31 October 2018

Books Completed Since October 1

book icon  The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, Leonard Goldberg
I am on the fence about this book. First, it's always neat to see what is a new take on the world after Sherlock Holmes. In this novel, Watson is an elderly retiree, and his son, another John, is also a doctor. In the spring of 1914, a woman turns up at Watson's old digs at 221B Baker Street, looking for justice for her brother. It is said he committed suicide by leaping out a window. However, a woman and her young son were there when the man fell, the boy witnessed the event, and they are convinced it was not suicide. When Watson Sr. discovers that the woman witness was named Joanna Blalock, he becomes excited. Truly, the game is afoot, because based on young Johnnie Blalock's testimony, it could not have been suicide. Not only that, but the man who supposedly "committed suicide" leaped out of the window of the house of Christopher Moran, a noted gambler, and son of the notorious Sebastian Moran.

I think I like the idea of this book better than the execution. I haven't yet figured out why Goldberg has named his protagonist the same name as the protagonist of a contemporary series he wrote some years ago. Why is it said Sherlock Holmes died in 1903 when we know from the stories in "His Last Bow" that he was alive at least up until 1914 (with his line about the deadly wind from the east)? How did a photograph of a 10-year-old Sherlock Holmes get in a monograph? (There was photography in Sherlock's lifetime, but who might have taken such a thing, and how would it end up in a monograph and why?) And I'm really iffy about just how Joanna was actually conceived. The story makes it sound like she came to pass after a private love-in.

The story and the personalities are reasonably okay, and the growing attraction between Joanna and John Jr. very low key. They actually solve the mystery well before the novel ends and use the remaining time to spring a trap for the culprit. All in all, it was okay (much better than the Sherry Thomas books!), but not at all one of the best pastiches ever. (Scroll down to Robert Ryan's book for a better suggestion.)

book icon  Re-read: From Holmes to Sherlock, Mattias Boström
Upon finishing this, all I can say is "wow."

I read this originally as an e-book, which was very badly formatted, so I was happy to find a remaindered copy recently. It was just as impressive as I remembered.

If you think this is your run-of-the-mill "how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes" yarn,  you'll be in for a surprise: while the beginning of the book does follow that formula, the rest of the story follows how Holmes became a literary phenomenon even after Doyle's death, and the people who kept him alive: a boy named Kit who devours all the stories and grows up to be Christopher Morley; Doyle's sons Adrian and Denis, who hope to make a living off Holmes while keeping their father's memory alive (neither of them come off particularly well in this book—Adrian is money grubbing and Denis an alcoholic and spendthrift, with a Russian wife who's just as bad) while the boys' half-sister, daughter of Conan Doyle's first wife Louisa is pushed to the background; the Baker Street Irregulars and their anti-female attitude,;actors like the noted William Gillette (whose silent film Sherlock Holmes was rediscovered and restored just recently; it was Gillette who originated some of the symbols that we know Holmes by, such as the calabash pipe), Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, Peter Cushing, Arthur Wontner, even the 1980s Russian Holmes (which became famous due to videotapes recorded in the 1980s before the Berlin Wall fell); women like Edith Meiser, writer for the classic American Holmes radio series, just one of Holmes' female fans who fought to break into the "old boys club" that originally was Holmes fandom; collectors and enthusiasts such as John Bennett Shaw and Vincent Starrett; and even Eve Titus, who wrote the "Basil of Baker Street" pastiches for children, finally ending with Robert Downey Jr, Jeremy Brett, all the way down to Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat plotting out a modern-day Sherlock on a train. (The author misses almost nothing, even to noting the portrayal of Holmes by "Wishbone," only forgetting the animated Sherlock Holmes in the 23rd Century.) And all the time the rights to the stories and the estate bounce from one member of the Doyle family to the next.

There are lots of interesting tidbits tossed your way in this book, but you must be a Holmes fan to completely appreciate it. Boström has done an enormous amount of research and it shows, but the writing (or perhaps the translation) is at times almost too cut-and-dried. Rewards abound if you stick with it.

book icon  A Study in Murder: A Dr. Watson Thriller, Robert Ryan
In this third of Robert Ryan's World War I-set novels of John Watson serving as an Army doctor, the story picks up where it left off. Watson, who was captured by the Germans while driving a prototype tank, is at first assigned to a reasonably comfortable prisoner-of-war camp. But involvement in an escape attempt and the machinations of an old foe have sixty-year-old Watson shipped off to Harzgrund, the worst German camp of all. Upon arrival, Watson finds his possessions stolen, the prisoners set against him, and no cooperation among the troops, only a raw fight for survival, since the mercenary commander makes the prisoners pay for any "privileges" like Red Cross packages. However, he also finds out that prisoners believe there's a means of escape. The truth will be more gruesome than he realizes, as is the reason he's been transferred to Harzgrund.

I don't know what superlatives I can attach to these books that I haven't used before. The plots are tense and complicated, and Watson is competent in working out what's going on once presented with the clues. But most importantly, they bring the real horror of "the Great War" to life. Harzgrund, the terrible POW camp portrayed in this book, was based on a real POW camp where the commander made the prisoners pay for what should have been theirs by rights, like those Red Cross packages. The portrayal of escape attempts and escape methods are based on real events. Some of the revelations will give you chills of horror. It's only in the climax to this book that the plot gets a tad fanciful, as Mrs. Gregson seems to be able to manage to do impossible things. But...recommended, recommended, recommended!

book icon  The Annotated Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett, edited by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina
When I had finished up the annotated version of Charlotte's Web, I recalled I still had this lavishly illustrated annotated volume in the spare bedroom. In that Charlotte's Web review, I noted that editors chose to emphasize different things in their annotations: "Some annotated books use their annotations to point out unfamiliar terms, or expand on the history behind events in a story, or to point out the morals and mores of the time. [The author of this annotated volume] uses them most to point out White's careful choice of words, his edits of the text, and (forgive the pun) how he spun his web of words to create his classic novel." Gerzina uses her annotations chiefly to emphasize the secret garden's rediscovery and rebirth to symbolize Mary's and Colin's reformation from spoiled, selfish, brooding children to purposeful young adults who greet the future with anticipation.

This wonderful edition is illustrated with almost all the famous illustrations from different editions of The Secret Garden since its publication, including Ernest Shepherd and of course the iconic art of Tasha Tudor, plus photographs from media products of the book (the 1949 Margaret O'Brien film, the television version with Kate Maberly, etc.). The book also contains a short biography of Burnett and her successes and setbacks, a timeline of her life, and an essay she wrote called "My Robin" about the bird she adopted at her home in England. A must for any Secret Garden fan.

book icon  Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton
Ms. Sarton's books, especially this one, were recommended on another book blog that I read, and this appeared to be one of her most noted ones, so I picked it up when I saw it. I can't say I was disappointed, but it was different from what I was expecting. Sarton, a poet and essayist, chronicled her thoughts about living alone—she found she could not concentrate on her poetry when surrounded by family, friends and day-to-day tumult, so she would stay solitary between book tours in order to concentrate on her art. She talks frankly about her bouts of depression and the positives and negatives of a solitary life. However, I think I was expecting something more like the Stillmeadow books. (It seems I spend a lot of time searching for someone else who "sounds like Gladys Taber.")

Still, this is a nice quiet introspective book, perfect for a relaxing day's read with a favorite beverage and a cat in the lap, perhaps cuddled in a favorite afghan.

book icon  Howards End is on the Landing, Susan Hill
One fall afternoon, while looking for a book she wanted to read in her extensive collection, Susan Hill discovers other books she purchased but hadn't read, or books she'd even forgotten she'd purchased, along with books she realized she wanted to read again. Hill resolves to buy no new books (except for volumes she needs to read in connection with work) until she plows through her to-be-read and begging-to-be re-read piles.

