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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.
 

10 March 2017

"You'll Come a Book-saling, Matilda, With Me..."

Yeah, it's that time of year again. Showed up at 8:45 to join the line, behind a white-haired woman and a family group: grandma, son and daughter (one of them the in-law), and a cute three-year-old boy. Chatted with them until the doors opened.

(When I was in the children's book area, I was delighted to see one little boy so absolutely excited about the books. He looked about six or seven, but he could rattle off all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books he had read and the ones they needed!)

Now, I'd put my foot down with myself last night. No books I don't need. No oversize books.

Which I guess might have been all right had the Book Gods not thrown this big beautiful coffee table book about Colonial Williamsburg in front of me. After that, I was gone.

I was specifically looking for some things today, like copies of books in my series that I can't afford in hardback and that usually come out in trade paperback. I really wanted to find a copy of the new Molly Murphy mystery at the sale, since neither Amazon or Barnes & Noble has it discounted in paperback (probably quarreling with the publisher). I can get it from either Hamilton Books or Amazon Marketplace much cheaper (in hardback), but what a coup if I could find it for $1.50.

No such luck. Nor with the newest Tasha Alexander, although all the previous books were there, if I keep reading them after the newest in paperback, which is not taking my fancy at all, even if she put in a reference to Amelia Peabody. Or Mercedes Lackey's A Study in Sable. I did find the newest Victoria Thompson book, Murder in Morningside Heights, however, brand new, and can cross that off my "buy when it comes in paperback" list.

The rest of the loot:

book icon  Colonial Williamsburg, Philip Kopper with photography by Langdon Clay (this book is so big I can barely heft it; and it's not just a picture book, either, but has substantial text)

book icon  At Home: The American Family 1750-1870, Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett (another huge one with color illustrations)

book icon  After the Revolution: The Smithsonian History of Everyday Life in the Eighteenth Century, Barbara Clark Smith (follows four families including an African-American one)

book icon  The First Year of Reminisce (yeah, before "Reader's Digest" got ahold of it and turned it into all white space and ads)

book icon  The Years of the Forest, Helen Hoover (modern homesteaders in Minnesota)

book icon  Janie's Freedom, Callie Smith Grant (a "sisters at heart" book about an African-American girl after the end of slavery)

book icon  The Summer Before the War, Helen Simonson (that's WWI; it's fiction)

book icon  Writings from the New Yorker, 1925-1976, E.B. White (been hoping to find this at the book sale, because it's overpriced for just excerpts of White's essays)

book icon  Spring Harvest, Gladys Taber (this is one of her fiction books; not sure I'll like it because it's chick lit, which is not usually my thing, but wanted to try one—I always wish for more Stillmeadow, but I have all she wrote)

And a few things for the Christmas collection:

book icon  Once Upon a Christmas, a collection of short stories by Pearl S. Buck

book icon  Deck the Halls: Treasures of Christmas Past, Robert M. Merck (a collection of vintage 19th-early 20th century ornaments like Dresdens and kugels and cotton batting figures, and figural lights)

book icon  Keeping Christmas: The Celebration of an American Holiday, edited by Philip Reed Rulon (collection of Christmas stories)

book icon  The Book of Festival Holidays, Marguerite Ickis (which covers the whole year, from the 1960s)

I also seem to have bought a Happy Hollisters book that I already had, but I didn't have my list with me, and this one does, miracle of miracles, have a cover.

Plus I bought a book I hope to give as a gift, to turn someone into a raging fan like I am. ☺

Incidentally, the next sale is not only not on Columbus Day week as always, but will not be at Jim Miller Park. Instead it will be at the remodeled Civic Center. We haven't been there for years. Still miss the computer sales, although the last couple of years of them it was mostly junk.

[Went back 3/11: got Sue Townsend's last Adrian Mole book, a book for James about World War II aviators called Dauntless Helldivers, a book I was pretty sure I already had but was afraid I didn't (I did, it goes into the box for McKay's), the first book in the "Tuckers" series because the copy I had was scribbled all over by the previous owner, and a book I found just as I was leaving, A Small Country Living, about a transplanted Australian living in London who buys a smallholding in Wales. I started it at lunch because I had nothing else to read, and have been enthralled all day.]

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28 February 2017

Books Completed Since February 1

book icon  Candlemas, Amber K and Azrael Arynn K

book icon  Becoming Queen Victoria, Kate Williams
I find complaints about this book because it's not a biography of Queen Victoria.

Because, really, it's not. There are plenty of good books to read about Victoria. This is a good book, too, but it's a bit different.

Victoria became queen because of a series of events beginning with her uncle, George IV, who became Prince Regent (as in the Regency Period of Austen and Heyer) due to the madness of his father, George III. While George IV was not quite the twit as portrayed on Blackadder the Third, he was a spendthrift and gourmand who could barely button his breeches and who hated his wife Queen Caroline. Their only child, Charlotte, was the original heir to the British throne.

