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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 October 2017

Books Completed Since October 1

book icon  Dickens and Christmas, Lucinda Hawksley

book icon  Bryant and May: Strange Tide, Christopher Fowler
Is this the end of Arthur Bryant and John May's partnership? Arthur's capacious memory seems to be fragmenting and he's starting to see visions of the past. The head of the Peculiar Crimes Unit wants Arthur to sit out the newest case: a drowned young woman found chained to a stone post in the Thames—a young woman found to be pregnant when an autopsy is completed. But an apprehensive Arthur can't help but throw his oar in between bouts of baffling hallucination, and in the meantime the PCU seems to be splintering without his offbeat thinking. As the investigation proceeds, they are led to a charismatic young immigrant working at a questionable therapy center, and an old friend of John May's who is killed and found with his scarf around her neck. Bryant knows he not only has to solve the original killing, but clear his best friend, but he'll have to get his mind back to do it.

Bryant's mental problems have been building for the past three novels, but in this outing Arthur solves his own mystery as well as tackling the threat to his partner and to the whole PCU. In every one of the PCU books, Fowler emphasizes a particular piece of history in old London; in this volume it's the Thames in all her vagaries and moods. I was not expecting the twist with John May, but did notice that the solution to Bryant's problem was mentioned multiple times throughout the book; literally right under our nose all the time.

(Okay, probably fan service, but would anyone else love to see a crossover story with Bryant and May meeting Peter Grant and Inspector Nightingale? The original novels Fowler wrote with the two detectives did have supernatural elements, after all...)

book icon  The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables, Catherine Reid
If you loved Marta McDowell's Gardening Life of Beatrix Potter or The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, you will love Catherine Reid's new book featuring beautiful glossy color photographs of the settings of Anne of Green Gables as well as pictures of the historic sites relating to L.M. Montgomery and photographs taken by Montgomery herself (some of them hand-colored by Montgomery as well). Reid not only tells us the stories of the settings, but how they gave solace to Montgomery, who had a sad childhood being cared for by indifferent grandparents and then returned to a stepmother who basically turned her into a baby-minder and servant; while her writing was a success, she also had a troubled adulthood, plagued by publishers' problems, a mentally unstable husband, and her own depression.. We are shown the original Green Gables and a recreation of the town of Cavendish, which was inspiration for Anne Shirley's Avonlea, and also her relatives' home Silver Bush, which contained some of the inspirational landscapes for the Anne books and also the two Pat books. Of interest are several photos of Montgomery's scrapbooks, which were always full of floral and botanical images, and excerpts from her journals. Anyone who has read Anne, Emily, Pat, or any of Montgomery books set on PEI who has wondered "what did it look like?" will love this beautiful volume!

book icon  Europe on Saturday Night, John Gould
Rick Steves probably would have liked the Goulds.

In 1967, John and his wife Dorothy, a Maine farm couple, decided that with their kids grown and out of the nest they wanted to see some of Europe. They confounded the travel agents almost at once: not only didn't they want to fly, they didn't even want to take a ship like the Queen Elizabeth II, bursting with gourmet food and planned activities. Instead, they took their business elsewhere and booked on a freighter, which they enjoyed (and where they were firsthand witnesses to the new containerization shipping policies and the death of the stevedores). Upon arriving in Germany, they went immediately to the Volkswagen factory, ordered a new car, and used that, mostly, to get around Europe.

Thus follows Gould's memories of the eccentric inns they stayed at, and how, in Germany at least, they made friends with everyone (especially as they tried to eschew the actions of the Ugly American), including those who didn't speak English. Some of their side trips were failures: they found Italy very dirty and chaotic, with one memorable multicourse meal that would throw our Thanksgiving feasts to shame as the highlight, and did only touristy things in Great Britain after finding it unfriendly and "full of queues." They also enjoyed France and Switzerland, but found Germany (what would have been West Germany in those days) their favorite and it shows in his narrative, as he reminisces about the "rich brown gravy" scent of small German hotels and the brisk efficiency of the service. An enjoyable book about traveling fifty years ago and how some things—like bureaucracy and good service—never change.

book icon  Sneakers, Dewey Gram
I've been fond of this film since it came out, but the last time it was on television I did some online searching about it and discovered that a novelization had been written at the time of the movie release. These classic novelizations range from workmanlike copies of the scripts, like Terrance Dicks' Doctor Who episode novelizations, to bad, to really good (the benchmark here being Harry Brown's adaptation of The Gathering).

This one was more good (still not Harry Brown good) than bad, but interesting in that Gram fleshes out the characters somewhat, adding pasts for all of Bishop's team, and an especially nice explanation of why a music instructor like Liz knows so much about codes (she has a Ph.D. in mathematics) and how she can afford such a ritzy apartment. We also learn her last name, Barker. There are subtle differences: the very end scene is changed, Bishop has some adventures after being dropped off on the street, and "Doris" must go out with Werner Brandes two nights in a row rather than the caper being done all in one.

The biggest difference is that another one of the team infiltrates Playtronics with Bishop, not Carl, and it makes a difference in how we see that character. Gram also tries to supply a descriptive narration rather than just a cut-and-dried adherence to the script, which I appreciated. If you were ever intrigued by the characters and wanted to know a bit more, this one can be found on Bookfinder and Amazon Marketplace for reasonable sums.

book icon  Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari
Having devoured anthropology books as a child the way Snowy gobbles millet, I could hardly resist this volume. It dwells little on physical characteristics of early man, but rather concentrates on what makes us human: a larger brain physically, to be sure, but more in the development of a society that kindles fire, cooks food, makes laws, uses money, settles disputes with words rather than force, produces art, and creates a culture.

Harari makes the startling statement that he thinks humans were better off as hunter-gatherers and our problems began when we put down roots and started farming, as our diet became less varied and we were required to work more, sometimes work at a level that drove us to death. It's an interesting idea, but one wonders if modern human populations could support such a lifestyle—but then of course the population might not be so large as we have it today, since many foragers had societies where the weak or the elderly who slowed down the migration of the tribe were left to die, and foragers might not have as many children due to the rigors of migration and also finding out how to prevent pregnancies.

Thought provoking and interesting as a sociological study.

book icon  A Little House Traveler, Laura Ingalls Wilder
After the publication of the Little House books and after Laura's death, a diary that she kept from the day she and husband Almanzo and daughter Rose left DeSmet, South Dakota, to the day they arrived in Mansfield, Missouri, where Laura and Almanzo would live for the rest of their lives, was found among her papers. It was published with bookended comments from Rose as On the Way Home. After Rose passed away, her adopted son Roger Lea McBride found a series of letters Laura wrote to Almanzo while she traveled to San Francisco to visit Rose and her husband Gillette Lane and see the Pan-Pacific Exposition celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal in 1915. This, too, with footnotes by McBride, was published as West from Home.

And finally, after McBride's death, a roll of aging papers in his files proved to be a short diary and account book that Laura wrote in 1931, when she and Almanzo traveled back to Dakota to visit DeSmet and Laura's two still living sisters, Carrie and Grace.

