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

31 March 2018

Books Completed Since March 1

book icon  Murder in Morningside Heights, Victoria Thompson
Frank Malloy and his new wife Sarah Brandt Malloy are home from their honeymoon, gamely coping with the new investigative agency Frank's young ex-policeman friend Gino and Sarah's nanny Maeve set up while they were away. Frank's already bored with investigating infidelity cases and Sarah's bored with being a housewife with no midwifery or mysteries to brighten her day when the parents of Abigail Northrup hire Frank to find out what happened to their daughter. It appears they were told that Abigail died in a freak accident at the Normal School where she taught, but they think it's something more. It certainly is: because Abigail was definitely not the sweet girl her parents thought she was, a fact her maligned brother corroborates, and there are other irregularities going on at the Normal School.

I felt quite bad for Abigail's brother in the way he is treated by his parents, and the mystery is pretty good if slightly transparent; however, although there are very many clues that will try to take you off the trail, you may want to trust your instincts on who the person it could not possibly be and realize that it could be. Other revelations make up for this shortcoming, however. The "Boston marriage" aspect to the story was different, but I wish Thompson had not felt the need to have one character explain it to the next character and then that character to the next character so many times. It's necessary to explaining one of the passions involved in the story, but it seems as if every five pages someone has to explain to the next neophyte what a "Boston marriage" is. It got tiresome. Glad to see that Sarah will be able to put her midwifery skills back to work soon, though!

book icon  Play It Again 1940 and Play It Again 1948, from "Good Old Days"
These are two of a series of slim, nostalgic books published by the folks who put out "Good Old Days" magazine, with photos taken from illustrations and advertisements from "The Saturday Evening Post." What text there is is very simplified, so all but the very youngest children can read them, typos pop up unexpectedly, and the the narration is rather stilted, as if written by 21-year-olds who don't know what to make of this "olden days" stuff. However, the illos and the ads, in color or in glorious black-and-white, are worth buying the books for if you find them at a discount, especially if you like classic "Post" illustrators like Normal Rockwell.

book icon  Twenty-one Days: A Daniel Pitt Mystery, Anne Perry
Daniel Pitt, son of Sir Thomas Pitt and his wife Lady Charlotte Pitt, is now twenty-five and a neophyte lawyer. As the novel opens, he is defending one of Pitt's old colleagues, Roman Blackwell, from a murder charge. But halfway through the trial, he is called to immediately take the place of a fellow attorney who was badly injured in a traffic accident while working on a high-profile case at the Old Bailey, London's premiere court. With hours to spare and the help of a fingerprint expert, Daniel is able to clear Blackwell and rush to his newest client, with Roman and his wife Mercy in his debt. His mind at peace from his previous obligation, Daniel is now free to help Russell Graves, a man accused of murdering his wife and then disfiguring her face and neck with fire after death. Graves swears he is innocent, and although neither Daniel or his senior partner like the man, they are determined to defend him. When Graves is sentenced to death, Daniel and his partner, Kitteridge, have twenty-one days to find evidence to mount an appeal. But as Daniel investigates the crime, he finds to his horror that if he saves Graves, the man, author of muckraking expose books, will be able to publish a volume that paints his father's late mentor Victor Narraway and his wife Vespasia--and indeed his father as head of Special Branch--as criminals and traitors. Even worse, Daniel begins to wonder if Graves' research was correct.

Twenty-one Days gets off to a slow start, but builds in tension as Daniel's investigation deepens and he learns more about the Graves family: deceased wife Ebony, daughter Sarah, and handicapped brother Arthur, and the servants of the household who appear to know more than they tell. Daniel then teams up with Miriam fford Croft, the daughter of the head of his legal firm, who, instead of being held back by feminine constraints, has been allowed to break convention by her understanding father and study to be a scientist, although she has not been allowed to formally receive a degree because she is a woman. Together Daniel and Miriam hunt further clues, with a possible romance set up for the two, but with no intrusive saccharine romantic interludes to ruin the suspense. Thomas and Charlotte Pitt both appear, but only in brief cameo appearances, so Daniel carries the mystery on his own and any surprising revelations come from his own investigations, and those he has asked a grateful Roman Blackwell to help with.

This was a good introduction to Perry's new series about Daniel Pitt, although he seems a little bland compared to the untidy Pitt and the unconventional Charlotte, not to mention his quick-witted sister Jemima. Miriam, however, is the one to watch for in this series. She reminds me of Julia Ogden in the Canadian television show Murdoch Mysteries.

book icon  The Showstopper: a Rebecca Mystery, Mary Casanova
Rebecca Rubin's cousin Michael puts this first of three American Girl mysteries for 2018 into motion when he forgets his lunch. He's working at a famous Broadway theatre and of course stagestruck Rebecca and his sister Ana get to take his forgotten meal to him and go backstage in the bargain. The girls find out the theatre is looking for children their age for a job, but when they actually get permission to work there, they find out it's not for acting, but to support a miniature farm that's on the roof of the theatre. Disappointed at first, Rebecca is determined to stick with it because she gets to associate with talented new actress Olivia Berry—only to discover someone appears determined to harm "Ollie," as she asks the girls to call her: the young woman is almost injured on stage, and other frightening things keep happening.

This story could easily be rewritten into a more adult thriller once the culprit is revealed, yet there is nothing too frightening or sinister here for the audience this volume is intended for. A bunch of historical facts are painlessly included in the narrative, including the fact that the plays given in the theatre weren't the sole things entertaining the crowds back the. The miniature farm depicted on the roof of the theatre, the rooftop lake and restaurant, and the stage show "up above" were all real aspects of some vaudeville theatres of that era, and the Oscar Hammerstein that Rebecca and Ana meet is the real-life grandfather of Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the lyrics to the songs in The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, etc. with his partner Richard Rogers.  An excellent outing for Rebecca.

book icon  Menace at Mammoth Cave: a Kit Mystery, Mary Casanova
I can't decide whether this or the Rebecca mystery are the best of the 2018 American Girl mystery stories. They are both suspenseful and have good, almost creepy mysteries as part of the story. This Kit mystery makes up for the thoroughly disappointing The Jazzman's Trumpet, which was so predictable.