This then, begins with the story of Princess Charlotte, stuck eternally between her quarreling parents, the hope of the British people who loved their monarchy but hated the king (her father was poisonously jealous of her), and how her death put in motion the events that brought Victoria to the throne and eventually turns Victoria into the woman history remembers and who gave her name to an era. It's the story of her uncles' race to produce an heir before any of the other brothers so that their child could be next in line for the throne, including Edward, the Duke of Kent, who abandoned the mistress he actually loved to make a correct marriage to a minor German princess with the "odd" name of Victorie. It was their child, known as "Drina" in her girlhood, who would be awakened eighteen years later to be told she was queen.

While I've read two biographies of Victoria, I didn't realize that her and Prince Albert's beloved "Uncle Leopold" was the same Leopold who had been married to doomed Princess Charlotte. I didn't know much about Charlotte, period, other than it was her demise that put Victoria on the throne. I found this a fascinating book, with the machinations behind the monarchy and the peculiarities of the personalities involved: the Prince Regent who stayed drunk on his wedding day because he couldn't even stand the face of his bride, long-suffering Queen Caroline who had the people on her side, even the imperiousness of George III, who expected his sons to remain standing in his presence and who kept his daughters from marrying until they were half-crazy from being stuck in the palace all their lives.

Very enjoyable if you want to know how little Drina "came about" and became the queen everyone knows. But, no, it's not a biography of Queen Victoria alone, but more the history of an era, from George III's failing sanity to Prince Albert sending away Victoria's faithful friend and governess Lehzen.

book icon  Yours Truly, Heather Vogel Frederick
Truly Lovejoy and her family, now living in the tiny community of Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire, are drawn into a new mystery as spring arrives and the town's annual Maple Festival begins. Two neighbors who have sugarbushes are accusing each other of sabotaging their maple production. Would Truly's friends actually sabotage one another to get an advantage in the maple business? But good things are happening, too: for Truly's birthday, her BFF and cousin Mackenzie is arriving from Texas, and she's making plans of all the fun things they'll do together. But she doesn't know that one of them will be finding a treasure in their own house.

This sequel to Absolutely Truly doesn't have quite the edge as the initial book, as Truly's father is now comfortable running the bookstore and adjusting to his artificial arm. In addition, Truly's now a teenager, so sex has to rear its ugly head and she realizes she likes her classmate Calhoun, but she thinks her cousin is after him. That business was kind of blah. On the other hand, the artifact that Truly and Mackenzie find which reveals a formerly hidden historic event in little Pumpkin Falls is the catalyst for a Nancy Drew-like adventure that borrows a little from Elsie in the 19th century classic What Katy Did. [Spoiler: Chapter 1 will give you all the clues if you care to spot them.]

Verdict: Truly and her friends and family are still some of my favorite people. This series will be okay if they softpedal the teen romance tedium.

book icon  The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City, Margaret Creighton
The citizens of Buffalo, New York, are banking that their World's Fair, the Pan-American Exposition, will outdo the 1893 event in Chicago, the famous "White City." They have even more electric lights, including a rainbow-colored tower that gave their event its own nickname, "The Rainbow City." Electricity was the motif of the exposition, generated at Niagara Falls, and invitations went out to Latin American countries to make it a true Pan-American affair.

But behind the scenes lurk cruelties and prejudice: The Animal King holds the smallest woman in the world, "the Cuban Doll" (in reality a Mexican girl) in virtual thrall and his lions and other wild animals are mistreated, as were many circus animals of the day. On the Midway elks are made to dive into tubs. Filippino people are exhibited at the fair like zoo animals, and African-American actors swallowed their pride and performed scenes of happy times on the Old Plantation. Still, this Fair has attracted all sorts (but not enough of all sorts, as the city fathers found out when balancing the books): Mabel Barnes, who visited the Fair 33 times, and whose diaries are extracted here; the President of the United States William McKinley, who would make a fateful visit; and a farmer's son now known as Fred Nieman, but formerly Leon Czolgosz.

In breezy (sometimes almost too breezy) style, Creighton tells the story of the high hopes and the low profits for the Pan-American Exposition and the terrible event that happened there. It also reveals a little-known fact from the McKinley assassination: the man who tackled and brought down Czolgosz, Jim Parker, was an African-American waiter working at the Fair—and within days, his part in the capture of the assassin was erased from the history books. Added to the spectacle of the Fair is the story of Annie Taylor, one of a dauntless crew that met their ends trying to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel—will she survive? It's the story of a world which is progressive but nostalgic, civilized but savage, welcoming yet bigoted, on the edge of welcome change, but not quite reaching that pinnacle.

I was lukewarm about this book: I loved the photographs and the stories within, but thought it was told in a rather slipshod fashion. The prose and situations never really compelled me to keep reading it, as Hidden Figures did.

book icon  Tempest, edited by Mercedes Lackey
In this tenth collection of short stories, it's yet another mixed bag, although I found the stories mostly enjoyable. A couple are basically just vignettes rather than a story, which is rather frustrating, or a good start to a novella or book, but a story you wish has more to it, like the story of the blind girl who saves a Companion whose Herald has disappeared. One of my favorites was "Harmless as Serpents," since we tend to see the Companions as wise and brave—this tale of a conceited companion was very funny. Another favorite was "The Ones She Couldn't Save" about a young woman who has been covering up her gifts in order not to be burned as a witch. (This was another story I hope has a sequel in a future collection.)