I had previously read On the Way Home and West from Home as paperbacks published to continue the Little House series, but only recently picked up this book, which contained Laura's third journal, here called The Road Back. It's very short, but very poignant, as the elderly couple and their Airedale dog, Nero, travel in only a few days the route it took them months to cover forty years earlier. They enjoy motor courts, are confounded in traffic, suffer from summer heat (105℉ one day) and the car overheating, and, upon arriving in Dakota, find old friends gone and those still there much changed. It's very hard to read that Laura hardly recognizes Grace, or that Carrie looks so poorly, especially when the Little House books portray them as eternally young.

Together the books complete the Little House saga. Wistful, but satisfying.

book icon  Nest, Esther Ehrlich
Remember the line from Airplane: "Looks like I picked the wrong time to quit sniffing glue."? Well, I picked this book out of the pile at exactly the wrong time, the day we found out my husband's kidneys are in such bad shape he's probably going to need dialysis.

Naomi "Chirp" Orenstein lives on Cape Cod with her older sister Rachel (whom she gets along with), psychiatrist father, and dancer mother. Chirp's "thing" is birdwatching and she's putting in a great effort to spy a rare loon. Life is pretty much perfect—until her mom is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Chirp tries her best to keep things normal, but her normally close sister suddenly becomes standoffish, her father becomes distant, and her mother sinks into depression so severe that she is committed to a mental hospital. With her dad and sister captured within their own grief, Chirp's only solace is her birdwatching and Joey, a classmate who lives nearby (and who an abused child).

When I saw the cover copy I thought this would be a nice story about a girl who made it through some hard times with her birdwatching to get her through. Little did I know how hard the times were about to get. I finished it because I truly came to care for Chirp and Joey, but I would read it before giving it to any child, because things get pretty grim.

book icon  Colonial Williamsburg, Philip Kipper, with photography by Langdon Clay
Occasionally you luck out at library book sales, and this was one of those lucky finds, a big Abrams coffee table book. Kipper starts with the history of the city itself, then its slide into obscurity after the capital was moved to Richmond. The tale next picks up with William Goodwin, the rector of the Bruton Parish Church (the oldest still-operating Episcopal church in the United States), who came up with a crazy idea to reconstruct some of the old colonial capital and talked John Rockefeller Jr into being his financial partner, right up until the book's publication in 1983. The volume is full of beautiful full-color photographs of the green spaces and buildings in the Colonial Williamsburg area, plus etchings, maps, old photographs, and prints, including shots of the colonial buildings before (when they were gas stations and variety stores) and after restoration (plus an interesting two-page spread about how some buildings were re-renovated after more historic information was dug up about them (in this case, rooms in the Governor's Palace, which did not look the same in 2012 when I visited a second time versus 1976 when I saw it the first time), not to mention some of the innovations made to keep the colonial site as pristine as possible (for example, if you travel the Colonial Parkway—which I recommend you do because it's a gorgeous ride!—you enter a tunnel that goes right under Duke of Gloucester Street).

You also learn more about the relatively "unspoiled" Rockefellers, who lived very plainly (well, for wealthy people, at least) in an old home near the site and of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller's interest in folk art and the museum that has her name devoted to it. I've been a Williamsburg fan ever since I saw the city on a Lassie episode, so needless to say I loved this book!

book icon  Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caroline Fraser
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 Chene), 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. Definitely on my Christmas wish list!

book icon  Murder on a Summer's Day, Frances Brody
Kate Shackleton, who has made her living as a private inquiry agent since the death of her husband in the Great War, is awakened by a phone call one summer morning from her cousin James. He wishes her to investigate, very covertly, the disappearance of a maharajah from the town of Bolton Abbey, part of the estate of the Duke of Devonshire. The maharajah's family was staying at the estate while he himself was lodging with his mistress at a nearby hotel because the woman was not welcome at the estate. The family says it may be one of the maharajah's practical jokes, but when a local man who was a servant at the estate has also disappeared only to turn up dead in the river, the stakes grow higher, especially when a valuable diamond the Indian man was carrying disappears.

Brody does a good job of trying to recreate a 1920s murder mystery—without the casual racist comments sadly common at the time—with language and details, and only rarely are there slips that show she is writing from a modern point of view. Kate is someone everyone would like to get to know: fair minded, tenacious, intelligent, and practical about her chosen profession. To be honest I have enjoyed the more domestic—as in location—mysteries she solved in previous books, rather than this international involvement and hope Kate doesn't turn into a more international detective. The mystery is properly convoluted with a nice tinge of exotic overlay, peopled with interesting characters of various motives.

Another satisfying entry in the Shackleton series.

book icon  The Crown, The Official Companion, Robert Lacey
I have to admit that I have not yet watched all the episodes of first season of this series showing on Netflix. I had no idea of even watching it at all until chatter about it at several conventions piqued my curiosity, and I was immediately drawn into the story of young Princess Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip of Greece starting just before her ascension to the throne of Great Britain. The cast and performances are quite marvelous.

People began asking about the reality behind the series, as, for television and movies, things are always "tarted up." In response is this delightful volume that takes you behind the scenes at the real-life drama that inspired the series and lets you know what's true and what's been compressed and what's just a little bit of drama. The text is liberally scattered with black and white photographs from both real life and from the series (I wish some of those latter were a bit better labeled for people who may read this book in the future not knowing which of the photos are the historical ones), and there is a color-and-black-and-white glossy insert with even more photographs. I came away knowing a lot more about the history behind the series as well as feeling rather bad for Princess Margaret.

Fans of The Crown and of the British royal family should find this book both absorbing and delightful.

book icon  Mr. Dickens and His Carol, Samantha Silva

book icon  The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunits, edited by Mike Ashley
This is a nifty book of historical mystery stories (and one short novel) taking place from ancient Egypt to the 19th century United States where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle must solve a mystery. They also range from historical stories told by 20th century authors (Brother Cadfael, Sister Fidelma, Judge Dee) to a mystery written by Herodotus over 2000 years ago. Peter Tremayne, John Dickson Carr, Elizabeth Peters, Mary Monica Pulver, and even a Sherlock Holmes tale written by Sir Arthur's youngest son Adrian are all featured. I enjoyed some better than others, including the Cadfael and the Fidelma and also Sister Frivesse, and was initially interested in, but lost interest in the long narrative about Captain Nash (the Shakespeare story went on a bit long as well and, I thought, was trying too hard to be clever). Well worth the price, and I have the first sequel left to read as well.

book icon  Mrs. Claus: Not the Fairy Tale They Say, edited by Rhonda Parrish

book icon  The Dead Can Wait, Robert Ryan
In this second book in the "Dr. Watson Thriller" series, John H. Watson has returned to England after his ordeal at the front, not only having endured the terrible environment of the trenches, but having been stalked by a German sniper and having to deal with a killer in the British ranks. Now he has been assigned to figure out what happened to the crew of a new secret weapon: in the midst of testing it, they all exhibited psychotic symptoms and then died, except for one man, and he will not talk. Watson demurs on going, only to be told that if he doesn't, his friend Sherlock Holmes' life is endangered; the aging detective has already been shipped off to an island where political prisoners are sent.