This slim but delightful volume reminds one of her nature volume The Magic Apple Tree, but with books instead of the countryside, allowing her to review her life with books. She wanders happily from her old "Observer" books on trees and airplanes and how good titles entice you into a literary world and the magic of Dorothy Sayers to Shakespeare, Dickens, and poetry to the joy of finding things in used books to the favorites she turns to along with the strange volumes she's found around the house. Even if you are young and American and recognize few of the titles and authors you cannot but help be caught up in her memories and recollections and obvious affection for certain writers and her books. A delight for any bibliophile.

book icon  Caught Dead-Handed, Carol J. Perry
This is the first book in the cozy "Witch City Mystery" series. Lee Bennett, young widow and native of Salem, Massachusetts, has returned home lined up for a job interview with the local cable station WICH. Unfortunately, the position is filled by the time she gets to the interview; while returning angrily to her car, she spies a body lying in the tide line. It's Ariel Constellation, WICH's spooky movie host, who also runs a psychic hotline. In a bind, WICH offers Lee the host position, and she figures any "in" to the station is better than nothing. She even makes some friends at the station: Janice, the program manager, and her brother George, Marty (who, like others at WICH wears lots of hats), and even Scott Palmer, who was the guy who got her job. Soon she'll meet Detective Pete Mondello and a friendly cab driver named Jake, not to mention Ariel's cat Orion—Lee calls him O'Ryan—whom Lee and her Aunt Ibby adopt.

And discovers someone has tried to kill the cat, and then later tries to kidnap him. Like it or not, Lee is drawn into the puzzle of Ariel's dead, and suspects another murder, that of a woman with an abusive husband, is part of the same puzzle.

Okay, about two thirds of the way through the book I realized what was going on, but it didn't matter because I already like Lee, Aunt Ibby, Pete, and Jake, and since I bought the book because it was set in Salem, it was already pretty satisfactory. Lee puzzles her way through the clues intelligently for the most part, and does not do what annoys me most in most cozies: determines that she is going to be the one to solve the mystery due to some misguided idea that it's her responsibility. The other thing that may be a problem for some people is that about halfway through the plot takes a turn which indicates child abuse is involved. The chapter which this is finally explained is pretty strong stuff. There's also sort of an instant romance in the story, which is common for modern cozies, and of course the pair are both gorgeous. So far this one isn't all that annoying.

I confess, I went ahead and bought the rest of the books. No redeeming social value, just sent in New England and enjoyable fluff.

book icon  Make a Nerdy Living, Alex Langley
I'm sorry I bought this book.

This is nothing against Alex Langley. It has a catchy cover and graphics, and the people interviewed in the various careers (comics artist, blogging, podcasting, video game design, etc are all cool and nice, but it was an impulse buy and just so very, very basic for the price and catchy graphics. I would have preferred more content (at least two people interviewed for each profession) and lots more words and fewer graphics. This would be perfect as a $2.99 e-book, but it was an expensive mistake.

book icon  A Knife in the Dark, Bradley Harper
The first few "Jack the Ripper" murders (at that time referred to being performed by a man known as "Leather Apron") electrified London. In Portsmouth, England, struggling physician Arthur Conan Doyle, having written the first Sherlock Holmes story some time earlier, is asked to come to England's capitol by Prime Minister William Gladstone to investigate the killings. As his partner, he will have Dr. Joseph Bell, whose sharp observational style formed the basis for Holmes. He is even offered an unconventional guide, a woman author of good upbringing named Margaret Harkness who nevertheless lives in Whitechapel among the poor. Together Doyle, Bell, and Harkness follow the trail of the Ripper, but he seems to know their every move, and has even sent threatening notes to Doyle.

This is a very good semi-Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Doyle's narrative is descriptive but brisk-paced and very few anachronisms are noted. The "Three Musketeers" partnership he forms with his old teacher and the writer Harkness (Margaret Harkness was an actual writer who exposed the dismal and often fatal lives of the poor in London slums) seems very real, and the narrative follows a realistic pace. Too, Miss Harkness is not a 21st century woman in 19th century dress. My only problem with this book—and perhaps then I should not have chosen it to read—is that I've never been all that interested in the minutia associated with the Ripper murders, despite having attended panels about it at conventions (I confess it's because I liked the writers on the panel). Much of the evidence is detailed as Bell, Doyle, and Harkness investigate the crime. Anyone who holds a fascination with the mystery surrounding the Ripper might enjoy this novel.

book icon  True North: Exploring the Great Wilderness by Bush Plane, George Erickson
So I saw this book: guy flying a Tundra Cub; hey, it might be a good book for James. But it appealed to me, too, and I started on it almost as soon as I got home from the book sale. It's indeed about Erickson's trip across Canada and a bit of Alaska from his home in northern Minnesota and has many flying stories, but I'm not sure James would enjoy it, as it's so much more. It's a history of Canadian exploration (and, sadly, longtime mistreatment of the First Nations people), it's a paean to nature full of quiet lakes, pesky mosquitoes and blackflies, polar bears and black bears, caribou, ravens, beautiful trees, cold, rain, wild swimming; his encounters with the people who live year after year in remote locations; adventures in fishing; and the intrusion of industrialization on formerly natural areas.

Not only that, but Erickson loves one of my favorite books ever, A Natural History of the Senses!

Sometimes the flashbacks aren't as well delineated as they should have been, but in total this is part travelogue, part history book, all wonderful!

book icon  Nine Lessons, Nicola Upson
This is a great installment of Upson's mystery series built around mystery writer Josephine Tey (Elizabeth MacIntosh) that treats her as both a real person (using her actual books and plays) and as a fictional character (to her friends, of course, she was not "Josephine" as she is here). This time Inspector Archie Penrose gets a chance to shine as he investigates the particularly horrific murder of a church organist in Hampstead; the man was evidently buried alive with a photo of a manor house and a cryptic note. As more murders occur, Archie realizes they are all associated with King's Chapel in Cambridge, just coincidentally the city where Josephine and her lover Marta have just taken up residence. But there is no ease for Josephine when Marta goes to the States in conjunction with the release of her movie, as there is a rapist loose in Cambridge attacking young ladies living on their own—indeed, the crime strikes too close to home when one of Josephine's new neighbors, a nurse, is attacked.

And what is Josephine to do with the news that Archie has a long-lost daughter? The girl's mother wants to break it to him in her own time, but can't seem to do it.

Lots of good, solid investigating in this outing for Archie, who learns more about the famous "Monty" (horror writer M.R. James) who was once provost of King's College and who served as mentor for the murdered men. Josephine helps him in his investigation, but it's all solved by good old fashioned detecting and footwork, although she comes up with a solution for another problem.

Incidentally, a clue to the mystery may be found if you are familiar with any mystery short stories by Thomas Burke. (Yes, that's a spoiler.)

book icon  The Years of the Forest, Helen Hoover
Helen Hoover and her husband Ade (Adrian) anticipated the back to nature movement way back in the 1950s, when she quit her job as a metallurgist and he his job as an artist to move to a log cabin/summer house arrangement in Minnesota off the beaten path: no plumbing, no running water, no electricity, no phone. She wrote of their earliest experiences in A Place in the Woods; this volume is a summary of their experiences in the years they lived in Minnesota before moving to the Southwest.

