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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 May 2017

Books Completed Since May 1

book icon  America 1933, Michael Golay
Lorena Hickok was one of the best freelance journalists of the 1930s when she befriended Eleanor Roosevelt after doing a story on the President and his family. She and Eleanor became fast friends and conjecture has it that they became lovers, physically as well as emotionally. Having been betrayed by both her father and her husband, Eleanor had many close female friends and she wrote them warm letters that sounded like love letters between heterosexual couples. Whether or not that is true—you can read some of ER's letters in this book and make up your own mind—this isn't the real meat of this book. The focus is the 18-month trip Hickok took to every corner of the United States at the request of Harry Hopkins, to see firsthand the effects of the Depression on the ordinary American.

This book may make you weep as Hickok reports from coal country, the Appalachians, California, the Dust Bowl, and many other locations and sees the desperate straits people are in: single women barely eating, families overwhelmed by poverty, children who can't go to school for lack of warm coats and shoes, mine workers surviving on a pittance with foul streams of mine rubble running through their neighborhoods, people living in cardboard boxes, anti-union thugs beating up men who just want a living wage, black people constantly in fear of lynching and thuggery if they try to better themselves. As ER admonishes her to take care of herself, Hickok is indignant and enraged by relief efforts constantly hung up on red tape until they're too late to combat starvation and cold. The excerpts from her letters show you the real Depression, not the optimistic "heads up, we'll weather the blast" propaganda handed out by the government.

About Hickok and the First Lady, you can make up your own mind, but better read for Hickok's observations and revelations.

book icon  Re-read: Midnight Riot, Ben Aaronovitch
Peter Grant has finally made it into London's metropolitan police force with ambitions of going far. He and fellow neophyte Leslie May are called in to help when a headless body is found in front of St. Paul's, and Peter's just minding his own business while Leslie goes to get them something hot to drink when a ghost calling himself Nicholas Moneypenny tells him he witnessed the murder. Still digesting this information—since Peter's never been much of a believer in ghosts—he finds himself assigned to a mundane pencil-pushing police project while Leslie goes to the Murder Squad. But that's all changed when he's recruited by Inspector Thomas Nightingale, London's last practicing wizard, who takes odd cases too strange for the Met and who heard about Peter's ghostly encounter. Peter, it seems, has a talent for sensing vestigia (magical leftovers) and soon he finds himself ensconced at Nightingale's home with an odd housekeeper, learning magic.

While this all sounds delightfully daffy, it's actually the opening act to a super urban fantasy series. Peter, the biracial child of an African mother who has supported them as a housecleaner and an estranged jazz musician father, is a good-natured, earnest guy who is immediately likeable. We follow his progress learning magic as more bizarre murders take place around London, with people's faces being bizarrely affected by whatever madness has infected the city. He also makes the acquaintance of the gods and goddesses of London's river system, including Mother Thames, who keeps watch over the city while Father Thames guards its source in the country, and ends up with a dog who can trail ghosts. Endlessly inventive and with a twist that would make Arthur Bryant of Christopher Fowler's Bryant and May mysteries sit up and take notice. If you're looking for a novel urban fantasy series, this may be your cup of tea.

book icon  Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, Kory Stamper
What's so hard about editing a dictionary? You just write down what the word means, right?

As Kory Stamper can tell you, it's nothing that simple. The smallest words can be the most difficult to define, word meanings change, and social definitions that were once simple now must encompass more sensitive and extensive racial and ethnic boundaries.

Stamper, who grew up a bookworm and felt taking a job at Merriam-Webster was a "throw me in the briar patch, B'rer Fox" moment, describes her often extensive co-workers, the problems with English grammar and spelling, the histories of English dictionaries and Webster's specifically (for a long time, anyone could publish a "Webster's" dictionary), about the specifics of defining a word in as precise terms as possible (how would you define the word "surfboard"? it's more difficult than it looks!), on words that people think shouldn't be in the dictionary (like "dirty words" and "ain't"), and of tracking down etymologies. It's a delightful collection of essays that make you think as well as laugh. A must have for anyone who loves words.

book icon  Ex Libris, edited by Paula Guran
Library aficionados should love this collection of library fantasy and science fiction stories as much as I did. It's an interesting assortment of tales from the warm and whimsical opener "In the House of the Seven Librarians," about an abandoned infant raised in a classic old library that has been abandoned by a town and Ray Bradbury's nostalgic "Exchange," to post-apocalyptic stories like "The Books" (about the children of traveling show people trying to find new things to read) and "What Books Survive" and its teenage protagonist trying to outwit invaders just long enough to get to the library, to fantasy like "Death and the Librarian," where the librarian in question duels with the Grim Reaper, to otherworldly libraries. As the pages turn, a young man discovers his girlfriend can hide in fiction (literally), wizardry students must survive a deadly library to complete an assignment, an elusive library hides amazing works, and a few library tales step over that shivery abyss into horror (but just enough to make your skin tingle). The writing styles range from delightfully warm to grimly somber, from straightforward narrative to unexpected twist.