As in the previous book, there are at least three narratives going on at once: Watson's investigation, the curiosity of a schoolteacher and an American reporter about a cordoned-off area of Surrey where military maneuvers are taking place, and narratives about others involved in the machinations, including an MI5 officer and Mrs. Georgina Gregson, who finds herself shanghaied to the same location as Watson. I confess I liked this one a little less than the first, preferring the battlefield setting, but still enjoyed its perplexing combination of narratives that seem to have nothing to do with one another at first and then slowly come together. While there is action, the plot takes its time building to a climax which includes murder, kidnapping, and a race across tidal flats. Watson's character is intelligent and perceptive, and he gets himself and Mrs. Gregson out of several sticky situations—I especially admire Ryan's take on Watson, which is definitely not Nigel Bruce, but never goes quite overboard to someone we don't recognize. I'm looking forward to the next one—where Watson's actions in this book leave him in a quite sticky battlefield situation—with pleasure.

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27 October 2017

Friday Morning at the Book Sale

It's that time of the year again; Friends of the Library Book Sale time again!

It was actually a little late this year, due to a change in venue. Previously the sales have been held in the outbuildings at Jim Miller Park, but this year the buildings are being renovated in preparation for next year's North Georgia County Fair. So the sale was held at the Cobb County Civic Center, which underwent a renovation a year or two back now, and we haven't been there for ages (especially since they don't have the computer shows there anymore). It's pretty swank where it was getting to be pretty seedy. I remember the meeting rooms at the back having paint flaking off the walls and collapsing ceilings. Now there's a box office out front and a foyer with a concession stand and some tables and chairs to enjoy your food and drink. Bathrooms are clearly marked up front and the stairways are now nice and wide. Of course they've replaced all the lights with LEDs. Very bright and very disconcerting.

Downstairs it was very well laid out, with room between the tables enough for a wheelchair. Upstairs, where the paperback fiction and the children's fiction was was a bit more crowded. The children's section was pretty much cheek-by-jowl, but I squeezed through. Sadly, no Happy Hollisters books in sight. I did find a Jean Little book, Mine for Keeps, about a little girl with cerebral palsy, and a dog. The rest of the tally:

book icon  Christmas Decorations from Williamsburg

book icon  A Christmas Carol Christmas Book (based on the George C. Scott version)

book icon  Chicken Soup for the Soul Treasury for Kids

book icon  Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Book of Christmas Virtues

book icon  Christmas in My Heart #12

book icon  Between Heaven and Mirth (by Father Martin)

book icon  The Olive Season by Carol Drinkwater from All Creatures Great and Small (a sequel to her The Olive Farm)

book icon  Save Room for Pie by Roy Blount Jr (since I couldn't find Alphabetter Juice)

book icon  Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz

book icon  Edward and Alexandra (since I'm a sucker for anything about "Bertie")

book icon  Norman Rockwell, Illustrator (which I've wanted for ages)

book icon  and, sadly, only one Longmire book, As the Crow Flies probably because I was dumb enough not to check the "J" fiction immediately; I always go to "T" first to make sure the library isn't getting rid of Mrs. Daffodil or there aren't any other Gladys Taber books

I figure I'd give myself a treat and had a doughnut; the usual, a chocolate frosted (which some Hallowe'en pervert had decorated with black and orange sprinkles). I didn't enjoy it as much as I hoped. James and I have been on low-sugar, low-salt so long that most sweets just don't hold charms for me anymore. Dark chocolate would have been better.

Even with all the books in the trunk, I stopped by the Smyrna Library to look at their perpetual book sale, where I found

book icon  The Parrot Who Owns Me

book icon  Venice Simplon Orient Express (a great book about how they reinstated the infamous "Orient Express"

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30 September 2017

Books Completed Since September 1

book icon  The Fanfiction Reader: Folk Tales for the Digital Age, Francesca Coppa
I first heard about fanfiction from "TV Guide" and a book called Star Trek Lives. At that point I was writing my own, but didn't know that was what you called it. In 1980 I discovered fanzines, printed delight continuing the adventures of favorite television and movie characters. A little while later, I joined the ranks of the authors.

The internet has opened up the fanfiction world (for better or for worse, considering the dreadful orthography and grammar that pops up). Anyone who can upload a story can share it with others. This particular fanfiction volume differs from earlier works in that it reproduces in entirety stories, rather than citing excerpts. For the most part I enjoyed the stories, even if I wasn't involved in the fandom (although there was a very strange Supernatural story that I thought would never come to an end) and if a couple of stories kind of wigged me out (the Pete Ross story from Smallville being one and the NSYNC real-person fic being the other, for two totally different reasons).

What I found really annoying was the introductions to each of the stories, which gave away the plots in an effort to explain what the author was doing. Surely it could have been worked differently. It especially irritated me in the first story, "Lunch and Other Obscenities," taking place in the reboot Star Trek universe, and probably my favorite story in the book.

book icon  Son of a Midnight Land, Atz Kilcher
Why does anyone who hates summer live in Georgia? Well, there are a lot of reasons, mostly due to family and friendly ties. But every chance we get, my husband and I are watching television programs set up north where it's cold most of the time, reveling in the snow and the "jacket weather," wayyy back to Flying Wild Alaska and many of the other programs taking place in "Seward's Icebox."

We latched onto Alaska: the Last Frontier at once and became fascinated by the homestead life of the Kilcher family, so picking up a book written by one of the family was a given. Let's say that part of what it said was not a surprise. If you have read country singer Jewel's book, Never Broken, you know that she is Atz's daughter, that life on the homestead was pretty tough, and that the genial Yule Kilcher, patriarch of the clan, that you see in old home movies, wasn't a hard-working saint. Oh, he was hard working, but he was also often abusive and had his own inner demons. Atz, as the oldest son, bore the brunt of this, and it affected him in many ways, including internalized anger. He has been several times married, and later became an advisor toward abused youth because he understood what they were going through.

Son is written in a stream-of-consciousness style that may not fit or might confuse some readers. Atz is evidently using the book as not just a look at his past, but to exorcise some further demons brought about by an impatient, frustrated father and an unfulfilled, depressed mother. If you watch the series and have been tempted to view it as some halcyon place where you work hard, eat naturally, and live happily ever after, this book may disappoint you. When it comes to human beings, the truth is always more complicated than that.

I won't be able to watch Alaska: the Last Frontier and Atz now without thinking of what has been revealed, but to me it makes Atz and his family stronger for it.

Note that the book contains profanity and stories of physical and emotional abuse.

book icon  A Terrible Beauty, Tasha Alexander
Lady Emily Hargreaves has never forgotten that she married her first husband without loving him, until she read his diaries after he died. Now married to Philip Ashton's best friend, Colin Hargreaves, the pair and Emily's old friend Jeremy Bainbridge, who was betrayed by his fiance, are headed for the island of Santorini, to the villa which Philip bought as a wedding gift for Emily. The three of them are flabbergasted when they are greeted at the villa by Philip, who apparently did not die in Africa as they were told. Furthermore, someone is trying to kill him to get an antiquity from him, one that might have belonged to the mighty Achilles himself.

