgian refugee who remained in England after the Great War. Soon another Belgian refugee is killed in the same manner.

As Maisie and her partners investigate first one, then a second murder, Winspear sketches pre-World War II Britain around her: a world of barrage balloons, young men like her best friend Priscilla's son going off to training camps, gas masks, evacuated children, and the terrible prospect of death around the corner. There's also a very sweet subplot as some evacuated children are homed at Chelstone, where Maisie's in-laws and her father Frankie and stepmother Brenda live, and Maisie tries to ferret out the mystery of a mute five-year-old girl who will not speak (at least to the humans of the household) while becoming very attached to the child. But the backbone of the book is, as always, the methodic Maisie investigation, with the return of the beloved case map with its colored web of evidence growing each day, and the ominous revelation that the killer is on some type of mission that will not end until Maisie figures out what connects the victims before someone else is killed.

As the John Denver song says, "Hey, it's good to be back home again." Maisie is back in the position that challenges her the most in a world about to teeter into combat once more.

book icon  The Runaway: A Maryellen Mystery, Alison Hart
There's a series-mystery air to this second Maryellen Larkin mystery, and with good reason: with references to the Happy Hollisters and Nancy Drew in the text and some plot devices straight out of both series, this is fun and absorbing if not particularly "deep."

Scooter, the Larkins' dachshund, vanishes before supper one night and never comes home. Her parents suspect chubby Scooter is cadging food from the neighbors but when Maryellen and her friends and family go out searching for the dog, none of Scooter's usual "soft touches" have seen him. Maryellen does find out that at least two other dogs are missing from her neighborhood, and that there are two very good suspects in the disappearances: the local ice-cream man who carries around dog biscuits for his canine friends and someone in a mysterious brown station wagon that Maryellen saw cruising one street. But why would they want Scooter and the other dogs? It's only when she finds out that some companies buy dogs to use them for testing that she really begins to worry.

There's a rather offbeat tangent in the story involving a trip to Cape Canaveral, which is still a missile testing range in these pre-Sputnik days (but at least Maryellen gets a science essay out of it), not to mention a very funny episode where Maryellen's friends are so busy putting together a detective outfit that they run out of time to go searching for Scooter, but mostly it's a nice solid story that would do Pete, Pam, Holly, Ricky and Sue Hollister (and Nancy Drew) proud.

book icon  The Lady's Slipper: A Melody Mystery, Emma Carlson Berne
Sadly, while Melody Ellison's introductory books were smart, thought-provoking, and strong, Melody's mystery debut is sadly underwhelming. The shortest of the three new American Girl mystery books, it also features a very simplistic mystery in which no real mystery exists about who or why.

Melody's grandfather Frank is the only African-American horticulturist invited to exhibit his flowers at a flower show at Detroit's Belle Isle conservatory. Melody, already unsettled by her cousin-and-best-friend Val's attitude after Melody befriends a Jewish girl named Leah, is horrified when some expensive orchids are stolen from the conservatory after Frank and Melody tour the venue, and Frank is questioned by the police. Melody knows that if no other culprit can be found, Frank will probably be arrested for the crime just because he is black. Plus Leah is acting oddly. But Leah's a nice girl, just as fond of her sickly zayde as Melody is of her beloved Poppa. Could she really be involved in the theft?

Honestly, there's no mystery here, no real alternative suspects although a couple of half-hearted suspects are presented. The author seems more interested in paralleling the bigotry faced by both Jews and African-Americans than with presenting a good whodunit. Saving graces: Melody's and Val's friendship and even their quarrel is very true-to-life, and both Melody's and Leah's efforts to see beyond bigotry are well portrayed. But "Dee-Dee" deserved a better beginning to her sleuthing career.

book icon  The Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase, Greg Cox
Think nursery rhymes are just for children? Think again. In this newest adventure involving the denizens of TNT's fantasy-fiction series, three descendants of Elizabeth Goose—the original Mother Goose—are terrorized by bizarre incidents which lead Jenkins to come to a terrifying conclusion: the original book of Mother Goose rhymes, which are in reality powerful spells, once broken into three parts in 1918 to keep them from being misused, is now the target of someone who wishes to reassemble the volume and reboot the universe using one powerful spell. As Cassandra, Ezekiel, and Jake each team with the three people who experienced the bizarre incidents, Jenkins and Eve pursue wild magic inside the Library itself, and Eve puzzles about the whereabouts of Flynn Carsen, who has suddenly vanished.

