A Cozy Nook to Read In  Book Vignette

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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 June 2014

Books Completed Since June 1

book icon  The American Seasons: Wandering Through Winter, Edwin Way Teale
This is the fourth and final book in Teale's seasonal odyssey across the United States with his wife Nellie; the four books were written between 1947 and 1966, and this final book won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Teale, a naturalist, originally wrote for Popular Science, but then became a free-lancer, and authored over a dozen books about the subject.

You would think that this book would address the snowy and cold areas of the country, but the Teales begin their trip in San Diego and work their way east, only encountering true winter weather when they get to the edge of the midwest. They see whales, observe the plants of the desert surviving brutal drought, observe birds over the entire trip, their favorite being the cheeky chickadee, have adventures along the Mexican border, then head into snow and ice storms as they drive toward the northeast, where they hunt for diamonds, discover a colony of white squirrels, explore Big Bone Lick and its cache of prehistoric bones, visit a sugarbush and a deer yard, and join a man who collects witch hazel. Along the way, they visit fellow naturalists, avid birdwatchers, and the home of "Snowflake" Bentley, who took the first microscopic photos of snowflakes.

This is a wonderful book for anyone who loves exploring the natural world, whether in person or vicariously through books. I'm hoping to turn up his other three books to visit the seasonal US in an era before superhighways.

book icon  Just My Typo, Drummond Moir
I confess. I also collect books on typographical errors. I love bloopers. I can't even read the "Damn You, Autocorrect!" web page because by the time I've gotten through five of them I'm reduced to helpless laughter.

However, this is why this book doesn't really stand out for me. While there are typos here from older books and other publications I have not read before, about half of them I've already read elsewhere in other books like Richard Lederer's volumes on English, and even online. If you haven't read other books about typographical errors, this will have you on the floor, but for folks who have read them continually over the years, you may figure it's just more of the same.

book icon  The Victorian City, Judith Flanders
Aside from the fact that the title is a bit of a misnomer, as the book does not cover the entire Victorian era, but just the Dickensian portion, ending with Dickens' death in 1870, this is a book you fall into and don't come up for air again until you've reached the index at the other end. Flanders' prose brings you right there, into the dirty streets swept by street crossing boys earning pennies a day, food vendors who supply London workers with their food, street vendors who must busk for a living. With Flanders we visit havens for prostitutes and thieves, pubs and eateries, churches and slums; learn about the Victorian way of commuting, traveling (including on the iconic Dickensian stagecoach), surviving, spending increasing leisure hours, and even dying. Quotations and excerpts from Dickens' novels liberally pepper the text. If you are a Victorian-era junkie like me, or a Dickens fan, this is the book for you!

Oh, don't forget to read the footnotes; there are more things there!

book icon  Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century, Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better, William H. Patterson Jr
Alas, Patterson passed away just weeks before this second part of his biography of Heinlein was published.

Like the first volume, Patterson has filled the book with so many miniscule details of Robert Heinlein's later life (after his marriage to Virginia Gerstenfeld) that you wonder if he was a fly in the corner during the entire period of time. We follow the development of the Future History stories, go to Hollywood for the filming of Destination Moon (whose fate was tied up with another movie about a squirrel), build a home in Colorado and cope with fallout from Heinlein's ex-wife Leslyn, travel along with the Heinleins to Russia, Australia, and even Antarctica, observe the long development of Stranger in a Strange Land, understand Heinlein's support for blood drives after a transfusion saves his life, and finally follow his long slow slide into ill health as he aged. Patterson's approach seemed warmer in this volume and I didn't feel as if I was being held at arm's length as I was in the first half. Heinlein fans will definitely enjoy this concluding volume. God bless, Mr. Patterson.

(As with The Victorian City, above, don't forget to read the footnotes in this book. There is a lot more information included!)

book icon  Cold Days, Jim Butcher
He's dead. No, he's alive, because Queen Mab isn't going to let her Winter Knight get away. So Harry Dresden has accepted a devil's bargain, because he knows he has to protect his Chicago home town from the evil that is emerging.

Butcher starts out with a bang. Harry awakes, alive, only to have Mab try more and more inventive ways to kill him—seventy seven different scenarios, all told. And that's just in chapter one! He acquires a malk (kind of a supernatural cat) that he names Cat Sith to help him, as well as a young woman who seems to be being put through the same paces as Harry. Then Mab's insane daughter Maeve (think Bellatrix Lestrange, only more insane) makes an appearance just about the time Harry makes an enemy of a bloodthirsty Redcap.

After that, it gets crazy.

This newest (in paperback, anyway) Dresden adventure brings back all the old favorites: Karrin Murphy, Waldo Butters, Harry's half-brother Thomas, Harry's temple dog Mouse, his apprentice Molly, Mac the bartender, and even little Toot-Toot, Harry's fairy ally, and his troops (whom Harry keeps happy with pizza). Occasionally Harry gets to take a breather, and you do, too, only to have another situation crop up to leave you breathless. Once you start turning pages, it's hard to stop. Plus there's some great Karrin action, and a heartbreaker of an ending. Yeah, I'm still hooked.

book icon  Foul Play at the Fair, Shelley Freydont
Liv Montgomery, fresh from a nightmarish career as an event arranger in New York City, has moved to the smaller upstate New York town of Celebration Bay to continue her career in a calmer venue. At least she thought it would be calmer, until during last-minute preparation for the town's annual fall festival, a man is found dead in an apple press.

Some cozies are artificially set and cast, while in others the characters and settings come to life. I could believe in the little community of Celebration Bay, which has created a new persona for itself by living up to its name and hosting festivals that draw people from all over the country. Liv and her neighbors, even the annoying former event arranger Janine, who has a grudge against Liv, are suitably "real" enough, although minor characters are quite sketchy. The mystery is suitably complicated, although close to the end I figured out most of the puzzle. Yes, there are cozy mystery conventions: our heroine gets herself into a perilous situation while investigating the crime, and, as seems to be common with mysteries with a female lead these days, there's an exasperating male romantic interest. And I did get tired of the descriptions of Liv's dog Whiskey as a "Westie terrier." C'mon, after three or four times we know he's a terrier; just call him a Westie. Or vary it with "West Highland White terrier." However, I liked the story and the regular characters enough to buy the sequels.

book icon  The Victorians, A.N. Wilson
It's taken me two years to read this book; I started it, then went on to other things after getting one-third of the way through and didn't get back to it until this spring, when I had to quickly re-read the first third to re-acquaint myself with what had gone before. Is this procrastination due to this being a bad book? No, but like The War That Ended Peace, it's a dense book with a great deal packed within each chapter, which chronicles the Victorian era from Princess Victoria's ascendancy through the death of the Queen.