Emily's narrative alternates with Philip's, as he tells his story of survival and his attempt to return to his previous life, only to discover Emily has moved on from his death and remarried. He becomes involved with archaeologists and loves his new life, but still dreams of sharing it with her, only to find the precious antiquity and then lose it—while those eager to own it try to wrest it from him nevertheless. At first skeptical of him, Emily and Colin slowly come to believe his amazing tale. But how many people will die before the antiquities thieves believe that Philip doesn't still have the artifact?

The biggest problem I had with this story is that I had seen the actual plot device used before. I can't recall in which book. Perhaps in an Elizabeth Peters novel? It disappointed me slightly, despite the tightly written story and peek behind the scenes in the cutthroat world of artifact smuggling and collecting.

book icon  The Apparitionists, Peter Manseau
While I am a history buff, the Civil War era is not my particular interest. However, I have always been curious about the early applications of photography, and this was an unusual subject. I knew that in the early days of photography portraits were very difficult to capture. The subject had to sit very still for long periods of time without moving, since the least twitch would appear as a blur. This is why early photographic subjects do not smile; it is very hard to hold a natural smile that long. Other people saw photography as an imperfect capture of a person's self and still preferred painted portraits. The real story begins when William Mumler takes a photograph of one person, but the ghostly image of another appears as well. Mumler himself naturally thought that he had not cleaned his glass photographic plate properly (they were scrubbed and reused once the photograph was printed), but people swore the ghostly image was just that: the spirit of a loved one that they knew personally. Mumler became convinced he was taking "spirit photographs" and made a big business out of it, especially in an era where so many people died young of the various virulent diseases we now have vaccines for. Once the Civil War broke out and young men were dying, grief-stricken parents came to Mumler to get a final glimpse of "their boy," and other forms of spiritualism became popular (the author discusses the infamous Fox sisters, who claimed they could talk to the dead, and only later they confessed that it was just something they started to alleviate boredom.) Eventually Mumler was put on trial for fraud.

P.T. Barnum, Mathew Brady (I did not realize so many of the war photographs attributed to Brady were actually taken by his assistants, and, sadly, some of them were staged, with dead bodies being moved to areas with better lighting and surrounded with battlefield items to make them better compositions!), and Mary Todd Lincoln all make appearances in this interesting, if slightly plodding history of spirit photography, as Mumler spawned a whole horde of photographers eager to provide comfort at a profit. What seems an obvious double-exposure to us now in an era of even more cunning photo-trickery was something amazing to our ancestors, and they seem sad rather than gullible, grasping at a last vestige of connection between themselves and a loved one.

Recommended for those with interest in the history of photography, the Civil War, or the spiritualist movement.


book icon  The Marsh Madness, Victoria Abbott
Chadwick Kauffman has made Vera Van Alst, former shoe factory heiress and collector of mystery first editions, an offer she can't refuse: fine first editions of all of Ngaio Marsh's mystery books. Jordan Bingham has always wanted to visit Summerlea, the Kauffman estate, and is ecstatic when she is permitted to accompany Vera to make the deal, with her Cousin Kevin along as chauffeur. The encounter is a little awkward, but it's nothing compared to the shock of next morning, when Jordan discovers Kauffman is dead and the local police believe that she, Vera, and Uncle Kevin are the prime murder suspects. Even worse, more compromising evidence keeps arising that shows them (and other members of Jordan's family) responsible, and Jordan suspects that even her boyfriend, police officer Decker, thinks she had something to do with it.

Once again, Jordan is using the expertise of her—uh—unusual family to try to figure out who is trying to frame her, although they're getting dragged into the plot as well. Knowing that the investigating detective is determined to pin the crime on her, Jordan forms her own investigation, counting on luck, disguises, and smarts.

This would have been the perfect twisted mystery except for one thing: Jordan and a friend start talking about someone. A lot. Someone who has only been peripherally mentioned in the previous three books. As far as I was concerned, this was a dead giveaway. So "whodunit" wasn't the question, it was more like "whydunit." The usual suspects, like Uncle Mick and Uncle Lucky and Cherie, re-appear, although it seems like Uncle Kevin loses IQ points every time a new book rolls around.

book icon  The Anne of Green Gables Cookbook, Kate Macdonald
I should have been suspicious when I noted on the title page that it was an expansion of the Anne of Green Gables Cookbook from 1985, which came out after the Kevin Sullivan version of the story. I remember seeing that one and remembering how few recipes it had in it. This is just that version "prettied up" with some pleasant flowery artwork and a few more recipes in it. I was hoping against hope it was more like the Little House Cookbook, which includes historical food information and the science of why the recipes work, and why and how Ma Ingalls would have used that particular recipe (for instance, she would have used sourdough starter for her bread on the prairie because they had no yeast). It could have at least been expanded to show the type of food Anne might have made for her children, and the meatless, wheatless menu they might have eaten during the World War I timeframe of Rilla of Ingleside.

Nice enough if you want a few recipes from the Anne novels and a pretty volume on your cookbook shelf. Otherwise pretty sad.
 
book icon  Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal
These are essays based upon the recently released Pioneer Girl manuscript, Laura Ingalls Wilder's original memoir and the source from which all of the "Little House" books eventually came. Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, initially envisioned it as an adult memoir, but were unable to sell it, so Laura (with coaching from Rose) rewrote the story as a children's tale, initially, she admitted, so her father's tales would not  be forgotten. Indeed, the first essay in this book is by Wilder herself, from a speech she made in 1937, about the backstory of the series.

Other essays include Rose's troubling career writing "biographies" that were fabrications simply to sell newspapers, and later wishing to include a murderous family in her mother's memoir; Rose's troubled career; how Pioneer Girl eventually got published; Laura and her family as archetypal Midwesterners; Little House as an American fairy tale; and more. Most are written at a scholarly level, but not in language that proves too dense for the layman. As further reading about Pioneer Girl and Wilder's life, the vocabulary is just about right.

Okay, one minor thing ticked me off: in his essay about the Little House books, Michael Patrick Hearn referred to Johnny Tremain as a work "of dubious literary distinction and rarely read today." Speak for yourself, buddy! No need to go insulting good books just because you like a different writer more.

book icon  The Pearl Thief, Elizabeth Wein
Code Name Verity introduced us to Julia Beaufort-Stuart, the staunch Scots lass eager to help the war effort. But we only know Julie in her war context; what was her life like before?

It is 1938, and Julie is coming home from her Swiss boarding school early to surprise her family, even though it is a sober homecoming: the family estate is being sold to clear some of her grandfather's debts. Since no one is home, she walks to the library (the librarian is a friend of hers), but finding the library empty, she walks along the river, falls asleep...and wakes up in a hospital room with a head injury, having been rescued by some Scottish travellers (like gypsies/Roma). Julie's memory of the events start coming back to her slowly, but not before she has tried to befriend (and defend) her two new friends, Ellen and Ewun McEwen.

