01 January 2021

A Baker's Dozen of Favorite Books for 2020

Well, something had to be decent in 2020...

Always hard to whittle these books down to even thirteen. Must give honorable mention points to all three Longmire mystery books (Another Man's Moccasins, The Dark Horse, Kindness Goes Unpunished) I devoured this year, plus my first read ever of Robert Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky, with its POC protagonist who has been whitewashed on book covers for years, and to Linda Newbury, who managed to give me a decent sequel to Peyton's Flambards books.

book icon  The Mutual Admiration Society, Mo Moulton (ARC, Dorothy Sayers and her friends at Oxford and beyond)

book icon  The Olive Farm, Carol Drinkwater (book sale find, actor Drinkwater's memoir of the crumbling farm she and her partner bought in France)

book icon  The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers, 1937-1943, From Novelist to Playwright (Volume 2), edited by Barbara Reynolds (book sale find, self-explanatory)

book icon  The Moor, William Atkins (nonfiction look at the various moors of England; they're not all the same)

book icon  The Narnian, Alan Jacobs (book sale find, story of C.S. Lewis as told by his writings)

book icon  America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, Gail Collins (book sale find, overview of the women who did not make it into the history books)

book icon  The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson (his newest about the Churchills during World War II)

book icon  The Annotated Black Beauty, Anna Sewell, introductions/annotations by Ellen B. Wells and Anne Grimshaw (a book find from a friend thinning out her library, expands knowledge of the novel and the treatment of Victorian animals)

book icon  Bryant & May: The Lonely Hour, Christopher Fowler (newest in Fowler's series; two elderly detectives look for a motive in unconnected murders)

book icon  A Furious Sky, Eric Jay Dolin (ARC, history of hurricanes in the "new world")

book icon  Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway Revolution, Todd S. Purdum (the team that was ahead of its time even thought they're thought by some to be "treacly" today)

book icon  This Old Man, Roger Angell (book sale find, essays about life, sports, and everything in between by "New Yorker" editor and stepson of E.B. White)

book icon  Olive Bright, Pigeoneer, Stephanie Graves (ARC, wartime mystery along similar lines as Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders, but, IMHO, better)

31 December 2020

Books Completed Since December 1

So it's December, and I always read Christmas books in December. All the rest of the reviews are in Holiday Harbour for end of November through December 2020 and until January 6, 2021. But I make an exception for "Rivers of London" graphic novels. I've been waiting for this for ages as the publication was delayed, then it got lost in the mail!

book icon  The Fey and the Furious: a Rivers of London Graphic Novel, Ben Aaronovitch and Andrew Cartmel
Let's see. Obligatory Hitch-hiker's Guide joke? Check. Obligatory Doctor Who reference? Check. And a riff on Samuel Taylor Coleridge to boot? Yep, seems like everything's set for a new Peter Grant adventure: when a British sports car shows up under water at a storm dam in the Netherlands, but there's no record of the drowned owner inside ever leaving the British Isles, and a bag in the car reveals some contraband that's not narwhal tusks, Peter's on the job, involved in clandestine street racing underwritten by the fey, assisted by Beverley, and Sahra Guleed, and her new boyfriend Michael Cheung. The racers are in it for the thrills, but there's smuggling going on that hides a horrifying secret.

While this is its own story, it is partially a sequel to the series novel Foxglove Summer as well. (If you've forgotten the plot, it's summed up at the beginning of chapter four). No talking foxes this time, but new animals involved in the plot (pay attention to the ones who co-star in the opening pages with Peter and Beverley; they will show up later). Nicky and Nightingale make guest appearances only. Includes several funny one-panel "Tales from the Folly," including one about Toby, and info pages about street racing, stunts, the fey, and smuggling.

Incidentally, I love the image on the back cover (reproduced inside full page as well), but it never actually happens in the story. Would love to know the tale behind that!

30 November 2020

Books Completed Since November 1

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Secret of the Lucky Coins, Jerry West
Sometimes one little action starts a whole lot of plot: in this 22nd entry in the Happy Hollisters series, someone gives four-year old Sue a "lucky penny." That's all it takes for the other children, Pete (age 12), Pam, 10, seven-year-old Ricky, and Holly, age 6, to get absorbed in coin collecting. (As usual, the kids' bete noire Joey Brill tries to make off with their coins.) They take their collection with them to Crestview, where they used to live, to visit their cousins Teddy and Jean, and enroute take cover from a small tornado. Afterwards, Pete discovers a rare Oak Tree shilling in a fallen tree. It has mysterious marks on it that seem to point to a hidden treasure. Once they arrive in Crestview, a local museum has a coin collection stolen! Coincidence? Well, of course, this is a happy Hollisters mystery, after all.

As was begun in the previous Little Mermaid adventure, Ricky is still doing dumb things and getting in trouble for it. This time Holly gets herself into a sticky situation as well as the kids play around a cannon monument. However, some novel twists in this story: turns out Joey Brill is visiting his cousin in Crestview, so we're stuck with him there, but he bullies smaller Oz, too. So Oz prefers the Hollisters a whole lot more than he likes Joey's company! Oz is also talented at drawing and provides the police a valuable clue. In another break from the norm, the children catch the museum thief early in the story, but believe his story about why he committed the robbery and help find justice for him. Otherwise it's business as usual as the quintet and Teddy and Jean hunt clues and piece together what's going on.
 
book icon  False Value, Ben Aaronovitch
Peter Grant was suspended from the police force after the Faceless Man died. Since then he's been anticipating fatherhood and wondering what to do next. His decision: take a technical job with a rising new company, the Serious Cybernetics Corporation—where he discovers he's actually been hired to spy on the employees and figure out why there are gaps in the security logs.
 
Actually, he's not all that he seems. Alternating chapters take us back in time to where Peter discovers that somewhere there is a primitive Babbage machine called a Mary Engine that goes back to the days of Ada Lovelace, a gadget that has terrifying magical abilities. Once Peter discovers there's a secure area at the SCC, he's pretty sure it's hiding this amazing machine. But what does SCC mogul Terrence Skinner planning to do with it? With the help of two of the employees, Peter's about to find out—if he can also cope with the Librarians from the U.S. who are after the same device.

The Mary Engine is an intriguing idea, but overall this entry in the series lacks that special something that makes the Grant books a delight to read. For one, an occasional reference to another fandom is fun. It's always enjoyable to find a Doctor Who or other fannish reference in these books. But Skinner's whole company is a riff on Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the references to Vogons, Magratheans, and mice just go on and on. (Although I have to admit having the baddie named "Skinner" along with the multiple reference to mice is a neat science in-joke.) Plus a lot of the story takes place at Peter's place of work and it's dull hanging around an office all day; I can almost see the fluorescent lights. (::flinch!::)
 
book icon  The October Man, Ben Aaronovitch
Another book I read at least twice as an e-book, but it didn't seem "real" till I had a hard copy.  This takes place in Ben Aaronovitch's "Rivers of London" universe, which I've been a fan of since the first book Rivers of London (Midnight Riot in the U.S.). However, rather than concentrating on Aaronovitch's usual protagonist, Peter Grant, we are shown another aspect of the magical universe portrayed in the "Rivers" books.

In Germany, Tobias Winter is also a young magic practitioner and part of the German police force. He is called to the Moselle Valley area when a corpse is found completely covered by a fungus that is also used in winemaking, and detects traces of magic ("vestigia") at the murder site and from the corpse. Now all he has to do is find out why the man died in such an unusual way.

Tobi is a pleasant character, although I didn't think his background and experience were as interesting as Peter Grant's. However, I enjoyed learning more about the German magic discipline, and Tobi's investigation with his partner (Vanessa Sommer, assigned to him by someone with a puckish sense of humor) not only turns up river spirits of a type Peter Grant would be familiar with, but another esoteric member of the community as well as a vengeful spirit. The wine-making lore was interesting as well, although I was a bit grossed out to learn that there are wines made using mold! The usual touches of Aaronovitch humor enliven the story, and I loved Vanessa's encounter with a young child who's more than she appears.
 
book icon  God, War, and Providence, James A. Warren
Roger Williams had radical ideas. The Puritans were aghast when Williams dared to say that people who were not from the Puritan sect could still be as good and as Christian as the Puritans were. He had the temerity to think that non-traditional sects, like the Society of Friends (Quakers), and that even Jews had the right to worship as they wished. And, most shockingly, he believe the "savages" like the Narragansett, Wampanoag, and Pequot tribes were not tools of the devil as the Puritans believed, but could be as good as Christian men without being Christian, and that their laws were just.