There were a couple of stories, as usual with any collection of this kind, that just didn't wow me, like "The King of the Big Night Hours," and while "Magic for Beginners" (featuring an elusive television series called The Library) was intriguing, I didn't quite get it in the end. Any false steps, however, have been completely overwhelmed by the stories I have mentioned and the collection as a whole, which I found inventive and entertaining.

book icon  A Curious Beginning, Deanna Raybourn
Veronica Speedwell is a definitely unconventional Victorian woman. Now that her last aunt has died, Veronica, a talented and adventurous lepidopterist, plans to sell her cottage and continue the foreign adventures she enjoyed before coming back to nurse her aunt (and the decidedly unconventional romances she enjoyed along with them) collecting butterflies and moths to sell to natural scientists. But as she finishes packing up her aunt's cottage, someone tries to kidnap her. Bewildered, she accepts the escort of a German baron who accompanies her to London and leaves her in the care of a bad-tempered taxidermist named Stoker. When the baron is murdered, Stoker and Veronica become the prime suspects; they flee, taking refuge in a colorful traveling circus, posing as a knife thrower and his wife, all the while maintaining an adversarial relationship with each other while trying to determine who killed Baron von Stauffenbach. And did he really know Veronica's mother, as he told her? And why does this fact matter to so many people?

Unconventional Victorian heroine? Should have been a sure bet, but I simply found Veronica unlikeable—not because she was strong and self-sufficient, but despite it. She really isn't all that likeable, and has a smug way about her that's not very attractive. And, of course, Stoker is fabulously well built and, after he shaves, devastatingly handsome, and they strike sparks off each other while secretly lusting over each other. Oh, that again. You may have seen one of the versions of a plot point in this book in a Sherlock Holmes film called Murder by Decree. She simply didn't capture my interest like Raybourn's original Victorian lead, Lady Julia Grey, or even the leads in her early 20th century novels.

I won't be continuing this series.

book icon  The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard
Great big dictionary-like listing of mostly British children's books and authors, but touching on all famous book characters from Anne Shirley to Huckleberry Finn and short essays about children's literature in countries other than Britain. Liberally scattered with book illustrations and covers and children's magazine covers. Anyone who loves children's literature, especially of a British stripe, should check out this volume to enjoy old favorites and discover new ones.

book icon  Moon Over Soho, Ben Aaronovitch
In the second Peter Grant mystery/fantasy, Peter and his mentor Inspector Nightingale, the last registered wizard in England, are called to view the corpse of a part time jazz musician. Using his previously unknown esoteric talent, Peter can hear a jazz tune coming from the deceased, which tells him that the death was somehow caused by magic. Peter's familiar with jazz after growing up as the son of Richard "Lord" Grant, a well-known jazz musician who's recently begun to play again (on a different instrument) and get off the drugs that ruined his life. When similar deaths in London's Soho district occur, Peter is further perplexed, but gains an unexpected bonus: a sexy jazz fan named Simone who is crazy about him. Tossed into the mix: a shadowy magician who is running his own version of The Island of Dr. Moreau.

I didn't think this story was as strong as the first, but we learn much more about Peter's early life as well as making the acquaintance of his parents. We also learn of the progress of the truce between the rivers (where Peter almost makes a fatal mistake that would have affected his friend Beverley Brook) and Peter's co-worker Leslie's recovery from the nearly deadly magical machinations worked upon her in the previous book. Peter is someone you'd love to know, a good friend, a wizard slowly growing in power, and a police officer learning his profession, and the story moves briskly—sometimes at a racing pace!—as more bodies appear in Soho and police work and wizardry tangle in a delightful combination.

If you like your urban fantasy with a good dollop of humor and a likeable lead, this is the series for you!

book icon  The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Marta McDowell
The moment I saw the author of this book, I wanted to read it. I sat down one grey and gloomy day to read McDowell's Gardening Life of Beatrix Potter and was completely immersed in summer, flowers, and the heady scent of the English countryside and the sheep-dotted slopes of the Lake District.

