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

31 July 2016

Books Completed Since July 1

book icon  Space Helmet for a Cow, Paul Kirkley
I think this one is strictly for Doctor Who fans, but what a fan book: a wonderful, amusing hodgepodge of behind-the-scenes events and facts from each era of the classic series, starting from its inception in the mind of Sydney Newman, back when the leads included Lola, Cliff, and Biddie, and its development under Verity Lambert. It's a heady mix of changes in stories, conflicting personalities, props, music, script malfunctions, strange casting, special effects on a budget, all costumes great and small, Venusian akido, teeth and hair, Billyisms, and Colin Baker's coat. Yeah, if you cleaned up a lot of the Kirkley bosh, you'd have a shorter book, but it's done in such fun that you can almost ignore it. Lots of behind-the-scenes bits about the main actors involved as well, including one jaw-dropper about Patrick Troughton.

Yeah, I enjoyed it to bits—and there's a sequel coming out soon!

book icon  The Counterfeit Heiress, Tasha Alexander
Lady Emily and her husband Colin Hargreaves are attending a costume ball at the home of the Duchess of Devonshire, along with her dear friends Cecile and Jeremy, when first Emily is puzzled when a strange man comes up to her and asks her a question, only to receive a rude response when she answers him. She is even more perplexed when she accompanies Cecile to greet her old friend Estella Lamar (who is wearing a similar costume to Emily's), a world traveller, and Cecile accuses the woman of being an imposter. The woman flees and is soon found dead. Emily and Colin grow more bewildered when they find Estella supports several homes with full servants, but has never lived in any of them. Where is real Estella? Is she still travelling? Or are the photographs of her traveling just as fake as her impostor?

Inserted in chapters between the story of Emily and Colin's investigation is the story of Estella, a shy child whose happiest moments were spent telling stories to her dolls, who survives a strange incident after her parents die and she is left an enormous fortune. It persuades her to make travel plans...but why?

This is a rather creepy entry in the Lady Emily mystery series, especially in the Estella chapters, but it is also very atmospheric, especially the sequences which take place in Paris. Alexander has based the story loosely on a historical person who was recently featured in a biography, and makes good use of her base character with touches of Charles Dickens.

book icon  Lusitania, Greg King and Penny Wilson
This was the second of two books that came out in 2015 about the Lusitania tragedy, the other being Erik Larson's Dead Wake. While Larson turned his story into a cat-and-mouse suspense tail with alternating chapters aboard the U-20 and the British liner, King and Wilson concentrate almost solely on the travellers and crew of the Lusitania, from pre-boarding to their eventual fates. The book is full of marvelous details about the decor of the ship, her meals and amusements, the clothing and the affairs and the mores of her passengers (mostly the first-class occupants), and the issues of the day, and then the harrowing experiences of those who survived, whether thrown from the ship or in a lifeboat, floating among dead bodies and watching shipmates drown.

The prose is vivid enough, but one wishes there were more pictures in a better format than murky black and white on rough paper.

book icon  From Little Houses to Little Women, Nancy McCabe
McCabe was a voracious reader from when she was a child, raised in a narrow, restrictive religious home, the appealing lives of book heroines an open door to her imagination. She "gave up childish things" for a while, then was drawn back to her childhood heroines. The book chronicles both her examination of her love of the books and a trip she took with her 9-year-old daughter Sophie to see the real-life sites she had read about as a child: the different homes of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Mankato of the Maud Hart Lovelace "Betsy-Tacy" books, the Prince Edward Island location of the Anne books, and, briefly, Concord and Little Women, a trip that mirrored one taken when she was about Sophie's age with her dying aunt.

The discussion of the books and the chronicle of the trip are both pretty cool. I had never heard of the "Jennifer" books she talked about, and I was rather indignant that some of the highly-touted "Little House" historical sites take so much material from the television series rather than out of Wilder's autobiographical novels. Her narrative about how goody-goody Mary Ingalls seemed to be was right on target. She and Sophie have a comfortable mother-daughter relationship that is warm and mirrors the relationships in her favorite books while remaining unsentimentally modern.

On the other hand, I wonder why all these reviews of children's literature involve the narrator working out childhood traumas. It's very sad.

book icon  Sup With the Devil, Barbara Hamilton
In what I believe is the third and final Abigail Adams mystery, Abigail travels to Harvard College at the bequest of her nephew Horace, who tells her a troubling story about an errand to provide an Arabic translation for a mysterious "Mrs. Lake" and being drugged for his pains. Abigail can't make sense of it, but does make the acquaintance of some of Horace's classmates, including the gentlemanly Ryland, the bullying Pugh, a "praying Indian" named Weyountah, and cheerful Virginian George Fairfield, who is accompanied by his slave. It is while Abigail is still in Cambridge that the latter is murdered, and his slave Diomede is accused of the crime. The others band together to clear Diomede of the charge—else he will be returned to Virginia and burned alive. And what did it have to do with Horace's mysterious journey?

As in the other two books, Abigail still seems to have too much freedom for a eighteenth century housewife who has a ton of chores; she seems to be able to routinely be able to step away from home overnight and leave things to her servants and in-laws. Otherwise this is a perplexing mystery that mixes the real-life political issues of pre-revolutionary Boston (they spend most of the book waiting to see if the King will close the port after the events of the tea party) in with a mystery involving alchemy texts and college students. The vocabulary thankfully doesn't slip to reveal modernisms, as happens in so many period pieces, and the atmosphere is correct for the time. The disappearance of one of the children is also terrifyingly well done.

book icon  Radio Girls, Sarah-Jane Stratford
Maisie Musgrave was raised chiefly in Canada by an American mother who barely wanted to admit she had a daughter, and a grandmother who hated the fact she had an out-of-wedlock granddaughter. Now back in the land of her father's birth, a down-on-her-luck Maisie is thrilled to find a position as an assistant typist to the secretary of the director general of the BBC. She's not prepared for the pace, nor the piqued attentions of Hilda Matheson, a rara avis at the BBC, a woman executive, in charge of BBC radio's "Talks" department. Under Hilda, the Talks—on subjects from gardening to books to politics—have become very popular, annoying her conservative superiors, and as Maisie gains confidence under Hilda's tutelage, she begins to blossom. But soon she discovers there's something sinister going on behind the scenes...

I really enjoyed this look at the BBC's early days and at the career of real-life Hilda Matheson, who had several challenges in life, not just in business as a female executive, but as a lesbian in a bigoted society. Maisie is our "eye" into the clashes between the imperious and prudish director general John Reith versus the ambitious and creative Matheson; in addition there is a creepy subplot involving those who wish to use the BBC for their own purposes. (The parallel with current politics is not lost on the perceptive.) Yes, the subplot seems a bit "boys' own adventure" at times, but the personalities surrounding it are appealing and you wish to follow them all to the inevitable end.

book icon  Speaking American, Richard W. Bailey
While most of the linguistics books that I have trace the development and appearance of words and idioms in the English language, this one follows the historical developments that contributed to the evolution of the American language from its English vocabulary, starting with the influence of Native American words on the earliest settlers (who resisted using the Native words and at first chose to give English words to them instead). Native American vocabulary additions are also examined in the chapter taking place in Boston, followed by African-American contributions, German additions (again resisted by "pure" English speakers), French borrowings, and then vocabulary from the Yiddish speakers in New York, Chicagoans, and Angelinos.

It's a bit of a dry book, but a different look at how the language formed that does not concentrate on vocabulary. Sadly, the author died before its publication.

book icon  The Death of Lucy Kyte, Nicola Upson
This is an atmospheric and often creepy entry in Upson's mysteries featuring mystery writer Josephine Tey (real name Elizabeth Mackintosh). As the story begins, Tey finds out she has inherited a cottage from her godmother, a stage actress who was also her mother's childhood friend, and is surprised that the woman even remembered her. The cottage is in bad repair, and a room in it gives Josephine the shivers, but she still plans to fix it up as a country retreat, even as she finds out the cottage is embedded in village lore as connected to a murder in a nearby barn. Soon she's wondering if her godmother's death was due solely to old age and discovering sordid details that were covered up by a well-meaning friend of the woman. And who's the Lucy Kyte mentioned in her godmother's will? No one in the village seems to know who that is.