In this story, Kit is in Kentucky with her Aunt Millie to visit her brother Charlie at a CCC camp and tour Mammoth Cave. Charlie's group is part of the workforce expanding the Mammoth Cave area into a larger national park. Unfortunately in the process people are being turned off their land and someone seems bent on sabotaging the CCC camp workers' work, including an event that makes Kit fear for Charlie's life. It's possible that Kit's new friend Benny, an African-American boy whose family will be forced to move, is one of the culprits. Who can she trust, and is Charlie in danger?

This is just a great mystery with a lot of history behind it. During the building of many of the Eastern National Parks, people were made to move from the farms and land that their ancestors had settled two centuries before. It was discouraging and infuriating for them and many fought back. In fact, if you read this book and are interested in finding a similar story, there is an episode of The Waltons called "The Conflict" that you might want to check out. In the story the Walton men visit Grandpa's sister-in-law and her son and grandchildren to defend their property; they are being moved to make way for the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and some of the issues addressed in this book are addressed in that story. I also enjoyed the dynamics of the mountain families and how they pitched in together.

book icon  Legend of the Shark Goddess: a Nanea Mystery, Erin Falligant
Of the three American Girl "Beforever" mysteries, this is probably the least "mysterious" and is more about Nanea jumping to conclusions. Her brother David now in the service, Nanea is more determined than ever to do something for the war effort, even if it's just keeping an eye out for lawbreakers. That's why she's so suspicious of Mano, a teenager who's hanging around her grandparents' store. Nanea is sure he's stolen from them. But her little dog Mele likes Mano. Who can she believe? And then when her grandfather's watch disappears, she fears an American soldier is also not to be trusted.

The story well-illustrates the uncertainties people, especially children, faced during World War II. They knew their own neighbors and friends might be part of the black market, and they met strangers that they weren't sure if they could trust. While everything comes out okay for Nanea in the end, for some families it did not. While this was not the best of the mysteries, it was enjoyable and the lesson to trust your heart and to be careful but not cynical well taken.

book icon  One Man's 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."

This is an older collection which I found different from these later books and more enjoyable. While some of the essays in this book address historical subjects or personalities—there's one about Father Serra and the missions, for example; another about Damon Runyon, a third about Joe Louis, yet another about Washington DC—others are just interesting observations about American life: one of the most amusing is Cooke's recounting of meeting his first Native American and having all the clichés broken. Another is about an old senator who started believing the press releases about himself and who changed personalities for the worse because of it. Four essays cover the seasons, another one simply talks about moving house. It's more E.B. White with the occasional political overtone. I was enchanted. I'm going to look for his older books and see if there are more like this. I was also amused to see phrases lifted in whole to be included in his America series, like the descriptions of fall and Newfane, Vermont, and calling DC "a city of Greek wedding cakes." Loved seeing the genesis of that series.

book icon  Death of an Avid Reader, Frances Brody
Kate Shackleton has a new case: Lady Coulton has asked her to find the daughter born out of wedlock that she had to give away while her husband was abroad. No sooner has Kate begun her hunt for Sophia than she is asked to participate in an odd ceremony at the historic Leeds library: it's reputed to be haunted and there are witnesses who must accompany the priest who will walk the library attempting to exorcise the specter. But when Father Bolingbroke descends into the basement, the exorcism party is dismayed to find the body of Dr. Potter, a mathematician who uses the library daily and who is fearful for its unguarded rare book collection, lying dead. Nearby is a sick Italian organ grinder who is immediately charged with the crime. An indignant Kate, not believing the ill man could carry out such a crime, vows to find out the truth while she is still looking for young Sophia.

As in other books in this series, Kate slowly finds her two cases merging in the most surprising ways, and must enlist the help of John Sykes to unravel the threads, which gradually become a threat to Kate herself. This is a nice complicated entry in the Shackleton series, with much misdirection and some memorable supporting characters, including the little monkey belonging to the organ grinder. Thoroughly enjoyable!

book icon  Crowned and Dangerous, Rhys Bowen
As you remember, at the end of Malice at the Palace, Irish spy and impoverished former estate heir Darcy was zooming away with our heroine, Lady Georgiana Rannoch, 35th in line for the throne, equally blue-blooded and impoverished. It turns he is driving her to Gretna Green in Scotland, for them to be married. Unfortunately a blizzard stops them in their tracks, and then both remember Georgie will have to renounce her claim on the throne formally for her to be able to marry a Catholic. Both these issues are not insurmountable, but the next event is: Darcy's father has been accused of murdering the wealthy and reclusive American that bought the family estate. Darcy drops everything to go to Ireland and forbids Georgie to follow; indeed, he breaks up with her altogether, leaving her stunned and shaken.

But this is Georgie, after all; she's as tough as the Highland landscape and isn't going to let a simple spurning hold her back. She immediately follows her beloved to Ireland, pretending to be a friend of Darcy's, to discover his father truly believes he murdered the American in a drunken haze. Can Darcy and Georgie clear Lord Kilhenny? Can Zou Zou, the flamboyant European countess Georgie befriended through Darcy, help them? And what is the deal with this reclusive American anyway? He doesn't seem to have a past—but he does have some very shady compatriots.

Secret passages, airplanes, racehorses, an Auntie Mame countess and a grumpy member of the nobility, two of the stubbornest protagonists ever, and Bowen's lively narration make this one a winner in the Georgiana Rannoch series, but we're still faced with that ever-present cliffhanger: will they ever be able to be married? Stay tuned!

book icon  A Death in the Dales, Frances Brody
Lucian Simonson, the charming and intelligent physician Kate Shackleton befriended in Murder on a Summer's Day, has invited her to stay at his aunt's old place in the small town of Settle. Kate takes along her fourteen-year-old niece Harriet, who is recovering from a severe case of diphtheria, with her to get some country air. Once there, Harriet befriends Beth, a girl somewhat older than herself who is working in the fabric mill in Settle and chafing at the fact that her brother, working for a farmer with a bad reputation out of town, has not yet come to visit her, and Kate finds out that Lucian's aunt had wanted to meet her before she died—years earlier this aunt had seen a murder take place and was convinced the wrong man went to prison. She was hoping Kate could take up this "cold case." With Harriet's urging, Kate not only takes on this old mystery, but also searches for Beth's missing brother.