This was a good story—I knew nothing about Scottish river pearls, or Scottish Travellers (although I knew of travellers, and of people being prejudiced against them) before I read the story—and I loved knowing more of Julie's backstory and the story of the Mary Stuart memorabilia, meeting Julie's family again and getting to know her mother and grandmother further, but simply this doesn't have the breathtaking novelty of the Verity narrative, so don't expect something on that scale. It's a quiet character study of Julie's friendships and sense of justice, with the mystery of a half-remembered jar of pearls niggling at her—as well as how she got the nickname "Queenie." Like all young girls she makes a few bad decisions, but then tries to make right by them. (Also, I scoped out one of the villains of the piece the moment the character appeared; I was kind of disappointed Julie was off the mark on this one!) It's an interesting book, but not a special book, like Verity or Black Dove, White Raven.

book icon  A New England Autumn, Ferenc Máté
This looked like a promising coffee-table like book with a combination of photographs and poetry/prose, with several selections from Sara Orne Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs. Some of the photographs are indeed lovely, and some of the selections, including the Jewett, were novel. But there were a lot of photos that weren't of autumn, such as a lot of close-ups of boats or water or fog (boats or ships against autumn trees would have been fine) and several of the selections seemed incongruous, like the Edgar Allan Poe (perhaps they were trying to capture Hallowe'en?). Frankly, I could get just as good photos in autumn issued of "Country" and find better autumn poetry and prose online. If you buy it, get it remaindered like I did.

book icon  A Brief History of Life in Victorian Britain, Michael Paterson
It's difficult doing a book about Victorian Britain, simply because Queen Victoria reigned for such a long period. The first part of her reign, which overlaps the Dickens period and is not long removed from the Regency period, is much different from the mid-Victorian period and the late Victorian period. So Paterson must paint in broad strokes the different portions of the Victorian era and what was notable about each, and he's under no illusions that this is a complete history. Instead, it operates as a quick overview to the era and its highlights, perhaps for those who want a little background in the period dramas they are watching, with much more suggested reading in the footnotes and bibliography. It's an easy, if not condescending, read, summing up the social, military, technological, and industrial improvements—and shortcomings—of the era. There's a discussion I've not noted in very many other Victorian history volumes, which is how the printing of less expensive books encouraged a more educated society; at first books were only for the wealthy, but lower-priced, more cheaply printed books brought both fiction and nonfiction to the masses, and subscription, and then free, libraries brought reading to even more.

Again, not a complete reference by any means, but interesting overview.

book icon  A Rather Remarkable Homecoming, C.A. Belmond
Sadly, the last of the Penny Nichols/Jeremy Laidley stories, as far as I can tell, as Belmond's website hasn't been updated since 2015. I don't know if she passed on or just stopped writing, but I'm sorry to see them go.

Newlyweds Penny and Jeremy return to London from their honeymoon only to find that a big corporation (headed by some sinister brothers said to have ties to the underworld) is trying to buy a huge swath of land in rural Cornwall, including the property of the couple's grandmother, where they first met as children. With encouragement from HRH Prince Charles himself, they head for the property, which has been sadly run down, and the people who wish to save it. They hope that a clue that William Shakespeare once stayed at Grandmother Beryl's house may save it as a historical property.

In the course of the story, Penny and Jeremy discover friends and foes, eccentrics and businessmen, a children's pact, an old friend in dire straits, folks that will turn on them when things don't go their way, and people who will do anything to get their way on both sides. It's the usual charming combination of the likeable couple (with some help from not-so-honest cousin Rollo), an erudite historical mystery, and a wonderful setting in Cornwall (with a crucial side trip to Spain). While the mystery wasn't quite up to the previous one about the tapestries, it's a fitting conclusion to the saga of Nichols & Laidley.

book icon  Re-read: A Wind to Shake the World: The Story of the 1938 Hurricane, Everett S. Allen
The 1938 hurricane was as real to me as a child as current events like the Vietnam War, the assassinations of two Kennedys and a King, and the music of the Beatles. Nourished on my mother's tales of life during her childhood and pre-marriage adulthood, I would ask her over and over "tell me the story about the hurricane," and she would re-tell her story once more, complete with the bricks flying by her window at work and the scare about her missing father.

Everett Allen was a cub reporter—literally, as he had just started the job the day before—on a New Bedford newspaper when the hurricane of 1938, nicknamed "the Long Island express," barrelled along the coastline of southern New England and around Cape Cod. So this account of the hurricane from Long Island to Cape Cod is not only evocatively and engagingly written, with Allen taking us back to the summer and fall of 1938, but it has that depth that comes from a person who experienced the event firsthand and who has not only taken reports from the newspapers of the time, but interviewed people who survived the ordeal. You will find heartbreaking stories and amazing survival tales, and be able to envision the surge of water, the scent of the wind, the scrape of flying sand against your skin, the desperation of the survivors and their despair in the lost. One of the best accounts of a natural disaster ever published.

book icon  The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Marta McDowall
This is technically a re-read, since I read the e-book earlier in the year. But it doesn't quite beat having the physical book in my hands, since this is such a gorgeous volume. The moment I saw the author of this book, I wanted to read it. I sat down one grey and gloomy day to read McDowell's Gardening Life of Beatrix Potter and was completely immersed in summer, flowers, and the heady scent of the English countryside and the sheep-dotted slopes of the Lake District.

While there have been many books in the last couple of decades written about Laura Ingalls Wilder, this is the only one that addresses not simply events in Laura's life, but the landscapes her family lived in, the wildlife she saw, the plants that grew in the diverse areas in which she lived. Each chapter corresponds with a milestone in the life of a plant, from seed as Laura is born and spends her early years in the Big Woods of Wisconsin (and Almanzo grows up in the cold north of New York), to late harvest as she and husband Almanzo grow old at Rocky Ridge Farm in Missouri. It is also more generally a history of westward expansion and the flora and fauna found by the settlers when they arrived.

This is a beautiful book, liberally illustrated with color and black-and-white photos of the Ingalls family, illustrations from both Helen Sewell and Garth Williams from the "Little House" books, botanical prints, maps, and clippings from newspapers, brochures, magazines, etc. that tell the story of the European settling of the Midwest. McDowell's words bring to mind winter chill, summer warmth, birdsong, the sheer awe of the tall prairie grass (don't compare prairie grass to what grows on your front lawn; these are mammoth blades of grass which were higher than a man's head and gave to the bison all the nourishment needed), the scent and sight of fields of wildflowers, the blue sky arching above. For anyone who loves nature, or who wishes to know as closely as possible what Laura experienced in the Wisconsin woods, on the Kansas prairie, in the Iowa groves, and in the hills of Mansfield, Missouri, this is a keeper for certain.

Perfect for a quiet day with cocoa and soft music playing in the background.

book icon  Caroline: Little House, Revisited, Sarah Miller
It's been a bumper month for Wilder books: this is the third I've listed here.

Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie chronicles the brief period that the Ingalls family—Charles, Caroline, Mary, Laura, and Baby Carrie—lived on the Kansas prairie attempting to "prove up" on a homestead claim. Part of it was fictionalized—Carrie was actually born in Kansas, the Ingalls actually moved from Kansas because they had no income coming in from the man who bought their home in Wisconsin—and much of the story was from memories elicited from family members because Laura was so young, but the events were true. Caroline tells the true story from an adult perspective, from leaving Wisconsin to leaving Kansas.