Even with occasional lapses in her previous narratives (like the incestuous relationship in the second book that is treated as if it were an ordinary thing), Upson does her usual terrific job of capturing the pacing and language of a 1930s thriller/mystery, and this one includes a supernatural element as well. The cottage's history has something to do with the famous "Red Barn murder," a 19th century event that actually happened in the town of Polstead, which is the setting of this book, and Upson well mixes her fictional elements with the known elements of Maria Marten's murder. Plus Josephine's continuing romance doesn't feel tacked on in this outing, but an integral part of the story. I hung on this one tensely until the final page. A real winner if you like old-fashioned murder mysteries.

book icon  Queen of Hearts, Rhys Bowen
Georgiana Rannoch, 35th in line for the English throne and perpetually underfunded, travels in a new direction in this newest entry in the "Royal Spyness" series. Her flamboyant actress mother, who was the late Duke of Rannoch's second wife, brings Georgie and her hopelessly gauche maid Queenie along with her aboard ship as she heads for Reno, Nevada, to get a divorce from her present husband to marry Max, her handsome German industrialist lover. Aboard ship, Georgie befriends an odd assortment of passengers, including a bombastic American film director (sort of a combination Goldwyn and Hearst) and his actress lover, and a princess carrying a priceless ruby. Aboard ship, the ruby is stolen, and Georgie thinks she sees someone fall overboard, but no passenger is missing.

This is just the start of Georgie's adventures, which continue through a short stop in Reno and end in California, where the director wants to put her mother into a movie and where they stay at his castle estate (think Hearst Castle). Coincidentally, Georgie's beau, the impoverished but dashing Darcy O'Mara, is aboard ship (and later following Georgie) in search of a jewel thief.

A fun romp for Georgie fans, as these books are always a bit romantic and tongue in cheek. Georgie does some real sleuthing, and her mother is quite audacious and funny. Bowen skewers classic Hollywood types and the mystery is pretty good, although if you pay attention, a clue to an identity is offered early on.

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30 June 2016

Books Completed Since June 1

book icon  Written in Stone, Christopher Stevens
English words have been traced back to early Indo-European tongues, but Stevens claims an even earlier pedigree: that some of our most basic words go back to the Stone Age utterances of our prehistoric ancestors. Stevens follows each individual word, basic vocabulary having to do with everyday life, from basic breathing to speaking to existence, words for birth and death, food and drink, light and dark, yes and no, growth and harvesting, and the more modern words that grew out of those simple roots.

Linguistics fans will enjoy; I certainly did.

book icon  Murder in the Afternoon, Frances Brody
In this third in the Kate Shackleton mystery series, the novel opens with two children taking food to their father, a stoneworker at a quarry. But their errand turns into horror when they discover their father dead and the sundial he was working on ruined. However, when they go to get help and return with an adult, there is no sign of the murder—in fact no sign of their father at all. Their mother travels to the home of Kate Shackleton, asking her to find him, and reveals an incredible secret: she's Kate's sister. At first Kate takes on the case as an obligation, but then she becomes involved with her niece and the mystery itself.

These are great period pieces (post World War I), with Kate still suffering repercussions of losing her husband in combat and still hoping he may be found alive in some hospital. The additional baggage of the mystery involving her biological family is also telling in Kate's investigation as she discovers a little more of "who she is." Brody does a fine job preserving the customs, language, and atmosphere of the times without resorting to the casual prejudices of the era. The mystery is also reasonably complicated.

book icon  Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leewenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing, Laura J. Snyder
This is an intriguing, if a bit tiring, book about artist Vermeer, scientist van Leewenhoek, and how they both used glass lenses to achieve breakthroughs in their chosen fields, van Leewenhoek to, of course, discover the "little animals" living in drops of water (bacteria) using the new microscopes, and Vermeer's use of the camera obscura and other pinhole techniques to emphasize depth of field in his paintings and develop new techniques of portraying perspectives. It's also a portrait of Dutch society in the 1600s: their science, exploration, finance, etc.

The detail may fascinate or bore you (I leaned toward the former, but even for me the prose was occasionally dense). My main problem, if any, was Snyder's continued assertion that, even though there was no record of it, Vermeer and van Leewenhoek just had to know each other: they lived in the same area, shared some neighbors and relatives, etc. A few times to make this assertion was okay, but it kept popping up interminably.

Best for those who are interested in the history of painting and/or scientific exploration, or perhaps Dutch history.

book icon  Treasure of the Golden Cheetah, Suzanne Arruda
Jade del Cameron reluctantly joins a safari to Mount Kilimanjaro in the company of her friendly enemy Harry Hascombe, who's escorting a movie crew to the area. The flamboyant director is shooting a film about King Solomon's mines, and some of his crew still think there's treasure to be found. Harry has asked Jade to act as escort for the actresses of the company, and she gets an unwanted education in envy, cattiness, and rivalry from both the female and male members of the cast and crew. It also looks as if someone wants to sabotage the production. But from the beginning, even Jade's ward Jelani and her pet cheetah Biscuit know there's something going on, and they stow away with the party. And sure enough, death is in the offing.

The Jade del Cameron books always mix mystery, period charm, and travelogue, and this one is no exception. There's a nice sense of tension through the entire plot, red herrings, and of course the intrepid Jade herself. Her fiance Sam is becoming less of a cardboard character as well, although he is often ineffective. If you like period mysteries set in exotic places, these are worth your investigation.

book icon  Cranston Revisited, Sandra M. Moyer and Thomas A. Worthington
A second vintage visit to my home town via old photographs and the folks at Arcadia Publishing and "Images of America." Long ago the places I remember full of shopping centers and favorite stores were farmlands dotted with cows and produce (at one time Rhode Island was a dairy capital!), there was a coal mine at the back end of what's now Garden City shopping center, and clothing mills dotted what wasn't pastures. Lots of pictures of the Sprague Mansion and even the trotting park that became the state fairgrounds and finally the housing plat where my playmates and my Mom's best friend lived. A must for any Cranstonian who loves history.

book icon  Walk the Lines: The London Underground Overground, Mark Mason
What's one of the most memorable things about the city of London? Its transport system, about which many things have been written. But what's above those underground lines?

That's what Mark Mason sets out to discover as he walks each of the London Underground lines...overhead, from the shortest to the longest, outbound and back again, some done in the warmth and others done in the cold. One turns into a pub crawl. One is done with a friend. And along the way Mason notes historical markers, changing architecture, famous personages, and more quips than you can shake a stick at. He even explains the difference between "the tube" and "the underground," and indeed there is a difference.

I think by the end I was a bit tired of his whimsy, but take it slowly and you'll discover some inside history.

book icon  Death of a Dog Whisperer, Laurien Berenson
Melanie Travis' peppery Aunt Peg, the one who dragged Melanie into the competitive dog ring by gifting her with the standard poodle Faith, has a new protege: Nick Walden, a young man who's called a "dog whisperer," who is having tremendous success with behavior training of both dogs and their owners. Even a wary Melanie, having heard too many gimmicks in her years in the dog ring and who knows Aunt Peg met Nick through her ex-husband Bob, who has led both of them astray before, likes the affable Nick. So why was he murdered?

I twigged on the solution to this one a little before the reveal, but it didn't keep me from enjoying the reappearance of semi-regulars like Terry and Crawford, or Bob being a big part of the plot, and even the fact that Melanie's mysterious previous neighbor figures into the plot. It's a shame something happened to Nick because he was actually a nice guy, as opposed to some of the murder victims previous in this series. And Melanie doesn't do anything goofy at the end of the story to precipitate the climax. The only problem was the nearly book-long difficulty between Sam and Melanie, but Sam's been such a perfect boyfriend/husband for so long it's actually a relief to know those two argue once in a while.

As always, I enjoy this series, despite any flaws in the individual books.

book icon  Once Upon a Flock, Lauren Scheuer
Adorable little book about a couple and their child who raise a trio of chickens and learn that these supposedly "stupid" birds have personality and charm of their own. The flock is guarded by a cute little terrier, and Scheuer's adorable little drawings of chickens, dogs, and kids, plus photographs of the real thing, pepper the text. Animal lovers will...well, love!

book icon  Heirs of the Body, Carola Dunn
This very latest of the Daisy Dalrymple-Fletcher novels has Daisy assisting with a mystery involving her own family. When Daisy's brother, who was to inherit the family estate, died in the Great War, and Daisy, being female, could not inherit, her cousin Edgar and his wife were the legal inheritors of the estate. Now, since Edgar and his spouse have no children, a legal heir must be found for when Lord Dalrymple passes on. Advertising produces several heirs, and Edgar asks Daisy to help him investigate the claims. As in all families, some of the claimants are nice, and some are not, and since this is a murder mystery cozy, of course one of them turns up dead.