However, instead of being a simple linear history of the Victorian era, each chapter focuses on a different subject that is pertinent to the timeline, so that while the history starts routinely enough with chapters about Britain before Victoria and the background of her family, subsequent chapters address not just historical events (the Crimea, the Irish troubles and the famine, the Boer War) and personages (Lord Palmerston, Gladstone, "Chinese" Gordon, Disraeli), but artists, authors, playwrights, health conditions in the slums, science, medicine, and other topics. Truth to tell, the politics is, as always, chiefly boring, but I enjoyed the chapters about pre-Raphaelite painters, expatriate British living in England, the Raj, the impact of Darwin, people of color in Victorian society, public schooling abuses, country parsons, Gilbert and Sullivan, Oscar Wilde, and dozens of other personalities and social dilemmas. If you've a serious interest in the Victoria era, you will probably enjoy this book, but it's not for those just looking for a summary of the time.

book icon  Murder on Fifth Avenue, Victoria Thompson
Police detective Frank Malloy knows he'll never live up to Sarah Brandt's social inheritance, even though she abandoned her place in society to marry a doctor and now, after his death, works as a midwife in the poorer sections of town. So when Sarah's father, millionaire Felix Decker, asks to see Frank privately, the detective is mystified until the problem is explained: a well-known businessman died in Decker's exclusive club, and he wishes Frank to find out the culprit so the club can take care of the problem by themselves and not create a scandal. But once Frank starts talking to the family, something more ugly than a quarrel between friends emerges.

This is probably the first Brandt/Malloy book in which after things are revealed, that you wish the killer won't be caught because the victim was such a right bastard. This means, of course, that there are multiple suspects, and multiple false leads for both Frank and Sarah to track down, and there's suspense down to the penultimate chapter. Once again, Sarah's bored society mother helps in their investigation (I'm coming to quite like the woman!), and the sordid realities of some parts of Victorian society are revealed. This is a nice solid entry in the series, even if only the tiniest progress is made on the attraction between Frank and Sarah.

book icon  Rocket Ship Galileo, Robert A. Heinlein
Not sure how I missed this Heinlein juvenile for so long; it was his first, written back in the late 1940s, but taking place in some indeterminate future where man has already gone to space and rockets are used as freighters. Three teenage boys, Art, Morrie, and Ross, model rocketry enthusiasts with their own workship, find an unconscious man outside their launch area and are afraid it was caused by their rocket which exploded. The man turns out to be Art's uncle Don, an atomic scientist—who soon is impressed by their talent and wonders if they'd like to accompany him on a flight to the moon! But it turns out there are people who wish to stop Don Cargraves and young proteges...permanently.

While Heinlein uses solid science in his rocketry, the plot is pure Boy's Own Adventure story, what with intelligent high schoolers recruited by an adult to go on an adventure; Samuel Scoville would be proud of this space-age successor to his Boy Scout stories. If you can buy the smart-kids-recruited-by-scientist trope, the rest of it is a great adventure tale. Swelp me, I was boggled by their discovery on the moon!

book icon  Shadow of Night, Deborah Harkness
This is the second book in the "All Souls" trilogy about Diana Bishop, a witch who has been suppressing her powers for reasons only discovered at the end of the first volume, A Discovery of Witches, and her lover, Matthew Clairmont, who is a vampire over six hundred years old, their developing relationship, and the world they inhabit, where humans rub shoulders with witches, vampires, and the unpredictable daemons.

Let's get this straight: I'm not turned on by vampires, and I'm only marginally interested in Elizabethan-era Europe, where this entire book takes place. And, like the previous volume, there are veritable cascades of words, many which might have been cut. Certainly it takes a long time to achieve the purpose of the book: to find a witch or witches capable of teaching Diana, whose wild powers are unique.

And you know what? None of that made any difference. To me, Harkness knows how to tell one hell of a story and I was absorbed from first to last. Do I want to slap Christopher Marlowe after this? Well, yes. "Kit" (a daemon, of course) is a fat pain in the ass. You long for Matthew to toss him in a midden. But I loved the description of Elizabethan society and streets, and Diana's experiments in alchemy with Lady Pembroke, and even had to laugh at the squabbling of the members of the School of Night. This is my second time reading it—in preparation for the third book, out in two weeks—and it was just as enjoyable as the first.

book icon  Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: The Diary of Bess Brennan, The Perkins School for the Blind, Barry Denenberg
This book has to be about rock bottom for a "Dear America" book. Bess Brennan is a typical girl living in Boston in the early years of the Depression. When she is blinded in a coasting accident, despite help from her twin sister Elin (who's writing in her diary for her), her mother and her Uncle Ted (her father has died) decide to send her to the Perkins School for the Blind, the famous school that Helen Keller attended. Bess is homesick and hates her teachers. Then she makes friends and loves it.

Really, that's about all there is to it. Bess is homesick. Bess doesn't like one of her teachers. Bess doesn't think she'll ever learn Braille. Her friend Amanda, who is partially sighted, helps her, and they both help another girl named Eva. I've seldom seen any children's book so flat, and it is a shame, since the Perkins School is so historically important.

book icon  Listening for Madeleine, Leonard S. Marcus
I had no idea this book existed until I was reading a Hamilton Book catalog and found it listed. It's a collection of interviews, long and short, from people who knew L'Engle, from members of her own family to those who worked with her.

The 2004 "New Yorker" article that revealed that some of Madeleine's nonfiction had more than its share of fictional elements upset and angered many fans. Marcus interviews a diverse number of people—friends from her cathedral days, others whom she befriended on her writing tours, neighbors of the Franklins in New York and Connecticut—to try to illustrate the complicated personality that was Madeleine L'Engle. I was actually more intrigued about her from the magazine article, and I enjoyed reading all the different viewpoints of her personality. In talking about her, you also get to know about Edward Nason West, L'Engle's spiritual advisor and the inspiration for the character of Canon Tallis in her books. He certainly was quite an eccentric from the descriptions and sounds fascinating. I also didn't know that author T.A. Barron, who did a series of young Merlin books, was a protege of L'Engle's. In addition, there are several more insights into her books; for instance, the crush Flip has in And Both Were Young was supposed to be with another girl, not with Paul. "Crushes" on other girls were quite common in girls' books at the turn of the 20th century, but by the time Young was written, it would have taken on an entirely new connotation which would not have been accepted.

I have to admit that a couple of the entries are in there on the feeblest of associations, especially the one-page offering from Mary Pope Osborne, which seems like it's there just for someone to say that she contributed to the book. Still, I found much to enjoy about this series of reminisces about one of my favorite writers!

book icon  Survival in the Storm: The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards, Katelan Janke
Did I read the end of this "Dear America" entry correctly? The author is only fifteen? Wow! That is really amazing, and as a storyteller she quite outdoes Mr. Denenberg, whose DA books I've come to dread. Grace Edwards and her family are holding on to their land and their self-respect in the Dust Bowl ravaged town of Dalhart, Texas (a real town which was hard hit). Grace must hold on to her hope, especially as dust storms increase and her best friend moves away after her family can't make ends meet.

A couple of times the characters use vocabulary that sounds out of place for the ages they are and there are some instances of stilted narrative, but otherwise this diary sounds very natural, as if a real teen wrote it—oh, wait, one did! Janke interviewed two women who survived the Dust Bowl and transfers their memories of the hardships, especially the endless wind and dust, very successfully. I also found the love/hate relationship between older sister Grace and little sister Ruth very true to life.

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24 June 2014

All Mine for the Summer

Some people have neighborhood library stories—there are even some fictional ones, like Francie's experience in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. But we lived between city libraries, a distance over a mile to both, so I visited them infrequently. The Auburn Library was near the high school, a mile and half distant, at that time in an old storefront on Rolfe Street, next to a shoe store. They generally had more up-to-date books (this being the late 1960s and early 1970s, those from the 1940s forward), but still not the ones I was looking for: I was wild about animals as a kid and wanted to read Marguerite Henry and Walter Farley and Jim Kjelgaard and Grosset and Dunlap's line of true dog stories. Alas, not there.

