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

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  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  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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01 January 2017

A Baker's Dozen of Favorite Books for the Year

I winnowed this down from about seventeen books:

book icon  Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery
Technically a re-read, but this was a republished version of the original edition, which mine was not. (I had to order this from Amazon Canada, as the US store didn't have it!)

book icon  The Lost Art of Dress, Linda Przybyszewski
The last book I thought I'd like; how fashion consultants made American women the best dressed in the world, until the 1960s, using artistic principles. (Barnes & Noble purchase.)

book icon  Dead Presidents, Brady Carlson
Presidents of the US have made a stir even after death (particularly Abraham Lincoln, the target of grave robbers.) (Barne & Noble purchase.)

book icon  The Perfect Horse, Elizabeth Letts
The story of the rescue of the Lippizaner horses from the Spanish Riding School is more complicated than you think. (Amazon purchase.)

book icon  The Death of Lucy Kyte, Nicola Upson
Upson does a great job of recreating a 1930s-era atmosphere in her take on a real-life murder. (Barnes & Noble purchase.)

book icon  Martha's Vineyard: Isle of Dreams, Susan Branch
Branch's second book in her trilogy: how she found a real home, true love, and a career after a shattering divorce. Full of Branch's beautiful watercolors and photos. (Fox Tale Books.)

book icon  Harvest of Time, Alastair Reynolds
Third-Doctor-and-Jo adventure with new series sensibilities. The Master, the Brigadier, and other favorites make a welcome appearance.

book icon  The Yankee Road, James D. McNiven
The story of US-20, and apparently first in a series. This gets as far west as Pennsylvania. (Barnes & Noble purchase.)

book icon  Sweet Home Alaska, Carole Estby Dagg
Young adult delight. Impoverished farm family in the Depression move to Alaska to homestead. (Barnes & Noble purchase.)

book icon  Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain, Charlotte Higgins
Higgins introduces us to the remains of Roman settlement in modern-day Britain. For anthropology geeks like me! (Barnes & Noble purchase.)

book icon  Absolutely Truly, Heather Vogel Frederick
A military family moves to a small New England town after the father is injured in combat and the eldest daughter must find her own way. (Barnes & Noble purchase.)

book icon  The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh, Kathryn Aalto
Full of wonderful color photographs, this book is a tour of the landscape that inspired the 100-Acre Wood. (Amazon purchase.)

book icon  Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier, Bob Thompson
Frontier legend (some spread by Crockett himself) and Disney hero separated from fact. Not a biography, but how we see our pioneer ancestors. (Barnes & Noble purchase.)

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31 December 2016

Books Completed Since December 1

book icon  Christmas on the American Frontier, 1800-1900, John E. Baur

book icon  Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Christmas, edited by Amy Neumark

book icon  We Wish You a Murderous Christmas, Vicki Delany

book icon  And all the rest!

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30 November 2016

Books Completed Since November 1

book icon  The 10¢ War, edited by Trischa Goonow and James J. Kimble
While I am not much of a comics reader, I am a World War II homefront buff (and my Dad, uncles and cousins fought in that war) and was fascinated by the subject of this book. I have read "teen era" children's series online from sources like Project Gutenberg and once  1917 rolled around, ALL of the books had youngsters and teens trying to help the war effort--amazing reading! This practice continued during World War II and the literature used to rally the children now included comic books.

I was particularly interested in the chapters about portrayals of women in the war, and Chapter 1 admirably covers this topic. While some comics portrayed women as treacherous spies or objects to be rescued, others featured women like Yankee Girl, Blond Bomber, Black Cat, and Flyin' Jenny who were contributing to the war effort by fighting the enemy. Predictably for the era, they faced razzing from men and often needed rescuing, yet their presence in the war effort was novel for the time. Another chapter addresses the liberties given to Wonder Woman, who, in a time when good guys did not resort to torture, was allowed to use her Lasso of Truth on enemy soldiers in a way that violated their rights.

Some modern adults might be appalled at the ideas espoused by the 1940s "Captain America" comics, in which young teen Bucky Barnes and his multi-ethnic gang of friends help "Cap" battle Nazis, but Chapter 3's review of some of their exploits provides a much-imitated template that goes back to those 1917-era series books.. (Sadly, Bucky's gang includes a stereotypical "colored" boy named "Whitewash"--stereotypes are also addressed in a chapter about the Flying Tigers and their brave but quaint Chinese sidekicks, and also about the stereotyping of the Nazis and especially the Japanese, who were portrayed as little more than monkeys with buck teeth.)

Two of my favorite chapters address two different brands of comics that I had never heard of. "True Comics" tried to explain the ideology of the Nazi party and debunking ideas of certain races being superior and others being inferior, and discussing the concept of the scapegoat and paralleling that to the treatment of Jews. "Novelty Press" eschewed superheroes and showed "regular kids" contributing to the war effort: buying war bonds with money won from a bond drive rather than spending the funds on candy or fripperies, going without new toys or clothes, contributing to scrap drives--and if occasionally they thwarted a Nazi spy ring, well, that was okay, too.

If you have ever been curious about children during World War II, their reading materials, and their war efforts, you may enjoy this examination of the message of comics during the era. Please note, however, that this is a scholarly book and the essays reflect this.

book icon  Martians Abroad, Carrie Vaughn
I liked this book better when it was called Podkayne of Mars, a juvenile adventure story by Robert A. Heinlein.

