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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.

30 September 2015

Books Completed Since September 1

book icon  Winter at Death's Hotel, Kenneth Cameron
In January 1896, Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife Louisa (and Louisa's maid Ethel) arrive in New York City on the first stop of Doyle's lecture tour, staying at the new and supposedly fireproof New Britannic, a small exclusive hotel. They are scheduled to stay only a few days, but Louisa badly sprains her ankle and cannot travel; she tells her husband to continue on his lecture schedule while she recovers. But while looking for something to read, she sees the sketch of a young woman who was murdered in the Bowery, and recognizes the woman's face as someone she saw in the hotel lobby the day they arrived. When she dutifully reports it to the police, she doesn't realize the murder is the object of a coverup, and that it seems no one wants to find out who killed the victim.

How you enjoy this book depends on whether you like a detailed setup of the era and the setting and the personalities involved with the story. While I did enjoy the story, the details were sometimes overwhelming.  Cameron carefully builds up a world around Louisa and builds Louisa as well, a woman used to the traditional role of a man caring for her, who must learn to think and care for herself, especially as it becomes more and more evident that something sinister is going on at the New Britannic and she must toughen herself in order to survive. In the process she befriends an elderly resident of the hotel, the famous offbeat writer Marie Corelli, the house detective, and a tough woman reporter, not to mention actor Sir Henry Irving and Buffalo Bill Cody, and writes a letter to Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt that begins yet another chain of menacing events.

Be forewarned that this is not some sweet little cozy about "Mrs. Sherlock Holmes" solving a murder. The sleazy, dangerous underside of 19th century New York is always evident in its pages, even in the halls of the swank hotel, and some extremely violent events happen in the course of the plot. I did read on in order to find out the solution, but sometimes it was a struggle even as I was absorbed in Louisa's voyage of self discovery and terror.

book icon  Doctor Who's Greatest Hits, R. Alan Siler
Okay, I admit I'm a little prejudiced about this book since I know the author. On the other hand, I love books of lists, and since this is a book of lists about Doctor Who episodes, it's now a triple threat of goodness.

The one novelty about this book is that the author includes episodes of the series that aren't usually included in lists of this kind; "The Gunfighters," for instance, never makes a list of 10 (or 25, or whatever) "best episodes." But then these aren't always the "best," but episodes Alan finds notable for reasons he explains ("The Gunfighters" for its setting and for William Hartnell's delight in his role and also because it's one of the historical episodes that were later dropped from the show).

My favorite part of this book is that I can hear Alan's voice in it; it's a nice informal countdown of his favorite bits, characters, etc. and he doesn't mind telling you straight out about things that bother him as well. Doctor Who fans should certainly enjoy.

book icon  Skin Game, Jim Butcher
Now that Harry Dresden, Chicago's only practicing wizard, has been raised from the dead (a death he arranged himself) and made the Winter Knight, where else can he go? This chronicle of the next of Harry Dresden's adventures is driven by the machinations of Queen Mab, who enlists Harry to accompany treacherous Nicodemus Archelone and a hand-picked group of companions to invade a vault belonging to Hades. (That's right. Hades, the Lord of the Underworld.) Harry must not only survive, but figure out who is on his side and who isn't—and that seems to change with each chapter.

A welcome new story in the Dresden saga, with significant appearances by both Karrin Murphy (sounds like a hint of something new here!) and Michael Carpenter, who is given a rare gift in order to be able to help Harry. Mousy Waldo Butters, who has surprised everyone in previous books, has a great role in this one as well, and I really loved Harry's encounter with Hades, who turns out to be much different, yet much the same, as you would expect.

Brace yourself: as in all the Dresden books some nice folks lose their lives and it's not pretty. But if you've read the series for a while you know that. Just wish ROC would quit publishing the paperbacks in those mutant tall forms!

book icon  Servants, Lucy Lethbridge
If you're a fan of Downton Abbey or English manor house mysteries or even go back to Upstairs, Downstairs (which, this book reveals, was supposed to be chiefly about the latter), you will probably enjoy Lethbridge's examination of the British system of servants which came into its peak in the late 1800s and then coasted after the first World War and completely died after the Second. Lethbridge uses the real diaries and books of servants to detail the relationship: the backbreaking work of the "skivvies," the precise formality of the upper-servants, the eccentricities of the wealthy that were served (one master insisted on the yolks exactly in the center of the egg, another must have his potatoes all the same size, a couple insist on full-course Edwardian dinners even though there are only two of them, one household of two is supported by sixty-plus servants who are expected to be "unseen and unheard."

Interesting nuggets of information abound: about the parsimony of some employers, to the lost feeling that some lifetime servants felt when they weren't needed any longer in sharp opposition to the young women and men of the latter half of the 20th century who would rather work at any job (even in a noisy, dirty factory) than be "help," of the bland food eaten, of servants who worked for other nationalities who found American children overfed and rude, of the wealthy helpless when their servants deserted them because they could not even boil an egg or dress themselves. We also hear about servants' employment agencies, the new Au Pair, the Doctor Barnado homes which took starving orphans off the street to train them up for domestic work, and even the rise of the English kitchen from a bleak room in the basement to the heart of the home. In fact, a good deal of this book is the downfall of the servant class system, which is not oft talked about in books about servants. Food for thought and much info if you've wondered about life "below stairs."

book icon  A Medal for Murder, Frances Brody
In this second of the Kate Shackleton mysteries, our widowed detective for hire has been asked to find missing goods from a pawnshop at the same time she is attending a friend's play. As she and Meriel leave the theatre after a successful performance, they stumble upon the body of a local automobile dealer who has been stabbed. And soon the leading lady in the play, an ambitious young woman who wants to pursue acting despite her guardian grandfather's objections, has disappeared. And there seems to be an additional mystery about the grandfather's past as well.

Brody takes many different threads and winds them together into an intricate plot involving repercussions from the Boer War's seamier side and secrets kept. The story has a nice 1920s atmosphere with very few small mistakes, as in other period mysteries set in the same era, which draw you out of the story. Kate is an astute investigator, if a bit plodding; you should be fond of classic British mysteries to enjoy this story the most. There's no flash-bang action or quirky cozy characters, just a straightforward murder investigation.

book icon  The Parker Twins: Cave of the Inca Re, Jeanette Windle
This is the first in a series of Christian-based novels for kids about thirteen-year-old Justin and Jenny Parker, fraternal twins, children of a Boeing analyst and a stay-at-home Mom. As the story opens, their oil-executive uncle Pete arrives in their hometown in Washington State with an intriguing proposition for the kids: he'd like to take them along to Bolivia to check out ancient Inca sites. They quickly make friends with Uncle Pete's missionary friends and even Pedro, a boy who scorns God for not being powerful, but they begin to believe that the men staying at the hotel room next to them are not what they seem.

This is an okay tween adventure and the Christian angle is not so emphasized as to mute the adventure aspects of the story, unlike the Marian Bray Lassie books. My big problem with the story is the kids—they're just kind of blah. He likes baseball and reading. She likes basketball. They're nice kids. The author has spent time in South America and it shows, but some of the dialog is just a big info dump about Inca culture or antiquities thieves. I have several more of these books (they were a dollar each) and still am not sure I want to read the rest.

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31 August 2015

Books Completed Since August 1

book icon  The Epic Book of Top 10 Lists, Jamie Frater
What can I say? I love books of lists. Yeah, some of the lists in this book are rubbishy things about celebrities, and there's true crime, conspiracy theories, and "woo-woo" lists galore. But mixed in are lists about history, geography, literature and writers, linguistics, science, urban myths and sociology. It's a perfect bathroom book, and now that I've finished it, there it shall stay.

book icon  The Lure of the Moonflower, Lauren Willig
Wayyyyyyy back when twelve books in the Pink Carnation saga apparently were only a dream in Ms. Willig's head, Penelope Devereaux, after a bad marriage to a lout, found true love with an adventurer named Alex Reid. At the end of their story Alex's brother Jack, a brash soldier of fortune, made a brief appearance. "That," I announced to no one in particular as the room was empty save for me and the book, "is who the Pink Carnation will end up with."

And for once I was right.

In December 1807 Jack Reid finds himself in Portugal, assigned to help his new contact protect Queen Maria, "the mad queen of Portugal," from being captured by the French. He's dismayed to discover that not only is his contact a woman, but it's none other than the woman, the famous Pink Carnation who managed to thwart revolutionary plans and then Napoleonic excesses with superb management of a spy network. But now the Carnation, in the person of Miss Jane Wooliston, has gone rogue, teamed up with the biggest rogue of all.

It's a tense romp across Portugal, with Jane pursued by an old lover and enemy, the Gardener, parrying and thrusting with each other (and arguing what to name a ragtag donkey) in a fragile romance that may come to disaster at any moment, in the style of Raiders of the Lost Ark and other romantic adventures. In the meanwhile, Eloise and Colin's framing tale comes full circle, with a Selwick secret finally revealed.