After reading this book, I'm not sure whether I would want to hug Hoover or shake her. Her writing about the forest, the lake, the animals, all of the nature she experiences so beautiful it nearly overwhelms everything else. Her nature narrative rivals some of the best I've read.

However, on a personal level, these are two of the worst "babes in the woods" people I've ever seen. They make no provision for eating (they don't hunt) other than buying groceries in bulk before the delivery truck quits making its rounds for the season, and start a garden and then don't protect it from the animals. At one point they are so low on food that Helen (at least) gets scurvy, but they take what's left of their food and feed the wild animals because the animals are having a tough time during the winter. Except for the articles Helen writes and some notepapers that Ade designs, they've got no way of making a living, plus at the beginning of their stay, they did nothing to dissuade their neighbors (except for one Native family) from thinking they're kooks, so no one ever asks after them except for two people. When strangers claim a shipment of their food, they end up still having to pay the bill for it because the local grocer knows them so little that they can't prove they weren't the ones who picked it up. They crashed their car and have no way to get into town when Helen gets a fever. Finally after a few years they start to talk to their neighbors and are so surprised at how generous they are! They take pride in living as naturally as they can so not to spoil the woods (a constant theme is the progress bringing hunters and campers to their woods), but all their food comes in cans! They've got to be throwing those cans somewhere, having no way to portage them out, so they've still despoiled the woods! And it's very sweet that they feed the deer, including Peter, the deer Helen wrote a book about, and the groundhog, and the rabbits, but by doing so they allow the animals to rely on them and also lead hunters right to the deer!

Gorgeous prose, and Adrian's pen-and-ink drawings are stunning, but their lifestyle choices left a lot to be desired.

book icon  The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel, Alyssa Palombo
I should have read up on this book before I bought it. Having watched the series Sleepy Hollow, I thought this might have been yet another reworking of the Washington Irving story which has Katrina as a witch and bought it as something to read for Hallowe'en. Sadly, it wasn't to be. As in the Irving story, Katrina is the gorgeous young daughter of the community's richest man, who's being courted by the muscly Brom Van Brunt ("Brom Bones"), when schoolteacher Ichabod Crane comes to town. However, in this version Katrina is well-read and well-educated (Brom still comes off as Gaston from Disney's Beauty and the Beast) and the moment she and (slightly jug-eared but) handsome Crane with his green eyes lock glances they are in love. Soon she offers him her virginity and they tryst in the wood and once at her friend Charlotte's house while trying to keep their relationship a secret (though Katrinia's ex-slave nursemaid knows pretty much immediately, unlike her clueless parents). Charlotte is known to have witchlike powers and reads the tarot cards for her, and it shows the relationship will end in disaster, and yes, Katrina still persists. So what happens on Hallowe'en when penniless Ichabod plans to ask for Katrina's hand in marriage (and he has to do it soon, because Katrina forgot to take the pregnancy prevention tea Charlotte brewed up for her)? Yeah, you can guess.

So basically this is historical chick-lit with a couple of torrid sex scenes in a romantic wooded glade and Charlotte's visions tossed in for good measure. Katrina also has nightmares that turn out to be precongnition, but so symbolic that she can't understand it till the grim end. There is no spellbook, just a diary in which she records her dreams. I have to admit that at times the narrative is very good at setting a scene, but most of the narrative is Katrina twittering or worrying over Ichabod. Frankly, I would have preferred a book about Charlotte and her mother, who are herbalists and midwives. If you want a romantic version of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," this is the book for you; otherwise steer clear.

Oh, yeah, I liked Katrina's dog, but unlike Lassie, even he can't save the story.

book icon  Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History, Lesley Pratt Bannatyne

book icon  Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Nicholas Rogers

book icon  The Halloween Encyclopedia, Lisa Morton

30 September 2018

Books Completed Since September 1

book icon  Celebrate the Wonder: A Family Christmas Treasury by Kristin M. Tucker and Rebecca Lowe Warren

book icon  Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli

book icon  The Christmas Survival Book by Alice Slaikeu Lawhead

book icon  Boldly Writing: A Trek Fan and Fanfiction History, 1967-1987, Joan Marie Verba
I thought I had or had read every book out there about fanfiction until I attended a panel at DragonCon about female Star Trek fans and this book was mentioned. I ordered it practically when the panel was over.

Don't expect academic erudition (like Henry Jenkins and Camille Bacon-Smith, who wrote the seminal fanfiction studies Textual Poachers and Enterprising Women, respectively) or examination of individual stories like The Fanfiction Reader, or a great big overview like Fic. This is a cut-and-dried narrative by Verba, who, through her own collection and collections of others tried to list as many of the Star Trek zines before 1987 (when Usenet reared its head and stories began to be posted online instead of on paper) as possible. As much as possible, she points out significant things about the zines, like it was the first issue, or the first photocopied issue versus mimeographed issue, or the first appearance of a certain storyline ("Night of the Twin Moons" being solely Sarek and Amanda tales, for instance), or perhaps at what convention a zine first appeared. She also mentions her own stories being published, or any fannish experiences she had. Letterzines and fan feuds are also discussed.

If you have any interest in the history of Star Trek fanfic or even fanfiction in general, I would grab a copy of this book. Despite the often pedestrian writing, it was full of interesting facts and tidbits about the fic and the fans.

book icon  West, Edith Pattou
When Pattou's East, based on the fairy tale "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," was released in 2005, I was immediately drawn to the cover of the young woman in the company of a polar bear. I was fascinated with the society Pattou portrayed, one in which the compass direction a child is born into is said to determine his or her character. Rose, the heroine of East, was actually born facing North, which means there would be traveling in her life, and to make certain her child did not leave home, her mother swore she was facing East when she gave birth. Still, Rose fulfilled her destiny by helping the white bear—an enchanted prince named Charles—escape the enchantment he was under, falling in love with him in the process. Now they have a child named Winn and Rose is visiting her parents for the first time since his birth. The portents are bad—sickness is creeping in on her parents' community—and then Rose receives devastating news: the ship Charles was on ran aground, and he was killed. But she refuses to believe it, and travels to the town where he was reportedly found dead, while her parents and the baby's nursemaid care for Winn. Worse, she has no idea that the Troll Queen that she defeated to save Charles the first time is still alive.

Once again Rose is on an odyssey, but now the stakes are higher—because Winn is also now threatened. She must keep her wits and use all her courage to find her husband and save her child.

I wasn't enchanted as much by this sequel as I was by the original story. I found the choppy text a little bit annoying and longed for subordinate clauses. And it seemed as if the author was just putting Rose through all these ordeals to prove how faithful, courageous, and strong she is, a mirror of the quest of the first book. Still, Rose is still an admirable character and there's a decision she makes about halfway through the novel that makes me respect her all the more. Plus I found the subplot with Neddy and Sib enjoyable. On the whole, not as good as the original, or maybe I just wasn't in the mood for a fairy tale again.

book icon  The Great Hurricane: 1938, Cherie Burns
I've avoided this book for years because of the bad reviews, but when it turned up as a booksale find for a dollar—well, why not? It's not as bad as I feared; it's pretty much a print version of the American Experience segment about the hurricane, complete with the story of the couple who were getting married the day of the storm. Burns tells the stories of the people she chose to concentrate on well, including the experiences of the Moore family who rode out the storm on the attic boards of their home on Napatree Point and whose experiences are covered in the two definitive books about the hurricane, A Wind to Shake the World and Sudden Sea.