I hadn't even realized there were Librarian novels until I saw this offered on NetGalley, and am so glad I snatched this up: it is like watching a miniseries version of the show. Greg Cox has a super grasp of all the characters, and each one of the encounters sounds just as if the actors are playing out this scenario on television. He's even managed to capture Jenkins' formality and occasional whimsical commentary. I really didn't guess the identity of Mother Goose until the very end where the flashback sequence is presented. Cox also takes inspiration from real-life places like the Winchester Mansion.

Fans of the series will love this book!

book icon  Message in a Bottle: A Julie Mystery, Kathryn Reiss
The Julie American Girls books always wig me out because I was a teen during the 1970s and my life was so different from hers that hers seems like some wild fantasy. However, in this newest batch of American Girls mysteries, Julie clearly cops the best mystery story. Here she and her mom are visiting her Aunt Nadine, who lives in a commune with her son Raymond and various others who have dropped out from society and are trying to live naturally. Raymond badly misses his father, who left the commune after serving in Vietnam, and the group is suffering from minor issues of bad luck which continue even as Julie Albright and her mom settle in. The commune is also losing money and they are trying desperately to think of new ways to sell their products so they can pay taxes. It's while Julie and Raymond are exploring near an old mine that the former finds a vintage bottle that holds a secret from the past.

I twigged onto the culprit early on due to adult cynicism; I think otherwise this would be a great challenge for a mystery-loving tween. The setting is interesting and there is an exciting sequence that takes place in an old gold mine. Reiss' text also points out the plight of Vietnam veterans and the still-continuing plague of developers who want to raze the countryside to build yet more housing developments.

book icon  A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History, Tim Grove
I've had this book for a couple of years now and have completely forgotten the circumstances under which I ordered it. I might have heard the author on "Travel With Rick Steves" or some other podcast. At this point I recalled it being humorous stories from the National Parks. It is not. Instead it's the story of Tim Grove, a history buff since a childhood listening to his grandmother's stories of "the olden days" and participating in Bicentennial activities. While he graduated college with a journalism degree, he felt a great pull to work in some historical field, and found his niche when he accepted an internship at Colonial Williamsburg.

This is just the neatest book about how Grove learned the craft of designing interactive historical displays to draw people into history, starting at participating in re-enactments of events at Williamsburg, including a controversial slave auction. From there we follow him to assignments at the National Portrait Gallery and the Museum of American History in Washington, DC;  west to St. Louis to work on the Lewis & Clark bicentennial celebration; and then returning to DC to work at Air and Space. He gets to ride a "high wheeler," received a grizzly bear pelt in the mail, learns of the dangerous life of the air-mail pilot, discovers actual flag makers instead of mythical ones, and has many other historical revelations. If you're a history geek like me, you'll love it.

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31 January 2017

Books Completed Since January 1

book icon  Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas, Al Ridenour

book icon  Christmas Ideals (Worthy Publishing Group) and Christmas Bells (Jennifer Chiaverini

book icon  Re-read: The Country Diary Christmas Book, Sarah Hollis

book icon  A Tree for Peter, Kate Seredy

book icon  Murder on St. Nicholas Avenue, Victoria Thompson
While Frank Malloy and his new bride Sarah Brandt are on their honeymoon, their governess and friend Maeve is quite happily taking care of Sarah's adopted daughter Catherine and Frank's son Brian and enjoying their new house when an old friend of Frank's mother comes visiting with a troubling story: her daughter Una has been accused of bludgeoning her husband to death. Although the elder Mrs. Malloy warns Maeve that Mrs. O'Neill and her daughter aren't always as helpless as they seem, Maeve can't help at least visiting "poor Una" in jail, where she slaps the stunned woman to her senses and immediately gets involved in her case, enlisting Malloy's former police partner Gino Donatelli as well as Sarah's wealthy parents the Deckers, who soon find out that Una's husband had been deceiving her.