Sad it's all over, but happy it ended so well for the inimitable Pink Carnation.

book icon  The Oregon Trail, Rinker Buck
I saw this book at Barnes & Noble the week it was released and was immediately intrigued by the concept: a man who has a genuine pioneer wagon built and then buys three mules and drives them along as much of the old Oregon Trail as is possible with his brother along as a partner. I dived in immediately, happily enjoying its mix of memoir, soul-searching, and history (the history of mules in the US, of westward expansion, of wagon making, etc.) until I reached page 95, where the author mentioned his father by his full name, Tom Buck. Holy smokes! Suddenly I realized I know this guy! Well, not in person, but in the 1960s Tom Buck wrote a humorous book called But Daddy! about his multiple-child Catholic family. It was one of my favorite books in the Hugh B. Bain library and I later found a copy at a used book store. He wrote about Rinker and Nick and all the kids, including little Ferry who was forgotten sitting on her potty seat. And now here I was reading Rinker's book.

And I had a blast, seriously, especially the historical asides and the chronicle of the trip, the stories of the people they met, and the relationship between Rinker and his brother Nick, a craftsman and independent artisian. I was also interested to learn the other side of Tom Buck, the genial "Daddy" of the book that made growing up in a big family look like so much fun, and of Rinker trying to resolve his personal issues with his father. I'd say this is a perfect choice if you are a history buff, but please be advised the language is very salty.

book icon  A Letter of Mary, Laurie R. King
I have a confession to make: I do not review the e-books that I read. So if you are surprised to see a Mary Russell book here when I've never mentioned reading any before, it's not because I began in the midst of the series, but because I've already read the first two books that came before. I actually read The Beekeeper's Apprentice several years back and didn't like it, then came back to it last year and finished and enjoyed it, going on to the second. However, I had picked up this third in the series "dead tree version" at the book sale. If you aren't familiar with this series, it is based on the premise that, in his 50s, Sherlock Holmes retired to the Sussex Downs to keep bees (as Conan Doyle stated) and met a bright, American-bred teen of British/Jewish ancestry living a miserable life with her adoptive aunt. He senses her quick mind and takes her on as an apprentice. After she comes into her majority, they are married, but have an unconventional relationship where he still sleuths on the side and she reads theology at Oxford.

In this outing, amateur archaeologist Dorothy Ruskin turns up on the Holmes/Russell doorstep with an astonishing find: a roll of papyrus that states that Mary Magdalene was a disciple of Jesus. Later Ruskin is killed; the pair soon discover it was murder. Was the murder due to the papyrus? After their home is "tossed," Holmes and Russell come to believe it is so. While Russell investigates one suspect, Holmes tackles another.

I have to admit my favorite part of this story is begins eight pages into chapter seventeen where Mary runs into a young English lord who you may recognize if you are a devotee of Dorothy L. Sayers. But I did enjoy the mystery, if the "letter of Mary" actually got short shrift (maybe it will come up in a later book), and am already reading the fourth book, The Moor.

book icon  The Lexicographer's Dilemma, Jack Lynch
Imagine English with no grammar regulations and spelling rules!

Once upon a time, that's the way English was. Each region in England had its own spellings for words. Even kings and scribes frequently spelled the same word different ways. Shakespeare, in fact, couldn't seem to decide on how his own name was spelled. He had signed himself Shakespear, Shakspear, and other permutations. Then writers like John Dryden began concentrating on another classical language, Latin, and noticed that English did not conform to the same rules of this impeccable grammar; in fact it had no strict rules at all!—and he though it should. Soon Jonathan Swift wanted an English academy where proper forms would be taught and chronicled. As the years passed, more rules were created.

This is a smartly written, understandable and lively chronicle about how grammar rules "got that way," from Dryden to Noah Webster all the way to protests against "Ebonics." Immensely readable, especially for English nerds.

book icon  Sword Bound, Jennifer Roberson
It's been ten years since Roberson wrote what was supposed to be the final Tiger and Del novel, and I bought this book with both anticipation and fear, the former because I had loved the previous six books of the series and fear because in ten years I had changed: would I still like these characters?

I needn't have worried. Rejoining the Sandtiger and his lifemate Delilah was like visiting relatives; no time had changed them. Set two years after the close of the previous story, they now run a training center for sword dancers, that strictly-ritualized art of swordfighting that they both practice, and are raising a two-year-old daughter, while Neesha, Tiger's son from another relationship learns the trade. But he thinks their life has become boring. What about going out on an adventure? What about, Del suggests quietly without Neesha hearing, if they went to visit the boy's mother and stepfather on their horse farm?

What follows is an episodic (yet one building to a climax) adventure tale. Despite all their efforts at staying anonymous, Tiger is constantly challenged to a "dance," especially by youngsters trying to prove themselves, and along the way they are recruited to rescue the kidnapped son of a caliph and protect a caravan. But danger from an old enemy is approaching them, and when it happens, lives may be forfeit. Tiger's still the arrogant one who, nevertheless, never stops training or learning, Del is more the peacemaker who, nevertheless, can take you apart from the moment she lays hands on her sword. Neesha displays all the cocksureness of youth as the story opens, but ripens with disaster. Familiar characters appear, especially Tiger's temperamental horse with no name.

I fell right back into the stories and the situations. If you enjoyed Tiger and Del before, you probably will, too.

book icon  Why? Because We Still Like You, Jennifer Armstrong
This is a nice hardbound history of The Mickey Mouse Club (the original, not the tiresome one with Britney Spears), and if you haven't read one before (there were several books about the Club released in the 1970s, when the series was re-syndicated to television), this is as good a place as any to start, since it's more up-to-date on the Mouseketeers' later lives. However, it takes a lot of its meat from the earlier books as well, so if you have those, you may be reading things you already knew.

One of the unique things about this book is that Armstrong devotes some time to the Mouseketeers that weren't in the public eye, like Mary Espinosa, who was the first Hispanic child involved in a television program, brothers John and Dallas Johann, and Don Agrati (later Don Grady), their problems, and how they felt being relegated to the White and Blue teams (the prestigious Red team, of course, were the kids like Annette, Bobby, Karen, and Cubby). There's also a chapter on the boys of the Club's most famous serial, "Spin and Marty."

Still, a lot of the volume seems padded, and the chapter "Life After Mousehood" and the appendix pretty much offer the same information. Still, for a basic history of The Mickey Mouse Club, this one is pretty good.

book icon  Maryellen Larkin: The One and Only, Valerie Tripp
The newest American Girl, Maryellen, is growing up with five brothers and sisters, a stay-at-home mom, and working Dad. She lives in Florida, has two best friends named Karen, an aging dachshund named Scooter, and loves swimming, The Lone Ranger, and her buddy Davy next door. She's looking forward to fourth grade, and even makes a new friend there, an Italian girl. But her old best friends don't like Angela (I mean, weren't they our enemies during the war?), her friendship with Davy seems to cool, and her mom still seems to forever bunch her in with the little kids.

I'm ambivalent about Maryellen. She's at heart a good kid. But she seems over the top somehow. In the first half of the first book, she gets herself in dutch trying to paint the front door red when her Mom's old war plant friends visit. It's just such a dumb thing to do that it colors my whole opinion of her. She also seems very self-centered compared with the other American Girls. It's all about her, her, her and the attention she thinks she's not getting. Frankly, I like her oldest sister, Joan, whose upcoming wedding works into the plot, and even her musical sister Carolyn more than I like Maryellen. (Beverly, the little sister who likes ballet, is freaking annoying, even if she does teach Maryellen to skate.)

I guess what I'm really unhappy about is the new format of the books. Your American Girl used to get six books (albeit narrow ones) with color illustrations and little incidental illos in the text showing things that might be unfamiliar to modern girls, like a sadiron in the Addy books or a patten in the Felicity books), and then each book had a "Inside [Girl's Name] World" which talked about a topic addressed in the books (the Depression in Kit's books, the war effort in Molly's, etc.) with old photographs, drawings, and maps in six pages. Now the six books are two books, three stories in each book, with only two pages of historical info at the end, no illustrations at all.  It's disappointing and very cheap.

book icon  Maryellen Larkin: Taking Off, Valerie Tripp
Many things happening in the second volume of Maryellen's adventures: the family gets a camper, Maryellen and her friends enter a science contest only to be pushed around by the sixth graders in their group, they go on vacation and their dog Scooter gets lost, Maryellen writes a play about the Salk vaccine to urge parents to vaccinate their kids, then pouts when no one wants to do it her way. Again, her self-centeredness really bugs me. Yeah, you are self-centered at ten, but on Maryellen it just seems annoying.