While there have been many books in the last couple of decades written about Laura Ingalls Wilder, this is the only one that addresses not simply events in Laura's life, but the landscapes her family lived in, the wildlife she saw, the plants that grew in the diverse areas in which she lived. Each chapter corresponds with a milestone in the life of a plant, from seed as Laura is born and spends her early years in the Big Woods of Wisconsin (and Almanzo grows up in the cold north of New York), to late harvest as she and husband Almanzo grow old at Rocky Ridge Farm in Missouri. It is also more generally a history of westward expansion and the flora and fauna found by the settlers when they arrived.

This is a beautiful book, liberally illustrated with color and black-and-white photos of the Ingalls family, illustrations from both Helen Sewell and Garth Williams from the Little House books, botanical prints, maps, and clippings from newspapers, brochures, magazines, etc. that tell the story of the European settling of the Midwest. McDowell's words bring to mind winter chill, summer warmth, birdsong, the sheer awe of the tall prairie grass (don't compare prairie grass to what grows on your front lawn; these are mammoth blades of grass which were higher than a man's head and gave to the bison all the nourishment needed), the scent and sight of fields of wildflowers, the blue sky arching above. For anyone who loves nature, or who wishes to know as closely as possible what Laura experienced in the Wisconsin woods, on the Kansas prairie, in the Iowa groves, and in the hills of Mansfield, Missouri, this is a keeper for certain.

Perfect for a quiet day with cocoa and soft music playing in the background.

book icon  In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson
Now this is what I expect from Bill Bryson, not the continuous whine, whine, whine of The Lost Continent (although in his epilog about the Sydney Olympics he managed to whine, whine, whine about the Atlanta Olympics). It's the story of Bill's explorations in Australia, done mostly by car on his own, but also riding on Indian Pacific Railway, and riding to Alice Springs with a friend, going from one corner to the other and then the other way. He visits the well-known coastal cities of Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne, and Perth, the less well known cities of Cairns and Darwin, and natural wonders like the Great Barrier Reef, Shark Bay where living fossils exist, a forest of beautiful karri and jarrah trees (known as Australian's Redwoods), and, of course the famous desert town of Alice Springs.

This is a fun, whimsical travelogue in which Bryson touches on the character of the Australians, its always unforgiving countryside (it "harbors many things that can kill you in extremely nasty ways," as the jacket promo promises) full of lush flora, its odd wildlife (and the intrusive wildlife introduced by outsiders), and just the sheer area of the small continent which is also an island and a country. Although his train ride seems like a dream, it sounds like most of his reposes were taken at poor motels masquerading under pretty names, although he was met with hospitality at most places. (Again, he ticks off on tourists, although he's not the best traveler on earth.) Throughout the book Bryson touches on the plight (no other term for it) of the Aborigine, whom he observes has never fit in and always seems an outsider (one hopes things have improved in the past 18 years).

It's a fun introduction to Australia and Bryson kept the carping to a minimum, so I'm happy.

book icon  Murder Most Malicious: A Lady and Lady's Maid Mystery, Alyssa Maxwell
It's Christmas at Foxwood Manor, the first after the Great War, and the Renshaw family is hosting guests to help them celebrate the holidays, including Lord Allerton, soon to be engaged to the eldest of the Renshaw daughters, Julia. But on Christmas night, Phoebe, the progressive and curious middle daughter, comes downstairs to find Henry, Lord Allerton, and her sister Julia arguing, each apparently knowing a terrible secret about the other. Next morning, Lord Allerton doesn't show up for breakfast, but no one except his mother seems very alarmed—until Boxing Day gifts sent to the servants' families contain unpleasant gifts relating to the young lord. Phoebe is determined to find out what's happened, as is one of the lady's maids in the household, Eva Huntford.

This belongs to the breed of modern country house mystery stories in which much or all of the family is kind to the servants, and a degree of progressiveism in class relations is portrayed, sort of Downton Abbey Lite with a mystery attached. Sometimes the PC is maddening, as when Phoebe describes the forbidden-by-Grandma American novel her grandfather is secretly reading as "the one about the boy...and his African friend." As if a Brit in that day and age wouldn't have used what is now a more offensive term as a commonplace thing; it seems so evidently stuck in there to show the family (or at least Phoebe) is progressive. The only Renshaw son is snarky in a manner that I think no British boy would allowed to be back then, and there are continued references to him going to "Eaton," as if he's shopping in a Canadian department store rather than going to one of the most famous boys' public schools in England, Eton.