Protests against the book include the "irritating" way she refers to the storm as "GH38" (hurricanes didn't have names back then and it's an easy shorthand to refer to it) and the overuse of the comparison of the storm to the attack of a big cat (which is rather overused), and also the way she refers to it as a "Category _" storm when that term didn't exist back then (again, easy shorthand to portray the storm strength).

This is basically a simple overview of the hurricane that remains in New England's legend; if you feel you want to read more, Everett Allen and R.A. Scotti will give you much, much more.

book icon  Live Long and..., William Shatner, with David Fisher
For years there were a lot of jokes about William Shatner, his ego, his dramatic pauses when he spoke, the infamous Saturday Night Live  "Get a Life" skit. It was great to watch him in Star Trek reruns and T.J. Hooker had a respectable run if fan-favorite Barbary Coast didn't, but mostly the actor himself was set back on a shelf. However, a few years ago I started attending his panels at DragonCon, and I was surprised. He wasn't just some addled actor riding on his fame; in fact, when people asked him about some of his roles he would briefly answer and then go on to a subject that fascinated him: the composition of the universe and stars and planets and comets, communication between man and animals, advances in medical science, new scientific discoveries of all kinds. Here was a guy in his 80s who could kick back and rest on his laurels, and his greatest determination was to keep learning.

That's what this slim book is about: what William Shatner has learned in 85 trips around the sun. There's nothing earth-shaking here or profoundly philosophical, yet at the same time it struck a deep meaning to me. On our [husband and I] vacations, we like to go to museums. Not to beaches to loll around in the sun, or mountains to loll around in hammocks, or spas to loll around getting massages. We go to science museums and military museums and history museums and even quirky places like the American Helicopter Museum and the National Christmas Center. (I want to live at Greenfield Village myself.) I want to learn something every day until the day I die. And this is Shatner's philosophy exactly.

He also talks about keeping trying even when you're down to the lowest you can go (there was a period after Star Trek when he was living in his car with his dog), about keeping up your curiosity, even about his failed relationships and the fact that he alone was responsible for them; about his love for his horses, about things that have been dangerous (like parasailing) that he was afraid to do and tried anyway, because he was more afraid of regretting not having done it. About his beliefs, and about his tenure with Priceline, sometimes simply about life. All in a very conversational style in the words of a man who knows the threads of his life will someday come to an end and he doesn't want to regret it when he gets there.

I enjoyed it. You may, too. Worth trying.

book icon  Death on the Sapphire, R.J. Koreto
I kind of ignored this book when it was first published since it looked like just another Edwardian mystery with a female heroine who was before her time and solved a mystery that sounded like it concerned a ship. However, it was different when I found the hardback for a mere $4. To my surprise, I enjoyed it more than I expected.

Lady Frances Ffolkes is indeed a forward-thinking Edwardian woman. Her family were liberals and no one takes it amiss when she attends suffragette meetings and has thoughts outside kinder, kuche, kircke. She even lives in a women's hotel. Like her brother Charles, she is saddened when Major Danny Colcombe, a friend of the family, dies, but doesn't think more of it until Danny's sister arrives at the Ffolkes home to report that Danny's war manuscript has vanished. He made her promise to take care of it and make certain it was published, and she feels she has let him down. So Frances promises she will help locate it, taking with her her new ladies' maid, June Mallow, who was formerly a housemaid at her parents' home. She reports the crime to Superintendent Maples of the police, who brushes it off. But as Frances and Mallow persist, ugly truths come to the fore. Something happened at the Sapphire River when Danny fought in the Boer War, and what he wrote about it may be the reason the manuscript is missing. Perhaps it's also the reason Danny died?

I actually enjoyed this. Frances and Mallow (she insists on being called by her last name, as a proper lady's maid would be; it is a sign of her rise in status among the servants) have a more realistic relationship than Phoebe and Eva in the Lady's and Lady's Maid mysteries. While Frances has an inquiring mind, she also enjoys the company of the two men who become interested in her during the course of the book. Mallow is also a terrific character, yet she never steps out of the Edwardian character of a lady's maid. I can see her being played by Nell Hudson, who plays Miss Skerritt on Victoria.

book icon  Lies Sleeping, Ben Aaronovitch
I've been a fan of the Peter Grant/Rivers of London series since the first book and practically shrieked aloud when the publisher accepted my request to read it via NetGalley. I sat down and immersed myself until it was finished.

In this seventh novel in the series, all the stops are out at the Metropolitan Police and its esoteric division The Folly (dedicated to magic and the supernatural) to catch the sinister Faceless Man (recently identified as Martin Chorley) and renegade police constable Lesley May, who was formerly Peter Grant's best friend and fellow "probie" on the force. After a member of a magical club is attacked by a "killer nanny" and later dies, The Folly learns about the existence of a giant "drinking bell" as well as the thefts of artifacts from various archaeological sites. Chorley—and by extension Lesley—is planning something big and presumably catastrophic involving both. It's up to the team to determine what will happen, and then stop it before it "goes down."

Almost all of the series regulars reappear, including Peter's teenage neighbor and fellow apprentice Abigail (and the pair of foxes she speaks to), fellow constable Sahra Guleed, the intimidating Miriam Stephanopolos, Alexander Seawoll, and Father Thames and his riparian contingent, and of course Peter's "governor," the enigmatic Thomas Nightingale, head of The Folly. Sadly, Toby the ghost-sensing terrier and Nightingale's odd housekeeper Molly are very sparely used; however, Molly has a wonderful scene near the end. The story moves quickly, from one revelation to the next, yet there is time for psychological insights into the Faceless Man, Lesley, and even the hysterical Mr. Punch from the opening novel when his past is revealed. Plus there are surprises until the very final page (but no cliffhangers, thankfully, other than there is much more story to be told), and with the usual complement of inside jokes: the obligatory Doctor Who references, not to mention Back to the Future, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and, to my delight, one from one of my favorite caper movies, Sneakers.

No spoilers, but here's one titillating chapter title: "Of the Captivity of Peter."

In short, fans of this series should love it. If you are new to the series, you really need to read (at least) the other six books (there is also a novella, a short story, and five, so far, graphic novels that are all part of the canon) to understand how Peter Grant began his career with The Folly and his relation to all the other characters. Trust me, if you like urban fantasy, reading the other six will be enjoyable and no chore at all—you'll willingly find yourself searching for the rest!

book icon  The Morville Hours, Katherine Swift
This is the last of the nature books (Wind in the Ash Tree, A Small Country Living Goes On, Wild Hares and Hummingbirds, and The Magic Apple Tree) I bought for summer reading. I enjoyed the latter two, I loved both the Jeanine McMullen memoirs, but I left this for last, and it truly was the icing on the cake. Let me reiterate again that I didn't inherit the Italian gene for gardening; I don't like to work in the dirt, I hate bugs, worms make me queasy, and I hate being out in the sun. But I love reading memoirs of this sort, especially when the author has a way with words as does Swift.