Positive points: the science project part which really gets rolling at the end of the book, and also Joan's wedding (and Joan finally communicating to her mother that Mom's wedding plans are not necessarily what she wants) and when Maryellen realizes that all her Mom's fears have come true on their camping trip. Plus Mr. Larkin isn't such a cardboard figure in this one. However, I can't believe they would team fourth graders up with sixth graders for a science project; grades were kept pretty much strictly segregated in those days. Also, every 1950s trope seems to be here, last book it was poodle skirts and the Lone Ranger, now it's Davy Crockett, campers, and the polio vaccine. Still miss the illos and the history.

book icon  Sleepy Hollow: Children of the Revolution, Keith R.A. DeCandido
Ichabod Crane, convert to the American side in the Revolutionary War, was killed in battle by his former best friend, who became initiated into a fiendish cult, but not before he cut off the head of his now enemy. Over 200 years later, having been enscorcelled by his wife, who he was unaware was a witch, Ichabod comes back to life to help Lieutenant Abigail Mills, an African-American woman who is part of the Sleepy Hollow police force, defeat minions of evil. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are ready to rise and devour the earth.

If this sounds nothing like the Washington Irving story, well, it isn't. This is the basis of the television series Sleepy Hollow and of this novel based on the series. It's a quirky plot which actually works if you like a mixture of fable, fantasy, and horror as part of your weekly viewing diet.

In the novel, Ichabod's wife Katrina appears to him in a vision, begging him to find a medal he was awarded by George Washington. Trouble is, he died before he received it. Soon Ichabod and Abbie discover that medals identical to the ones Ichabod was awarded are being stolen from museums, and the guards killed in a particularly gruesome manner. It's up to Ichabod, Abbie, Abbie's sister Jenny, and their police captain Frank Irving to track down who's stealing the medals and why.

I like DeCandido's work and this isn't a bad Sleepy Hollow novel, but it seems to me there's not enough Ichabod in it to go around. Yeah, the series is an ensemble show, and I love that, but I just think Crane gets short shrift here. When he is involved, though, DeCandido gives him some great Ichabod-and-new-tech commentary, and the sequence in the Sleepy Hollow museum was so great I was sorry there wasn't such a place. Historical characters are also worked effortlessly and well into the plot, including a visit to Fort Ticonderoga, a place I've loved since my teens. Looking forward to the next Sleepy Hollow novel!

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31 July 2015

Books Completed Since July 1

book icon  Companion Piece: Women Celebrate the Humans, Aliens and Tin Dogs of Doctor Who, edited by L.M. Myles and Liz Barr
From the folks at Mad Norwegian Press, who brought you Chicks Dig Time Lords, Chicks Unravel Time, etc., yet a new book of essays about Doctor Who! MNP's books are like peanuts—I just devour them happily. Certainly there are some essays I like more than others, and this edition is no exception, however, all the essays are notable even if they're not my cup of tea.

Some of my favorites in this volume: "Where in Eternity… is Josephine Grant Jones?" since Jo Grant is so often dismissed as being a featherhead (she's also loyal and courageous), "Mouth on Legs," which discusses Tegan, a tribute to the Doctor's first woman companion in "The Barbara Strain," thoughtful pieces on the much-maligned Peri and the vastly underused Turlough, even a nice essay on Harry Sullivan, who, despite being a bit out of his league, was never an idiot. Both Liz Shaw and Zoë get their scientific due, as does the first incarnation of Romana, who spent a large amount of time, IMHO, in the shadow of Lalla Ward's succeeding interpretation. Your favorite is here, from Susan to Victoria, Sarah Jane to Ace, and into the 21st century with Rose, Jack, Martha, and Donna.

Doctor Who fans will enjoy. Mad Norwegian, keep slinging out those peanuts!

book icon  Heirs and Graces, Rhys Bowen
Georgina Rannoch thought she would have a few months to relax and help her flashy mother, a former actress, work on her tell-all memoir, until her mother goes running off to be with her current lover during a time of crisis. Still without a penny to her name and disinclined to go back to live under the thumb of her overbearing sister-in-law, "Georgie" is relieved to get an assignment that seems right up her alley: to prep a newly-found Australian heir to a Dukedom to the proper protocol of running a ducal estate. The Australian turns out to be a bright, handsome young man who's more than a little puzzled about all the hoops his English counterpart has to jump through, and the current Duke, who hasn't supplied the family with an heir because he's "that way," takes an instant dislike to him. He'd rather proclaim his valet the heir instead. Soon after he says so, he's found dead, with his Australian nephew's knife in his back.

This is a fun outing in the "Royal Spyness" cozy mystery series, although you really don't care if the rude Duke has been murdered or not! More fun are his male "followers," and Jack, the Aussie heir, is a good partner for Georgie's sleuthing. The mystery is reasonably complicated and the country house setting comfortable and familiar. A few anachronisms and inaccurate turns of phrase creep in, and for the life of me, I seem to remember a similar story in another mystery series. Still, another enjoyable visit with one of my favorite mystery characters.

book icon  The Story of English in 100 Words, David Crystal
Books about "100 Things" have been popular on the shelves since the release of the phenomenally popular BBC's radio series and tie-in book The History of the World in 100 Objects. This is Crystal's lively entry in the pack, as he examines the history of the English language from the first word written in runes on a deer's bone ("roe") in the year 400 to the 100th word with a very modern feel ("twittersphere"). In between are words that came from other languages ("street" from Latin, "brock" from Celtic, "skunk" from American, "dinkum" from Australian, "trek" from Boer Dutch), words derived from invaders ("pork" from Norman French), words to describe new technology ("garage"), words from Shakespeare, fiction, imports turned sideways, two words from different regions which eventually became represented by one ("eggs"), etc. A fascinating dip into a bag of assorted words for the linguistically-inclined among us.

book icon  The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate, Jacqueline Kelly
As Calpurnia Virginia Tate (Callie Vee to family and friends) continues to struggle against the inexorable customs of turn-of-the-century Texas, where girls are brought up to be good housewives and mothers, while her only interest is to grow up and study the sciences like her aristocratic Grandfather has done, she finds a curious ally in her younger brother Travis, who is a friend to all animals great and small, from the armadillo he drags home in the first chapters of the book to the young half-coyote dog Callie helps him hide from disapproving parents. Callie is also expecting great things from the new year 1900, but all it appears to bring her is an unhappy cousin who was flooded out of her home when the savage hurricane hit Galveston.

This sequel to The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is a bit more episodic than the original, but still holds some surprises and truths for Callie Vee, who eventually gets to help the new veterinarian in town and who finally declares her intention to go to college somehow, even if it's not in the "game plan" of a young woman of the early 20th century. Perhaps the must frustrating thing about this book is living with Callie's inequality of being female, which is hurtfully illustrated in a chapter about money given to her for Christmas—you simply want to go and give her father a piece of your mind, but it was common thinking in those days about girl children. Callie's continued friendship with her grandfather is muted a bit this time as she attempts to help sensitive Travis navigate his life's shoals, but she is still the same likeable, determined character she was in her first outing, and her further adventures are a joy to read. I love her because she is not a depressing girlie character obsessed with clothes and shoes and looking pretty. I hope in the future to spend more time with Miss Calpurnia Tate.

book icon  The Dance of Time, Michael Judge
I bought this book on a whim from Hamilton Books, and a very happy whim it was. Make no mistake, while this is a book about our Western calendar, it is no scholarly tome brimming with dates and data of how the calendar developed. Instead, it is a whimsical (to go with that whim I had), poetically written story of the calendar year, the different seasons, and the holidays, secular and pagan and from various religions, and of those ties to the stories told in the constellations and in folk tales around the world. As the earth revolves so the atmosphere moves from frosty to flowery, from caressingly warm to mustily cool, from the rhythm of the farmer following the planting signs of the seasons to our clock-obsessed world. It's a book to be read at bedtime, or on a screened porch daily as nature and time flow around you, awakening you to the magic of the waxing and waning year around you. People of a poetic bent will probably appreciate this book the most. It's a good one to daydream by.

book icon  Sand Witches in the Hamptons, Celia Jerome
Sadly, this seems to be the end of Willow Tate. Oh, she's not dying, but she's headed for happily ever after through a bumpy road—and frankly it's about time after the way she's been treated in her hometown of Paumonauk Harbor on Long Island. The book picks up where Life Guards in the Hamptons left off, with Willow exhausted after saving the town from a hurricane harboring an evil sea monster in its midst. She is suffering from a rash and a chronic nosebleed, receiving more warning calls from her delightfully daffy father who gets his psychic clues mixed up, and ends up returning to the Harbor after discovering many of the residents are also suffering from rashes and nosebleeds. Add to the magical mayhem the fact that her new lover Matt, the dashing veterinarian, is coping with his ex-wife staying with him.

It's the typical fun urban fantasy themes for this series, which again build to a dramatic ending. Willow's neighbors finally seem to gang up on her far less in this outing, but it's still up to her to find out what is behind the otherworldly symptoms while battling normal problems like jealousy. Many old friends show up, including cousin Susan, Oey the half-bird half-fish that Willow's "visualization" powers have created, the eccentric residents of Paumonauk with their odd psychic talents, plus one menacing magical adversary that may spell the end of Ms. Tate.