Several familiar faces reappear in this volume: Herald Wil and his daughter Ivy; Lady Cera; Hadara the gryphon and the change child who sees for her, Kitha; Nwah the kyree and his human partner Kade; and the Haven Guard. Plus Lackey and Dixon give us another story about Darian, the hero of the Owl trilogy. All in all a good read for more tastes of Velgarth and Valdemar.

book icon  Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly
As a tween/teen I was obsessed with the space program, even buying a nearly incomprehensible book called Appointment on the Moon, which followed the progress of America's space program from the work of Robert Goddard and the events at Peenemunde, toughing my way through aeronautical engineering and aerospace scientific terms. I watched all the coverage of the space flights that appeared on television (except for the ones during the schoolday) and noted those rows and rows of white shirted-and-tied white guys manning the consoles at Mission Control.

How amazing to find out that in the early days of NASA (back when it was NACA), there were not only women who helped make aircraft and rockets fly, but there were African-American women, when the average white kid of the late 1950s-1960s saw black faces only on television maids and porters and a handful of entertainers.

This is the story of "the computers," as these ladies were called, women who, armed with nothing more technical than an adding machine, calculated trajectories, stress factors, and the other mathematical calculations necessary to make aircraft fly. They fought against bigotry both for their sex and for their race to complete higher education and to find a job. With manpower shortages during the Second World War, many of them found themselves in Hampton Roads, Virginia, at Langley, where segregation was still in full cry and "colored women" had to hike to find a "colored" rest room and were relegated to one end of the cafeteria. While their calculations confirmed the work of white male engineers was correct, they weren't allowed to come to staff meetings with those engineers. Determination and stubbornness carried them through, and when years later it came time for John Glenn to trust the calculations of an electronic computer vs. one of Langley's "girls," his choice was to trust the woman.

An "A-OK" fascinating portrait of women like Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Johnson, juggling personal lives with long hours and bigoted supervisors, intermingled with the history of American aeronautics, aviation, and the space program, plus the indignities of Jim Crow laws and casual racism. While the film based on this book concentrates on the women's social advances, the book paints a fuller picture of the time and the science. Loved every word.

book icon  With the Might of Angels, Andrea Davis Pinkney
Dawnie Rae Johnson's life is just like any other African-American girl's in the 1950s: she lives in a segregated neighborhood, going to a "separate but equal" school that is anything but (dated, torn textbooks; falling apart building; dirty bathrooms; surrounded by dirt fields for gym class), while white girls her age go to Prettyman Coburn High School, brand new, with sports fields and a science lab. Within those strictures she enjoys her life, especially playing and watching baseball, bouncing on her pogo stick, and spending time with her best friend Yolanda.

Then the Supreme Court desegregates the schools. After a daunting test, Dawnie and her classmates Roger and Yolanda are chosen to attend Prettyman, but only Dawnie's parents give her permission to go, knowing she wishes better schooling and wants to become a doctor. Anyone with knowledge of school desegregation will know what Dawnie endures: taunting from classmates, white students withdrawing from the school due to her attendance, threatening messages, teachers who will not call on her, teachers who support her being harassed. Even worse, members of her own church think of her and her parents as "uppity" for sending her to a white school and her father's white boss, who considered Mr. Johnson his best employee, fires him after he refused to withdraw Dawnie from Prettyman.

This is a forthright portrayal of a young woman undergoing a trial which might make even adults blanch, and meeting the challenge with courage and even humor. While some of the "Dear America" books are narrated by girls writing in formal language, Dawnie's entries are full of life and 50s slang, whether she is angry over discrimination or rejoicing over family events. You will root for her successes and be indignant over each harassment heaped upon her and her unusual brother Gunther (known as "Goober" for his obsession with peanuts). It is a reminder to all children—and adults—of inhumanity and resilience.

book icon  In This Grave Hour, Jacqueline Winspear
Maisie Dobbs is back in London running her discreet inquiry service with the help of her old assistants Billy and Sandra when war is declared in September of 1939. Not soon after Neville Chamberlain's speech, Maisie's old compatriot Francesca Thomas, a former Belgian resistance fighter from the earlier world war, asks her to look into the execution-style death of a Belgian refugee who remained in England after the Great War. Soon another Belgian refugee is killed in the same manner.

As Maisie and her partners investigate first one, then a second murder, Winspear sketches pre-World War II Britain around her: a world of barrage balloons, young men like her best friend Priscilla's son going off to training camps, gas masks, evacuated children, and the terrible prospect of death around the corner. There's also a very sweet subplot as some evacuated children are homed at Chelstone, where Maisie's in-laws and her father Frankie and stepmother Brenda live, and Maisie tries to ferret out the mystery of a mute five-year-old girl who will not speak (at least to the humans of the household) while becoming very attached to the child. But the backbone of the book is, as always, the methodic Maisie investigation, with the return of the beloved case map with its colored web of evidence growing each day, and the ominous revelation that the killer is on some type of mission that will not end until Maisie figures out what connects the victims before someone else is killed.