This is an entertaining mystery in which we see more of Daisy's family—I simply love cousin Edgar, who cares more for his butterfly collection than his title (but who can get serious when he needs to)—including her sister and her snobbish mother. Once again Alec Fletcher's superiors are appalled that Daisy is involved in another murder, and there is fun with a village fete, where Belinda (Daisy's stepdaughter) and Derek (Daisy's nephew) prove they are both "bricks" in the best British slang tradition.

book icon  Martha's Vineyard: Isle of Dreams, Susan Branch
When we left our heroine at the end of The Fairy Tale Girl, she was on an airplane fleeing the end of a broken relationship, back to somewhere she had loved, Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. She intends only to stay a few months to soothe her broken heart, and then she sees—and impulsively buys—Holly Oak Cottage, a tiny home in need of love. And gradually Susan falls even more in love with the Vineyard, and her home, and a new pair of cats...and with enough encouragement, submits her unique combination of watercolors, quotations, and recipes to a publisher for what will be the first of several beautiful cookbooks.

If I was enchanted with FTG, I absolutely adored this one, since I grew up in New England and the whole milieu of seasons, seashore, books, and artwork was very close to my soul, and the combination of watercolor art, quotations, vintage photographs, postcards, and Susan's handwritten text was like a warm, loving blanket of New England happiness. Even when snakes intrude into the Garden of Eden (yes, Cliff, her ex, showed up again, like a bad penny), it's a happy ride as you rejoice with her remodeling of Holly Oak, nature walks, and the whole heady book-publishing experience.

Of course, if you aren't a Branch fan, your mileage may vary. But anyone into home, domesticity, nature, and happiness of self will probably love this book.

book icon  Melody Ellison: Never Stop Singing, Denise Lewis Patrick
The second book in the Melody Ellison series does not disappoint. In this outing, Melody has been able to "see in" her first new year, that of 1964. When the pastor of her church challenges his congregation to "make a difference," Melody and her cousin and her friends get together to rehabilitate a derelict playground and make it a good park for the neighborhood. It's a lot of work for the children, and they are almost stymied in their goals, but with the help from public opinion and some of the adults in their lives, they continue and persevere.

Once again, a great read. The book does not shy away from prejudices faced by the Ellisons, their families, and their neighbors, but they always hold up their heads and overcome hard times. Melody's brother Dwayne faces rocky times on his way up in Motown, and her sister Yvonne fights for civil rights in Mississippi, where the times are particularly dangerous for people of color. The family is a haven of love and support for all of them. Even when a final obstacle comes in their path, they keep faith and overcome it.

Melody Ellison and her family and friends are inspiration for us all.

book icon  The Mysterious World of Sherlock Holmes, Bruce Wexler
This is a neat coffee table book that labels itself "the official book of the Sherlock Holmes Museum." It is like many of the other Sherlock Holmes summaries in that it talks about Conan Doyle and the origins of the stories, but also discusses police work at the time of the canon, women in the story, traveling in Victorian times, and the era's "forensics." Final chapters talk about Holmes and the media (Jeremy Brett was the newest Holmes when this was written), and there are oodles of photos from the Sherlock Holmes Museum and vintage Holmes illustrations, the latter which are the big draw in this book.

book icon  Elise The Actress, Norma Jean Lutz
This is another "Sisters in Time," vaguely Christian-themed book like the "Dear America" series. Elise Brannon is growing up during the Civil War, with a best friend whose mother is struggling after her husband's death at Bull Run and her brother joining the Union army. Since she loves to act, she and her friends put together a show to earn money for a local hospital and entertain the wounded soldiers, and they all hope for a successful end to the war. But then Elise alienates her friend Verly by befriending a man whose son fought for the Confederacy.

This is a much better girl-in-the-Civil-War book than When This Cruel War Is Over, although the Brannons don't experience as much hardship as in that book, as it represents a more typical Union family. Elise is a likeable girl, and the Christian theme is very general, of forgiveness and generosity rather than evangelizing. This book also tries to show that both Union and Confederate sides suffered during the war and that labeling someone because of something a family member did is unfair.

The biggest thing I want to know about this book is why in the dickens is the family's "Irish maid and nurse" Berdeen speaking in a Scottish accent? Why is she calling Elise a "lassie" when a real Irish person would be calling her a "colleen"?

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31 May 2016

Books Completed Since May 1

book icon  The Easter Book, Francis X. Weiser

book icon  How to Choose and Use Fonts & Typefaces, edited by Tony Seddon
This is a nice, simple book about the history of typefaces, the vocabulary associated with them (including the difference between a font and a typeface; they are not interchangeable), and which is appropriate to use in what situation. Liberally illustrated with examples and color photographs. I'm a font fanatic and really enjoyed this.

book icon  Harvest of Time, Alastair Reynolds
This is a super Third-Doctor-and-Jo adventure that features the Master and a very creepy alien race called the Sild. Once confined in a spaceship that is theoretically escape-proof, the Sild have used the Praxilons, another race led by their indomitable Red Queen, to free themselves. Then they make landfall on Earth and violently and pitilessly take over the body of a lighthouse keeper. That is only the first step in their takeover of Earth.

In the meantime, strange things are going on at an oil-drilling platform, and the Doctor, Yates, and Jo are sent to investigate, but now the rig's director, Edwina McCrimmon, says there's nothing wrong. But something is wrong: one of the men visiting an employee injured on the rig is a dead ringer for the Master, who at present is locked up in an impenetrable prison surrounded by water. And more mysteriously still, everyone at UNIT is starting to forget who the Master is. They have to write themselves notes and leave his photograph all over the installation to recall him at all. Even the Doctor is starting to forget him.

What a cracking great story! With the classic cliffhangers of the classic series mixed with modern imagery and ideas from the new series, this is a fast-moving thriller with appearances by all your favorites. The aliens are truly ruthless; this is certainly not a children's story by any means and in this resembles the present series rather than the classic series in which the Third Doctor appeared. The situation with the Master was also a more complicated situation than was ever postulated on the classic series. I found it a good mixture of old and new, and it was so happy to see all the familiar UNIT "family" again.

book icon  MASH FAQ, Dale Sherman
I really enjoyed this summary of M*A*S*H in all its incarnations, from the original book and the two "official" sequels written by Richard Hooker (and the additional sequels written by William Butterworth) to the final television sequels (AfterMASH and Trapper John, MD, plus the unseen W.A.L.T.E.R.). As with any good story, author Sherman starts at the beginning, with a short, concise history of the Korean War, which only lasted a quarter of M*A*S*H's eleven year run. In turn, the movie and the subsequent television series are also examined.

Some things that I really enjoyed: the summary of the later novels, as I pretty much bowed out after M*A*S*H Goes to Maine; the differences between the book and the movie (and the difference between Robert Altman's script and Ring Lardner's); movies and two television series associated with the film, including one with Humphrey Bogart; a list of recurring characters from the television series (like Spearchucker and Ginger Bayliss) who disappeared; and a discussion about fans' favorite periods of the show (the Blake years vs. the Potter years, or Burns vs. Winchester, etc.)—even a "featurette" chapter about the movies shown in the mess tent.

As a big fan of M*A*S*H, from Blake/Trapper/Burns to Potter/Hunnicutt/Winchester, I found this a great book filled with 4077th trivia of all kinds. Glad I spotted it!

book icon  Murder on Murray Hill, Victoria Thompson
Frank Malloy hopes his compatriots on the police force won't discover he's come into a great deal of money as he takes on a new case: a man with a missing daughter who did not come home the previous night. He's discovered the plain young woman was responding to a lonely hearts ad in one of the New York newspapers. However, his hopes are dashed when the truth about the money is exposed and Frank is kicked off the force. However, he still feels a responsibility to find Grace Thompson, as does his fiance, midwife Sarah Brandt. As further clues appear, they become very uneasy about Grace. Can Frank and Sarah still help with the case without the police putting them under arrest?