I really enjoyed the teaming of Kate and her niece in this story. While Harriet (and Beth) are able to assist Kate in the case, they do not play Nancy Drew or Trixie Belden, but act as normal teenage girls might. As always in these mysteries, there are red herrings aplenty and diversions, and a great sense of the 1920 time period. The one thing I disliked was a revelation about a certain character, but then it was because I had rather liked this person until something was revealed. But that's a failing of my own, not of the character.

book icon  Walking to Camelot, John A. Cherrington
Why I like books about long-distance walkers when I've never done anything longer than limp around Disney World is beyond me, but I guess there is something appealing about leaving everything behind except what's in your backpack and hiking across beautiful countryside.  And this is what John Cherrington, 50ish solicitor, and his friend Karl, two decades older than him, both from Canada, did: walked a public right-of-way called the Macmillan Way, which stretches from the soggy fenland of eastern England to end on the English Channel near the town of Weymouth. On the way they pass through the lovely Cotswolds with their honey-colored stone buildings, pass through the village of Cherington where John's ancestors came from, and visit Cadbury Camelot, supposedly the place where King Arthur and his knights lived. On the way they will dodge irritated bulls, negotiated (mostly unsuccessfully) with B&B owners who think it's too early to turn on the heat, endure rainstorms, visit as many pubs as Karl wants, and enjoy the lovely English countryside.

I enjoyed this well enough, but was hoping for something a bit more introspective, with more descriptions of the countryside than Cherrington included, and perhaps some of his inner feelings about the trip. Usually in these volumes the author imparts some spiritual epiphanies, but this was pretty much straightforward narrative. It's mostly engaging, I loved what was described of the countryside, and was sorry when the book ended. But did tire of Karl having to hunt up pubs. I'm sure he wasn't as shallow as he sounded.

book icon  Serafina and the Black Cloak, Robert Beatty
Serafina lives in the basement of Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, with her father, who is the mechanical engineer on the estate, having been there from the time the house was built. But no one upstairs (or really downstairs) knows Serafina lives there. She is a strange little girl with golden eyes and only four toes on each foot, and she is so quick she can catch rats, but she is also sweet, intelligent and curious, and wishes only for a friend her age. But one day she senses an evil presence in the basement, a man in an evil-impregnated black cloak. When she tries to warn her father of it, he rejects the story as fantasy—until several children disappear from around Biltmore Estate, including a Russian girl and a piano prodigy. When Serafina accidentally meets the Vanderbilts' young orphaned nephew, a series of events sets in motion that may shed some light on her past, but may also threaten her new friend when the man in the sinister cloak sets the boy as his next victim.

Deep dark fantasy which may be too intense for younger children, the book applies old mountain legends of shapeshifters to an unsettling plot involving a creeping evil and the newest marvel of the age, Biltmore House with its electric generators and lights. It's pretty good if you can swallow that Serafina lived for twelve years in the Biltmore basements without anyone noticing her, that "Braeden" was a good name for a boy in 1899 (not to mention that the kid has a Doberman Pinscher, a breed that originated only nine years earlier and wasn't even recognized as a breed until 1900, a year after the book takes place), and that by the end of the book the Vanderbilts would be so grateful that they wouldn't ask a lot of questions about her.

book icon  The Year of No Clutter, Eve O. Schaub
Schaub, who spent a year detoxifying her family from added sweetners (in The Year of No Sugar), tackles a new problem: a huge room upstairs in her home that the family calls "the Hell Room" that has become a repository for both useful items—old photographs and memories of her daughters—and junk like discarded hobbies, a dead mouse, old school projects, and other detritus, all compounded by dead insects, dirt, cobwebs, and a filthy rug. She desperately wants to clear the room, not just because it's a hidden eyesore, but because she yearns to use it for useful things, like a hobby room where she can share time with her girls. But Schaub finds throwing out anything, even a crushed piece of construction paper from one of her long-ago school projects, painful and unsettling. With the help of her daughters, and the reluctant help of her husband (who has his own junk in this room as well), and some eye-opening revelations (is she a hoarder? or is she a collector?).

As someone who's once again trying to clear the clutter from her life, I felt some kinship to Schaub, but at the same time was a bit goggled by the things she kept. I can see old craft supplies and photos, but I really didn't understand a bunch of things, especially the dead mouse. Ick! Yet she isn't a hoarder, as a visit to a real hoarder's home shows. She also has the difficulty getting her husband to cooperate; while he wants the Hell Room cleared out, he doesn't want to do any work sorting his own things that are causing the mess. This is a problem in any home where more than one person owns clutter. Eve also begins to realize that she is afraid that by losing her memorabilia she is losing her past and her own self.

I enjoyed most of this, although I found the book hard to get back into once I stopped reading. I'm still interested in reading the sugar book.

book icon  Space Helmet for a Cow 2: The Mad, True Story of Doctor Who, Paul Kirkley
This is the second half of Kirkley's tongue-in-cheek commentary on the history of Doctor Who, from "the wilderness years" and the Virgin books and later the Big Finish audios to the television film to the triumphant return starting with "Rose" and the tumult surrounding it, since Christopher Eccleston quit almost as soon as the first season began. (Kirkley spends a lot of the book popping up with "this is why Eccleston says he quit this time.") It's hard to believe now, but Kirkley also chronicles the disbelief and skepticism of the viewers on finding out David Tennant had been cast in the role. Who knew then he would become the most popular of the modern Doctors?

As in the first volume, we go behind the scenes, discover trivial tidbits (although none of the revelations are as spectacular as the Patrick Troughton surprise!), read good reviews and bad, and are subject to Kirkley's jokes (again, this is so full of fun information you can forgive the bad puns). The narrative continues through the choice of Pearl Mackie in the role of Bill, and The Sarah Jane Adventures (and Elisabeth Sladen's death) and Torchwood are also examined.