I'm sure Williams was not perfect, a man of his times, and had his own prejudices, but the fact that he believed all the things above, and also that a woman like Anne Hutchinson was just as capable as a man in proclaiming the gospel put him in a higher class than most of the Europeans that arrived on New England shores in the 17th century. He advocated for the Narragansetts almost until the day he died, fighting a losing battle against the Puritans and their complicated machinations with the Pequots, pretending to be their allies until the Pequots themselves were in the way of the English settlers. This is the story of Williams' futile fight for the rights of the Narragansetts and the greed for land that eventually toppled all the New England tribes. Not a hard read and contains supplemental maps and illustrations (including a map of the original Providence settlement).
 
book icon  Re-read: The Book of Stillmeadow, Gladys Taber
Back in the 1930s, Gladys Taber, her best friend Eleanor Mayer, and their husbands bought a Connecticut farmhouse, like many others of their era, to spend weekends and summers at rather than live year round in the concrete canyons of New York City. Taber began writing columns about her life in the country and the result were her non-fiction "Stillmeadow" books. I "met" Gladys in seventh grade via her book Especially Dogs in my junior-high library.
 
The Stillmeadow books were "hygge" long before Americans started mispronouncing the Danish word. In fact, rumor still has it Gladys was the inspiration for Elizabeth Lane in Christmas in Connecticut, except Elizabeth was a fraud and Gladys was the real thing. Together she and Eleanor ("Jill" in the books) raised their kids (Taber was later divorced, Eleanor's husband died), bred cocker spaniels, were owned by adored cats, kept a garden, canned and preserved foods, kept the farmhouse (built in the late 1600s) from falling apart, and submerged themselves in the slow turn of the seasons. This book opens in November and closes in October of the next year, chronicling the growth of the children, the antics of the dogs, and the sheer beauty of the Connecticut countryside. They are just so calming and comforting—sometimes funny, occasionally sad, filled with the scents and sounds of grass, birds, excited dogs, crickets, the steady thunk of Jill's hoe and rake, the Stillmeadow kitchen and the huge colonial fireplace.
 
Any day with Gladys is one filled with happiness and beauty.
 
book icon  Neither Wolf Nor Dog, Kent Nerburn
After writing two books on Ojibwe culture in collaboration with Native students, Kent Nerburn is contacted by an elderly Lakota man named Dan who had read the books and liked that Nerburn neither romanticized the Native group he wrote about nor was a "wannabe Indian," a non-Native person who tries to co-op Native culture as something to improve non-Native lives. Dan has spent the past few years writing down his perceptions of Native and white people, and asks Nerburn to make them into a coherent narrative. Nerburn's first attempt sounds stilted to him, but Dan seems to like it—at first, then thinks he's trying too hard to make it sound "white." Finally he rips him the notes he's written and instead takes Nerburn, along with his good friend Grover and a dog named Fatback, on an odyssey through the Native lands around them, trying to impress upon the author how much the Native population has lost from contact with European explorers and settlers.

This is a sad and unsettling book that makes you realize how much was taken away from Native American cultures in the past 400 years. When Europeans came to this country they eventually became "American" but were always allowed to keep the memories of their original culture alive. Foods were assimilated into the American diet, as well as customs and religion. Yet the various Native tribes, each with their own individual cultures, that were here when the European settlers arrived were expected to give up these cultures and customs and religion to embrace the new European ways and forget the old. Those who did not comply were browbeat, physically beaten, even killed. Now that the "worm has turned," so to speak, many wish to learn about Native culture, but still overlay their knowledge with their own assumptions, thus you get "Indian rituals" bathed in a rosy glow, the so-called "magic Indian" with supernatural powers, or the "noble savage" stereotype without seeing Native people as individuals. Worse, non-Natives wish to co-opt Native practices for their own improvement, even emulating Native dress and way of life. Dan presents Nerburn with the reality of modern Native life and the shadows of the past that haunt them.
 
 
book icon  St. Nicholas, Volume 60, November 1932-October 1933, American Education Press
Well, this is it. The last bound volume of "St. Nicholas" I have in my possession to read. For the past...twenty? maybe thirty? I guess years I have read fifty nine of the sixty volumes up to this point (I'm missing Volume 58, November 1930-October 1931); I bought the first volume in Boston, but I don't recall when—November 1873 to October 1933, sixty years of the United States going from agrarian nation to minor world power. Thankfully this was better than the previous volume, although all twelve issues fitted into a volume that would have held six months' worth of material only a few years earlier.

The serials were interesting but minor, but at least better than the awful Young Ravenals in the previous volume, which should have been shot for cruelty to any adult, or kid for that matter, who had to read through that hot mess. "The White Feather" ended up satisfactorily, "The Man from Mystery House" was a good action piece, "The Lost Circe" was an okay girls' mystery, "Nest Among the Stars" starred the hapless Japheta (still not sure why she has that nickname) at camp trailing mishaps and mistaken identities in her wake (she almost gets one man labeled as a "Commie"), and I was disappointed they started a reasonably interesting story "Trail of the Borealis" just as I finished the volume. The big disappointment was the John Bennett (Master Skylark) serial which was a boring fantasy about a knight and a dragon; glad to not have to finish that. November 1932 had an article about the magazine's 60th anniversary and a couple of other pieces devoted to the event.

Of note in this issue is J. Frank Dobie's "When I Was a Boy on the Ranch" which was later oft-anthologized, two nature pieces by amateur naturalist Daniel P. Mannix (who later wrote The Fox and the Hound, later presented in a cleaned-up version by Disney), a piece about Rhode Island history (the sinking of the British ship Gaspé in Narragansett Bay), and what I think was the only magazine appearance of an excerpt from a "Little House" book, "Keeping House" from Farmer Boy, in which Almanzo's pet pig is named "Amy," not "Lucy" as in my copy. Odd. T. Morris Longstreth, he of the square-jawed heroes, has a neat "girl power" story about a young woman at a logging camp who secretly learns to fly the camp airplane and ends up saving the day and the hundredth anniversary of Louisa May Alcott's birth is celebrated.

They finally ditched the boring "Handcrafters" column, brought back the calendar in the last volume, dropped "The Letter Box" and then picked it up again because they added pages (having been whittled down to fifty previously) but used cheaper paper which is visibly yellow, and, also in the last issue, added an airplane column. Thank goodness the League was still intact!
 
book icon  New England Flavor: Memoirs of a Country Boyhood, Haydn S. Pearson
This is Pearson's autobiographical look at his New Hampshire childhood growing up in the country town of Hancock, where his father was a Baptist minister and apple grower. He looks back on his chores—and there were many for a boy growing up on a farm, some monotonous like picking potato bugs off leaves and some occasionally interesting, like taking apples to the cider mill, and some pretty frustrating, like thawing out the water pump in the barnyard on a single-degree day. There are also fun activities like riding the snow roller in the winter to create a good sleighing surface on the roads, going fishing, waiting for the annual visit of the traveling peddler, and watching the blacksmith work.

Pearson takes us through a typical year on the farm, from winter days dressing in front of the stove, mud season followed by planting time, happy excursions to the swimming hole in summer, and finally harvesting and winnowing of crops. He also shares humorous stories about neighborhood characters or interactions, like the "horse trading" sequence that occurs at the end of chapter two, which is hilarious. The text is full of nostalgia in the tradition of Eric Sloane and would also be welcome to fans of Gladys Taber and Rachel Peden.
 
book icon  This Time Next Year We'll Be Laughing, Jacqueline Winspear
In the wake of sixteen novels, Winspear takes this opportunity to write about her unusual childhood. Her parents were an unconventional couple, living in homes that had no modern conveniences well into the 1960s, and at times they lived with the Romany people, following Rom customs, making their living among them. Jackie and her brother recall being called "dirty gypsies" due to that. Much of the opening pages of this autobiography are tied to the experiences of her parents. Her father was a city boy who fell in love with the country due to the quiet; ironically his war work involved working with explosives. An artistic man, he finally became a designer, but after working years at other grueling positions. Her mother and aunts were evacuated during the war to the home of a man who molested children; in her married life she did any work that came along, including harvesting and home cleaning, but finally became an executive in the British penal system.
 
Winspear paints her own childhood in misty watercolors that nevertheless reveal the hard knocks of life: her love of the country, her continued obsession with horses, trying to find her place with volatile parents who favored her brother, even to discovering some of her mother's most well-loved tales of the past were just fantasies. Young people who have grown up with running water and all the common utilities will probably blanch at her recollections of having to use the outhouse, carry water from the well, keep warm in winter with a hot brick in her bed. She recalls with pride how she earned the money for her very first wristwatch at the tender age of six by doing farm chores.
 