It's a pretty similar setup at first: Polly Newton and her "twin" brother Charles have been born and raised on Mars. Charles is quiet and smart; he can hack into any computer system made (he's not the sociopath Podkayne's brother Clark is, although he'd like people to think so). Polly is independent and also smart; she can figure out guidance trajectories and wants to be a space pilot. Their mother, a big muckety-muck on the Mars colony, derails Polly's plan to intern at the Mars spaceport and sends them both to Earth to go to an elite school called the Galileo Institute, where all the kids "from the finest families" go. Of course, as with all boarding school stories, there is conflict between the Newton kids and several other teens sent to the school from other places rather than Earth and the Earth kids themselves, who think the off-Earth kids are all "colonial rabble," kind of like the reaction to Indian-bred British children sent to English boarding schools. Clark—I mean Charles—advises Poddy—I mean Polly—to keep her head down and just try to fit in, but Polly feels trapped at school and is used to being more independent. She just manages to make one Earth friend when the whole class is sent on a "team-building exercise" (a term that can even make adults shudder) to Yosemite. The kids will be under surveillance at all time and nothing can go wrong--or can it? When something frightening happens, it puts Charles and then Polly on guard.

There are so many other parallels to the Heinlein story that I don't know where to begin: Polly and Charles' mother is another self-absorbed executive who I guess loves her kids but who doesn't spend much time with them (Podkayne and Clark's mom is a scientist), so the theme is once again the tiresome trope of children versus parents. They are twins because Mom had her ova frozen and decided to have them thawed and born at the same time (just like Podkayne's little triplet siblings Grace, Duncan, and Elspeth). The Genesis Institute reminds me a little of the Martian boarding school in another Heinlein juvenile, Red Planet, with the adults suspected of being up to something sinister behind the kids' backs. Several sinister things happen to the Newton kids, culminating with a dangerous situation.

(Incidentally, the names of the kids really threw me at first: is the author a Madeleine L'Engle fan? Because Polly and Charles are the eldest children of Calvin and Meg Murry O'Keefe.)

This book is at its best when Polly talks about her feelings about being on Earth--things that we raised on Earth, of course, take for granted: seeing the open sky, encountering breathable air, rain, going in and out of buildings without having to dust off, seeing birds, encountering mosquitoes for the first time. Used to living in pressurized tunnels, Polly, Charles, and the other off-Earth kids get agoraphobic the first time they see "outdoors." On a field trip to New York City—which is apparently now a working museum—and walking through endless galleries of ancient art, Polly has only one wish: to see a real live horse as portrayed in the paintings. Also, the author mentions how the physiology of the children would be different since they were born in places with different gravity: the off-Earth kids are lean and tall, and they have to take supplements and do additional exercises to make them strong enough to endure Earth's gravity.

The conclusion of the book—after the dangerous situation mentioned—is a real letdown. Despite the fact that Podkayne is a teen's book, the stakes which arise in the novel are played for real. The strange events in Martians Abroad happen for the stupidest reason at the instigation of an adult. And what is it with this boarding school? Will places like this still exist in the future, with elitist rich students versus intelligent middle class students? Why does the Board of Directors still allow this to exist in a future where there are colonies on the Moon, Mars, Jupiter's moons, and space stations with families? And why on earth don't the school personnel realize that the off-Earth kids might need time to adjust to Earth conditions and might like to see what the planet has to offer on a regular basis, rather than keeping them so sequestered? At one point Ms. Stanton, the chief "baddie" at the school, tells Polly that Genesis is a school, not a prison. Gee, you could have fooled ME.

Despite the fact that "the glass ceiling" shows up for Podkayne, something that does not occur for Polly, I'd recommend reading that book rather than this. There's a lot more suspense, science, and real consequences, rather than a lame ending. Certainly had I read Martians Abroad at the same time I read Podkayne of Mars (late teens), I would have picked Poddy for the win. Polly's an interesting protagonist, as is her brother, but Martians Abroad is okay, nothing more.

book icon  Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, Max Hastings
This is a thick, meaty book about the "Great War" just in the period from its inception to December 1914. Hastings first discusses the brewing rivalries underneath the veneer of genteel Edwardian charm, then the trigger event itself, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, and then the realities vs. the expectations—men confidently marching away to a "glorious battle" that would be "over by Christmas" by December already astounded by casualties and the descent into the first of the trenches, where the British and French found squalid digs as opposed to their opposite number.

Hastings uses actual manuscripts and records from the time to try to bring his personalities alive, from the mighty to the small, but the case of characters is quite large. This is not an easy read but not an oblique one, either. A welcome inclusion is a focus on the Eastern front as well as the usually covered Western front.

The book includes a photograph section and also battle maps, but one probably needs to be familiar with the structure of battle maps before interpreting them. I found them small and a bit confusing. As always for me, the book dragged a bit when chronicling the political machinations, as I am more interested in the day-to-day life of the everyday person caught up in the maelstrom. Your mileage may vary!

book icon  Murder on Amsterdam Avenue, Victoria Thompson
Frank Molloy and Sarah Brandt are finally to be married, if the remodeling of the house that Frank has purchased will ever be finished (an issue with malingering contractors which is still felt today that becomes a mild running gag in the story). In the meantime, Sarah accompanies her mother to pay a condolence call on the Oakes family, whose adult son Charles has tragically died. The family is little called on because Charles' mother is felt to be a standoffish Southerner whom Mr. Oakes married when he served during the Civil War. The Oakes are not only heartbroken at his death, but puzzled at why Charles' temperament changed drastically in the past few months. Then it turns out that something was indeed wrong: Charles had been poisoned with arsenic.