The Arlington Library, in the other direction up Cranston Street, past Taco and the old wooden Hamilton Building (which went up in spectacular flames in my teen years; the original building, once a school, was where I had received my polio boosters), was a more venerable place. The present library is concrete and glass and metal; the old building had more charm, in rectangular brick with the heavy wooden doors and dark wooden shelves. The adult section, upstairs, seemed always gloomy and the volumes looked as dry as they seemed to me. Downstairs was the children's library, a truly antiquarian area with heavy dark tables and chairs, filled with none of the bright colors and shiny objects one now associates with children's sections in libraries. Today I would very much like to take a trip back in time and pore over the books on the shelves, since many of them dated back to the turn of the twentieth century. But back then, looking for modern children's books, all those dark volumes just made me grumpy. I once complained bitterly to my mother that the newest book they had there featured a young woman driving a car with a running board (yes, I knew what that was). My only favorite books there were the Thorton W. Burgess books about forest animals—The Adventures of Danny Meadow Mouse, The Adventures of Jimmy the Skunk, The Adventures of Lightfoot the Deer, etc.—and a book translated from the German about a police dog, Flax.

The school library gave me much more satisfaction. It was in Stadium School that I fell in love with some of my earliest literary favorites: Kate Seredy's The Good Master and The Singing Tree, the Miss Pickerel (a spinster teacher) and Danny Dunn (a precocious boy inventor) series, the books about Henry Reed and his friend Midge Glass, Anne H. White's delightfully offbeat animal tales of The Story of Serapina (a cat with a prehensile tail), Junket the Dog Who Liked Everything Just So (an Airedale), and A Dog Called Scholar (a rambunctious Golden Retriever), Johnny Tremain, Clarence the TV Dog, and the book that drove my mother crazy trying to find it since it was out of print (she never did, but I did, years later), Charlotte Baker's The Green Poodles, about a Texas family that open their hearts to an orphaned English cousin and her pet poodle. (I didn't realize until I purchased the book as an adult that this was the book that sparked my interest in obedience competitions; Juliet, the poodle, had a CDX and was working on her UD.)

But it was at Hugh B. Bain Junior High School (now Middle School), that I met the "famous ten." Bain had a policy that, if you were a responsible child who brought back your library books on time, and if you had your parents' consent, you could take ten books out of the library and keep them for the entire summer! This was richness to me. I had a good collection of books, but only paperbacks and cheap cellophane-covered Whitman books, which were all that we could afford. To have real hardback books in the house was a fabulous treat. Both summers, that of 1969 and 1970, I took the same ten books out, and for ten weeks they were mine, to read in my room at night, or at dinner (Mom never did enforce the "no books at dinner" rule most of the time; she was happy that I wanted to read and was never forced to do so), or in the parlor while watching television (since sometimes it would be on something I couldn't care a fig about, like Huntley and Brinkley (unless they were talking about the moon missions) or the local news.

Here are the ten. Have you read or heard of any of them?
  • The Story of Walt Disney by Diane Disney Miller
  • The Family Nobody Wanted by Helen Doss
  • What Katy Did and What Katy Did at School by Susan Coolidge (one volume)
  • Have Spacesuit, Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
  • The Chestry Oak by Kate Seredy
  • Wyoming Summer by Mary O'Hara
  • The Edge of Day by Laurie Lee
  • Especially Dogs, Especially at Stillmeadow by Gladys Taber
  • The Morning of Mankind by Robert Silverberg
The Miller book was the only one out about Disney in those days; as a dedicated watcher of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color on Sunday evenings on NBC, this was a natural for me. Now I have many more biographies of Disney, but this still brings back pleasant memories. The Family Nobody Wanted was Doss' story of her and her husband's adoption of multicultural children in the 1940s, when it Just Wasn't Done for blonde white people to adopt children of Hispanic, Native American, and Polynesian extraction. A sad commentary on the times was that the Dosses tried to adopt a half-German, half-African American war orphan in the late 1940s, and even a member of their own family responded with racial epithets.

The Katy books reminded me of Little Women and Alcott's other stories; headstrong Katy Carr wants to do great things, but is sidelined by an injury. The second book was especially entertaining because who could forget the mischievous "Rose Red," Katy and her sister Clover's classmate, and her pranks? I was amazed at the games the girls played during their club meetings, involving writing poetry "on demand"! And of course there was my very first Heinlein novel, one that of course involved another type of cleverness, including a precocious twelve-year-old girl. I must admit I had a crush on Spacesuit's hero, brainy and resourceful Kip Russell.

Till the day I die I will thank Judy Martini for recommending Wrinkle to me, opening a wonderful world of Madeleine L'Engle books in my future, including her adult novels and her religious nonfiction. What would I have done without the Crosswicks books to sustain me through my mom's cancer surgery? And here forty-five years later I still cry at the end of Wrinkle. Chestry, too, is a heartbreaker: the story of a privileged Hungarian boy growing up under the thumb of invading Nazis, keeping his father's most precious secrets, and in the end too loyal to give up the horse he loves.

Edge was a revelation of a book; I had never before read prose which had the rhythm and imagery of poetry. It was as if I were there at the Lee cottage, surrounded by Laurie's constantly working mother and sisters, participating in country fetes and reveling in the fragrantly blooming countryside. I loved the title, too: such expectation! What could that new day bring? It was only as an adult that I discovered the original title was Cider With Rosie, which seems much less imaginative and lyrical. O'Hara, too, made poetry with her words. She took a collection of her diaries, kept when she and her husband raised horses, ran a dairy, and had a summer camp for boys on a ranch in Wyoming; she later used those experiences to write My Friend Flicka and its sequels, but there is such beauty in her original writings, images burned on my brain to this day.

Especially Dogs was my first introduction to Gladys Taber, but as a young adult I resisted her other Stillmeadow books; I had nothing in common with that woman who kept house and cooked meals in Connecticut. It was only many years later, spotting two reprints in the Mystic Seaport Museum store, that I was to fall in love with all of Taber, a joyful affair.

The last book was my concession to one of my favorite sciences: biology left me cold and chemistry foiled me with too many formulas. But all those aspects of Earth Science (as it was called in eighth grade) I reveled in: astronomy, fossils, continental drift, uplift, brachiopods, the aurora, the tilt of the earth and the seasons, and my favorite of all, anthropology. There were other books I collected as I grew older, including the "Lucy" books, and the mention of Olduvai Gorge and/or the Leakeys or Lascaux on any program could make my ears prick up in interest, but this was my first anthropology book and it has a special meaning to me. Clovis points, middens, mammoth bones turned into tools—I was hooked. (Didn't realize until much later that this was the Robert Silverberg, the science fiction writer.)

Did anyone else have a school library that did this? If so, what were your books, all yours for the summer?

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31 May 2014

Books Completed Since May 1

book icon  Hattie Big Sky, Kirby Larson
A blogger whose book blog I regularly read loves this book, so I snapped it up when I found it at the library book sale. It fits into my World War I reading for this year as well.

At the end of 1917, Hattie Brooks inherits a claim in Montana from her uncle. Grudgingly brought up by an aunt who resents her and a mild-mannered uncle who usually doesn't defend her, Hattie is glad to get away from her home-in-name-only to face the challenge of proving up on 160 acres of Montana farmland. She finds the work almost insurmountable, but is helped by neighbors who she soon becomes good friends with, a couple with several children. But the husband is German and anti-German feelings are running high due to the war; Hattie is endangered just by knowing them.