Sometimes the manuscript skips around from past to present to past again without rhyme nor reason; we seem to go from her terrible ordeal with scalding water as a toddler to a present encounter with a psychologist with few connecting threads. And though her brother appears throughout the manuscript, he seems to be a very nebulous presence who is in the tale one minute and then forgotten for pages upon end, and even after reading the book I can't figure out how she really feels about him. However, her childhood experiences are very striking and the evidently love of the countryside shines out from every page.
 
book icon  Re-read: Stillmeadow Seasons, Gladys Taber
Stillmeadow Seasons is the third of Gladys Taber’s compilations about her life in her 1600s Connecticut farmhouse near Southbury, Connecticut. Taken from her magazine columns from 1947-1949, she begins her Stillmeadow year in April, where we watch spring bloom along with a new addition to the family, a rambunctious Irish setter puppy named Maeve. As always, against the progression of outdoor life from April to March of the next year, Gladys chats happily about canning and cooking, the lively cocker spaniels Honey, Melody, Little Sister, and Linda (and more), the cats Tigger and Esme, her favorite music, reading on cold winter nights, eating in the Quiet Garden (a new feature at Stillmeadow) on beautiful summer evenings, visits from her daughter and Jill’s children (now at college or already married), and the trials and comforts of owning an old house. Sometimes she is sober, as in addressing prejudice (some of her comments sound no different from ones we are hearing currently, which is inexpressibly sad) and fear of atomic devastation.

As someone who hates being outside int he sun, I am awed by Gladys’ and Jill’s energy in their garden and in their kitchen as well during the torrid summer months, but my favorite passages take place in Stillmeadow’s fall and winter seasons, when the ladies’ take a breather–well, while they’re not training the dogs, polishing the furniture, shoveling snow, and keeping the floors clean of snow–and enjoy a sit by the fire with a good book and classical music on the radio or the record player. The dogs are as endearing as ever, although a few familiar names from the first two books appear to have gone on to Rainbow Bridge (Star and Sister), and Maeve adds a hectic element to the household as she grows.

Gladys Taber was “mindful” long before the mindfulness movement became popular. She cherished every day, even rainy and cold ones, with something positive to say. You could spend no better time on any day, but especially on a chilly autumn or winter day, reading Taber for the ultimate chill-out.
 
book icon  Murder at Icicle Lodge, J.D. Griffo
Alberta Scaglione is finally getting used to the fact that she inherited her late great-aunt's lovely cottage on Tranquility Lake when her granddaughter, a neophyte reporter on a local New Jersey newspaper, lands a plum assignment at Icicle Lodge, a skiing and skating resort in the mountains: interviewing Olympic gold-medal winning ice skater Pamela Gregory, who's from the area. Not only that, but "Jinx" is allowed to take some friends with her: grandma Alberta and her sister Helen, and sister-in-law Joyce. Plus Tranquility Lake's chief of police, a man Alberta used to babysit, has been invited by the owner to the reopening of Icicle Lodge, and he brings along Jinx's boyfriend Freddy, ex-nun Helen's nemesis Father Sal, and Alberta's new love interest Sloan. Unfortunately Pamela turns out to be a prima-donna bitch—and soon she's a murder victim. So now the Ferrara Family detectives, Alberta, Jinx, Joyce, and Helen, are back on the case, discovering that competitive ice skating is almost as cutthroat sharp as the skate blades themselves.

There's nearly as much backstabbing in this story as there is in Hamlet as old stories and rivalries emerge as Alberta and her family piece through the disconnected clues. I love these books because of the lead's Italian heritage, but I have to admit sometimes the climaxes to the stories are a bit improbable: this one involves a motorized chase. Also, one of the characters disappears about two-thirds of the way through the tale and, after being so concerned about the fate of that person, Alberta seems to go on with the investigation without worrying about or mentioning that person for several chapters, although the person is probably in danger. I kept thinking "Shouldn't they be searching for [character]?" Anyway, the mystery's okay, but the family and their dynamics are the real reasons for reading.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

31 October 2020

Books Completed Since October 1

book icon  Sorry I'm Late, I Didn't Want to Come, Jessica Pan
I had to pick this up: Jess and I sounded a lot alike. We crossed streets to avoid talking to people. Ducked out of noisy parties early. Thought going to any big gathering where there was drinking and noise as energy draining. Found socializing exhausting.
 
I was lucky; I found science fiction conventions. I normally don't chat to strangers, but will there, because I know there is acceptance there. But Jess' close friends had all left for new lives or other careers. Yes, she had her partner Sam, but she still had no close other friends. So she tried living the life of an extrovert to help her find some new ones.
 
Jessica Pan's writing is humorous and I chuckled several times in her adventures. I thought I was pretty shy, but her introversion was almost debilitating. I applaud several of the thing she did to overcome this, including doing a presentation for The Moth, doing stand-up comedy, joining an improv group, and going on a vacation not knowing the destination. But some of the other therapies she was given just appalled me, the worst being to talk to strangers and, instead of making small talk, ask them "Deep Questions" like "Are you lonely?" or "What's the worst thing you've ever done?" I find this rude and invasive. Do the psychologists of the world not respect anyone's privacy any longer? Not to mention that a couple of things that people told her during this therapy would have been prime targets for blackmail! I do understand that this was to elevate conversation between mere chitchat about sports or the weather, but I thought it was seriously invasive and creepy. I sure wouldn't have responded to Jessica! Neither would I have hung around Budapest not consulting a guidebook (apparently she wasn't allowed to????) and asking "Deep Questions"—get the guidebook, go someplace you're interested in, then start chatting to people there!
 
An okay examination of changing personal behaviors if you can get around the "Deep Talk" invasion of privacy business (plus I found the magic mushroom chapter a little creepy, too).
 
book icon  Murder on Union Square, Victoria Thompson
One final obstacle remains in the process for Sarah Brandt Malloy and Frank Malloy to adopt Catherine, the little girl Sarah rescued from abuse: her mother was married at the time she died, so her husband, even though he is not Catherine's biological father, is still her legal guardian. But, their attorney tells them, if the man, actor Parnell Vaughn, signs over Catherine to them, they may adopt her. But when the Malloys visit Vaughn, his grasping fiancee says he'll only sign if he's paid a thousand dollars. This too is illegal, but Frank and Sarah love Catherine too much to say no. But the next day when Frank takes the papers to Vaughn, he finds him dead, and his fiancee screams that Frank killed him. Frank's arrested. Due to the inheritance he received, he can just pay the courts off to "forget" the case, but Frank and Sarah, and their co-workers Gino and Maeve, would prefer that he clear his name, especially for the sake of Catherine and Frank's son Brian. So the four of them work the Palladium Theater, finding out much more about actors—and their foibles, superstitions, personal habits, and performances at the drop of a hat—than they ever wanted to. Frank's and Sarah's mothers also lend a hand in this mystery that raises quite a few eyebrows in the plot along the way.

There are so many suspects in this one and so many motivations that much of the story is taken up with the four leads' interviews with the suspects, and for a while things seem to go around in circles. This is very realistic from an investigative point of view—both police and private detectives must hash and rehash clues to arrive at the truth—but sometimes the repetition gets a little dull. So you'll have to stick with the characters a bit while they reach the inevitable.

Plus we get a reappearance of Serafina, the fortuneteller who appeared in a previous book; one of the actresses, Verena, helps with the case with some coaxing from Gino (to Maeve's annoyance), Maeve gets the workmen at the new clinic whipped into shape, and she also comes up with a great cover name while pretending to be a reporter: Mazie Dobbins. I laughed aloud when I read that.

Enjoyable, but you have to get through the long investigation.
 
book icon  A History of Children's Books in 100 Books, Roderick Cave and Sara Ayad
I have the book A History of Books in 100 Books and thought this would make a good companion volume to it. It is, although it was published in England and is very British-centric. It opens, as you might expect, with a chapter about the first books designated for children, which weren't published until the late 17th century, and then wanders afield through folklore from Aesop to Africa, to nonsense tales, animal stories, instructive and religious stories, babies' books, volumes that tell of other cultures, women writers, fairy tales and fantasy places, tales of exploration and colonialism, history books, and more. Notable American books are mentioned, as are African and Indian and Chinese contributions, but the focus is chiefly British.
 
Still miffed because they mentioned "The Youth's Companion" and several other periodicals, and completely forgot "St. Nicholas," which was really odd since several of my compilations of that noted magazine are from British editions printed by Beatrix Potter's publisher, Frederick Warne & Company!
 
book icon  The Library Book, Susan Orlean
Susan Orlean interweaves her love for books with the story of the 1926 Goodhue Central Library of the Los Angeles library system and the terrible fire the historic building suffered in 1986 when a suspected arsonist lit a fire in the stacks and the tinder-dry books in the badly-ventilated area burned as if they had been soaked in gasoline, with temperatures that reached over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. As firemen desperately fought the fire in one part of the building, courageous volunteers raced inside the unaffected portions to rescue books until it became unsafe. Days later, more volunteers rescued waterlogged volumes, hoping to save some of them. The arsonist was never caught, but long suspected was Harry Peak, a misfit who said he was nowhere near the library, then changed his mind and said he was there, then said he was not again...each time he was questioned changing his story. It's also the story of the Los Angeles library system itself, including its pioneering women head librarians who were eventually booted out to make way for an eccentric who had no training in library science but who was a man, an odd duck who actually did do positive things for the library. Orlean even examines the role of libraries today, especially urban libraries who are attempting to make themselves relevant, especially in low-income neighborhoods, and how they are attempting to diversify the audience they serve.
 