Frankly this isn't much different from a half-dozen other recreations of the past done in the last ten or twenty years, with an ingenuous young heroine (sometimes hero) ahead of her time and her egalitarian ways with those who are supposed to be her social inferiors. Phoebe and Eva are both nice young woman, but there's nothing really special about them, the mystery breaks no new ground, and everything has the polish of veneer and plastic rather than old wood and porcelain.

book icon  Rhode Island 101, Tim Lehnert
A "popcorn" book, one you can dip into at any page and find some fun tidbits about the Ocean State. Starts with a timeline of Rhode Island history, then bits of facts in sections labeled "Slang," "Cities and Towns," "Weather," "Arts and Entertainment," etc. interrupted by fun "Take 5" lists like "Top Five Rhode Island Reads," "Five Best Providence Buildings," "Top Five Movies Made in Rhode Island." Plus there are other inserts like "You Know You're From Rhode Island When...," profiles of Rhode Island personalities from Buddy Cianci to H.P. Lovecraft, pieces about ethnic groups, cities, regions, films, quotations, and more.

The political information at the end is a bit tiresome, but, all in all, a fun book for Rhode Islanders or anyone who wants to understand one.

book icon  From Holmes to Sherlock, Mattias Boström
Upon finishing this, all I can say is "wow."

That being said, I did have a bit of a difficult time reading it, not because it was an ARC, but because it was so badly formatted as an Kindle e-book that the truncated paragraphs and wrap-around short texts ruined the rhythm of the author's words, and because it covers such a varied cast of characters. If you think this is your run-of-the-mill "how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes" yarn,  you'll be in for a surprise: while the beginning of the book does follow that formula, the rest of the story follows how Holmes became a literary phenomenon even after Doyle's death, and the people who kept him alive: a boy named Kit who devours all the stories and grows up to be Christopher Morley, Doyle's sons Adrian and Denis, who hope to make a living off Holmes while keeping their father's memory alive (neither of them come off particularly well in this book—Adrian is money grubbing and Denis an alcoholic and spendthrift, with a Russian wife who's just as bad), the Baker Street Irregulars and their anti-female attitude, actors like the infamous William Gillette, Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Arthur Wontner, even the 1980s Russian Holmes, women like Edith Meiser, writer for the classic American Holmes radio series, just one of Holmes' female fans who fought to break into the "old boys club" that originally was Holmes fandom, and even Eve Titus, who wrote the "Basil of Baker Street" pastiches for children, and finally ending with Robert Downey Jr, Jeremy Brett, all the way down to Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat plotting out a modern-day Sherlock on a train.

There are lots of interesting tidbits tossed your way in this book, but you must be a Holmes fan to completely appreciate it. Boström has done an enormous amount of research and it shows, but the writing (or perhaps the translation) is at times almost too cut-and-dried. Rewards abound if you stick with it.

book icon  Keeping Christmas, edited by Philip Reed Rulon

book icon  Winterbound, Margery Williams Bianco
I had never heard of this children's book, first published in 1936, and now wonder why! It's the story of the Ellis family, who are renting a small country cottage during the Depression. Their father has finally gotten a position in his field (he's an archaeologist), and mother Penny and the four children, Kay, the artistic one, aged 19; Garry (Margaret), who loves gardening and doing things, 16; Martin, the only boy, 12 and typically adventurous; and little Caroline, devotee of paper dolls and cats, try to make the best of the house, in which the only modern convenience is the telephone they just installed. Then Penny is called to help a family member, and Kay and Garry left to run the house. It's a freezing winter and they only get by with the help from the friendly farm family down the road, the Rowes.

There's nothing spectacular about this book, but it would probably make a modern child's jaw drop to imagine living that way. There is no bathroom, no central heat, not even a radio, let alone television and the internet; the children read, play outside, do chores, and go sledding to occupy themselves, and the hungry stove must be constantly appeased if they are to keep warm. But the Ellis children are up to the challenge, and Garry is a splendid character—talk about girl power! While Kay is the eldest, it's Garry that keeps the family together, and she is always moving, taking walks, working in the garden, raising seedlings, getting a part-time job to fill the family's dwindling coffers. I kept turning pages to see what was going to happen next, and, if the solution to the family's problems smack a tiny bit of coincidence, they still provide strong role models during a tough time.

Kate Seredy has provided minimal illustrations in the Dover edition which I have, and Garry, portrayed on the cover chopping wood, is a character right out of Seredy: you could see her and Kate Nagy of The Good Master becoming good friends. To me she is the only one of the characters who really comes to life, but since the book is from her POV, it seems very natural. If you're interested in a little-known 1930s children's book with a strong female character, you could certainly try this one. Worth your while just to read how tough it was making ends meet and keeping warm back then!

book icon  Back Over There, Richard Rubin
When Richard Rubin wrote The Last of the Doughboys, he interviewed all his subjects in the United States and did all his research in American locations. Yet when he came to speak about the book, readers were always interested to know if he'd been "over there" and visited the sites he wrote about. In 2009, he finally made it, with subsequent trips. This book is about those trips, what he observed, and what he felt.