Larson does a superb job of bringing the hardships of homestead life alive, and the staggering work Hattie has to perform to "prove up" on her claim, including installing a fence, not to mention the twin threats of the weather and sickness. Some reviewers have pointed out parallels between the Montana Loyalty League in this book and the Patriot Act, but there was a great feeling of hatred against Germans during the first World War and the similarities are obvious. If it's a political statement, it's an apt one and not one dredged up just to make a political point.

book icon  Grace Among Thieves, Julie Hyzy
Grace Wheaton's job at Marshfield Manor (an estate with a passing resemblance to Biltmore House) has its ups and downs, and in this installment, things are definitely down: a friend has reported to Grace that there have been thefts from historic sites across the country, a grim fact Grace already knows as items have turned up missing from the Manor as well; she's beginning to believe that a movie crew filming a documentary on the grounds may have something to do with it. In addition, estate owner Bennett Marshfield's stepdaughter Hillary has been insinuating herself with the film crew and making noises about Bennett not being up to managing the estate.

And then, during a tour of the house, a woman is pushed down the stairs and killed, and a man is shot.

This is a nice solid entry in the Grace Wheaton series, which finds Grace not only confronting a new mystery but a new romance as well. My favorite part of these books is the relationship between Bennett and Grace, and this one does not disappoint. Major hisses to the bad guys in this novel for not only threatening someone very close to Grace, but for threatening her cat, too.

book icon  The Ultimate Book of Top 10 Lists, from Listserve.com
One of my weaknesses is books of lists, going way back to the original Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky and Amy Wallace published back in the 1970s. This one, stacked purposefully on the bargain book tables at Barnes & Noble, called immediately to me. As with all of these books, the subjects run the gamut from bizarre lists (museums, phobias, traditions, etc.) to urban legends debunked, and lists of science and history facts. There are lists of movies and music, nature and people, survival tips, and travel tips. In short, this is a great bathroom book, perfect for long or short "trips." Redeeming social value? Not much, but there are interesting facts scattered throughout and you may even learn something.

book icon  My Bookstore, edited by Ronald Rice
It's so nice to read this book and know there are still some great independent bookstores across the country. In my area we are still pretty much in the thrall of chains, and the best chain, Borders, is already gone. Yes, I buy online, but only because I don't have an unlimited budget for books, and sometimes because the bookstores just don't have what I want. It's all fine and dandy for the chains and the independents to offer the standard bestsellers and books authored or recommended by celebrities or in the news, but most of those have never been to my taste.

This book brings back the days when I did have a personal bookstore, Paperback Books in Providence, RI. It wasn't anything to look at, but I spent many happy hours there and bought books that I still have. The eighty-four writers in My Bookstore will tell you about their happy places and why they are special to them. And you, like me, may now have a list of bookstores you want to visit when you get to a particular city!

book icon  Doctor Who: The Vault, Marcus Hearn
Oh, what a book! If you have any interest in the history of Doctor Who from its origins in 1963, this is the perfect 50th anniversary volume for you. It is full of one-of-a-kind photographs, memos, advertising circulars, BBC "Radio Times" issues, books and annuals, and other memorabilia which helps to tell the story of the program. Formatted as a year-by-year chronology (except for the "missing years" between the cancellation of the original series and the new one, which are combined save for the year of the television movie), each chapter features a full-color photo of the Doctor or one of his enemies (and a couple of companions). My thanks to Amazon.com, who had this on a one-day sale that enabled me to afford it.

book icon  The Great Wagon Road, Parke Rouse, Jr.
What came before the interstates, before the state highways, before the first transcontinental road (the Lincoln Highway)? It was the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, built during colonial times and eventually extending from Philadelphia down to Augusta, Georgia (roughly along the paths of I-78, I-81, and I-85 today). Later Daniel Boone's Wilderness Road would be spun off this rough highway.

This reads like an interconnected series of separate narratives much of the time, rather than a straight history. Rouse opens with the busy path created by Native American tribes for trade purposes, which was then used by the German teamsters from Pennsylvania (whose great wagons made the name Conestoga famous) and the Scotch-Irish settlers who crowded into the Appalachian highlands. It saw further traffic during the French and Indian War. Jack Sevier and Daniel Boone, George Washington and the circuit preachers are just some of the colorful personalities who traveled the Great Wagon Road and later the Wilderness Road.

This is a good book for someone who enjoys colonial American history, or the history of highways in the United States.

book icon  Re-Read: Shoo-Fly Girl, Lois Lenski
I adored Lenski's regional stories as a kid, so I had to snap this one up when I found it at the book sale. Her regionals are long out of print and command huge prices on e-Bay because of their use in homeschooling; recently I found that there is a publisher reprinting some of these, and I hope they do them all. Meanwhile, I'll make do with this one, one of my favorites about Suzanna, who lives in Pennsylvania as part of a large, warm Amish family. Suzanna gets her hated nickname from the day that she eats an entire shoo-fly pie all by herself, and in the course of the book she meets an "English" family whose worldliness frightens the shy child. She can only confide in her favorite brother, Jonas, who starts to change as he grows older.

The story follows several seasons in life on an Amish farm and is quite charming explaining the customs of the Amish sect, and even some of the dangers posed by their lifestyle in our modern society, such as cars not being careful of their carriages and causing accidents. This isn't my favorite regional, but it's very enjoyable.

book icon  Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell
For the first time in their lives Cath and her twin sister Wren will not be rooming together. They've left Omaha and their emotionally fragile father to attend college in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Wren wants to fully experience college life by rooming with someone else, which leaves introverted Cath sharing a room with someone she'd rather not have to deal with, a self-possessed young woman named Regan. Cath and Wren have spent most of their adolescence writing fanfiction about the Simon Snow novels (sort of a pseudo-Harry Potter) and Cath feels alone and even a bit betrayed when Wren abandons both her and the fic. Worse, both girls are still coping with the fact that their mother walked out on them nine years earlier: while Cath still relies on fanfiction to buffer her feelings of abandonment, Wren turns into a hard-drinking wild child on campus. But what will Cath do when real life intrudes on her fanfic world, especially when she starts liking her roommate's boyfriend?

To tell you the truth, I was kinda bored with Cath's boy infatuation; most people review this book and say there was too much of her Simon Snow fanfic, but I thought the meet-the-world with a smile Levi character was nice but only okay—he seemed to be too much of a fantasy guy himself! The story makes the valid point that Cath can't use her fanfic dreamworld as a shield against her feelings about adulthood and her mother forever, but it's like her fannishness has to be purged completely for her to be a "normal" person. Still, the end of the book made me cry.

book icon  Color Me Dark: The Diary of Nellie Lee Love, Patricia McKissack
Nellie Lee and her "almost twin" Erma Jean live in a small town in Tennessee divided across racial lines; when her soldier Uncle Pace dies in an "accident" that everyone realizes was racially motivated on his way home from the Great War, Erma Jean is so traumatized by the incident that she loses her speech and their father decides to move the family north to Chicago to open his own funeral home and find a better life that doesn't include the Ku Klux Klan and bigots who attack veterans. Sadly, the Loves find out that prejudices still exist in the North.