If you're a book lover, this volume is like a treat from a candy store. The accounts of the fire will make you weep in realizing how many historic volumes were lost. While Harry Peak's involvement (or non-involvement) was never proven, you'll become equally annoyed at his aggrandizement of himself and his shifting stories and excuses. Heck, Orlean's story about her trips to the library with her mother and about the books she loved are almost worth the price of the book alone.
 
book icon  The Vanderbeekers Lost and Found, Karina Yan Glaser
What a change from two years earlier, when the Vanderbeeker family's landlord was a cranky recluse living a solitary life in his top-floor apartment. Now the five Vanderbeeker children: teen twins Isa and Jessie, Oliver (the only boy), knitting-mad Hyacinth, and little Laney are helping Mr. Beiderman train for the New York City marathon. But their excitement is tempered by a bombshell: the identity of the homeless person living in the shed in the neighborhood's communal garden. It's someone they both know and love, and they'd do anything to keep this person from leaving their neighborhood and possibly leaving them forever. In the meantime, Hyacinth is unsure of how to make new friends at school, and Isa worries that a boy she likes may not like her any longer.
 
Amid the joy that is always around when the Vanderbeekers assemble, the kids have to face some hard truths about all families not being like theirs. And, even more daunting, is that something I feared in The Vanderbeekers to the Rescue has come to pass. If you are reading this to a child, please note there is a death in this book and be prepared. It's beautifully related but terribly sad and made me cry.  The children are given an opportunity to prepare, participate, and grieve in their own way, which is as it should be instead of being protected from life's inevitable truths.
 
book icon  Re-Read: Harvest at Stillmeadow, Gladys Taber
It's that time of year when I go looking among my to-be-read pile for "something that is like Gladys Taber." Alas, I've spent something like 30 years looking for someone "like" her; best to just go back to the beginning and re-read the Stillmeadow books. Taber, originally from Wisconsin, spending her married life living in New York City, bought a vintage Connecticut farmhouse (as so many New Yorkers did from the 1930s-1950s—remember the I Love Lucy episodes set in Connecticut?) near Southbury, raised cocker spaniels, planted a garden, cooked luscious meals and relaxed (sometimes) on weekends and in summer before coming to live there full time, and Taber, in "Ladies' Home Journal" and "Family Circle," wrote about her experiences at "Stillmeadow." These columns were later published in over a dozen compilation volumes, of which Harvest at Stillmeadow was the first.

These columns, from 1935 to 1940, and covering two years at Stillmeadow, are simple journal entries of daily life: the vagaries of the spaniels (Star and Sister, their two main dogs, hated each other), the travails of gardening and then the succulence of the food that came out of it, closing the house for the winter and reopening it in the spring, the perils of having summer visitors (the behaviors of which made me rather indignant; it's impolite to invite yourself over, keep your hostess hopping with requests for items and entertainment, and then leave her to clean up your mess!), the adventures of the children, and the passing of the seasons. Reviews of her books often show up on blogs and sites about mindfulness; certainly there's a slow, easy pleasure about a Stillmeadow book, one that makes you think longingly of homes in the country, shady gardens, homecooked dinners, watching sunny meadows and frosty evenings from a garden chair or from before an open fire. It's a mellowing experience.

This, the first of the books, is a little less polished than the later ones, where gradually the childhood tales give way to Gladys musing about growing older, the state of the world, the disappearance of the countryside around her—but always about her pets and her cooking. In fact, I came to her through her dogs: a volume called Especially Dogs, Especially at Stillmeadow in my junior high school library. Once tempted by Stillmeadow, it's hard to turn away ever again.
 
book icon  On Spice: Advice, Wisdom, and History With a Grain of Saltiness, Caitlin Penzey-Moog
I gave this to James on his birthday because one of our favorite things to do is go over to the Penzey spices store on Roswell Road and smell the spices. He handed it off to me, a small book, and said "It's an easy read." It is, but also a fun one. Penzey-Moog grew up helping in her grandparents' spice store and learned more about food seasonings than most will ever know. She gives a history of each spice (or herb; she decided to go with the broader sense of the definition of "spice" as an additive to food dishes, whether they were from seeds, roots, plants, flowers, etc.) with interesting commentary on history (such as the French and the Dutch basically lost their monopoly on their spice islands because they treated the indigenous workers so badly that these slaves would give away the precious seeds/plants), and chat about plants which were used as medicines. You'll learn what we use as cinnamon really isn't (unless it's from Vietnam, it's probably cassia); that turmeric (the "new" wonder spice) is actually good for you, but not as good as its press insists; why a few threads of saffron are so expensive; and much more. She also talks about what spice mixes contain (Cajun seasoning, five spice powder, jerk, vadouvan, and more), the difference between "peppers" and "peppercorns" (not to mention paprika), and many other items of food trivia.
 
Not a fan of cooking, but an interesting read due to the history.
 
book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Mystery of the Little Mermaid, Jerry West
This is number eighteen in the book series about the Hollister family (dad owns the Trading Post, a sports/hobby/hardware store, mom is a housewife but always ready to join or head family adventures, and there's the kids: Pete, age 12; Pam, 10 years old; Ricky, age 7; and Holly, 6—there's also a younger sister, Sue, age four), not to mention the collie, the cat and five kittens, and the pet donkey. They travel to interesting places and usually solve some sort of mystery doing so.
 
In this entry, they're winging it to Denmark to visit Copenhagen, when a fellow passenger, Miss Petersen, an assistant to the Queen who is returning a priceless Little Mermaid statue to the royal family from a museum loan, allows the kids to see the artifact. Unfortunately, she also allows another passenger, a bearded man Sue calls "Mr. Bushyface," to check out the statue. When they reach customs, the statue is gone and the kids suspect the bearded man. They tell Miss Petersen they will search for the statue while touring Denmark.
 
No sooner do they leave the airport than Sue is rescued by Karen Clausen, a schoolteacher, who introduces the family to her Farfar and Farmor (grandfather and -mother). Through the Clausens, the Hollisters learn of another mystery: someone is breaking into old churches which have ships' models hanging in them (an old Danish tradition), and destroying the models. Are the crimes related? If you said no, you haven't read enough Hollister adventures.

This is a picturesque volume with the family visiting many Danish landmarks, including, of course, Tivoli, the amusement park that inspired Walt Disney to build Disneyland. That's one of its problems, too; it's almost too much of a travelogue, the author trying to wedge in all the cool attractions and a very active mystery as well, where the Hollisters and their Danish friends are always bolting off on a new chase after a fresh clue. It makes its breathless way from one to the next with almost no stopping.

Problems: What kind of steward was Miss Petersen for allowing "Mr. Bushyface" to take the mermaid statue in its case to his seat when she was supposed to be protecting it? In real life she would be so fired. Also, what's with Ricky in this book? He's constantly disobeying his parents and getting into dangerous situations; once he almost takes Pete with him. The kids are usually so much smarter than this.

Big plus, though: with the Hollisters away from Shoreham, we don't have to put up with Joey Brill for a whole book!
 
book icon  North to the Night, Alvah Simon
Alvah Simon had always had an affinity for the north, and as an adult this crystallized into wanting to winter above the Arctic circle in a sailboat and learn about the native Inuit who make the area their home. He has met a woman who shares his adventurous spirit, if not quite as much of his passion, and, with the purchasing and refitting of the steel-hulled sailboat The Roger Henry, Alvah and Diana will make his dream come true in Tay Bay in Canada.
 
And then Diana's father dies.
 
This is mostly the story of Simon's odyssey, alone except for a frightfully mercurial kitten named Halifax, frozen in the ice on Tay Bay throughout the long Arctic night, suffering early from miscalculations he made about the amount of oil he needed, at least once going blind for several days from an unknown ailment and blessing his habit of always keeping gear in the same place, almost freezing to death in his sleeping bag after his cabin becomes moisture-ridden due to a lantern kept on too long, and other everyday survival efforts in the -50℉ cold. There were times when I really thought he was crazy for doing this, and I still wonder why he and Diana had to stay on the boat; couldn't they have camped on the shore?
 