The story is almost stand alone, but you would be better served in this series by starting with book one and enjoying Willow's voyage of self-discovery of her powers and the various men in her past. If this is the final book, it's a worthy wrap up. But I sure will miss her.

book icon  Behind the Shattered Glass, Tasha Alexander
If having Lady Emily's mother as a guest wasn't bad enough, one evening their neighbor the Marquess of Montagu staggers through the French doors of Anglemore Park, home of Emily and her husband Colin Hargreaves, and falls down dead. As Colin (and Emily) probe what might have caused this event, they uncover layers about Montagu that reveal someone completely different from the man they thought he was.

After the last, Venetian-set mystery with its tedious parallel love story, I was glad to see Colin and Emily back on "home ground," so to speak, with a more classic British-set mystery. The story's been told before, of the public face of a man being completely different from his private one, but the investigation was interesting. Less interesting was a subplot where the couple's friend Simon, Lord Flyte, has fallen in love with one of the housemaids. He gently courts her by taking her on picnics and encouraging her singing. It's sweet, but it has the expected result of making the other servants resentful of her special treatment. Granted, the murder mystery and the "downstairs" plot do mesh eventually, but I wish it had been in some other way. I also wish there were some way this series could get back the edge it had when it first started (I have wished from the beginning that author Alexander had not brought Colin and Emily together so quickly), but, as you see, I'm still reading...

book icon  To the Letter, Simon Garfield
Several months ago, the BBC did a radio production with Benedict Cumberbatch called "My Dear Bessie," an epistolary romance between a World War II soldier and the woman who later became his wife. These are now collected in a book, but first became known in this, Garfield's salute to the dying art of letter writing.

Garfield goes back to Roman days, where surviving letters have shown us that people haven't changed much over the years—they kept tallies, wrote their families, complained about their postings in foreign climes—and then examines the noted letter writers like Heloise and Abelard, Lord Chesterfield, Madame de Stael while also presenting a history of the postal system, from post riders to post boxes, stamps and stationery, and of course touching on the most famous letters of all, love letters.

Like most people, I was an avid letter writer until the advent of e-mail, so reading this book made me feel alternately guilty about not writing and eager to write more than the one Christmas letter a year, but I doubt I'll have time for it any time in the near future. As in all his other books, Garfield's writing is engaging and fun, with many wonderful personalities and facts popping up on each page. I haven't been disappointed by a Garfield book yet.

book icon  Mystery of the Mooncusser (Mystery at Boulder Point), Eleanor M. Jewett
This is a neat little children's mystery about Marty (Martha Ann Atwater) a motherless girl who lives in a coastal town where her father is the town doctor.  She and her terrier Skipper love to explore nearby Boulder Point, where old shipwrecks still dot the landscape and the legend of a Mooncusser (a thief who deliberately ran ships aground to steal from the wreckage) still remains alive; sometimes Marty pals around with Michael, a classmate who helps his widowed mother support the family by doing odd jobs, but his real love is art. Marty is overjoyed when a painter and his younger sister, about her age but blind, move into an old cottage on Boulder Point. But there are signs that someone is hanging around the old wreck—is it a ghost? or some threatening person? It will take a test of the weather to solve the mystery.

This is the kind of kids' adventure story I remember from my childhood, with no vampires and otherworldly characters, with just plain folks as the main characters, no snooty rich people or abusive/distant parents, and a coastal setting that reminded me of the shore in Rhode Island, especially the fishing towns of Galilee and Jerusalem. Marty is no shrinking, squealing girlchild or clothes- or popularity-obsessed kid; she explores with the best of them. While Jewett is no Augusta Hueill Seaman, she writes with love about the sea and the children who live there. You can almost smell the salt air.

book icon  As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, Laurie Lee
I can't tell you how many books I have read because their excerpts appeared in my school readers. From "The Most Dangerous Game" to Amos Fortune, Free Man to The Singing Cave, they were numerous. One narrative, about a British lad growing up in the "olden days," I particularly adored; I'd never heard prose that sounded so much like poetry. Later, I found the book, The Edge of Day, in a used book store and it became a treasured thing.

Only much later I found out its original title was Cider With Rosie and it was considered a classic of British literature. And while I had read another of Lee's books, I'd never seen the one that was his most critically acclaimed, the story of his leaving home and making his way to Spain, where he works his way across country as an itinerant musician.

It's a gritty portrait of a world that began to die while Lee was still there, as the first battles of the Spanish Civil War began, all described in Lee's characteristic poetic prose: as he describes the countryside, from bleak to bursting with vegetation, and the ancient villages, he encounters other wayfarers like himself, the plain peasants and grifters he meets in each town, all melding with the changing landscape of Spain as he travels from Galacia through the center of the country through Madrid and Toledo, and finally to Andalucia and the Mediterranean coast. I have to admit, although it's a classic, I didn't find it as enchanting or enduring as Cider With Rosie, but it was a fascinating tour through a vanished era.

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30 June 2015

Books Completed Since June 1

book icon  The Great Detective, Zach Dundas
This book sounded so intriguing that I ordered it despite the fact it was a hardback, and I was not disappointed. Dundas intertwines the adventures of Sherlock Holmes into the life story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and at the same time discovers the continuing fandom surrounding the character from its beginnings in journals written by men all the way through "The Baker Street Babes," a podcast group comprised mostly of women who came to Holmes fandom through the BBC series Sherlock. He takes us through the stories and the novels, while visiting sites including (of course) Baker Street and Dartmoor, links Holmes' life with the real-life Victorian era, investigates the pastiches and the films, from William Gillette equipping Holmes with a calabash and a deerstalker to Basil Rathbone fighting Nazis in 1940s Britain to Benedict Cumberbatch texting in 21st century London.

It's a great jolly mixed bag of fact and fiction and I loved it all. Dundas has a nice relaxed writing style that easily takes us from modern Baker Street to Holmes and Watson's digs to Conan Doyle retreating into Spiritualism after his son's death to modern literary spinoffs like Laurie King's Mary Russell mysteries. It's a perfect grab bag for any Sherlock Holmes fan.

book icon  Chasing Secrets, Gennifer Choldenko
This is a suspenseful adventure set before the San Francisco earthquake and fire by the author of the "Al Capone" books. Like Jacqueline Kelly's Calpurnia Tate, protagonist Lizzie Kennedy is chafing against the social strictures for young women in 1905. She's stuck in a snooty girls' school and has no friends, and would prefer to go on house calls with her physician father. Lizzie's one true friend is Jinn, the family's Chinese cook, but he disappears and no one will tell her where he is. Then rumors of the plague begin, and Lizzie finds Jinn's son, Noah, hiding out in Jinn's room.

Choldenko has created a real page-turner here, what with Lizzie trying to keep Noah hidden, the puzzle about Jinn's disappearance, and trying to keep her activities hidden from her imperious Aunt Hortense, who oversees the family with a will of steel. It also makes the subtle point that as much as Lizzie loves Jinn, he has an entire Chinese life that she has never considered; she sees him only as he is involved in her life.

If I have one quibble with the book, it's that Lizzie seems to have a lot of unmonitored time, considering that Aunt Hortense is supposed to have eyes like an eagle, and she manages to "borrow" horses easily. But the characters are engaging, especially the friendship that grows between Lizzie and Noah, and the setting compelling.

book icon  Betsy's River Adventure: The Journey Westward (Sisters in Time), Veda Boyd Jones
This is one of a series of books for pre-teen girls about girls throughout history. This one roughly parallels Lois Lenski's A'Going to the Westward about the first westward expansion into the Ohio Country (wherein the heroine is also named Betsy). Betsy Miller is shocked and dismayed when she finds out her family is going to pull up stakes and move westward, and also irritated that her aunt and uncle and their son George (Betsy's nemesis) are also going with them. George is always tormenting Betsy about her height, and he owns a mischievous dog that Betsy hates. She vows that somewhere on the way to Ohio she will "get back at him."

It's not a bad account of the early westward movement, and Betsy learns not only about the country and the people traveling on the road, but about how if you plot bad things for others, those plots usually boomerang. By the end, she's even developed a respect for George and he for her. One of the better entries in this series.

book icon  Let Me Tell You, Shirley Jackson
Who can forget "The Lottery," which has been read by every junior high or high school student for years? It was my first introduction to Shirley Jackson, but I confess I haven't read much more of her other writings, not because of aversion but because there's just so many good things out there tempting me to read. I did read another of her stories in school, the family memoir "Charles," which I absolutely adore.