I enjoyed this "Dear America" novel despite the sad circumstances that force the Loves to abandon family in Tennessee and the prejudices that meet them in their new life. McKissack weaves the lives of the fictional Loves into the real-life race riots that rocked Chicago in the summer of 1919 after a young African-American boy accidentally strayed onto a whites-only beach area. It also addresses something I'd never read before, about the fact that even in "colored" schools light-skinned people were favored over darker-skinned ones. It's a shame people cannot have always been, as Dr. King said, "judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

book icon  Tales from Watership Down, Richard Adams
I loved Watership Down, but I put off buying this sequel for years because most of the book appeared to be new stories about the King of the Rabbits featured in the original novel, El-ahrairah and his second, Rabscuttle. However, when I found it for a couple of dollars, I did get a copy. If you're not interested in the rabbit fairy tales, be assured they are not the entire body of the book, but they do take up much of it. There's actually a running plot about Hazel, Bigwig, Fiver, and the rest deciding that the colony is too large and planning to form a new warren some miles away. It also seemed (although I could be wrong) that Adams was responding to criticism that all the main characters were male and the does were interchangeable, because a portion of the tale is about a female rabbit who controls her own warren. However, the book has none of the suspense, poetry, and novelty of the original. Purchased at a library sale or at goodwill, it might be worth your while to see "what happened," but I wouldn't advise paying full price for it.

book icon  Eccentric London, Ben Le Vay
I spend my time dreaming the impossible, which includes a visit to Great Britain some day, and love to pick up unique travel books about the British Isles. This isn't a tour book, per se, with tips on hotels and restaurants, but a book of unusual people, places, and things you'll find in that big metropolis on the Thames. You'll learn about eccentric Londoners (alive and dead), odd jobs, strange museums, and novel places to shop; read about unusual place names, facts about the Tube and the churches of London, and even improbable pubs. Finally the author takes you on five walks around the city for maximum exposure to the city's odd turns, and you'll visit four suburbs, including Greenwich, home of mean time. There's even a calendar of British-only events, such as the yearly Pancake Day races and the Garter ceremony.

The book is illustrated with humorous line drawings, plus has a color insert, several maps, and dozens of pop-out sections, and the narration is suitably tongue-in-cheek enough to keep you amused. If I can't afford that overseas trip, I can live vicariously through Le Vay's delightful book.

book icon  Murder on Bamboo Lane, Naomi Hirahara
Ellie Rush is a newly minted Los Angeles bicycle cop, to the consternation of her mother who says she didn't send Ellie to private school for her to ride a bike at work, but a source of pride to her Aunt Cheryl, the Assistant Chief of Police. Ellie likes her job, despite getting stuck with "porta-potty duty" and having problems with a resentful male co-worker. One morning on patrol she is shown a flyer about a missing girl, a young woman she remembers having college classes with. Her friends remember the young woman, too, and one recalls that she was having problems. It's not Ellie's case, but she finds herself being drawn into it with the help of her aunt.

I usually don't like police procedurals, but this has a unique viewpoint, a likeable protagonist, and an enjoyable cast of supporting characters, from Ellie's best friend to her tough aunt. I especially enjoyed that the characters are not all eccentric whitebread types as in some of the cozies I've read; this is a multicultural group of friends who come off as being genuine, rather than minority characters being placed in the story to meet a certain quota, and her relationship with her best friend is warm and real. I'm looking forward to Ellie's next case.

book icon  The Night Journey, Kathryn Lasky
I'm a big fan of Lasky's books, and know that several of them have been based on where she lives (the Calista Jacobs mysteries) or her heritage and family (Christmas After All, Pageant), so that when I found out this book was based upon the experiences of her father's family, I was eager to read it. Rachel's parents have asked her not to bother her great-grandmother about her past—it makes her too sad, they say. But when Nana Sashie starts telling Rachel about her childhood in Russia, the girl can't help sneaking into Nana's room after dark and finding out more about the story: how young Sashie, along with her parents and aunt and baby brother, escaped from Russia in 1900. They will use the Jewish holiday of Purim to escape from their pogram-scarred homeland—but will need the help of a frightening man who works with Sashie's father to accomplish it.

I was a little disappointed. I managed to find the hardback version, which has marvelously expressive illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman, but the narration seemed scattershot. I didn't think it packed the emotional punch of some of her other books, like Prank or even Christmas After All. The family's escape has some breathtaking moments, but I found it as a whole a little anticlimactic.

book icon  Writing Juvenile Fiction, Phyllis Whitney
While there are probably more up-to-date volumes out there about writing children's or young adult fiction, this volume by Whitney, who wrote women's romance novels and teen mysteries, plus teen short stories for magazines like American Girl (the Girl Scout magazine, not the recent magazine associated with the book series), is a nice basic text, as the primary idea is to attract and then keep the attention of the reader and write a story that appeals to them. The material, today, does not seem as sophisticated, but then both children's and young adult books have grown darker in the past fifty years. Story structure has not changed, whether you are writing about a young woman fighting to give a talented but untrained artist a chance (the example used in this book) or about teens facing demons, vampires, and death. (In fact, the example being about regular kids was a bit refreshing!) This would be a good book to offer to an aspiring young writer, as it also addresses the problems of taking time to write, and the procrastination issues most writers face.

book icon  The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar, Martin Windrow
This is the charming memoir of a British man who kept a tawny owl as a pet for fifteen years. After his first owl escaped, he was given Mumble, as he called the bird, who soon became an indispensable part of his life. At first she lives in an aviary on the balcony of his apartment building, carefully hidden from the landlord; later in her life he moved to the country where he built her a beautiful outdoor enclosure. Over the years he observed her behavior and chronicled life with his quirky roommate.

If you love birds, you will probably enjoy this book. I could see my own budgie in Windrow's observations of Mumble, and enjoyed reading about their friendship and Mumble's instinctive habits, like pouncing on "prey." Windrow does make the point that people should not keep wild birds as pets; he was only able to obtain for Mumble because his brother was a falconer (and I have to question the wisdom of having an owl in a city apartment that doesn't allow pets!). In the tradition of books like Ring of Bright Water and Born Free.

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30 May 2014

Listening to Laurie...and Jo

I've been listening to a BBC radio adaptation of Little Women today. Gayle Hunnicutt plays Marmee, Jemma Redgrave is Meg, and Buffy Davis is a lively, hearty Jo. Because of the total running time (about five and a half hours), they can do so much more, like showing them playing games at Laurie's picnic. Laurie is played by Marcus D'Amico and sounds like a real boy for once, but the actor playing Ned Moffat has such a funny voice; he sounds like John DeLancie overlaid with Bertie Wooster. I'm also particularly fond of how they handle the transitional "since last we met" portion of the opening chapter of part II (or Good Wives, as the British call the second part of Little Women): instead of a summary by the announcer, Jo runs into Miss Crocker, the spinster lady the girls entertain in the novel chapter "Experiments," and "catches her up" with the March family. I'm enjoying it so much, but I have to smile when they talk "American," for they try so hard that sometimes they wander into a Southern accent, especially Ms. Davis and the actress who plays Beth.

I think it's funny that most non-US productions of Little Women cast Hannah as African-American. It's not that I object--Hannah really could be of any race or nationality--but it seems that to the casting people it's natural for the servant at that time to be a person of color, and the result is so stereotypical! The radio Hannah is all "laws'a'mercy" and sings spirituals, and in the Japanese anime Hannah has a mammy look. It's a bit disconcerting.