Thompson's Victorian "gaslight" mysteries always involve murder, and death in this "cozy" series is not always pretty. But the situation in which this plot develops into is a deeply disturbing story which may bother sensitive people (suffice it to say that the man who put in the lonely hearts ad is not a nice person) and the details are not pretty. If you have read the other books but are easily disturbed, you may want to skip this one. Frank and Sarah's relationship does proceed a little more in discussing making a life together, but it's the crime and its solution that takes center stage here. I did enjoy the story and the unique resolution, but some of the chapters were difficult to get through.

book icon  The Yankee Road, James D. McNiven
James McNiven wanted to write a Road Book, like his heroes Kerouac and Least Heat-Moon before him. And boy, did he write one—the first of a projected three, a thick tome about a fascinating westward movement.

McNiven's road trip takes us along US20, from the beginning of the route and the beginning of the race known as "Yankees," those tough New Englanders who settled the stony soil of the upper northeast of the United States. (The name supposedly came from the Dutch, who jibingly called the English "John Cheeses.") As he traces the route of the highway—in this volume covering the route through the Pennsylvania border of Lake Erie—he also touches on the history along the way that was influenced by the Yankee way of life, whether it was religion (the first communes and model communities, the "Great Awakening," plus movements in Syracuse and Utica), education (the Chautauqua movement and the birth of the American public school), or "good old Yankee ingenuity" in its myriad forms: the first textile mills (Pawtucket and Lowell), interchangeable parts (Springfield), and the first computer revolution (Route 128, the "technology highway"), not to mention time study (Watertown, MA, and Frederick Taylor) vs. individuality (Henry Thoreau at Walden Pond). It's 360 pages, plus another 120 pages of very readable footnotes with additional info) full of history goodness.

The big question is: when's the rest coming out?

book icon  Ghost Hero, S.J. Rozan
This appears to be the last in Rozan's series of Lydia Chin and Bill Smith detective stories that began with China Trade, introducing us to Lydia, a Chinese-American private investigator and her partner Bill, and alternated through a series of books where Chin and Smith appeared as leads. In this final (?) installment, Lydia's new client is asking her to look into supposedly new paintings rumored to exist from a famous Chinese painter and social agitator, Chau Chun, nicknamed "Ghost Hero Chau," who has been dead for some years. When Lydia tells Bill about the case, and her reasons for feeling something is awry, Bill takes her to meet Jack Lee, another "ABC" (American Born Chinese) private detective, who has also been asked to look into the mysterious new Ghost Hero paintings. Lydia, Bill and Jack pool their resources, resulting in an absorbing "caper" in which Smith poses as Russian Mafia wanting to possess the paintings (if they exist) and Chin and Lee team up, to Mrs. Chin's great delight, since she's afraid Lydia is in love with Bill.

I never much got into the Bill Smith books, but I loved Lydia Chin's world and am sad to see it disappear, especially the reactions from her traditional mother who wishes her daughter would settle down, marry, and have babies with someone else of Chinese descent. Jack, Lydia, and Bill together make a madcap team, and along the way we learn about traditional Chinese painting and the breakout artists of Chinese descent abandoning the traditional ways. The sequences with Bill pretending to be a Russian collector interested in rare Chinese art was worth the price of the book. I guessed one little secret a few chapters before the end, but no matter: being with Ms. Chin and Mr. Smith was the best part of the deal.

book icon  The Catholic Catalogue, Melissa Musick and Anna Keating
This is an essential and useful book for any Catholic family who wishes to know more about the Catholic faith (no, we don't worship saints; we venerate them—they provide intercession for us with God) and form traditions around the events of the church calendar to make the faith more meaningful. The book opens with explanations of the symbols and practices of Catholicism (novenas, scapulas, holy water, etc.) and a calendar of the church year follows, with saints' days and the Seasons of Advent, Lent, etc. The concluding chapters are about the seasons of a Catholic person's life, from childhood through the final days of your life.

The book is written in a nice, easy to read style with the occasional tongue in cheek remark (for instance, the first section is entitled "Smells and Bells") that still remains properly reverential. There are some simple ideas for family celebrations, appropriate hymns and prayers for each occasion, and even a few recipes. This is a nice book for a young Catholic couple just starting a family and wanting to establish traditions, or even an old Catholic looking for new insights on his faith.

book icon  Sweet Home Alaska, Carole Estby Dagg
I absolutely, positively adore this book.

It's the story of the Johnson family who are not-quite-but-close-to starving on their home farm in the fourth year of the Great Depression. They are living hand-to-mouth on the vegetables they can grow and the meager income from Mother's piano lessons, but those have now dried up in their poverty-stricken farming community. Luckily oldest daughter Terpsichore (Mrs. Johnson is named "Clio," and all the girls are named after the Muses) is an inventive cook, a perfect whiz with making creative dishes, especially from pumpkin.  The family makes the difficult decision to homestead in Alaska with a group of other farm families, with Mrs. Johnson giving them eighteen months to "prove up." Terpsichore rises to the challenge, taking all the hardships, including life in a tent and itchy mosquitoes, on the chin, helping the community to form a lending library with her new friends Gloria and Mendel. To do something that will keep her mother from voting to leave Alaska, Terpsichore takes a cue from one of her favorite books, trying to raise a milk-fed pumpkin just like Almanzo Wilder in Farmer Boy to win a prize at the autumn fair.

Based on a true story of farmers who were sent to homestead in Palmer, Alaska, during the 1930s, this is a delight to read, often funny, sometimes sad, and you will be rooting for Terpsichore and her plan to make her mother like Alaska.

book icon  Sherlock: The Facts and Fiction Behind the World's Most Famous Detective, Martin Fido
This is a nice beginner book overview of Holmes and Watson with color illustrations, opening with a bio of Holmes (and of Watson, of course); then a bio of Conan Doyle, a summary of each of the short story collections and novels, a chapter about detectives and criminals in the Victorian era followed by a history of detective fiction and a history of Holmes in other than his Canon. There are some photographs I haven't seen in other compilations about the Great Detective, but if you have one of those recent color compilations, this one may be redundant. (This is a British book, so you may enjoy the different POV.)

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30 April 2016

Books Completed Since April 1

book icon  Closer to the Heart, Mercedes Lackey
This is the second book in Lackey's "Herald Spy" series, featuring Mags, the Chosen mine-slave now grown up and on the eve of his marriage to Amily, once the crippled daughter of the King's Own Herald and now King's Own herself. Mags continues to develop his spy network in this book and assist the street kids who help him in his intelligence surveillance.

Several interesting new characters are introduced in this story, including Lady Dia's husband Lord Jorthun and what sounds like an autistic craftsman, Tuck, who can make marvelous tools and inventions. Thankfully, the Romeo-and-Juliet plot from the preceding book is almost forgotten, but the story moves slowly in the middle as Lackey illustrates the setup of the spy network. However, a new danger is introduced almost immediately: Valdemaran weapons are being used to help overthrow a king in the neighboring country of Menmillith, which is determined to fight back, even if it means war.

So the threat builds and a lead is then followed—but the actual "villain" of the piece is identified very late in the story, there's another interminable Kirball game, Mags is kidnapped yet again (not to mention Amily), and it's as if Lackey realized she was coming to the end of an established page count and suddenly wraps it up in the last twenty pages with a speech! At least Mags and Amily do get married, because after the mess they certainly deserve some happiness. To sum up: it's rather uneven, but it does progress the storyline. And a thread right at the beginning was never wrapped up, so I'm wondering if it's going to show up in a future book. Same time next year, I expect...

book icon  Poems and Sketches of E.B. White, E.B. White
Having lulled myself with Charlotte's Web and two volumes of meticulous and lovely essays followed by a surfeit of letters, what do I come upon but this book, which has not only the very beautiful—I love White's poetry; he favors sonnets, but uses all forms—but the very strange, like one piece called "The Door," and the inevitable essay about strange servants in which James Thurber also indulged, even a piece about pigeons addressed to what White considers a very unobservant essayist in another magazine.

I particularly love the poems written to his wife Katharine Angell, especially this one called "Wedding Day in the Rockies":
"The charm of riding eastward through Wyoming
Is not so much the grandeur and the view
As that it is an exercise in homing
And that my fellow passenger is you.
In fourteen years of this our strange excursion
The scenic points of love have not grown stale
For that my mind in yours has found diversion
And in your heart my heart could never fail.