With the help of Sarah and Gino Donatelli, an old comrade from the police force, Frank has to sort through the puzzle that is Charles' death: where did the poison come from? Why the personality change? Why did he stop sleeping with his spoiled, complaining wife, whom he suddenly refused to take to Newport for "the season"? Has the appearance of Jenny Oakes' former servant from her Southern days something to do with Charles' death?

I guessed what had happened about two-thirds of the way through, but kept reading to see just "whodunit." In the meantime, the secret to getting the home remodeling finished is dealt with in a trice. And finally Sarah and Frank are married!

book icon  Righting the Mother Tongue, David Wolman
I have a bumper sticker on my car that states the following: "English doesn't borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over, and rummages through their pockets for loose grammar." Wolman, who admits he's had spelling problems for years, evidently agrees with this sentiment in this short, often humorous survey of English spelling.

Once upon a time, he tells us, English speaking people weren't hung up on proper spelling. Shakespeare himself spelled his own name several different ways. But then the bugaboo of "proper language" invaded the old country, care of several scholars including Jonathan Swift, and the race for proper spelling was on. When the inhabitants of the United States broke off from Great Britain, Noah Webster roamed wholesale through vocabulary, removing the useless "u's" in colour and favour, and even Presidents of the United States like Theodore Roosevelt pushed for simplified spelling: "good" to be "gud," for example.

If you've ever wondered why those silent letters were in words (like the "h" in "ghost," for one), or what a Great Vowel Shift was, or which writers threw their hats in the Simplified Spelling ring, this book will prove a treat.

book icon  Christmas 1914, John Hudson

book icon  Away in a Manger, Rhys Bowen

book icon  There I Go Again, William Daniels
I pounced on this book the moment it was offered in NetGalley; I’ve been a William Daniels fan since St. Elsewhere and watch 1776 each Independence Day. I was not disappointed: I fell in love with this book from the first paragraphs of the Acknowledgements, where Daniels states “I wrote this manuscript in longhand on yellow legal pads, so I have to first thank Rachael Lobermann, who spent many hours typing it all up. I have excellent handwriting, but I don’t know a damn thing about computers.

“Laurie Horowitz took the typed pages and made them resemble something that looked like a book, with paragraphs and everything.”

If you are a Daniels fan, the narrative of this book will draw you right in--it sounds exactly as you would expect it to sound: matter-of-fact, brisk, and often acerbic and, sadly, sometimes a little bitter. The bitter comes in during the story of his early life, which began in Brooklyn, where he suffered from having a stage mother who would put Mama Rose in Gypsy to shame. By the time he was ten, both he and his sister had been treading the boards for years and appeared in two different radio shows, while his education was neglected and his childhood lost. Even when he was fearful or sick, Mama Irene taught him the show—and he—must go on.

The book opens with the story of Daniels’ brilliant years as the blustery, sarcastic and selfish Dr. Mark Craig on St. Elsewhere, a part, he admits, was partially based on the surgeon he shadowed to give his performance an authentic touch, and partially on his own personality. He’s up-front about himself the whole way, as he chronicles his life as a performing artist forced into appearances by his ambitious mother to his first role on Broadway as an understudy in Life With Father and then to independence after his service in the Army, plus his marriage to fellow actor Bonnie Bartlett, which nearly gave his mother apoplexy.

The subsequent chapters discuss everything you would expect: his noted roles of John Adams in 1776 and Mr. Feeny on Boy Meets World, and how he did Knight Rider for years without ever performing with David Hasselhoff. (People still ask him about being the voice of the “intelligent vehicle”; one man at an autograph session even asked him where they had him stashed in the car!) He talks about working with Broadway legends like Jerome Robbins, Sandy Dennis, Barbara Harris, and Jason Robards (where the one important thing was not to allow Robards to wander off and get drunk). He even chronicles his two-year stint as President of the Screen Actors Guild. The book is rounded off with photographs from Daniels’ collection, from himself as a child through all of his most memorable roles. I particularly loved the photo where he is posing as John Adams next to a painting of the man.

As a bonus, the Appendix is a reprint of New York City Center’s interview with Daniels chatting with Lin-Manuel Miranda of the hit musical Hamilton!, discussing the similarities between this new play and 1776 and Miranda’s appreciation of the John Adams and Mr. Feeny roles. A must for William Daniels fans or perhaps even for someone who wants to see the behind the scenes machinations of setting up and producing plays.

book icon  The New England Image,Samuel Chamberlain
I found this 1962 photoessay book at a book sale for a dollar, but it's worth so much more. Not only did author and photographer Chamberlain take all of these photos from 1935 to the publishing date of the book, but he took them with what I call a "real" camera, the kind that you have to duck under a dark cloth to frame your image, which is is captured on glass plates! Plus these photos preserve a New England destroyed by the Hurricane of 1938, Hurricane Carol, and the most virulent hurricane of all, urban renewal, a place of Cape Cod homes and fishing shacks, clapboard churches and Colonial frontages, ivy-covered colleges and rocky seashores. I remember some of the buildings which survived into the 1960s only to be bulldozed down for malls and strip shopping centers. Made me sad, but happy all at once.

book icon  Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience, Melanie Kirkpatrick

book icon  And three more Thanksgiving books!

book icon  Broadcast Hysteria, A. Brad Schwartz
Even non-radio buffs have heard about the infamous 1938 broadcast of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds: Orson Welles changed all the names to American places, broke ground by doing the story as a series of news bulletins, and hundreds of thousands of people panicked thinking Martians were invading.