Like most short story collections, this one has its ups and downs. It opens with a creepy story called "Paranoia," as seen through the eyes of a man who's being followed--or at least thinks so. His fate, left in Ms. Jackson's skillful hands, was never in question. Another great story is "Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons," about a snobby housewife and social leader (think of a serious Hyacinth Bucket) who has her nose put out of joint when a new family moves in town. Jackson manages a satisfactory ending for Mrs. Spencer--and even makes you feel a little sorry for her. "The Lie" is also an excellent character study of a woman who thinks a simple apology will make all the difference in her world. Others, like "The Arabian Nights," were rather "eh."

I found the section on pre-World War II stories interesting but minor; their main theme was women awaiting the return of their men coming home from war, but entirely enjoyed her humorous family stories and essays about writing and being an author in the last quarter of the book. Here you'll also find out the mundane origins behind "The Lottery" and how Jackson's imagination spun it into a tale--like it or not--that, once read, you'll never forget.

I think Shirley Jackson's fans will appreciate this book the most, but anyone with a taste for the offbeat may enjoy.

book icon  Silence for the Dead, Simone St. James
The Great War is over and young Kitty Weekes is on the run. On false pretenses, she takes a job as a nurse at a convalescent home for shell-shocked soldiers, as much to escape her past as to earn money to make a living. As the new girl, she is given all the dirty jobs, yet she perseveres, slowly gaining the trust of her fellow nurses and the patients, from the patient man confined to a wheelchair to the angry man whose family are embarrassed that he is in a mental institution. But mysteries still abound: like the shadowy Patient Sixteen, and the growing uneasiness that something else, something evil, is creeping into the walls of Portis House, manifesting as an ugly black mold growing uncontrolled in a lavatory.

As in all of St. James' mysteries, there is a supernatural element to the story, and the story is a mixture of thriller, mystery, romance, and an examination of the treatment of what is now called post-traumatic stress syndrome. The way the soldiers are treated is almost as frightening as the sinister feelings creeping through the house, and Kitty's encounter with a family member is as chilling as it is sad.

The story is at its best when dealing with Kitty's learning process and her survival and the regard she comes to have for her patients (and the patients and the staff for her), and for the portrayal of the soldiers she nurses. The supernatural element is a bit derivative, and the final solution to the problem a bit overwrought, but the characters and the hospital and era setting overwhelm any misgivings I had about it. An edge-of-your-seat enjoyment.

book icon  The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories, edited by Patricia Craig
This is a terrific collection of English mystery stories, only two of which I had previously read (a Sherlock Holmes story and "Death on the Air"), presented chronologically from the beginning of the 20th century through the 1980s. (There is a Dorothy Sayers story, but it is a Montague Egg, and I have only read Lord Peter Wimsey.) There are stories about amateur detectives and others that are police procedurals, and even stories where the people involved don't know there's been a mystery until the story is nearly completed. Some of the stories feature series detectives, like Inspector Thorndyke, Adam Dalgliesh, Father Brown, and Mrs. Bradley. In keeping with English tradition there is a sleeping-car murder, a crime ala Crippen, and murder at an Oxbridge-type institution, plus a murder at Oxford. I was quite taken by "Superintendant Wilson's Holiday," in which that man does indeed have a busman's holiday in an entertaining police procedural. But the story that really blew me out of the water was Agatha Christie's classic "The Witness for the Prosecution." I'd never read it before and really, really loved the twist!

Anyway, for mystery story fans, a worthwhile find to hunt down.

book icon  Eighty Odd Years in Hollywood, John Meredyth Lucas
If you have checked the credits of 1960s and 1970s drama series, I'm certain the name "John Meredyth Lucas" will be familiar to you. He worked as a director or writer on series like Ben Casey, Mannix, and Star Trek, and also many of the episodes of the long-running spiritual series Insight. But his television career was just part of Lucas' unorthodox life. The son of a silent movie actor and a scenario writer/actress who later divorced, his stepfather became the acclaimed Golden Age film director Michael Curtiz, who did, among others, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood, and Casablanca.

This is an eye-opening book in more ways than one. While Lucas' later television and movie directing tales are interesting, his young life in Hollywood's chaotic movie colony are amazing and often horrifying, like the time he was seduced, at the tender age of twelve, by a drunken actress at one of his mother's parties. Today there would be lawsuits and arrests; in those days it was just something that happened. Lucas also has no bones about showing all aspects of his life: how he skipped school and sometimes drank too much. However, it's a fascinating tale of high- (and sometimes low-) living, the behind-the-scenes lives of movie people, and filmmaking in the silents versus in sound movies. Mother Bess Meredyth comes off as a woman before her time, Michael Curtiz a larger-then-life character from a movie.

The text is liberally peppered with family photographs and behind-the-scenes publicity photos. Very enjoyable!

book icon  Thoreau at Devil's Perch, B.B. Oak
Dr. Adam Walker practices medicine in Plumford, a small Massachusetts town on the banks of the Assabat River. One day while walking along the river, another man flags him down: he has just found the body of a young black man at the foot of a cliff. The man happens to be from the neighboring town of Concord, a rather odd fellow known as Henry David Thoreau. Soon Adam and his artistic cousin, Julia Bell, back in Plumford to care for her ailing grandfather, are drawn into trying to figure out how and why the young man was killed, as the town fathers are not interested in the strange death of the young "Negro."

Thoreau makes an interesting addition to the cast of the mystery; however, the majority of the story is Adam and Julia's, told from the point of view of both their journals. The author, or actually authors, a husband and wife team, do their very best to make Adam and Julia sound like 19th century characters (albeit very liberally-minded ones) and have Thoreau's part in keeping with his character, making him into a central character without deifying or maligning him. The mystery was suitably convoluted, but be aware that this is not what you might call a "cozy" mystery if you're thinking of neat murders deduced by sweet elderly ladies in drawing rooms. There are breathless and frightening violence, virulent illness, and other rough crimes. If you understand that, you may enjoy this well-written period mystery.

book icon  Monitor (Take 2), Dennis Hart
In 1955, old-time radio, as it's now called, was dying. Television was making vast inroads into radio program ratings, and NBC's Sylvester "Pat" Weaver knew a different type of show was called for, one the audience would enjoy but would not demand their complete attention like television, made for car rides, days on the beach, and lazy weekend pastimes.

The show he came up with was Monitor, a quirky combination of news, human-interest stories, comedy, music, on-location reports, sports, and anything else that kept the show on the go and "doing things." The result was a unique bit of radio that lasted for twenty years, albeit, especially in its last two years, with many changes.

I remember Monitor mainly from Sunday afternoon "rides in the car" with my mom and dad, either to the seashore or the back roads, listening to James Daly or Henry Morgan, but mainly for the unforgettable sound of the "Monitor Beacon," which could never be mistaken for any other sound in the universe (it's now my cell phone ringtone). I don't remember any specific bits of programs, but Mom recalled music on Sunday afternoon, five minute bits of OTR favorites Fibber McGee and Molly (Jim and Marian Jordan) in the early 1960s, and a mixed bag of stories and news.

Author Hart loves Monitor and it shows. He takes every fact and facet he's collected and investigated and makes the volume a joyous look back for Monitor fans and all those curious about how radio met the challenge of television without resorting to endless records and disk jockeys (and, yes, there were Monitor imitators), from how the show was conceived, the cast chosen, and regular features of the broadcasts. After his first book about the series, ex-Monitor employees and fans of the show contacted him, so this new edition contains even more stories and some memories from Monitor folks. Recommended for radio fans.

To hear some of the sounds of Monitor: "The Sounds of Monitor"

book icon  Anthem for Doomed Youth, Carola Dunn
As Daisy Dalrymple prepares to head to her stepdaughter Belinda's school with her good friends Sakari and Melanie to see the girls participate in sports day, her husband, Scotland Yard inspector Alec Fletcher, and his team are called to Epping Forest to investigate a case of three bodies found buries in a secluded hollow. One corpse is still fresh and has a target pinned to him which says "Revenge!" The police officer on the job has already badly botched the investigation and takes an instant dislike to Alec, but Alec's superior is just relieved that this time it isn't Daisy who's discovered the body.

At least not until a mystery involving a body draws Daisy into its orbit.

The 1920s set Daisy Dalrymple mysteries usually have a light touch, although various circumstances arising from the Great War often come into play, but this one has a darker tone, a good half of it concerning Alec and his team (Sgt. Tring, Ernie Piper, and DC MacKinnon) investigating their crime while Daisy, her friends, and their daughters observe the drama at the school with three war veterans, two teachers disabled due to injuries, and a bullying, jingoistic games master. But Daisy's suggestion that the dead men might have a military connection brings out a story that is stylistically more Maisie Dobbs than Daisy's usual forte. A nice combination of plain sleuthing and moral repercussions make this story a cut above some of the entries. A solid entry in the series.