Caroline Quiner Ingalls was a woman of her time: you do what needs doing and no complaining, but here the author tries to bring us into the mind of a relatively young woman who has already endured hardships as a child and who undertakes a bumpy, stressing wagon ride while pregnant, facing giving birth with just her husband for help. So most of the narrative is Caroline's internal conflict, fearful of the future but fiercely protective of her children and very much in love with her husband. Miller even confronts the thorny subject of Caroline's hatred of Native Americans, which stems from fear based on events that happened when she was a child.

Some reviews complain that they were uncomfortable with Caroline's thoughts of sex and desiring her husband, which strike me as odd. She's a fairly young woman (late 20s) with a husband she adores. Are modern readers still unable to believe that 19th century women, although forbidden to speak of such things, had the same sexual feelings that modern women have? After all, Caroline was legally married to Charles—even most religions were realistic about married women enjoying relations with their husbands (and husbands were supposed to take care that married relations were enjoyable to the wife as well; it was considered part of their marital "duties"). Our ancestors were not sexless.

Even though I know the plot of Little House on the Prairie by heart, this book really brings home how difficult and how dirty pioneer life was. The sequence where the family endures a severe rainstorm makes me flinch just to read it, not just with the storm, but with the idea of the mud and the dirty boots inside the wagon, thinking of all the work Caroline is going to have to get her bedding and clothing clean after the storm is over. Dangers like the well digging and the house raising, which were softpedaled in the original novel, are given their full portend here.

While this is definitely not an action novel, it is paced comfortably like a long journey by wagon. I enjoyed it immensely.

book icon  A Peter Rabbit Christmas Collection, Beatrix Potter

book icon  Movie Geek: The Den of Geek! Guide to the Movieverse, Simon Brew
I have a confession to make: I've never heard of Den of Geek. According to the introduction, it was once a mere starter website which is now very popular. I also have no idea who Jason Statham is, but he sure pops up a lot in this book. 😀

However, I love trivia books, and particularly movie and television trivia books, so this one was a no-brainer. It's not the usual lists, either, like the top ten top grossing films, or the top twenty films taken from novels. Instead we have funny, but often thoughtful lists like "Things That Inspire Movies," "Ill-Advised Sequels That Never Were," "The Lost Endings of Big Movies," "Family Movies That Traumatize Small Children" (Watership Down, anyone?), and, one of my favorites, "The Collateral Damage of Tom Hanks' Movies" (and he doesn't even mention Finding Private Ryan). There's even three pages about the relation between Pink Floyd and the new Doctor Strange film. The graphics are pretty good (although the contrast of the thin black typeface on the occasional blue pages is not good and those pages are a bit more difficult to read). Plus it's an entertaining read, even when the situation takes a serious turn, and perfect for bedtime reading, where you can read one essay or five and not worry about losing your place.

I enjoyed this so much I'm going to buy a copy for a friend who is a filmmaker and film buff.

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31 August 2017

Books Completed Since August 1

book icon  Fool's Gold, Caro Peacock
I'll admit I was puzzled at the opening to this book: Liberty Lane has married her sweetheart Robert Carmichael and they are honeymooning in Cephalonia in Greece. They see an impossibly handsome young man diving into the ocean and later meet him, discovering the graceful youth, Georgios, is blind—and very possibly the illegitimate son of Lord Byron. It almost read like a Tasha Alexander book.

It is only when the couple are back in London and Robert is summoned on a delicate mission on the Continent that Liberty finds herself helping the young man again. Adopted by an impetuous man named Matthew Vickery and now known as George, he is being fitted for a university education and a gentleman's life, but Vickery lives in fear that someone is planning to kidnap him because they think he knows where Lord Byron's "lost treasure" is. His fears come true when a woman shows up claiming to be George's mother. Soon Liberty and her friends Amos Legge, the groom who cares for Liberty's horse Rancie, and Tabby, the street girl who assists her in her private inquiries are deeply involved, even traveling to Vickery's new country estate to keep George safe.

Once Robert leaves, this becomes a suspenseful mystery where the ever-shifting clues make Liberty—and the reader—wonder who she can trust; even the sweet-tempered but troubled George comes under suspicion, and red herrings abound. The Victorian setting is well described without the author feeling she has to do an information dump every so often. A big plus is that the mystery isn't solved immediately as in some historicals, with the solution coming in a day or two. Weeks go by with no answers, as in a real investigation. Liberty herself makes several missteps, showing that while she is dogged and discerning, she is not infallible. Tabby, as always, is a delight, and one could only dream of having a friend as good as Legge. One suspect, however, is pretty obvious, and you wonder when the character will show up again. However, I didn't see the twist coming until almost the end. This seemed back in form compared to the previous book Friends in High Places, which I found a bit tepid.

book icon  Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse, Eric Jay Dolen
I've been waiting for this one to come out in paperback since I first saw the hardback; believe me, it was difficult to resist. Dolen begins at the beginning with a general history of lighthouses, then concentrates on the first lighthouses built on American shores and the primitive reflective whale oil lamps they used initially which were inadequate. In this area, Europe was ahead of American with the Fresnel lens—Dolen explains clearly what makes these unique lenses so effective and suited for lighthouses—and chronicles what was one of the first Federal contractor frauds featuring a superb salesman of a less effective lighting method in collusion with the man who was head of the U.S. bureau of lighthouses.

Dolen also talks about an aspect of lighthouses in American history that I hadn't thought of: how they became targets in wartime. In both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 lighthouses were fought over by the rebellious colonists and the British, and during the Civil War many Southern lighthouses became casualties of Union predations and vice versa.

My favorite chapters were reserved for the stories of the lighthouse keepers and their difficult lives; some of these men slept only two or three hours a night in order to tend their lighthouses properly, spending hours scrubbing soot off lamp chimneys, reflectors, and windows, sometimes in appalling weather conditions. The chapter on heroic lighthouse keepers—including Rhode Island's own Ida Lewis, now remembered in the name of Newport's Yacht Club—who overcame terrible storms to rescue survivors from shipwrecks makes you consider modern-day people wimps.

Well narrated and unforgettable! One of my favorite nonfiction books this year.

book icon  Foxglove Summer, Ben Aaronovitch
Neophyte police officer and wizard-in-training Peter Grant is headed to Herefordshire, to discover if the disappearance of two schoolgirls has any...ahem, "Falcon" associations. He expects a quick trip up and back, hoping the girls have just run off on a lark. Teaming with DS Dominic Croft in the little town of Rushpool, he soon joins the search for the girls when it becomes obvious they aren't just hiding out. And then evidence surfaces that the girls' cell phones were destroyed by magic.

We see more of the magical landscape that is part of Peter's world, this time in the countryside, which is unfamiliar territory for city-raised Peter, and are introduced to Dominic, who plays a part in one of the graphic novels as well, and also Mellissa, the beekeeper's granddaughter. Best of all, Beverley Brook returns.

And if all this wasn't enough, Peter's former partner, now gone rogue, is contacting him via cell phone.