Maeve and Gino and the Deckers are great supporting characters, and they comport themselves pretty well in this almost "amateur hour," but Frank and Sarah have better instincts and might have put the threads of the mystery together more quickly. Still, it's nice to see them step up and try to help a person in need, although they discover that sometimes the person they "rescue" doesn't always deserve the attention. I hope Frank and Sarah are amenable to starting an investigative agency when they arrive home, because they have one springing up under their noses.

Note: Although the murder takes place on "St. Nicholas Avenue" and before Christmas, the holiday is not a central theme in the book.

book icon  Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life, Marta McDowell
Go back and read my review for The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh (third review down).

That's it in spades for this book: a pocket biography of Potter followed by an exploration of the seasons at all her different farms and throughout the Lake Country: color illustrations of flowers, gardens, lawns, sheep, cattle, ducks, old photographs, and of course Beatrix's wonderful illustrations, whether they be cunning watercolor rabbits dressed in blue jackets or detailed botanical prints from her serious nature studies. The book is a sea of calm in a frantic world—find your poison (coffee, tea, or cocoa), add a homemade pastry or some garden snack, sit back, sip, nibble, and lose yourself in the poetry of the countryside and the art.

book icon  No Comfort for the Lost, Nancy Herriman
What spurred my read of the Winchester book reviewed below was this novel, a murder mystery set in 1860s San Francisco. Formerly a nurse in the Crimea like her Anne Perry contemporary Hester Latterley Monk, Celia Davies impulsively married an Irishman and followed him to the goldfields of California. Not having discovered gold, her husband found a job aboard ship and is now presumably lost at sea. Celia, with her limited funds and some donations, runs a clinic for the poor, including the "Celestials" that no one else will care for, the Chinese who are the recipients of the virulent racism from San Francisco's white residents. One of her former patients and now a friend, Li Sha, a woman who was living with Celia's brother in law, is fished out of the water, having been the victim of violence. The police think she'd either gone back to prostitution and a customer murdered her or that Tom Davies did so, but Celia stoutly insists to Union Army veteran and police detective Nicholas Greaves that neither could be true.

This novel brings dirty, rough, post-gold fever San Francisco and its simmering prejudices to life. You can smell the sea, the muck, the manure, and the unwashed bodies. Celia fights hard for the Chinese women in her care, but no one else gives a damn about them, including the wealthy women who are Celia's patrons and the operators of the Chinese brothels (one of Celia's patients dies a very agonizing death due to the neglect of her pimp). The mystery is reasonably complex, but I was turned off immediately by the romance novel aspects of the book: of course Celia is gorgeous and good and not prejudiced and Nick is rugged and handsome and tormented by a wound he received in the war. Celia is also the custodian of her teenage, half-Chinese niece Barbara (she refers to Barbara as a "teenager" at one point, a term which wouldn't be in common use for seventy more years), who has to be one of the most annoying supporting characters ever—while she is understandably frightened at the bigotry directed at Chinese people, she's also usually moping, crying, and generally unlikable. Plus there's the usual spunky housekeeper, Aggie. In short, I didn't find much difference in this and a half-dozen other historical mysteries now on the bookshelves, sort of a combination of Hester Monk's free clinic in the Perry books crossed with Sarah Brandt of the Gaslight mysteries with some lessons on Asian racism thrown in. If I had nothing else to read it wouldn't be the worst alternative, but there are so many other historical mysteries out there.

book icon  A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, Simon Winchester
I had skipped buying this book because I'd already read one in-depth book of the San Francisco earthquake and fire which was so comprehensive I didn't feel I needed to read another. Then I picked it up in a remainder store (where, yes, the inexpensive price was an inducement) and paging through it realized this wasn't just a book about the earthquake—indeed, it doesn't happen until page 243—it's a book about fault lines, plate tectonics, the makeup of the Earth, continental drift and all sorts of geologic goodness. Which I proceed to devour immediately. So if you are seeking a book about the earthquake, prepare for geologic digressions or go elsewhere.