On the other hand there are beautiful moments when he ventures out between snowstorms and discovers the grandeur of the Arctic, and profound encounter with the Inuit, who never hurry, accept what they need to do to survive, temper their anger, and live fulfilling lives. He observes local wildlife and keeps a respectful distance from polar bears, who menace him on more than one occasion, and, in one case, is betrayed by a duplicitous "naturalist" who talks him into letting him take photos of a rare bird's nest.

Despite occasionally thinking Simon needed to chill out somewhere, I was enthralled by this book.
 
book icon  The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, Caroline Preston
This is a darling graphic novel told in "typed" commentary along with vintage 1920s mementos: magazine clippings, ticket stubs, old photos, menus, telegrams, note paper, schedules, postcards, paper dolls, school documents, maps, advertisements, etc. to tell the story of Frances "Frankie" Pratt, from Cornish, New Hampshire, who gives up on her dream to go to Vassar and goes to work as companion to an elderly woman, whose shell-shocked son romances Frankie without telling her he's married. Once again given the opportunity to attend college after her disapproving mother intervenes, Frankie is off to Vassar where she makes friends, and then heads up for more adventures in New York City and in Paris.
 
The inventiveness of Preston's storytelling makes up for the fact this is just a historical romance novel, with Frankie becoming involved with three different men, all who contribute something to her understanding of adulthood without ever holding her back from becoming her own person, as well as with a useful but ultimately "user" of a college roommate and a very odd instant onboard friendship with a young woman who'd planned to go to France to live and ends up marrying a Russian on board.
 
Preston also has another of these scrapbook tales out, A War-Bride's Scrapbook, that looks just as endearing. 
 
book icon  The Last Seance and Other Stories, Agatha Christie
I picked this up as Hallowe'en reading and was not disappointed, although some of the stories are better than others. This basically collects any Christie story that involved some type of supernatural element, even if the element is later proven to be a trick, so there are even some Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple tales here. The titular tale sets the scene with a creepy narrative about a medium who's about to abandon her calling but reluctantly agrees to do just one more seance. Other stories involve a solitary family being visited by a stranded motorist, a Poirot mystery about an Egyptian dig that results in a curse, a man whose cousin has an aversion to gypsies due to a perpetual nightmare, the story of an old house and a little boy and a very persistent ghost, an elderly woman who starts hearing her deceased husband whispering to her from the radio, the unsettling tale of a man who has seemingly lost his mind and acts like a cat, a deadly cult who inherits its members' money, and more.
 
The whole volume was enjoyable, but I especially enjoyed "The Dressmaker's Doll," about two sisters who are nonplussed by the arrival of a mysterious doll in their midst. A real page-turner of suspense!
 
book icon  The Life and Times of Edward VII, Keith Middlemas
I've been interested in the life of Queen Victoria's heir "Bertie" (Edward VII) ever since I saw the British drama Edward the King. Victoria expected him to emulate his clever (and, to her, perfect) father, the beloved Prince Albert, and as a middling student (he might even have had a learning disability) especially compared to his quick older sister, and not quick to catch on, he was a lifelong disappointment to her and this treatment told on him all his life. He begged to have more responsibility, but thinking him indolent, much of it was handed over to his younger brother, leaving the bored prince to get involved with gaming, horse racing, society gatherings, and "fast" women, which only increased his mother's scorn.

Make no mistake, as Prince of Wales "Bertie" was no saint. He had affairs, gambled (but never got into debt) with friends, took advantage of his position in life, and basically lived the lifestyle of the privileged few. But he did much good for the country in other ways, including diplomatically, and served ten useful years as king, not to mention was an adored grandfather and an affectionate parent. Had his mother actually given him the responsibilities he wanted, his life and reputation might have turned out differently.

This book is a lavishly illustrated story of his happy childhood, unhappy boyhood, discontented adulthood, and term as monarch, with photographs, drawings, printings, cartoons, and other illustrations providing visual reference of both his private and public life. Quite enjoyed it.
 
book icon  Really Truly, Heather Vogel Frederick
This is the third book in the Pumpkin Falls Mystery series, featuring Truly Lovejoy and her family. Dad is a retired Army officer who lost his arm to an IED; they now live in Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire, running the family bookstore. Truly, already six feet tall in eighth grade and a prodigious swimmer, has two older brothers and two younger sisters, and loves birdwatching. Living in New Hampshire wasn't in the plans for the family until her dad lost his arm, and Truly still smarts from being away from her favorite cousin/best friend Mackenzie—until, during her mom's family reunion being held in Pumpkin Falls, Mackenzie insists Truly come with her to "Mermaid Camp," interrupting Truly's carefully planned summer.
 
I have to admit, although the foray to Mermaid Camp pushes the remainder of the plot of the story, I spent about half the book stewing at the fact that "best friend" Mackenzie basically bulldozes Truly into going to what I consider a really stupid camp. Sure they found out about a hidden treasure and meet a couple of elderly ladies who swam with Esther Williams in her films...but, really, "mermaid camp." Ugh. And having to put up with snooty Hayden Drake on top of it. All you need is a Nellie Oleson at your camp.
 
Once Truly's back home and gets roped, reluctantly at first, into a community project, the story perks up. Unfortunately to succeed Truly must run afoul (several times) of her strict dad; one understands where he's coming from, but you can't help feeling sorry for her efforts continually getting her in hot water. So, while I really enjoyed the book...ick, mermaid camp! Science camp, birdwatching camp, swimming camp, book camp...but mermaid camp. No. Not ever.

30 September 2020

Books Completed Since September 1

book icon  1939: The Last Season of Peace, Angela Lambert
I admit, I picked this up because it was only a dollar at the book sale. It's a study of the 1939 "Season"—the time of year when young, wealthy debutantes were presented officially to society, and of course were available for marriage!—in England. And if this book is any indication, I am so glad I didn't grow up wealthy! While I suppose we all dream about winning the lottery, I spent my time reading this book feeling sorry for these rich girls whose time, especially during the Season, was not their own; who were drilled in careful deportment and how to curtsey to the queen, and night after night spent hours dressing, then hours more at debut parties mouthing polite platitudes to young men who were as nervous as they were.

This book was written in the late 80s, so many of the "debs" who came of age that year were alive for the author to interview to the author. Several of these young ladies kept souvenirs of their Season, and the book is liberally illustrated with photos and memorabilia from Susan Meyrick, who kept every single item from her Season, from dried corsages to dance cards. It all looked glamorous and fun, but behind the scenes the girls were exhausted or shy; some, of course, rebelled against the strict behavior codes of the times, yet sometimes still participated in the routines. One of the novelties of the 1939 Season was that Joseph Kennedy was still serving as Ambassador to Great Britain and his vivacious daughter "Kick" (Kathleen) was also presented to the Court at this time, escorted by her brother, later President John F. Kennedy.
 
The most amazing detail here is that you would think these girls, being wealthy and gone on tours of Europe and other places, would have been very worldly, but it was exactly the opposite. Although being presented at the "Season" meant they were ready for marriage, most of them didn't know anything about sex. Some of them had never kissed a boy, even at the "ripe old" marrying age of eighteen, they didn't know how babies were made, and they had never met anyone of a lower social standing than they were except their own servants. They were carefully protected from the "bad things" in life by their fathers, mothers, and brothers. Some of them had no idea how poor some people were; they knew everyone wasn't rich, of course, but they'd never seen anything squalid or horrible. (Fathers would, even in the 20th century, not permit their girls to read newspapers!)

Having never been interested in "debs" and their Season, because the events happened before so many British young men and women were thrown into the maw of the second world war, and because the stories came directly from the debs themselves, I did enjoy reading about what an ordeal this was.

book icon  Murder at Chateau sur Mer, Alyssa Maxwell
Emma Cross, a distant (and poor) relation of the Vanderbilt family, works as a newspaper reporter for the Newport Observer, and is covering a polo game at the Newport Casino. All the finest families, including Senator George Wetmore and his wife Edith, are attending the match—when a disheveled woman comes on to the field looking for Mrs. Wetmore. Behind her Emma hears someone say "Lilah." From her brother and her male cousins, Emma learns that Lilah Buford works with some other well-know ladies at the notorious Blue Moon Tavern—but if that news isn't shocking enough, next day Emma is summoned to the Wetmores' home, Chateau sur Mer, where Lilah lies dead at the foot of one of the staircases. Edith Wetmore implores Emma to discreetly look into the crime before her husband's career is tarnished.

And if Emma didn't have enough problems, she discovers Derrick Andrews, who's in love with her, is back in town, and his mother is ready to marry him off to her. But Derrick has been out of her life for some time, and she's discovered new feelings for Newport police detective Jesse Whyte.