It's fourteen years today since we began it—
This sonnet crowds a year in every line—
Love were an idle drudge if time outran it
And time were stopped indeed were you not mine.
The rails go on together toward the sky
Even (the saying goes) as you and I."
Isn't that lovely? There's another great one called "Winter Trees," too, that isn't love poetry but which is just as beautiful. Read this if just for the poetry.

book icon  The Grapes of Math, Alex Bellos
I confess I didn't enjoy this one as much as Bellos' predecessor, I'm Looking at Euclid. Most of the mathematics made sense, and I enjoyed learning about how certain numbers are more "right" than others and the Benford progression, the stories behind trigonometry and calculus, and tau as a more compelling number than pi.

On the other hand, imaginary numbers just completely lost me (I couldn't figure out what they were good for) and the cell "Game of Life" had me completely baffled until he finally revealed that it could help predicting growth of cities and traffic flow (and the pattern made by the cells was pretty cool). And the fractals were kinda neat. I just guess I am not made for higher math. :-)

book icon  Journey to Munich, Jacqueline Winspear
Maisie Dobbs, now widowed and fresh from a year helping the victims of the Spanish Civil War, is back in England, living with her friends the Partridges but knowing she will need to be taking some direction in her life now that she has returned. One day she is waylaid by her old compatriot from the secret service, Robert McFarlane. He has a mission he wishes her to take: play the part of an imprisoned Englishman's daughter so her father (who is of some use to the government) can be freed in her custody. With misgivings Maisie takes the role.

Of course this being a Maisie Dobbs book you know it can't all be that simple. Maisie is also asked to locate Elaine Otterburn, the woman she secretly holds responsible for her husband's death—and once Elaine is located, Maisie's mission becomes doubly hard. As the Germans continue to delay the release of the imprisoned man, it becomes more and more dangerous for Maisie to keep up her cover as his daughter.

I liked this much more than the proceeding book; and enjoyed the Hitchcockian sense of suspense that follows Maisie's trail. But I like best the final pages of the book, which establishes a new direction for her. I look forward to the next one!

book icon  Dial H for Hitchcock, Susan Kandel
This is the fifth and final (so far that I know) book in the Cece Caruso mystery series. I didn't realize this book was out for a long time after it was published and it has since sat languishing in my to-be-read pile. Cece is an author of mystery writer/filmmaker biographies who also has a taste for vintage clothing. She has an earthy daughter named Annie who has given her one grandchild, plus another from Annie's marriage to Vincent, and when we last met her in Christietown, she was planning her wedding to police officer Peter Gambino.

Except when this book begins she has walked out of her wedding, telling Gambino she isn't good enough for him, and has just come back from what should have been her honeymoon cruise. She returns home to find she has new neighbors, some type of odd people who are Hollywood types. Her troubles being when she goes to a revival showing of Hitchcock's Vertigo and after the show finds a cell phone which is not hers in her bag. In attempting to return it, she sees a woman pushed from a hiking trail by a man, who then threatens her. But, bizarrely, she discovers that she has apparently threatened this young woman.

I've read some bizarre mysteries in my time, but this one takes the cake. The previous Cece mysteries were always a little dippy, as is Cece herself, but this was just oddly off the wall, with Cece trying to figure out how she threatened someone she didn't even know. And when she goes on the run because she knows someone is trying to frame her, she just keeps getting in more and more absurd situations, and it turns out to be the dumbest thing at the end. Frankly, if this hadn't been the last book in the series, I would have quit reading here anyway.

book icon  The Twilight Zone FAQ, Dave Thompson
First, do not buy this as a complete Twilight Zone reference book. That honor is reserved for Marc Scott Zicree's classic Twilight Zone Companion. Second, a warning: Dave Thompson hates modern television. Be prepared for many insults at reality television.

Is this book worth buying? Actually, I liked it if you don't count on it too highly for facts. I think it was badly edited on a computer and bits of text just dropped out, and of course no one proofreads books anymore. In one place the end of a sentence is clearly cut off. In another, the writer seems to be referencing something a character said, but that reference is gone. And there are facts that are wrong; in a section where Thompson is talking about UFO abductions, he mentions Betty and Barney Hills, not Hill.

On the other hand, I sort of liked the goofy way it is arranged: starting the narration with Rod Serling itself and his career in TV, then gives a season by season overview, and within that arranges the episodes under themes (World War II, cold war tensions, aliens, just desserts, etc.). He also talks about some of the noted writers who were regulars on the series (George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, even Earl Hamner). I liked the theme sections because he talks about some of the history and stories that lay behind the episodes. But many of his "discussions" of episodes themselves are just a rehash of the plot, with nothing new learned from reading the synopsis. Now I did like that he addressed the revival series in the 1980s (with classics like "Paladin of the Lost Hour") and the one season 2002 show. So there are pluses and minuses to the volume. I'd say if you are a TZ fan, buy it, but find a used copy on Amazon or Bookfinder.

book icon  The Beginner's Photography Guide, DK Publishers
This is a nice basic photography guide, which will work best for cameras with adjustable features (aperture, shutter speed, etc) and DSLRs.

book icon  Great War Britain: The First World War at Home, Lucinda Gosling
"The Tatler" and "The Sketch," and also "The Bystander" and "The Queen," were the "People" and "Us" of their day in Great Britain, but instead of concentrating on media celebrities, they focused on royalty and society. The wealthy read them to keep up with all the gossip in their society; the middle class to imagine themselves living that opulent and privileged lifestyle. Then Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated.

This delightful history book tells the story of "the Great War" as seen in the four greatest society magazines of that age: how even Princess Mary volunteered for nursing and society matrons raised money, eschewed frivolity, and knitted and packed parcels for "the boys over there." Women became "land girls" and worked on farms, made do with inferior foods and no meat, and eventually became conductors, munitions workers, and other positions formerly reserved for men. It was debated if racing and football should be continued in the face of horrible war losses. The fictional "Eve" in "The Tatler" and "Phrynette" in "The Sketch" commented on the war, most times humorously or facetiously, but sometimes in contemplative form as the body count increased.

Liberally strewn throughout this book are photographs of the society denizens that found their cultured world turned upside down, original art, the whimsical cartoon "Eve," and vintage advertisements urging people to stretch budgets, menus, and charity to "make do." It's a vivid portrait of a segment of British society from 1914 through 1919.

(I was amazed to find this wonderful book in a Hamilton Books catalog for $8. It's still selling for $40 on Amazon!)

book icon  Dear America: A City Tossed and Broken--The Diary of Minnie Bonner, Judy Blundell
One moment Minnie Bonner is helping her extravagant French father and practical mother run their tavern in 1906 Philadelphia. Next thing she knows, her mother has hired her out as a maid to a stuck-up, social-climbing newly rich couple and their vacuous teen daughter because her father has lost the tavern, and all their money, gambling. Her mother promises she will work hard for the next two years and then send for Minnie, who will be moving out to San Francisco with the nouveau riche Sump [yes, Sump as in the pump] family.

Lonely, unhappy, and angry, Minnie's first morning in San Francisco is more terrifying than she can imagine: because the family has arrived just in time for the great San Francisco earthquake and fire.

When Scholastic brought the "Dear America" series back in 2013 for a few books, they decided the books also needed a mystery element, I guess since "girls like mysteries!" So instead of getting to know Minnie and her family, and get a little insight into her character, we are plunged pell-mell into Minnie being shipped off with the Sumps and then the moment she arrives the earthquake takes place, just after she finds out there is something shady about Mr. Sump. The best part about the book is Minnie's description of the earthquake, its fire aftermath, and how some of the citizens of San Francisco rally to save their neighborhood. It's well described and at times very suspenseful. The rest of the story is filled with a bunch of cliches: the two-dimensional Sumps (who live up to their name), a crooked lawyer (is there any other kind in stories like this?), and another evil character who might as well tweak his mustache and cackle like Snidely Whiplash. When another character is introduced, you know immediately he's the person Minnie will later marry. It would have been nice if we actually saw Minnie with her dad at the beginning instead of having flashbacks, and then Minnie getting used to San Francisco before the fire, but we're just popped into the plot. I suspect the author could have written that story, too, judging by the fire scenes, but she was ordered by her Scholastic editors to "cut to the chase." A pity, as this could have been a much better book.

book icon  Treachery at Lancaster Gate, Anne Perry
Finally! A Thomas Pitt mystery that doesn't involve diplomatic misadventures.