You must also like Simon Winchester's writing style. I'm a verbophile and love vocabulary almost as much as chocolate. Winchester loves words, especially little-used ones, and his narrative in this volume is pretty typical: rivers of descriptive words that spill everywhere. I can enjoy this sort of thing, but his writing is not to all tastes. He wanders far afield in his geological story, both geographically and temporally, from Alaska to the New Madrid Fault, to Lisbon to discuss why earthquakes happen and where they happen. I found it all fascinating, but if you are just looking for a history of the 1906 event, it's best you look elsewhere.

book icon  A Study in Charlotte, Brittany Cavallaro
Jamie Watson resents the fact he's been sent off to live in the States to attend a boarding school called Sherringford that's in need of a good rugby player. He suspects his father, who he resents for remarrying, has sent him there just to meet up with the person everyone assumes he should pair up with, Charlotte Holmes. As Jamie is a descendant of the famous Doctor John Watson,  Charlotte is descended from Sherlock Holmes, and he wants to be a writer and is occasionally pugilistic. Like her famous ancestor, Charlotte is brilliant but has her demons (and addictions). When an disagreeable student is murdered, it soon becomes obvious that Charlotte and Jamie are being framed.

I started this with promise and then got kinda bored. There's so much manipulation going on in the background, a bunch of adolescent angst, and more complications than you can shake a stick at. Heaven knows I didn't want a squeaky clean Trixie Belden-like story, but the drugs and the date rape revelation and the constant cursing just wore me down after a while (and I am prone to salty language myself). Jamie having a crush on Charlotte just turned me off; we're going to do that one, too? Sigh. I liked some of the parallels: Charlotte's hidden laboratory, for instance, the murders taken from Holmes' stories, Sherringford as the school name (Sherringford was the name Conan Doyle was going to give Holmes before he decided on "Sherlock"). And I didn't expect the teen characters to be totally innocent, but even the kids seem to come out of a Jacqueline Susann novel.

Not sure I will chance the next one. Maybe as a library book.

book icon  Modern Crimes, Chris Nickson
Charlotte “Lottie” Armstrong and her partner Cathy Taylor are the first two women police constables on the Leeds police force in 1924. Ever conscious that they are being observed for any slipup that will tell the department that women aren’t fit for police duty, Lottie and Cathy chafe at the simplistic tasks they are assigned involving women and children. Then they are asked to track down a girl who fled from a Magdalen home for unwed mothers. When they do find her, she has almost been killed by the same person who has murdered the father of her baby. The unborn child also dies. When the murder case is turned over to “real” policemen, Lottie is disappointed–until the attending detective enlists her help.

Nickson paints a vivid portrait of postwar Leeds, a gritty industrial city, and its back alleys, fast living young men and the women who love them, in the postwar years. Poverty is very evident on Lottie and Cathy’s beat. Lottie meets abortionists and criminals, and enlists the aid of “invert” Auntie Betty (a lesbian) to help her find a woman possibly associated with the crime. The police station is no less an obstacle for her, with men who believe women have no place in police work and state it plainly.

Lottie herself is a very likeable character, pragmatic and thorough, nonjudgmental and shrewd, the ideal candidate for a policewoman’s job. She and Cathy share an excellent working relationship. Detective Sergeant McMillan is also an excellent supporting character. He’s willing to give Lottie a chance to do police work now that she’s proven herself competent, yet he still has certain reservations about others who do not meet his norms, like Auntie Betty, another fascinating character.

I have to admit I was a bit nonplussed by Lottie’s husband, Geoff. He is not only fine with her working, but actively encourages her to do so, and thrills in her successes. He is so supportive he seems a little too good to be true!

Lottie will indeed “get her man,” but only after a lot of hard work, investigation, walking, and harassment. The book is involving, absorbing, and a marvelous trip back in time. However, the promotion of this book as first in a series set after World War I is a bit of misnomer. You will see when you get to the conclusion.

book icon  Dickens' Fur Coat and Charlotte's Unanswered Letters, Daniel Pool
Unlike Pool's What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, which is a great reference book, this is Pool's overview of the great popular Victorian novelists, whose lives were soap operas all on their own, no embellishing needed, and how the popular novel developed into a beloved tradition. (Early novels had a bad name; most of them were the Fifty Shades of Gray of their time with salacious plots and protagonists.) Dickens leads the forefront of the popular novelists—for all that his own life was quite irregular—and we also learn about the development of the publishing of the novel as well: before that time books were very expensive and only the very wealthy owned them. New processes and subscription libraries helped bring books to more people than ever, even after publishers decided to break novels into three parts so they could sell more copies.