Well, not really...even though the later Welles talked as if he were the hands-on writer of the play, the book reveals he had little or no input into the story (he was mounting a Broadway play at the time) except to tell scriptwriter Howard Koch that it was dull and he needed to spice it up a little and make it sound more real. It wasn't the first radio fiction story done in a series of news bulletins. And only a few hundred people panicked, and most of them didn't think we were being invaded by Martians—they were antsy due to rumblings of war in Europe and thought any invaders were from Europe.

Schwartz covers the whole story of the "hoax" broadcast from the early days of enfant terrible Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre of the Air (named after H.L. Mencken's popular literary magazine "The American Mercury") through its performance and then the aftermath via the mail that was received on the subject by CBS, Congress, and individual radio stations. He makes a great parallel to the "how stupid could people be" view of this event to hoaxes which are passed along the Internet every day. Really enjoyed hearing about the conception and performance of the play (and Welles' slow downfall afterwards) and the comparisons to today.

book icon  The Shattered Tree, Charles Todd
The book opens with a terrified man making his way to the shelter of a bomb-damaged tree, half dead with cold, exhaustion, and exposure. He is brought to the aid station where Bess Crawford is one of the nurses, and while Bess is on wards, he speaks in German although he was wearing a French uniform. Bess reports the incident but is told the officer is probably from Alsace-Lorraine, one of the contested areas between France and Germany. Still, even after she is wounded by sniper fire and sent to the hospital with a fear of infection, she keeps thinking about this man—and, since he was held in the same hospital as she was, decides to investigate further, a move that introduces her to a nun with a secret and a priest who knows something more than he's telling, not to mention a family that was shattered by a murder years earlier.

Although the mystery is pretty convoluted, Bess spends a lot of her time driving back and forth between places during her recovery (and in the process retards it a bit; as a nurse she should know better!) in the company of an indulgent captain and eventually kept under surveillance. The plot is very slow moving until the end, but I was interested enough in the mystery of the missing man, and I like Bess, even if her usual supporting cast (Simon and her dad and mom) appear only briefly. I'm also wondering if the series will be continuing as the end of the book took place in November of 1918. Granted, even after the Armistice the mopping-up still needs to be done; allied troops were in Europe until 1919.

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31 October 2016

Books Completed Since October 1

book icon  Re-read: Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery
Technically a re-read, but a new edition which is the complete book as published originally, not the edited version that was released in 1985 in the Bantam set of "Anne of Green Gables" books republished after the success of the Kevin Sullivan miniseries.

Anne's youngest daughter, Rilla—Bertha Marilla Blythe—is now fifteen. Like most girls her age, she is active, vivacious, and mostly carefree. She's also pretty and knows it, and is beginning to see her old playmate Kenneth Ford as something else than the boy she used to romp with in Rainbow Valley. Anne wonders if she will ever be serious. But on the night Rilla is invited to her first dance, a night in which her feelings for Ken Ford begin to change, it is announced that England has declared war on Germany after the slaying of Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Suddenly life changes for everyone: Rilla's brothers and older male friends enlist except for Walter, her dreamy and artistic sibling, who is afraid his reluctance to kill will endanger his compatriots; her sisters volunteer for the Red Cross; and her mother and Susan Baker roll bandages and hold teas. And then Rilla, who is not fond of babies at all, rescues a newborn whose father has gone off to war and reluctantly takes him on as a responsibility.

There are now many books around about homefront life during World War I, since they have been written to commemorate the 100th anniversary, but Rilla of Ingleside was a rara avis of its time, and still one of the few novels written from a Canadian homefront point of view, written by someone who endured it. While there are humorous moments (Susan's sparring with her pessimistic cousin, the Blythes' mercurial cat Doc, youthful mistakes in raising her "war baby"), this book brings life in homefront WWI to vivid life: the dread of waiting for telegrams, the fearful perusal of the newspaper, the knowledge of knowing that any moment you may receive a missive telling you a loved one has died, being a man who has just received a white feather [a symbol that since he isn't serving he's a coward]. One particularly touching subplot in the book involves Jem Blythe's little dog Monday. A beautiful book.

book icon  Back to the Front, Stephen O'Shea
It was natural for me to go from Rilla to this book. The author is a Canadian who admits right off that he he is not a "history buff" (just as Rilla moved in her own small sphere) and had no interest in the First World War until he moved to Paris in 1981 and accompanied a friend on a weekend trip to the Somme battlefield. O'Shea was flabbergasted to find that not only can you still tell where the battles were fought 64 years later, despite the population having grown and the fields having been cultivated (not to mention another war occurring), but that French farmers still plow up supplies from that war: gas masks, horse harnesses, shoes, hip flasks, ammunition, even the occasional live mine, etc. It inspired him to make multiple visits to France from 1985 through 1995 and walk the entire Western Front from Nieuport, Belgium to the Swiss border.