I really enjoyed this book, whether Rubin was talking about the cold hard facts of battles, meeting French collectors and others interested in the history and the people involved in the Grande Guerre (the French also refer to it simply as 14-18), engaging English tourists visiting WWI sites (according to Rubin, to the French the first War is all about Verdun, to the British it is all about the Somme), surveying the landscapes forever changed by artillery fire (French farmers still plow up un-exploded ordnance from the conflict), visiting crumbling concrete structures, and coping with French country lanes. He visits both the place where the first three American casualties were killed and, in the prologue, the marker for the last man killed in the war, and brings the battlefields to life while making us see the terrible emotional and physical damage wrought by the conflict. He finds the French very willing to show him battle sites and memorabilia (this is solely, he tells us several times, because he is American; the French apparently still don't like talking to the British) and this leads to fascinating sequences where he and a friend delve into old German fortifications.

There are small maps to guide you during each portion of his trips, and also a center section with photos of the places and people mentioned. If you have any interest in the American participation in "the war to end all wars," I highly recommend this book.

book icon  The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore
This looked so intriguing that I picked it up, and am not sure I'm happy I did. This was pretty depressing at several levels. The history turns out to be that Wonder Woman was created by an brilliant egotistical psychology professor (who invented the first "lie detector" based on a person's blood pressure) who believed in women's rights, and fell in love with two different ambitious, feminist college graduates (both feminists, suffragettes, and birth control advocates), married one, and had two children by the other, two kids who always believed their father had died. In the meantime, his wife got to continue her career and his mistress lived with the family and raised the kids! (egotistical professor told his wife if she didn't allow this he would divorce her). While wife and mistress apparently were good friends and even lived together after hubby died, I don't understand why two educated, intelligent women put up with this rubbish and let this twit direct their lives. (Actually three, as another woman named Marjorie Huntley lived in the Marston home as well.)

William Marston and his ladies: wife Elizabeth Holloway and mistress Olive Byrne (whose aunt was Margaret Sanger) and Huntley raised the eventual four kids on an estate named Cherry Orchard, where Marston went from university professor to occasional consultant due to his unconventional beliefs (and at that point no one knew about their living arrangements) to pretty much being supported by his wife and the flattering articles Olive did about him for "Family Circle." His kids say he was a good father except for occasional bad temper that never strayed into physical abuse. He created Wonder Woman to be on an equal standing with men, but in her stories she was usually confined to chains she was required to break to triumph (Marston always said these were symbolic chains, yet he apparently got a great kick out of describing them).

So while Wonder Woman has always been a feminist symbol, the three women closest to their creator were pretty much held in thrall by this guy. Fascinating psychologically, but really creepy and annoying to read about. Did enjoy the historical perspective of the suffragettes, of young female college students trying to make it in a man's world, and of the birth control movement, but the people involved were not people I would have wanted to know.

book icon  Dead Man's Land, Robert Ryan
John Hamish Watson has gone to war, joining the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1914. Assigned to a field hospital, he at once is thrown into the repair of brutally battered soldiers' bodies, while keeping out of the way of the officious head nurse and defending two VADs from her scorn. Watson has arrived with a very special medical tool: blood for transfusions. But after one of his transfused patients dies in apparent agony, can the Army continue to trust his treatment?

This is a fantastic mystery that completely immerses you in the speech, sounds, smells, feelings, and sights of the First World War: badly mutilated bodies, blood, chlorine gas, unwashed bodies, rats, mud. The narrative is absorbing as it switches from one character to another: a common "Tommy" who went to war with his friends from a woolens mill, an officer who has just inherited a title, a VAD with a sketchy background and her sweet companion, the head nursing sister, and a disgraced Winston Churchill, not to mention a German sniper who is planning to infiltrate the lines to get himself a prize, and a boy named Bert who happens upon a tweedy elderly man who lives in Sussex and raises bees. Each chapter raises the stakes until you are sent racing with Watson to stop further deaths.

This is a very plausible future for Watson after losing two wives and, at the opening of the book, estranged from his good friend Sherlock Holmes after choosing to join the war effort. While he hasn't Holmes' brilliance in connecting obscure clues, his dogged pursuit logically puts the clues together to reveal a crime years in the making, and he's a very real, flawed yet noble man. (Holmes is also intriguingly portrayed.) I immediately ordered the sequel and can't wait to see what's next in Watson's rejuvenated Army career, as well as to immerse myself in a magnificent portrayal of the horrors of the Great War.