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31 May 2015

Books Completed Since May 1

book icon  At Home, Bill Bryson
I originally read this book in 2010, and this was my commentary:

Think of this of "a short history of nearly everything having to do with the home." Bryson takes us from attic to cellar in the old vicarage he calls home in England to tell the story of private life. After examining the pivotal year of 1851, the Crystal Palace and the Great Expedition, and the land surrounding his home, Bryson starts with the basic structure of all human shelters, the one-room living space that became the medieval hall, and then visits each individual room to chronicle a different aspect of society: the bathroom to examine sanitation; the kitchen to talk about food (of course); the scullery to discuss servants, etc. The home becomes a springboard of discussion to architecture, social customs, furnishings, plants...even sexuality, and all in Bryson's engaging fashion.

The true test of this book: it kept me absorbed in [the] 3 1/2 hour [DragonCon] ticket line in over 70 degree heat. Now that's interesting writing!

In 2013, Doubleday brought this out in an illustrated edition, with vintage artwork, maps, schemata, drawings, photographs, portraits, etc. on glossy paper. I drooled the moment I saw it, until I got to the price. Finding it on remainder was much more satisfactory (it was the price of a trade paperback by then). And, by golly, I fell in love all over again, Adam fireplaces, Palladian homes, wonky WC fixtures, and all. Worth getting if you are into home histories or Bill Bryson.

book icon  Before Tomorrowland, Brad Bird, Jonathan Case, Jeff Jensen, Damon Lindelof
This is sort of a book written by committee, and it shows.

On the other hand, it's a nifty prequel to the Disney 2015 summer film Tomorrowland, which shows you what happened before the film begins. It opens initially in 1926 when 10-year-old Henry Stevens visits an exhibit about the future with his father, but the action chiefly takes place the first few days of July in 1939, as we follow Clara Brackett and her teenage son Lee as they attend the very first World Science Fiction Convention. A comic book is being given away at the convention, and it appears to hold the key to a secret that Lee and Clara become privy to by following clues contained within. But there are darker forces at work: the Nazi scientist Rotwang and the spy he employs.

There are certain neat situations in this book, including making Amelia Earhardt one of the heroes, but for me it tries too hard to recreate the campy adventure novels and serials from the 1930s. A pity, too, because the Plus Ultra organization, its founders, and what they have discovered are intriguing. Lee and Clara are appealing characters, however, and it was worth following them through their adventures to the end.

book icon  The Lighter Side of Sherlock Holmes, Glenn Schatell
If you are a Sherlock Holmes fan, you will probably love this collection of cartoons by Norman Schatell (Glenn's father), who for many years drew cartoons and illustrations that appeared in "The Baker Street Journal," "The Sherlock Holmes Journal," and other publications devoted to the Great Detective. The book's cover sets the stage admirably: it's the doorway of 221B, with a doormat that boldly proclaims "Do Not Clean Your Boots."

My only complaint about this book is that I thought too many cartoons were repeated; one would, for instance, appear at the beginning of the book and then near the middle or the end there will be the original sketch for the same cartoon. Otherwise it's delightful for any Holmes fan or one on your Christmas list.

book icon  Dead Wake, Erik Larson
Several books have come out about the Lusitania in this, the 100th anniversary of her sinking, and this treatment, by the author of Isaac's Storm and Devil in the White City turns the story into a tale of suspense, juxtaposing information about the passengers going aboard the ship and about the ship itself against the story of the U-20, the submarine which sank her. We meet the experienced captain of the ship, William Turner, and some of her famous passengers, including bookseller Charles Lauriat, Englishwoman Margaret Mackworth, producr Charles Frohman, Alfred Vanderbilt (yes, of those Vanderbilts), and Theodate Pope, a rarity in that era, a woman architect, plus the captain and crew of the U-boat.

I particularly enjoyed how Larson fitted in the details of the time into the tale of the danger Lusitania was sailing into and the politics and hostilities that prompted the attack. Even the smallest details are enjoyable, such as how a heat wave struck New York days before "Lucy's" departure, while men still wore winter-weight hats (fashion dictated no lighter straw hats until May 1). While it is not the most exhaustive study of the life and death of the Lusitania, the tense narrative and the historical details make this tremendously readable and memorable.

book icon  Love Thy Neighbor: The Tory Diary of Prudence Emerson, Ann Turner
It's 1774 and the Emerson family lives in Great Marsh, Massachusetts, where Prudence's mother is the town midwife, and they live a comfortable life. But the Revolutionary War is upon them, and one by one their neighbors turn against them, for they are loyal to King George III. Prudence's best friend Abigail slowly is turned away from her as even the school is segregated along Tory and Patriot lines, the miller will not grind her father's grain. A fellow Tory and neighbor even has his horse stolen and painted with the words "Tory Nag."

Most children's books of long ago treated Tories as undesirables and painted them as rich snobs who cared little for their American home. But the Loyalists came from all economic groups and even different races and ethnic groups. Turner makes the point that the Tories were only traitors to those who had a Patriot viewpoint; otherwise they were just like anyone else, trying to make a living and abide by the laws, and that loyalties even crossed family lines as they would later do in the Civil War (you are never quite sure where Prudence's brother's feelings lie). It's also an interesting look at the work of a midwife and what herbs they used to help their patients.

book icon  The Penderwicks in Spring, Jeanne Birdsall
I admit, I was a little taken aback by some of the reviews for this book. People were very upset that Birdsall had moved up the Penderwick family timeline, and then included a very strong, troubling plotline halfway through the story. But as I settled into the book, I found that the time progression had not spoilt the storytelling nor the characters.

Batty, the youngest "original Penderwick sister," is now ten years old. Oldest sister Rosalind is in college, and Jane and Skye are both involved in their education and their own lives, so Batty preoccupies herself with her stepbrother Ben and two-year-old Lydia, her new half-sister. She is still deeply in mourning for her beloved Hound, the family dog, who died a few months before. Then she discovers she has a new talent, and, to further it, she starts her own business, walking neighbors' dogs. But along the way a secret will be revealed that will shatter Batty to her very soul.

The storyline presents a very important lesson about what we say to children and how they interpret what they overhear. Batty's emotions are very real and very raw, and the chapters concerning her reaction might be upsetting to sensitive children. But the story is also incredibly realistic, painful, and touching, and I read through it with a lump in my throat, especially when Batty is working through her feelings at the death of Hound. So many parents don't understand how deep children's feelings go in regards to pets, and how they may hide those feeling so not to be considered "silly."

A different type of Penderwick book, but rewarding on its own merits.

book icon  Re-Read: To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
I decided it was about time I bought a nice hardback copy of one of my favorite books, especially so it will match the new book, Go Set a Watchman. There is a book that will have big shoes to fill, but still, I am curious about it and will buy it.

Unless you've been living under a rock for years, everyone knows the story of Mockingbird: three formative years in the lives of two children growing up with their attorney father in the segregated South of the 1930s.  Along with a neighbor's visiting nephew, the children explore life, including the legend of a young man infamous in their small town for having been confined in his own home for years. But a shadow is approaching them: their father has taken upon himself to take up what he knows is a lost cause, the defense of an innocent African-American man accused of raping a white young woman, because it is the right thing to do.

You may think: I've seen the film and know what a great story this is, but the book is so much more: characters and situations that add to the story of Jean Louise Finch, known as "Scout," her brother Jem, and their friend Dill Harris. You meet Atticus' sister Alexandra and brother Jack, read about Scout's difficulties in school, her relationship with Miss Maudie, find out so much more about Calpurnia, and discover the importance of the encounter the two children have with Mrs. DuBose, the difficult elderly woman who is only an afterthought in the movie. Scout's narration is unforgettable, as is her story.

book icon  Shady Characters, Keith Houston
Punctuation as we know it has been in development for long years. While the spacing of words was early used for better understanding, use of marks to separate statements and ideas came later in the form of pilcrows (otherwise known as the paragraph sign ¶ ) and section signs (§). Houston discusses all these and more, including the useful interrobang which never caught on, the octothorpe (#, a.k.a. the "pound" sign or "number" sign) with its new life on Twitter, the @ sign which has become indispensable in e-mail, and even the manicule (☚), a symbol older than you think (it's not a Victorian invention).

Aside from the fact that Houston refers back to previous chapters more frequently than I would like, this is a fascinating romp into history that shows changes in punctuation over the years, plus it's liberally illustrated with old manuscripts so you can see the physical changes. Houston also has a blog about punctuation under the same name.

book icon  Independence Slay, Shelley Freydont
In the third of the Celebration Bay mysteries, Liv Montgomery is coordinating the annual Independence Day festival, which includes the re-enactment of a historically questionable event in the town's history. Each year the descendant of a war hero kicks off the festivities—except on this year, when a dead body is found on the parapets of the family mansion and a frightened young man with learning disabilities is found next to it. Plus our local hero is nowhere to be found, bad boy newspaper editor Chaz has vanished, and it looks as if the mansion will be sold, which means Celebration Bay would have no place to hold its battle re-enactment.