Just as much fun and packed with goodies as the original volume. A must for Who fans.

book icon  The Whole Art of Detection, Lyndsay Faye
This is a dandy collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories that have a real flavor of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Faye has captured the vocabulary he used and the personalities of Holmes and Watson admirably; the mysteries themselves are also reasonably complex, although I did guess the crime being done in "The Adventure of the Mad Baritone" immediately. The first story, "The Case of Colonel Warbuton's Madness," I had already read in Sherlock Holmes in America, but the remainder were new to me, and I was happily surprised by them, as in a collection of Sherlock Holmes pastiches there are usually good stories and some quite dreadful ones. Faye's tales are remarkably consistent. She also attempts to fill in some of the Holmes "missing adventures": for instance, in the second tale, we find out how Holmes met Sherman, the owner of Toby, the remarkable scent hound, and in "The Adventure of the Willow Basket," we learn about the infamous red leech. Faye also has written two stories narrated by Holmes—I was amused by "The Gaskell Blackmailing Dilemma," which is narrated by Holmes sounding like a fussy old woman about Watson's safety during his time alone at Baskerville Hall—and there is also "An Empty House," a wistful reminisce by Watson during Holmes' "death." Women figure in many of the stories, some as the victims, in others willing accomplices. One of the most enjoyable Holmes/Watson pastiches I have ever read.

book icon  How to Use Fonts & Typefaces, edited by Tony Seddon
It was two bucks on a clearance table, what the hell. Covers the history of type, the difference between a typeface and a font (Courier is a typeface, Courier Bold and Courier Italic are fonts), how to use them in print and on the web to best match your message (no Comic Sans, of course, on funeral home brochures and university documents, for instance), legibility versus readability, odd fonts, mixing fonts, etc. A nice basic reference.

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28 February 2018

Books Completed Since February 1

book icon  Re-read: Addie Pray, Joe David Brown
I originally picked up this book when it was known as Paper Moon after the film it begat. Paper Moon is indeed a favorite of mine, and I always admired Peter Bogdonovitch's choice to make it in evocative black and white. If you've seen the film, it takes a good deal of its script from the text, but Addie is older in the book, and the book continues on after "Moze" and Addie ditch the fancy car. If you have no experience with either, Addie Pray is the story of an eleven year old girl con-artist who travels around with the man who may or may not be her father (her "mama being fast and all"). Her partner in crime is Moses "Long Boy" Pray, a charming wanderer who makes a living selling "memorial Bibles" and "memorial photographs," conning greedy people with anonymous wallets stuffed with cash, and selling cotton he doesn't have. He and Addie live a charmed life, save for a few obstacles in the way, like cootchie dancer Trixie Delight, but a deal with a bootlegger might just kill them.

This is one of my very favorite books in the entire world, and I apparently have a thing for spunky girls named Addie, what with Addie Mills along with Addie Pray. While I like the movie immensely, the book is full of additionally adventures, Addie's matter-of-fact and sometimes hilarious narration (her description of Trixie includes this gem: "...I don't guess most people looked past her bosom. Oh, my, that bosom. If Grant had met up with breastworks like that, he never would have taken Vicksburg,"), and characters like Colonel Culpepper and Amelia Sass. It's fun and in places touching, and gives a vivid portrait of the South (the movie takes place in Kansas) during the Great Depression. If you've only seen the film, try the book; it's terrific.

book icon  How to Do Just About Anything, Reader's Digest books
This is one of those numerous RD books you find on the remainder shelves in Barnes & Noble; I can't seem to resist them. This contains an assortment of recipes (main dishes, vegetables, desserts, jellymaking, etc.), skills (how to tie a tie, make a window box, train your dog, etc.), fun things to do (ride a surfboard, paint a picture, etc.), prudent things to do (save money, wash windows, remove makeup properly, etc.), and other odd little things. It's a fun read, and a good book to leave in the bathroom to just dip in.

book icon  A Lab of One's Own, Patricia Fara
In the 1880s, reluctantly authorized by male authority, women began going to universities. Too many still disapproved, both men and women who felt a woman's only career should be as wife and mother. Doctors of the time even said that women's brains were not made for studying of difficult subjects like mathematics and science, and that women who tried to pursue these fields would go mad, and, worse, studying would ruin her body for childbearing and make them less feminine. Women persisted at their studies, even though at some universities they could not graduate with their male classmates or get an actual diploma; a certificate would be mailed to them.

When World War I broke out and men marched to the killing fields of the Somme and Ypres; back in Great Britain someone must take their places, and these highly educated and highly intelligent women did, hoping this would turn the tide for both professional women and for woman's suffrage. But, as Fara narrates, women were still marginalized, patronized, and sensationalized as "unwomanly" even as they demonstrated their skills; often credit for work they did went to a supervisor (a man). And even though they might be praised for "pitching in" while the war was in progress, once the war was over, they were expected to quit (or were immediately fired) to make room for male workers, told to go home and raise babies.

Informative and infuriating, spotlighting, among others, Virginia Woolf's sister Ray Strachey, chemists Martha Whiteley (who was one of the inventors of tear gas) and Dorothea Hoffert, mathematician Elizabeth Williams, botanist Helen Vaughan, radiologist Edith Stoney, and physiologist Mabel Fitzgerald (who didn't get an official degree until 1972!), this is a great overview of what should have been a breakthrough moment for professional women, but was aborted by prejudice and hidebound tradition.

book icon  Leeches and Liberty, Richard H. Kennedy
I picked up this book at the history/gift shop on the Main Street in Yorktown, VA, particularly because it was set in Pawtuxet Village in Rhode Island during the Revolutionary War (right "down the road apiece" from where I grew up). Thirteen year old Lukus Carr demurs at being a partner in his father's grist mill. Apprenticed to a minister, although he does not feel the call to preach, he learns a great deal about plants and their use as medicines, and when his teacher calls him out for not being interested in the ministry, suggests he find another occupation. Deciding to travel to the colonies, Luke eventually apprentices to a physician and learns his craft. Soon he is married and then participating in the fight for freedom against Great Britain, jotting all the significant events of his life down in his journal.