Pool's book reads like a "National Enquirer" of what students today think of as tedious old people: Charlotte Brontë and her crush on her publisher while fending off rumors of being William Makepeace Thackeray's mistress (not to mention the sad deaths of her sisters Anne and Emily after they made their mark—under a male name, of course), George Eliot's brilliantly received books as she was simultaneously banned from society for "living in sin," plus Thomas Hardy, Mrs. Gaskell, etc., all with their own quirks. If you ever thought Dickens and his compatriots were old bores, this will liven up your opinion.

book icon  Bryant & May and the Burning Man, Christopher Fowler
There is unrest in the streets of London as newly fashionable Hallowe'en celebrations combine with the traditional British Guy Fawkes holiday. Mobs are demonstrating and they're becoming unruly, especially after scandal erupts when a wealthy banker is caught mismanaging depositors' funds. The Peculiar Crimes Unit is called in after a homeless man is killed when someone tossed a Molotov cocktail in the doorway of the banker's establishment. It's passed off as an accidental killing as part of the protests—until a second wealthy man is killed with fire in a particularly horrifying way. It's only when a third man is targeted that the PCU realize them have a serial killer on their hands.

Fowler's PCU mysteries always involve some manner of British lore, and this one combines the modern protests of the "Occupy" movement with the customs of Bonfire Night, turning the city into a creepy setting with senior detectives Bryant and May, Janice Longbright, Dan Banbury, and the rest of the contingent trying feverishly to put the clues together. Dotty Arthur Bryant, however, is in more trouble than the rest. He fears his aging mind is finally giving in to dementia and as the PCU fights to find the killer, Arthur must battle his fears as well as he starts to get lost moving around the city he knew so well.

Great suspenseful build up to the end (although Janice having prophetic dreams seems a bit trite for the usual offbeat PCU plot) with misdirection getting the upper hand. Relationships change, new enemies are made (go, Raymond!)—but will things ever be the same again? Brilliant as always.

book icon  A Very Vintage Christmas, Bob Richter

book icon  Just One Damned Thing After Another, Jodi Taylor
Madeleine "Max" Maxwell has led a troubled childhood saved only by a caring teacher who turned her on to history. Much education and a doctorate later Max is contacted by the same teacher and asked if she'd be interested in a job at the St. Mary's Institute of Historical Research. When she arrives, she realizes early she isn't being interviewed for a garden-variety research job. You see the St. Mary's people really know their history, because they've found a way to travel in time. And Max definitely wants into that briar patch, B'rer Fox!

With some strong parallels to Connie Willis' Oxford time traveling stories (The Doomsday Book, etc.), Max joins other trainees eager to make a jump to the past. But as she's learning the ropes, she's also discovering that an unsettling undercurrent exists at St. Mary's, and that all the employees aren't who they seem. When visits to the past turn deadly for most of her classmates, Max and her partner play it as safe as possible when they're sent back to survey a highly-desirable timeline, but find that trouble has preceded them--and that indeed some of it does come from within.

Max is a much tougher heroine than Willis' almost ethereal Kivrin, and St. Mary's rife with internal conflict. There is some graphic violence and a few dollops of sexual antics, but on a whole I enjoyed the entire adventure, feeling a little kinship with Max, who's been a misfit all her life. The threat posed to the institute seems to be a standard cocky villain from a dozen other adventures, but in combination with the St. Mary's folks it all works and provides a fast-moving adventure with several twists. Good enough to make me want to go on to the next volume in the series.

book icon  The Residence, Kate Anderson Brower
This is the story of the permanent residents of the White House: the butlers, maids, valets, cooks, and other service people who work behind the scenes to make everything work right and take everyday burdens off the President's and First Lady's backs. Staff explain how they serve hundreds at parties, cope with Presidential quirks, move the new President and family in and out during the inauguration, supply flowers and cake and cheese sandwiches and gingerbread houses, and cope with disasters like the Kennedy assassination and 9/11.

I might have liked this book more had I not read all the preceding books about the White House, including J.B. West's Upstairs at the White House, Lillian Rogers Parks' Backstairs at the White House, Traphes Bryant's Dog Days at the White House, and the recent book about the 1948 White House gut after Margaret Truman's piano leg came through the floor. Brower borrows liberally from all, interspersing interviews with current employees, and although she emphasizes that the White House staff does not gossip about their families, they certainly talked enough that you learn a lot about recent problems, like Bill and Hilary Clinton's arguments during the Lewinsky affair (I would have thrown more than a lamp at him, thank you) and early signs of Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's disease. There are fun stories, too, like Barbara Bush teasing her staff.