Emma's investigation will take her from the poorest and most ramshackle sections of Newport all the way to the prestigious Reading Room, a male-only bastion; she will face violence, fire, and even the loss of her living. But she works her way through the complicated threads of the mystery—and finally manages to take care of that horse I'm always complaining about. 😀

Incidentally, George and Edith Wetmore were real people; he served as both senator and governor of the state of Rhode Island, and they lived well, but very quietly, at their smaller "summer cottage," Chateau sur Mer, which you can tour.

book icon  This Old Man, Roger Angell
All I knew before I read this book was that Roger Angell was E.B. White's stepson, the son of White's wife Katherine Angell and her first husband, and that he had worked at "The New Yorker," which kept his stepfather and writers like Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Robert Benchley, and others in the public eye for years. He was, in fact, both a "New Yorker" writer and editor, and this book collects his most famous essay "This Old Man" along with several dozen other essays, profiles, verse, book reviews, and more from his career at the magazine.

I complained in a previous month that Our Boston had way too many sports references. Well, Angell was a sports fan, and I expect sports essays here, but yet in his case I never minded them. When he wrote about sports it was always interesting or compelling in some way, or portrayed a sports figure in a different manner in which I thought of them before. Some of the essays are funny, some brought a tear to the eye, but all of them are a delight to read. I found this for a $1.50 at the book sale, but it's well worth full price.

book icon  The Dark Horse, Craig Johnson
Walt Longmire pulls into the tiny town of Absalom on a mission. He might not have been on that mission had not the Campbell County jail gotten a bit overcrowded and asked Walt if they could keep a prisoner in the Durant jail for a few days: Mary Barsad, a woman who had confessed to killing her husband after he set their barn on fire with her eight horses inside, including an expensive prize Quarter horse named Wahoo Sue, and killed them all.

Walt ends up believing that Mary is innocent, and because he is Walt Longmire, must go to the scene of the crime to investigate and correct this wrong before Mary is convicted. But the citizenry of Absalom aren't going to make it any easier for him, even if no one liked Mary's husband Wade. (Hell, even his brother didn't like him.) But with a little help from his friends both old—Henry Standing Bear and his crew back in Durant—and new—grizzled Herscel Vanskike and the local barmaid Juana and her son Benjamin, Walt is sure as hell going to try.

As I've said previously, I'm not fond of police procedurals, but I love the Longmire books, and especially love Johnson's supporting characters in each book; in this one it's the boy Benjamin and a wonderful horse who is introduced about halfway through the story. (Henry Standing Bear is understood. I love Henry with all my heart.) This one is a thrill-a-minute between the bully boy Cliff Cly that Walt meets in Absalom, a chase through the hills, and the real villain of the piece. The only mystery that remains is how Walt can get beaten up so many times and still manage to function!

book icon  Olive Bright, Pigeoneer, Stephanie Graves
I got this book from Netgalley not long after I read Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders, and the two of them have a little of the same vibe: young woman in her twenties living in a small English village as World War II rages—Poppy has trained as an air-raid warden, Olive is the 22-year-old daughter of a veterinarian and pigeon fancier. As much as I liked Poppy Redfern, I almost enjoyed Olive Bright more. The story opens as Olive's best friend George is just leaving the small village of Pipley to join the RAF, and she too wishes to do something for the war effort. Her father has volunteered their homing pigeons to the Army's National Pigeon Service's for courier duty; unfortunately the recruiters know of Dr. Bright's mercurial tempers and are avoiding the Bright loft. Instead, two other, secretive Army officers approach Olive, saying they would like to use the Bright pigeons, but for super-secret war matters they can't tell her about. Eager to get the pigeons in action and without asking her father, Olive challenges the two men to put the Bright birds to the test.
 
In the meantime, with the village women rallying around the war effort, overbearing busybody Miss Husselbee is being more of a martinet than usual. While everyone is annoyed by her, they're also shocked when she turns up murdered at the Bright loft, found by Jonathon, the Brights' young evacuee. Is her death tied to the secret movements of Jameson Aldridge and his partner, the officers who wish to use Olive's pigeons? And, if not, who in the village would want Miss Husselbee dead?

I really, really liked the fact that even to the end of the book there was no effort made to pair up Olive with Jameson Aldridge as Poppy had been paired with the American officer. They are contentious with each other through the end. There's a Welsh corgi in this story as well, and it's called a corgi, not "a Welsh herding dog." I thought the pigeon angle of the tale was a fresh one, something not involving spy training, American bases, or anything else that has been used in historical mysteries before, and enjoyed the fact that the birds are all named after book characters, and Olive herself is a devotee of Agatha Christie mysteries and still is a bit of an innocent at heart. There's also a subplot about Olive's late mother that turned out to be not what it seemed, and I liked that Olive had a good relationship with her stepmother, who is gamely battling multiple sclerosis. I'm not sure if the author plans a sequel, but if she did, I would definitely read it.

book icon  Betsy and Billy, Carolyn Haywood
In a fit of nostalgia I picked this up at some sort of used bookstore on one of our New England vacations, as it was a discard from the Seekonk (MA) public library. Haywood, a prolific children's writer and illustrator who studied under Howard Pyle, had two different series, Betsy (begun 1939) and Eddie (begun 1947), as well as many stand-alone books. I believe by the 1970s the Eddie series was more well known, although the last Betsy book was published in the 1980s.

The Betsy series was one of those "slice of life" (middle class) kids books I ignored when I was of the age to read them, being more crazy about books with animal protagonists. It covers Betsy's second grade school year, with a Hallowe'en party at school, the birth of her little sister on Christmas day, making cookies for the second-grade class' mothers on Valentine's Day, having a Mother Goose exhibition on May Day, and a bazaar to earn money for playground equipment during the last week of school. There's also a couple of funny chapters revolving around Betsy's best friend Billy's dog Mopsie-Upsy Downsy and Betsy's own dog Thumpy. While there are no minority children pictured, the stories are very simply told with a "Mister Rogers" flavor: gentle lessons about accepting yourself as you are, doing your best, forgiving friends who hurt you. Haywood's numerous illustrations are simple and evocative, and several of them, like Betsy wearing leggings to visit Santa Claus, open a window to another era. (As well as one that would make parents gasp now: in the Valentine baking chapter, Billy gets to light the gas oven!) 

book icon  Here's England, Ruth McKenney & Richard Bransten
This is a darling book I found at one of the library book sales, written by two Americans who fell in love with England and return often, and then finally decided to write a guidebook of their experiences and favorite places. They are both history and literature buffs, so most of the sights they pass on are historical and literary in nature—if you're looking for restaurant recommendations and stuff about pop stars, this isn't the book for you.
 
The real charm in this book is that (1) Ruth attempts to explain the convoluted history of England without boring you to death, but also to apprise you of some of the neat characters involved that you usually don't read about, like Margaret of Anjou (who had more cojones than most of the men who surrounded her)—and it does pretty much make sense!, and (2) it was written in 1950 and updated slightly in 1955, so you aren't going to hear about the Eye, the Gherkin, and Canary Wharf; in fact, when McKenney/Bransten talk about St. Paul's Cathedral, they spend several paragraphs mentioning how sad it is that the surrounding area is still covered with debris from the German bombing of London during World War II, and mourn the classic London churches that were too damaged to save and that had been razed. You are looking partially at an England that doesn't exist anymore, one that came to an end with austerity and the Great Smog of London that killed thousands in 1952.
 
It's written in a light style that you don't see in guidebooks anymore, with a real affection for the country and the cities visited, and makes you long for a time machine to go back and see it as it was then, destroyed buildings, coal fires, and all. And she walks around Oxford. I love reading about Oxford.
 
book icon  Death Comes to the School, Catherine Lloyd
It has been three years since Lucy Harrington and Major Sir Robert Kurland married, but as their third Christmas together approaches, Lucy is in a very sober mood. She and Sir Robert have not gotten on well since the summer, when she suffered a miscarriage. He seems to be avoiding her and she is slowly becoming convinced he is no longer in love with her. And then a disturbing thing happens: Lucy visits the village school and discovers the new teacher, Miss Broomfield, is a martinet, with an obsession about sin, who bullies the children and her two young assistants. The teacher was hired back in the summer, when she was so ill, and she can't believe the woman came so highly recommended, but definitely wishes her replaced, but before that can happen, Miss Broomfield is found dead in her classroom, with a quill pen viciously stabbed into her eye. The girl who found her, Josephine, one of two charity children in the school, is hysterical. Although Sir Robert warns his wife to stay out of the matter, Lucy can't help getting involved in the mystery as she plans Christmas at both Kurland Hall and at her father's (the vicar) rectory. Some help arrives in the form of Sir Robert's vivacious Aunt Rose—but the mystery only grows more perplexing when expensive jewelry is found in Miss Broomfield's quarters.