I do think it's interesting that they use "Simple Gifts" as a musical motif throughout. It works very well, along with the vintage hymns.

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30 April 2014

Books Completed Since April 1

book icon  Sergeant Stubby, Anna Bausum
This is the second time in four years I've discovered a new book based upon information I read first in a children's book published in the late 1950s, so it amused me a bit to see this book publicized as the "first time" Stubby's story is being told. Sergeant Stubby, a stray Boston terrier (or possibly Boston mix) who wandered out onto an Army training field in 1917, became the mascot of the 102nd Infantry and accompanied "the doughboys" to Europe. While in service, he was gassed and also physically injured in an attack. Stubby's story (and also the story of Snowman the jumping horse told in The Eighty Dollar Champion) was told in Patrick Lawson's More Than Courage, published by Whitman Books.

Much of Bausum's story of Stubby and his "handler," Robert Conroy, and their experiences in World War I is that of conjecture, as Conroy kept no diary. However, after the war, when Stubby was welcomed home to as much acclaim as the men he served with, Conroy did keep a scrapbook, and much of that information is happily firsthand. Bausum does a super job of describing Stubby's and Conroy's world in the 'teens: the pre-war U.S., the world of the training camps and the trenches, the endless mud and disease and the very real terror of being killed or maimed, the horror of gas. There is also discussion of just what breed of dog Stubby was, as he has been described at various times as a pit bull, a bull terrier, or some other bully breed.

Since this year marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the first World War, Sergeant Stubby is a lively and painless way to review the American experience during the event by following an affable dog and his devoted owner, and the book is scattered with vintage war illustrations, and photographs and ephemera from Stubby's scrapbook, plus a close-up of his famous jacket with all its ribbons and medals.

Note to Ann Bausum: if you don't want to drive every Bostonian (and possibly every New Englander) who reads this book mad, please correct the typos in the "Stateside" chapter which refer to the Boston "Commons." It is the "Common," singular, and has never been "Commons." Ever.

book icon  Stuff Matters, Mark Miodownik
I loved this book.

I'd never heard about "material science" when I went to school, but biology left me cold, chemistry was absorbing in the laboratory, but the mathematical portion of the course was over my head. Needless to say, after that, physics was out. :-) But earth science I loved, and I would have loved a course on material science, especially if Mark Miodownik was the teacher. I found myself smiling as I read the science behind the everyday things in our lives: concrete, steel, paper, glass—even chocolate—and the most enjoyable part was that his prose was illuminating and the scientific concepts were clearly explained. Instead of being puzzled by the concepts, I found them completely understandable. Perhaps, for people who are more science-oriented it might have been simplistic, but I found it fascinating, especially the chapter about the silica aerogel.

Miodownik has an easygoing writing style that I really enjoyed, reminding me of Bill Bryson and James Burke. My only problem with this book is that I wish it could have been twice as long! I'll be looking forward to his next book, especially if concerning the same subject.

book icon  My Gentle Barn, Ellie Laks
Ellie Laks spent a difficult childhood in a home and with a family she found distant and uncaring, and she almost always felt like an outsider at school. Her only solace was with her dog and other animals that she befriended. She felt animals spoke directly into her heart. Her early adult years were troubled as she met a man who got her into drugs. Finally she broke away from drugs, married, and had a child. But animals in distress still called to her, and for some time she ran a dog rescue. One day she adopted a sick goat from a badly-run, abusive petting zoo. Over the years she collected more creatures from the same petting zoo and realized what she really wanted to do was run a shelter for abused animals. This is her story of how her dream came true and she founded The Gentle Barn, a refuge that also helps neglected children.

This is an inspiring story, although it's sad and ironic that Ellie neglected her first husband, who didn't plan on having a backyard full of rescued creatures occupying all of her time, the same way that she talks about parents neglecting her. I'm rather surprised he didn't abandon the marriage earlier. The fact that animals "talk" to her without speech and tell her their names sounds a bit farfetched as well, the bottom line is that The Gentle Barn does special rescue work, and the children who visit the farm, victims of abuse, are helped emotionally by hearing the stories of and tending these animals. It's a story of long days, hard work, heartbreak, and a person who rises above emotional troubles to help others. Animal lovers especially will enjoy.

book icon  I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, A Freed Girl, Joyce Hansen
Patsy has lived on the Mars Bluff plantation belonging to the Davis family all her life. Since she has always been lame and when she speaks, she stammers, everyone—or at least those who are not close to her—thinks she is stupid. She must complete the most boring chores day after day, appropriate for someone considered slow-witted. But Patsy's stammer hides a quck mind: she has taught herself to read and write by observing the white children's lessons. Now that the Civil War is over, what will happen to the plantation slaves? Their former masters are supposed to give them land and build them a school, but they're pretending as if nothing has happened. Some of the former slaves even want life to remain the same.

There are two stories here that meld into one: the story of the dilemma of the slaves themselves about their futures and the story of Patsy, who comes into herself as an individual and as a person who has formerly been beaten down by criticism who suddenly finds she has talents to share. From the "dummy" of the plantation, Patsy becomes a teacher her friends can depend on. A nice, solid story of real-life plantation life (not the romanticized pap of the last century). According to the sticker, this book won a Coretta Scott King Award.

book icon  Edison and the Rise of Innovation, Leonard DeGraff
This is a marvelous coffee-table type volume chronicling Thomas Edison and his inventions. While Edison's biography is briefly touched upon, and his first invention (a stock ticker) and lesser inventions are commented upon, the book mainly chronicles Edison's most famous innovations, the ones that changed peoples' lives, including the phonograph, the long-lasting electric light bulb (Edison did not invent the first electric light bulb; arc lights were in use for many decades earlier, but they threw a harsh light and were expensive—what Edison invented was an inexpensive light bulb that most people could afford to use in their homes), motion pictures, portland cement, storage batteries, and rubber, plus a look at his laboratories, which were the innovation centers of the time.

The most wonderful thing about this book are the beautiful illustrations throughout: modern and vintage photographs of the inventions, workshops, and people involved, and illustrations of Edison's notebooks, vintage advertisements, newspaper stories, patent illustrations, engravings, and store displays of Edison products. It's a virtual museum of historical objects and persons to make any history buff drool. If you're interested in the age of invention, this is a great bet; those looking for a detailed bio of Edison will need to look elsewhere.

book icon  Birdmen, Lawrence Goldstone
At the turn of the century, not only the Wright brothers dreamt of the sky. From Otto Lillenthal and his wings to Octave Chanute, Augustus Herring, Samuel Langley, Louis Bleriot, and the man the Wrights considered their greatest rival, Glenn Curtiss, men on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean wrestled with the problem of heavier-than-air travel. Birdmen chronicles the steps—and often mis-steps—in the efforts to fly.