It's an easy read, and you may enjoy the behind-the-scenes look if you haven't read any other books about the White House. I really didn't learn anything I didn't know before about the Presidents and their spouses: Nancy Reagan was controlling, Lady Bird couldn't make Lyndon mind and he wasn't adverse to meeting people while sitting on the toilet, Kennedy and Clinton had affairs, etc.

book icon  Elementary, She Read, Vicki Delany
I enjoy Ms. Delany's "Christmastown" books, so I thought I would try this new series, since I am a fan of all things Sherlock. Sorry to say I was less of a fan of this Holmes-related story.

Gemma Doyle, now some distance from her English roots, runs her Uncle Arthur's Sherlock Holmes-themed bookstore in the small town of West London on Cape Cod (Arthur is often away on book-buying jaunts and, Gemma suspects, enjoying himself with the ladies). Her best friend Jayne Wilson, the fluffy one to her more sensible self, runs the tearoom next door. After a busload of women tourists visits the bookstore and the tearoom, Gemma finds what looks like a copy of “Beeton's Annual” magazine hidden in one of her shelves; if it's authentic it will be worth thousands because this is the issue that contained the first publication of Holmes’ debut A Study in Scarlet. However, when Gemma tracks down the owner, the woman is dead by foul means and the police think Gemma had something to do with it--in fact, the detective is so determined to pin the crime on her it's pretty much a vendetta, and Gemma, who is as observant as the sleuth the bookstore is named after (although she's not a Sherlock fan), feels she needs to find the culprit before she's railroaded into jail

Gemma is presented as a sort of brisk no-nonsense type, and while I enjoy stories about independent women, there was just something about her that annoyed me. The "plain" heroine and her attractive best friend/opposites attract friendship is old hat by now, and I don't know how anyone buys books in the Emporium since it seems Gemma is much too busy doing things like breaking into people's homes to run the store. And then there's the handsome police detective in West London who can't take the case because he and Gemma used to be romantically involved. I am so tired of romances in mystery books I could pass out from boredom, and of course the male lead is inevitably hunky. Plus there's a running gag where the ubiquitous bookstore cat, named Moriarty (of course), loves everyone--except Gemma.

In the end, I just felt as if there was a list on which all the numbers had ticked off (determined heroine who notices things others don't, attractive sidekick who'll do anything to help her friend, annoying police detective who doesn't want to do any work but still has that proverbial axe to grind, a fractured romance, greedy relatives, quaint little town, stock pet),

Now the bookstore, the bookstore I WANT. It's everyone's dream of a bookstore, with luscious food right next door. Someday I would love to find that idyllic place.

book icon  Listening, Kate Seredy
I first knew Seredy in elementary school with her classic books about a Hungarian childhood, The Good Master and The Singing Tree. Over the years I have also fallen in love with her brilliant Chestry Oak and adore The Open Gate. I had long seen this book in her bibliography and when an affordable copy turned up, I picked it up.

It's a darling story, but I wonder who it was meant to appeal to. I'm not seeing children really enjoying this, even 1930s children. It's the story of Gail, a little girl visiting her New Jersey relatives for a week; while she discovers the joy of canoeing with her boy cousins and helps them fix up an old mill, her uncle, an artist, tells her the story of the old rambling house the family lives in, the oldest part which goes back to the Dutch settlers in the 1600s and includes an encounter with George Washington. Plus there are the animals: a mischievous dog, three cats, and the woods animals she discovers with the family. But the book really has no plot and no suspense except for Gail's discoveries while she's visiting. There's a funny sequence when the book opens where the town is thrown into a tizzy when Gail arrives on the bus (the place is so small the bus never stops there), but you never see the townspeople again, except one by reference at the end.

The drawings, as always, are wonderful, but none of the characters is really memorable. Seredy touches on themes she introduced in The Good Master and which re-occur in her books: the nobility of farmers, the beauty of animals, families and children working hard but having fun and receiving rewards doing so. I'm glad I bought it for my collection, but you could easily just borrow from a library.

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