Basing her memoir on a medieval Book of Hours (a religious work that delegated what prayers and activities should be performed at certain hours in a monastery—Vigils, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and, at the end of the day, Compline), Swift recounts her years restoring the Dower House garden at Morville Hall in Shropshire, England. Part history of the Morville area, part garden redesign, and part memoir of coming to terms with her lopsided upbringing and past relationship with her parents, this is a beautifully written account of her days duplicating the different gardens that would have graced the Dower House in different eras of English history: a traditional knot garden, a cloister garden, a turf maze, a wild garden, and more. Her description of the flowers, the plants, the seasons are all exquisite. A glorious pleasure to read, especially for those who love nature and gardening (or just, like me, enjoy reading about it).

book icon  The Librarians and the Pot of Gold, Greg Cox
This is the third, and possibly the last (since the series has been cancelled) of Cox's original novels based on the TNT fantasy series The Librarians. In 441 AD, the Librarians' deadliest enemies, the Serpent Brotherhood, led by the sinister Lady Sibella, has tried to wrest a pot of gold from a reluctant leprechaun and sacrifice an innocent infant to their malevolent cause. With the help of a Librarian, his Guardian, and the man who would later become Saint Patrick, Sibella was destroyed and the plot thwarted. Now a new leader, Max Lambton, a amoral Englishman who has taken over the Serpent Brotherhood with a curious partner who can create magical objects, wishes to finish the job Sibella began. It's up to Eve Baird, Guardian; Librarians Jacob Stone, Cassandra Cillian, and Ezekiel Jones; plus the caretaker of the Library Annex, Jenkins (Flynn Carsen is missing in action in this outing), to stop him.

With the action revolving around St. Patrick's Day, the plot moves swiftly from Ireland to Paris (where the Librarians face off against the Phantom of the Opera) to Oregon to Chicago and even to an colony of leprechauns near the Annex. The plot, however, isn't quite as tight as the previous two. There is one character who appears whom you almost immediately guess who the person is. I was also quite disappointed that there was seemingly no way to save another character, who seemed promising and might prove an interesting project for Jenkins. However, the entire book is worthy of  a Librarians episode as Cox works his own magic on the familiar characters. Once again Cox does a great job making each character sound just like his or her television counterpart; you can hear John Larroquette speak when you read Jenkins' lines.

BTW, when Jenkins mentioned one of the items in the library was Prufrock's Peach, I nearly spit out my drink. Not only media asides, but literary! Good one, Greg!

Great stuff, especially for series' fans.

book icon  The Prodigal Tongue, Lynne Murphy
I buy more books because of podcasts (either "Travels with Rick Steves" or "A Way With Words," this one due to the latter). Most books about American English vs. British English are like dictionaries: "boot" is what Americans call the trunk of the car, explaining Cockney rhyming slang, etc. This book takes a different tack: what words are British that people think sound American? and vice versa? Is British English somehow more correct than American English (as so many British pundits declare)? Is one "better" than the other? And who has the accent? Is the Midwestern accent Americans use for newscasters so much worse than the "Received Pronunciation" that's de rigueur at the BBC? And what about those different spellings?

This is a topic that's fascinated me as an Anglophile and a reader of older British books and magazines. The chapter about British English changing is particularly noted because I notice from the British magazines I read today that British spelling has changed, even from the 1970s and the 1980s when I saw my first "Radio Times" and read "Woman and Home." Brits no longer refer to the "wireless" or spell it "tyre" or "kerb." But is the evolution the fault of American movies "invading" the Great Britain, or just a natural progression of the language?

I think you would really have to be a word nerd and Anglophile to get the most enjoyment out of this book. As you can expect, I did!

book icon  Adulting (updated edition), Kelly Williams Brown
For some reason I've been looking at this book since it came out, so long, in fact, that the author updated it recently to add another 90 or so tips. Kelly Brown bases her tips on what she's learned going out on her own. While her tips are serious, they're told with a big dollop of humor that keeps the book moving and from sounding too pretentious. Most of these are common-sense tips—but, as they say, sometime common sense isn't. Brown has something to say about almost everything, from stocking a starter kitchen and good eating habits—hubby and I laughed ourselves silly when I got to the cooking chapter  and read him the passage where she's talking about basic weekly shopping items: #9 is "chicken thighs," with the notation "chicken breasts are for chumps! So dry! The meat equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation that no one asked for!"—to making friends and having relationships to just plain being kind.

The only thing that bothered me was that she spends a great deal of time talking about it's okay to have sexual relationships just for a good time (so long as your partner does not consider it a commitment either, and that you break up politely and properly—no e-mail breakups!—when it's over), but doesn't add a reminder or two to use protection. Very important, both for pregnancy prevention and for STD protection.

book icon  Re-read: Understood Betsy, Dorothy Canfield Fisher

book icon  Re-read: Charlotte's Web, E.B. White
The one children's book that keeps coming up (along with Harry Potter) on The Great American Read and at one point had George Lopez crying over it. For all White's years of essays in "The New Yorker" (several collections exist; all are recommended) along with his updating of William Strunk's famous English usage guide The Elements of Style, this is usually considered his magnum opus, the story of a runt farm piglet who befriends a canny barn spider, who cleverly works out a way to keep her pal Wilbur from becoming bacon and pork chops. Charlotte's solution: write messages about her porcine buddy in her web.

While this is a tale told simply enough for children, it has many pokes as the gullible nature of human beings, especially adults, and the nature of fame, plus is a lovely, nostalgic paean to farm life and children growing up. While the animals speak to each other, they are not "talking animals" of the humorous sort. Garth Williams' illustrations, never cartoony and based solidly on nature, accompany White's precise yet descriptive prose like a beautiful harmony complements a melody. Filled with charming characters you will never forget, and definitely an American classic for both adults and children.

book icon  The Annotated Charlotte's Web, E.B. White, Peter F. Neumeyer
Who knew Garth Williams was once controversial?

I bought this at a used bookstore where the cashier had never seen an annotated book; me, I love them and have collected a few. Some annotated books use their annotations to point out unfamiliar terms, or expand on the history behind events in a story, or to point out the morals and mores of the time. While Neumeyer's annotations explain a few terms, he uses them most to point out White's careful choice of words, his edits of the text, and (forgive the pun) how he spun his web of words to create his classic novel. The animals and farm life (including the magic of a county fair) he lived (he and his wife lived on a saltwater Maine farm), but he did close research into spiders—one of the delights in this volume is being able to see White's notes on spiders and other aspects of the book, and drawings of the places that inspired the book locations. There are also photographs of the White farm, a chapter on Garth Williams' illustrations (apparently his The Rabbits' Wedding, which had a black rabbit marrying a white rabbit, was seen in pre-civil rights America as encouraging miscegenation 🙄 ), letters from White to his editor about the book, the different versions of the manuscripts, reviews of the book, White's own comments on the book, even White's essay "Death of a Pig."

Charlotte's Web fans and admirers of White's wonderful prose will enjoy immensely!

book icon  The Bartered Brides, Mercedes Lackey
This is the third in Lackey's "Elemental Masters" sequence featuring a very mortal Sherlock Holmes and John and Mary Watson being elemental magicians (John is Water and Mary is Air) and the fifth novel (after two introductory short stories) featuring Sarah Lyon-White, a young medium, and her companion Nan Killian, psychic and Celtic warrior in a previous life. The story opens with the characters in mourning for their old friend Holmes, who was drowned at the Reichenbach Falls while fighting the evil Professor Moriarty, who also died. Only they know Holmes is still alive, hoping to track down the rest of Moriarty's cohorts.

Unfortunately one of his cohorts is also an Elemental Master who is coercing young women to marry him and then, when they have accepted him willingly, kills them and removes their heads, transporting their spirits into bottles that will provide him a "battery" to perform his final, most ambitious spell. In short, he is that most dangerous of magicians, a necromancer, and one with no remorse as he expands his collection to fulfill his scientific dreams. In the meantime, the bodies of his brides are turning up in the Thames, to the bafflement of the police.

Much better than the last villain in this series who was so irritatingly ignorant of what his actions were doing that his assistant was smarter than he was; this one knows exactly what he's doing and has no care of whom he hurts to do so. John Watson also has some great scenes, especially a terrifying sequence where he summons an evil spirit to help him track down the source of the bodies. Sarah also acquires an unquiet spirit who helps the group achieve their ends.