I love these characters, so I'll just hold my tongue about that silly romance-novel quibble I always have: the characters don't speak to each other. (In fact, Lucy chides someone else at the end of the book for not doing the same thing, when she and Sir Robert are tippytoe-ing around each other for nearly the entire book; one longs for them to have a proper fight and have things all come out.) Otherwise the story is entertaining, the mystery suitably convoluted, and Aunt Rose is a delightful character (someone else realizes that as well, in time). All the flurry of an early 19th century Christmas preparatory season just add more color to the tale, and some favorite characters return: Lucy's friend Sophia and her old bete noire Penelope, now married to the town doctor.

Just one thing: don't Lucy's brothers have names? If they were introduced in the first book I've forgotten, but it's more like Lloyd has forgotten, too—she calls them nothing through the entire book but "the twins" and it's like they have no identity other than being twins. Can we have some names and personalities here? Also, how does Lucy's father manage to remain the vicar when he spends most of his days riding and living easily while the curate does all the work? This must be some Anglican custom I don't understand.

book icon  Honestly, Katie John!, Mary Calhoun
This was the third in another series I missed as a kid, so I grabbed it up for a dollar to see what I'd missed. I know I have read the first book, when the Tucker family temporarily relocated to a riverfront home in Missouri to repair and then sell their great-aunt's four-floor house. Instead they decide to stay and run the big place as a boardinghouse. In the second book, apparently Katie John, an irrepressible 10-year-old, helps her parents run the boardinghouse, deals with going to a new school, and gets a beagle puppy she names Heavenly Spot.

In the third book, Katie John enters sixth grade and is immediately put off by the other girls in her class talking about boys. She is still as happy-go-lucky as ever, riding her bike, playing with Spot, and hunting geodes with a boy in her class, Edwin. But when the boys and girls both tease her at the annual fair, she declares she hates boys, hurting Edwin's feelings, but rallies the girls around her briefly. But the girls one by one drift back to their friendships with the boys, and Katie feels increasingly left out. One week she tries being madcap, another day she tries being a lady instructed via an 1896 etiquette book she found in her great-aunt's library, and finally she moves her bedroom to the very top of the house, all the time confused about who she is and what she "should" be.

Katie John's emotional experiences touched me closely. I remember that age, being scornful of the silly romance talk from the other girls. Having watched my mother and my aunts, I was convinced at that age, and throughout my teens that boys (and, later, men) were just simply too much work! And all they talked about were cars and sports! Boring. I felt the most badly because Katie's confusion over her own self nearly messed up her friendship with Edwin, which was a true partnership in exploring and discovery of the world around them rather than silly pre-sexual feelings. But in the end Katie gains some insight in the old house she and Edwin explored together, and they become friends again.

The second book is available to borrow on the Internet Archive, but I'll probably skip the last of the four, which has Katie John developing a crush on a boy in seventh grade after reading Wuthering Heights. Yawn.

book icon  The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, annotated by Leslie S. Klinger
I remember exactly where it used to be at the Akers Mill Borders Books: on top of the endcap of the mystery aisle, sitting there taunting me in its slipcovered glory. Klinger's annotated Sherlock Holmes, all fifty-six canon stories and the four novels, in three volumes, $120 for the set. Even with Borders' legendary 40 percent off coupons, it was just Too Much. And then in April 2008, A Miracle Occurred. Amazon was selling all their annotated books at eight dollars per volume. $120 worth of books for $24? Let me at it! (For the record, I also bought the annotated Secret Garden.)

And there they have sat, stacked one atop the other in the open shelf at the bottom of the Ann & Hope night table I stained and varnished myself, since then. High time I was reading them, what?
 
These are the first two books of short stories in the canon, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, all the way through "The Final Problem," which killed off that annoying Holmes for good, or so thought Arthur Conan Doyle, who wanted to write serious historical fiction and just penned Holmes for the cash. When all London donned black armbands at the "death" of Holmes and even Queen Victoria was peeved, Doyle held out three years before bringing Sherlock back. Serious Holmes fans consider these the best of the crop, but even then Doyle was not really caring about his continuity: in one story Mary Watson calls husband John "James." Dorothy Sayers and other writers came to postulate that Watson's middle initial stood for "Hamish," the Scots form of James, and so "James" was her pet name for him.
 
The footnotes in this book take very seriously the fans' belief that there really was a Sherlock Holmes and so many of them try to reconcile the inconsistencies that already had crept into the stories before the second dozen even went to press. You too can join in the mystery, or ponder why so many Holmes' clients were named "Violet," find out what a gasogene and a tantalus are, how realistic digging under the street in "The Red-Headed League" was, how to figure old-style British money and how much it might be worth at the time, what kind of snake came down the rope, and all sorts of Victorian trivia delights. For serious fans of Sherlock Holmes and, of course, those crazy people like me who get the vapors over annotated books.
 
book icon  The Blueberry Years, Jim Minick 
Ask me what I remember most about this book. I remember that it was one of the last books I bought from the going-out-of-business sale at Borders. (Yes, it's been sitting in a TBR pile that long.)

Jim and his wife Sarah, both teachers, dreamed for years of going out to the country and raising blueberries. Jim's grandparents had a farm on which he recalled halcyon days of picking berries, and both of them wanted to contribute something to the environment, so they buy a small farm on the backroads of Virginia and the book chronicles the backbreaking work—and the friends and customers they accumulated—in their efforts to build sustaining pick-it-yourself blueberry acres (they also harvest for a local farmer's market).
 
I have to admit they have a lot of guts for doing this, especially when they were still working. Imaging teaching all day and spending evenings hoeing, trimming, debugging, picking, weeding, replanting, fertilizing, etc. Just reading it is exhausting. And they make some fast friends, including a neighboring farmer who's always ribbing them (but staunchly behind them), and the folks who come pick week after week when they are open—oh, and if you've never farmed, you will probably be aghast at all the hours they work against how short the blueberry growing season is.
 
Between chapters Jim regales you with facts about blueberries, recipes, and the history of blueberry farming (it was turning into a business by a woman). I enjoyed it pretty well, but it didn't get into my heart the way Gladys Taber's books have (I guess I am still looking for a replacement for Taber!); people who garden, have smallholdings, or who farm will probably be the most emotionally invested, however.

book icon  The Key to Flambards, Linda Newbery
I was very skeptical when I discovered there was a sequel to K.M. Peyton's "Flambards" books. I had watched the television series in 1980, fallen in love with it, bought the first three books and loved them just as much, and then was disappointed by the fourth book (although I must admit that the story is logical, I dislike the fact that Peyton had to make a "villain" out of a favorite character to make the changes she did to the story). I didn't know if anything by anyone else could give me that "Flambards" feeling, and even when I was fifty pages into the story I was still skeptical. While I realize Grace had gone through two terrible traumas, she was so self-absorbed I found her annoying, something I never experienced with Christina Parsons.
 
Never fear, Grace finds her voice and her "Flambardness." She is the great-granddaughter of Christina and Will's daughter Isobel. Her mother, Polly, has just divorced her father, who already has a new girlfriend and a new child coming, and, what is worse, Grace has had her right leg amputated at the knee after being struck by a drunk driver. She's depressed and sees herself as less than whole, although her best friend, school friends, mother, and even father assure her she is still loved, needed, and wanted. An active younger teen, she misses being able to run. When her mother is offered a job at the Flambards Trust, which has taken over the Russell estate, Grace doesn't want to go—but once she befriends Jamie and his sister Charlie, the latter who teaches Grace to ride, and also Marcus, a sullen boy whose father works on the estate, she is suddenly reluctant to leave the countryside, the animals, the woods, and most of all, her heritage—and those are all endangered by the Flambards Trust's inability to make enough cash to stay open. If they don't, the fields behind the home will be sold for expensive tract houses and a shopping center.
 
Newbery weaves the old story—including the character of Fergus, who doesn't appear in the television series—into the new very neatly (there's even a nice family tree at the beginning of the book showing how all the Russells are related), and by the time the story gets galloping (no surprise, Grace finds herself a natural rider, just like Christina), you're invested in all the characters. And Newbery does a nice job of linking the actions of the old generation, such as Will and Mark in the Army, to a new generation (Marcus' father Adrian) and how their problems were addressed differently. We also find out what happened to Mark (Newbery vetted this with Peyton) and if he and Christina had children together.

Although her prose cannot match K.M. Peyton's, nevertheless thanks, Linda Newbery, for a new beginning to Flambards.

book icon  St. Nicholas, Volume LIX, November 1931 through October 1932, St. Nicholas Publishing Company
Holy cow, this was the most difficult bound volume of "St. Nicholas" I've ever had to go through. If I thought the changes from The Century Company to Scholastic were bad (St. Nicholas, Volume LVII, May through October 1930, reviewed a few months back), the changes throughout this year were even worse: "The Watch Tower" disappears completely by May, replaced a few months earlier by "The St. Nicholas Handicrafters." The League is whittled down to four pages, and by the time October 1932 rolls around there are only fifty pages (half of it in teeny-tiny print) and eight stories/poems in each issue. Plus, oddly enough, suddenly in May half the ads in the issues are for New York hotels rather than for boys'/girls' schools, bicycles, utilities, toys, etc.