I have to be honest; it's my husband who's the aviation buff, but I've been to so many aviation museums with him I've taken a liking to the early aspects of aviation, including ballooning and the career of the Wright brothers. I thought this book would be more enjoyable than it was; it's a very knowledgable, but I also found it very dry, especially the parts devoted to the Wright brothers' efforts to slap lawsuits on anyone who seemed to be copying their patented wing-warping innovation. The book is at its best when it chronicles the groundbreaking flights and the dismal failures, the air races, and the structural innovations. The legal aspects are otherwise rather tedious.

book icon  A Brief Guide to Star Trek, Brian J. Robb
As someone who bought Stephen Whitfield's The Making of Star Trek when it was published back in the late 1960s, the question might be "What could yet another book say about this series that you didn't know?" Rather a lot, actually, as it's not just about the original series, but all the spin offs, the films, and the reboot. Since we got bored with Voyager in second season, Enterprise after first season, and missed great chunks of the last two seasons of DS9 because of its broadcast time (and because, up against Babylon 5, there really wasn't much choice which one we would watch regularly), we also missed a lot of what went on with the various series, and it was nice to read a wrap-up, and such things like the Voyager cast's criticism of the show's shortcomings, examinations of what worked and what didn't in Enterprise, and other later tidbits were interesting. There's a surprising lot of Trek information packed into this small book.

book icon  Tales of the New England Coast, anthology, Castle Books
It literally took me years to buy this book. I first saw it way back in the late 1980s in Oxford Too, the late Oxford Books' remaindered/used outlet, but always gave it a miss. But recently a one-dollar price tag changed my mind.

These are stories about New England taken from old magazines like "Scribners" and "New England Magazine," from the time period 1884 to 1910, ranging in subjects from fisher folk to historical sites like Salem, Massachusetts, and the Naval Torpedo Station in Newport, Rhode Island, to historical portraits like the story of the Boston Post Road and the stagecoaches that traveled it. In typical adult Victorian magazine style, the narratives are voluble and occasionally very dense. I was struck by the social snobbery of several of the articles, especially "Newport," which seemed to be primarily about the titled people who lived glittering lives in their summer homes, as if the ordinary citizen of the city wasn't good enough to write about.

The articles, however, make you think about how the country has changed in over one hundred years. It's not just the lack of modern technology, but the close-knit, often remote communities that existed back then. "Fisher folk" are discussed as if they are some alien breed of humans, and one article concentrates on the "characters" that exist on the Maine coast. Our society has become so homogenized we don't really have groups like this any longer, unless they are some religious sect.

In addition, there are dozens of black and white photographs of "how it used to be" in tourist areas like Martha's Vineyard, Salem, Block Island, Gloucester, Cape Cod, and Bar Harbor, showing lovely country views of places now covered with blacktop, billboards, and businesses. It will make you long to take a time machine back to the quiet beauty of these places.

book icon  Elementary, edited by Mercedes Lackey
This is a second collection of stories based on Lackey's Elemental Masters novels, in which Air, Earth, Water, and Fire mages exist in an alternate Britain between 1890 and 1918. The short stories, however, have a broader range and take place from the Aztec era to Edwardian Britain, with the final tale, Lackey's own, in an indeterminate era based on the Red Riding Hood legend (a preview of her next Elemental Masters novel).

In general I liked this total collection better than the last, but the complaints I had in the first book still stand: several stories are just incidents rather than complete stories, such as "Feathers and Foundations," which is an anecdote about the Warders and the ravens at the Tower of London. Others, like "The Flying Contraption," involving a little girl and the Wright brothers, were just strange. I enjoyed "Fire Storm," although very little elemental magic moved the story. Then there was "London Falling," an interesting, but grisly, story that is a fictional follow-on to the true crime book Devil in the White City. "Air of Deception" is a new story about Aurelia Degard, apprentice parfumeuse, and one of the better entries.

Like the previous book, the cover was done on the cheap, using snippets from other Elemental Masters novels. Sad that the publisher itself doesn't even value these books.

book icon  Dying in the Wool, Frances Brody
Kate Shackleton's husband disappeared in the carnage of the first World War and, in the four years since he was declared lost in action, Kate has developed a small talent for searching for missing persons. When a friend she nursed with in the Voluntary Aid Detachment asks her to take on a search for her father, the owner of a profitable woolen mill who disappeared in 1916 after having been rescued from a suicide attempt, she attempts to make a go of it professionally. Needing an extra hand, Kate employs John Sykes, an out-of-work police officer, and stays with her friend Tabitha in the weeks before her wedding to delve quietly into the mystery from the family point of view. And what she finds are plenty of secrets.

This is an English country mystery in the classic style, with an appealing, if not exactly sparkling protagonist, and a slow-moving, yet twisting narrative with a surprise or two around every bend. We get an interesting portrait of Britain in the 1920s, in which a woman driving her own car is a novelty, yet the period details don't overpower the story, and the woolen mill details are fascinating. Best yet, Kate and John's relationship is refreshingly unmarred by sexual tension. If you're looking for a fast-moving modern-style detective novel, this isn't it; if you enjoy cozies alà Christie, it may be a perfect fit.

book icon  Call The Midwife: Farewell to the East End, Jennifer Worth
This is the third and final book in Worth's trilogy based upon her career as a midwife in London's dockland slums. This time Jenny, Cynthia, Trixie, and Chummy as well as the Sisters of Nonnatus House must deal with an unmarried girl whose delivery will be as much a surprise as it is for the midwife, the amazing story of a pregnant woman where no woman should ever be, and the identical twins Mavis and Meg who prove formidable when the former is expecting. Sister Monica Joan continues to prove mercurial, and we finally see how Chummy meets and courts her policeman. Worth also provides grim stories about tuberculosis that runs in families and back-alley abortionists; in a lighter note, a chimney cleaning and a birth combined prove a sooty operation.

While the stories about the midwives and the nuns are as lively as ever, I think Worth was running out of novel experiences for this final book, and it is padded out with extended stories about each of the mothers and children, plus some horrific historical facts, including the story of the abuses of the Contagious Disease (Women) Act. There is a welcome epilog to let us know what happened to each of the characters after the Docklands were cleared and Nonnatus House closed for good.

book icon  The Prime Minister's Secret Agent, Susan Elia MacNeal
I'm tempted to call this outing "How Maggie got her groove back."

Margaret Hope, former American mathematician, now a British spy, is still recovering from her arduous mission in Berlin in which she discovered she had a German half-sister, confronted her mother (a Nazi spy), killed a man, and rescued her lover—who promptly dumped her when he found she'd turned to another man after he was declared dead. Maggie's now training spies in Scotland, where she struggles with depression, while her mother Clara, imprisoned in the Tower of London, slowly reveals a grisly secret. And then Maggie's close friend Sarah becomes critically ill after being accused of murder.

Frankly, most of this book isn't about Maggie at all, but about the machinations behind the attack on Pearl Harbor, from Dusan Popov's warning to J. Edgar Hoover about certain suspicious Japanese military movements to the fateful hours just before and after (you may be interested, or perhaps even a bit outraged, at who MacNeal speculates knew about the attack beforehand). In the meantime Maggie searches for the source of Sarah's illness (a mystery that takes a page out of an episode of Foyle's War; and I was amused that Porton Down was mentioned just after I had seen the episode of The Bletchley Circle that referenced this war location). Make no mistake, the multiple plotlines keep the pages turning, but there's a little less of Maggie Hope in this Maggie Hope mystery. Incidentally, MacNeal's anachronisms still jar: I don't think people referred to "the big picture" back then.

book icon  A Coal Miner's Bride: The Diary of Anetka Kaminska, Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Thirteen-year-old Anetka lives in a Poland that has been conquered by the Russians, so she is understandably annoyed when a young Russian soldier begins flirting with her. But her lot seems thrown in with him when he, she, and her little brother head for America with steamship tickets provided by a man who works in a Pennsylvania coal mine with her emigrant father—the price of the tickets? Anetka must marry the man—and be mother to his three small daughters.