I love all these books, but this one has the additional charm of a fish-out-of-water plotline and an appearance from that very British of supernatural creatures, the Fae, all well mixed with the police procedural storyline. Pity Aaronovitch isn't triplets turning out more of these every year.

book icon  Star Wars FAQ, Mark Clark
I've seen the original trilogy, and the three prequels, and The Force Awakens (but not yet Rogue One), and have the novelizations of the original trilogy, but I can't really say I'm one of those Star Wars fans that has read everything, especially about the original trilogy (except for the "Starlog" articles since I used to subscribe). Mark Clark freely admits there is nothing new in this book, which concentrates on the original trilogy, but that it concatenates magazine articles, book excerpts, and items recently revealed on the Web in one coherent whole. So if you are the Star Wars buff to end all Star Wars buffs, you will find nothing new here. However, if you, like me, want to take a trip back to yesteryear, where a scruffy film student named George Lucas conceived and finally gave birth to a good old fashioned space opera, come on aboard! Clark goes all the way back to the conception of Star Wars being all about a Luke Starkiller (actually even older than that) and takes us on a ride through script changes, casting three relatively unknown actors (then) as the leads, and assembling a creative team to bring the SWUniverse to life. Along the way there's overbudget shoots, leisurely directors, one big honking divorce, and a reception no one ever expected.

I enjoyed it; your mileage may vary.

book icon  The Hanging Tree, Ben Aaronovitch
A teenage girl is found overdosed in a lavish apartment in a building catering to wealthy clients. A sad event in any case, but for Peter Grant, young police constable and wizard-in-training, there's a catch: one of the other people at the party is the daughter of Lady Tyburn, the goddess of the River Tyburn. She saved Peter's life some time ago and now wants him to return the favor by keeping her daughter's name out of the investigation. Further investigation into the young woman's death, however, finds that her brain has been damaged by magic. There's also an obscure magical text on the loose somewhere, a fox in human's clothing, and a lead on the Faceless Man who led Peter's former partner Lesley May to desert the force.

We're back in the city after a country vacation with lots of familiar faces appearing—DC Guleed and DCI Seawoll (neither who are happy that "Falcon" elements are mixed up in their case), Peter's tutor Thomas Nightingale, the enigmatic housekeeper Molly, Peter's lover Beverley Brook, Lady Ty, DCI Stephanopoulos, Lesley May, Dr. Walid, Ryan, Peter's mom—as well as new characters like Reynard Fossman, and a nice meaty complicated plot with lots of storylines going.

The worst of this book? It's the last one except for a novella and the graphic novel Detective Stories coming out in December. Write, Ben, write.

book icon  Salt Sugar Fat, Michael Moss
Let's say I knew all the facts Moss states here (although none of the behind the scenes stuff), but when you see it in print under your nose it has a lot more impact. I knew all the facts because I've been complaining for years how food is becoming more sweetened and salted; the latest atrocity being Classico's no-sugar added Tomato and Basil pasta sauce, which used to be basic tomatoes, tomato paste, water, and salt, which I use for a base for my own sauce (slow cooking with pork), which is now polluted with sugar, and fake-tasting garlic and onions as well.

Moss talks about the development of convenience food, and how the companies have designed food that make you want it, as opposed to designing food that people want. In an effort to produce a "bliss factor" that makes you want to eat more and more of a certain food, not only snack foods, but convenience foods like Hormel dinners and bologna have been stuffed with salt and fat and even sugar. He interviews different people who worked for mega-food conglomerates like Kraft and Coca-Cola (and, surprise!, these people do not eat the food they manufacturer, opting for healthier diets!) and how some of them actually thought they were going to help people eat better and ended up disillusioned. After all, if you eat many of these foods (they mention bread, crackers, soup, meat) without salt, they taste not only bland but in some cases bitter, metallic, or soapy.

In the end, the issue isn't about salt, sugar and fat—it's about too much salt, sugar and fat, and about companies manipulating you into eating the item ("you don't have to feel guilty"). Moss does repeat his information several times, to make sure you get the message. Otherwise, it's an easy read—as well as an uneasy read.

To be honest the most frightening part of this book was on pages 336-337, where he talks about Nestlé marketing liquid foods for people who have had gastric bypass and their envisioning "drug-like foods, or food-like drugs." Made me squirm.

book icon  Murder at Beechwood, Alyssa Maxwell
This may be the first of Maxwell's Gilded Newport mysteries that didn't jar me too much with modernisms.

Emma Cross, a "poor relation" of the Vanderbilts, makes her living as a reporter for a Newport newspaper. She lives with a chaperone and, to the disapproval of many in her set, a former "fallen woman" who is trying to turn her life around. One morning Emma hears a strange noise outside and finds a baby on her doorstep. She immediately suspects that a murder that occurred nearby might have a connection with the baby, so she treads very carefully in her search for the child's mother. Then a tragedy occurs at a house party she is attending as a reporter: wealthy Virgil Monroe drowns during a boat race, and his brother and Derrick Andrews, the publisher's son whose proposal Emma turned down, are both suspect in his death. A clue seems to link Monroe and the infant. What's going on?

The language is much better in this entry, although Maxwell seems to keep Emma's horse going here and there for hours and days with no clue how she keeps him properly groomed and fed in the meantime except for one sequence in the stable. Horses require a lot of work; they aren't like cars. And I had to wince every time I read the name of the two brothers involved in this story: Virgil and Wyatt? Really? Was the author at such a loss for names she had to dump the names of two infamous Western lawmen on her characters? However, the mystery itself was suitably convoluted and I didn't guess the twist until just before the climax. Besides, it's Newport!

book icon  Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Dog Really Did That?, edited by Amy Neumark
Seems I can't resist picking up these volumes; your mileage varies depending on your tolerance for schmaltz and your love of dogs. They're like peanuts for me. Funny stories and sad stories, thoughtful stories and hopeful ones, all abound.

book icon  Death Comes to Kurland Hall, Catherine Lloyd
Lucy Harrington is back at home in Kurland St. Mary helping with her friend Sophia's wedding, still smarting from an awkward and what Lucy thought was patronizing marriage proposal from gruff Major Robert Kurland. While she refuses to act as Kurland's secretary any longer, she can't help encountering him because the wedding will be held on the estate grounds. But Lucy's got bigger problems: the widow Chingsford, a gossiping and calculating but sweet-spoken woman, has endeared herself to Lucy's father the vicar and plans to marry him—and no sooner has that been announced than the widow is found dead at the foot of a staircase. Lucy and Major Kurland soon find out that there's a big long line of people who would have loved to see the gossipy woman dead.

The biggest surprise of all in this book is that Lucy becomes friends with Kurland's ex-fiance as she tries to ferret out who hated Mrs. Chingford enough to kill her. She has also caught the eye of Kurland's estate manager, Thomas Fairfax, who appears to be puzzled when his father's young widow, who previously objected to him, now wishes to visit with him. The duplicitous Mrs. Chingford, however, knows a secret about just about everyone, and a lot of secrets under the quiet village facades start to emerge.