Not to mention "The Young Ravenals" is possibly the worst serial ever to grace the pages of the magazine (seriously, I thought that was "Driven Back to Eden" from the 1880s). Very strange story of a mother who must leave her family to teach in another city when her husband, a muralist, isn't paid due to the Depression. She leaves the family in the capable hands of their "colored" cook, Judy, who breaks her leg right after Mother leaves. So the four kids, from high schooler Randolph down to perpetually hungry eight-year-old Bobby, and artist dad try to cope with little success since apparently not one of them knows a thing about keeping house. The two sisters, one an aspiring concert pianist, have a problem with the same boy, who's a pilot, with a denouement that involves a laundry basket and a mud slide. Other serials are better, but just marginally: "The Return of the Ruby" is obnoxiously imperialist, "Tommy Dane on the Royal Road" chock full of violence, and the only hope comes from "The White Feather," the serial which is left hanging when the volume ends, which has a topping heroine named "Bobby" with a strong sense of justice.

book icon  A Thread Across the Ocean, John Steele Gordon
The story of the transatlantic cable from American history class (400 years in about 200 hours): Cyrus Field hired a ship, laid the first cable, it broke, they laid a second cable, it worked. Everyone was happy.
 
Of course, like everything, there's lots more to the story. As with the moon landing, many people didn't care that they couldn't talk to Europe. That was a rich person's problem, wasn't it? And there was the matter of money: the British were eager to finance it, the U.S. Government couldn't have cared less. Field had to get financing for the cable from American businessmen. (Field, son of a clergyman, had a prodigious family history: two of his brothers were lawyers, a third was a minister who also wrote an account of the laying of the cable, his great-great-whatever grandfather John Field was the first Englishman to disseminate Copernicus' theory of heliocentricity to the British Isles.) The cable had to be specially made (the copper they were initially going to use was so impure it barely transferred electrical power; it couldn't be sheathed in rubber because that was then too fragile, so they were required to use gutta-percha instead), the ships had to be specially fitted to lay the cable, they had to find the shortest route (it was initially going to be laid from Halifax, Nova Scotia, but the shortest distance across the ocean was from St. John's, Newfoundland, a tiny village)...well, you have to read the entire story to get the idea of the technological and meteorological hardships they ran into. Plus a lot of familiar historic names pop up, like Samuel Morse, the painter who invented telegraphy, and Peter Cooper, who built the first functioning U.S. locomotive.

What reads as "so old fashioned" today was the technological miracle of its kind, and as groundbreaking as and in reality the forerunner of our world-wide telephone and internet system.
 
book icon  Janie's Freedom, Callie Smith Grant
The war between the States is over, and Rubyhill Plantation lies in ruins. The widowed owner leaves for her home in Pennsylvania, but not before reminding the slaves that they are now free and may have anything they find in the house (she also apologizes to them, which is a shock to everyone). Eleven-year-old Janie, ripped away from her parents when she was only six years old, and since then under the care of elderly Aunty Mil, wonders what she will do next, but the older former slaves say the best thing for Janie and the other young people of the plantation, teenage Aleta and Blue, and twins Nathan and Lucy, is to head north to a place called Chicago where they have heard "colored" people are respected. In warm clothes foraged from the house and food supplied by the older people, the five children head north, while at another plantation, Janie's mother waits, hoping her husband will return to her (he was sent away to work on a chain gang during the war).
 
Janie and her friends head north just as autumn approaches. Many days they know hunger, and they are afraid to beg for food for fear of antagonizing white people. Yet on their journey they are surprised to be helped by at least one white boy, and when they are in their greatest hour of need, a dirty red-haired girl helps the five despite her own distressing living conditions. In the meantime Anna, Janie's mother, just wishes that she could find her daughter again.

All these "Sisters at Heart" books are Christian-oriented, but this one seems more Christian-themed than the others I've read, and it makes the book seem a little stereotypical (Janie is good at singing spirituals, for instance, and of course there is the standard Very Happy Ending as ordained by God). It's a very gentle retelling of the former slave experience which would probably be appropriate for a younger child.
 
book icon  The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Story of Sarah Nita, a Navajo Girl, Ann Turner
This is certainly a more realistic book than "Dear America's" previous Native American effort, which tried to put a positive spin on the Carlisle Indian School. In fact, it's a downright sad narrative, as it should be. Sarah Nita, a Navajo girl, lives with her parents and little sister Kaibah in what will eventually become the eastern edge of the state of Arizona. It is 1864, and the US Cavalry is tired of the raids the Navajo are carrying out against white settlers. So they are rounding them to send to a fort in what is now New Mexico. The sisters escape the first sweep that takes their parents, and they courageously walk all the way to a canyon where other Navajo live and are taken in. But the soldiers are relentless, capture the canyon tribe, and Sarah Nita and Kaibah join the exhausting forced march that will take them all the way to Ft. Sumter almost to the Texas line. (Think the story of the Trail of Tears from Cherokee history and you will have it, only instead in a desert setting, which makes it worse.)
 
In a change from the original diary format, since Sarah Nita did not know English dates, she tells her granddaughter, who is writing the story down, the entries are headed by her memories of a certain day. This seems to have confounded a few readers, who complained they couldn't tell "what date it was." A Navajo girl in 1864 would not know that info, and to me it made the story more realistic.
 
It's an extremely moving story, but also slow moving, and what happens to the children and to the tribe could be very disturbing to a sensitive child. Care must be taken that this will not traumatize the reader; he or she might need some preparation first, or wait until they are a little older.
 
book icon  A Cruel Deception, Charles Todd
In this latest of the Bess Crawford mysteries, the Great War is over, and Bess is still providing post-operative care for the wounded, but she's wondering about her future. If she continues in nursing, she wishes to keep working with soldiers. But she is summoned to London for a clandestine meeting with the Matron of nursing, who wishes Bess to go to Paris to get information about her son. He was taking part in the peace talks, but has abruptly cut off communication. Matron believes he may be having problems after being wounded years earlier at the Battle of Mons. Bess soon finds her quarry, Lieutenant Lawrence Minton, and is deeply disturbed to find him addicted to laundanum and suffering from crippling guilt, with only a French friend to try to curb his destructiveness.
 
The first half of the story moves very slowly as Bess tries desperately to discover what has driven Lt. Minton to the brink of insanity. Once the story shifts to Paris the pace picks up as Bess enlists a Parisian doctor and his wife in helping the officer, but this only endangers Bess' life. What terrible secret is Minton holding back that violence is being done in his name?
 
One of the problems with this book is its title. You know from the start that Minton is no danger to Bess, Marina, or anyone because the title tells you so: he's being deceived. The mystery is what the deception is.

For those who have read all or most of the Bess Crawford series and wonder: Simon's not in this one. He's supposed to be in Scotland and may "have a lassie." This thought does give Bess some pause...but is it a sisterly pause, or a lover's pause? There will be no resolution to that question in this book! However, there is a clue that Bess may be on his mind.
 
book icon  MASH: An Army Surgeon in Korea, Otto F. Apel, MD and Pat Apel
How true was M*A*S*H, the movie and the television series? Well, the doctors there pretty much didn't have a stable of writers ready for a quick quip. But the fact that the doctors didn't respect military tradition that much? Or that the work was dirty, exhausting, frightening, and daunting? That the weather was often sizzlingly hot or numbingly cold? All true and in spades.
 
Dr. Apel writing is a bit dry and contains statistical figures, but still fascinating story of the reality of the MASH units that existed for only a short time on Korean soil (they were changed before the Korean War even ended). I was appalled to discover that all the MASH doctors were just pretty much shipped to the front with no training on how to deal with battle wounds, military protocol, or even the living conditions. Unlike the rawest of soldiers, they didn't even have basic training. When Apel came off the jeep from Japan, a Korean teenager took his bags to his tent, and he proceeded to being in the operating room for over 80 hours, and thus began his one year tour of duty.

Apel served as an advisor to the television series for two years, and if you were a M*A*S*H  viewer, you will see some of the stories his experiences inspired, including the episode where everyone dyes their hair red and another where a peephole in the nurses' shower is arranged. The most interesting part of the story talks about the advances in vascular surgery that came from the surgeons' experimentation at the MASH units. The surgeons had been forbidden to do the surgery by the Army, who said it was quicker just to amputate the limb affected by the arterial injury, but the doctors felt not repairing the injury went against their Hippocratic oath.

If you want the real skinny on a MASH unit, this may be the book for you.