As the John Denver song says, "Hey, it's good to be back home again." Maisie is back in the position that challenges her the most in a world about to teeter into combat once more.

book icon  The Runaway: A Maryellen Mystery, Alison Hart
There's a series-mystery air to this second Maryellen Larkin mystery, and with good reason: with references to the Happy Hollisters and Nancy Drew in the text and some plot devices straight out of both series, this is fun and absorbing if not particularly "deep."

Scooter, the Larkins' dachshund, vanishes before supper one night and never comes home. Her parents suspect chubby Scooter is cadging food from the neighbors but when Maryellen and her friends and family go out searching for the dog, none of Scooter's usual "soft touches" have seen him. Maryellen does find out that at least two other dogs are missing from her neighborhood, and that there are two very good suspects in the disappearances: the local ice-cream man who carries around dog biscuits for his canine friends and someone in a mysterious brown station wagon that Maryellen saw cruising one street. But why would they want Scooter and the other dogs? It's only when she finds out that some companies buy dogs to use them for testing that she really begins to worry.

There's a rather offbeat tangent in the story involving a trip to Cape Canaveral, which is still a missile testing range in these pre-Sputnik days (but at least Maryellen gets a science essay out of it), not to mention a very funny episode where Maryellen's friends are so busy putting together a detective outfit that they run out of time to go searching for Scooter, but mostly it's a nice solid story that would do Pete, Pam, Holly, Ricky and Sue Hollister (and Nancy Drew) proud.

book icon  The Lady's Slipper: A Melody Mystery, Emma Carlson Berne
Sadly, while Melody Ellison's introductory books were smart, thought-provoking, and strong, Melody's mystery debut is sadly underwhelming. The shortest of the three new American Girl mystery books, it also features a very simplistic mystery in which no real mystery exists about who or why.

Melody's grandfather Frank is the only African-American horticulturist invited to exhibit his flowers at a flower show at Detroit's Belle Isle conservatory. Melody, already unsettled by her cousin-and-best-friend Val's attitude after Melody befriends a Jewish girl named Leah, is horrified when some expensive orchids are stolen from the conservatory after Frank and Melody tour the venue, and Frank is questioned by the police. Melody knows that if no other culprit can be found, Frank will probably be arrested for the crime just because he is black. Plus Leah is acting oddly. But Leah's a nice girl, just as fond of her sickly zayde as Melody is of her beloved Poppa. Could she really be involved in the theft?

Honestly, there's no mystery here, no real alternative suspects although a couple of half-hearted suspects are presented. The author seems more interested in paralleling the bigotry faced by both Jews and African-Americans than with presenting a good whodunit. Saving graces: Melody's and Val's friendship and even their quarrel is very true-to-life, and both Melody's and Leah's efforts to see beyond bigotry are well portrayed. But "Dee-Dee" deserved a better beginning to her sleuthing career.

book icon  The Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase, Greg Cox
Think nursery rhymes are just for children? Think again. In this newest adventure involving the denizens of TNT's fantasy-fiction series, three descendants of Elizabeth Goose—the original Mother Goose—are terrorized by bizarre incidents which lead Jenkins to come to a terrifying conclusion: the original book of Mother Goose rhymes, which are in reality powerful spells, once broken into three parts in 1918 to keep them from being misused, is now the target of someone who wishes to reassemble the volume and reboot the universe using one powerful spell. As Cassandra, Ezekiel, and Jake each team with the three people who experienced the bizarre incidents, Jenkins and Eve pursue wild magic inside the Library itself, and Eve puzzles about the whereabouts of Flynn Carsen, who has suddenly vanished.

I hadn't even realized there were Librarian novels until I saw this offered on NetGalley, and am so glad I snatched this up: it is like watching a miniseries version of the show. Greg Cox has a super grasp of all the characters, and each one of the encounters sounds just as if the actors are playing out this scenario on television. He's even managed to capture Jenkins' formality and occasional whimsical commentary. I really didn't guess the identity of Mother Goose until the very end where the flashback sequence is presented. Cox also takes inspiration from real-life places like the Winchester Mansion.

Fans of the series will love this book!

book icon  Message in a Bottle: A Julie Mystery, Kathryn Reiss
The Julie American Girls books always wig me out because I was a teen during the 1970s and my life was so different from hers that hers seems like some wild fantasy. However, in this newest batch of American Girls mysteries, Julie clearly cops the best mystery story. Here she and her mom are visiting her Aunt Nadine, who lives in a commune with her son Raymond and various others who have dropped out from society and are trying to live naturally. Raymond badly misses his father, who left the commune after serving in Vietnam, and the group is suffering from minor issues of bad luck which continue even as Julie Albright and her mom settle in. The commune is also losing money and they are trying desperately to think of new ways to sell their products so they can pay taxes. It's while Julie and Raymond are exploring near an old mine that the former finds a vintage bottle that holds a secret from the past.