O'Shea proceeds from battle site to battle site, observing the current physical site and then adding the historical detail of pompous, know-it-all officers who sent men to their deaths (if you are a Douglas Haig fan you should avoid this book) and the many times bored and vermin-ridden soldiers in the trenches with the horrifying fates that awaited them: festering wounds, burned-out lungs from poison gas, crippling injuries, dismemberment and death, surrounded by screaming horses and mules shattered by shrapnel and bullets, and appalled by the bored tourists who visit the sites just because it's something to do.

Keep in mind that this is a memoir of his experience and not a real history. His descriptions of the battlefields and the war are real and immediate, but even after having lived in France he has a poor opinion of both the French and the Belgians and he often sounds snooty. His descriptions of how the officers in all the armies wasted human lives turn into lectures against war; the descriptions themselves should have been left to stand as a monument to that waste. This is an interesting way to acquaint yourself with the major battles of World War I, but be aware that there are some prejudices involved.

book icon  Re-read: The Singing Tree, Kate Seredy
Since I had already re-read Rilla and continued with World War I reading with the O'Shea book, I thought I would complete a circle and reacquaint myself with another favorite, Seredy's sequel to The Good Master, the story of the two cousins Jansci and Kate Nagy, who live on Jansci's father's big ranch on the puzta, the Hungarian plains. Jansci, fifteen, is old enough to have his own small herd of horses, and Kate, a year younger, is growing into a young woman interested in going to dances. As the story opens, they are preparing for a neighborhood celebration, the wedding of Peter Hodi and Mari Vidor—but as they head home from the event, news comes of the assassination of an archduke in faraway Sarajevo.

Rapidly, things change: the Nagy horses and herders are conscripted into the Army, and finally Kate's father and Marton Nagy as well. Spoiled Lily Kormos comes to live on the ranch, but after a bumpy start, the cousins find her a good friend. Women and children and the elderly must get in the harvest on their own, and the cousins are called to drive up to the mountains to fetch Mother's elderly parents and there, among a crowd of refugees and the presence of an Army hospital, come face to face with the real horror of war.

This is a wonderful book which portrays war as terrible without going into hurtful details, with memorable supporting characters: Moses and Sarah Mandelbaum, the Jewish owners of the village store; Mother's stalwart parents; the six Russian prisoners of war who work as farmhands and the six German children that are sent as refugees from Berlin. When I read this again as an older child, I realized from my history lessons that if I had lived at that time, Jansci and Kate would have been my enemies, since their government was fighting against the Allies. A sobering thought, and one Seredy makes throughout the book, as when one of the German boys writes a puzzled letter to his mother wondering how the Russians can be enemies when "they are just big men like Papa," that behind bellicose politicians and generals there are just plain people who, like their "enemies," want to make a living, raise their children, tend their crops or business, and not wage war at all. Worth reading whether you are a child or an adult.

book icon  Re-read: Beautiful Joe: an Autobiography, Margaret Marshall Saunders
I've had a copy of Beautiful Joe since I was old enough to read Western Publishing's line of Whitman Books. However the version I originally read was light years away from the original story.

Saunders was brought up in an animal-loving 19th century Canadian family and the rampant animal abuse of the era horrified her. When an American humane group offered a prize for the best novel portraying kindness to animals, Saunders wove a tale around a real-life Canadian dog who had his tail and ears chopped off by a cruel owner, set her story in Maine, and wrote a classic that all who have read it will not forget. But the book has gone through several changes throughout the years, the outright portrayal of the animal cruelty being excised from my children's addition, some of the farm chapters tossed out in favor of a chapter about a pet crow, and modern editions which remove the Victorian symbolism. I went through each edition until finding the Applewood edition, which was the complete novel as originally written, and this, the Broadview edition, is even more expanded, with footnotes, the crow chapter included in an appendix, and even a sequence where Bruno the farm dog is saved instead of destroyed.

I doubt very many parents would allow their kids to read the original edition today, although it was considered instructive and wonderful for older children in the 19th century, and even today, the story is not for the fainthearted. I'm an animal lover, and as hard as it is to get through some passages, I have loved all the characters since childhood—the Morris family, Cousin Harry, the Woods, the other Morris dogs Jim and Billy, Fleetfoot the wise colt, and more—and I love having the chance to have all aspects of the story complete with some additional material supplied about the humane movement in America. This is a classic in every sense of the word.

book icon  The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, Esther Crain
I am a history buff, but my favorite period of history has always been what is called the late Victorian/Edwardian era in Great Britain and the Gilded Age/Progressive Era here in the United States, so you bet I grabbed this book the moment I saw it. Much of the information in it I already know, having other history books about it, but I still found this book captivating because of its huge complement of photographs and woodcuts from the time period.

Crain divides the volume into different sections which talk about a specific topic: how the wealthy lived (and the difference--and feud--between "old money" and "new money"), the emerging middle class, and the poverty-stricken. There are sections about amusements of the era, with photos of Coney Island that I've never seen before, another portion devoted to crime and punishment, and, throughout the various sections, just how New York itself grew as a city from the tip of Manhattan Island to finally fill up the space once devoted to tenant farms and open land. With that in mind, the final section devotes itself to Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx, which eventually came together to form the New York metropolitan area. Special pullouts (a tiny bit hard to read with white ink on black paper) are devoted to things like famous crime of passion cases (think Evelyn Nesbit), the violent conflict between the old Metropolitan Police and the new City of New York Police, the Blizzard of 1888 which convinced the city to finally build a subway, Tammany Hall politicians, etc.