While I love Nan and Sarah, their young ward Suki, and the Elemental Masters versions of Watson, Mary, and Holmes, I am tired of them (although I love the birds Grey and Neville, the latter who gets some good scenes here) and would like Lackey to go back to creating original characters for this series (as long as it's not the German world from Blood Red and From a High Tower, which I found deadly boring).

book icon  Re-read: Autumn: A Spiritual Biography of the Season, edited by Gary Schmidt and Susan M. Felch

31 August 2018

Books Completed Since August 1

book icon  Talk About America, Alistair Cooke
Before Alistair Cooke passed, during his elder journalist years between his series America and during Masterpiece Theatre, he had several books published that examined mostly serious subjects (Six Men, The Americans, World War II-era America, etc.) that talked about significant events in the American scene. All of these books were taken from his weekly report on the BBC, "Letter from America." Earlier this year I wrote about finding a collection of earlier essays in One Man's America.

This is yet another volume of selections from "Letters from America," and once again there are some significant historical pieces, most prominently Cooke's witnessing the assassination of Robert Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He also has a trilogy of essays about being black in the US in the 1950s and 1960s, a profile of Lyndon Johnson, an account of John Glenn's flight, a visit to a submarine, the story of General George Marshall, and more. But I found the most interesting essays were the ones about little things: an account of a good old fashioned town meeting in a small town in New Hampshire, where the locals debate next year's budget and whether to repair or tear down a bridge; about a now almost defunct act: the closing down of your city home or apartment for the summer while you went somewhere cooler in those pre-air conditioning days; about another institution now gone: the iceman; about the history of Thanksgiving and cranberry obsession; an amusing few pages on American dress; attending the Kentucky Derby and visiting Alcatraz; etc.

Once again, I discovered some pieces here that were later mined for his classic America series: "The Father," about George Washington; "HLM: RIP," about H.L. Mencken. For a second time enjoyed the variety of subjects and Cooke's occasional sharp line of humor. Well worth hunting up to see a former Brit's eye view of his adopted country.

book icon  Death Without Company, Craig Johnson
In this second of the Walt Longmire books, Walt is summoned to the Durant Home for Assisted Living, where his mentor Lucian Connally is now living. A woman of Basque descent, Mari Baroja, has died and Lucian claims there was foul play. He also tells Longmire something astounding: Mari was his wife, for all of a few days, until her brothers caught up with him, beating him up and taking Mari away with them, to be married off to someone more suitable. Walt at first starts investigating to humor his old boss, but slowly starts coming up with troubling stuff, like Mari's terrible marriage to Charlie Nurburn, who regularly abused her, and to a flourishing methane mining concern on land that was once Mari's, land her daughters will inherit.

I'm usually a cozy mystery fan except for odd things like Sherlock Holmes, and wasn't sure I would like a more gritty mystery series. But I like this one: Walt Longmire is a "regular guy" with real faults, but an appealing personality and a need to see justice done. He has blood family in his daughter Cady, a close friendship with Henry Standing Bear (a finally realistic Native American character), and a law enforcement family with his co-workers: Ruby the dispatcher, "the Ferg" a part time deputy, his second-in-command Victoria Moretti (originally of New York), and newest officer Santiago Saizarbitoria, who comports himself well in this mystery. Walt also meets a promising woman who's in town to investigate abandoned safe deposit boxes, but everything, as always in Longmire land, takes second place to his job.

Walt will face a maze of family secrets, marital tragedy, and reservation secrets before he discovers all the truths Mari Baroja's death will reveal. As always, a delight to read.

book icon  Shake Well Before Using, edited by Bennett Cerf
I've been hooked on these collections of humorous anecdotes since my mother bought me a copy of Laugh Day in the late 1960s. I read that book until pages started to fall out of it. Lots of puns, a Cerf favorite, most of the stories are still funny (there are some longer pieces in this book instead of just short quick jokes), but some would be considered very incorrect today, especially some "battle of the sexes" anecdotes. Also, the names of celebrities instantly known in 1948 are more obscure today. You can use the book as a history lesson as well!

book icon  A Casualty of War, Charles Todd
In the latest Bess Crawford mystery, the Great War is almost finished. Bess, a nurse at the front lines, is having a brief respite of rest when she chats with a Captain Alan Travis. Back at the front, she meets Captain Travis again; a bullet has narrowly missed his head and he claims the shot was deliberate, by a man in his ranks. Recovered and sent back to the front, he returns to Bess' station once more, this time shot in the back, and again he claims this was deliberate.

Bess loses track of the man after the Armistice is declared, but on her leave tracks him down and is dismayed to find him in a mental hospital, being driven mad by cheerless walls. The higher-ups have determined he has brain damage, especially since he has been insisting that not only was he shot at deliberately twice, but that the shots were fired by a man that looked like his cousin, who he met for the first time at the front. Horrified by the way he's being treated, Bess is determined to track down what is going on and travels to the cousin's hometown, finding out that the man's reputation is without reproach, but his mother resents the thought of Alan Travis, the scion of the family black sheep, taking over the estate. Bess still thinks Alan Travis is on the level, and Simon helps her track down what's going on.

There's a fairly complicated plot going, and poor Alan Travis, harried at all sides by convention and bureaucracy, is a sympathetic victim, but could he be pulling the wool over everyone's eyes, including Bess? There is at least one character in the story whom you will suspect immediately. Also, the Armistice has now been signed. Will there be more adventures for Bess? And will something ever come of the relationship between Bess and Simon, or is she wrong that they are only platonic friends? Stay tuned...

book icon  The Planets, Dorling-Kindersley and Smithsonian
In a fit of nostalgia, I had remembered the coloring book/activity book my mom had bought for me so long ago about the planets. I had this book for years, even after I'd colored in all the pictures and done all the activities. So I went hunting at the library for a book on the solar system and found this, a big coffee-table book with correspondingly large color photos and diagrams about each of the planets as was known when the book was published (after Pluto got demoted). Recent flybys by space exploration vehicles have netted some gorgeous photographs of Mars and even Pluto, and artists' extrapolations of the different surfaces of planets and asteroids give it a wow factor. Included are all the scientific facts and figures. I was fascinated by the section on the asteroids, as only a few were mentioned in my coloring book. People may be surprised that they are not all spherical in shape. At least one looks like a dumbbell.

book icon  Journey to the Ice Age: Mammoths and Other Animals of the Wild Hardcover, Rien Poortvliet
I was only planning to get the planet book from the library, but I saw this in passing and was fascinated by it. Poortvliet is a Dutch artist who is most famous for his whimsical art book about garden gnomes, but he has done several volumes of nature and animal art. This is a gorgeous art book in which Poortvliet begins with his own observations of the countryside around him, then goes back to the medieval era, where he describes the lifestyles of the wealthy and the poor. The final last third of the book makes a fantastic leap back to the stone age and drawings of mammoth, dire wolves, wild horses, and other fauna, and also early man.

This is an unspeakably gorgeous volume if you love drawings of nature and wildlife. Each oversize page is filled with gorgeous artwork of wolves, elk (what we call moose), red and roe deer, dogs, game birds, falcons, and other animals, and woods, farms, homey farmsteads, beautiful medieval lords and ladies, humbler working people, farm animals, etc. His narrative that goes with these pieces of art are beautifully calligraphed on the pages (not by himself).