There are two breeds of mystery series. One sets up a popular partnership and all books are kept within that story setup, ad infinitum, and the characters never grow or change. The other, as in this series, allows the characters to progress naturally in their careers and lives: employed people do well. They get promoted and sometimes in their promotion, a popular partnership is broken apart. Perry must be lauded for not allowing Pitt's career to stay static and not writing endless by-the-numbers stories where he and his partner investigates society crimes and wife Charlotte and her sister Emily help him.

On the other hand, I have found Pitt's Special Branch investigations, with their political overtones, to be increasingly tedious, so I really enjoyed this latest book, in which Pitt is called in after five police officers are injured (two die almost instantly) in a bombing that, of course, is immediately tied to anarchists. Instead, Pitt's investigation reveals that a prominent politician's son, a young man addicted to opium, may have some connection with the case, and that police corruption is an ugly possibility in spurring the crime. He is assisted in his investigation by his old partner Samuel Tellman, so we get to see both Tellman and his wife Gracie [nee Phipps and formerly the Pitts' much-loved maid) once more, as well as Emily Radley making certain inquires for Pitt at parties she attends.

Unfortunately, once again Charlotte gets short shrift and basically remains home as moral support and a sounding board for her husband. Emily's husband Jack does get some action, and Aunt Vespasia, now married to Victor Narraway (the previous head of Special Branch), appear at the end once the story comes to a head. There are so many characters in the story now that it is hard to give them all equal time. Plus her newer books still lack that special spark that made the originals so compelling. But this is the closest Perry has come to a "classic" Thomas and Charlotte book in several years, and I really enjoyed that.

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31 March 2016

Books Completed Since March 1

The bad thing about being sick for a while is...being sick. The good thing is you get to read a lot. The bad thing is that there are many books to review and little time. So excuse the brevity for some of these.

book icon  Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain, Charlotte Higgins
Great Britain has been invaded so many times that layer upon layer of different cultures have been spread upon the British countryside. Here author Higgins takes us on a tour of one of the oldest ones: the Romans who came to "Britannia" in the early years of the Common Era. Traveling in a rattly old camper van, Higgins and her partner travel from Kent and Essex, where the earliest Romans landed, to "Londinium" and then west into Wales, to Bath and its healthful waters first utilized by Romans, north to Hadrian's Wall (and the Antonine Wall, a Roman construction I'd never heard of), and up into Scotland, and finally to the east, investigating what is left of what were sizable settlements and forts.

I love archaeology, so having a book that combined ruins, Romans, and Britain was like tossing me in a museum and telling me to enjoy. Indeed I did! The writing was brisk and talked about the everyday life of the Roman inhabitants as well as political goings-on behind the scenes, as well as the landscapes settled by the invaders. The book is enhanced with line drawings of maps illustrating the sites she visits, and if you are interested in Roman exploration and settlement or Great Britain's past, this archaeological history should be your cup of British tea.

book icon  Absolutely Truly, Heather Vogel Frederick
Truly Lovejoy's world has finally fallen into place. Her dad is leaving his Army career and the family has already moved to Austin, Texas, where he's accepted a job as a wrestling coach and now twelve-year-old Truly can pal around with her favorite cousin Mackenzie. Then disaster strikes: her father is caught in a bomb blast. He comes home alive, but minus one arm, his usually happy demeanor now sad and grim. He turns down the coach job, but is talked into moving the family to tiny, rural Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire, to take over his parents' failing bookshop, which he will run with his nonconformist sister. Truly is unhappy over the move and losing her best friend/cousin, but most of all feeling she has "lost" her loving dad. Then, in cleaning up the store, Truly finds what may be a rare copy of Charlotte's Web. Is this a chance to help save Lovejoy's Books? But what's with the mysterious note inside?

I loved this book, top to toe: Truly herself, already almost six feet tall and awkward; her stoic father and hopeful mother, her four siblings (even the lisping one isn't over the top, as so many cute kids are), her offbeat aunt Truly, and the friends, both schoolmates and adults, Truly makes in Pumpkin Falls. Much of the "mystery" is more self-discovery, but I loved the combination of ex-military family with a problem, books, winter in New Hampshire, town traditions, even Truly's fascination with birds and how the family updates the bookstore.

The cover notes that this is "A Pumpkin Falls Mystery." I hope that means there will be further opportunities to visit the Lovejoys.

book icon  The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh, Kathryn Aalto
Imagine a chill, rainy March day. Then open up this book, which is a color-photograph-and-Ernest-Shepard-drawing combination with delicious descriptions of A.A. Milne's (and Christopher Robin's) life and the landscapes they explored. The sun comes out, not outside, but in your heart.

If you love nature, especially the English countryside, you will absolutely love this book, even if you have never read a word of Winnie-the-Pooh in your life. Any reference you need to the countryside being mentioned in the Pooh books are already mentioned in the text, and you can compare Ernest Shepard's whimsical watercolors to the real countryside, which he studied before illustrating the books, just as Garth Williams did before providing the illustrations for the "Little House" books. The pages are thick and glossy, showing off the beautiful photographs and prints to good effect. In the text, you learn of Milne's idyllic, vanished childhood, something children today can only dream about, and the ecology of each of the sites that served as inspiration for the Hundred Acre Wood.

It's not quite as good as a tramp through Christopher Robin's real enchanted world, but it will do for someone an ocean and a climate away. Relaxing your blood pressure has never been so wonderful.

book icon  The Ghost Wind Stallion: A Kaya Mystery, Emma Carlson Berne
This is the best book of the new crop of three American Girl mysteries—but not as a mystery.

Kaya's blind sister Speaking Rain chafes at her disability. She is tired of having to be led around and treated as if she is going to break. Plus she's begun having dreams in which a beautiful silver horse comes to her. Kaya is troubled by her sister's restlessness, and by the visit of her newly widowed aunt, who seems to have taken an instant dislike to her. Then, while she and Speaking Rain are investigating the horse herd, they see what appears to be a fabled Ghost Wind stallion, descendants of Russian horses that washed ashore from a wreck in the Pacific. It is the horse Speaking Rain has been dreaming about, and she believes that he has come to her to be hers and set her free.

There is little mystery in the book (except for the disappearance of Tall Branch's horse), but the strength of this one is Speaking Rain's determination, Kaya's willingness to help her, and the bond between the two girls. Tall Branch's emotions after her husband's death and attitude toward Kaya is also handled sensitively. A great story about how people with disabilities often feel shunted off to the side and wish just to "fit in."

book icon  The Glowing Heart: A Josefina Mystery, Valerie Tripp
It's Three Kings Day at the Montoya family rancho, and they've welcomed guests, included Don Javier, an old beau of Tia Dolores, who is now Josefina's stepmother. He has brought Tia Dolores a beautiful ruby ring which is an inheritance from her aunt. Also visiting is Senor Fernando, a man who is considering buying a horse from Josefina's father. During the festivities, the ruby ring disappears. Could Don Javier be the culprit? Senor Fernando? Or is it the strange man Josefina has seen hanging around near their hacienda? And why does Tia Dolores seem so dispirited? Can it be she regrets coming to the rancho and marrying Mr. Montoya?

I can't believe Valerie Tripp wrote this. It's so very obvious who the culprit is (think the Lost in Space episode "The Golden Man") and what happened to the ruby. And, maybe it's because I'm an adult, I also figured out why Tia Dolores was so unhappy from page 20. Just because the readers are kids doesn't mean you need to give them a storyline with cliched aspects. Disappointing.

book icon  The Finders-Keepers Rule: A Maryellen Mystery, Jacqueline Dembar Greene
Of the three new American girl mysteries, this is the best mystery: Maryellen and her buddy Davy are walking on the beach when they find a barnacle-encrusted ring buried in the sand. Maryellen thinks it might be treasure from a ship that sank on the Florida coast, her mind full of pirates after seeing Walt Disney's new movie, Treasure Island. But the kids are really surprised when people start trying to get their hands on the ring.