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30 April 2017

Books Completed Since April 1

book icon  The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Robert Macfarlane
This is a lyrically written journey by Macfarlane, who traverses the old Icknield Way, a series of pathways cutting diagonally across England, in the footsteps of Edward Thomas, who wrote a book about the pathway before his death in the Great War. To Macfarlane, walking is not simply something one does for exercise or for exploration of a final destination, but for an exploration of self throughout the journey itself, citing other writers like Robert Frost who also believed walking was good for the soul as well as for the body. In the course of the narrative, he also takes several trips by water, out to the islands of Lewis and of Harris, and also travels to Ramallah in Palestine, Spain, and to the Himalayas, as well as discusses author Thomas.

His narration reminds me somewhat of Laurie Lee in his memorable book Cider With Rosie, mixing an observation of geology and flora and fauna along with unusual customs, the older roads being overlaid with modern civilization, friends who walk the ancient pathways with him, and the memories awakened by his journeys. The rich vocabulary brings the scent of the sea, the hush of the wind, the crackling of dry grass, the rattle of loose stones, the flapping of sails, the crunch of gravel, the colors, smells, winds and heat and cold all alive, tickling your senses—a sensual delight on every page. He turns walking from an exercise chore to a lifetime experience.

If you like nature, poetical narrative, travel to strange places, and food for thought, this book may be your cup of tea.

book icon  The Edge of Dreams, Rhys Bowen
Daniel Sullivan is stymied by a series of unrelated murder, especially when the killer keeps sending Daniel notes after each crime, and the newest note states "I'm saving the best for last." His superiors at the New York police department just after the turn of the last century are on his back to solve the crimes, as he copes from living in a tiny apartment with his wife, former independent private investigator Molly Murphy, and their toddler son Liam since their home was blown up by criminals. As the book opens, Daniel has a surprise for Molly: the house has been completely repaired. All that remains is for Molly to furnish it with bedding, kitchen supplies, etc.

Then Molly and Liam are involved in a train accident on the El, with Molly concussed and suffering from cracked ribs. Having persuaded Daniel to tell her something of his contentious case, Molly wonders if someone is trying to take revenge on him for a previous arrest, and if the train accident was directed at her.

And that's just in the first three chapters of Bowen's newest (in paperback) Molly Murphy mystery, in which Molly finally (and very peripherally) is asked by Daniel for some input on a case he is working on (and of course being Molly, she then hits the ground running). Molly does indeed bring some fresh insights into the case. In addition, she is helping her friends Sid and Gus solve a puzzle about an orphaned girl having terrible nightmares, Gus having studied with Dr. Sigmund Freud while living in Europe.

There are several plot threads going in this book: the series of murders, the mystery of little Mabel, plus more domestic plots, as after Molly is injured Daniel's mother comes to help out at the house, bringing little Bridie, Molly's ward, with her: instead of training Bridie to be a servant, Mrs. Sullivan admits she would rather have the child get more education. So things are progressing a little: Daniel has become a little less reluctant to have Molly help him and things will hopefully change for Bridie.

The plot is fairly quick moving, although some of the verbiage might have been trimmed a bit, and Bowen gives a good look at the lower-middle class Progressive-era world of Daniel and Molly. If you are not fans of Sid and Gus (I am, but know some are not), warning: they are involved in the investigations from beginning to end.

book icon  A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel Held Evans
Evans, raised an evangelical Christian, moved away from religion as she grew older. Curious after she hears from friends and reads about women who are quitting their jobs to become stay-at-home mothers in order to be closer to the Biblical womanhood they believe is required of them as Christians, Evans decided to carry on a year-long experiment in which she would read the Bible and try to adhere to the rules which she read: she would cover her head and let her hair grow, defer to her husband (and during one month call him "master"), live in separate quarters when she had her menstrual period, learn to cook better, make her own clothing, and provide charity to the poor.

With sincerity, but with an occasional tongue in cheek attitude that may strike some people as irreverent, Evans particularly concentrates on reading about the women of the Bible: Queen Esther, Ruth, both Rachel and Leah, Vashti, Deborah, Mary Magdalene, and of course Mary the mother of Jesus, and others who had to follow these customs. By examining various translations of the Bible, Evans notes that some Biblical passages are not what people believe them to be: "the virtuous woman" passage, she believes, is not a list of rules which women must tightly adhere to, but a celebration of that woman.