I must, must, must reserve some praise for the hand-colored black-and-white prints included in this book. Even if you are a history buff, it is sometimes hard to see past the flat, monochrome photographs that were taken in that era, and garish, badly hand-colored photographs are not my cup of tea. But the ones included in this book have been done by a talented professional and the result is that the photos have come alive to the point where you can almost hear the pedestrians chattering, the horses clopping, the iron-clad wagon wheels clashing against the pavement, the pushcart sellers hawking their wares, and feel the breeze coming off the bookended rivers. You immediately notice a striding woman with a scowl on her face--what's gone wrong with her day? you wonder--and children's faces, and flags fluttering in the breeze, and the attractively-colored signs on the shops and stores. Wow.

book icon  Doctor Who: The American Adventures, Justin Richards
I admit, I was disappointed in this book. I didn't realize it was written for children (or if it wasn't, it certainly reads like it was). The narratives in all of the stories were rather simplistic: something odd would happen during a historical period in the US, the Doctor would show up, and then he'd find something to remedy the situation. He runs into some people who live in a world of horse-drawn vehicles and firelight and they don't seem more surprised that he has gadgets that light up that they've never seen before. The family in the Oregon Trail is particularly perplexing in this regard. And, perhaps it is hard to develop character in short stories, but all the characters in the stories seem particularly two-dimensional, especially the young girl in the Oregon Trail tale, as if she was just thrust in the story for some "girl power."

My favorite story in this collection was the modern one, taking place in Florida at an amusement park. There was an element of mystery and danger missing from the other stories. "Ghosts of New York," taking place during the construction of the subway, also isn't bad, with the Doctor and a "sandhog" trying to solve the mystery of deceased people turning up in the tunnels. The others are just pedestrian, and there's nothing particularly that marks these as 12th Doctor stories as, say 5th Doctor stories, except for references to his eyebrows.

I am rating this a 3 because children might enjoy it. It is more like a 2 - 2 1/2 for adults, depending on how much you want some new WHO tales.

book icon  A Study in Scarlet Women, Sherry Thomas
"What if Sherlock Holmes was a woman?"

That's the interesting premise of this book and it begins with a foreboding prologue--and then suddenly the narrative seems to turn into a Victorian farce with a philandering husband and an innocent young girl. The story is then picked up from the point of view of the young woman's sister--but don't get too interested in her; she disappears (except for mention by the main character) for the remainder of the book.

Charlotte Holmes is an intelligent young woman in an era when a woman should be either ornamental or maternal (she is of the former school, a picture-book-perfect Victorian heroine). She eschews society and parties and instead desperately wants some higher education and longs to become headmistress of a school. Her father tricks her into thinking that if she is not married by age 25, he will sponsor her education. When he breaks his word, Charlotte takes desperate measures to make sure she is not marriageable, hoping this will force her father to keep his promise. Instead, all she does is create scandal, and therefore she is forced to make her own way in the world.

The most interesting character in the book, sadly, is not Charlotte, but the widowed Mrs. Watson she meets, who will pick up the threads of Charlotte's messy life and give it some purpose. For some time, Charlotte has been secretly posing as a gentleman named Sherlock Holmes, forwarding her suspicions via mail to the local police when facts reported about deaths in the newspapers don't make sense. Inspector Treadles of the police investigates the crimes based on her letters and usually finds he's--uh, she's--correct. In this case, "Sherlock" suspects that three unrelated deaths (including the unexpected passing of the woman who accused her of adultery) are indeed the work of one person...but can the police make the connection?

When you are reading a book whose synopsis sounded fascinating, but which you eventually approach with the attitude of "Oh, God, I have to finish reading this book because I promised," things are not good. Charlotte is intriguing, but her character never seems to come to any type of life--even the humorous asides about her healthy appetite don't round her out, and the romance portion of the book is pedestrian. Plus it seems inconceivable that Charlotte, while socially awkward, would not have known that the situation she got herself in would result in more problems for her--and her family--rather than forcing a decision. I can't believe that she thought it was her only solution.

In addition, one of the key aspects of the original Holmes stories is that he had more imagination and reasoning powers than the police; frequently they were shown at odds. No one could dislike Inspector Treadles; he's good-natured but persistent at his job, a good husband who thinks his wife is entitled to intelligence and outside interests, but his investigations are no different than any other "dedicated cop" character than I've read in other books--certainly not the slipshod investigators the classic Holmes despises.

Once Charlotte was finally "in place" in Baker Street, the story did pick up a bit, but I was actually relieved when I finished the book, and at this point I can't even remember "whodunnit." The characters and plot did not excite my imagination as it should have, and I would not recommend this book to a Sherlock fan.

book icon  Houseboat Girl, Lois Lenski
Patsy Foster was born upon a houseboat in the Mississippi River, but now, at eleven, she's been living in a small town near Paducah, Illinois, for two years, attending school and making friends. So it is initially difficult when her restless father, a "born riverman," buys a new houseboat and uproots the family—Mother, older sister Milly, younger siblings Dan and Bunny, Patsy's pet chickens, and a dog they were given—so they can run down the Mississippi and he can earn his preferred living, catching and selling fish. Then Patsy comes to love her life, learning to swim, the ever-changing riverbank scenery, meeting new people (and even making some enemies that become friends when they stop for a while and her father incurs the wrath of a man who thinks he owns the fishing rights to the area)—but she still longs to be settled. Is there a way she and her father can compromise?