This is actually a better Maryellen story than the original two books. Greene paints the idyllic 50s childhood in bright colors: trips to the beach with no helicopter parents, enjoying time with your best friend, and a reasonably complicated mystery for the kids to solve with a little frisson of danger that isn't too scary for the intended audience. The colorful Daytona Beach scene of the 1950s is also well portrayed, and the story touches on the serious subject of the ownership of artifacts. Not only is a Disney movie mentioned, but it could even be an old-fashioned Disney kids' mystery film like The Strange Monster of Strawberry Cove. Glad to find a Maryellen story I finally enjoyed.

book icon  My Very Good, Very Bad Dog, ed. by Amy Neumark
You know the drill: it's a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. There are funny stories and sad ones; stories of companionship, love, rescue, and memories. It's neither better nor worse than any of the other compilations. If you love heartwarming dog stories, this is for you.

book icon  The Perils of Sherlock Holmes, Loren D. Estleman
This is a collection of short stories by Estleman, most crossovers with historical characters like Sir Richard Burton, Doc Holliday, and author Sax Rohmer, plus there is another story where Holmes is consulted by an earl who turns out to be "Tiny Tim"othy Cratchit. Plus there's an essay about the essential presence of Watson. The stories are interesting, but nothing spectacular.

book icon  The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by William Anderson
At last Anderson (and Harper & Row) have wrung their last out of LIW.

Seriously. He admits it in the introduction

I don't mean to be so flip. There is some meat to this newest collection of Wilder letters, including some of the letters she and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane shared about the editing of the "Little House" books. Sadly, Rose burned most of the letters, especially all those from the 1940s, so we will never know the full editorial partnership she shared with her mother. There is a really good, impassioned letter of Laura's insisting that The Long Winter be confined to the Ingalls and Wilders with a few supporting characters rather than a full pallet of townspeople as Rose wanted in order to give full import of the isolation families faced during that hard winter of 1880-1881, which showed she did have the flair for storytelling that some literary scholars have denied her. But most of the letters are banal little responses to schoolchildren, with a few lovely gems.

The trouble is, I've read so many books about Wilder, including the recently published Pioneer Girl, that I've already seen many of these "surprise bits" (like the fact that a young couple and their baby lived with the family during the long winter), so the revelations aren't. It's also sad to read Wilder's last letters with her longing for her late husband clear even in the few paragraphs, and it's also obvious that the sisters did not remain very close after Ma and Pa and Mary died.

I've been a Laura "junkie" since I first saw the television series and wanted to know "the real story," so I'm glad I picked this up, but if you have less of an attachment to her, I would invest in one of the biographies instead.

book icon  Letters of E.B. White, edited by Dorothy Lobrano Guth
This is a thick collection of White's letters from schoolboy missives written to his brothers and parents all the way through a final letter to his stepson in the mid-70s. The most fascinating are those written from a cross country trip he took with a friend when he was in his late teens. They bought an old car and drove cross-country, stopping to get work as they needed money; White learned that he really didn't want to have anything to do with advertising very early. Later his letters chronicle his employment with the "New Yorker," his courtship and marriage to Katharine Angell, and the family's move out to the Maine farm.

This book is worth it solely for this memo.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters at Circus Island, Jerry West
One of the most fun children's series of the 1950s was this multiple-book collection about the Hollister family: Dad owns a store called The Trading Post and, of course, Mom stays at home supervising her active brood: the two elder, more responsible children Pete and Pam, then mischievous Ricky and sparkling Holly, and finally little Sue, who's only four, plus Zip the collie and White Nose and her kittens (which stay kittens for the duration of the books) and the pet donkey, Domingo. Their young parents were always happy to get involved in the kids' activities, and this time Dad Hollister precipitates the adventure when he takes the family down to Florida for winter vacation to a place called Circus Island, where a wintering show called the Sunshine Circus appears to be plagued with bad luck. Before they leave, Zip is injured after a dog show, having chased after a kidnapped poodle. The children find that whomever stole the poodle appears to be heading south toward Circus Island as well!

These are great, simple, fun books with easy vocabularies. The kids are loved and cared for, but never stifled by overprotective parents. They have adventures, use their minds to solve puzzles, and enjoy themselves enormously while helping others. No rude jokes in sight and the action is always lively. There are some mild 1950s female stereotypes, but the Hollister girls are just as active as the boys, so even if they are pigeonholed a little, you have no doubt Pam can grow up to be a businesswoman just as easily as a mother, and Holly could become a veterinarian as well as a nurse.

book icon  Wait for Signs, Craig Johnson
This is a collection of Walt Longmire short stories, some with a Christmas theme, that Johnson has written over the years for his fans, ranging from the ultimately funny "Old Indian Trick" to the adventure "Messenger," in which Walt, Vic, and Henry try to rescue an owl from its precarious nest in a Porta-Potty. Walt is also mistaken for the Messiah, takes a cue from his cameo appearance in A Christmas Carol, and shares a bittersweet Thanksgiving Day at the Red Pony, and there's even an adventure with a renegade sheep.

Obviously these stories would be most liked by fans of the Longmire mysteries, but they are equally good as stand-alone character studies.

book icon  360 Degrees Longitude: One Family's Journey Around the World, John Higham
From when their two children were small, John and September Higham promised that once the kids were old enough, the family would take a year off and bicycle around the world. When Katrina turned eleven and Jordan turned eight, the Highams kept that promise.

Well, sort of. They did travel around the world, but the tandem bicycle idea had to be abandoned in Switzerland in the first few weeks of the trip after Katrina broke her leg while using a climbing wall. Higham ended up carrying her around Europe for many weeks until her leg healed, and then eventually the tandem bike idea was abandoned. In the meantime, the Highams learned to get along with many modern conveniences and having wild adventures, including driving over a flooded dry salt lake and hiking the entire Inca trail. They encounter bureaucrats, lifesavers, the frantic traffic of Cambodia, altitude sickness, and other adventures. The kids, of course, finally rebel at museums, yet find something to take to heart in each place, whether it be kinship with the children of Hiroshima or the victims of Auschwitz.

I enjoyed this book, but I wish Higham would have concentrated more on what they saw and not his funny little foibles along the way. Sometimes it's almost too lighthearted, a circumnavigation in the style of Cheaper by the Dozen. I would have liked more beautiful or awesome moments. Still, it's a quick-moving, fun narrative.

book icon  Re-read: The Horsemasters, Don Stanford
A comfort read if there every was one. College-age Dinah Wilcox wants to go to the same expensive college as her best friend Bee-Bye Simms, but knows her parents' budget won't extend that far. She has talked the Dean of the college into letting her work her way through college as an Assistant Riding Mistress (I guess it's one of those toney schools that has horseback riding) if she gets a Preliminary Instructor's Certificate from the British Horse Society, using a gift of a thousand dollars from her grandmother to attend the "Horsemasters" class. This is the story of how Dinah goes from being a mediocre rider to an excellent one over the course of a summer, studying with fourteen other boys and girls from all nations in a course that includes dressage, jumping, cross-country, elementary veterinary medicine, and the innumerable other pieces of knowledge that separate a horse rider from a horse owner.

The majority of horse-crazy adolescent girls grow up in a pink cloud of fantasy about horses, imagining an hour of horse cleaning and grooming and then endless hours of riding over rainbow-stretched misty fields. This book shows you not only how difficult it is to properly care for a horse, but does it in such a fine state of storytelling that you learn many things without even trying (what's "lampas," a mouth infection, for instance; how to treat colic; how hard it is to keep a horse in top condition) while having fun with the fourteen characters, including Enzo, the flirty Italian boy; Jill, the Scots girl who'll give up anything but her bacon; Adrienne, a rich Swiss girl who's never done such hard work in her life, Roger, a farm boy; and our dogged heroine Dinah, who doesn't think she'll ever catch up with the rest of the students, not to mention the adults: Mercy Hale, the hard-as-nails "Head Girl" and Major Brooke and Lieutenant Pinski, the riding instructors. (There is a wonderful scene in the riding school with Lieutenant Pinski!)