Kennedy, who participates in Revolutionary War re-enactments, does a great job in bringing Carr's medical practice to life. His methods of doctoring would seem very strange to us now—blowing smoke in people's ears to cure earache, bleeding with leeches or a scalpel, believing in "humors" that guide the body, etc.—but these were the accepted treatment of the time. We see his day-to-day practice as well as his battling of epidemics (smallpox and influenza particularly) and participation in the war and a friendship with General Nathaniel Greene, and Kennedy takes care not to make him a man ahead of his time with modern morals—he neither appreciates Quakers and their pacifism (frequently attacking their scruples that do not keep them from profiting from the war), and like any man of his time, he still believes people of color are not as intelligent as white people and pretty much destined to remain slaves.

While an occasional modern term pops up occasionally, the feel of a doctor living in the 18th century is well transmitted by this novel, are as his doubts about his talent and his purpose in life, and his feelings for his family. If you are interested in Revolutionary-era life or 18th century medicine, you may find this enjoyable.

book icon  Victoria: The Heart and Mind of a Young Queen, Helen Rappaport
Eeek! This was released at $30! But now it's on remainder, at $7, was much more interested in getting a copy.

This is the companion book to the first series of Victoria as shown on the BBC and repeated on PBS. I was amused by Daisy Goodwin's revelation that the genesis for this series was an argument with her teen daughter; she realized that Victoria was a teenager when she ascended to the throne, and how would that POV shape her?

Don't expect a detailed biography of Victoria; this is just an overview of her early life with extracts from her diaries (which are fascinating all of themselves) and other Victorian writings, plus beautiful color photos from the production and behind-the-scenes inserts about the actors and also the historical events behind the story (the Bedchamber crisis, the scandal with Lady Flora Hastings, the Chartists, etc.). A chapter at the back shows filming locations.

Perfect for series fans, with history tossed in for welcome verisimilitude.

book icon  The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
Another one of those children's classics that I never read as a child, since I preferred books about real animals (Call of the Wild, the Silver Chief books, Big Red and sequels, etc.) even if the animals talked among themselves as in Black Beauty and Beautiful Joe. Of course I'd seen Disney's Ichabod and Mr. Toad, but Toad always got on my nerves.

Well, Toad still gets on my nerves. I find him very annoying, and think Rat, Mole, and Badger are very patient in trying to reform him. The only Toad adventure I find tolerable is the first with the caravan. My favorite chapters are about Rat and Mole's friendship and adventures, such as when Rat follows the imprudent Mole into the Wild Wood, the lovely "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" story, and my favorite of all, "Dulce Domum," about Rat and Mole's Christmas. The little mouse carolers get me every time.

Best of all are Grahame's lovely descriptions of the countryside, and the darling little English cottage fixings in the animals' burrows. When I read these things I want to grab all my money and go find one, which is ridiculous because they're not owned by poor people anymore and I wouldn't have a tenth of the money I need. But they're sure pretty to read about, and Willows has lyrical, dreamy descriptions of animals, seasons, and nature that make you feel as if you are there.

book icon  Red, White, and Who: The story of Doctor Who in America, Steven Warren Hill, Jennifer Adams Kelley, Nicholas Seidler, and Robert Warnock, with Janine Fennick and John Lavalie
In 1963, Doctor Who premiered on the BBC, and, unless you were visiting the British isles or one of the commonwealth countries, you'd probably never heard of it. When it was finally sold into syndication in the US, it was dismissed in a two-page TV Guide article and then slowly began to appear on American stations, which is where I found it in the mid-70s. It was tough being a Doctor Who fan back then; no other magazine ever talked about it, and friends you shared it with often didn't like it. Then the Tom Baker episodes came in a second wave...and American Doctor Who fandom never looked back.

This book attracted me from the time I heard about it, until I saw the price. Goodness, what on earth could it say that it would cost $50? Then my husband found it on discount and gave it to me for Valentine's Day and I found out: Wow. There are 500 pages of closed-spaced text, plus another 130 pages of appendices, not to mention a bibliography and an index. You could squash mice with this book. Plus it includes dozens of photographs, pamphlets, promotional materials, memos, letters, convention advertisements, fanzine covers, toy photos, etc., anything and everything relating to Doctor Who and Doctor Who fandom in the United States, down to items like listing known fanclubs, Doctor Who related newsletters and fanzines, and even a salute to the infamous Howard da Silva introductions to the Tom Baker episodes (explaining the premise of the show to us "dumb Americans"). From the era of DWAS and NADWAS (and the reign of Barbara Elder) to camera copies to PBS fundraising nights featuring the Doctor to "the wilderness years" and the Fox movie to the revival of the series, this book covers it all.

Yes, it's expensive. But if you're a Doctor Who fan from way back, like me, put some money away every week, or look for discounts, and save up for this volume. You won't be disappointed.

book icon  The Secret Lives of Color, Kassia St. Clair
I've been a color junkie since my mother bought me my first 48-crayon Crayola box (and pleaded for a 64) and a big British paintbox, so this book was like a box of sweets for me. After scientifically defining color and explaining the principles of additive and subtractive color, St. Clair then works through the palette starting with white, through the spectrum from yellow through green, then brown and finally black, talking about notable colors like the deadly lead white, chalk, Indian yellow (did it really come from cows' urine?), amber (fossilized tree sap), scarlet (originally a cloth), cochineal (a still-common red dye made from...insects!), the infamous Tyrian purple, mauve (the first man-made color), the rare and expensive blues (ultramarine, Egyptian blue, woad, indigo), hypnotic absinthe color, the reddish russet which was originally grey-brown, mummy brown (yes, it came from where you think it did), kohl (the first eye shadow), charcoal, and more.