Children today might be surprised that in the era of early television, rock'n'roll and Elvis Presley, the beginnings of the Space Race, and the Cold War that people still lived such a relatively primitive life (Mrs. Foster does have a washing machine and electric lights, but they can only be used when they are moored somewhere with electric wiring). Patsy and her family and friends amuse themselves simply and use their imaginations in play, running barefoot unless they are visiting town. Watching television is a rare treat mentioned in one chapter. Not one of Lenski's best, but a book addressing a little-known part of society.

book icon  In Search of Centennial: A Journey With James A. Michener, John Kings
This is a coffee-table sized but thin book written by one of the research assistants that helped Michener research his epic novel Centennial, my favorite of the Michener books that I've read. If you are at all interested in the writing process of a historical novel then this is quite revealing. Michener and his two assistants did research in Colorado and elsewhere for more than 18 months before he even sat down to start writing, and even then he confirmed things as he wrote and had assistants and family (his wife also did a great amount of the research) continually looking up facts and figures. He drove along the cattle trails written about in "The Longhorns," visited with the Native American tribes he was writing about to get the details of their 18th and 19th century lives correct, visited St. Louis to make certain the Bockweiss segment was factual, etc. The book includes numerous photographs, including ones taken by Michener in 1937 when he first considered writing a book set in Colorado. The final chapter is about his input into making the miniseries Centennial. Plus there are pages from his voluminous notebooks and four corrected typewritten pages from "The Longhorns."

Probably just for Centennial or Michener fans, but still a great insight into the craft of writing.

book icon  The Land of the English People, Alicia Street
Not sure why I bought this slim volume for children that is part of a people and places series for different countries and cultures, but I certainly did enjoy it. It's a combination geography/sociology/history book that was originally written after World War II and updated in the late Fifties, with much of the text still applicable to postwar Britain. It does a nice job of explaining how the different elements of the English countryside determined how those people would live, and has a neat job, using a fictional American ex-soldier and an Englishman to explain why Americans and English see the world so differently. Interesting look at England before the Cold War heated up and smog was banished from London.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters at Mystery Mountain, Jerry West
The Hollister clan is still traveling in a schoolbus they acquired on a previous adventure as Mr. Hollister looks for more Southwestern items to stock his store The Trading Post at the Hollister home town of Shoreham. When Mrs. Hollister buys little Sue a cowboy outfit in New Mexico, all the other kids—eldest Pete, Pam, Ricky, and Holly—want one, too, which precipitates them on two new adventures: to find some ancient stone dolls in a secret mountain location as told to them by their new friends Helen and Jack Moore, and to discover what's happened to the stolen sheep of their father's old friend Frank Vega, whose wife Maria makes the cowboy outfits the kids like.

The Hollisters never quit moving! Besides the mysteries involved, the kids take an airplane ride, attend a fiesta at a school, and go on a trail ride that precipitates them into danger—and there's even a kidnapping! They sure don't spend their time face down with their eyes on a tablet or staring at a television, that's for sure.

As a modern reader, I'm still impressed by how egalitarian these books are. Yeah, okay, Delores Vega and Helen and Pam get to rustle up the food on the trail ride while Jack and Pete make the fire, but since they have lost their supplies (their horses were deliberately let loose), Delores must find food for the kids using wildcrafting, and she manages admirably, plus she's been entrusted with the safety of the other children on the trail ride, where in most 1950s books a boy would be given that task. (Her brother Diego has had to stay home and ride fence.) When the kids have their airplane ride, all of them are invited to take a turn at the wheel, not just the boys, and Ricky is ribbed for his bad flying just like Pam. Plus the Vega family and their foreman Truchas don't have stagy Spanish accents or speak some dialect gibberish that approximates a Mexican way of talking. If something is referenced like a Mexican hat dance, it's part of celebrating the Vegas' Hispanic heritage.

These books are simple to read but yet full of adventures, with each chapter ending on a cliffhanger so you just want to go on. And you will.

(For Hollister fans: this is the book where the family acquires Domingo the donkey.)

book icon  Christmas in the Crosshairs, Gerry Bowler

book icon  Victoria, Daisy Goodwin
I think when most people think of Queen Victoria, they envision the faded monochrome photographs of the overweight, dour woman in black who gave her name to the latter half of the British 19th century and who imperiously and humorlessly reigned over an empire. It is such an ingrained icon that it may be difficult to imagine that once Victoria was a romantic young girl like many teenage girls, one who loved to dance and stay up late at parties, to get up at noon and try on new dresses and hairstyles, chafing against a domineering parent. Known as "Drina" (her first name was Alexandrina) as a girl, she was under the thumb of her ambitious German mother and her mother's British advisor Sir John Conroy, who hoped that Victoria's uncle William would die while the girl was still in her minority so that they could be appointed as regents. Victoria, as she told everyone to call her after she became queen, despised Conroy and the influence he held over her mother. Yet Victoria would also fall victim to the influences of a man—one who was reluctant to do so—her beloved "Lord M," William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, the prime minister.