This is a vivid portrayal of the hardships of immigrants in the coal mining industry in the late 19th century. Anetka goes from a poor but bucolic rural environment to a filthy, rude, poverty-stricken life, living with a man she does not love, but whose children she does come to care about. The immigrants are hated by the American citizens who seem to have forgotten they were immigrants once themselves, who fear the "hunkies" will steal jobs from them, and they are cheated at every turn by the mine owners and foremen. The early activities of the Mine Workers' union play a role in the story as well, underlined by the very real specter of Anetka's loneliness.

The setting of this book was also appealing in that this was the situation my grandparents entered upon coming to the United States: from rural Italy to a coal-mining village in eastern Ohio. The romance is also very sweet.

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31 March 2014

Books Completed Since March 1

Where are all the books for March? Well, I was finishing the winter magazines I didn't read in the winter because I was catching up reading the Christmas magazines. And I was dipping into The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries almost every night. And because I started a bunch that I haven't yet finished. So that's why there are only...goggle...three books in here. Be assured I was reading. :-D

book icon Sherlock Holmes FAQ, Dave Thompson
Two things are very obvious after reading this book: Dave Thompson loves the series Sherlock and doesn't like the series Elementary. And he manages to check off a selected list about Sherlock pastiches and books with Sherlockian protagonists, including Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce novels, and never once mentions Laurie King's now at-least-ten-book series featuring Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell. I think I know what that means. :-)

Using the gimmick of naming the chapters as if they were the titles of Sherlock Holmes adventures (which does get tiresome after awhile) and writing as if the narrative is a Victorian mystery, Thompson tells the story of Arthur Conan Doyle, son of an alcoholic father and a mother who protected him from his rages, the story of the "Strand" magazine, and finally all about the canon story-by-story and interesting notes about each (a River Song warning: spoilers!), followed by commentary on Holmes media adaptations, going all the way back to the William Gillette play that gave the world a Holmes eternally in deerstalker cap and with meerschaum pipe.

In addition, the book is dotted with numerous illustrations of Holmes illustrations, photographs of actors who played Holmes and Watson, movie posters, cigarette cards, Sherlock Holmes games, and more. If you're a Holmes devotee, you may not find anything new here, but it's in a smart package that's altogether enjoyable if you, like me, can't get enough of the world's favorite consulting detective. 

book icon Louisa Alcott: Girl of Old Boston, Jean Brown Wagner
This is a charming, child-oriented biography in Bobbs-Merrill's "Childhood of Famous Americans" series, illustrated with darling silhouette illustrations. As a juvenile biography from the 1940s, it takes a simple, childlike view of Louisa's early life and much of the reality of what actually happened is missing: the endless, grinding household work; going hungry because her father's teaching didn't bring in much money; the Alcotts' mercurial fortunes. But as a simple introduction to Louisa's childhood, it's perfect for a younger child interested in "how people lived."

I was amused by the endpapers, which feature some of the famous women portrayed in the series. In probably my favorite "Dear America" novel, Lasky's Christmas After All, her young heroine Minnie accompanies her sister to the Bobbs-Merrill Christmas party (her sister works there) and is given a biography of Martha Washington. Minnie makes a face and asks why they don't do biographies of more interesting women, ones who do things, like her favorite, Amelia Earhardt. According to the end papers, Bobbs-Merrill apparently "took Minnie's advice" and did do a bio of Earhardt. :-)

book icon  Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World, Anne Jamison and others
Fanfiction isn't anything new. It wasn't born with Trekkies writing Mary Sue fiction about Spock. Unauthorized sequels to Jane Austen novels popped up almost immediately, and sequels and alternate versions continue to appear (a novel about Pride and Prejudice from the viewpoint of the servants was just recently released).  J.M. Barrie wrote Sherlock Holmes fic along with Peter Pan; Sherlockian "fanfic" has existed almost as long as there has been a Holmes and Watson, and Arthurian fanfiction and sequels to noted novels like Don Quixote dot literature. Austen herself even wrote fanfiction as a child, about the Duke of Wellington.

Anyway, as a fanfiction reader and writer, I had, had, had to have this book, and in general I enjoyed it. I have the two classic fanfiction books, Jenkins' Textual Poachers and Bacon-Smith's Enterprising Women, and this looked as if it were a good update into the world of today's internet fanfiction. And so it is; just past page 100 the past of mimeographs and offset printing has been overtaken by online fic, and I was enlightened.

Still, things bothered me. First, for anyone who likes fanfiction but who is sensitive to swearing, be advised this book is full of strong language. Second, there seems to be an overreliance on Twilight fanfiction in the narrative. Third—where's all the gen fanfic? Almost every online fanfic addressed between pages 107-388 is het or slash fic. I have no objection to adult fic. I've written adult fic. But where are the character studies, the adventure tales, the hurt/comfort, the fill-ins? I came out of the book with the bemused impression that 100 percent of online fanfiction is about sexual encounters, and it only confirmed that I have no interest in who Bella Swan bonks. So—it's enjoyable, it's informative, but it's rather one-sided. Be forewarned.

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08 March 2014

Got Book?

James left early for his club meeting so he could give a disabled member a ride. I went back to the book sale; I was right about it being slim pickings: previously they had put out more books on Saturday and again on Sunday. I wonder if people are now taking their books to 2nd and Charles to trade for credit rather than donating them. Anyway:

book icon To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight, James Tobin (mostly for James)
book icon Cape Cod and the Offshore Islands, Walter Teller
book icon Christmas in Williamsburg, Joanne B. Young  and Taylor Biggs Lewis Jr
book icon Wandering Through Winter, Edwin Way Teale (this is part of a series of four seasonal travelogues through the United States, done before the interstates were built; looks fascinating)

and a brand new book that I bought as a gift.

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07 March 2014

Book Sale Tally

The semi-annual Cobb County Library book sale was today. I keep saying I'm not going to buy much. LOL. Actually, the pickings weren't all that good, but I did get a couple of goodies. Oh, and I did end up getting more of the World Book Christmas books, even if I'm not all that interested in Christmas in warm places.

book iconLouisa Alcott: Girl of Old Boston, Jean Brown Wagoner
book iconRocket Ship Galileo, Robert Heinlein (this for James, a hardback copy—don't think I've ever read this one)
book iconChristmas in...Scandinavia, ...Mexico, ...the Philippines
book iconChristmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters, Patricia C. and Frederick L. McKissack
book iconSears, Roebuck and Co, 100th Anniversary 1886-1986 (with photographs)
book iconThe Cuckoo's Calling, Robert Galbraith (::wink::)
book iconThe Art of Raising a Puppy, The Monks of New Skete
book iconHattie Big Sky, Kirby Larson (set during the first World War)
book iconSo Dear to My Heart, Jane Goyer (I read this as a library book ten years ago)
book iconPlace Names of the English-Speaking World, C.M. Matthews
book iconOne Dozen and One, Gladys Taber (short stories)
book iconSylvia's Farm, Sylvia Jorrin (I may have this already, but it was only a dollar)
book iconSanta and Pete, Christopher Moore and Pamela Johnson
book iconThe Dirty Life, Kristin Kimball (this was on my Amazon Wish List, so I'm chuffed)
book iconOver the Beach: The Air War in Vietnam, Zalin Grant (for James)

and a Gladys Taber book I already have, but I'm trying to get a blog friend to read Taber, so I'm going to send it to her. 

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