If you love color, and the history of colors, and a good bedtime read (short chapters, one to three pages), this book is for you. I even love the cover, which looks 3D even though it isn't.

book icon  The Lincoln Deception, Donald O. Stewart
As Ohio Congressman John Bingham—the man who prosecuted Abraham Lincoln's assassin's compatriots—lays dying, he lays out a strange story to his doctor, James "Jamie" Fraser, who considers Bingham his mentor: before her execution, Mary Surratt told him a dark secret about who was really behind the assassination. Fraser, growing curious, agrees to help Bingham's sisters look through his papers. As he starts this project, he makes the acquaintance of Speedwell "Speed" Cook, a black man who used to play professional baseball until the leagues forced out "the Negroes," and as he reads through Bingham's papers, he decides to take up what today we'd call a "cold case" with the help of Cook. Soon both Fraser and Cook are talking to important men...and being threatened.

I'm with Cook and some of the reviewers of this book: I know Fraser is a small-town doctor who hasn't gotten around much, but he is so incredibly naïve through most of this book you want to shake him. Picture this: you're investigating someone who you think was behind a Presidential death. The dude says, "Hey, I have an errand to run at [this dangerous place]. Why not come with me?" and Fraser just goes. (He pays for it, too, but acquits himself quite nicely. But after that he keeps believing people!) Speed Cook, of course, who's been brought up not to trust anyone, especially if they're white, should have brought a leash.

Not a bad mystery, unfolds slowly, Fraser and Cook both nice guys, but Fraser is clueless about what Cook goes through as a person of color (as really he would, as white people were brought up in a world apart). A little dull, but I am going to read the rest of the books.

book icon  Becoming Madeleine, Charlotte Jones Volkis and Léna Roy
I saw this almost first thing the week it was released; I had a coupon and valiantly declared "I would look around" before making a decision. I did look, but it was pretty much forgone the way the coupon would be used.

This biography by Madeleine L'Engle's granddaughters is for the tie-in with Disney's A Wrinkle in Time movie, so is written for middle-grade students and ends at the publication of the book, so the narrative is simple but does capture L'Engle's unconventional childhood, her fears, and her triumphs. Absolutely priceless are the extracts from her journals and her drawings, as well as the various photographs of her from girlhood to author, wife, and mother.

I hope Volkis and Roy will consider doing an adult biography of their grandmother or have someone impartial do one. Yes, I've read the infamous "New Yorker" article, and yes, I know Madeleine's life, even after she married, was not strewn with roses, and that her relationship with her children was not as sweet as Victoria Austin's, and that her son's alcoholism was apparently a result of not being able to live up to his literary self (Rob Austin) and that also that Hugh Franklin allegedly had girlfriends on the side. I don't think it makes her any less of a person to know the other, real disappointments in her life, or failures of self, and certainly no less of a writer.

I would love to at least see Madeleine's journals and letters (about her travels or thoughts, not about personal stuff) and more pictures!

book icon  Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser
This is technically a re-read, but my first reading of it was as an e-book, and somehow they don't seem as real as a paper book.

Wow. That was my first reaction to this meticulously researched historical book. As McDowell's The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder shows us the natural world behind the "Little House Books" saga, Fraser's volume paints the history of Laura's family and Almanzo's family, then the couple themselves and finally daughter Rose Wilder Lane, against the historical events of the United States. You'll meet one of Charles Ingalls' ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, and his descendants including a poet of published verse, find out the history of the Big Woods and the Indian wars that enabled the Ingalls and Quiner families to settle there, learn the truth about the Kansas house on the prairie and why the Ingalls really left (and who Laura may have confused with Soldat du Chêne), about the homesteading laws that enabled them to claim land in DeSmet, and about the history of "the Land of the Big Red Apple" and the world of the Depression-era Missouri where Laura and Almanzo ended their days, not to mention the historical figures and radical politics that became part of Rose Wilder Lane's life. The Little House books exist in an enchanted bubble of a children's book series where "now is now" and never "a long time ago"; the Ingalls family did not. They lived, as we all do, against the events of history which shape our lives. A presidential assassination, an election, a natural disaster, a Congressional decision can all change the future.

The sheer amount of information in this book about the Indian wars, the pioneer experience, the socialist movement, and other historical events may daunt some readers, but it is extremely rewarding to see how the times shaped the story of this particular family. The book includes maps, illustrations, and photographs to help bring the era alive.

book icon  An Untimely Frost, Penny Richards
Lilly Long has been cared for by theatre group empresario Pierce Wainwright since her mother's murder 11 years earlier, and has become an accomplished actress herself. However, after her new husband abandons her, taking all her money and making a mockery of what she thought was a happy new life, Lilly is intrigued by an ad looking for female operatives at the Pinkerton Agency. She hopes if she is hired  that she can stop other women from being victimized like she was. After being reluctantly hired "on spec" and trained, she's sent to the town of Vandalia, to see if she can locate a minister who vanished taking all the church's money. Lilly no sooner has begun asking questions than everyone in town gets cagy around her, except for the roguish and handsome boxing promoter she bumped into on the train.

Yes, Lilly does make some fairly elementary bloopers in investigating her first case, but then she's only 22 and a neophyte at the detection business, so I give her a nice solid "A" for effort; she's certainly no shrinking violet and endures a frightening encounter in an old building. The mystery also takes several twists that I enjoyed. However, I guessed right away why a certain person had disappeared from society and also the true identity of a person who appeared to be following Lilly. Plus I was a little disappointed when Richards popped up a new love interest for her in Vandalia almost immediately, and a couple of modern terms tossed me out of the story (I don't think people had personal agendas in 188). However, this doesn't keep me from wanting to follow her to her next adventure, and of course her faithless ex-husband will pop up again, and she will continue searching for a murderer now that she remembers more details about the killing.