This is Goodwin's book based upon the research she performed, with major input from young "Drina's" journals, while writing the new British historical series Victoria, written as a novel, which covers Victoria's life from her sixteenth birthday (in the prologue) to her marriage proposal to Albert. Both the new television series and the book play up Victoria's attachment to "Lord M." as more an at-first daughter/father relationship (since the Duke of Kent, Victoria's father, was not even a memory to her) that became a real-life romance (at least in Victoria's mind), than the straight queen/advisor always portrayed. Goodwin's prose is brisk and literate, always leaving you wanting just one more page, and Victoria-the-girl determined to be a good queen against a host of naysayers including her "Uncle Cumberland" who would love to declare her unfit to rule are absorbing. As a story that humanizes the young Victoria and simplifies some of the early goings on in her court ("the Bedchamber crisis") for instance), this is a good starter. However, it is fiction and if you are looking for a comprehensive biography, this is not the book.

book icon  Brooklyn on Fire: A Mary Handley Mystery, Lawrence H. Levy
By the time I was about a third through with this book, I had to go back and check to see if the author was indeed a guy. Otherwise I would have wondered if our heroine's name was Mary Sue Handley.

I picked this up as a Vine book because I read many Victorian/Edwardian/early 20th century mysteries. A young woman setting herself up as a "consulting detective" (like her hero, Sherlock Holmes) in 1890 New York sounded like just the ticket. I hadn't read the first book in the series, Second Street Station, but the characters seemed pretty self-explanatory. Mary is from a middle-class Irish family; she has a policeman brother whom she can outwit at chess; her mother complains about her not being married; she's blonde, blue eyed and pretty and basically has educated herself via her brother's encyclopedia and reading voraciously (thus references to Maisie Dobbs—trust me, this is no Maisie Dobbs-type novel), and in the previous book she solved something called the Goodrich mystery and now all of New York knows who she is. But it's been quite some time since the Goodrich case and she's relieved when a woman named Emily Worsham appears asking her to find out if her deceased uncle might have been murdered.

In a trice, Mary is catapulted into a mystery involving—although she doesn't know it at first—the real-life fight between New York and Brooklyn (Brooklyn wishes to remain its own city; New York wishes to annex it) which includes (of course) dirty politicians, a few New York millionaires (Levy involves just about every famous name in his story: the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, Leland Stanford, etc.), an elderly lady who talks with her cats, a flipped-out method actress and her adoring friend, a supposedly dead husband, an OCD lawyer—and, if all these characters were too tame for you, a character who seems to come from another book entirely, one of those Law & Order: SVU creepy people by way of a noir mystery, a hired killer who gets sexually aroused by murder and fire. (And yes, it's described in detail. Ew.)

Our Mary forges on, especially when she discovers the coffin of the "dead uncle" is filled with rocks. She follows clue after clue, fends attackers off with ju jitsu which she learned from a Chinese instructor (and then later in the book it's revealed she also knows "the French art of kickboxing known as savatte), is so plucky that most people have no problem with the fact that it's 1890—a time where a woman can't walk down the street unescorted without being looked at askance—and she's a "lady detective," and is so brave and forthright that George Vanderbilt falls madly in love with her and at one point is willing to give up building his dream home, Biltmore House, for her. Or that in another chapter Mary is shot in the back and the bullet hits nothing vital and the blood transfusion she gets from George works even though doctors back then didn't know about blood typing and there's a 50 percent chance she might have died. (Incidentally the guy who shot her runs away into the woods and gets killed by a bear...honest.)

Let's not leave out the fact that Levy peppers his text with myriad little facts about the era or quotes from writers as if he couldn't bear to leave any of his research behind (in one chapter, Mary and George go to Richmond, Virginia, where Mary brightly observes that Richmond has electric trolleys, the first ones in the United States, and Manhattan is so behind the times). Or that no matter how much research he did, modern verbiage pops up to kick you out of the story (like the gay character who refers to himself as gay when that wouldn't be a term until 80 years later).

I'd give this book two stars, one because Mary was kind of a neat character who needed a much different author (Carolyn Keene would have done, since I kept thinking of Nancy Drew), and the other star for the laughs it provided to my husband and I when I discussed it with him.

book icon  A Newbery Halloween, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh
There are a dozen more-or-less scary (for children) stories in this neat volume that followed A Newbery Christmas. It includes a Madeleine L'Engle short story I had heard about but never read, "Poor Little Saturday," in which she drew on her Southern roots and ghost tales from her relatives to produce a story about a haunted house. Some of the stories are more nostalgic than scary (even if there is a little frisson of danger when Ramona Quimby puts on her "baddest bad witch" mask), like ""The Baddest Witch in the World" and the Halloween chapter from Eleanor Estes' The Moffats. There are creepy stories the don't even involve Halloween, just mysterious spirits, taking place in China, Japan, and Genoa, Italy. Elizabeth meets the fey Jennifer on Halloween night in Konigsburg's "A Halloween to Remember, and Virginia Hamilton recalls an African-American family's tense Halloween in "The Year Halloween Happened One Day Early." The creepiest story in the collection is "The Witch's Eye," in which two girls attempt to get rid of the titular object.

Another great Newbery collection with just the right mix of treats and tricks!

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