I twigged onto the culprit early on due to adult cynicism; I think otherwise this would be a great challenge for a mystery-loving tween. The setting is interesting and there is an exciting sequence that takes place in an old gold mine. Reiss' text also points out the plight of Vietnam veterans and the still-continuing plague of developers who want to raze the countryside to build yet more housing developments.

book icon  A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History, Tim Grove
I've had this book for a couple of years now and have completely forgotten the circumstances under which I ordered it. I might have heard the author on "Travel With Rick Steves" or some other podcast. At this point I recalled it being humorous stories from the National Parks. It is not. Instead it's the story of Tim Grove, a history buff since a childhood listening to his grandmother's stories of "the olden days" and participating in Bicentennial activities. While he graduated college with a journalism degree, he felt a great pull to work in some historical field, and found his niche when he accepted an internship at Colonial Williamsburg.

This is just the neatest book about how Grove learned the craft of designing interactive historical displays to draw people into history, starting at participating in re-enactments of events at Williamsburg, including a controversial slave auction. From there we follow him to assignments at the National Portrait Gallery and the Museum of American History in Washington, DC;  west to St. Louis to work on the Lewis & Clark bicentennial celebration; and then returning to DC to work at Air and Space. He gets to ride a "high wheeler," received a grizzly bear pelt in the mail, learns of the dangerous life of the air-mail pilot, discovers actual flag makers instead of mythical ones, and has many other historical revelations. If you're a history geek like me, you'll love it.

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31 January 2017

Books Completed Since January 1

book icon  Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas, Al Ridenour

book icon  Christmas Ideals (Worthy Publishing Group) and Christmas Bells (Jennifer Chiaverini

book icon  Re-read: The Country Diary Christmas Book, Sarah Hollis

book icon  A Tree for Peter, Kate Seredy

book icon  Murder on St. Nicholas Avenue, Victoria Thompson
While Frank Malloy and his new bride Sarah Brandt are on their honeymoon, their governess and friend Maeve is quite happily taking care of Sarah's adopted daughter Catherine and Frank's son Brian and enjoying their new house when an old friend of Frank's mother comes visiting with a troubling story: her daughter Una has been accused of bludgeoning her husband to death. Although the elder Mrs. Malloy warns Maeve that Mrs. O'Neill and her daughter aren't always as helpless as they seem, Maeve can't help at least visiting "poor Una" in jail, where she slaps the stunned woman to her senses and immediately gets involved in her case, enlisting Malloy's former police partner Gino Donatelli as well as Sarah's wealthy parents the Deckers, who soon find out that Una's husband had been deceiving her.

Maeve and Gino and the Deckers are great supporting characters, and they comport themselves pretty well in this almost "amateur hour," but Frank and Sarah have better instincts and might have put the threads of the mystery together more quickly. Still, it's nice to see them step up and try to help a person in need, although they discover that sometimes the person they "rescue" doesn't always deserve the attention. I hope Frank and Sarah are amenable to starting an investigative agency when they arrive home, because they have one springing up under their noses.

Note: Although the murder takes place on "St. Nicholas Avenue" and before Christmas, the holiday is not a central theme in the book.

book icon  Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life, Marta McDowell
Go back and read my review for The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh (third review down).

That's it in spades for this book: a pocket biography of Potter followed by an exploration of the seasons at all her different farms and throughout the Lake Country: color illustrations of flowers, gardens, lawns, sheep, cattle, ducks, old photographs, and of course Beatrix's wonderful illustrations, whether they be cunning watercolor rabbits dressed in blue jackets or detailed botanical prints from her serious nature studies. The book is a sea of calm in a frantic world—find your poison (coffee, tea, or cocoa), add a homemade pastry or some garden snack, sit back, sip, nibble, and lose yourself in the poetry of the countryside and the art.

book icon  No Comfort for the Lost, Nancy Herriman
What spurred my read of the Winchester book reviewed below was this novel, a murder mystery set in 1860s San Francisco. Formerly a nurse in the Crimea like her Anne Perry contemporary Hester Latterley Monk, Celia Davies impulsively married an Irishman and followed him to the goldfields of California. Not having discovered gold, her husband found a job aboard ship and is now presumably lost at sea. Celia, with her limited funds and some donations, runs a clinic for the poor, including the "Celestials" that no one else will care for, the Chinese who are the recipients of the virulent racism from San Francisco's white residents. One of her former patients and now a friend, Li Sha, a woman who was living with Celia's brother in law, is fished out of the water, having been the victim of violence. The police think she'd either gone back to prostitution and a customer murdered her or that Tom Davies did so, but Celia stoutly insists to Union Army veteran and police detective Nicholas Greaves that neither could be true.