book icon  America's Historylands: Landmarks of Liberty, National Geographic Society
I found this for a dollar at a book sale; it's from 1962 and is a compilation of historical articles from "National Geographic" magazine. It's written in that old expansive historical style that glorifies American historical characters in a way we don't today, seeing them more as ordinary people who did extraordinary things. It's still fun to read, but I found myself a bit troubled: all the photos of people touring historic sites show white people only and the texts (written by professional historians!) still refer to Native Americans as "redskins." Since National Geographic reporters have gone all over the world and reported on all sorts of communities and civilizations, it was rather jarring to see such a "white" America. Heck, even when I was a kid in 1962 I remember more racial and ethnic variety in the people I saw in everyday life. So while enjoyable and I learned some historic facts I didn't know, you can also read this to see how far we've come in including people of color in our publications.

book icon  To Die But Once, Jacqueline Winspear
May 1940: Publican Phil Coombes is worried. His youngest boy Joe, apprenticed to a painter who's doing war work, is unhappy at his job, as he tells his parents each time he calls, and he's also suffering from terrible headaches which he suspects is due to the paint fumes. When Joe stops telephoning, Coombes asks Maisie Dobbs to locate him. For her part, Maisie's private inquiry business is still thriving, but her personal life is full of worry: her partner Billy Beale's eldest son and her best friend Priscilla's oldest boy are both in the service, and it looks like the former may be trapped in France by a German advance. Billy's younger son wants to fix engines for the RAF and Priscilla's middle son Tim, only sixteen, is wild to do something for the war effort. Plus Maisie is becoming quite attached to Anna, the young orphaned evacuee she took into her country home.

Just when you think you have the plot straight in this book, another thread is unraveled, and it's a wonderfully complicated mystery as only Winspear can write, combining Joe's whereabouts, Tim's frustration, the slow realization that there is something very wrong at the painter's company, a suspicion that something may be amiss with government funds, and always the looming threat of invasion by the Nazis. When word goes out that troops are trapped on the shores of France, the action ramps even higher.

Along with a complex mystery, there is the underlying theme of older children wanting their freedom, and the fears parents have for their children as they grow older and must make decisions for themselves, so there is not only a satisfying puzzle to work out, but a look into feelings surrounding children "leaving the nest," further amplified by war. One of the best Maisie Dobbs stories ever.

(Winspear sums up previous events of her characters well, but if you want to get a fuller portrait of them, you need to read the series in order from the beginning. They are excellent mysteries and you won't regret starting from scratch. To Die But Once is #14 in the Maisie Dobbs series.)

book icon  Britcoms FAQ, Dave Thompson
This is a brief overview of British comedy television series (touching briefly on a few radio series) by addressing the main categories—sitcoms, sketch comedy, political satire, outrageous comedy, memorable characters or unusual situations, etc. We begin with Tony Hancock, whose sketches still existing can be seen on YouTube and which are still hilarious, and the infamous Goons, Monty Python, the Goodies, and Fawlty Towers are all here, as well as The Good Life, To the Manor Born, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, The Young Ones, Man About the House, Dad's Army, the inevitable Are You Being Served and Last of the Summer Wine, and individual comedians like Peter Sellers, and Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Thompson even admits he couldn't fit more shows in (like Keeping Up Appearances and Morecambe and Wise), but I would have preferred he do so and omit the 80 pages of episode guide stuck in back of the book. Incredibly he didn't even mention Benny Hill or Dave Allen. So I enjoyed what I read, but I wanted more, more, more.

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31 January 2018

Books Completed Since January 1

The last of the Christmas books in "Holiday Harbour":

book icon  Christmas: A Biography

book icon  December 25th: The Joys of Christmas Past

book icon  A Book of Christmas

book icon  Truman Capote's Southern Years, Marianne M. Moates
I bought this book because I had read both of the G. Neri "Tru and Nelle" books, and wanted to see just how much had been extracted from this memoir, which is based on the recollections of Jennings Faulk, Truman's cousin. It is indeed revealing, if sadly so. While it's fun reading about all the imaginative things Truman got up to with "Big Boy" (Jennings' nickname), Nelle Harper Lee, other cousins, and even an African-American boy named Edison, the book is also unflinching about Truman's neglectful mother and manipulative biological father, and even some of what would be considered cruelties today, like Nelle teasing a horse with a stick so badly that it finally grabbed her by the head. You'll learn what really happened with "Odd Henderson," who Sook Faulk invited to Thanksgiving dinner, and what really caused the break between Truman and his beloved cousin Sook, the friendship portrayed so beautifully in "A Christmas Memory." Gritty, sad, illuminating portrait of Capote's early life and the 1930s and 1940s South.

book icon  Pathways and Other Tales of Valdemar, edited by Mercedes Lackey
This was a satisfactory collection of Valdemar stories; even a sequel to Lackey's Scooby-Doo takeoff was decent, even giving the "Shaggy" character Arville a bit of depth. This volume had quite a variety of protagonists who were different in some way: shaych, a mute woman, a blind girl, a princess unwilling to accept her fate, a boy with visions, and other new characters, as well as sequels to the continuing sagas of Lady Cera, senior novice Syrriah, Kade and Nwah, Lena (a really strange story about her wanting to be a trapeze artist more than anything), the Haven City Watch, and other old friends.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters on a River Trip, Jerry West
As the book (the second in the Happy Hollisters' book series written in the 1950s and based on the author's family) opens, a fishing expedition which briefly acquaints the Hollisters—a lively brood of five kids, two parents, and pets—with a little boy who flees a gruff older man spawns an idea to promote Mr. Hollister's new store The Trading Post, a fishing contest in which the customer who catches the largest fish will win a prize. Later, the children find out that the little boy, Bobby Reed, has run away from the cruel farmer who is caring for him. When the children's Uncle Russ shows up, they find a clue that Bobby has headed for the river, and the children clamor to take their uncle's cabin cruiser, "Sweetie Pie," down the river to search for him. Of course the kids and their parents have many adventures—including a frightening storm—on their mission to find the ten-year-old boy.