You will gallop through this book as fast as Dinah on her horse Cornish Pastie...I promise!

book icon  Doctor Who: The Doctor's Life and Times, James Goss & Steve Tribe
This is a nifty coffee-table type scrapbook/fact book about the complete series as it existed up to the 50th anniversary episode, from Hartnell to Smith, divided by Doctor. For each reincarnation, there's a "scrapbook" devoted to that Doctor, with publicity photos and behind the scenes snaps along with a narrative written for each Doctor: Susan's diary and the Doctor's diary for the first Doctor; an interview with Jackie Tyler for the Ninth; a dialog between the Doctor and the Master for the Third, etc. Following each scrapbook section are that are short commentaries by the people involved  with that Doctor, from William Russell, Waris Hussein, and Carole Ann Ford to Karen Gillan, Jenna Coleman, and Arthur Darvill; from original producer Verity Lambert all the way to Steven Moffat. Who fans will enjoy.

book icon  Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting, Kitty Burns Florey
We were away for the weekend and the hotel we stayed at has a bookcase with books you could borrow to read and then return to any hotel in that chain. They had, believe it or not, two copies of this book. It's a nice, easy to read history of handwriting, the first portion taking us back to rune inscriptions, wax tablets and cuneiform, hieroglyphics and papyrus, and then Roman lettering and its different forms (uncial, Carolinian, etc.), but the main focus of the book is on the different styles of handwriting that spanned the history of the United States, from the ornate Spencerian script to the swirling cursive of the Palmer method to the simplified cursive of the 1950s and thus to the present. Very lively and enjoyable, although I could have done without the chapter on graphologists and their feuds.

book icon  A Summer to Die, Lois Lowry
This is one of Lowry's early classics, the story of Meg Chalmers, a girl who thinks herself an ugly duckling compared against her prettier sister Molly. Meg, a budding photographer, is just coming into her own at school with some courses she will love when her parents move the family to the country so her professor father can finish his book. At school Molly immediately charms everyone and Meg feels left out in the cold until she befriends her elderly bachelor neighbor who is also into photography and his two tenants, a "hippie" couple who don't appear to be married. But as her friendships develop, her tenuous relationship with her sister actually starts to fail further as Molly's strange "winter nosebleeds" become worse and she is often tired or in pain from headaches. It is only when Molly wakes Meg up one night, drenched in blood, that Meg realizes that there is something far more wrong with her sister than she expected.

This is a sad story about a serious subject, but well told, the first in a spate of serious books that came out in the late 70s about seriously ill young people and how they and their families coped with that illness. It was also Lowry's first book and based on a true experience. I wasn't sure I wanted to read this, but Lowry grabbed me from the first paragraph with eyeglassed, bookworm Meg and her feelings of inadequacy, and I ended up really enjoying it.

book icon  The Dust Bowl, Albert Marrin
This is an outstanding older-child's picture book about the Dust Bowl that starts with a history of the Great Plains and why the climate was not conducive for farming, yet it was settled and farmed anyway. Good rains in the early part of the 20th century lulled the settlers into thinking the rich soil would always provide bumper crops and prices would always be high. However, because they used the farming methods more suited to wetter climes, with fine harrowing of the soil, the constant high winds and the drought of the 1930s blew the topsoil away, creating "black blizzards" and giving both adults and children "dust pneumonia."

Many of the classic "Dust Bowl" photographs of Dorothea Lange are here, including the iconic "Migrant Mother" (another side of the story of that photograph is told), and an excellent narrative conveys the entire span of the story, including the prospect for future dust bowls in China and India. Because of photographs of children in distress, this is not recommended for younger kids.

book icon  Lanterns and Lances, James Thurber
If you're just starting on reading James Thurber, I suggest you start with his early and classic writing: buy a copy of The Thurber Carnival, which includes a selection of the cartoons, all of My Life and Hard Times, and then a great selection of his classics, including "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and "The Catbird Seat." If you're an old-time radio fan, look for The Beast in Me and Other Animals, which contains Thurber's humorous study of radio "daytime dramas," "Soapland."

This collection is from Thurber's later period. It's not that he "lost it," but his essays and humor are increasingly dark as his blindness and aging cynicism caught up with him. There's still much to like here: "How to Get Through the Day," for example, a commentary about a Thurber favorite Henry James (which unfortunately digresses into a criticism of television Westerns), and a diatribe on the creeping "You Know" in speech. Several of the essays, "The Tyranny of Trivia" and "The Watchers of the Night," involve insomnia and the word games played to work through it. Cocktail parties and inane conversations at such also occupy several of the pieces. If it all seems a bit dry and cynical, go find the stories from his prime instead.

book icon  Walking the Bible, Bruce Feiler
This was my Lenten reading, the story of Feiler's journey through the Holy Land as it says in the subtitle states "A Journal by Land Through the Five Books of Moses." A journey by automobile and by camel, by foot and by other means of transportation, with his scholar and guide Avner Goren, a Jewish scholar and teacher.

I loved this book because it made me feel as if I were truly there exploring the route with Feiler and Goren: the crowded cities, the bedouin tents, the endless sand, the towering cliffs of Petra, the shores of the Red Sea. Feiler talks to Christians on pilgrimage, Jewish scholars and everyday Muslims, city dwellers and what is left of nomadic peoples—all of them with one thing in common: they have felt the call of the spiritual in the desert. The narrative is well-paced and even when descriptive doesn't get bogged down in itself; I particularly enjoyed Feiler's poetic descriptions.

book icon  Horses, Horses, Horses, Horses, published by Paul Hamlyn Ltd.
When I was about ten or so, I found a thin, large format book on a remainder pile (I recall it being in Woolworth's). The cover was gone and we got it for a few dollars. This was my beloved Dogs, Dogs, Dogs, Dogs, an illustrated anthology of fiction and essays by Paul Hamlyn Ltd. I loved that book to death and only later found out what the cover looked like.

What should I find in a used bookstore a few weeks back but the companion book Horses, Horses, Horses, Horses, which is a collection of essays ("The Horse in History," "The Horse in Art," "The Horse in Sport," etc.),  interrupted by a few cartoons and fiction, plus black and white and color illustrations, including, I was delighted to discover, two photographs of "Nautical," a temperamental but famous jumping horse once profiled in one of my favorite Walt Disney short subjects, "The Horse With the Flying Tail." Once again, no cover, but who cared? (This is the cover.)

There is a Cats, Cats, Cats, Cats, too, but if I go as long between finding it as I did this one, I fear I won't be here to do so. :-) (Oh, gosh, there's a Birds, Birds, Birds, Birds, too...)

book icon  Murder on the Last Frontier, Cathy Pegau
Charlotte Brody has left the stifling society of 1919 Yonkers behind her to join her brother Michael in Cordova, Alaska, America's "last frontier," where he is practicing medicine. A suffragette and journalist, Charlotte hopes to get a new start as well as write some provacative prose for "The Modern Woman's Review." As soon as she arrives in town, though, she discovers that not only has her brother been harboring a secret, but that human nature is not very different in this small town: soon a brutal murder occurs.

I am on the fence about this book, but realize I will probably buy the next one. I still like the characters, and a "modern girl" in still-frontier Alaska is very appealing. The rough-and-tumble of an Alaskan town post-WWI is well described. Trouble is, Charlotte is almost too headstrong. She wears her heart (and her suspicions) on her sleeve and deliberately endangers herself and others in the process. For someone who has been working for a while as a reporter, she is regrettably blunt and has no "reporter savvy." Plus big portions of the mystery are practically broadcast. When a certain event happens, for instance, you immediately realize Charlotte's other reason for coming to Cordova. The culprit is pretty obvious as the plot jogs along, and the romantic storyline developed way too quickly for my taste.

My biggest irritation with this book is the modernisms that creep into the narrative. "Pants"? "Lifestyle"? And in the preview of the sequel, a referral to an "op-ed" piece? Really? Plus some of the dialog is clunky; when Michael and Charlotte have a heart-to-heart near the end, lines include "I think we've learned valuable lessons here" and "We can help each other find peace now." Oh, good grief. I don't expect this to be written with quaint postwar prose, but the modern vocabulary really tosses one out of the story.

But...Alaska. Female journalist. One who opposes the Volstead Act to boot. I'll buy the next, but I hope Pegau tightens up her writing. Please?

book icon  Freedom Just Around the Corner, Walter A. McDougall
This history of the colonial and then pre-James Polk United States is billed as a history of "the brave, brilliant, and flawed people who made America great...native-born and immigrant: German, Latin, African, and British; farmers, engineers, planters and merchants; Protestants, Freemasons, Catholics, and Jews...and the American scofflaws, speculators, rogues, and demagogues." And that's when it's at its best, talking about those little people who made up the US: teamsters, the rare woman planters like Caty Greene, pioneers, those who bucked the system and moved west, the Native Americans, etc. But, of course, to do a proper history, one has to get through the political machinations as well, and there you will find this volume harking back to a normal social studies book. So I pretty much read through it in fits and starts, dozing over the politics until they got back to the individual experiences of the individuals. There are some great pieces on Catherine "Caty" Green, the unconventional widow of General Nathaniel Greene, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, the southern planters vs. the northern farmers, etc. Plus McDougall profiles each of the states that entered the union following the revolution through 1848.

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