This novel brings dirty, rough, post-gold fever San Francisco and its simmering prejudices to life. You can smell the sea, the muck, the manure, and the unwashed bodies. Celia fights hard for the Chinese women in her care, but no one else gives a damn about them, including the wealthy women who are Celia's patrons and the operators of the Chinese brothels (one of Celia's patients dies a very agonizing death due to the neglect of her pimp). The mystery is reasonably complex, but I was turned off immediately by the romance novel aspects of the book: of course Celia is gorgeous and good and not prejudiced and Nick is rugged and handsome and tormented by a wound he received in the war. Celia is also the custodian of her teenage, half-Chinese niece Barbara (she refers to Barbara as a "teenager" at one point, a term which wouldn't be in common use for seventy more years), who has to be one of the most annoying supporting characters ever—while she is understandably frightened at the bigotry directed at Chinese people, she's also usually moping, crying, and generally unlikable. Plus there's the usual spunky housekeeper, Aggie. In short, I didn't find much difference in this and a half-dozen other historical mysteries now on the bookshelves, sort of a combination of Hester Monk's free clinic in the Perry books crossed with Sarah Brandt of the Gaslight mysteries with some lessons on Asian racism thrown in. If I had nothing else to read it wouldn't be the worst alternative, but there are so many other historical mysteries out there.

book icon  A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, Simon Winchester
I had skipped buying this book because I'd already read one in-depth book of the San Francisco earthquake and fire which was so comprehensive I didn't feel I needed to read another. Then I picked it up in a remainder store (where, yes, the inexpensive price was an inducement) and paging through it realized this wasn't just a book about the earthquake—indeed, it doesn't happen until page 243—it's a book about fault lines, plate tectonics, the makeup of the Earth, continental drift and all sorts of geologic goodness. Which I proceed to devour immediately. So if you are seeking a book about the earthquake, prepare for geologic digressions or go elsewhere.

You must also like Simon Winchester's writing style. I'm a verbophile and love vocabulary almost as much as chocolate. Winchester loves words, especially little-used ones, and his narrative in this volume is pretty typical: rivers of descriptive words that spill everywhere. I can enjoy this sort of thing, but his writing is not to all tastes. He wanders far afield in his geological story, both geographically and temporally, from Alaska to the New Madrid Fault, to Lisbon to discuss why earthquakes happen and where they happen. I found it all fascinating, but if you are just looking for a history of the 1906 event, it's best you look elsewhere.

book icon  A Study in Charlotte, Brittany Cavallaro
Jamie Watson resents the fact he's been sent off to live in the States to attend a boarding school called Sherringford that's in need of a good rugby player. He suspects his father, who he resents for remarrying, has sent him there just to meet up with the person everyone assumes he should pair up with, Charlotte Holmes. As Jamie is a descendant of the famous Doctor John Watson,  Charlotte is descended from Sherlock Holmes, and he wants to be a writer and is occasionally pugilistic. Like her famous ancestor, Charlotte is brilliant but has her demons (and addictions). When an disagreeable student is murdered, it soon becomes obvious that Charlotte and Jamie are being framed.

I started this with promise and then got kinda bored. There's so much manipulation going on in the background, a bunch of adolescent angst, and more complications than you can shake a stick at. Heaven knows I didn't want a squeaky clean Trixie Belden-like story, but the drugs and the date rape revelation and the constant cursing just wore me down after a while (and I am prone to salty language myself). Jamie having a crush on Charlotte just turned me off; we're going to do that one, too? Sigh. I liked some of the parallels: Charlotte's hidden laboratory, for instance, the murders taken from Holmes' stories, Sherringford as the school name (Sherringford was the name Conan Doyle was going to give Holmes before he decided on "Sherlock"). And I didn't expect the teen characters to be totally innocent, but even the kids seem to come out of a Jacqueline Susann novel.

Not sure I will chance the next one. Maybe as a library book.

book icon  Modern Crimes, Chris Nickson
Charlotte “Lottie” Armstrong and her partner Cathy Taylor are the first two women police constables on the Leeds police force in 1924. Ever conscious that they are being observed for any slipup that will tell the department that women aren’t fit for police duty, Lottie and Cathy chafe at the simplistic tasks they are assigned involving women and children. Then they are asked to track down a girl who fled from a Magdalen home for unwed mothers. When they do find her, she has almost been killed by the same person who has murdered the father of her baby. The unborn child also dies. When the murder case is turned over to “real” policemen, Lottie is disappointed–until the attending detective enlists her help.

Nickson paints a vivid portrait of postwar Leeds, a gritty industrial city, and its back alleys, fast living young men and the women who love them, in the postwar years. Poverty is very evident on Lottie and Cathy’s beat. Lottie meets abortionists and criminals, and enlists the aid of “invert” Auntie Betty (a lesbian) to help her find a woman possibly associated with the crime. The police station is no less an obstacle for her, with men who believe women have no place in police work and state it plainly.

Lottie herself is a very likeable character, pragmatic and thorough, nonjudgmental and shrewd, the ideal candidate for a policewoman’s job. She and Cathy share an excellent working relationship. Detective Sergeant McMillan is also an excellent supporting character. He’s willing to give Lottie a chance to do police work now that she’s proven herself competent, yet he still has certain reservations about others who do not meet his norms, like Auntie Betty, another fascinating character.