The titular "river trip" doesn't really show up until the book is half over, but the contest, another mystery about tagged "clown" fish (not like Nemo), and the actual events that make Bobby run away all build up in the first portion. This is a more lukewarm entry in the series, I thought, not up to the more exciting adventures to come.

book icon  Rhode Island Radio, John Rooke
From the "department store wars" to the death of Rhode Island icon Walter "Salty" Brine, this Arcadia picture book covers the history of radio stations in the Ocean State. The first radio stations were owned by the big department stores: WEAN by the Shepard Company (later bought by the Providence Journal) and WJAR by the Outlet Company. Fully a third of the photos come from the collection of legendary broadcaster Ed Pearson, and other various stations' photos have been provided. Missing, sadly, are photographs from WJAR radio's early history, especially of its talk show days, save for one photograph of Jack Comley, one of the pioneers of talk radio, "the mouth that roared." (Comley, an attorney by education who wandered into sportscasting, died prematurely of cancer in 1974 and a memorial exists for him in downtown Providence.)

Lots of happy memories here, but wish there had been more of WJAR and WLKW.

book icon  The Book of Festival Holidays, Marguerite Ickis
This is a slim seasonal volume written in the early 1960s for children. Not surprisingly, while Christmas holds the lions' share of the volume, a large chapter is devoted to Jewish holidays, and some older holidays, not much celebrated in the 60s anymore, like May Day and winter carnivals and fortune-telling at Hallowe'en parties. A charming little volume to read if picked up at a discount.

book icon  Shadow of a Doubt, Skylar James
This seemed a natural for me: the story of a girl who helps raise a colt who defeats great odds to become a racehorse who not only wins a great race but becomes a symbol of "the common man." Yet I was dissatisfied more and more as the narrative continued. This may be, people will point out, because it's a children's book being read by an adult, but I've read all manner of children's books since becoming an adult, and I'm rarely disappointed by one as I was by this book.

Children's books with animals who talk among themselves are classic: Charlotte's Web, for instance, Black Beauty, Beautiful Joe, and a host of others, all done with so much charm that I've been taken in by it and could believe they actually did speak to each other. Shadow the colt also has a barnyard contingent who cheer him on, but the whole setup seems phony; the farm animals have cutesy names, Oats the pony is Eeyore in all but name, the cow and the pony "cooperate" to help with the chores like plowing (huh? as if the humans are harnessing them together?). Our human protagonists include Fyfe, the plucky little girl who raises Shadow (who's later injured, twice, so that she becomes partially disabled), her disabled ex-jockey father who can't make the family farm pay, and a neighboring horse farm owner who is so relentlessly evil that he becomes cliché before the book is half over. The narrative is done in a dogged folksy accent that was, I expect, supposed to be evocative of a warm legend told around a Kentucky country campfire. After a while, it just became tiresome, and the relentless push, push, push of the moral of the story—don't ever give up, ever!—gets hammered into the reader on every page.

I would have really preferred this book if it had been told "straight," like a Marguerite Henry book, with Fyfe and Roscoe working with Shadow of a Doubt, undergoing punishing training and beset by bad luck, with much less of the foaming-mouthed stereotyped Colonel Epsom. Shadow talking with the barn animals and with his foster mother would have been fine in small doses and done with much less anthropomorphism; instead they remind me of the ludicrous "Barn Gang" in the new Lassie cartoon.

Sorry, Shadow, but I'm sending you back to the paddock.

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31 December 2017

Favorite Books of 2017

Another baker's dozen!

book icon  Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life, Marta McDowell (lush full-color book about Potter's farms and love of nature, something that will warm you up on a cold rainy day)

book icon  Becoming Queen Victoria, Kate Williams (not a bio of Victoria, but how her cousin Charlotte's life and death led to "little Drina" being queen)

book icon  Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly (story of the African-American mathematicians who kept the United States flying and led us into space as they battled racism and sexism)

book icon  The Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase, Greg Cox (Cox captures the multiple characters of the television series perfectly; you might as well be watching a Librarians film)

book icon  My Small Country Living, Jeanine McMullen (British woman and her boyfriend buy a small farm; all the joy and all the heartache of living off the land)

book icon  Listen, Slowly, Thanhhà Lại (a thoroughly American girl of Vietnamese descent is reluctantly dragged back to her homeland so her grandmother can discover what happened to her husband; rich, rewarding portrait of modern Vietnam and the scars left by war)

book icon  The World Remade: America in World War I, G.J. Meyer (the United States reluctantly went to war, and liberties took a beating—if you think today's government is restrictive, think again)

book icon  The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Marta McDowell (Laura's life as seen against the different natural environments she lived in: the deep forest, the prairie, the rolling hills of Iowa and how it affected how the Ingalls family lived, ate, and worked)

book icon  From Holmes to Sherlock, Mattias Boström (massive volume chronicling not just Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, but of the family and fans who gave Holmes eternal life, from the first Holmes story to the creation of Sherlock)

book icon  Back Over There, Richard Rubin (author Rubin, who wrote a book about the surviving "doughboys" of the Great War, visits the sites he was told so much about; incredible that even though World War II cut a swath over the same territory, the scars of the previous war can still be plainly seen)

book icon  Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse, Eric Jay Dolen (just what it says, engagingly told, including about one of the first boondoggles visited on the new American government)

book icon  Caroline: Little House, Revisited, Sarah Miller (Little House on the Prairie told from Caroline Ingalls' viewpoint, of the sheer hardship of being a pioneer woman)

book icon  Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caroline Fraser (this was a bumper year for Wilder fans; this one tells the story of the Ingalls family against the history that was happening behind it)

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 I also want to give a shout-out this year to two series: Ben Aaronovitch's absolutely wonderful "Rivers of London"/Peter Grant books, which are both novel and graphic novels: six books so far, one Audible short story, one novella, and three graphic novels with a fourth just released. Every single one should be listed here. This is an inventive urban fantasy about a young biracial police officer who finds himself learning magic and fighting some of Great Britain's more esoteric enemies. Seriously, run, don't walk, to your nearest bookseller and pick up the first one, Midnight Riot (a.k.a. Rivers of London)!

Also Robert Ryan's 4-book (so far) series of "Dr. Watson Thrillers" in which John H. Watson rejoins the Army in World War I to serve as a surgeon. The realities of war are so brilliantly and frighteningly portrayed.

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