Many threads going here as Liv, Ted, and eventually Chaz try to clear the young man, Leo, of a murder charge as well as solve the mystery of Henry Gallantine's disappearance, and there's a dandy sequence with a secret passage, not to mention the Mrs. Danvers-like housekeeper who keeps impeding the investigation. Liv learns more of Chaz's secrets and it seems this relationship, too, shall progress, but Ted still remains a mystery—I wonder if a future mystery will involve his past. An entertaining cozy in a town where you might like to live.

book icon  Everyday Life in Early America, David Freeman Hawke
I'd already had the post-Revolution and Victorian books in the "Everyday Life" series, and just bought the Westward Expansion/Civil War volume, so decided to buy the other two books in the series. This, the first, is, sadly, a bit tedious, and that's a shame, because there are facts here I'd never read anywhere else, such as that the Pilgrims had little experience in farming; or how the amount of land a colonist had in different parts of the country determined what type of fence you would build (incidentally, "good fences make good neighbors" was a truism: if you did not have your crops properly fenced in and cattle ate them, it was your fault, not the owner of the cattle). There is a continual emphasis on the colonists' use of wood from the plentiful forests, England having nearly been deforested by that time by the regular need for wood. One of the interesting points of discussion is how the traditions of English life changed, for instance, that in England farmers lived in the village and walked to their fields every day; once in the United States they moved their homes to their fields. It's a good summary of colonial life, but rather dry. I'm glad to have it to complete the set, though.

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30 April 2015

Books Completed Since April 1

book icon  Bluegrass Champion (Harlequin Hullabaloo), Dorothy Lyons
This is a charming 1949 teen horse story about a girl named Judy and her American Saddlebred horse Harley (Harlequin Hullabaloo) whose only "sin" is that he was born a pinto in a solid-color horse world. Judy's sure Harley can bring some glory back to run-down Bluefield Farm, which was ruined by a neglectful cousin after she and her sister Gail's parents died, but even though he has fine natural gaits, including the slow gait and the rack that Saddlebreds are famous for, no judge seems to look beyond his calico coat. But she persists in putting him in training. In the meantime Gail is training her own horse, too, and holding off the man who wants to be her husband until she can make a name for the farm again.

Okay, the heroines are both attractive blondes and all the major characters are white and fairly well-off and the one black character is of course the man who really keeps Bluefield Farms together and one of his lines is in genuine literary "darky" language (oh, geez), but it's so refreshing to see a teen drama that's not about totalitarian dystopia, suicide or depression, fantasy countries, and abusive or bigoted parents that I nearly cried. The African-American characters, even while kept in the background, are treated with the respect they deserve (both Judy and Gail know they could never keep Bluefield without the help of Sam and Nellie), and the girls, instead of being simpering clothing fiends or "mean girls" or in the popular set at school, are smart, ambitious, and, even though they have boys interested in them, are not interested in just being wives and having babies. Judy is willing to work long hard hours to bring Harley's talents to the fore, even if one of her schemes backfires badly. I really enjoyed this, and if you like traditional horse books, you might, too.

book icon  The Christie Curse, Victoria Abbott
Jordan Bingham is back in her hometown of Harrison Falls, New York, desperate to pay bills left on her by a prolifigate ex and grad school. She answers a classified ad for a research assistant to Vera Van Alst, the reclusive, wealthy heir to the Van Alst shoe fortune. She finds Vera a bitter recluse in a crumbling mansion, fond of nothing but collecting rare books and manuscripts, constantly babied and bullied by her cook, Senora Panetone, who lends some humor to the grim Van Alst household. (Jordan's descriptions of Panetone's meals will leave you drooling.) Vera tasks her to find a purported play written by Agatha Christie during her missing eleven days in which she claimed to have amnesia. But once Jordan starts investigating, people start to get hurt (and this after Vera's former assistant died trying to hunt down that same manuscript).

This is an interesting-enough first book in a cozy series involving rare books and manuscripts. Jordan is an average, if streetwise and cop-wary protagonist with a quirky family of con-men uncles (who help her with her investigation). While there's nothing really extraordinary about the story, the mystery was moderately intriguing and I wouldn't be adverse to purchasing the next books in the series. But, yeah, I guessed the secret about the cat pretty quickly!

book icon  Elementary: The Ghost Line, Adam Christopher
In Hell's Kitchen, an Irish immigrant is killed inexpertly with a high-powered firearm. When Sherlock Holmes and his partner, Joan Watson, investigate the man's apartment, they find tickets to an invitation-only art exhibition in the victim's possession and an old pumping station under his residence. While Sherlock and Detective Bell, and later his AA partner Alfredo, investigate the tunnels below New York with the help of tunnel aficionado "Judge D," Joan attends the event with Captain Gregson and find something odd going on at the museum antiquities exhibit.

Although I read a few complaints that the book concentrates too much on the villains of the piece, I found this a worthy Elementary story with a nice scope. Gregson and Watson get some interaction together, and, even better, Sherlock and Alfredo team up for part of the investigation, where Alfredo gets to see Sherlock put his talents to the test, rather than being a tutor as he tends to be in the television episodes. The only iffy spot is a sequence between Watson and the villains of the piece; she gets away too easily in the encounter—you'll know it when you get to it.

The author is obviously fannish, not just of Elementary: there's a Doctor Who reference that will make you laugh, and very late in the book, a reference to the Batman universe. For all I know, I missed a bunch more. I hope Christopher gets to write other Elementary novels, because I really enjoyed this one.

book icon  Jewel of the Thames, Angela Misri
It is a somber time for 19-year-old Portia Adams. Abandoned (except when he needs money) by her abusive stepfather and now orphaned by the death of her mother, Portia realizes she will have to abandon her dreams of higher education and go to work. Then she discovers, when her mother's will is read, that she has inherited property in London and also acquired a guardian, the glamorous but distant Mrs. Jones. After she and Mrs. Jones depart Portia's hometown of Toronto and arrive in England, Portia is further astonished to find out that the property is none other than 221B Baker Street, once the home of her grandfather Dr. John Watson!

Portia's immediate destination is Somerville College, where she studies law, but her fine observational skills involve her in three different mysteries in this first book of a projected five young-adult series. As she sharpens her deductive skills, she befriends the young neophyte policeman downstairs, and increasingly wonders about the mysterious Mrs. Jones, who provides a big piece in the solution of the mystery of Portia's grandparents. She's a great character, at once intelligent but still human, strong but sympathetic. I love the fact that she goes to Somerville, the alma mater of Dorothy L. Sayers and Vera Brittain, and that she's an introvert who loves books. A big plus is the cover of the book, which has a retro-Nancy Drew type feel to it combined with a modern, dreamy sensibility done in silhouette. Can't wait for the rest!

book icon  Kiki Strike: The Darkness Dwellers, Kristen Miller
I kept waiting for this to come out in paperback, which it never did, but had to find out what became of Kiki Strike, who, at the end of the previous book, was revealed as the lost Princess Katarina of Pokrovia. Kiki and her guardian are on their way to Pokrovia to claim the throne and then renounce it so that the small country will remain a republic. But she's waylaid by her evil aunt and cousin, who want more than anything to rule Pokrovia again, and held captive in Paris.

Back in New York, Ananka Fishbein and the rest of Kiki's offbeat gang of Irregulars are concerned when their friend doesn't check in. Eventually the shyest member of the team, Betty Bent, is sent to France on the track of Kiki, while Ananka and her friend Molly Donovan wage war on an elite New York school that turns out "Stepford students" and Oona Wong's identical sister makes her life miserable.

This is a wild ride involving sinister conspiracies, the ossuaries and catacombs of Paris, an underground group called the Darkness Dwellers that go back to the second World War, a disgraced spy, Ananka's headmistress, the headstrong Molly Donovan, another of DeeDee's crazy inventions, and even Ananka's mother. But the best part about the story is how Betty comes into her own. A great conclusion to the Kiki Strike trilogy. 

book icon  Gone With the Woof, Laurien Berenson
Melanie Travis Driver is back! For the past eighteen months, she's been a stay-at-home mom to toddler Kevin and nine-year-old Davey, her poodles are "finished" in the dog show world, and life has been extremely pleasant, but dull. Her energetic Aunt Peg, who involved Melanie with her first show poodle (and her first murder mystery) says she is getting boring, so Melanie jumps at the chance to help a famous show judge write his memoirs. But instead of being about dogs, it appears the book will be a tell-all about the man's sexual conquests, and after his son complains to Melanie, he's killed by a hit-and-run driver.