If you love art or nature or want to peek into medieval life and prehistoric life through the eyes of an artist, this is a beautiful, breathtaking book. Every page is a treasure.

book icon  When the Stars Went to War: Hollywood and World War II, Roy Hoopes
A lively, if gossipy, book about the roles of actors and actresses played during World War II, starting in 1937 and a brief mention of the Spanish Civil War, and seguing into 1939 and the Golden Year of Hollywood film. "The war came earlier to Hollywood than it did to most of the country," the author states, due to the sizeable British colony in the movie capitol. When the war broke out many of the Englishmen went home; others remained in Hollywood and made films praising the efforts of the French, British, and Belgians. Once the attack on Pearl Harbor was accomplished, Hollywood became fully mobilized. Walt Disney's studio, indeed, was taken over by the military. Some actors rushed to join the service, others were refused, including John Wayne, who won battles only in his films.

The book follows all aspects of the Hollywood contributions to the war: films that supported the war effort and made heroes of the common men serving in the Army, Navy, and Marines; the USO tours where performers lived rough and under the threat of bombs and battle; the famous Hollywood Canteen started by Bette Davis, which supplied food and fun to servicemen on leave; and the actors who went to war like Clark Gable, James Stewart, Wayne Morris, and more. Hoopes also talks about some individual stars: the rumors (which he pooh-poohs) about Errol Flynn being a Nazi or a spy,;the offhand attitude of George Sanders, who had been an admirer of Hitler; and Lew Ayres, a vegetarian and conscientious objector who lost and then refound his audience despite refusing to serve in the Army (he became a medic and was decorated for his service).

There's also a lot of who's-sleeping-with-who included in the book, and how some actors looked forward to going on War Bond and USO tours so they could canoodle with the young actresses they accompanied, but mostly it's an interesting chronicle of how Hollywood performers raised morale, funds, and sympathies during the Second World War.

book icon  Wild Hares & Hummingbirds: The Natural History of an English Village, Stephen Moss
This is Moss' leisurely examination of a year in the life of the animals, birds, insects, and plants in his small village of Mark in southwestern England. Through his eyes we see the changing seasons, the migration of the birds, the hedge and pasture life of badgers and foxes and rabbits, and the effect of a changing climate and changing land use on different species—birds once common in England, like the cuckoo, are hardly heard there any longer, while newer bird species used to warmer climates are appearing.

This is a nice book to read at bedtime, where Moss' tales of the tranquil countryside soothe. He is not a poetic writer, but the landscapes and animals are lovingly described. Each chapter, which covers a month, is illustrated by an evocative woodcut, which lends charm to the narrative.

The odd thing is that although Moss cites hares and hummingbirds in his title, there is very little written about either. Swifts, swallows, and house martins seem to be a favorite. Moss even goes mushroom hunting. A pleasant read if you want to relax with nature.

book icon  Spring Harvest, Gladys Taber
This is my first taste of Taber's fiction, and, while it's chick-lit, I mostly enjoyed it because of her characters. Julie Prescott is a teen in love for the first time with college football player Mike in the small Wisconsin college town of Westerly in 1914, but she runs afoul of her eccentric geology professor father Alden, who still thinks of her as a little girl, while her capable mother Sybil keeps everything on an even keel. (If you've read Taber's memoir about her father, it's so very clear Alden is based on her dad.) Meanwhile the president of the University, married to Carol, a cold social-climber wife who hates the small town and even her children, finds happiness in talking to the sympathetic Dean; Dr. Jim Parker, the dedicated GP, races from medical emergency to house call while his sad and embittered wife stews at home;  the music professor who's found the best student in a lifetime has his dreams wiped out when she becomes pregnant; and the faithful accompanist is wondering where her next meal will come from (and how she'll take care of an invalid sister) if she is forced to retire. And before them all lies the high point in Westerly's year, Commencement.

You follow Julie in the throes of young love, Alden trying to understand his growing daughter, Mike attempting to escape the grasping aunt and uncle who raised him, Carol planning to escape her mundane life, Miss Nelson's problems with money, Dr. Jim's patience when his wife is injured, the Dean taking up the slack when a crisis hits the President's household, and through all the crises, Sybil knowing wisely what to do. It's a gentler time, where the doctor has finally traded in his horse for a car, kids stopped by the soda fountain to meet, girls sat in their daddy's laps and hornswoggled them with tears, and not a specter of sex in sight, although Mike is a gentleman and stops in one situation that might have gone too far. The worst thing that happens in Westerly is that a girl commits suicide after being blackballed by a sorority, and while it makes Julie pause, it doesn't set her on a crusade to do good as it might in a book today. There are some hard times for several people, but except for the deceased girl, things work out. A nice window into the past.

book icon  Time of Fog and Fire, Rhys Bowen
Daniel Sullivan's law enforcement career is in more danger than before: his superiors dislike him and there is still a suspicion that he got a fellow officer killed. So he takes a job from U.S. secret service operative John Wilkie, while his wife, former detective Molly Murphy, stays home with their toddler son and young ward Bridie, and goes off to Washington, DC. Or so Molly thinks: after she befriends a woman who is a widow in all but name to a perpetually traveling businessman and attends one of the newfangled silent films with her new friend, she sees Daniel in a newsreel that was filmed in San Francisco. Soon after, she gets a rather insulting letter from him that incenses her at first, until she sees the secret message hidden within. Soon Molly and Liam are on their way to San Francisco.

Do I give you a clue to part of the plot of this novel if I tell you it's 1906?

Molly runs the complete gamut of trauma in this adventure: a mysterious note from an uncommunicative husband, a startling revelation when she finally arrives in the bustling city, a friendship with a notorious woman that leads to some unsavory situations, the disappearance of Liam, an injury that nearly incapacitates her, and of course the infamous historical incident that colors the second half of the novel. She leaps breathlessly from unexpected rail trip to first encounters with the Chinese to the discovery of a secret in the basement to a murder scene at Point Lobos. A page-turner, but some of the actions seem a bit improbable, even for Molly. With welcome cameos by Sid and Gus, and some happy news at the end.

book icon  American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, Deborah Solomon
This is a thick volume which follows Rockwell's life and the growth and progression of his artwork. My first impression of the book is that Rockwell led kind of a sad life. Subsequent chapters, all the way through the end, seemed to perpetuate this feeling. Rockwell's mother was apparently a self-absorbed hypochondriac and his athletic older brother Jarvis overwhelmed shy, skinny Norman. His first two marriages left both wives frustrated as apparently Rockwell was incapable of sustaining a romantic or even affectionate relationship with them, and would often go off for months at a time creating art (and occasionally fishing) with male compatriots. His first wife just gave up, the second developed an alcohol dependency and her psychiatric sessions so absorbed Rockwell that he finally got his own and became close friends with his shrink. (His third wife, Molly, apparently demanded little intimacy from Norman and was content to help him with his business dealings.) Along the way Solomon describes Rockwell's best known paintings and illustrations, and the details that came together in them, starting with their inspirations.

She also spends some time trying to "figure him out" and pretty much all but says she thought he was actually homosexual at a time when it wasn't expected. On the other hand, he didn't seem crazy about sex of any kind; what he was was a clean freak. Almost half of his painting sessions comprised cleaning his studio or his brushes. After a while, this detective work really gets nowhere; she could have mentioned it once or twice and be done with it. She does assure us that Rockwell, the consummate artist of active and mischievous boys, never molested his models.

So, as I said, I came out of this still appreciating his art, but feeling rather melancholy about his mental state. Much of his life seemed a bit sad, and, like Tasha Tudor, he didn't really realize how much people appreciated  him as an artist until someone did an exhibition for him. (Apparently he longed to get into modern art, and thank goodness he didn't.)