I have to admit I was a bit nonplussed by Lottie’s husband, Geoff. He is not only fine with her working, but actively encourages her to do so, and thrills in her successes. He is so supportive he seems a little too good to be true!

Lottie will indeed “get her man,” but only after a lot of hard work, investigation, walking, and harassment. The book is involving, absorbing, and a marvelous trip back in time. However, the promotion of this book as first in a series set after World War I is a bit of misnomer. You will see when you get to the conclusion.

book icon  Dickens' Fur Coat and Charlotte's Unanswered Letters, Daniel Pool
Unlike Pool's What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, which is a great reference book, this is Pool's overview of the great popular Victorian novelists, whose lives were soap operas all on their own, no embellishing needed, and how the popular novel developed into a beloved tradition. (Early novels had a bad name; most of them were the Fifty Shades of Gray of their time with salacious plots and protagonists.) Dickens leads the forefront of the popular novelists—for all that his own life was quite irregular—and we also learn about the development of the publishing of the novel as well: before that time books were very expensive and only the very wealthy owned them. New processes and subscription libraries helped bring books to more people than ever, even after publishers decided to break novels into three parts so they could sell more copies.

Pool's book reads like a "National Enquirer" of what students today think of as tedious old people: Charlotte Brontë and her crush on her publisher while fending off rumors of being William Makepeace Thackeray's mistress (not to mention the sad deaths of her sisters Anne and Emily after they made their mark—under a male name, of course), George Eliot's brilliantly received books as she was simultaneously banned from society for "living in sin," plus Thomas Hardy, Mrs. Gaskell, etc., all with their own quirks. If you ever thought Dickens and his compatriots were old bores, this will liven up your opinion.

book icon  Bryant & May and the Burning Man, Christopher Fowler
There is unrest in the streets of London as newly fashionable Hallowe'en celebrations combine with the traditional British Guy Fawkes holiday. Mobs are demonstrating and they're becoming unruly, especially after scandal erupts when a wealthy banker is caught mismanaging depositors' funds. The Peculiar Crimes Unit is called in after a homeless man is killed when someone tossed a Molotov cocktail in the doorway of the banker's establishment. It's passed off as an accidental killing as part of the protests—until a second wealthy man is killed with fire in a particularly horrifying way. It's only when a third man is targeted that the PCU realize them have a serial killer on their hands.

Fowler's PCU mysteries always involve some manner of British lore, and this one combines the modern protests of the "Occupy" movement with the customs of Bonfire Night, turning the city into a creepy setting with senior detectives Bryant and May, Janice Longbright, Dan Banbury, and the rest of the contingent trying feverishly to put the clues together. Dotty Arthur Bryant, however, is in more trouble than the rest. He fears his aging mind is finally giving in to dementia and as the PCU fights to find the killer, Arthur must battle his fears as well as he starts to get lost moving around the city he knew so well.

Great suspenseful build up to the end (although Janice having prophetic dreams seems a bit trite for the usual offbeat PCU plot) with misdirection getting the upper hand. Relationships change, new enemies are made (go, Raymond!)—but will things ever be the same again? Brilliant as always.

book icon  A Very Vintage Christmas, Bob Richter

book icon  Just One Damned Thing After Another, Jodi Taylor
Madeleine "Max" Maxwell has led a troubled childhood saved only by a caring teacher who turned her on to history. Much education and a doctorate later Max is contacted by the same teacher and asked if she'd be interested in a job at the St. Mary's Institute of Historical Research. When she arrives, she realizes early she isn't being interviewed for a garden-variety research job. You see the St. Mary's people really know their history, because they've found a way to travel in time. And Max definitely wants into that briar patch, B'rer Fox!

With some strong parallels to Connie Willis' Oxford time traveling stories (The Doomsday Book, etc.), Max joins other trainees eager to make a jump to the past. But as she's learning the ropes, she's also discovering that an unsettling undercurrent exists at St. Mary's, and that all the employees aren't who they seem. When visits to the past turn deadly for most of her classmates, Max and her partner play it as safe as possible when they're sent back to survey a highly-desirable timeline, but find that trouble has preceded them--and that indeed some of it does come from within.

Max is a much tougher heroine than Willis' almost ethereal Kivrin, and St. Mary's rife with internal conflict. There is some graphic violence and a few dollops of sexual antics, but on a whole I enjoyed the entire adventure, feeling a little kinship with Max, who's been a misfit all her life. The threat posed to the institute seems to be a standard cocky villain from a dozen other adventures, but in combination with the St. Mary's folks it all works and provides a fast-moving adventure with several twists. Good enough to make me want to go on to the next volume in the series.

book icon  The Residence, Kate Anderson Brower
This is the story of the permanent residents of the White House: the butlers, maids, valets, cooks, and other service people who work behind the scenes to make everything work right and take everyday burdens off the President's and First Lady's backs. Staff explain how they serve hundreds at parties, cope with Presidential quirks, move the new President and family in and out during the inauguration, supply flowers and cake and cheese sandwiches and gingerbread houses, and cope with disasters like the Kennedy assassination and 9/11.