It's great to see all the familiar characters back; not just Melanie and her family, but supporting characters like Aunt Peg, Alice Brickman, Bertie Kennedy, and Terry Denunzio, and I'll be reading this series as long as Berenson cares to continue it. Sadly, the victim is such an ass that you don't really care that he's been murdered, and his father isn't much better. For me, besides Melanie's dogged (pun not intended) investigation, I am enjoying the Driver family mechanics. Sam is every kid's dream of a stepfather!

book icon  Huck Finn's America, Andrew Levy
One hundred years ago, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was being banned from libraries—but not for the reasons it is today. Instead, due to concern about undisciplined youth, especially boys, running wild, and even being involved in murders, the book was reviled for being about a disobedient boy who was bored by church and school, who smoked and stole, and who consorted with the so-called dregs of society, in this case persons of color. Today, while fighting criticism that the book is too racist to be read in schools—ironically when Twain was attacking the racism of Huck's society—there are some who view the book as an idealized children's adventure, romanticizing Huck and Jim's freedom on the raft while ignoring the murders, dishonesty, and bigotry of the society that supports them.

I found most interesting the author's commentary about Twain's fondness for the minstrel show; not the tame minstrel shows of the turn of the 20th century, a common entertainment for Gilded Age Americans, but for the earliest minstrel shows, in which black performers in the traditional blackface, lampooned and made subtle points about the black man's place in a white society and what they thought of their shabby treatment. I mainly know minstrel shows as comic affairs that featured white men in blackface who portrayed blacks as shuffling idiots. He points out that the concluding chapters of the book, which are usually considered inferior by critics, are minstrel-like parodies of the much-valued educated boy who likes to read (Tom Sawyer) who has really been fed a pack of romantic fantasies by his books while the uneducated Huck Finn is the person who has knowledge of real life and the pain and unfairness of living.

(I also thought it was interesting that many people will not read Finn because they refuse to read a book where a character is called "N—r Jim." Although that despicable term is used in the book because it was in common use at the time it took place, at no time is Jim ever called by this slur by Twain or Huck. It is reviewers and other writers referring to the character who have labeled him such. Twain, in fact, shames Huck for certain mischievous and shabby tricks he plays on Jim.)

This is very readable but different look at an American classic. Fans of Huckleberry Finn should enjoy.

book icon  A Brief Guide to The Sound of Music, Paul Simpson
It's been a bumper year for Sound of Music books, since it's the 50th anniversary of the film. This is one of the smaller volumes, but it has a lot of good things about it.

At least it doesn't have 64 pages telling me which movie theatres ran the roadshow edition of the film and for how long!

Instead, Simpson uses the opening chapters to recount the history of the Trapp family before the arrival of Maria Augusta Kutschera, who was to serve as a tutor for young Maria, who had been ill, and through George Von Trapp and Maria's marriage, children, and emigration to the United States. Then the first film versions of the Trapp family story are discussed, and, happily, Simpson summarizes the first German film, Die Trapp-Familie, which was later purchased by 20th Century Fox and presented as an English dub. I've heard so much about this movie and have never seen it (but apparently it's on YouTube). Next is a nice summary of the creation of the stage musical and the songs within, the optioning for a movie, and then the casting and filming (including a narrative of how the play differs from the film). Finally, in a real bonus, Simpson talks about the 40-part Japanese anime series, and how, while it strayed as far afield of the real Trapp family as the film and the play did, it almost caught the personality of the real Maria better than any other version. All the episodes are summarized, and you can clearly see the resemblance to Maria's books The Story of the Trapp Family Singers and Maria.

The book ends with a summary of the enduring popularity of the story on television and even remounted for the stage.

This is more what I was expecting from the FAQ book, so I'm certainly glad I picked it up!

book icon  Grace Against the Clock, Julie Hyzy
There's a lot going on in Grace Wheaton's life. A fundraiser to restore Emberstowne's fabulous town clock is being held at Marshfield Manor, where Grace is a curator, and the tension is as high as an elephant's eye between the two major fundraisers, a top surgeon and his estranged wife, a noted attorney. Grace's old home is being redecorated by the former "evil stepdaughter" of her employer, Bennett Marshfield (who may also be Grace's uncle). Grace herself is bedeviled by the attentions of a handsome new boyfriend, Adam, when she still has feelings for her old flame, Jake. Oh, and did we mention the hidden door in Grace's basement?

Not to mention the murder of the surgeon!

This one kept me guessing, although I did rack up our killer in my shortlist of suspects, and I was fascinated by the mystery of the hidden door; it was Nancy Drew with an adult twist. I enjoyed the historical aspects of the story, but, again, I was a little perturbed that a character had to be twisted a little out of the initial characterization so that the plot could proceed, as happened with Tom in Madelyn Alt's series. Nevertheless, I'm eager to see what happens in Grace's life.

book icon  Rune, Christopher Fowler
This apparently was Fowler's first urban horror tale that featured Arthur Bryant and John May, the heroes of his "Peculiar Crimes Unit" mysteries. They are called in when a string of gruesome deaths occur: an older man is squashed between a truck and a wall, a man steals a car and then commits suicide with it, a young woman is crushed in an escalator, etc. The main focus of the story is actually Harry Buckingham, the son of the older man, and a junior partner in his imaging business. As people Harry knows meet with horrible deaths, he and an odd young woman named Grace try to figure out what's going on.

Unlike the Bryant and May mysteries, this contains a strong thread of the supernatural as Harry—and the detectives, separately—discovers that ancient runes are being used in a most modern way, and the story does indeed get rather creepy when you realize how this could have really worked!

The detectives are an early incarnation of the characters, with Bryant still the technophobe offbeat one and May the more conventional one who keeps him in line. However, there is no "Peculiar Crimes Unit" in the story, although Janice Longbright works with them on the mystery, Oswald Finch makes a small appearance, and Colin Bimsley is mentioned in passing. Meera, Dan, Giles, and their reluctant commander Raymond Land aren't yet part of the team.

Horror isn't my usual read, but the presence of familiar faces helped me get through this one and I quite enjoyed seeing the "boys" in their early appearance.

book icon  Stories of My Life, Katherine Paterson
This is a great collection of memories from acclaimed children's writer Paterson, who in her stories about her parents (Presbyterian missionaries to China), her upbringing in China, and about her own missionary training and marriage to John Paterson, reveals the origin of many of her most famous characters and situations (Leslie Burke of Bridge to Terabithia, for instance, was based on her son's best friend; Gilly Hopkins emerged after her experience taking care of two foster children, the elementary school in Terabithia was based on a real school at which Paterson taught in the 1950s, etc.). She has some fascinating (and frightening) tales about the invasion of China by the Japanese, and an inspiring story of how her father got needed drugs to his Chinese friends under the nose of the occupying nation.

Paterson fans should love this book. I know I did!

book icon  The Best of Connie Willis, Connie Willis
After devouring The Doomsday Book, Blackout, All Clear, To Say Nothing of the Dog, and a collection of her Christmas short stories (Miracle), I thought I would sample some further short stories by Willis. This collection features "Fire Watch," which is also part of her Oxford/time-travel universe, and which I had read online, and a variety of others, including a somber future-set story where dogs are extinct and a man must face the truth about his past, a very tongue-in-cheek pseudo-thesis that postulates Emily Dickinson had met alien life, a tale of disapproving aliens who respond to nothing but certain Christmas songs, and a family coming to terms with the terrible changes that have occurred in the past year. I got a good laugh out of "At the Rialto," where scientists meeting at a Hollywood hotel find out that quantum theory and movie-colony zaniness aren't that far apart after all and was consumed by shivers by "Death on the Nile" and the three couples taking an Egyptian trip that turns into something more. I had to laugh at "Inside Job," not just because it was often humorous, but because part of the story involves newspaperman and all-around gadfly H.L. Mencken, and this book came in the same package in which I ordered Mencken's The Complete Days (which is referenced and quoted in the story). (And I quite enjoyed the story to boot!)

Heck, what am I saying, I enjoyed the whole book, even the reprints of three of Willis' award speeches at the end, which spoke to the reader in all of us. Thank you, Connie, for saying what we have all wanted to say about the books in our lives.

book icon  The Expansion of Everyday Life, 1860-1876, Daniel E. Sutherland
This is the four book in a series of five starting in colonial days and ending post-World War II about everyday life in the United States. As the author admits in the introduction, it is hard to cover "everyday life" because by the Civil War, there were many different kinds of "everyday life" depending on whether you were rich or poor, city dweller or rural denizen, living in the East or the Midwest or the West, being a Northerner or a Southerner. So many aspects of "everyday life" are covered in different chapters concentrating on home life, community life, work, play, birth and death, beginning with the lives of soldiers on either side in the Civil War.

This is an immensely readable overview of a sixteen-year span in United States history. Of course, it can't give an in-depth insight into every different aspect, but it does a great job giving you a general idea. As well, the author does not shy away from the injustices shown to African-Americans, Native Americans, and ethnic minorities. A lengthy bibliography which lead you on to further reading about city crime, pioneer lives, sickness, and other details of 19th century life. The other four books in this series, Everyday Life in Early America; The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790-1840; Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915; and Uncertainty of Everyday Life, 1915–1945 are also recommended.

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