During her project she met all sorts of interesting people, including a traditional Jewish woman who e-mailed her from Israel, women in Bolivia who are trying to improve their poverty-stricken lives, companions at a retreat she intended, and flummoxed her husband, who wanted her to go back to being his partner, not someone who had to defer to him (he finally ordered her not to defer to him).

I found this book interesting enough to keep reading, especially about the misconceptions some Christians have about what is really said in the Bible and a view that is more restrictive than its actual words. Again, her lighthearted manner may not please those who are deeply religious.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Merry-Go-Round Mystery, Jerry West
I thought it was so funny that I picked this up at random to read (the next book I had in my possession in the series) and it took place around Easter. An appropriate time, too, since the whole family is kept hopping (yes, that was a bad pun).

The children's elementary school, Lincoln School, has an annual fair that contributes to a charity; this year the money will go to a day care facility. The Hollisters volunteer to find a merry-go-round to rent for the fair while Ricky Hollister decides to build an entry for the soap box derby. They have good luck in finding the former, although someone has told the owner of the equipment that they are going to use it to make money. Later someone tries to buy the carrousel from them and they seem to be being followed. Indeed, the action is nonstop as the kids ride in a plane (and then find it when they disappears), help with the school fair, keep awful Joey Brill from interfering with the fair and getting the kids in trouble, track down Domingo the burro when he's "horsenapped," and watch Ricky's progress in building the soap box racer with his grandpa.

All I could think of reading this was how many of these situations would not happen today: there's a suspicious noise outside and instead of Mr. Hollister going outside to check, it's 12-year-old Pete with the dog. Later Pete and Pam (age ten) go to check for the plane on their own. The Hollisters accidentally chase the wrong car off a road (the occupants are unhurt) and no one threatens to sue them. Four-year-olds are allowed to sew. A mom trusts the Hollisters (strangers to her) to take care of her twins. Holly is allowed to drive the donkey cart at home and at the fair with no adult supervision (she's six).

Since I'm missing so many books in the series, I'd never realized the Hollisters were new in Shoreham (they used to live in Crestwood, just as their series book compatriots the Tuckers had just moved to Yorkville from Castleton), or that they had a married uncle who was a cartoonist. This was the first time I'd read about their grandparents as well. Also interesting to see that they had daycare back then (they call it a day nursery, and the kids are no older than six; presumably older children were latchkey kids). The boys get the brunt of the exciting stuff this time, but it's Pam that overhears a vital clue, so it's balanced somewhat. An always charming story of mystery with kids just plain having fun!

book icon  The World Remade: America in World War I, G..J. Meyer
Well, this year I was looking for a good, readable book about the United States' entry into World War I, and The World Remade has certainly filled the bill. It's a thick but very approachable history which begins with the Paris peace talks in 1919 and then segues to the first of the "Background" inserts which follow each chapter, this which summarizes how "the Great War" began. In subsequent chapters, we learn how the United States went from "strict neutrality" to staunch crusaders, with Woodrow Wilson the chief Crusader with intense fervor who wishes to make the world safe for democracy.

This book tries to present a fairly balanced view of Woodrow Wilson (unlike Thomas Fleming's vituperative histories) until he enacts the Alien and Sedition Acts. For those of you who think some of Donald Trump's latest foibles are restrictive, he's a piker compared with Wilson. The chapters about the Acts are truly frightening; all you had to do was say you didn't believe in the war or make an unkind remark about one of our allies and you would be thrown into prison. To Wilson the U.S.'s entry into the war wasn't assistance, it was a religious crusade that America had to win to show how pure the country was. Unfortunately the government was learning only what the Triple Entente wanted them to because the Germans' transatlantic cables had been cut by the British, and the propaganda machine was in full swing: Belgian babies bayoneted, rapes, starvation. In turn, Germany was made responsible for the war when Kaiser Wilhelm complained he couldn't control his generals and Austria-Hungary was the one who set off the trigger.

The "Background" inserts are some of my favorite parts of the book: the heritage of Wilson, the election that brought him to the presidency, the voyage of the Lusitania, the role of journalists in inflaming anti-German feeling, the story of Wilson's foe Robert LaFollette, the birth of Prohibition, Wilson's distaste for African-Americans and suffragettes, the "Spanish" flu, and other fascinating facets of American society back then. As well as being about the U.S. joined and fought the war, it is also the story of how the war changed the U.S. from a sprawling, still primarily rural, country with a few colonial possession to a world power.