I enjoy this series very much; Lucy is headstrong without being anachronistic, and her adversarial relationship with Robert Kurland is done very well (as is his with her). Quite looking forward to the next one in paperback this fall!

book icon  Holmes for the Holidays, edited by Martin H. Greenberg

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Old Clipper Ship, Jerry West
You'll have to believe in a whole lot of coincidences to have fun with this happy Hollisters volume where the family rescues a young man after a tree falls on his car. (I was particularly amused by how the author described the man who is not whitebread human like everyone else on the Hollisters' street). He turns out to be Tom King, a young man in search of the records of a clipper ship, coincidentally the same clipper ship the Hollister children's favorite actors are making a movie about. (Does it surprise you with these books that the kids eventually meet the actors and get to participate in the film? I didn't think so.) Soon 12-year-old Pete, 10-year-old Pam, Ricky, Holly, and 4-year-old Sue are helping Tom in his search for the clipper ship that may provide the young man an inheritance. but someone else is trying to find the clipper ship as well, and he's not a nice person. (You know this because even Zip the collie growls at him.)

Sexism finally rears it's ugly 1950s head: Pete and his friend and Ricky get to build and sail a mini-clipper ship out of the rowboat they are making a film with (foreshadowing: the mark of good literature!) and Pam and Holly and Sue only get to sew the sails. However, in a cute sequence that I loved, Ricky and Holly get separated from the rest of the family on a visit to Boston, visit a market, and buy some tea to throw into Boston Harbor! Nice to know in the Hollister universe seven- and six-year-old kids know history when today's teenagers can barely figure out what century George Washington is from! And of course when they are at the harborfront they accidentally stumble over a clue to the clipper ship Tom is looking for.

Seriously, this is fun if you don't mind all the coincidences. Just one thing: what is with Joey Brill's mother? Is she completely clueless or what?

book icon  Nanea: Growing Up With Aloha, Kirby Larson
This is the first book of the newest American Girl, Alice Nanea Mitchell, who lives in Honolulu. Her red-headed father works as a civilian employee on Hickam Field while her native Hawaiian mom is the daughter of businesspeople who Nanea loves to help at their small store. She has an older brother David and an older sister Mary Lou, and her favorite activities are attending hula class taught by her grandmother, an accomplished hula instructor, cuddling with her little dog Mele, and playing with her best friends Lily (of Japanese descent) and Donna (together they are known as the Kittens). Nanea is desperate to show her family she is ready for more grown-up responsibilities, and also win a contest that the newspaper is sponsoring. As part of her dual campaign, early one Sunday morning Nanea wakes early to make breakfast for the family, only to be startled by airplanes flying over and the loud sounds of explosions. Pearl Harbor has been attacked by the Japanese.

I liked Nanea very much. She's very much like Maryellen without the silly streak (you won't catch her painting the front door red!) and I was very much drawn to her warm multicultural family as well as her friendships. The story of what the family experiences after the Pearl Harbor attack seems very true to other things I have read: her father gone for days helping at the airfield, her brother delivering blood to hospitals, her older sister and her friends taking up knitting, and Nanea and her friends recycling bottles and collecting scrap and doing anything they can to help out, and the family's attempt to help when Lily's father is mistakenly arrested as an enemy alien. Mele is also lost after the attack, only increasing Nanea's distress. The only thing they softpedaled a little was Lily's being insulted and her family being harassed after the attack; these things are only talked about, not shown. It might have been a bit grittier to show Nanea witnessing someone calling Lily a "Jap" and telling her to get out of Hawaii, or seeing the family's store egged, but perhaps American Girl didn't want to go that far.

The high water mark of the most recent American Girl series has been Melody, and Nanea doesn't quite make it, but it is still a strong entry and at least we have another non-white girl as a protagonist. AG seems to be overrun with blondes ever since Mattel took over. Again, as in the Melody book, I really missed the history feature that used to be in back of the books. While there is a Hawaiian word glossary, there are no little sidebar drawings to illustrate the Hawaiian and Japanese treats the girls like or the native food.

book icon  Nanea: Hula for the Home Front, Kirby Larson
Nanea is looking forward to getting back to school (her school was damaged in the Pearl Harbor attack) and continuing to help her favorite teacher Miss Smith. But as soon as they set foot in the classroom Nanea is dismayed to see Miss Smith paying so much attention to a new student named Dixie Lopez, who seems unfriendly and who even seems to fall asleep a lot. In fact, Miss Smith gives the coveted job of War Stamp Collection supervisor to Dixie! Even worse, while running errands for the military, her older brother David has become good friends with an Army officer, Lieutenant Gregory. David will be eighteen soon and Nanea is afraid the lieutenant will talk David into enlisting.

In the second volume, Nanea's story starts to sound a bit like Molly's: her mom is working for the Red Cross, her older sister is doing endless knitting projects, and the kids are being organized into doing a hula exhibition to entertain the injured sailors at the nearby military hospital. In fact, Nanea's bond with her little dog Mele results in Mele "dancing" in part of Nanea's hula routine, a big hit with the soldiers, and she discovers that just petting Mele makes the young men feel better (shades of modern "therapy dogs"). While I know she is smarting over the loss of her best friend and worried about David, her selfish attitude toward Dixie at the beginning of the story seems uncharacteristic. Otherwise it's a good tale of how kids pitched in to help the war effort and some of the hardships they faced (Dixie's living conditions) and I'm glad there was no "cop out" with David. However, once again missing the lengthy historical notes that used to be at the end of the American Girl stories. This probably would have addressed the beginnings of therapy animals for military casualties.

book icon  American Eclipse, David Baron
How could I resist this with our totality excursion coming up on August 21? I actually didn't get to read it until after seeing the breathtaking sheer amazement of a total eclipse, so it means that much more. In 1878, another total eclipse cut a swath across the United States from Idaho to Louisiana, and the astronomers of the time packed their equipment to go west to the Rockies: James Craig Watson, determined to discover the planet Vulcan which was said to orbit the sun inside the orbit of Mercury; his once friend and now rival C.H.F. Peters; Maria [pronounced "Mariah"] Mitchell, the brilliant woman astronomer still striving to prove that higher education, even in the sciences, did not ruin a woman's body (per a bestselling nonfiction book of the time); Cleveland Abbe, a nearsighted but persistent observer who means to view the eclipse even after he's stricken with altitude sickness; and even the inventor Thomas Edison, who had invented a gadget called a tasimeter to measure the heat of the corona of the sun.

Baron saw his first total solar eclipse in 1998 and his love for the subject shows through, even when his detail for what's going on with the astronomers (what they ate and how they passed their time—Edison went hunting and poor Mitchell was obliged to track down her telescopes due to railroad rivalries) gets a bit bogged down. He has some wonderfully descriptive language of the eclipse. His text illuminates the science of the time and of the cultural and medical beliefs that held back Mitchell and her fellow astronomy students, and even of the educational deficiencies that led an African-American man to murder his son and then commit suicide as the sun was blotted out, believing it was the end of the world.

I was surprised to note that Edison only began working on the problem of a cheap, long-lasting electric light after his astronomy adventure, so that it was only four years between his first experiments and the first electric Christmas tree lights! The volume also is illustrated profusely with the illustrations of the time taken from newspapers, scientific journals, and magazines, which present novel graphics, which gives us an idea how Americans of the time viewed the event. Astronomy buffs and science fans will especially enjoy.

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