I might have liked this book more had I not read all the preceding books about the White House, including J.B. West's Upstairs at the White House, Lillian Rogers Parks' Backstairs at the White House, Traphes Bryant's Dog Days at the White House, and the recent book about the 1948 White House gut after Margaret Truman's piano leg came through the floor. Brower borrows liberally from all, interspersing interviews with current employees, and although she emphasizes that the White House staff does not gossip about their families, they certainly talked enough that you learn a lot about recent problems, like Bill and Hilary Clinton's arguments during the Lewinsky affair (I would have thrown more than a lamp at him, thank you) and early signs of Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's disease. There are fun stories, too, like Barbara Bush teasing her staff.

It's an easy read, and you may enjoy the behind-the-scenes look if you haven't read any other books about the White House. I really didn't learn anything I didn't know before about the Presidents and their spouses: Nancy Reagan was controlling, Lady Bird couldn't make Lyndon mind and he wasn't adverse to meeting people while sitting on the toilet, Kennedy and Clinton had affairs, etc.

book icon  Elementary, She Read, Vicki Delany
I enjoy Ms. Delany's "Christmastown" books, so I thought I would try this new series, since I am a fan of all things Sherlock. Sorry to say I was less of a fan of this Holmes-related story.

Gemma Doyle, now some distance from her English roots, runs her Uncle Arthur's Sherlock Holmes-themed bookstore in the small town of West London on Cape Cod (Arthur is often away on book-buying jaunts and, Gemma suspects, enjoying himself with the ladies). Her best friend Jayne Wilson, the fluffy one to her more sensible self, runs the tearoom next door. After a busload of women tourists visits the bookstore and the tearoom, Gemma finds what looks like a copy of “Beeton's Annual” magazine hidden in one of her shelves; if it's authentic it will be worth thousands because this is the issue that contained the first publication of Holmes’ debut A Study in Scarlet. However, when Gemma tracks down the owner, the woman is dead by foul means and the police think Gemma had something to do with it--in fact, the detective is so determined to pin the crime on her it's pretty much a vendetta, and Gemma, who is as observant as the sleuth the bookstore is named after (although she's not a Sherlock fan), feels she needs to find the culprit before she's railroaded into jail

Gemma is presented as a sort of brisk no-nonsense type, and while I enjoy stories about independent women, there was just something about her that annoyed me. The "plain" heroine and her attractive best friend/opposites attract friendship is old hat by now, and I don't know how anyone buys books in the Emporium since it seems Gemma is much too busy doing things like breaking into people's homes to run the store. And then there's the handsome police detective in West London who can't take the case because he and Gemma used to be romantically involved. I am so tired of romances in mystery books I could pass out from boredom, and of course the male lead is inevitably hunky. Plus there's a running gag where the ubiquitous bookstore cat, named Moriarty (of course), loves everyone--except Gemma.

In the end, I just felt as if there was a list on which all the numbers had ticked off (determined heroine who notices things others don't, attractive sidekick who'll do anything to help her friend, annoying police detective who doesn't want to do any work but still has that proverbial axe to grind, a fractured romance, greedy relatives, quaint little town, stock pet),

Now the bookstore, the bookstore I WANT. It's everyone's dream of a bookstore, with luscious food right next door. Someday I would love to find that idyllic place.

book icon  Listening, Kate Seredy
I first knew Seredy in elementary school with her classic books about a Hungarian childhood, The Good Master and The Singing Tree. Over the years I have also fallen in love with her brilliant Chestry Oak and adore The Open Gate. I had long seen this book in her bibliography and when an affordable copy turned up, I picked it up.

It's a darling story, but I wonder who it was meant to appeal to. I'm not seeing children really enjoying this, even 1930s children. It's the story of Gail, a little girl visiting her New Jersey relatives for a week; while she discovers the joy of canoeing with her boy cousins and helps them fix up an old mill, her uncle, an artist, tells her the story of the old rambling house the family lives in, the oldest part which goes back to the Dutch settlers in the 1600s and includes an encounter with George Washington. Plus there are the animals: a mischievous dog, three cats, and the woods animals she discovers with the family. But the book really has no plot and no suspense except for Gail's discoveries while she's visiting. There's a funny sequence when the book opens where the town is thrown into a tizzy when Gail arrives on the bus (the place is so small the bus never stops there), but you never see the townspeople again, except one by reference at the end.

The drawings, as always, are wonderful, but none of the characters is really memorable. Seredy touches on themes she introduced in The Good Master and which re-occur in her books: the nobility of farmers, the beauty of animals, families and children working hard but having fun and receiving rewards doing so. I'm glad I bought it for my collection, but you could easily just borrow from a library.

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01 January 2017

A Baker's Dozen of Favorite Books for the Year

I winnowed this down from about seventeen books:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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