I'm still looking for a good nonfiction book about homefront WWI, but for now this has been a good alternative, even if the truth about the Alien and Sedition Acts make these chapters chilling.

book icon  A Study in Sable, Mercedes Lackey
Lackey's fairy tale retellings in her Elemental Masters world reach the ultimate fantasy: Sherlock Holmes. Nan Killian and Sarah Lyon-White, the two young protegees of the Harton School (previously seen in The Wizard of London and Home from the Sea), are living on their own as agents of the Wizard of London, otherwise known as Lord Alderscroft, and have been asked to work with the man at 221 Baker Street. No, not the gentleman in flat B, but the married couple in flat C, none other than John Watson and his wife Mary, who are Elemental Masters of water and air. With the Watsons' help, they put to rest an evil spirit that threatened them as children, and then the real mystery arrives: Sarah, who is a true medium, is asked to dismiss the ghosts haunting an illustrious opera singer—a woman whose missing sister poses a new case for Sherlock Holmes! Thus is Holmes the nonbeliever drawn into the Elemental world of his closest friend.

The beginning of the story seems a bit disjointed. It seems odd that the haunted house that tried to trap the girls as children is all of a sudden a priority at the beginning of the novel. Then the story immediately switches to the story of the missing sister. Sarah finds herself spending night after night trying to dismiss singer Magdalena's spirits, while being treated royally by the singer herself; soon Nan is uncharacteristically jealous of her best friend.

On a whole I enjoyed this, although Sherlock, the believer in logic over all things, appears to give in to the magic all around him without much of a fight, and there are bits where Sarah, going back and forth to help Magdalena, gets very tedious. Little Suki, the street girl Nan and Sarah rescued, is as cute as ever, and of course the wonderful birds, Grey the parrot and Neville the raven, are integral to the plot. Incidentally, the violinist on the front—is he Holmes, or isn't he? You'll have to read to find out.

book icon  Christmas Truce, Malcolm Brown & Shirley Seaton

book icon  Re-Read: Happier at Home, Gretchen Rubin
In her book The Happiness Project, Rubin studied happiness of self, and what you can do individually to be happy (something that is different for everyone), and discovering that happiness doesn't always make you happy and that if you are happy, it affects those around you (and sometimes even changes their own behaviors). In this companion book, she realizes that her home life could be better as well. Dividing the school year—the "second new year" for parents—by their component months, she assigned themes to each month, and then set out to make improvements in those areas. In September she tackles possessions: should you downsize? is pure simplicity the answer, or just the answer for someone else? do your possessions define you, or do they just make you happy? and can you make the possessions you have work better for you?

In turn, she addresses being happier in your marriage, in parenthood, in interior design (and no, she's not talking about expensive redecoration), with your use of time, in the treatment of your body (sometimes what works for one person, like acupuncture, doesn't work for someone else), in your family, in your neighborhood, and, finally, learning to embrace the moment rather than always looking to the future.

I like Rubin's books because she doesn't tell you must follow a prescribed sense of rules, but rather you must decide what works for you. Perhaps you don't want to create a secret place in one of your cupboards, or paint a willow tree in your home office. As Rubin has her motto "Be Gretchen," you follow her examples to make your own rules for a happy home. No counting points, or making unbreakable rules, or a need to take expensive classes (she has a kit, but there's no need to buy it unless you want to).

book icon  The Path of the Wicked, Caro Peacock
Incensed after Benjamin Disraeli tries to solicit her for spying purposes, Liberty Lane takes a case she was initially going to reject: going to a village near Cheltenham to help Stephen Godwit, a magistrate who is scheduled to rule against a man accused of murdering a governess. Jack Picton is a known political agitator and refuses to give himself an alibi, but Godwit still refuses to believe he would go as far as killing someone. Liberty's young assistant Tabby accompanies her, and, to her surprise, she is escorted by Amos Legge, the friend who cares for her racehorse Rancie, as he has equine business in Cheltenham in the slow period after the annual races.

Liberty finds Picton uncooperative and Cheltenham stirred up by the disappearance of a rich man's son who has run out on a bet. In short order she finds that the governess who was killed had a bad reputation, a broken engagement has created bad blood between wealthy neighbors, and that Picton has something else he's keeping hidden.

Horses and the crushing penal system in England take center stage as Liberty tries to puzzle out this one. It's indeed like a jigsaw as each interview gains her more information but initially she is at a loss to piece them together. I wish we had a little more insight with what was going on with Amos, who made a startling announcement to Liberty as the story opened, but it's rather brushed off with a joke at the end. Otherwise I enjoyed the story and Liberty trying to figure just how she is going to get her information in a close-knit community like the little village of Northleach, and the village is a welcome setting after Liberty's city-bound adventures.

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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.]