Some people were annoyed at this book because it did not go into the research and method of Rockwell's art as much as they wished. Apparently this was mostly Rockwell's fault; Solomon talks about interview after interview of him in which specific questions about specific paintings went unanswered, with the painter either going off on a tangent or being very brief.

If you can stand all the psychological introspection, this can be an enjoyable book. But melancholy.

book icon  The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
Since I had re-read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn last month, I thought I would pull the preceding story out. Tom has never been that much of a favorite with me, since I'm so taken with the revelations—and, I admit, the humor—in Finn. I tried reading it as more of a prequel this time and came out enjoying it much better.

If you've been living in a television-induced coma forever, the titular Tom is a mischievous small boy—his age seems to range between nine and twelve—and his free-range childhood in 1830s Missouri. He and his half brother are being raised by an aunt, and he's the plague of her life though she loves him: he plays hooky from school, gets in fights, consorts with the town bad boy (Huck Finn), skips church, and generally acts like a small boy. In the course of the book, he falls in love with the winsome Becky Thatcher, traipses off to a graveyard with a dead cat to get rid of warts and witnesses a murder, appears as a witness in the murder trial, runs away to an island with three other boys, and gets lost in a cave—and those are just part of his adventures.

Besides Tom's adventures, Twain uses the text (as he does in Finn) to skewer early 19th century society, which leads to humorous situations in church—feckless Tom claiming to have memorized enough Bible verses to claim a Bible and an incident with a dog—and a graduation day at school that's an endless series of banal schoolgirl compositions. It's mixed with tense moments and danger in a classic book still worth reading.

Huckleberry Finn is still better, though. 😀

book icon  The Best American Travel Writing 2003, edited by Ian Frazier
Book sales are great for picking up these annual volumes (also for science and nature, essays, mysteries, short stories, sports, and mysteries), although this one was a bit daunting in the first half, as it seems so many of the essays seemed to concern sad voyages through Middle-Eastern countries after 9/11. On the other hand, there is a good variety of travel essays here, from the charms of the Polish stomping grounds of Pope John Paul II to a search for real Cuban coffee in a Cuba filled with welcoming people who are too poor to afford it to essays about fighting poachers to a not-so-breezy ride down Route  66 to a Jewish man who traces what happened to the uncle who stayed in Europe when the Nazis came. You visit the Arctic and Afghanistan, the Salton Sea and slavery in Africa, squid jigging in Washington State and a trip to a nuclear power plant in Japan, credit card companies in Delaware and the west Texas town where Ambrose Bierce vanished, and find you are not yet done with your journeys.

I even enjoyed the sad stories about the Middle East, but I couldn't figure for the life of me what the article about Puff Daddy going to Paris had to do with travel or why it was included in this volume. It's more a portrait of the rap star, and his conspicuous consumption, which I found a little off-putting.

book icon  The Clincher, Lisa Preston
I have been looking for a mystery series that was likeable without getting into thrillers or police procedurals, and didn't feature a whitebread attractive woman operating in a small town with quaint shops. This one may fill the bill. Rainy Dale is a professional farrier (horseshoer) whose early life was a mess, with a narcissist wannabe actress for a mother and a hardline conservative Texan for a father. After a series of youthful traumas which are gradually brought to light in the story, Rainy turned herself around, got her farrier's license, and settled in rural Oregon where she tracked down the horse her father gave her as a child, the one thing she has always loved. On the way she has picked up a discarded dog named Charley and acquired a landlord named Guy, who's also breaking convention by becoming a cook instead of following the path his parents wanted him to follow and who wants to be something more than Rainy's landlord. Things come to a head when, soon after Rainy does a shoeing job for trophy wife Patsy-Lynn Harper, the woman is found dead, and Rainy finds herself the prime suspect. At first Rainy just cares that she's cleared, but she genuinely liked Patsy-Lynn and really wants to find out who killed her.

At first Rainy was a little too abrasive for me, but as the story "peeled away her layers," so to speak, I understood her pain. She's smart-mouthed, unconventional, opinionated, and definitely not "whitebread." The story is full of little bits of knowledge about horses and shoeing, the rural setting and the characters seemed real, and Rainy's conversations with Guy have a humorous turn that I enjoyed. Guy is also a neat character who does not bow to convention. The descriptions of horses, the countryside, and the rural life have the ring of truth in them rather than something the author just looked up, which follows as the author writes nonfiction about training dogs and horses, and lives in a rural environment. If you're looking for a slightly grittier mystery than you might find in a traditional cozy with lots of horse talk, this is the book for you! I am looking forward to the next book.

book icon  Dim Sum of All Fears, Vivien Chien
This is the second of Chien's "Noodle House" restaurant featuring young Lana Lee, whose Taiwanese mother and American father run Ho-Lee's House of Noodles in Cleveland's Asia Village shopping center. When her parents go to Taiwan to help out her grandmother, Lana, not her older sister Anna May, who is studying for the bar, is left in charge of the restaurant, to her dismay: she was planning to interview for a job away from the restaurant. She's just gotten over the disappointment of having to turn down the interview when she and another tenant discover the bodies of Isabelle and Brandon Yeoh, of the souvenir shop next door, dead in their storeroom. Adam Trudeau, Lana's "maybe-boyfriend" and police officer, tells her not to get involved as she did in the previous mystery, but Isabelle was a new and dear friend and Lana wants to get to the bottom of who ended her life—and what was going on with her husband, who always seemed to disappear at the most inconvenient times.

Once again Lana and her intrepid best friend Megan Riley try to get to the bottom of things, and it's more bizarre than they could have imagined: like Brandon turning up with not one ex-wife, but two, plus a sister-in-law he was really in love with. And there's a dude who reminds Lana of Captain Kirk (the Shatner version) who seems to pal with Brandon a lot. Plus Brandon and Isabelle live in a fabulous designer apartment, yet can't make their business bills.

I think once you find out a fact about a certain character, you should realize whodunnit, but watching Lana juggle the restaurant, her parents, her sister, a very disapproving Adam (who actually is concerned about her investigating), free time, and on top of all that, a frigid winter, is entertaining. I really do like Lana, although like in all cozies she takes chances like people really shouldn't. But then isn't that's why we enjoy them, to live vicariously through the characters?

book icon  A Small Country Living Goes On, Jeanine McMullen
It wasn't so long ago that I picked up My Small Country Living on the way out of the book sale, started to read, and fell in love. This summer I ordered The Wind in the Ash Tree, and now with this third book I have finished McMullen's appealing trilogy about living on a Welsh smallholding and producing a radio show about country living. Indeed, the bulk of this final volume is about Jeanine's adventures in going from farmstead to farmstead and county to county—and country—looking for stories, spending some time in Ireland (still dangerous in that era of "the Troubles") finding fairy cairns, Greyhound Pigs, Moiled Cattle, and, as always, unpredictable goats.

McMullen's own goats also work into the plot, as does her big mare Doli, who finally meets the "man" of her dreams, and even her dogs provide adventure. She makes new friends in Ireland and Wales, experiences equipment failure and train waits, and tries out novelty walking sticks. There are wars against rats, a surprise with the chimney, a country Christmas, and encounters with the neighbors, but the most affecting portions of the narrative is when Jeanine's mother, the redoubtable Mrs. P, begins to suffer from illness, including an unexpected loss of memory and then weakness caused by living in such a damp climate. It's indeed an eventful year and a memorable end to McMullen's memoirs. I shall miss her very much.